I’ve been meaning to write something for a while now. Well, if a while means two weeks. I have had a busy summer both at work and in my personal life, and haven’t found the inspiration nor motivation needed for a blog post. So much has happened and also too little in the way of change. I couldn’t find the words or context for how I have been feeling. And then the lightning bolt struck me as I walked home from the railway station just an hour ago. I was listening to my favourite Bruce Springsteen album, ‘Tunnel of Love’, and ideas began to take shape.
It is perhaps a sad fact that ‘Tunnel Of Love’ should be my favourite Bruce album. At 25 (almost 26, yikes) I have lived barely a third of my life (hopefully). An album so full of adult problems surely shouldn’t speak so deeply to me in these young, formative years. But it does and I won’t deny it. I have suffered for many years from depression and a perpetual inclination to mental breakdown. This album speaks to the half of my brain that betrays me to these inclinations. It has been at many times my only confidante and my only way of articulating those thoughts I myself can’t make sense of nor make sense to others. Maybe I should have directed my loved ones to this album sooner and we could have saved ourselves a lot of bother. Coulda, woulda, shoulda.
‘Tunnel Of Love’, coincidentally, was released in 1987, less than two weeks after I was born. I’d like to think Bruce knew that some day in the future a young white female from northern England would need this record more than any other. It’s a bit of a stretch but I like that thought. Bruce himself was going through a time of personal upheaval. His marriage to his first wife was deteriorating, and it has been suggested that his relationship with his bandmate (and his future wife and mother of his children) had already begun. Hm, so how does a twentysomething English girl find solace in an album about a broken marriage?
I never believed this idea that you necessarily had to experience something fully to appreciate the impact it has on your life. Truth be told however, I don’t think depression’s tortuous effects can ever be comprehended unless you suffer yourself. Music, on the other hand, gives us the ability to relate and express our own emotions and experiences through the artistic abilities of someone else. Who better then than Bruce, the greatest storyteller and lyricist of the last 40 years? Yes, I am biased. For me, this collection of 12 songs has been a comfort in times of great distress and loneliness. Songs about loss, bitterness, self-loathing, the pain of relationships, in all their forms, ending – these things have no restrictions. We will all experience one or more of these situations at some point in our lives. It doesn’t matter that I haven’t been through the breakdown of a marriage myself. Loss touches everyone.
Bruce opens the album with the catchy ‘Ain’t Got You’, in which he lists all the amazing things he now has, including “diamonds and gold” and “houses across the country”. Alas, the one thing he does not have is his love. When I first heard this song, I thought it kind of comedic. It has an upbeat bluesy melody and you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s a happy song. But really it’s about all the happiness and love that material wealth simply cannot buy. Sure, I’ve never been rich. I do okay. But for the longest time I focused my time too much on what I didn’t have rather than what I did. I have wanted the boyfriend, the well-paid job, the skinny body, the looks of Angelina Jolie. What I wasn’t appreciating was the incredible people and experiences I already had in my life, from my loving family and friends, to my decent job, and the roof over my head. I live in London, for fuck’s sake. This was my dream. It is my dream. But depression will do that to you. Nothing is ever enough. You’re always looking over your shoulder with a sense of inadequacy. She doesn’t like me as much as her. He won’t think I’m attractive. Why am I the way I am? Why am I fat? Why why why? It’s an endless list. This song made me start to look inward.
Inward is not a pretty sight, but I doubt it is for most people. We are a selfish, arrogant species capable of both extraordinary kindness and unbelievable cruelty. I have dished out both of these myself. I have also been on the receiving end. I have pushed myself to the limits of self-flagellation for my actions and words and I have reaped what I sewed. If you keep pushing something away, eventually it’ll just get up and leave. Who can blame it? But at times when I have felt my weakest and seen no end in sight to my own torment, ‘Tougher Than The Rest’ has lifted me from those doldrums. It might be a song about an average Joe asking for a chance with the object of his affections, but for me it speaks of second chances and the bravery of those willing to reach out. After all, for so many of us, “the road is dark”. Just having one other person there to walk it with you can make a world of difference.
