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YES, a film by Sally Potter

by John Bloner, Jr.

I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.    James Joyce

These words conclude Joyce's novel, Ulysses, when Molly Bloom lies in bed beside her husband, Leopold, and reflects on the day just past and on their life together.

Seventy years after Ulysses was published, filmmaker Sally Potter lifted Molly Bloom's exulted cry from the page and placed it on the screen in the motion picture, YES, not as an adaptation of Joyce' work, but imbued with a sensual, intimate voice that earns its title of affirmation after much tribulation by its characters.

Like Joyce's monumental novel, Potter's fine, if somewhat more modest, achievement is both a work of art and a celebration of art's power to redeem the world. Say yes.
James Verniere, Boston Herald

In this film, an Irish-American molecular scientist, played by Joan Allen, encounters a Lebanese cook at an embassy's social night. The audience has already witnessed Allen's character (nameless in the film) in an unhappy marriage, feuding with her husband with allusions to his infidelity.

Her husband has taken her to this gathering but abandoned her there. The cook, played by Simon Abkarian, approaches and attempts to woo her. "A woman left alone, if it was me", he says, "I wouldn't...let such a beauty out of my sight. Not for one moment. No."

She retreats to a washroom where she plays out their encounter in her head. She is excited by this flirtation, but pushes it aside. "I don't believe this. I must say no, definitely", she tells herself.

Joan Allen in an encounter with Simon Abkarian in Sally Potter's YES
Has ever a movie loved an actress more than this one loves Joan Allen?     Roger Ebert

"No"quickly turns to "yes" in this film, as the characters carry out a torrid affair in a bed and other places, including in a restaurant, where everything sexual happens outside of the camera's eye. The film's screenplay offers these directions, "His hand has disappeared somewhere under the table, under her skirt. She leans back into him, ecstatically, trembling, hiding her face in his shoulder".

The film is about much more than the erotic, though. It is infused with Eros. John C. Pierrakos, MD writes, "Eros is the transformative force of life, love is the unifying force and sexuality is the creative force, the expression of our physical nature. Love is the expression of a conscious will to evolve toward a unified being. Eros, sexuality and love present the possibility of unifying the masculine and feminine within us".

The evolution toward a unified being is a frequent theme in Potter's films. YES explores class, sex, politics, love, religion and ethnicity. How can two people come together when their backgrounds work to pull them apart?  Potter's response, in not only this picture, but others that she has created, is for her characters to engage in the act of wrestling with the angel, to borrow the Biblical story of Jacob, and by shedding the ego and possessions that are an outward manifestation of the ego.

In the womb he grasped his brother's heel; as a man he struggled with God. He struggled with the angel and overcame him; he wept and begged for favor.  Hosea 12:3-5

The images above show Delacroix's mural, Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, and a still from Potter's film, The Tango Lesson. As in YES, The Tango Lesson finds two people of dissimilar backgrounds together in a fevered clash of cultures, played out by a British filmmaker (with Sally Potter in the role) and a tango dancer, Pablo Veron.

What does it mean to wrestle with the angel? Reverend Bruce Goettsche offers this response. We wrestle when life crashes in around us, revealing a desperate need for God, which brings forgiveness and a new life for us. Late in the film, YES, Joan Allen places a video camera on a cupboard opposite her bed. The audience views her through the camera's lens, as she speaks, "God, if you exist...I need to confess".

She then stares out a window, occasionally glancing back at the camera. Her thoughts are heard on the soundtrack: "At first there's blossom, then there's decay...Impermanence will never go away. In fact, it is the only certainty; There'll come a time when I will cease to be..But not quite yet".

We all carry within us places of exile, our crimes, our ravages. Our task is not to unleash them on the world; it is to transform them in ourselves and others.  Albert Camus

Sally Potter has called her earlier film, Orlando,"a meditation on the impermanence of love, power and politics", but she may as well have been speaking of YES or some of her other pictures. Knowledge of impermanence teaches Joan Allen's character that she can only be saved by letting go of the artifice of her life with its trappings of a bad marriage, monetary wealth and an idealization of herself.

Potter's lead actor in Orlando, Tilda Swinton, expounds on the theme of impermanence. "When I was a young person, I somehow had got hold of the idea that growing older meant somehow accruing stuff. And my experience is the opposite," Swinton told Slant Magazine, to which Sally Potter replied (like the tolling of a bell), "Shedding, shedding . . .".

Sally Potter, director, dancer, choreographer, author, composer and performance artist
I think of the film almost like a long song  Sally Potter

In this article, I've focused on the story of the film and my interpretation of its meaning, but would like to share its richness from a visual and auditory perspective, too.  The soundtrack features the Brazilian ensemble, Uakti, performing Philip Glass' shimmering composition, Paru River, as well as songs by Tom Waits, Eric Clapton with BB King, and more. Potter is heavily involved in the score for her pictures, not only in selecting tracks, but also in composing some of them, along with her collaborator, guitarist, fellow composer and improviser, Fred Frith.

