Somewhere along the way, music has rather lost its sense that it could change the world. There seems an incredible sense of fatigue from charity ensembles either in the recording studio or in large scale gatherings (like Live Aid or even Woodstock). Protest of one sort or another seems not to feature as much of a spur to hitmakers in a way that geo-political situations or philosophical extremism have in the past.
And yet now we could probably do with the world rallying together in an attempt to alleviate some of the madness into the chasm of which we seem daily now to stare.
Which is why I was so impressed with the action a couple of weeks ago of Bruce Springsteen to cancel his concert in North Carolina in protest against the State’s legislation and position on the rights of the LGBT communities. In his statement, he wrote,
“Some things are more important than a rock show and this fight against prejudice and bigotry — which is happening as I write — is one of them. It is the strongest means I have for raising my voice in opposition to those who continue to push us backwards instead of forwards”.
It seems strange on first glance that it should be this embodiment of the American Everyman who takes this stance. The beer-drinking, sports-loving, hot-rod riding Bruce that should be the one taking the stance (the fact that Bryan Adams followed suit a few days later says all you need to know about the comparative stature of Bruce and Bryan Adams).
Yet we should never forget that Bruce has had a long history of speaking out on causes both at home and abroad. He was a key part of the Human Rights Tour of the late 80s, the Artists Against Apartheid, No Nukes and a series of local New Jersey initiatives as that state’s favorite son. Of course, he has been a great supporter of the Democratic cause and opened up Obama’s inauguration with “The Rising”.
Certainly, his particular support of this community can probably be traced back to his startling but enormously effective contribution of the title track for “Philadelphia” – the piercingly emotional “Streets Of Philadelphia”, a song with an astonishing power to move even without its accompanying movie narrative..
Living proof that blue collar does not necessarily hide a red neck. In this increasingly hostile world, we need the likes of Springsteen to see how backward some of us are looking.
As ever, Springsteen is a man who is capable of making big and brave decisions about his career which led me to go back and revisit my favorite of all his albums – the sometimes over-looked (including in his live set) – 1987’s “Tunnel Of Love” album.
The irony of this record is that one of the most important tracks on it was “Cautious Man” – the tale of Bill Horton, a man who finds love late in life and fears his commitment – because this was a magnificently brave recording.
In 1985, Springsteen was on top of the world; “Born In The USA” had sold by the truckload, his concerts had sold out everywhere and he had finally achieved the kind of audience attention his career had always threatened but now unleashed from the confines of just North America. “BROOOOCE” was the cry echoing around stadia all over the world as he and the E Street Band were the #1 attraction.
So with all of this success around, what does he do?
He withdraws into his home recording studio and makes an album largely on his own which ditches most of his band and many of the conventional themes with which he had been largely concerned.
For many who had been introduced to this now-major artist through his cavorting on stage with a teenage Courtney Cox in “Dancing In The Dark”, this must have come across as virtually unrecognizable. Instead “Tunnel Of Love” is an intensely individual record, with Bruce playing many of the instruments on his own.
Curiously, slightly earlier, though released later, one of my other favorite writers (and labelmate of Springsteen) Paddy McAloon of Prefab Sprout (a man who can do very little wrong in my eyes) had written “Cars And Girls” which was an uncharacteristically savage attack on Springsteen’s so-called lyrical obsessions – “Brucie dreams life’s a highway, too many roads go past my way”. It’s an unfair observation even before this album – “Born In The USA” had been a bitter commentary on the world for war veterans turned into some form of gung-ho anthem, the opposite of its intention – but made even more so when looked at with the contemporary release of “Tunnel Of Love”.
Springsteen had produced darker material before – particularly “Nebraska” – and would again with “The Ghost Of Tom Joad” and “Devils And Dust” but in these the settings are almost like little dark movies filled with unfulfilled characters not the singer himself. This album is profoundly personal and so feels as if it comes from a very different place. Try “Walk Like A Man” which is a very poignant review of his relationship with his father.
Ironically, “Cars And Girls”, despite its original intention, is regularly featured on all manner of “Driving” or “Highway” compilations – again the antithesis of that particular author’s vision.
I remember at the time virtually every review of this album talked about how it was Springsteen coming to terms with his new-found married status – his wedding to Julianne Philips had taken place at the height of his success in 1985. They picked up on the edginess of commitment for a man married comparatively late at 37 (like I would know anything about that) but felt the closing track “Valentines Day” intimated at the artist’s certainty that all would work out in the end.
It all seemed very neat… but inaccurate.
Yet, their new marriage was dropping to pieces almost immediately and the fear that comes across in so many of the tracks, especially “Cautious Man”, as well as the sheer difficulty of the relationships, “One Step Up” for example, weigh heavily on him.
Every character he paints, like the afore-mentioned Bill Horton or Bobby in “Spare Parts” – a song that seems definitely to have been influenced by Steve Earle then doing good box office with “Copperhead Road” – seems to be permanently running scared. Of course this a theme that we’ve seen before in songs such as “Hungry Heart” but it has always felt as if it was one of his regular short stories or mini-screenplays.
But when you are faced with, for me still the highlight of the album, the excellent but strenuously sinister title track, “Tunnel Of Love” our hero seems riddled with foreboding and uncertainty about the state of his relationships. The unusual instrumentation (he was largely playing everything himself, remember) seems to emphasize the awkwardness of the whole situation.
And then there are the painful themes of disappointment and recrimination that feel as if they have come from Springsteen on the most uncertain of all his journeys – this is his own crisis.
The misunderstanding that exists in his relationship is brought front and centre also on more than one occasion – “Two Faces” is the more obvious case but it is in the claustrophobia of “Brilliant Disguise” that is Springsteen at his finest. Here the instrumentation builds but feels permanently constricted and the intensity of the vocal grows and grows.
We are witnessing a man truly conflicted. And, incidentally as promo films go I think this one is nigh on perfect.
And this is not all that keeps him awake at night.
The acapella opening track, “Ain’t Got You”, now seems fairly innocuous and is performed more jokily in reply to the question of what it feels to be The Boss. However, for America’s hero of the working man to be talking about the problems of having “a house full of Rembrandt and priceless art” was a brave and potentially alienating move. His long-term collaborator Miami Steve Van Zandt certainly thought so and told him unequivocally.
Yet this was an honest attempt to voice the uncertainty he now felt as probably the most famous man on the planet at the time. His success seemed to sit uneasily with him and so brought the need to withdraw from his band, from his marriage and seeming pre-ordained path to success> he seems genuinely to have been prepared to gamble on his audience too.
Mercifully, most of them and certainly the longer-term ones knew better.
What is it to be a boss?
If you want it to be your nickname you need to live up to it.
It’s not a popularity contest that’s for sure. There are inevitably difficult decisions to be made – sometimes at odds with conventional or popular opinion. You have to know yourself and your boundaries. You need to be prepared to take chances. It can be lonely and it can be hard. And often you simply have to do it yourself, to do it right.
This is a recording that is entirely individual, unexpected and personally courageous and has always been my favourite of his catalogue. I imagine it features less in his sets nowadays simply because unlike so many other classics, much of the work still has the power to rip the Band Aid off a wound.
No work more than “Tunnel Of Love” shows why The Boss is the Boss and why even now when music has perhaps lost its power to stun inertia into action, he still remains able to do so.