I got the fortunes of heaven in diamonds and gold
I got all the bonds baby that the bank could hold
I got houses 'cross the country honey end to end
And everybody buddy wants to be my friend
Well I got all the riches baby any man ever knew
But the only thing I ain't got honey I ain't got you
These are not the words of a happy man, three years removed from the album that made him a mega-star and two years into a marriage with a proto-typical ‘80’s beauty. No, these are not the words of a happy man at the top. These are the words of Bruce Springsteen, the opening words to “Ain’t Got You,” the opening track to his greatest and most personal work, 1987’s Tunnel of Love.
Did I really write that, that Tunnel of Love is The Boss’ best work? Not Born to Run? Not Darkness? Yeah, I wrote that and there’s room for argument, I know. I’m content to back off from my claim, but I won’t retreat from this: Tunnel of Love is Springsteen’s truest record, the most personal in his canon.
The huge reaction to the stadium-filling Born in the USA album and tour garnered gold for Bruce, but also produced a crisis of conscience. When the anti-Vietnam War title track, perhaps the best bit of American soul-searching since Buffalo Springfield’s "For What It’s Worth," was co-opted by the Reagan administration, Springsteen’s initial fears that the lyrical importance of the songs on USA would be, at best, ignored, and, at worst, misconstrued when bathed in ‘80’s pop production, were proven dead right. After Bruce broke through to the record buying public with 1980’s The River, he consciously followed up with the brilliant, skeletal Nebraska. Similarly, Tunnel followed Born in the USA, but it is in no way as forced, in no way a “hey, there’s more to me than what you think.” Tunnel is adult, organic, real.
Caught in the spotlight, his profile never higher, Bruce went Hollywood. He met model/actress Julianne Phillips in late 1984, and they married the following year. Phillips was not of the “you ain’t a beauty but hey you’re all right” variety. She was a stunner, a prime example of the Kelly LeBrock/Rebecca DeMornay 1980’s era doll.
As Jimmy Cagney might say, Springsteen was at the “top of the world,” but that was clearly not the case. How clearly is demonstrated, track after track, on Tunnel of Love. Bruce may try to push through his old coarse sentimentality that worked so well in his first decade of recording, and he does in “Tougher than the Rest,” but it won’t wash this time. The jig is up for the working man loser persona, and what’s left is a troubled and confused 38-year-old man/child, at sea in a world of crossed signals and duplicity.
The songs of falseness, particularly “Brilliant Disguise” and “Two Faces,” are unsparing, throwing both husband Bruce and wife Julianne into the same muddy suspicion. “I’m just a lonely pilgrim/ I walk this world in wealth/I want to know if it's you I don't trust/ cause I damn sure don't trust myself” – we’re talking monumental stuff here, Plastic Ono Band raw without the screaming. Springsteen’s self-flagellation is as much a songwriting turnabout as the switch from the Dylan-esque wordplay of his early work to the straightforward approach that began with Born to Run. That’s not to say his character driven pieces are absent – “Spare Parts” and “Cautious Man” are classic Springsteen points of view. But the song after song accounts of car heisters, downtrodden working men looking to let it loose out on the street when the Friday whistle blows are replaced by self-analysis and introspection.
Even a time worn Springsteen theme, the battle between father and son, is handled differently in the deft, serious and sweet “Walk Like a Man.” Now as old as his father, Bruce has a sense of understanding that stretches far beyond the lunch pail, shift working two-dimensional figure of, say, “Factory.” You can see a wistful smile on Springsteen’s face as he sings, perhaps as he begins to realize how complex growing up can actually be.
The freak show of the tile track and “One Step Up” are expositions of a man lost, treading water and sinking at the same time. By album’s end, the killer one-two punch of “When You’re Alone” and “Valentine’s Day,” all is gone, but not lost. Bruce Springsteen found out that for all the trappings of success, money can’t buy him love. Even when he thinks it’s there, it’s not, a cruel magic trick that leaves him desolate though hopeful that love is out there to be regained.
It would be recaptured in his relationship with Patti Scialfa, which would end his marriage to Phillips. The love of a good woman wasn’t the end of this difficult period, and Bruce let the E Street Band loose in 1989, one year after the Tunnel of Love Express Tour. A failed marriage, a new emotional start, and a solo career without his band, heralded the artistic tumult of the ‘90’s, a decade that found Springsteen producing his weakest work. He’d return to prime form, his band in tow, to rescue the crushed spirits of his home area after 9/11. The Rising was the first in a series of a reborn to run Bruce, that has continued on through 2009’s Working On a Dream.
Tunnel of Love was a one-off, a brief but powerful glimpse into the heart of Bruce Springsteen. There’s a good reason that the tunes from 1987 are rarely played on tour; they simply hurt too much. Bruce sang, again in “Ain’t Got You,” “been paid a king's ransom for doin' what comes naturally.” It was never more natural than in Tunnel of Love.