Bruce Springsteen's 'Tunnel' Vision

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There's a steinway baby grand in the living room and a guitar case by the couch, but the music in Bruce Springsteen's posh hotel suite comes from a small boom box blaring out a tape of Chicago blues. It's almost time for another sound check, and the remnants of Springsteen's most recent meal sit on his dining-room table: a box of Shredded Wheat, a cereal bowl in which uneaten strawberries sit in a small pool of milk. Twenty-five floors, one private elevator and a couple of receptionists and security guards away from the fens outside Atlanta's Ritz-Carlton, Springsteen sits in an armchair in blue jeans, a pin-striped white shirt and his silver-tipped cowboy boots, nursing a chocolate milkshake and talking about his career.

To some, Tunnel of Love is a foolish move: an album of intimate ballads from a guy who broke things wide open with an album of rockers. The tour isn't the juggernaut its predecessor was, and the album has sold considerably less than Born in the U.S.A. – although Springsteen clearly prefers it to the earlier record, which he shrugs off as "a rock record." He says, "I never really felt like I quite got it, though 'Born in the U.S.A.' and 'My Hometown' made it feel more thematic than it probably was." Is the quintessential mainstream American rock hero now just another guy with an album in the Top Twenty and a tour in the local arenas?

"I don't really have a desire to have some super big-selling record," he says. "I mean, I enjoyed Born in the U.S.A., and it did bring a new audience to me, some who will fall away and some who will stick around for the rest of the show. I don't consider Tunnel of Love a small record, but I suppose it doesn't reach out and grab you by the throat and thrash you around like Born in the U.S.A.

"I wouldn't mind having another big record like that. But my main concern is writing that new song that has that new idea, that new perspective. To me, that is the essence of my job." He chuckles. "Also, you want to rock people. That's my job, too. So that makes you want to write a fast song."

But for now, the most moving moment of his show may well be the fast song slowed down, the song about running that's become a song about home. "I wanted to separate 'Born to Run' from any way we've ever done the song before," Springsteen says. "I didn't want to crash into it like some old anthem or something, and I wanted to give people a chance to reexperience the song. And myself, too." He grins. "I guess in that song I asked every question I've been trying to answer since I was twenty-four. I was young, and those were the things I wanted to know. And fifteen years down the line, you understand much clearer what those things are, and what they cost, and their importance. And I suppose, when I play the song now, I would imagine that you get some sense of that.

"I asked myself those questions at that age, and I really did faithfully, I feel, do everything I could to find some answers. The way you keep faith with your audience is not by signing autographs; it's by keeping faith with that initial search you set out on. I suppose this show is a – it's not a resolution by any means, but it is what I've learned and what I know."

But can Bruce Springsteen, a multimillionaire rock star in his penthouse suite, remain close to his audience while his images have been appropriated by politicians and television commercials? After all, Springsteen may have added "Backstreets" to his set after a fan sent him a letter explaining how much the song meant to him and his friends – but when he tells that story, even Bruce is amazed that the fan managed to penetrate security and get the letter to his hotel room.

"In some ways," he stammers, "there's not a lot of difference. I still go out, meet people. With the size of the thing, the way that you counteract that is by becoming more intimate in your work. I suppose that's why after I did Born in the U.S.A., I made this intimate record. I made a record that was really sort of addressed to my core audience, my longtime fans."

He frowns. "The size is tricky, it's dangerous. You can become purely iconic, or you can become just a Rorschach test that people throw up their own impressions upon, which you always are to some degree any-way. With size, and the co-option of your images and attitudes – you know, you wake up and you're a car commercial or whatever. And the way I mink the artist deals with that is just reinvention. You've got to constantly reinvent, and it's a long trip, it's a long drive."

If there was ever a point when his relationship with the audience would have changed, he adds, it would have been during the Born to Run furor of 1975 – the covers of Time and Newsweek, the move from clubs to theaters, the charges that he was a record-company hype – rather than the Born in the U.S.A. explosion of a decade later.

"Obviously, the Born in the U.S.A. experience had its frightening moments," he says. "But I had a real solid sense of myself by the time I was thirty-five. When I was twenty-five, I thought that I would slip away.... Also, when I was twenty-five, I just worked all the time, because I had nothing else going. I think at this point in my life I've gotten to the place where I want a real life, which is something you've got to cut out for yourself. And I've been lucky: most of my fans, most of the people I meet wish you the best. Then you meet people that – your real life is an intrusion upon their fantasy, and they don't like that."

He laughs uproariously. "But, hey, that's not my problem. So anyway, along the road I probably come in contact with fans a little less than I used to, but outside of the details of the thing, I think my basic feelings and attitudes toward my audience haven't really changed. I guess I still feel like one of them, basically."

And this, it seems, is why the new Bruce Springsteen still pulls out those warhorses at the end of the night, the reason the guy who refuses to do "Badlands" and "Thunder Road" and "Jungleland" winds up every show with "Rosalita" and half an hour of the "Detroit medley."

"That's the trick of the show," he says. "The most important song, really, is 'Devil with a Blue Dress.' " He laughs heartily, savoring the seeming silliness of that idea. "Because the show really builds up to the moment when the houselights come up. The lights come up, and the stage slips back into the crowd, and the audience comes forth, and that is the event. You would think the end of the show is about excitement, but it's really not. It's about emotion. Because that's when people are the most visible, when they're the most vulnerable, the freest.

"That's when things sit in a certain perspective. You can look up, way up, and you see some guy, and he waves to you, and you wave back – and in a funny kind of way, you know, that's the idea of the whole night And the thing that keeps it from being just an aerobic exercise is the rest of the show, which resonates underneath that and gives those songs, which appear to be kind of thrown off, emotional meaning and emotional life.

"And in a funny way, with all the stuff I sing about for the whole rest of the night, I'm not sure I say anything that's more important than that particular moment."

*Copyright © 1982 by Duchess Music Corporation (MCA/BMI).

This story appears in the May 5th, 1988 issue of Rolling Stone.

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