The visual aspects of YES are intriguing. Potter creates a sense of eavesdropping on her characters by showing them, at times, through the lens of surveillance cameras and through the eyes of a maid and others in the cleaning trade. They look directly at the audience. Unlike the other characters, they have nothing to hide while they ply their trade, and conversely, by their lowly trade, they are invisible to those of a higher social stature.

The auditory aspects of the film have received much press, because Potter wrote the script in iambic pentameter, the regularized rhythms in the works of Shakespeare. Survivors of high school English classes may shudder at the thought of listening again to rhyming couplets, but their concerns will be belied once they relax into the patterns and sounds of the story.

Listen to video below for the delightful way that Scottish actress Shirley Henderson, as Joan Allen's maid in YES, teases out these couplets in her soft, sexy, chipmunk voice, while the music of Brahms' Waltz in A-Flat Major plays on. It's no wonder that Potter says, "I think of the film almost like a long song".

I think yes is the most beautiful  and necessary word in the English language.  Sally Potter

Sally Potter is utterly original. She admits that she likes breaking all the rules. Her recent film, Rage, was the first film released for viewing on a cell phone. She also joined filmmaker and cartoonist, Nina Paley, who trusts that to survive as an artist in the 21st century is to give her work away. Through her online resource, SP-ARK, she provides an online resource to her films, beginning with Orlando, offering over 4,000 items about Orlando alone in its archive.

To learn more about her and her work, visit her Website or her page on the Internet Movie Database, or better yet, view her films.

Parting Words
Potter began writing YES on September 12, 2001. While it never references the horrific events that took place one day earlier, the film serves as antidote to hate. She told Marty Mapes, in an article for tcm.com, her thoughts on creating the script at that particular moment in history: "Instinctively I turned to love and to verse. Love because it is ultimately a stronger force than hate; and verse, because its deep rhythms and its long tradition enable ideas to be expressed in lyrical ways that might otherwise be indigestible".



by Lisa Adamowicz Kless

I’m a big fan of Tim Burton’s work.  For me, it almost always has just the right mix of quirkiness, humor, and a touch of something magical or unexpected.  And before I ever recognized his name, it was the Burton-directed 1988 film, Beetlejuice, that started me on my lasting path to fandom.

For those not familiar with it, Beetlejuice is a slightly dark comedy centered around the Maitlands (played by Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin).  A married couple living in an idyllic country town, when they die together in an accident, they're completely confused about how to deal with being dead.  Trapped in their beloved old farmhouse, their frustration hits new heights and things get even more complicated when a new family, the Deetzs, move in.  After failed attempts at scaring away the newcomers, they eventually turn to self-proclaimed “bio-exorcist” Beetlejuice (Michael Keaton) to help them drive the Deetzs out.

There are so many things that have made this movie an enduring favorite of mine, and the wacky characters are a huge part of that.  The cast does so much right, even those who have very little screen time.  A perfect example of this is actor J. Jay Saunders, who plays a moving man in a brief scene.  The uninterested, blank stare that he gives Catherine O’Hara (as Delia Deetz) when she makes a comment to him makes me laugh every time.  Speaking of O’Hara, I adore her role as Delia, along with Winona Ryder’s (as Lydia).  Keaton, as Beetlejuice, is great too, and whomever decided to cast him for this role made the right choice.  Delia and Lydia are standouts for me though.  Delia has been dragged to the countryside by her husband, Charles (Jeffrey Jones), a businessman in search of some respite from the frantic pace of life in the big city.  Delia literally makes it loud and clear that she’s only barely tolerating the move, and has brought her interior decorator friend, Otho (Glenn Shadix), along to help her “renovate” the farmhouse.  A pretentious metropolitan who fancies herself a serious and very talented visual artist, I love the way that O’Hara plays up Delia’s “woe is me; my life is brimming with difficulty” attitude, and her absolute impatience at having to compromise with her husband.

Another thing that she’s barely tolerating is her step-daughter, Lydia.  An angsty teenager who could be  described as a little bit Goth and a little bit Emo, Lydia dresses in black and bemoans her existence, not too thrilled with her father’s decision to move to the countryside either.  In another scene that I can‘t help but laugh at every time I see it, Lydia has decided that she just can’t go on.  She starts to compose a note, complete with atmospheric opera music in the background.  “I am alone”, she begins aloud, and then pauses, crumples the paper, and rewrites “I am utterly alone” for dramatic effect, adding one more revision after that for even more emphasis.  Thankfully, for me and anyone else who loves the character, Lydia is one of the central figures in the movie especially since, at first, she’s the only one who can see the ghosts of the Maitlands.  Her explanation of this (and a classic line from the film) is that “…live people ignore the strange and unusual.  I, myself, am strange and unusual.”

