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‘Tunnel of Love’: Real Life or Art?

Is Bruce Springsteen really tougher than the rest?

In one of the key songs on last year’s acclaimed “Tunnel of Love” album--a frequently dark, unsettling chronicle of the tensions of modern love--Springsteen assures a mate that he has the heart and strength to overcome the hardships.

He croons confidently:

The road is dark and it’s a thin, thin line

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But I want you to know , I’ll walk it for you any time.

Maybe your other boyfriends

Couldn’t pass the test.

Well if you’re rough and ready for love ,

Honey, I’m tougher than the rest.

Springsteen sings the song with such heroic flair on his current tour that a Lexington, Ky., critic suggested that Bruce looks as if he’s recreating Gary Cooper’s role of the common-man-as-superhero in the classic Western “High Noon"--the man who can beat all odds.

It’s a telling comparison.

Especially since Bob Dylan revolutionized rock songwriting, it’s tempting--though intellectually dangerous--to think that a singer is telling his own story on stage.

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“Tougher Than the Rest” is a doubly evocative moment in the show for those who know Springsteen’s history: He suggested a decade ago that he wasn’t cut out for marriage, then mellowed as he admitted a yearning for a relationship, and in 1985 he married actress Julianne Phillips.

If that history helps make the song and album more winning, does the current press speculation that Springsteen’s marriage is undergoing a “strain” make it difficult to relate to the song?

The issue here isn’t the state of Springsteen’s marriage, but whether events in an artist’s personal life should affect how we interpret his work.

The question doesn’t begin with pop music or Springsteen. Artists from all fields have seen appreciation of their work shift--for better or worse--for reasons that have nothing directly to do with the work itself, but with their personal actions.

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This has been especially true, however, of rock music, where such introspective artists as John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison, Prince, Michael Jackson, David Bowie and Mick Jagger are not just looked upon as songwriters, but as inspiring role models.

In most cases, the personal life should stand apart from how we relate aesthetically to an artist’s work, but it cannot help but influence the way we relate emotionally to that artist and his work.

In the weeks after “Tunnel of Love” was released last fall, many Springsteen fans asked, “What’s wrong with Bruce’s marriage?” It caught me by surprise because there hadn’t been a hint on the always active Springsteen rumor wire about trouble in Bruce’s paradise.

As far as the world knew, everything was just fine, thank you, between the rock star and the actress, whom he met backstage at the Los Angeles Sports Arena in 1984 and married seven months later at Our Lady of the Lake Catholic Church in the Portland, Ore., suburb of Lake Oswego.

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Most certainly, several songs on “Tunnel of Love” dealt with the tensions of love and marriage in a dark, doubting way that echoed the explosive anxiety of Springsteen’s earlier “Nebraska” album.

But there were also moments of supreme optimism and joy--things that never surfaced in “Nebraska,” the 1982 collection about people so cut off from the promise of the American Dream that they become part of society’s violent underbelly.

The songs in “Nebraska” were superbly crafted expressions of isolation and despair, but the tales--some involving murder--were clearly dramatizations. After hearing “Nebraska,” no one asked, “Did Bruce really kill someone?”

Why, then, assume that the new songs are any less the products of an artistic imagination--as opposed to autobiography--than the “Nebraska” songs? Love is not exactly a radical subject in literature and pop.

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The way I looked at it, Springsteen was merely expressing many of the conflicting emotions he had observed in others, and some of the doubts about marriage that he had long harbored.

But what now?

“Bruce Springsteen’s Marriage in Trouble,” declared the scandal-loving National Enquirer in a cover headline this month.

The accompanying article said Springsteen was upset because he wanted children and his wife thought the timing was bad for her career. It also said Phillips was “furious” about reports that Springsteen was spending lots of time on the road with backup singer Patti Scialfa.

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“Is Bruce on the Loose?” asked gossip-conscious USA Today, which pretty much summarized the Enquirer story. People magazine and the New York Post, too, have teased readers with items.

