Friday, February 15, 2019

One Man's Journey Through the Peaks and Valleys of Human Relationship: My Theory on Tunnel of Love

I've made so secret, ever, of my love for Bruce Springsteen's 8th album, 1987's Tunnel of Love.

Many times on this blog, like here and here, I have stated my belief (and Scott largely has stated he agrees with me) that the album is a true masterwork, the most challenging record of his career after Born to Run, (BtR being the desperate act of a man in danger of being dropped by his label). But Tunnel of Love was an almost equally difficult in that it unenviably followed the album that made him a global superstar, Born in the U.S.A. And many wondered what he would ever be able to do to follow it up, let alone top it. But with Tunnel of Love, Bruce Springsteen amazingly did both.

The album is a letter-perfect encapsulation of what it means to be part of an adult relationship (or relationships, if you will), and as my brilliant co-blogger put it, "It was an album written by an adult for adults." The wistful romanticism of the first few albums, the defiant insouciance of the late 1970s, even the bitter political scars of the early 80s, they were all gone now. And what was left was a bare, plaintive examination of the darkest chambers of the hearts and the minds of men and women who were all grown up, yet filled with the traps and perils that came with it. Very few rock-n-roll albums in history have given us a picture of the adult coming to terms with being an adult. Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks did it in 1975. So did Tunnel of Love a dozen years later. Bravo.

And now, after the umpteenth listening I've given to it in the past couple of years, I have a theory. A new theory, if you will, on why Tunnel of Love is the album it is. So please. Indulge.

Here are the 12 songs.

1. Ain't Got You
2. Tougher Than the Rest
3. All That Heaven Will Allow
4. Spare Parts
5. Cautious Man
6. Walk Like a Man
7. Tunnel of Love
8. Two Faces
9. Brilliant Disguise
10. One Step Up
11. When You're Alone
12. Valentine's Day

OK. So we have 12 songs that all have a very similar theme running through them. All are about love, in some form or another. Unrequited love, obsessive love, joyful love, fractured love, lost love.  That is the contextual thread that runs throughout Tunnel of Love, and it's fairly obvious, right? I mean, the L-O-V-E word is right there in the title.

But recently, I saw more, and I heard more. I heard each of these songs as 12 chapters in the same book, and written/recorded in exact order. So in effect Tunnel of Love becomes one person's story, from the opening Bo Diddley-strain of "Ain't Got You" to the weary, winsome waltz of "Valentine's Day." Bruce has effectively written a book here, tracing one person's rather dark journey through the beginning, middle and end of a relationship.

Does that sound too far-fetched?

Let's examine.  Here's how I hear the story play out.

At the center we have a narrator who wants, needs to love and be loved. The narrator is a successful man, maybe absurdly successful, but he is missing something he never had. A true love. And he wants it. This is where our story begins.

Our narrator has everything he could ever want,  but is sad and alone, and therefore his life feels empty (“Ain’t Got You”).

But I'm still the biggest fool, honey, any man ever knew,
'Cause the only thing I ain't go? Baby, I ain't got you.

But then, just as he had hoped,  he falls head over heels in love with a woman, and even though he barely knows her, it feels like what he's always wanted. And he's ready to face all of love's challenges with her (“Tougher Than the Rest”).

Well the road is dark, but it's a thin thin line,
And I want you to know I'll walk it for you anytime.
Maybe your other boyfriends couldn't pass the test,
But if you're rough and ready for love, honey I'm tougher than the rest.

After this, life is sweet when this new love blooms, and (although this is not written, but certainly implied) the plans for marriage arise (“All That Heaven Will Allow”).

Rain, sun and dark skies, now they don't mean a thing,
If you got a girl who loves you and wants to wear your ring.

Not long before he’s to be married, the narrator begins to have traumatic dreams, rooted in this seemingly irreversible step he is about to take. One of these dreams is of a man who runs off and leaves his pregnant bride-to-be at the altar, unable to bear the responsibility of marriage and parenthood ("Spare Parts").

Now Janie walked that baby 'cross the floor night after night,
But she was a young girl and she missed the party lights.
Meanwhile in south Texas in a dirty oil patch,
Bobby heard about his son being born and swore he wasn't ever going back.

The other dream is about a troubled man who stays with his wife, despite so many demons that haunt him, difficulties and all (“Cautious Man”).

Billy was an honest man who wanted to do what was right.
He worked hard to fill their lives with happy days and loving nights.
Alone on his knees in the darkness for steadiness he's pray,
For he know in a restless heart the seed of betrayal lay.

The dreams pass and his wedding day arrives. He is proud and terrified; proud to be getting married but terrified of what's to come. ("Walk Like a Man").

Would they ever look so happy again, the handsome groom and his bride,
As they stepped into that long, black limousine for their mystery ride?

As the marriage begins both the narrator and his wife learn that with the joys come the hardships, and they both realize how hard this can be (“Tunnel of Love”).

When the lights go out it's just the three of us,
You, me and all that stuff we're so scared of.

Before too long apathy and coldness sets in, and distance begins to separate the narrator from his wife (“Two Faces”).

I met a girl and we ran away, I swore I'd make her happy every day.
But how I made her cry.

Apathy and coldness gives way to pure mistrust and resentment as the marriage now takes a darker turn  (“Brilliant Disguise”).

Now you play the loving woman, I play the faithful man,
But just don't look too close into the palm of my hand.
We stood at the altar, the gypsy swore our future was bright,
But come the wee wee hours, maybe, baby the gypsy lied?

And inevitably, this gives way to betrayal and infidelity, as the narrator (and perhaps the wife too) goes exploring for something else ("One Step Up").

There's a girl across the bar, I get the message she's sending.
She ain't looking too married, and me, honey, I'm pretending.

Ultimately the marriage ends and they wish each other well, but it is no doubt final in his eyes. He even rebuffs a chance at reconciliation (“When You’re Alone”).

Now I knew someday your running would be through and you'd think back on me and you,
And your love would be strong.
You'd forget all of the bad and think only of the laughs that we had, and you'd want to come home.
Now it ain't hard feelings or nothing, sugar - that ain't what's got me singing this song.
It's just nobody knows, honey, where love goes, but when it goes, it's gone, gone.

But then one night, Valentine’s Day night, to be exact, he thinks of her again and decides it's time to give it another try. Leaving our story with an uncertain but perhaps hopeful ending (“Valentine’s Day”).

So hold me close and say you're forever mine,
And tell me that you'll be my lonely valentine.

Makes a little sense?

There is, of course, a different ending that could be just as possible, one that tracks much closer to Bruce's life at the time, when he and his wife Julianne Phillips split up thanks to his carrying on with eventual (and still) wife Patti Scialfa. That ending reads, of course, that the narrator doesn't go back to his wife in "Valentine's Day," but instead to the woman he cheated with in "One Step Up." And considering Patti's ominous appearance 2/3 of the way through the latter is indeed possible.

Either way it ends, I still hear the form holding true. One man, one story filled with the hopes, doubts, joy and pain that comes with being an adult in an adult relationship.

All told through one masterpiece of a rock-n-roll album, Tunnel of Love.

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