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It's Easy for Two People to Lose Each Other

When Bruce Springsteen first started recording in the early 1970s, he became renowned for lyrics that capture the feelings of restlessness, anxiety, uncertainty, and bravado that teens and young adults who are making their first (possibly foolhardy) attempts to forge an independent life experience as they struggle to free themselves from the shackles that they view as holding them back. In his early songs, Springsteen tends to fetishize cars and motorcycles, both as expressions of powerful individuality and as means of escape from a dead end existence; automobiles are central to his characters’ getaway plans:
Well now I'm no hero that's understood
All the redemption I can offer girl is beneath this dirty hood
With a chance to make it good somehow
Hey what else can we do now
Except roll down the window and let the wind blow back your hair?
Well the night's busting open, these two lanes will take us anywhere
We got one last chance to make it real
To trade in these wings on some wheels
Climb in back, heaven's waiting down on the tracks
The lyrics above, from Springsteen’s 1975 song “Thunder Road”, are typical of a good number of songs he wrote early on: Young lovers who view a car and the open road as their passport to a future that could “take us anywhere”; that would enable them to transcend their current (as Springsteen puts it in “Born to Run”) “death trap” and “suicide rap” and “get out while we’re young”. The songs, generally, are written in the first person from the young man’s perspective and, in them, he addresses his female partner directly—”you”; “your”—because, in these songs, the world is the two of them alone and no one else.

These songs resonated profoundly with teens at the time and, I daresay, teens and young adults today.

As well they should: They were and are great songs. Granted, many other rock songs express similar escapist sentiments, but Springsteen’s talent for infusing his teen angst songs with an almost operatic passion and sense of personal urgency is unmatched, and the characters’ sentiments are movingly expressed in a unique poetic street argot. In these respects, Springsteen’s lyrics are sui generis.

But these early Springsteen songs tend not to confront the possible consequences of embracing that rash, youthful we-two-against-the-world attitude and romanticized decision to bolt into the unknown: What that future might actually entail is not given much realistic thought. The romance of the road and promise of escape are lure enough. But what happens (to draw an analogy from the classic coming-of-age film The Graduate, where the same quandary—whether to defy convention and make a break for it together—confronts the protagonists) after Elaine agrees to leave her fiancĂ© at the altar and run off with Benjamin? That defiant decision is, of course, exhilarating at first, as the middle segments of that final scene of The Graduate make clear:

But as the scene wordlessly proceeds, the giddiness passes, the smiles fade, and reality sets in, as the soundtrack, notably, welcomes “darkness, my old friend”. You can see this progression in the faces of Elaine and Benjamin as the ramifications of what they’ve just done slowly dawn on them: Now what?

Springsteen the songwriter made an analogous transition over time and it is this growth as a composer that makes him a talent not merely for the moment in which he may be composing, but rather for the ages.

In 1987, Bruce Springsteen was in his mid-30s and first-person narratives of teen drama were largely in his past. In that year, he released the song “Tunnel of Love”, from the album of the same name. The song’s tunnel of love is not that carnival ride young people might choose to go on for a few moments of amorous escape, away from the prying eyes of the rest of the world, but rather a metaphor for the trials faced by a middle-aged couple who are now well past the us-against-the-world stage of their youth and are attempting to come to terms with the day-to-day strife that accompanies making a life together with a partner—while fearing that their relationship is in crisis and might very well not survive. They are, to put it another way, living and trying to navigate their way through the darker “Now What?” consequences of those youthful choices, inhabiting the morally ambiguous actuality of that future that the characters in Springsteen’s early songs seemed to take for granted would be forever passionate, bright, hopeful, and utterly theirs to control.

