#467: Bruce Springsteen, "Tunnel of Love" (1987)

My mother listened to Springsteen’s “One Step Up” when she left my father.

Or, that’s the story I made out of the story she told me.

I was too young to remember their parting, only old enough to cache living at a house with him and, later, living at another without. It was as sudden and easy a break as waking from a dream—one life into another, each in its own place.

I don’t know what time of year it was, if we left in the night or while he was at work. If he was pleading with her to stay or telling her to go. I don’t know if we stayed somewhere for a while, or if we moved into the little white rancher my grandfather bought for us.

I don’t remember fights. I don’t remember crying. I might have told my father goodbye, or I might have not.

Maybe I didn’t know I needed to.

I couldn’t even tell you how old I was, or what year. It’s the divorce after the separation that I remember—his old partner moving in and my mother asking me to keep secrets, crying in a dark classroom while my fourth-grade teacher knelt on the floor so that she was my height and bigger than my grief.

A few years later, when my mother bought a couple of used Springsteen cassettes to play in her Volvo named Vicky, I remembered the song. I think I even knew some of the words. (Or, maybe, it’s that I know the words now when I’m remembering this, so it feels like I knew them then.) Even before she told me this was the song, it reminded me of my parents together—something that I don’t really remember as an image but an ambience, how silence breaks over bodies rather than an empty space.

  Illustration by Annie Mountcastle

Illustration by Annie Mountcastle

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My life these last six years has been made of one loss after another, of overlapping shadows. Death, many deaths. Cancer.

Before all of this, when my husband and I were first dating, I told him one night in his car that I felt like I was due for great loss, because I’d had a relatively stable life—or so it seemed—up until then. I felt then like grief’s hurricanes had all turned back out to sea.

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When I listen to Tunnel of Love now, I have a hard time listening to it all the way through, not because  I can’t keep it together or something, but because it feels like multiple albums. The title track feels like a single, and so it’s that late-80s reverbed, sensitive pop Americana track that stands alone, dividing the (mostly) throwaway opening tracks from the bittersweet quartet of “Brilliant Disguise,” “One Step Up,” “When You’re Alone,” and “Valentine’s Day.” When I listen to Tunnel of Love, I either listen to “Tunnel of Love” or the last four songs.

Because of my listening habits and my associations with the songs, Tunnel of Love doesn’t feel like a whole album. It feels like the air inside a room, a checking off of time, like looking at a photo with someone cut out of the frame.

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Mostly I wonder if it actually means something that my mother listened to “One Step Up” when she left my father. If it means something to me. Or about me.

My mother also revealed I was conceived to Ravel’s “Bolero.” Could your conception song—or the songs your parents met to, or split up to—have something to do with you, with who you are? Are there those who believe that songs have the same sway over us as the stars, who would say “One Step Up” and “Bolero” are just as important as the fact that I’m a Cancer and a Fire Rabbit? That it’s part of the nurture that made me into who I am, like the fact that I was raised where I was raised with the money we had, the language we spoke, and the education I was given.

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Tunnel of Love doesn’t mean what I want it to mean, what I feel like it should feel—a swell of grief, a touchstone in loss. But it wasn’t my soundtrack for leaving—I don’t even remember leaving. It’s music for coming back, for trying—for almost—remembering.

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My father’s coming to visit at the end of this week. I’ve been listening to “One Step Up” on repeat all morning, and I can’t help but wonder if he knew this song as the one that soundtracked my mother’s departure. If he would ask me to turn it off if it came on the radio. Or if he would act like nothing bothered him. But most of all, I wonder if he had a song. I wonder if I know the words. I wonder if we ever sang it.

—Emilia Phillips