Monday, July 23, 2007

Tunnel of Love: An Appreciation

Sorry for the lack of posts, but I've been in Vienna for the past 11 days attending a scientific conference. I could write about my trip, but since I generally find peoples' travel stories quite boring, it would be hypocritical of me to do so. Suffice it to say that Vienna is lovely town, albeit somewhat staid - almost like a fine museum.

Instead, I'll write about something completely different. Before heading off to Europe, I loaded Bruce Springsteen's Tunnel of Love onto my mp3 player and I listened to it repeatedly during the trip. I've owned this album for a long time, but it had been awhile since I'd given it close attention. Simply put, I had forgotten how masterful this album is, and I feel compelled now to sing its praises. Released a few years after the mega-success of Born in the USA, ToL was greeted with coolness from critics and disappointment from fans. The songs were too inward, too stripped-down. Where were the rock anthems? But the album has aged well. If nothing else, ToL proves that Springsteen is not only a great singer and artist, but a great human being. No other album so clearly displays his compassion and sincerity, his depth of feeling, his desire to do good.

It's important to remember that the album was written during Springsteen's falling-out with his first wife. Yet we hear none of the angry rants so typical of break-up albums. Instead, Springsteen puts the blame squarely on himself. He thought he knew himself, he thought he knew what committed love was all about. But it has all turned into a hall of mirrors, where "the house is haunted and the ride gets rough" ("Tunnel of Love"). In "Brilliant Disguise" he sings:
Now look at me baby, struggling to do everything right
And then it all falls apart, when out go the lights
I'm just a lonely pilgrim, I walk this world in wealth
I want to know if it's you I don't trust,
'cause I damn sure don't trust myself...

Tonight our bed is cold, I'm lost in the darkness of our love
God have mercy on the man, who doubts what he's sure of
The last verse is simply heartbreaking, and the same theme is repeated in "One Step Up" (the highpoint of the album, in my opinion):
I'm sittin' here in this bar tonight, but all I'm thinkin' is
I'm the same old story same old act, One step up and two steps back

It's the same thing night on night, who's wrong baby who's right
Another fight and I slam the door on,
another battle in our dirty little war
When I look at myself I don't see the man I wanted to be
Somewhere along the line I slipped off track
I'm caught movin' one step up and two steps back

There's a girl across the bar, I get the message she's sendin'
Mmm she ain't lookin' to married, And me well honey I'm pretending
Last night I dreamed I held you in my arms, the music was never-ending
We danced as the evening sky faded to black
One step up and two steps back
Notice the abrupt transition in the last verse from the temptation of the "girl across the bar" to the longing for a fading love. This is real despair from a man who is not sure if he can find his way back to the man he wanted to be. Indeed, the pervasive emotion expressed by Springsteen in ToL is existential fear - fear of losing his marriage, fear of losing himself. His psyche is fractured and confused (see "Two Faces") and he prays for "the strength to walk like a man." Given all this, it's not surprising that the album is filled with religious overtones. In "Valentine's Day", for example, Springsteen has an experience of God's light that grants a rebirth from darkness to new life:
They say if you die in your dreams you really die in your bed
But honey last night I dreamed my eyes rolled straight back in my head
And God's light came shinin' on through
I woke up in the darkness scared and breathin' and born anew
It wasn't the cold river bottom I felt rushing over me
It wasn't the bitterness of a dream that didn't come true
It wasn't the wind in the grey fields I felt rushing through my arms
No no baby it was you
So hold me close honey say you're forever mine
And tell me you'll be my lonely valentine
In my humble opinion, ToL conveys the grief of a lost marriage in a way surpassed only by Dylan's Blood on the Tracks (which also contains plenty of Christian/religious imagery). Given that few albums treat love and marriage with such maturity and insight, I'm amazed that it remains somewhat overlooked in the Springsteen corpus.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Fourth of July

In Garrison Keillor's book We Are Still Married, there is a short essay that has always been a special favorite of mine. It's entitled "Laying on Our Backs Looking Up at the Stars" and I try to read it every Fourth of July. Given our current situation, I think it's especially important to do so this year.

The story recounts a Fourth of July that Garrison spent with friends and family at his rented farmhouse in central Minnesota:
On the Fourth of July, 1971, we had twenty people come for a picnic in the yard, an Olympic egg toss and gunnysack race, a softball game with the side of the barn for a right-field fence, and that night we sat around the kitchen and made pizza and talked about the dismal future.

America was trapped in Vietnam, a tragedy, and how could it end if not in holocaust? We were pessimists; we needed fear to make us feel truly alive. We talked about death. We put on loud music and made lavish pizzas with fresh mushrooms and onions, zucchini, eggplant, garlic, green pepper, and drank beer and talked about the end of life on earth with a morbid piety that made a person sick, about racial hatred, pesticides, radiation, television, the stupidity of politicians, and whether Vietnam was the result of strategic mistakes or a reflection of evil in American culture. It was a conversation with concrete shoes.
No doubt similar conversations will be taking place all across America this Fourth of July. But Garrison did not indulge his "morbid piety". Instead, he snuck outside with his son and a few friends to lie in the grass and look at the stars:
The sight of the sky was so stunning it make us drunk. I felt as if I could put one foot forward and walk away from the wall of ground at my back and hike out toward Andromeda. I didn't feel particularly American. Out there in the Milky Way and the world without end Amen, America was a tiny speck of a country, a nickel tossed into the Grand Canyon, and American culture the amount of the Pacific Ocean you bring home in your swimsuit. The President wasn't the President out there, the Constitution was only a paper, and what the newspapers wrote about was sawdust and coffee grounds. The light I saw was from fires burning before America existed, when my ancestor John Crandall lived in the colony of Rhode Island. Looking out there, my son lying on my chest, I could imagine my grandchildren, and they were more real to me than Congress.

I imagined them strong and free, curious, sensual, indelibly cheerful and affectionate, open-handed - sympathetic to pain and misery and quick in charity, proud when insulted and modest if praised, fiercely loyal to friends, loving God and the beautiful world including our land, from the California coast to the North Dakota prairie to faraway Manhattan, loving music and our American language - when you look at the stars you don't think small. You don't hope your descendants will enjoy your mutual fund portfolio, you imagine them as giants of the earth.
Looking into the great beyond, Garrison gains perspective, and his attitude towards America passes from ambivalence to deep affection. Yes, in the grand scheme of things America does not matter much, and it certainly has its sins, but it's the only land that he can imagine for his grandchildren. For their sake, he will not abandon hope.
Perhaps in 1776 our ancestors, too, were rattled by current events and the unbeatable logic of despair and had to go out and lie in the weeks for a while and think: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.

Indoors, the news is second-hand, mostly bad, and even good people are drawn into a dreadful fascination with doom and demise; their faith in extinction gets stronger; they sit and tell stories that begin with The End. Outdoors, the news is usually miraculous. A fly flew into my mouth and went deep, forcing me to swallow, inducing a major life change for him, from fly to simple protein, and so shall we all be changed someday, but here under heaven our spirits are immense, we are so blessed. The stars in the sky, my friends in the grass, my son asleep on my chest, his hands clutching my shirt.
These days, it's tough to avoid the "unbeatable logic of despair". Iraq, Guantanamo, global warming, our broken politics and coarsening culture - the list is almost endless. But tonight my wife and I will sit in a field with a few thousand of our fellow Americans and watch the fireworks overhead. We will sing that corny Lee Greenwood song ("From the lakes of Minnesota to the hills of Tennessee") and eat some greasy cheese curds. And we will count our blessings.