Who's the Boss?

He looked for all the world like an auto mechanic, and not a very good one at that. The point was simple, but effective: You don't have to be an asshole to be a man. It was the old-fashioned manliness "The Boss" represented, more than the song itself, that Reagan (mis)appropriated when he used "Born in the U.S.A." in his 1984 re-election campaign. Liberals and lyric-readers laughed, but Reagan won.

What "The Boss" never was, and to his credit, never claimed to be, was a working-class hero. That was a bit of myth-making perpetuated by upper-middle-class rock critics, but the working class never bought it. True, his songs were populated with people struggling to get by on the fringes of society, but "The Boss" presented himself as a rock 'n' roll singer first and foremost. What Springsteen practiced was not class advocacy à la Woody Guthrie, but rather a stylized form of journalism. There was a reportorial detachment even to first-person narratives like "The River" or "My Hometown." The effect was like watching the nightly news: The depressing regularity of events tends to blur distinctions between characters.

This is particularly true on Tracks, where the machinery behind Springsteen's art is more visible than on his fully realized albums. Every guy is named Johnny or Frankie and every girl is a Janey or a Mary. They all work down at the factory or the car wash. They all dream of gettin' out. But, alas, they get laid off, or pregnant, or shipped to Vietnam. This extremely narrow subset of working-class culture might have eventually taken over Springsteen as a writer after "Born in the U.S.A." raised the stakes to a phenomenal level. But then a miracle happened. "The Boss" got his heart broke.

Released in 1987, Tunnel of Love may not be the best album of the '80s, but it is perhaps the most admirable. After Born in the U.S.A., Springsteen was one of the biggest pop stars in the world. Die-hard fans might have been disappointed had he come back with Born Again in the U.S.A., but Columbia Records executives wouldn't have minded. As it happened, Springsteen released an album that managed to let just about everybody down.

Tunnel of Love was downbeat and depressing. It wasn't Born in the U.S.A. or even Nebraska, his 1982 anti-commercial, one-finger salute to the star-makers who saw "The Boss" as a walking, talking ATM. Instead of rebellion, Tunnel of Love's chief emotions were suspicion, confusion, and resignation, feelings that sprang from a time when the tabloids were a-twitter with breakup rumors about Springsteen's first marriage.

But it was also the moment at which Springsteen the journalist became Springsteen the poet. The flash point was "A Cautious Man," which introduces another patented anti-hero in Bill Horton, a fellow not very different from the Billy in "Seaside Bar Song" or the Billy in "Rockaway the Days," both from Tracks. Singing in a mournful, indefinably Southern accent, Springsteen relates that "Bill Horton was a cautious man of the road/ He walked looking over his shoulder and remained faithful to its code."

Billy meets and marries a young girl, then builds her a house by the river. In her arms he lets his cautiousness slip away, and for "The Boss," this would be the moment where the song's bridge starts and the ATF busts down the door, or the draft notice comes. But that isn't what happens: "One night Billy awoke from a terrible dream callin' his wife's name/ She lay breathing beside him in a peaceful sleep, a thousand miles away/ He got dressed in the moonlight and down to the highway he strode/ When he got there he didn't find nothing but road." Before, the open road had always held the promise of redemption, or at least freedom. Now it was a metaphor for a terrible inner emptiness. "The Boss" was finished right then.

Almost 12 years later, the ring of truth of "A Cautious Man" resounds more powerfully in this quiet little song than any Max Weinberg drum assault. The same power shoots through the rest of Tunnel of Love, and animates so many songs on 1992's Lucky Town and The Ghost of Tom Joad, released in 1996 to almost complete commercial indifference. (Only Human Touch, released as the companion to Lucky Town, fails to measure up.) These albums deserve another chance, a fair hearing in the marketplace away from the distractions of Bossmania.

The stock market winnings necessary to purchase Tracks are better spent on Lucky Town, The Ghost of Tom Joad, and Tunnel of Love, the first album in which Springsteen turned away from merely chronicling conditions around him and sought instead to chart the wild terrain of his own heart. Since then, he's never looked back. Nobody else should, either.

Bruce Springsteen
Tracks
(Columbia)

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