Fans quickly joined the speculation. There were unconfirmed reports that Springsteen was no longer wearing his wedding ring on stage. (As usual, Springsteen’s management company refused to comment on the singer’s personal life.)

To me, “Tunnel of Love” seemed on first listening a summary of everything that Springsteen had observed and, perhaps, felt about the challenges of marriage.

At one time, Springsteen--a notorious loner--ruled out a long-range relationship, complaining that he didn’t have enough time left, after his music, to devote to marriage.

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In a 1975 interview with the British pop publication Melody Maker, Springsteen updated his hesitancy about marriage.

“I couldn’t bring up kids,” he said. “I couldn’t handle it . . . . A kid--like you better be ready for them. I’m so far out of line that it would be disastrous. I just don’t see why people get married.”

By early ’85, Springsteen’s attitude had changed. In an interview after a concert one night in Greensboro, N. C., he spoke quite wistfully about how something was missing in his life.

A friend from Steel Mill, one of Springsteen’s early bands, had joined him on stage that night, and Springsteen mentioned how much the friend’s wife and three children meant to the former bandmate.

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Could it be that he too felt a need for a permanent relationship?

“Everybody feels (that need) all the time,” he replied without hesitation. “I guess relationships have been (hard for me) just because I’ve traveled for my whole adult life, and it was difficult to settle into something and make those types of sacrifices.

"(But) I think you can make anything happen. That’s my approach. To blame something on your (career) is an excuse, no matter what it is. It can be difficult, no doubt about it. But in the end, you do what you want to do. That’s what I basically believe. All the rest is excuses.”

Several of the songs on “Tunnel of Love” grapple with the question of commitment. They deal, quite nakedly, with the difficulties of living up to the obligations of marriage--not just fidelity, but nurturing and sacrifice.

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Tunes like “Spare Parts,” “Cautious Man,” “Brilliant Disguise” and “Two Faces” examine in heart-wrenching detail the possibility that unending love may simply be an emotional mirage for most people.

Listening to the songs again, it may be titillating to think they were a literal unveiling of Springsteen’s own doubts--just as it may be interesting on a voyeuristic level to think a song like “One Step Up” is about Springsteen’s wrestling with his own temptations to infidelity.

But the music stands on its own merits. Whatever the accuracy of the marital rumors, any shifts in Springsteen’s private life should do nothing to improve or downgrade our appreciation of the work.

It may be useful to pop historians to know what role Springsteen’s personal life played in the shaping of individual songs--but that information rests apart from the evaluation of the work.

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At least that’s the ideal.

Springsteen may have written “Tougher Than the Rest” as simply another dramatization--not as his own pledge. But artists have no control over their work once it goes public. Similarly, Springsteen has no control over how the public relates to him.

Until resolved, the questions about Springsteen’s marriage become part of the information a Springsteen fan carries into his concert. Will couples still gently embrace while listening to the sweet optimism of a song like “Tougher Than the Rest” or will they no longer be able to relate to it?

During a revealing Rolling Stone magazine interview last year, Springsteen spoke at length about the fact that so many of his fans see him as more than a songwriter--as a model for their own conduct, or as an inspiring moral leader.

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“I do not believe that the essence of the rock ‘n’ roll idea was to exalt the cult of the personality,” he said. “That is a sidetrack, a dead-end street. . . . (but) I’ve been as guilty of it as anybody in my own life.

“When I jumped over that wall (years ago at Graceland in hope of meeting his first rock hero, Elvis Presley), I didn’t know who I was gonna meet. And the guard who stopped me at the door did me the biggest favor of my life.

“I had misunderstood. It was innocent, and I was having a ball, but it wasn’t right. In the end, you cannot live inside that dream. You cannot live within the dream of Elvis Presley or within the dream of the Beatles.

“It’s like John Lennon said: ‘The dream is over.’ You can live with that dream in your head, but you cannot live inside that dream, because it’s a perversion, you know?

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“What the best of art is, it says, ‘Take this'--this movie or painting or photograph or record--'take what you see in this, and then go find your place in the world. This is a tool: Go out and find your place in the world.’ ”


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