Bruce Springsteen Tunnel of Love

Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Tunnel of Love’ Dug Deep Into Rocky Soil

With 1987’s Tunnel of Love, Bruce Springsteen left the highway and E-Street Band to make “married music” and found himself reckoning with time and mortality.

Tunnel of Love
Bruce Springsteen
9 October 1987

For Bruce Springsteen, the mid-to-late 1980s was a time of personal and creative flux. In the space of a single summer, Born in the USA delivered him from stardom to something boundless via an iconic Annie Liebowitz cover shot, a fusillade of top-10 hits, and album sales he would never need to repeat. What grew from the January 1982 sessions that brought forth the darkness of Nebraska finally ended in late September 1985 with a four-day final act beneath wide open skies at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. As he later acknowledged in his 2017 autobiography Born to Run, Springsteen would never stand “this high in the mainstream pop firmament again”. In the wake of an American odyssey, he looked forward to “something less” but soon found both beginnings and endings.  

For now, a peak had been scaled and a flag planted, tying together an image that popularised Springsteen in a way he perhaps couldn’t have anticipated. For some, the cover of Born in the USA was little more than a cheap visual to accompany the aural bombast Springsteen and the E Street Band unleashed across the airwaves and stadia of the Western world. British music critic and Springsteen champion Richard Williams was damning in Q magazine, judging the red hat in the back pocket of Springsteen’s jeans as he stood before the strips of the American flag as exploitative and “downright irresponsible”. Many welcomed a defining moment for an artist more politically conscious than ever. If you paid attention to the song’s lyrics – sometimes lost amid the sound and fury – told stories of the marginalized and forgotten of Reagan’s post-Vietnam America. Most just pulled on their 501s and rocked out.   

If he’d created a juggernaut with Born in the USA, next it was time to jump clear. Money would cushion the fall, and Springsteen saw no reason to apologize for it. Within days he’d simply crashed. Beached on a sofa in the big old house he’d bought on the corner of Bellevue Avenue and Ridge Road in Rumson, New Jersey, a single question disturbed his peace like a buzzing fly trapped on the wrong side of the window. Now what? The answer to that question, Tunnel of Love, came in time and proved less a follow-up than a detour; a turn off the highway and onto the driveway. Springsteen was coming home.    

In some respects, his eighth studio album seems firmly anchored to the autumn of 1987. It sounds polished per the industry trends of the time, with a view perhaps to increasingly affordable higher-end home audio systems rather than radio play and the stadia that Springsteen was enjoying a break from. Maybe he was counting on his listeners to stay home, too. He would make what he’d once disparagingly referred to as ‘married music’ this time.  

Those production values date Tunnel of Love. Close your eyes on the first listen, and you might easily nail the album’s year of release within a song or two while you picture the type of big-budget, cinematic promos MTV made a requirement of the time. Irish filmmaker Meiert Avis shot a promo for each of the album’s four singles – “Brilliant Disguise”, “One Step Up”, “Tougher Than the Rest”, and “Tunnel of Love”. Springsteen stared down the camera for the entirety of ‘Brilliant Disguise’ which somehow garnered an MTV nomination for best editing despite being one take. But nothing was quite as it seemed in this tunnel of love.  

Bob Clearmountain, renowned applier of gloss with radio-friendly results throughout the 1980s for the Rolling Stones, David Bowie, and Huey Lewis, returned to the fold. His mixes for Roxy Music on Avalon and later the Blue Nile were tailored to the discerning late-night listener, particularly one whose ears were strategically positioned in the sweet spot between a pair of expensive speakers. He’d made a lasting impression on “The River” and, more recently, had sent “Dancing in the Dark” out onto the dance floor alongside a 20-year-old Courteney Cox on MTV with spectacular results. Alongside engineer Toby Scott, he now set about streamlining a record shorn of the E-Street identity that had been every bit as intrinsic to Springsteen’s previous effort as the American flag.  

Springsteen hadn’t forgotten he had a band. He simply intuited a solo project that would be, in its way, as introspective as Nebraska five years before it. That record was destined never to stray far beyond the basics he’d laid down on a cassette that fit in his jeans pocket – the “Electric Nebraska” sessions remain unreleased, and the legend intact. Meanwhile, the development process for Tunnel of Love side-lined the E-Streeters – fittingly for a work in which Springsteen was metaphorically closing the door behind him to chart his inner life.  

Springsteen played alone through a Kurzweil 250 synth and electronic drum tracks pre-programmed by Scott. As his engineer sounded the way, he stepped forward with deliberation into a new, more complex interior territory. In time E Street band member Nils Lofgren would offer up the guitar solo that threaded through the title track and contribute backing vocals to “When You’re Alone” alongside Clarence Clemons, whose sax would find nothing to celebrate at all this time round. These were largely embellishments, and the album credit to the E-Street Band was essentially a doff of the cap. Those relegated to the role of a session musician, including the original Asbury Park crowd plus drummer Max Weinberg and pianist Roy Bittan, largely kept their own counsel. Weinberg, at least, was realistic enough to acknowledge that any Bruce Springsteen record was a solo record. 