Lydia (Winona Ryder) looks like she's seen a ghost...or two.
The characters of the Maitlands are a lot of fun too.  Their naiveté at dealing with their afterlife is a big chunk of the humor of the film, and it’s their many missteps that lead them to getting tangled up with Beetlejuice.  A conniving schemer, he’s determined to get what he wants, no matter who he has to swindle, living or dead.  (On a related note, Sylvia Sydney as Beetlejuice’s ex-business partner and the Maitland‘s “case worker“, Juno, is hilarious as an overworked, impatient, stressed out public service worker for the dead.)

Beyond the cast, the little details in the film add so much too.  Burton sets up the Maitland’s town as the quintessential sleepy little community, complete with a covered bridge and an old-timer barber who sits on the porch and rambles on with stories about the past--whether someone is standing there listening to him or not.  And of course there’s the town busybody, who meddles in the Maitland’s affairs not only before they die, but afterwards too.

In true Burton style, the set, costumes, and props all help add to the eccentric ambiance.  While I couldn’t pick a favorite from amongst those, the handbook that the Maitlands receive after they die gets me every time, with its matter-of-fact title and optimistic 50s-style artwork on the cover.  After all, who hasn't wished that some of the more monumental times in one's life (or in this case, death) came with an actual instruction book?
Having trouble with the afterlife? Please consult your manual.
No film would be complete without a soundtrack, and frequent Burton collaborator Danny Elfman did the music score for this one.  I can’t imagine any other music fitting without his trademark style.  It adds another layer of levity so that a movie that spends a lot of time dealing with the subject of death is much more of a comedy, and only the faintest sliver of anything that could be considered horror.

 I could go on about all of the little things that give Beetlejuice its unique blend of nuttiness and charm, but that ruins the fun of discovering most of it for yourself.  I think it's safe to say that it's one of those films that's achieved--or has at least come very close to--cult status, spawning an animated TV show, a special attraction/show at Universal Studios in Florida, and a huge collection of fan art and film-inspired Halloween costume photos when one searches the movie title online.  If any of that isn't enough to convince you to give it a chance, let me just say that even after watching it time and again over the years, it never fails that something new will jump out at me.  Or, to go straight to the source and paraphrase the "ghost with the most" himself, "I've seen (Beetlejuice) about 167 times, and it keeps getting funnier every single time I see it".

For more photos, videos, details on the cast, production team, etc., visit the movie's IMDb page here: www.imdb.com/title/tt0094721


* Several of the cast members have worked with Burton on other films, including Ryder, Shaddix, and O’Hara.  Both Shaddix and O’Hara teamed up with him on 1993’s The Nightmare Before Christmas; Shaddix voiced the Mayor of Halloweentown, and O’Hara was the voice of the characters Sally and Shock.    Most recently, both Ryder and O'Hara lent their voice talent to characters in Burton's Frankenweenie.

* Beetlejuice won an Oscar in 1989 for Best Makeup.


Tunnel of Love

by Dave Gourdoux

Bruce Springsteen in 1987
One of the things that makes me proud to be a part of this site is the eclectic tastes of my fellow writers, and their ability to make me aware of artists that I previously had little or no exposure to.  So on first glance, my selection to revisit the album “Tunnel of Love” by the enormously popular superstar, Bruce Springsteen, as a topic to write about might seem an odd choice.  But bear with me; I promise I can be eclectic, too – I just need to get this one out of my system.  There are two reasons I chose to revisit this album at this time.   One, despite of, or because of, Springsteen’s status, “Tunnel of Love” is often overlooked and underappreciated, and two, we are approaching Valentine’s Day, and “Tunnel of Love” ranks right up there with Bob Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks” as a confessional and personal exploration of romantic love. 

"Is he smiling?  There's no smiling in rock and roll!"
First, a little context:  I’ve been a big Springsteen fan since the 70s.  I remember when the song “Born to Run” was released.  I was sixteen years old and developing, among other things, an interest in music, rock and roll specifically, and “Born to Run” was unlike anything I’d heard before.  At first I didn’t like it, as musically it broke all of the rules I’d narrowly established for a great song:  it didn’t have a guitar or organ solo (even worse, it had a SAX solo!), it had ridiculous shifts in tempo, it had those corny “whoa  whoa whoa  whoas” at the end and I couldn’t make sense of the lyrics (what the hell is a “last chance power drive” anyway?).  It wasn’t dark, like the Deep Purple and Black Sabbath I’d been accustomed to, and it wasn’t spacey or cosmic, like Emerson, Lake and Palmer or Pink Floyd.  But there was something about the song I couldn’t resist, and every time it came on the radio, I found myself turning up the volume.  Finally, I accepted that, silly rules or not, I loved the song, and I was, and still am, moved by the lyrics, “together, Wendy, we can live with the sadness, I’ll love you with all the madness in my soul.”  I bought the album (which had a picture of him smiling and leaning on the sax player! Rock and roll bands were supposed to look hard and mean or bored and disaffected – look at almost any other album cover of the time – and this guy was smiling?  There’s no smiling in rock and roll!) and dropped the needle, and to my credit, from the opening piano and harmonica of “Thunder Road” to the dramatic crash ending of “Jungleland,” I instantly recognized that this was something different.  After hearing Springsteen sing the opening lines of “Backstreets” (“One soft infested summer, me and Terry became friends, trying in vain to breathe the fire we were born in”), for example, “Smoke on the Water” and Emerson Lake and Palmer’s “Lucky Man” would never sound the same again.  It was the realization that music could be about something more, something deeper, even if I didn’t understand exactly what yet.   Listening to the album for the first time was one of those mind blowing moments where you realize, even as you’re experiencing it, that things will never be quite the same again. 

