Monday, September 24, 2007

It's Easy for Two People to Lose Each Other

In his sterling memoir, Love Is a Mix Tape, my friend Rob Sheffield writes that he found Nirvana's album MTV Unplugged in New York, which dropped shortly after his own wedding, to be all about marriage. This is certainly a novel way of looking at this record, which for me seemed to be mostly about despair, although that doesn't preclude it from also being about marriage. After noting that the set opens with Kurt singing "I do," on "About a Girl," Rob continues: "The Unplugged music bothered me a lot. Contrary to what people said at the time, he didn't sound dead, or about to die, or anything like that. As far as I could tell, his voice was not just alive but raging to stay that way. And he sounded married. Married and buried, just like he says.... I would have been glad to push this music to the back of my brain, put some furniture in front of it so I couldn't see it, and wait thirty or forty years for it to rot so it wouldn't be there to scare me anymore. The married guy was a lot more disturbing to me than the dead junkie."

At the same time, I'm not sure what kind of lessons the rest of us are supposed to take away from the man who married Courtney Love, other than For God's sake, don't marry Courtney Love!

I was reminded of this while listening to Bruce Springsteen's Tunnel of Love, which is pretty straightforwardly about marriage. What I love about Tunnel is not just that Bruce refuses to romanticize romance, but that he recognizes that if love is to exist and endure, it needs to negotiate its way around all the other problems of the day:

Woke up this morning my house was cold
Checked out the furnace she wasn't burnin'
Went out and hopped in my old Ford
Hit the engine but she ain't turnin'

When he comes around, in "Brilliant Disguise," to asking, "So when you look at me, you better look hard and look twice/Is that me, baby, or just a brilliant disguise?," you wonder if he's asking the question to his wife or to himself.

This album also reminds me of Elvis Presley's That's the Way It Is, which takes a similarly grownup view of marriage, seeing it as conducted around "Six o'clock, the baby will be crying" from "I've Lost You" and the "unpaid bills" in "Twenty Days and Twenty Nights." Noticing all the nagging details that add up to a lifetime, many of which eat away at the Valentine's Day romanticism of so many pop songs, adds tremendous depth to this kind of song. And no one's done that better than Bruce.

Springsteen had married Julianne Phillips on May 13, 1985, two years before he released Tunnel of Love. In the liner notes to that record, there is a brief mention of his bride, reading "Thanks, Juli." On that same record, Patti Scialfa sang backup on "Tunnel of Love," "One Step Up" and "When You're Alone."

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