March 31, 1992—Five years after his last studio album, Bruce Springsteen made up for lost time by simultaneously rolling out two CDs that told the painful, guilt-ridden unraveling of his first marriage and his joy in a second: Human Touch and Lucky Town.
I know what some of my more faithful readers are thinking right now at the sight of this piece: “Mike, you had a post about The Boss just the other day. We’ve lost track of how often you’ve written about him already. Don’t you think this is getting to be a little too much?”
Were I of a mind, I could cast out such unbelievers or lapsed members from Brother Bruce’s Travelin’ Rock ‘n’ Roll Revival Show. Instead, I’ll simply state, as explicitly as possible, one of the governing principles of this blog: There’s no such thing as too much Bruce Juice.
Since Tunnel of Love (1987), Springsteen had thrown his fans into confusion, not least because he was confused. Tunnel had practically crackled with its fear of commitment. It laid bare, for all to see, the ineradicable unease of a man in a situation he had never known before. It wasn’t a complete surprise, then, when the world learned of the breakup of his three-year marriage to actress/model Julianne Phillips and of his affair with backup singer Patti Scialfa.
The resulting divorce drove Springsteen into intense psychotherapy. The same period of introspection and crisis also led the rock ‘n’ roller to reevaluate his career. In the 1988 Amnesty International tour, he was struck by how Sting was able to stretch his creative boundaries outside the confines of The Police. That realization, he noted later, was partially responsible for his November 1989 decision to shut down indefinitely his backup group, the E Street Band.
In Night Beat: A Shadow History of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Mikal Gilmore noted that in the early Nineties, Springsteen “retreated further from his role as an icon and spokesperson, and attempted to redefine the scope of his songwriting.” The weight of being “icon and spokesperson” is heavy, and an obvious inspiration for Springsteen, Bob Dylan, also got under from under the role, in a far more dramatic fashion than Springsteen. In any case, Springsteen felt in no condition to comment on national affairs when he felt so hollow inside.
Human Touch and Lucky Town were released when Springsteen was beginning to solidify his life again, after remarriage to Scialfa and the birth of the first two of their three children. Yet they also came amid what Springsteen himself calls his “lost years.” The relatively substandard sales of the disks might have been one reason why the singer as well as many of his fans perceived the 1990s as such.
But just as important was the absence of the E Street Band. Fans weren’t protesting—this was Springsteen we’re talking about—but neither were they particularly pleased with the new studio musicians.
One Saturday morning later that year, as I stood on line for tickets for a Springsteen concert at the Brendan Byrne Arena, I heard another fan snicker, about the new guitarist: “I mean, come on: Shane Fontayne?”
It’s not that the new musicians were terrible, but they weren’t the “Blood Brothers.” In fact, if you want to see how they’re referred to these days on Google, it’ll be as the “Other Band,” with no collective identity. Fans felt the void, and within a few years, so did Springsteen.
I’m not going to say that everything Springsteen did in the Nineties was a success (e.g., he wimped out, with only a single acoustic song—the first—on what was supposed to be an “MTV Unplugged” appearance, and it’s hard to differentiate the songs of The Ghost of Tom Joad). But there was also much to admire in those years in general and on Human Touch and Lucky Town in particular:
· * Willingness to experiment. Sooner or later, musicians are going to want to incorporate as many of the sounds in their heads as they can. Coming of musical age in the Sixties, Springsteen was exposed not just to rock ‘n’ roll but soul. On Human Touch, he injected some elements of the latter into his work, notably on “Roll of the Dice” (featuring Sam Moore) and “Man’s Job” (the terrific Bobby King).
· * Forget local hero—how about guitar hero? The tighter structures urged by producer Jon Landau in the albums beginning with Darkness on the Edge of Town limited, to some extent, Springsteen’s guitar work, so that the only way to really appreciate what he can do on his instrument is in concert. (For an example of what I’m talking about, see this YouTube clip from his 1978 appearance at Passaic’s Capitol Theatre, of the extended version of “Prove It All Night,” when, spurred by Roy Bittan’s evocative piano, he plays like a man possessed.) Several songs on the 1992 albums feature some of the most textured guitar playing he ever did in the studio, including “Gloria’s Eyes,” “Soul Driver,” and “Man’s Job.”
· * Fine songs. Some albums are so abysmal that they’ll not only make fans wonder, “What was he thinking?” but actually lose fans (e.g., John Mellencamp’s Big Daddy). But Springsteen’s compositional gifts didn’t suddenly desert him, and both albums contain songs that not only would not suffer in comparison with the rest of his discography, but also deserve to be covered by other artists, if they haven’t been already, including “I Wish I Were Blind,” “If I Should Fall Behind,” “Living Proof,” and “Big Muddy.” He might have been better off compressing the best of the two CDs into one, but there was still much to treasure in these works.
· * A chastened attitude. In the last decade, with greater sales and critical acclaim, Springsteen has chuckled about the reception of his two albums released in March 1992, noting that he had tried releasing happy songs and they hadn’t worked out well. But the happiness feels earned because of what he had to go through, including the public purging on these albums. Entertainers’ sense of their own fallibility cannot help but make their work more honest and better able to relate to the lives of others. The collapse of Springsteen’s marriage informs some of the most painfully truthful moments on the two CDs. On “Roll of the Dice,” he practically shouts his confession: “I’m a thief in the house of love/And I can’t be trusted.”
t At times, the songwriter’s personal situation leads him to a realization of the larger state of human imperfection. “How beautiful the river flows and the birds they sing/But you and I we're messier things,” he observes in “The Big Muddy.”
nAll of this underscores a point made by Fr. Andrew Greeley in an article for the national Catholic weekly America back in 1988 about this lapsed believer's adult form of the faith: “Springsteen sings of religious realities—sin, temptation, forgiveness, life, death, hope—in images that come (implicitly perhaps) from his Catholic childhood.”
SSpringsteen’s realization that he was no different from the mass of men only enhanced his ability to penetrate the hearts of other people. His Oscar-winning theme song for the Tom Hanks film Philadelphia, written in the first-person voice of a gay AIDS victim, would seem to be considerably beyond Springsteen’s experience—except that, in his moments of greatest uncertainty, far removed from the concert stage, he surely felt, as the song’s protagonist does, “unrecognizable to myself.”
An interesting take on Human Touch and Lucky Town is offered by Matt Wardlaw, guest writing for the blog “Viva la Mainstream.”