It took a little while, but I began familiarizing myself with his catalog, and adding all of his albums to my record collection.  By the time “The River” came out in 1980, I was a full blown Bruce junkie.  The press loved  him, too, and his status was enhanced when in 1982 he released the stripped down and bare “Nebraska,” universally accepted and praised as a masterpiece.  Springsteen had accumulated a loyal and growing fan base. 

Then in 1984, with the release of the monolithic “Born in the USA,” everything changed.  With its synthesizers and pounding aerobics class drum beat, it became one of the best selling albums of all time.   Springsteen became a superstar, and with his new muscular body-builder physique, he became an MTV staple and a cultural icon, and sold out football and soccer stadiums around the world.   

Bruce the superstar
Musically, “Born in the U.S.A.” has some great songs, like the title track, “I’m on Fire”, and “No Surrender,” but it doesn’t have the unifying themes that tied together “Darkness on the Edge of Town” and “Nebraska” and made them such great albums.  Instead, it’s a collection of twelve individual songs, written and produced with an eye towards mass consumption.  The infectious hooks of “Glory Days” and the driving synthesizers of “Dancing in the Dark” made them instant hits.  All told, the album produced seven top ten singles.

Paradoxically, Springsteen’s widening audience drove a narrowing perception of him as an empty headed, jingoistic pop star.   He started to become caricature, a muscle bound, bandana wearing working class hero.  It’s a tribute to the shallowness and the popularity of the persona he either intentionally or unintentionally created that Ronald Reagan tried to co-opt the song “Born in the U.S.A.” – one look at the lyrics and there isn’t a doubt what the song is about; however, the fist pumping repetitive screams of “Born in the U.S.A.” sounded triumphant and patriotic.  (To his credit, Springsteen’s response was to disown Reagan’s remarks, and he put his money where his heart was, donating millions to food banks and shelters and veteran’s causes.)

As a result, the mid 80s were a difficult time to be a hard core, long time Springsteen fan.  We had to constantly separate ourselves from those who were just jumping on the bandwagon, and defend Springsteen’s artistry against those who saw him as a media-hyped pop star.  Many of the new comers, not familiar with his pre- U.S.A. releases, saw the muscle bound millionaire in the torn blue jeans and t-shirt singing songs about the working class, and saw an opportunistic fraud laughing all the way to the bank.  Like many long time fans, I found myself defending Springsteen, but doubts were creeping in.  It almost felt like the Beatles and those crazy “Paul is dead” rumors,  and we wondered if the Bruce of “The River” and “Nebraska” was gone forever, replaced by the mysterious imposter with the bulging biceps.

Julianne Phillips
Then in 1985, People magazine broke the story about Bruce’s new romance with the stunning model and actress Julianne Phillips.  Soon they became the latest in a series of rock star and supermodel marriages (including Ric Ocasek of the Cars marriage to Paulina Porizkova, and Billy Joel (!) and Christie Brinkley).  Those of us who were fans from the 70s generally didn’t care who Springsteen was coupled with, but it was a bit disconcerting to see the man once hailed as the “new Dylan,” who had collaborated with the likes of Lou Reed and Patti Smith, featured on "Entertainment Tonight" between segments about Michael Jackson and Madonna.

So it was with some apprehension that us long time devotees awaited his next release, the follow up to “Born in the USA.”   There was the release of a five disc live box set that highlighted his career through “Born in the U.S.A.”, but the real response would be his first collection of new material, his first album, to be released since "Born in the U.S.A".

Working class hero?
That response finally came in October of 1987, when Springsteen released the album, “Tunnel of Love.”  Just one look at the cover and you knew this wasn’t going to be “Born in the U.S.A.” part two – instead of the worn jeans and baseball cap and the iconic flag imagery, we had a shot of Springsteen dressed in a well tailored suit and dress shirt leaning against a very expensive looking sports car parked on a beach somewhere.   So much for the working class hero.   And if you look a little closer, you noticed that Bruce wasn’t smiling – in fact, he looks a little bit pissed off.

I don't think so!
Looking through the liner notes before you played the disc, another thing stood out:  the E Street Band wasn’t present, its members relegated to occasional guest spots.  In fact, there was no saxophone, and Clarence Clemons’ only credit is backing vocals on one of the songs.


