Monday, April 13, 2009

Springsteen: Records of infidelity

You can hear evidence of tension in the Springsteen / Scialfa marriage on the couple's recent albums. But what are we to make of it?

I was attentive to what Patti Scialfa would have to say when I first popped her new CD Play It as It Lays into my car CD player two years ago, in part because I knew her last album, 23rd Street Lullaby (2004), was avowedly autobiographical. One could hardly accuse her of being elliptical in opening the latter record with "Looking for Elvis": her husband's lifelong fascination with Presley is well-known to anyone even vaguely familiar with Springsteen's work. So it's hard not to hear her addressing him, or to imagine that she would ever think we wouldn't, when she sings:

So where are you now
With all those illusions

Fallen dreams and charity

If faith restores you
And truth delivers
Then don't tell me that I'm standing

When I'm on my knees

Once you get beyond a sense of voyeurism here, you can see the value of the song, not simply in Scialfa expressing a woman's side in a relationship with a very public figure -- Springsteen's persona of optimism and hope seems less impressive in private -- but also in reminding us that our heroes are three-dimensional people who can lie to themselves no less than others.

That a woman would feel trapped by her husband's demons is not exactly a shocking notion in any relationship, let alone a larger-than-life Springsteen marriage. But three tracks later, in "Play Around,"Scialfa goes beyond the kind of struggle that can characterize even a healthy union to raise the specter of infidelity:

You've got all the toys
That money can buy
Still you come to me like a little boy
So unsatisfied
I'm not casting any stones
Don't want apologies
You can play around
But don't you play around me

There's more than one way of reading these words, among them a woman warning a man not to deceive her, as well as one suggesting that he
can deceive her as long as she doesn't have to know about it. Either way, the point here is not to see "Play Around" as a smoking gun for marital infidelity; for all we know; this is a conversation inside a fictional character's head. But that Scailfa would imagine it and literally record it certainly conveys an emotional truth, a decision made to tell this particular story instead of others that might have taken its place on the finite space of a compact disk. There's a lot of bravery and even dignity in this degree of self-revelation, however ambigous. But the value of the song is less about whether or not Patti Scialfa is right or realistic to imply that having an affair is acceptable as long as she doesn't know about it than how a listener decides he or she might react to a similar situation. (This kind of logic she depicts here was once perceived as widespread and even acceptable before the women's movement; insofar as it persists it's typically underground, which is precisely why it's revealing here.)

Springsteen, for his part, is generally less directly revealing than Scialfa, but has not exactly been secretive at conveying at least some aspects of his inner life in recent records. Much has been said in the commentary surrounding
Magic (2007) and this year's Working on a Dream about a return to the pop sound that characterized earlier Springsteen records. Less has been said about the content of these records. I've loved listening to songs like "You'll Be Coming Down," "I'll Work for Your Love" and "Queen in the Supermarket" (this last one generating some scorn among fans for its over-the-top sentimentality), which work aesthetically as self-contained slices of contemporary life. But I have found myself wondering why a married father of three, on the verge of senior citizen discounts, chose to write and release love songs in which his protagonists romantically address heartbreakers, barmaids, and check-out girls respectively. It's a question I've posed, until now to myself, less out of a desire to make moral judgments than to wonder what Springsteen is trying to convey about the stretch of psychic road he's traveling -- paying attention to which, as he and his fans have long understood, has been the great source of power and appeal in his now legendary bond with his audience.

It's certainly the case that Springsteen has often written songs that lie outside his personal experience -- whole albums like
The Ghost of Tom Joad as well as new songs like "Outlaw Pete" are recent examples. But the songs I refer to here -- the wistful "Girls in their Summer Clothes," notwithstanding its unreliable narrator, is palpably another -- are marked by a kind of deeply personal interior acuity that has always been an important component in Springsteen's work. Exhibit A in this regard, of course, is Tunnel of Love. No one who listened carefully to "Two Faces," "One Step Up" or "Brilliant Disguise" on that record in 1987 could have been surprised to learn of Springsteen's divorce from his first wife Julianne Phillips two years later.

Now Springsteen's marital life is generating headlines again amid recent reports that he has been named in a divorce suit. In response, Springsteen has reaffirmed a 2006 statement he made amid similar accusations, asserting that his marriage "remains as strong as the day we were married." (I'll resist the urge to deconstruct that.) Actually, for what it's worth, I'm inclined to believe his assertion that he's committed to making his marriage work, less because I'm a devoted fan than on the basis of "Kingdom of Days," a poignant, decidedly middle-aged reflection on a long term relationship. In that song, Springsteen depicts vivid, obviously longstanding tensions --

I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you I do/
You whisper "Then prove it, then prove it, then prove it to me baby blue"

-- as well as an earned appreciation that a shared life brings:

And I count my blessings that you're mine for always
We laugh beneath the covers and count the wrinkles and the grays . . . .

Is this Springsteen's last word on the subject? Probably not. Do I assume on the basis of what I'm inferring here that I understand the whole truth about Springsteen, Scialfa, their marriage, or their body of work? Certainly not. But I do know I'm not alone in believing that the whole point of being a Bruce Springsteen fan has been trying to make sense of, and learn from, his experience. As much as he might rue it at the moment, we're hardly going to stop now. I consider Springsteen a great man. The news of the last few days is a pointed reminder that a great man remains a mere mortal. I hope that for his and his family's sake he works it all out. And that when he does, he conveys what he's figured out in any way he chooses. After all, I'm blessed with a marriage of my own. And I can use all the help I can get.