The flip side of this of course is the crippling loneliness and self-hatred one can feel during the times when no one is walking that dark road with you. Both of these have been at the centre of my depression. I remember the first time I heard ‘Two Faces’. It was in 2008, just as I was familiarising myself with Bruce’s back catalogue. I was going through a rough time at university, but this song spoke volumes to me. It helped me make sense of my own mind and the Jekyll and Hyde sides that I have wrestled with. For in my heart and mind, there is always the potential for both happiness and despair. It’s a fine balance I have still not managed to attain, but hearing Bruce speak of his own “two faces” gave me comfort. You, Cat, are not alone. We all have two sides. This song is still difficult for me to listen to. It is too close to the bone. Promising you’d make your friend or partner or relative “happy every day” and then you “made her cry” – yes, I can relate. You can never really promise these things. I wake up some days “sunny and wild”, but before too long my own “dark clouds come rolling by” and I want to pull the duvet over my head. You never feel quite whole, and I think this was Bruce’s point all along. These two faces create an incomplete duality. Perhaps only the love of another – or several others – can help breach the gap.
But what can we do when we lose people in our lives, people we love, because of our own behaviour? I have often listened to ‘Brilliant Disguise’ and questioned my own disguise. We all put on a brave face, but I let this get to the point of no longer knowing who I really was. And I forgot who a lot of my friends were too, friends with their own stories, their own burdens, and their own needs. Needs I should have helped them with. It’s part of the responsibility of being a friend and I will admit I have let many of mine down. Bruce sings of “struggling to do everything right” and things “falling apart, when out go the lights”. These words help me come to terms with my own failings. The truth is, we can make all the commitments and promises we like, something which Bruce touches on in both ‘All That Heaven Will Allow’ and ‘One Step Up’. But I, like many others, have often succumbed to the pull of my own demons and flaws.
‘One Step Up’ is, in my opinion, the saddest song on the whole album. There is a futility throughout the song that seeps in the moment that sad soft drum beat and acoustic guitar begin. From the stuttering car, to the silenced bird, and the lonely figure of a desperate man on a bar stool – all is despair, failure and melancholy. I have weeks, sometimes months, of good times until something happens – a word, a misunderstood look – and it crumbles. Inevitably, I’m “caught moving / one step up and two steps back”. Never in any other song has a lyric spoken so clearly to me and my own life experiences. Bruce sings of “another fight in our dirty little war” and the challenges that come with deep loving relationships and friendships where no one person will concede blame or compromise. Yes, I can relate. These themes continue throughout ‘When You’re Alone’, ‘Cautious Man’ and ‘Valentine’s Day’.
So, are there any happy songs? Not really. The three most upbeat songs on the entire album could fool you into thinking they deal with happy times, but don’t make that mistake. ‘Spare Parts’ is one of my favourite songs on the whole album. It’s a real foot stomping rocker, and I resent Bruce for not playing it live more often. The story it tells is of a pregnant woman who has been abandoned by her lowlife boyfriend. She has her baby, the boyfriend swears he “wasn’t ever going back” and she considers her life as one big mistake. Happy? Not so much. Similarly, ‘Tunnel of Love’ is a great song, but darkness lurks over its seemingly-jovial description of a couple enjoying an amusement park ride. We smile and enjoy the ride, but really all we’re left with at the end is the lies we tell each other and “all that stuff we’re so scared of”. That, I suppose, is the risk we take with any relationship.
And as for ‘Walk Like A Man’, it’s a song about a fragile father-son relationship that has finally grown to a place where both parties feel a sense of peace and tolerance. Bruce himself had a strained relationship with his own dad. I can’t relate on a father-son note, but I did have a tempestuous relationship with my mother, especially during my mid to late teens when my depression was first manifesting. If I couldn’t explain my anger and pain to myself, how could I ever explain it to her? Thankfully we have passed that point. And yet my pain will always remain her pain, whether I’m 18, 25, or 50. During all my slip ups and progressions, she has been a rock for me, even when I was giving her shit every day. For that I will be forever grateful. It’s the kind of debt you can never truly repay.
I suppose this is where the post ends and I’m glad to end it on one of the more optimistic songs on the album. I’ve gone through all the songs on this masterful record, touching on some more than others purely because I relate to some more than others. Currently I’m at somewhat of a setback in my own personal life and this album has given me both comfort and perspective. I have had the most amazing support network throughout my battle with depression and continue to do so. This record is not a substitute for that, but merely an additional crutch. Many people have stayed a part of my life even when they probably felt they shouldn’t, and many I have pushed away, but I don’t blame or resent the latter. It’s never easy being close to someone like me, but I live in hope that they will find peace with me and perhaps even understanding. As Bruce says, “I didn’t think there’d be so many steps I’d have to learn on my own”, but that itself is part of growing, changing and healing. Spare parts and broken hearts – they keep the world turning.
2nd September 2013