Now the music: the first track is something called “Ain’t Got You.”  As opposed to the pounding drums and keyboards of the opening title song of “Born in the U.S.A.,” we hear Bruce’s voice accompanied only by his finger snaps singing the first verse:

                                I got the fortunes of heaven in diamonds and gold
                                I got all the bonds baby that the bank could hold
                                I got houses ‘cross the country stacked up end to end
                                And everybody, buddy, wants to be my friend
                                I got all the riches, baby, any man ever knew
                                But the only thing I ain’t got honey, I ain’t got you

Then an acoustic guitar and harmonica join in, doing a Bo Diddley rift, one chord essentially drummed out, and a few more verses follow, but in that simple opening verse, he’s done it.  He’s laid down the gauntlet and let us know, all of you expecting more “Born in the U.S.A,” go take a flying leap, the bandana is gone, this is going to be a different and darker ride, and if you don’t want that, get off now; otherwise, grab a hold of something and hang on tight, 'cause we’re going into unchartered territory. 

Not only does he instantly discard the cartoonish “Born in the U.S.A.” icon and own up to his wealth, he also lets us know that there’s still something missing.  Singing that first verse without instrumentation, he is alone, and we get the sense that the “you” he is singing about is something more, something bigger, than any individual person.

Before I get into the subsequent tracks, it’s worth noting that Springsteen has always been, first and foremost, an album artist.  These days, in the early 21st century, the album release is less of an event than it was in the 70s and 80s.   It used to be that album releases were as eagerly anticipated as motion pictures or novels.  From the beginning, Springsteen’s albums, while not overt “concept “ or rock opera albums like The Who’s “Tommy” and “Quadrophenia” or Pink Floyd’s “The Wall,” all had a unifying theme that the songs explored different aspects of.  Springsteen was an incredibly prolific songwriter, and the songs he left off of his albums were some of his best.  In fact, the Pointer Sisters (with “Fire”) and Patti Smith (“Because the Night”) both had bigger hits with discarded Springsteen songs than any single Springsteen released.  Because these songs didn’t fit in with the themes he was exploring or the feeling he was chasing, they were left off of his albums.

The songs on “Tunnel of Love” are sequenced to mirror the arc of a love affair.  The story they tell goes something like this:  guy is alone, guy meets girl, guy dates and falls in love with girl, guy agonizes over committing to girl, guy marries girl, guy and girl enjoy a honeymoon period, guy and girl both have doubts and internal demons to deal with, guy and girl separate, guy is alone and aware of what he’s lost.

The second song, “Tougher Than the Rest”, is about the guy meeting the girl.  Only this isn’t some fresh faced adolescent; he knows how things operate, and that he’s nobody’s Prince Charming:

                Some girls want a handsome Dan
                Or some good looking Joe
                On their arms some girls like a sweet talking Romeo
                Well around here, baby,
                I’ve learned you get what you can get

That lyric may expose a certain jaded cynicism, but romance isn’t dead:

                The road is dark
                And it’s a thin, thin line
                But I want you to know I’ll walk it for you anytime

From the “that which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” school of thought, his past failures have strengthened the guy and made him “tougher than the rest”:

                It ain’t no secret
                I’ve been around a time or two
                I don’t know baby
                Maybe you’ve been around, too
                Well, there’s another dance
                All you’ve got to do is say yes
                And if you’re rough and ready for love
                Honey I’m tougher than the rest

“Tougher Than the Rest”, with its deceptively simple lyrics, is one of the best songs on the album.  The same simple but thundering drum beat that opens the song continues unchanged through its entirety, while a low and dark and mechanical sounding synthesizer lurches forward with a haunting and lovely melody.   Springsteen’s voice is at its best when he’s singing in this confessional minor key.  Simultaneously self confident and intimate, when he changes the key at the “the road is dark” lyric, and the organ sound is layered over the synthesizer, you get the feeling he is baring his soul, and just the right amount of self doubt and hope sink into his voice that no matter how tough he is claiming to be, there’s still more than a trace of vulnerability revealed.  By the time the song gets to the harmonica solo at the end, the synthesizer and drum are still pounding out their dark melody and rhythm, yet there is light at the end of the tunnel, and just enough hope that the guy and the girl may rise above the darkness and make it yet.

Finding hope in the darkness, against the most overwhelming of odds, has been a theme in Springsteen anthems ever since that last chance power drive of “Born to Run.”  It’s evident in “Badlands” and “Darkness on the Edge of Town” and even in the “cool rocking daddy” of “Born in the USA.”   Those songs are all similar in that the triumph they celebrate is defiantly shouted out. The triumph in “Tougher Than the Rest” is quieter and less certain, and while the guy and girl may find some hope, they are still walking the thin line of that dark road.

The next song, “All That Heaven Will Allow,” is perhaps the weakest on the album, and exposes one of the problems with a thematic based approach to creating albums:  the inclusion of songs that do nothing more than advance the narrative have to be included.  “All That Heaven Will Allow” is about the guy dating the girl and the giddy anticipation one feels at the beginning of falling in love.  It’s a sweet song, full of promise and optimism, but it’s light as a feather and ultimately forgettable.

