Glory Days: Bruce Springsteen in the 1980s
From the commercial highs of The River to the personal lows of Tunnel Of Love, the 1980s was a rollercoaster decade for Bruce Springsteen
On the warm evening of October 2, 1985, it was approaching midnight when Bruce Springsteen introduced his new wife to some 80,000 curious onlookers during his concert at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Stepping out from the wings, Julianne Phillips was a 25-year-old model and actress from a well-to-do Chicago family. She and Springsteen had met the previous October, and were married the following May during a short break from the 15-month-long tour to support his most recent and mind‑bogglingly successful album, Born In The USA.
Springsteen took his wife of five months in his arms and danced with her to one of his songs under the harsh white stage lights. He had first danced to it not much more than a year ago with another aspiring young actress, Courtney Cox, in the video that launched Born In The USA into the stratosphere. Tonight, on this 156th and final date of the tour, as on every other night of it, Dancing In The Dark was the vehicle with which Springsteen and his seven-piece E Street Band drove their audience to a euphoric peak and then held them there for almost two hours more. And this in spite of the fact that its lyrics spoke of nothing so much as self-loathing. “Had to save the last dance for her,” Springsteen told the roaring crowd as the climactic notes of the song reverberated around the vast stadium. He was smiling then, seeming to bask in the glory of it all.
And as well he might. Born In The USA had come along right on the heels of a dark period in both Springsteen’s own life and for Americans in general. The years immediately preceding its release had seen the US economy slump, jobs vanish, and out there in the heartlands these were the worst times folks could recall since the days of the Great Depression of the 1930s. Springsteen, who was susceptible to his own depressions, had for his part sunk into an existential crisis following the tour to promote his fifth album, The River, and with which he had kicked off the new decade. He articulated as much on his next record, 1982’s Nebraska, a stark, solemn collection of songs that he recorded apart from the E Street Band, who had been the bedrock of his music since the mid-70s.
Nebraska had sounded like whispered moans in the dead of night. The ordinary Joe characters with which Springsteen populated Born In The USA were often as not fighting the same internal and external battles as on its predecessor, but musically this was an altogether different and more welcoming beast. Filtered through the returning E Street Band, Born In The USA was instead rousing, uplifting, as slick and sleek-sounding as a sports car, and balm to tend the battered psyches of millions of Americans.
It arrived at precisely the right moment too, just as the country was returning to prosperity and entering into a new era of consumption and consumerism. Like Michael Jackson’s Thriller before it, and Madonna’s Like A Virgin and Prince’s Purple Rain in that same year of 1984, Born In The USA proved to be a commercial juggernaut. It was mined for multiple hit singles, the videos that accompanied them given saturation coverage on the then three-year-old MTV. Together, Springsteen, Jackson, Madonna and Prince were rewriting the rules of pop superstardom, becoming brands in their own right. And it was through their aspirational promo videos that each of them reinforced their brand values – and where Springsteen stood apart. Whereas the others appeared aloof, like alien beings from some glamorous, far-off galaxy, Springsteen dressed in worn jeans and a T-shirt and sang about the trials of the working man. He conveyed nothing as much as down-home values and an old‑fashioned belief in the redemptive power of rock’n’roll. Uniquely, Springsteen was embraced as a folk hero, not least by the country’s then President, Ronald Reagan, who notably mistook Born In The USA’s barnstorming title track for a patriotic blessing of American values.
So there Springsteen was at the Coliseum, riding the crest of a wave and having ascended to become a true American icon. No wonder he looked in that instant as if he were about as content with the state of things as one could be. But not five years later he would end the decade, one that had brought him untold fame and wealth, consumed once more by black thoughts and self-doubt. His marriage would be wrecked, and he would have cut loose the E Street Band by then too. All of this could not have been telegraphed better than by one of the last songs he had written for Born In The USA, and with which he sent the Coliseum crowd rejoicing off into the LA night. ‘Glory days,’ Springsteen sang to them, “Well, they’ll pass you by… in the wink of a young girl’s eye…’
The strongest tie binding together Springsteen and the E Street Band was almost broken late on an earlier night in March 1979. At that time, Springsteen and his then six-piece backing group were just starting the recording of The River in the gymnasium-sized main room at the Power Station studio in downtown Manhattan. Springsteen had arrived intending to work fast and cut a high-octane, primal-sounding record that encapsulated the intensity of their live shows. “We figured we’d throw up the room mics,” he told biographer Peter Ames Carlin, “and make a lot of rock’n’roll noise.”
But things didn’t quite work out that way. Springsteen was instead prevaricating over the most infinitesimal details, just as he had done during the making of their two previous records together, each of which he had extended into tortuous ordeals.
This particular evening he was likely fretting over the timbre of Max Weinberg’s snare drum, or when precisely to have saxophonist Clarence Clemons come in on a certain track. Or any of the other infinite conundrums that buzzed through his mind whenever he was occupied with capturing his music on tape. Steve Van Zandt, the E Street Band’s guitarist since 1975, had run out of patience with this maddening routine and snapped. “Listen,” he said to Springsteen, seething with pent-up frustration, “I’m sorry, but I can’t do this again. You carry on, but I quit.”
The voluble Van Zandt was a veteran of the bar bands Springsteen had led along the New Jersey shore in the late 60s and early 70s and the nearest thing he had to a close friend. Losing him at this crucial juncture would be for Springsteen like cutting off his own right arm. And so he moved at once to placate Van Zandt, inviting him to produce the record alongside himself and Jon Landau, Springsteen’s bookish manager. Van Zandt acceded, and Springsteen pressed on with a process that would ultimately drag on for 18 months at a final cost in excess of a million dollars. When he was eventually done, The River turned out to be a transformational double album, widening the scope of his music and paving the way to Born In The USA. Right then, though, Springsteen was at a crossroads. Approaching 30 and moved to contemplate the point he had reached in his personal life, he was deeply unsettled by what he found himself facing up to.