Bruce Springsteen

Columbia Records CBS 40999

First let’s set the stage.

June 1984–Bruce Springsteen releases Born in the USA. Later that year, he becomes unofficial speech writer for both Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale, as each reaches for a piece of the Springsteen zeitgeist. Pressing the flesh and kissing babies in Bruce’s home state of New Jersey, Reagan says something like: “You have a native son of this great state who shares the same aspirations for this country as I do, and I can assure you, my campaign for presidency will be born to run!”

Lee Iacocca offers Springsteen $10 million to become official copywriter for Chrysler’s commercials, an offer Springsteen declines. Miller Beer appropriates what it can from Springsteen’s album without precipitating a lawsuit, proclaiming that its beer is “born and brewed in the USA.”

Bumper stickers flower on the freeways, exclaiming “Bruce: the Rambo of Rock!”

The album eventually sells 18 million units worldwide. And everyone from presidential candidates to bespectacled TV commentators to beer companies hurries to cash in on Brucemania, to claim a part of the Springsteen ethos for themselves.

October 1987–Springsteen releases Tunnel of Love, with “Brilliant Disguise” as its first single. Its refrain goes something like this:

So when you look at me

You better look hard and look twice

Is that me baby

Or just a brilliant disguise?

Most reviewers of Tunnel of Love will look at the album’s title and at that refrain and tell you that this latest Springsteen album reflects his recent marriage to Julianne Phillips, that it is an album about romance. And those reviewers would be right–Tunnel of Love is partly about marriage and affairs of the heart. But it’s also an album about success, the sort of success Springsteen has enjoyed–or tolerated–these past three years. Or more precisely, Tunnel of Love is about apprehension, apprehension about loving a disguise and calling that romance, apprehension about becoming so popular that half one’s audience mistakes a bitter declamation of faith and betrayal like “Born in the USA” for a simple affirmation, for the sort of patriotic salute that tests no faith and suffers no betrayal.

In one sense, Tunnel of Love is a response, Springsteen’s reaction to all that has happened to him publicly and privately in the last three years. And accountably the album is shot through with images of wealth and of marriage . . . and also of deep suspicion. In the album’s greatest moment, these images fuse, take on the same face, the same form, until it becomes impossible to tell the romance from its disguise, the hope for success and wealth from its uglier consequences. On “Walk Like a Man,” Springsteen describes a wedding with these words:

Well, would they ever look so happy again

The handsome groom and his bride

As they stepped into that long black limousine

For that mystery ride?

Read those words literally, and it’s obviously a song about a honeymoon. Listen to those lines in the context of the whole song, the whole album, and it begins to sound like more–maybe it’s a song about success, fancy cars, doing well, getting rich. Spin the words one more time and out tumble threats, references to two Elvis songs, allusions and images that turn into riddles, and once one knows the references, harbingers of fear. One of those Elvis songs is about a poor country girl who takes to the city, dies in a car crash, and rides to the graveyard in a long black limousine. The other Elvis song, “Mystery Train,” goes one step beyond “Long Black Limousine,” replacing the certitude of tragedy in that song with a complete and open-ended ambiguity much like that in Tunnel of Love:

Train I ride is sixteen coaches long

Train I ride is sixteen coaches long

The girl I love is on that train and gone

Gone where? To someone else, to the city, or to her death? Elvis never tells us, and neither does Springsteen. You can read Springsteen’s mystery ride as just a honeymoon, or even as just the road to endless wealth and fame, but that won’t negate the threat that underlies those long black limousines, won’t prevent that ride from turning suddenly into a funeral procession. The long black limousine that holds all the hopes of romance and wealth is the same car that drives us to the graveyard. What emerges from the album’s lyrics are ambiguity and an enormous suspicion; this is a worried man, speaking softly and moving very cautiously.

But in that sort of caution is the album’s greatest paradox. Lyrically, “Walk Like a Man” is brilliant. With this song and a few others, Springsteen stakes his claim to being the greatest rock ‘n’ roll wordsmith since Chuck Berry, the writer most acutely aware of the poetics and subtleties of everyday speech. But musically “Walk Like a Man” is a disaster, synthesizers warbling along where you’d expect the E Street Band, Roy Bittan’s piano, Danny Federici’s organ fills. What makes “Walk Like a Man” brilliant lyrically–its caution–makes it musically a mush, a sort of noncommittal sidestep that stakes no claim, moves nowhere.

The rest of the album musically is likewise hesitant, which is especially maddening if one has had a chance to hear some of the material that Springsteen chose not to include. One such song, “Murder Incorporated” (which is available only on unofficial releases), confronts many of the same questions as Tunnel of Love–shows the same concern that success means only that people will distort your words into whatever they want. But instead of answering with caution, “Murder Incorporated” responds violently with a “No! in thunder.” Musically a cross between “All Along the Watchtower” and “Gimme Shelter,” it surpasses anything on Tunnel of Love.

The figure of Elvis Presley hangs over at least one song from Tunnel of Love and, I think, over the whole album; he represents, in Greil Marcus’s words, “the specter of possibility–in rock and roll, pop culture, America, modern life–and he remains the fact of ruin.” Elvis gives us not only a vision of success, wealth, fame, and romance but the bloated, drug-riddled corpse of the consequences.

Everybody has a pet theory, somehow linked to Elvis’s success, to explain his decline–perhaps because there are so many “obvious” reasons. Elvis went downhill because he went to Hollywood and made cheap movies, because he went to Las Vegas, because he got fat and old, because he released so much utter trash.

But no one will be able to say the same about Springsteen, because compared to Elvis, he hasn’t done any of the stupid things, hasn’t succumbed to any of the obvious traps of stardom, hasn’t gone on TV to sell you a Chrysler or gone to Hollywood to make bad movies, hasn’t gotten fat and old. Most of all, he hasn’t dumped on his fans the way Elvis did, put out trash so sloppy and worthless that it becomes an absurd, perverse joke.

Tunnel of Love is a finely crafted album, careful, cautious, lyrically brilliant in places. But its caution, possibly Springsteen’s response to his own success, may also signal the beginning of the end.