The next song, “Spare Parts,” is one of only two songs on the album written in the third person, and on the surface seems out of context with the album’s story arch.  “Spare Parts,” like Springsteen’s great ballad “The River,” tells the story of an unintended teen pregnancy: 

                Bobby said he’d pull out, Bobby stayed in
                Janey had a baby, wasn’t any sin

Note his rejection of the act as “sin:” this Catholic tidbit is no more an accident than his naming the young mother Mary in “The River” is.  But more on that later. 

Bobby, unlike the singer of “The River,” doesn’t stick around:

                They were set to marry on a sunny day
                Bobby got scared and ran away 

Jane moves in with her mother and starts to raise her child, but she isn’t any more ready to be a parent than Bobby was.  Overwhelmed by abandonment and responsibility, she becomes familiar with the news account of a mother who drowns her baby in the river.  

                Janey heard about a woman over in Calverton
                Put her baby in the river, let the river roll on
                She looked at her boy in the crib where he lay
                Got down on her knees and cried ‘till she prayed

After praying for strength, she ends up in the river herself, seemingly possessed by this distant force of evil:

                Mist was on the water, low run the tide
                Janey held her son down at the riverside
                Waist deep in the water, how bright the sun shone
               She lifted in her arms and carried him home

Snapped out of her spell by the clarity of bright sunlight, she returns home and takes out the wedding ring Bobby had given her and hocks it and her wedding dress “for some good cold cash.” 

Compare Janey’s story to that of the narrator of “The River.”  In “The River,” the river is a symbol of the love and intimacy that the young couple first experienced; on the night after their bleak wedding they return to the river and dive in for the purification it provides.  At the end, the singer is alone and returning to the river though he knows “that the river is dry.” 

There are two central questions Springsteen has asked over the years that all of his work strives to answer.  The first is in “Born to Run” when he says, “I wanna know if love is wild, I wanna know if love is real.”  The second is in “The River” when he asks, “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true?”  “Spare Parts” can be seen as an attempt to answer both questions.

In “Spare Parts,” it’s the force of evil that draws Janey to the river, but Janey’s prayer is answered, in the bright light of the sun, and she is healed.  The answered prayer and the baptismal imagery are no coincidence – they are another reference to Springsteen’s ongoing wrestling with the Catholicism he was raised in.  In interviews, he describes heavily reading Flannery O’Connor when writing the “Nebraska” album, and the details and morality plays he brings to life on that album (particularly the song “Reason to Believe”) resonate with the same imagery and cosmic justice that can be found in O’Connor.  The same forces are at work in “Spare Parts.”

In “Spare Parts”, it turns out that love is real, but not the romantic love between Bobby and Janey, rather, the love between mother and child.  As for the dream, it is in fact a lie if the dream is the wrong dream.  Janey’s dream life with Bobby turns out to be a lie, but at the end, by discarding with the material artifacts of that lie, Janey seems prepared for a new dream, a true dream, a dream of the love she feels for her son.

After “Spare Parts”, we get the other third person narrative, the quiet “Cautious Man.”  “Cautious Man” tells the story of Bill Horton, an honest and sincere but conflicted man finding himself in love with a woman.  He's so unsure of his ability to commit to his new love that he prays for steadiness.  He also has tattooed on his knuckles the words “love” and “fear,” just as Robert Mitchum has the words “love” and “hate” across his knuckles in the film, “Night of the Hunter.”  “Cautious Man” is soft and intimate, but Springsteen’s writing here could use a little more ambiguity.  The metaphors of the highway and Bill finding “nothing but road” there aren’t as subtle, and some of the rhymes feel too formal, too forced.  

After Bill Horton finally commits to love in “Cautious Man,” the next track, “Walk Like a Man” is about a wedding.  Only this time it isn’t one of Springsteen’s characters he’s singing about, this song is directly and unmistakably about Bruce himself.  Specifically, it’s another in a series of songs that try to make sense of his explosive relationship with his father, a tormented and anguished soul who suffered incapacitating bouts with mental illness and depression.  “Walk Like a Man” looks at Springsteen’s own wedding day through the blurred lens of that relationship, and while it may not have the raw power of “Adam Raised a Cain” or the heart breaking poignancy of “Independence Day,” it does have a maturity and balance that those previous explorations of the relationship lacked.

In the song, as Springsteen is standing at the altar, waiting for his bride, his thoughts turn to his father and his childhood.