The ascendance (“heaven’s waiting”) and wide-ranging space of the sunlit open road in the early songs are replaced, in “Tunnel of Love”, by the dark, constricted descent (note the song’s repetition of the word “down” and the narrator’s explicit reference to unspecified failures to rise) into the enclosure of the contrived fun house, entrance to which must be purchased from a seamy man whose lascivious “eyes take a walk all over” the narrator’s partner. Thus, from the very first line of the song, there’s a sense of foreboding as an unwanted third party intrudes into, and holds some sway over, the world of the two mature and (it becomes increasingly clear) uncertain and troubled lovers. The song is still a first-person construct with the narrator addressing his partner directly; but is there a hint of menace in the fat man’s whispered “good luck”? Why would anyone need luck for a carnival ride? In what sense is the seemingly-innocent phrase meant? Encouragement? Or warning?

It could be that the reason the couple needs luck is that they’re not alone. The dark passenger accompanying them on their ride is the unresolved and, perhaps, unconfronted issues and fears that beset their relationship:
Then the lights go out and it's just the three of us, yeah
You, me and all that stuff we're so scared of
The narrator briefly harkens back to the hopeful-yet-naive sentiment that tacitly undergirds those early Springsteen songs of escape:
Well, it ought to be easy, ought to be simple enough...
Man meets woman and they fall in love
It ought to be easy; ought to be simple. He continues, however, with the more experienced insight that is absent from those early songs:
But the house is haunted and the ride gets rough
And you've got to learn to live with what you can't rise above
If you want to ride on down, down in through this tunnel of love
For better or worse, the teen lovers’ faith in the limitless possibility of the open road is, in “Tunnel of Love”, thus fully transformed into the more mature ambiguity of the tenebrous tunnel of love. The narrator recognizes that compromise and disappointment are inevitably part of the fabric of any long-term relationship; escape and transcendence are not guaranteed; problems persist, so “you’ve got to learn to live with what you can’t rise above.” Springsteen makes it clear that the narrator still feels genuine affection for his partner—”cuddle up angel, cuddle up my little dove”, he sings; and he still relishes the feel of the “soft silk of your blouse”—but time and experience together inevitably show him that a feeling of distance and alienation can settle in and cause fissures to form. Relationships fall apart—end, even. It’s implied that the lovers in this song are in danger of having that happen to theirs.

It’s easy, and no doubt warranted, to view this song as a kind of continuation of, or sequel to, any number of those early Springsteen songs—an update on the life of one of Springsteen’s teen couples, now in early-middle age, saddled with a mortgage, maybe, or stressed by the imperatives of any number of other quotidian pressures all couples face, but unquestionably burdened with a history that includes resentment, uncertainty, and vague feelings of dissatisfaction. Yet they’re still struggling to keep the embers of their not-quite-extinguished love from going completely cold; a task made more challenging because it’s no longer just the two of them—not Mary and me (“Thunder Road”); not Terry and me (“Backstreets”); not Wendy and me (“Born to Run”); not Rosalita and me (“Rosalita”). No; now it’s “the three of us.../ You, me and all that stuff we're so scared of.”

With the passage of time, the light and heat from the intense fire of that early love may dim and, consequently, “the ride gets rough”—no longer the open-road joyride it may have started out as. Unspecified ghosts “haunt” the whole house, and a couple can find themselves caught in a “room of shadows that gets so dark, brother” that “it’s easy for two people to lose each other”...even if they are still in love.

These longer-gestating issues were generally not the focus of Springsteen’s early compositions. His continued development as a composer, and (presumably) his additional years of life experience, enabled him to confront these conflicts in his later songs—songs that flesh out, continue, and in a sense even complete the narratives of his earlier efforts.

[Bruce Springsteen turned 71 on September 23, 2020]


The Graduate (DVD)

Hiatt, Brian. Bruce Springsteen: The Stories Behind the Songs (book)

Springsteen, Bruce and the E Street Band. Tunnel of Love (cd)

Springsteen, Bruce and the E Street Band. Born to Run (cd)

Springsteen, Bruce. Born to Run The Boss’s autobiography. (book)

- by Tom G., Hopewell Branch

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