Bruce Springsteen's 'Tunnel' Vision

After the mammoth success of 'Born in the U.S.A.,' the rocker took a hard look at his career and decided to bring his music back down to human proportions

bruce springsteen 525
Neal Preston
Bruce Springsteen on the cover of Rolling Stone.
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The audience consists of his sound crew, his sax player's wife and son and a couple dozen ushers and security guards. But that doesn't stop Bruce Springsteen, who's turning in an extraordinary performance at the Omni, in Atlanta. He's in the middle of a late-afternoon sound check – not one of the marathon sound checks for which Springsteen used to be known but an hour-long chance to refresh his music by playing oldies or current favorites or whatever pops into his head.

Springsteen stands in the middle of the huge white stage in jeans and a long-sleeved white shirt, laughing as he tries to piece together half-remembered lyrics, joking when a band member tosses out the rif from a familiar oldie and muttering, "Okay, what next?" when he finishes a tune. It's a country and folk set: the Everly Brothers, Hank Williams and some lesser-known choices. Some songs fizzle out after a verse or two; every so often, though, Springsteen and the band instinctively craft a full-bodied arrangement, grab a song and claim it as their own.

That happens during "Across the Borderline," a six-year-old song by Ry Cooder, John Hiatt and Jim Dickinson from the movie The Border. A plaintive lament about Mexicans in search of an American paradise, the song is one of Bruce's current passions: one person in Springsteen's entourage says he's driven everyone crazy playing it in the van.

100 Greatest Singers: Bruce Springsteen

So when Springsteen sings its opening lines, the members of the band quickly latch on to the slow groove; they've heard this one before. Guitarist Nils Lofgren picks up a slide and adds an aching counterpoint to Springsteen's vocals. By the first chorus, this has become a performance to break hearts: "When you reach the broken promised land/Every dream slips through your hand/And you'll know that it's too late to change your mind/Cause you've paid the price to come so far/Just to wind up where you are/And you're still just across the borderline."*

Like the best of Springsteen's own music, this is a song with a deep sense of consequences. Not only do its lines about shattered dreams and broken promises recall his songs, but the song seems to speak directly to the experience of a man who dreamed of becoming a rock star, then became the biggest; who found himself feeling isolated and empty and fought that by reassessing his work, then by turning to his marriage; who at age thirty-eight has set aside his fervent belief that rock & roll can save you in favor of the more sober idea that love might save you – if you work at it hard and long enough.

"I guess I used to think that rock could save you," he says later. "I don't believe it can anymore. It can do a lot. It's certainly done a lot for me – gave me focus and direction and energy and purpose. I suppose, when I was a kid, it was your best friend: your new 45, man, that was your best buddy.

"But as you get older, you realize that it is not enough. Music alone – you can take some shelter there, and you can find some comfort and happiness, you can dance, you can slow-dance with your girl, but you can't hide in it. And it is so seductive that you want to hide in it. And then if you get in the position of somebody like me, where you can if you want to, you really can."

He stops himself. "Well, you think you can, anyway. In the end you really can't, because no matter who you are, whether it's me or Elvis or Michael Jackson, in the end you really can't. You can use all your powers to isolate yourself, to surround yourself with luxury, to intoxicate yourself in any particular fashion that you so desire. But it just starts eating you away inside, because there is something you get from engagement with people, from a connection with a person, that you just cannot get anyplace else. I suppose I had a moment where I kinda crashed into that idea, before I was married....

"It's just confusing. Even the type of connection you can make in your show, which is enormous, you can't live there. You have three hours onstage, and then you got the other twenty-one. You may know exactly what you're doing in those three hours, but you better figure out what you're gonna do in them other twenty-one, because you can't book yourself around the clock."

"The first thing I did," Springsteen says, "was make everyone stand in a different place." It was the first day of rehearsals for the Tunnel of Love Express, and he knew it was time for a show that would be drastically different from the stadium-rock blowouts that had followed his album Bom in the U.S.A. – especially since those shows had themselves been similar to the acclaimed concerts he'd been doing ever since he started playing large arenas in 1978.

So he moved the members of the E Street Band out of the places most of them had occupied onstage for the past thirteen years: drummer Max Weinberg moved to the side; pianist Roy Bittan and keyboardist Dan Federici traded places; so did guitarist Nils Lofgren and bassist Garry Tallent; sax man Clarence Clemons shifted from Bruce's right to his left; and singer Patti Scialfa picked up a guitar, moved into Clarence's old position and became Springsteen's new onstage foil. A horn section recruited from the New Jersey bar band La Bamba and the Hubcaps took up the rear. Springsteen had tried this once before – at the beginning of the rehearsals for the Born in the U.S.A. tour-but back then, he says, the band "flipped."

This time the musicians, who knew that their boss had considered a solo acoustic tour, quickly adjusted to the change. Springsteen knew what he didn't want – "I made a little list of stuff I couldn't imagine playing," he says – but when manager Jon Landau said it was time to start booking the tour, he didn't know what he wanted. "I said, 'I don't know if I have a set,' " says Springsteen with a laugh. "Jon said, 'Well, you know, that's your job, you've been doing it a long time, you do it good, so it'll happen.' So I took his word for it."

Two and a half months later, when he takes the stage of the Omni, Springsteen has a show. It rocks almost as much as his past concerts, but it's also far more intimate: where his last tour, which played some huge outdoor stadiums, explored the ideas of community and society, this tour, which is limited to indoor arenas, focuses on desire, commitment and family. The first set is part relationship songs from the Tunnel of Love album. It's part B sides and outtakes: "Be True" and "Roulette" were both recorded for The River. (Springsteen now says, "Both of those songs should have been on The River, and I'm sure they would have been better than a couple other things that we threw on there.") And at the end of the set are a couple of barn burners from the Born in the U.S.A. tour. Songs that have served as longtime Springsteen staples are missing, for the most part replaced by music that is hard, dark and almost claustrophobic: each gentle, nostalgic moment is shattered by colder, more fearful songs.

Near the end of the set, pianist Roy Bittan plays a pastoral melody, and Springsteen steps to the mike. The monologue he delivers, ostensibly about the unmarried mother who's the central character in "Spare Parts," could just as easily deal with a rock & roll star who's determined to do something different.

"The past is a funny thing," he says, as the crowd quiets down and Bittan plays softly. "The past is something that seems to bind us all together with memory and experience. And it's also something, I guess, that can drag you down and hold you back as you get stuck in old dreams that just break your heart over and over again when they don't come true."

A brutal version of "Spare Parts" follows, then an angry "War" – no introduction needed, what with Ronald Reagan's troops sitting in Honduras – and finally, just before intermission, "Born in the U.S.A." Three years ago, this song was the hard-fought call to arms that began virtually all of Springsteen's shows; now, coming at the end of a set that dwells on devastating personal and social struggles, it lacks any suggestion of the patriotism that some people insisted on reading into it on the last tour. Musically as exultant as ever, "Born in the U.S.A." suddenly hits home as an agonized, brutal modern-day blues.

"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.

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.

From The Archives Issue 525: May 5, 1988