               So much has happened to me that I don’t understand
                All I can think of is being five years old following behind you at the beach 
               Tracing your footsteps in the sand
               Trying to walk like a man

Then he further reflects on his childhood, and for the first time in his father-son songs, we see more than just him and his dad; we see his mother and sister, and he realizes that their view of love and marriage has also been impacted by his father’s fiery temperament:

                By the Lady of the Roses
                We lived in the shadow of the elms
                I remember Ma dragging me and my sister up the street to the church
                Whenever she’d hear those wedding bells
                Would they ever look so happy again
                The handsome groom and his bride
                As they stepped into that long black limousine
                For their mystery ride

Finally, there is something of forgiveness and regret in the simple summation of the son’s role in the relationship:

                I was young and I didn’t know what to do
                When I saw your best steps stolen away from you

The song is about forgiveness and the longing to heal old wounds, but it is also about carrying the burden of the scars that still remain.
After the wedding, there is time for a honeymoon, and that's what the title track of the album is all about.  That “mystery ride” hinted at in “Walk Like a Man” is launched in “Tunnel of Love:” The train has left the station, the plunge has been taken, the ride is underway.  Everything is great, he can “feel the soft silk” of her blouse and “those soft thrills” in “their little funhouse” but:

            Then the lights go out and it’s just the three of us
            You, me, and all that stuff we’re so scared of

Real intimacy, revealing your real self to another, revealing things that you are reluctant to show yourself, is a frightening thing.   Intimacy holds the key to the room of shadows where all of those un-exorcised demons lurking in your subconscious have been waiting for release:

           There’s a room of shadows that gets so dark, brother
           It’s easy for two people to lose each other
           In this tunnel of love

We’ve all been raised on the idea that love is the answer to all that ails us.  We all know that love provides sustenance and meaning.  It’s the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, it’s the answer to all of our prayers, and it is salvation.   It’s what makes the world go round.
This all may be true, and we come to understand that finding true love is difficult.  What we’re not told is that maintaining love is just as difficult as finding it:

                It ought to be easy, ought to be simple enough
                Man meets woman and they fall in love
                But this 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

Things start falling apart on the next song, “Two Faces.”  Springsteen recognizes the culprit - it's someone that he is all too familiar with:

                Sometimes, mister, I feel sunny and wild
                Lord, I love to see my baby smile
                Then dark clouds come rolling by
                Two faces have I

In a 2012 profile in the New Yorker, Springsteen acknowledged that he has struggled much of his life with depression.  This is no surprise to anyone who paid attention to these lyrics:  

                One that laughs, one that cries
                One says hello, one says goodbye
                One does things I don’t understand
                Makes me feel like half a man

He recognizes that he can’t control the dark clouds, and again he turns to prayer, but he knows that alone won’t help.

                At night I get down on my knees and pray
                Our love will make that other man go away
                But he’ll never say goodbye
                Two faces have I

This is a startling admission for a man who has it all, a man who is perceived as a hero to millions of fans.   If he were interested in maintaining the mythic persona he created in “Born in the U.S.A.,” he could have easily released an album of silly love songs and how perfect life was for him and his supermodel wife.  Instead, he’s saying that even with all the riches any man ever knew, he still has difficulty functioning with other people, and he has to work even harder at maintaining a relationship than most people.

On the next song, it’s not only a mirror he’s standing in front of, it’s also a magnifying glass.  “Brilliant Disguise” is the album’s centerpiece, as the questions of identity intensify and focus, and the character flaws and insecurities become debilitating.

From the opening verse, he is seized by feelings of distrust and suspicion:

                I hold you in my arms
                As the band plays
                What were those words whispered
                Just as you turned away

These feelings are further articulated in the song’s chorus:

                So tell me what I see
                When I look in your eyes
                Is that you, baby
                Or just a brilliant disguise

He can see his wife’s imagined infidelities everywhere:

                I heard someone call your name
                From underneath our willow
                I saw something tucked in shame
                Underneath your pillow       

But he’s actually seeing the manifestation of his own doubts and insecurities:         

               I’ve tried so hard baby
                but I just can’t see
                what a woman like you
                is doing with me

How bad are those doubts and insecurities?  Bad enough to affect his ability to be intimate, his ability to perform sexually:

                Now look at me, baby
                Struggling to do everything right
                But then it all falls apart
                When out goes the light

Talk about shattering your own myth!  He gets to the core of the problem with the next lyric:

                I’m just a lonely pilgrim
                I walk this world in wealth
                I want to know if it’s you I don’t trust
                Cause I damn sure don’t trust myself

Again, he is owning up to his wealth, as well as his own insecurities.   The fact that having achieved superstar status doesn’t resolve the internal conflicts that have always plagued him seems to surprise him as much as it does us.

The key lyric that lets everyone in on the dirty little secret that his marriage isn’t the idyllic fairy tale the press wants us to believe is next:

               Now you play the loving woman
               I play the faithful man
               But just don’t look to close
               Into the palm of my hand

Not exactly a Hallmark card for newlyweds.  And it’s apparently so bad that I won’t look too close at what that is in the palm of your hand; I’ll take your word for it.

This is stunning stuff for anyone, let alone a superstar with a huge public following, to reveal about himself.  Springsteen is essentially saying that yes, it’s true, at least in his personal life; he's been a fraud.  He’s also saying that, as always, the truth can be found in his music.  It’s a case of trust the art, not the artist.   The art is telling us that the artist is a deeply flawed and tormented soul.   Again, the influence of Catholicism is evident in that his art becomes his confessional booth, and the guilt he feels about falling short of the idealized version of himself that his public persona has become is undeniable.