Free from the clamor of competing opinions, Springsteen now wrote in an attempt to unpick the knots and ambivalences of the domestic life he had lately committed himself to. This was to be a work made by and for grown-ups, what he would come to call his “first full record about men and women in love”. With the road behind him, he set out to map the landscape of adult love in all its 3D complexity, abstaining from the somewhat flat imagery of previous work written within the framework of a manifestly youthful rock ideal.

The highway that had liberated him, leading him within the space of a decade to a place in which he could throw his arms around a nation and everything in it that both troubled him and gave him heart, now receded in the rear-view mirror and the shift in perspective brought with it fresh insight. The highway could deliver you from nowhere, but it could capture you too, and the realization that, as he wrote in his autobiography, “its freedom and open spaces could become as overpoweringly claustrophobic as my most cliched idea of domesticity” was to inform much of what he wrestled with in his late 30s. Domesticity beckoned, the proper corrective to the listlessness of the troubadour lifestyle. All his roads, it appeared, now lead into one tunnel.

Behind him lay youth and adolescence, all that he later remembered as an ‘eternal present’; the dream that all is forever. Responsibility and the pressure of the everyday was shifting the calculus, just as it was for his audience. Acknowledging that whatever lay ahead was finite, Springsteen found fresh creative impetus within the idea of growing up alongside his fanbase and made a new pact with them. If he was “rolling the dice”, as he later admitted in his memoir, then the dice were kind to him – to the extent that he later overrode his initial impulse not to tour the record.

Springsteen’s first honest effort at domestic life was an earnest and sincere undertaking, but to those around them, the strain was evident. Married in 1985 in the heat of the A-list glare to the model and actress Julianne Phillips, two professional entertainers found themselves unmoored at home in Rumson, trying hard to work at a thing neither was ready for. Despite appearances, Springsteen found himself at a remove, guitar, and notebook never far away, too finely attuned to the ambivalences and contradictions of self to be at one with the picture both were trying to paint.

Roy Bittan, talking to Springsteen biographer Peter Ames Carlin, recalled an old friend laboring under the pretense of “trying to be a different person”. The pianist detected what he took to be an attempt “to develop a way of being on a social level” and was likely witnessing a failed experiment behind closed doors in Rumson as an adolescent ideal of love and contentment buckled beneath the pressure of a very adult reality. The gap between the ideal and real opened wide, and between Springsteen and Phillips lay a creative opportunity that he applied himself without hesitation.    

Matters of love and identity lay at the heart of Tunnel of Love, but the friction between two types of love – the dream and what you realize when you wake up – gave it its dramatic pulse. “Ain’t Got You” and “Tougher Than the Rest” open the album and appear straightforward at first. The former is a coiled and choppy complaint about the one thing missing from an otherwise successful adult life, the latter appears to be a reworked marriage vow. Judging by the colossal number of plays the track has racked up, it resonates as a traditional pledge “for better or worse”, one you suspect might have gathered a few of those plays at any number of wedding ceremonies across more than three decades.

A few more plays reveal a less reassuring picture; the bravado in the vow seems the very thing that leads the narrator to where he is – out on a Saturday night, eyeing the woman “all dressed up in blue”. Wherever home is, it’s not working out, and the stranger isn’t the only one we meet across the bar as the record plays out. In Tunnel of Love, the seeds of betrayal are always in the ground, germinating.

If there was a honeymoon, then the listener missed out because thereon in we’re in a twilight zone of doubt and fear, populated by characters that find themselves gazing at the ceiling in the dead of night, long after the person beside them has fallen asleep, wondering just where and how they went off track. Or even wondering who they truly are. Nowhere in Tunnel of Love is this feeling of claustrophobic uncertainty better encapsulated than in the stark simplicity of “One Step Up”, a humble acquiescence to limitations that can’t be escaped. Offered up like a prayer from sleeplessness, a moment of resigned calm within a relationship that’s devolved into a “dirty little war”, it’s a reckoning with self that carries within it the echoes of a spent and impotent anger and the realization that nothing will change.

If successful adult relationships rest on the foundations of prior failure and bitter experience, then Springsteen, in writing and recording Tunnel of Love, appeared to be learning the lesson, as “Spare Parts” was to demonstrate. The song is a model example of Springsteen’s capacity for storytelling. Bobby and Janey appear almost as ciphers, unable to escape a fate predetermined by the economic reality of life in Lake Shawnee, West Virginia. News of Janey’s pregnancy is enough to keep Bobby from ever coming back, a family is wrecked before it can begin, and the world keeps turning. The message seems clear – adult life is built on a charnel house of miscalculations and betrayals, and your chances rest not out on the road but in staying put and digesting what defeat has to teach you.

