Bruce Springsteen's 'Tunnel' Vision

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"When we played that first set in rehearsal," Springsteen says, "I said, 'Yeah, that's good.' " Sitting in the semidarkness of his backstage dressing room in Atlanta, he drops his voice to a gravelly whisper. "It felt real new, real modern to me. I figure some people will wrestle with it a little bit" He breaks the spell with a loud, hoarse laugh. "But that's okay."

It's shortly after 1:00 a.m., and the rest of the E Street Band is gone. There's nobody around in the Omni dressing rooms marked Horns, Patti, Band and Mokshagun (the name given to Clarence Clemons by his guru, Sri Chinmoy, whose framed picture sits next to a lighted candle in Clemons's dressing room). The Springsteen tour is low-key, calm and precisely organized; if there weren't a show tomorrow, they'd already be flying to the next city or flying home to Jersey for a day or two.

Now Springsteen sits back in an overstuffed chair, clad in black slacks, a black dress shirt, a black leather blazer and the silver-tipped black cowboy boots he wears onstage; he has a gold wedding band on his left hand and a single diamond stud in his left ear. He drinks a Heineken very slowly and occasionally takes a pretzel from the small bowl on his coffee table. Behind him, a portable heater glows red. The room is austere: a curtain in front of the door, a folding rubdown table, a buffet table lightly stocked with food and drink.

Though he doesn't look tired, Springsteen speaks slowly, fighting his impulse to ramble. Most of the time he's serious and philosophical, though the nervous, wheezing belly laugh with which he constantly interrupts both his jokes and his most thoughtful and revealing comments suggests he can't take himself too seriously.

"The idea on this tour," he says, "is that you wouldn't know what song was gonna come next. And the way you do that is you just throw out all your cornerstones, the stuff that had not become overly ritualized on the Born in the U.S.A. tour but would have been if we did it now. It would have been pushin' the buttons a little bit, you know?" Springsteen and the band had more rehearsals for this tour than for all their previous tours combined. In the process, songs were dropped as Springsteen found his themes, and certain tunes "stopped making emotional sense." The last song to go was "Darlington County," which he'd added to lighten a set he finally decided he didn't want to lighten.

"That sense of dread – man, it's everywhere," he says, staring at the wall of his dressing room. "It's outside, it's inside, it's in the bedroom, its on the street. The main thing was to show people striving for that idea of home: people forced out of their homes, people looking for their homes, people trying to build their homes, people looking for shelter, for comfort, for tenderness, a little bit of kindness somewhere."

Springsteen doesn't vary the show much from night to night, because he feels it is "focused and specific." At its heart are echoes of the struggle that he went through when he began to live out the rock & roll dream that had driven him since he was a high schooler growing up near the Jersey shore. "I guess you get to a place where your old answers and your old dreams don't really work anymore," he says, "so you have to step into something new. For me, there was that particular moment when I had to put my old dreams down, because I had grown beyond them. I suppose I had a particular time when I felt pretty empty."

For Springsteen, that time came after the break-through success of the two-record set The River, when he recorded the stark, haunted folk songs that made up his 1982 album Nebraska. "I suppose that's where some of that record came from," he says. "I took a little trip across the country, 'cause I felt very isolated." He pauses. "So you start taking those steps outward. That's where you gotta go. And you reach a point where there's a person who says, 'I can show you these other things, but you have to trust me.' "

That person was Julianne Phillips, an actress-model he met in 1984 in Los Angeles and married the following May. The songs that followed, the songs that make up Tunnel of Love, focus on the perils of adult romance and commitment. "I wanted to write a different kind of romantic song, one that took in the different types of emotional experiences of any relationship where you are really engaging with that other person and not involved in a narcissistic romantic fantasy or intoxication or whatever.

"In my life previously, I hadn't allowed myself to get into a situation where I would even have cause to reflect on these things. When I was in my twenties, I was specifically avoiding it." He laughs. "It was like 'I got enough on my hands, I ain't ready for that, I don't write no marryin' songs.' But when this particular record came around, I wanted to make a record about what I felt, about really letting another person in your life and trying to be a part of someone else's life. That's a frightening thing, something that's always filled with shadows and doubts and also wonderful things and beautiful things."

He laughs again. "It's difficult, because there's a part of you that wants the stability and the home thing, and there's a part of you that isn't so sure. That was the idea of the record, and I had to change quite a bit to just get to the point to write about that stuff. I couldn't have written any of those songs at any other point in my career. I wouldn't have had the knowledge or the insight or the experience to do it."

And does he think he's found the home he sings about onstage? "Sometimes I really do," he says quietly. "I don't believe that you find something and there it is and that's the end of the story. You have to find the strength to sustain it and build on it and work for it and constantly pour energy into it. I mean, there's days when you're real close and days when you're real far away. I guess I feel like I know a lot more about it than I ever did, but it's like anything else: you gotta write that new song every day."

He grins. "I guess, gee, I've been married for three years, just about. And I feel like we just met."

Right off the bat, the second set at the omni violates a given of any Bruce Springsteen concert: it starts not with a flat-out rocker but with a measured, emphatic version of the Tunnel of Love ballad "Tougher Than the Rest." It's followed by a thundering rendition of the thirteen-year-old "She's the One"; the original neo-rockabilly arrangement of "You Can Look (but You Better Not Touch)"; a rollicking overhaul of "I'm a Coward," an old Gino Washington number; a sinuous new reggae original, "Part Man, Part Monkey"; and the rockers "Dancing in the Dark" and "Light of Day." But it's "Walk Like a Man," full of telling autobiographical detail and plaintive yearning – "I pray for the strength to walk like a man," sings Springsteen, who worried about being too direct and personal when he wrote the song – that brings the set's tales of desire to a head.

For an encore, Springsteen walks out with an acoustic guitar. "When I was sittin' at home, thinkin' about comin' out on tour and trying to decide what I was gonna do," he says, "I thought, 'Well, I gotta sing a new song.' That's my job. But this is an old song. I wrote this song when I was twenty-four years old, sitting on the end of my bed in Long Branch, New Jersey, and thinking, 'Here I come, world.' " A giggle. "When I wrote it, I guess I figured it was a song about a guy and a girl who wanted to run and keep on running."

A huge cheer; the crowd knows what's coming. "But as I got older, and as I sang it over the years, it sort of opened up, and I guess I realized that it was about two people out searching for something better. Searching for a place they could stand and try and make a life for themselves. And I guess in the end they were searchin' for home, something that I guess everybody looks for all their lives. I've spent my life looking for it, I guess. Anyway, this song has kept me good company on my search. I hope it's kept you good company on your search."

The acoustic version of "Born to Run" that follows is elegiac and antiromantic, the kind of haunting moment that wins Springsteen and his audience the right to celebrate. And they do – with "Hungry Heart" and "Glory Days" and finally with "Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)" and the "Detroit medley," Springsteen's customary encore of rock and R&B standards, including "Devil with a Blue Dress."

And as Springsteen gives this determinedly new show a very old ending, in the middle of a rock & roll maelstrom in which he almost seems to turn his back on the hard lessons that preceded the celebration, he shouts out just how this stuff fits in. He introduces "Rosalita" as "the best love song I ever wrote!" And before the "Detroit medley," he shouts, "But that's not the end of the story. They got in their car, they drove down the road, they went into a little bar, there was a band there, the bandleader shouted, 'One, two, three, four! Devil with a blue dress ...' " Every love story, it seems, deserves a happy ending – and as a coda to this dark, dark ride, Bruce Springsteen is grinning like a fool and doing the boogaloo and writing his happy ending.

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