He sums up the central contradiction with these devastating lines to close the song:

                Tonight our bed is cold
                I’m lost in the darkness of our love
                God have mercy on the man
                Who doubts what he’s sure of

If “Brilliant Disguise” is his confession, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of hope for absolution.
The next song, “One Step Up,” opens with images of everyday things not working:

                Woke up this morning the house was cold
                Checked the furnace, she wasn’t burning
                Went out and hopped in my old Ford
                Hit the engine but she ain’t turning

It turns out that, with the guy alone on the road, that those aren’t the only thing not working.   The marriage has dissolved to the point that even the old romantic images have lost their meaning:

                Bird on a wire outside my hotel room
                But she ain’t singing
                Girl in white outside a church in June
                But the church bells they ain’t ringing

The song then goes on to describe the fighting that tore them apart and led them to this place. It closes with the guy drinking alone and looking into a stranger’s eyes while the love he once knew is only a distant and fading dream:

                There’s a girl across the bar
                I get the message she’s sending
                She ain’t looking too married
                And me, well, honey, I’m pretending
                Last night I dreamed I held you in my arms
                The music was never ending
                We danced as the evening sky faded to black 

Then comes “When You’re Alone,” by which time the couple is separated, and the guy is naively imagining that she’ll return to him, when he comes to the realization:

                Now it ain’t hard feelings or nothing
                That ain’t what’s got me singing this song
                It’s just that nobody knows, honey, where love goes
                But when it goes, it’s gone, gone
                And when you’re alone, you’re alone 

The realization of what he’s lost, and how difficult and rare it was to find, comes too late, when he’s alone.  

The last song on the album, “Valentine’s Day,” just happens to be my favorite love song of all-time.  By anyone.  Period.  It encapsulates everything learned over the course of the album, and leads to an unusually ambiguous ending.  Does the guy, now knowing what is really at stake, reunite with the girl?  Or will she always be his “lonely valentine,” beyond his reach?
The song, like many Springsteen songs, opens with a guy driving a car through the dark of night.  But the landscape is different; there are no “mansions of glory,” this highway isn’t alive.  There’s just a guy and the overwhelming awareness of his own mortality:
                I’m driving a big lazy car
                Rushing up the highway in the dark
                I’ve got one hand steady on the wheel
                And one hand’s trembling over my heart
                And it’s pounding, baby, like it’s gonna bust right on through
                And it ain’t gonna stop until I’m alone again with you

He’s left to wonder what it was that drove him out here on this darkest of nights:

                Is it the sound of the leaves
                Left blown by the wayside
                That’s got me out here on this spooky old highway tonight?
                Is it the cry of the river
                Or the moonlight shining through
                That ain’t what scares me, baby,
                What scares me is losing you

He’s haunted by a dream he had, a dream of his own death:

                They say if you die in your dreams you really die in your bed
                But, honey, last night I dreamed my eyes rolled straight back in my head
                And God’s light came shining on through
                I woke up in the darkness scared and breathing
                And born anew

Remember the river from “Spare Parts?”  Remember the question, is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, from the song “The River?”  This is what he becomes aware of after waking from the nightmare:

                It wasn’t the cold river bottom
                I felt rushing over me
                It wasn’t the bitterness of a dream
                That didn’t come true
                It wasn’t the wind in the grey fields
                I felt rushing through my arms
                No, no, baby
                Baby, it was you

When he woke from the dream of his death, it wasn’t the stark and desolate and cold emptiness of eternity he felt, it wasn’t any unfulfilled dream, it wasn't the emptiness of the wind; rather, he felt his love again, felt her rushing through his arms.  Confronted with images of unending death, it is love and human contact he turns to.  He’s learned that love is, in fact, wild and real.

The song and the album close with

                 So hold me close
                 say you're forever mine
                 and tell me you'll be
                 my lonely valentine

Again, there's just enough ambiguity that you wonder if the realization has come too late, as the bass riff continues and the organ crescendos and the song fades out.

Patti Scialfa
What we do know after the album is a good news, bad news kind of thing.  The good news is that Springsteen hadn't sold out, and remained capable of breaking new territory and demonstrating that rock and roll can grow up and express mature and complex themes and emotions with the same depth as its always addressed sex and rebellion.  The bad news, from a personal standpoint, is that fame and success really aren't enough to conquer inner demons.

Shortly into the world tour for "Tunnel of Love", scandal broke out when the papparazi uncovered an affair between Springsteen and his backup singer, Patty Scialfa.  His marriage to Julianne Phillips ended after only three years, confirming all the turmoil and conflict Springsteen wrestled with on the album as real.  In the subsequent years, he married Scialfa and they have remained together and raised three children.  Maybe Springsteen found the absolution and redemption he sought after all.

Bruce in 2012