Fear was the killer, and Springsteen had plenty of his own to reckon with as he navigated the home life in New Jersey; certainly more than enough to inform the struggles of his protagonists as they tried to bridge the thousand-mile gap between the partner alongside them. When the lights went out, it was no longer “you and me” but “the three of us”. In the darkness, another presence was making itself felt, not an unborn child but something nameless and unsettling – “all that stuff we’re so scared of”.

In the lyrics of the title song, written to the motif of haunted houses and wild carnival rides, Springsteen is giving voice to the dread so many have known when a relationship gathers momentum all of its own and becomes unpredictable and beyond the control of either passenger. As the rollercoaster tips down to the screams of the thrill seekers on board, the pop ideal he grew up with collides with reality. The idea that “it ought to be simple enough… a man meets a woman, and he falls in love” is shown for what it is – little more than the cliché of a thousand three-minute songs; a psychological trap that needs to be sprung if the adult is to secure a more grounded future.   

As the work progressed, a new maturity was taking root, and one E-Street member contributed differently. Patti Scialfa, a singer who had come onboard only days before the beginning of the Born in the USA tour in 1984, recorded backing vocals for three tracks as the sessions progressed and stepped forward to play an effective foil to Springsteen when Tunnel of Love toured, helping to dramatize the grown-up thread that ran through the new songs. Both knew the foundations were being laid for what he would later describe in his autobiography as “the thing”. His relationship with Julianne Phillips, as everyone around him had long known, would never be that thing. Finally, in a place to admit it to himself, the two set about disentangling themselves as painlessly as possible, and with the divorce finalized, Springsteen and Scialfa stopped ignoring what was happening between them.

“In my life,” he later confessed in Born to Run, “Patti is a singularity.” Those words appear to ring as true for Springsteen now as they ever did when he wrote them. Back in the 1980s, the emerging stars who were perhaps only ever trying out what was expected of them (Scialfa had a short-term relationship with Tom Cruise in 1984) are now happily married grandparents.

The British journalist Sarfraz Manzoor, writing about Springsteen for The Guardian in 2011, acknowledged that rock music “can sound hopelessly naïve as one enters adulthood”. His discovery of Springsteen’s music had helped propel him from suburbia and family conflict to a career as a writer, as his 2008 memoir Greetings from Bury Park and its subsequent 2019 film adaptation Blinded by the Light so movingly recounted. He played “Walk Like a Man” as he waited for his bride to arrive at their wedding and credits the song for having helped convince his sister to attend after his family’s initial opposition.

The fear and the doubt about commitment are present – there is no escaping them in Tunnel of Love – but here, at least, are the beginnings of a new resolve as Springsteen places himself in the groom’s shoes, perhaps in anticipation of another marriage of his own. In his last hours alone, the groom recalls a father’s imperfect but unyielding love, and the fruit of the memory is a renewed commitment amid the uncertainty. In this quiet prayer, as throughout the entire record, Springsteen recognizes those same musical limitations Manzoor became painfully aware of. Here were the beginnings of music that ditched nostalgia to embrace ambivalence and the limits of self-knowledge, promising company through uncertain times.  

Tunnel of Love never threatened to repeat the success of Born in the USA and, to this day, is far from being Springsteen’s greatest seller. By and large, the critics got it, recognizing the thematic shift in the writing, even if some, like Rolling Stone’s Steve Pond, heard only “a modern-sounding pop album”. But it still flies under the radar, often failing to make the listicles and rarely among the first of Springsteen’s records to come to mind. Pond wasn’t wrong. Tunnel of Love did sound modern then and still sounds clean in a way Springsteen’s work hadn’t before. Yet the polished nature of the album serves a purpose that has far outlived the recording trends of the day.

If there’s a gap between the packaging and the substance, it only serves to underscore the distance between the image and the real, exemplified in the tense uncertainty of “Brilliant Disguise”. Clearmountain and Scott may have cleaned up Springsteen’s playing, but they didn’t sterilize it. Instead, they succeeded in drawing clear lines around a well-defined subject, framing what he remembers as “the sharp spiritual place the music resides in”.   

For all its sheen, Tunnel of Love is as sparse in its way as Nebraska before it, even if the two sit on opposite ends of the production spectrum – a similarly lo-fi approach to his work in 1986 and 1987 would surely have yielded less resonant results. The album needs its layers and requires a little work to uncover what lies beneath. Perhaps even Springsteen himself needed the benefit of perspective as he wrote his memoir. The videos and tour of 1987 sold a package wrapped up in fairground imagery of a work preoccupied with love and relationships.

Now, 35 years on, Tunnel of Love‘s real subtext has risen closer to the surface. Time is the heart of the matter. Springsteen knew that with the nether land of adolescence behind us, “the clock starts”. We know we’re not immortal, and the obligation to curb our negative impulses and react with purpose to the certainty of death must now inform our every step. Tunnel of Love fulfilled Springsteen’s contract to grow with his audience, and he began by putting to music the struggle we all face as we step beyond youth. Tunnel of Love endures as a reckoning with the limitations of a life span, with mortality, and with the adult self.