Vinyl Special – Chimes of Freedom, by Bruce Springsteen

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Released August 1988

24 min, 11 sec

The Tunnel of Love Express Tour was a strange one for Springsteen. Supported by an E Street Band that had very little to do with the corresponding Tunnel of Love record, the tour had a level of pageantry and choreography that made it far removed from the spontaneous, chaotic shows of tours past. Each member had their designated spot on the stage, and they were not to wander too far from it; the band’s entrances were done in a deliberate and highly choreographed manner that did not change from city to city; the setlist remained surprisingly static. The “Express” meant that the tour did not stay in any given city for more than one night, particularly on the opening legs; this helped justify the static setlist, though Springsteen surely knew that many of his fans would follow him around the country. But he wasn’t playing for them.

Tunnel of Love and the subsequent tour were times of great strife for Springsteen, in his personal and professional lives. His marriage was basically a failure, and he pulled the band back together for no real reason, despite setting a tone of finality with the Born in the U.S.A. tour and the subsequent box set Live/1975-85. By 1989, they would be broken up anyway, with Springsteen dissolving the unit one by one, by telephone.

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The only official document of the tour is Chimes of Freedom, tellingly credited solely to Springsteen despite being a live EP featuring the E Street Band. Despite featuring content exclusively from the Tunnel of Love Express Tour, it was released in support of the Amnesty International Human Rights Now! Tour that the band embarked on following the Express; hence being named after a cover performed once on that tour.  In vinyl form, this record, maybe unintentionally, maybe intentionally, illustrates the drastic divide in tone the tour had all throughout its run, as well as the divide between the early shows, where Springsteen still held hope for his band and for his career as it stood in 1988, and the later legs of the tour, where that began to melt away. Side A espouses the power of love and dedication; Side B instead paints a more pessimistic picture, particularly with its dour rendition of “Born to Run.”

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Springsteen had planned his albums around the vinyl format before; Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town both were built around having the strongest songs at the beginning and end of each side. Side A opens with tour standard “Tougher than the Rest,” from Tunnel of Love, which is about staying strong through strife in a relationship, because it’s worth it in the end. Following this on that side is “Be True,” a b-side from The River, which is along the same lines, about loyalty to one’s partner. These two songs preach the ostensible message of Tunnel of Love and the Express Tour. But that’s not necessarily what the tour was about.

Side B opens with a monologue from Springsteen, announcing that he and the E Street Band would be joining the Human Rights Now! Tour at the conclusion of the Express. It would be the last tour the E Street Band embarked on for ten years. “Chimes of Freedom” is a Bob Dylan cover, which ties more in to the message of the Human Rights Now! Tour. Slow and steady, it helped emphasize Springsteen’s thoughts on the matter, but didn’t relate to the Express in any way.

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The EP closes with a slow, quiet acoustic version of “Born to Run.” This is the EP’s most telling track; Springsteen played this version on every date of the tour, stripping out all promise and optimism from the track, leaving behind a desolate shell of a track, sung more out of desperation than anything else. Far from being the rallying cry and declaration of freedom that it originally was, the track instead feels more like a resignation to fate – they were born to run, and there is nowhere else to go for them. The song in this form feels much more like a metaphor for Springsteen himself at this point in his career – at the top of his game with Born in the U.S.A., and nowhere to go but down for the unavoidable follow-up. Indeed, Tunnel of Love was the last album of Springsteen’s to do well until 2002’s The Rising, a return to form after years of experimentation. The dichotomy of Side A and “Born to Run” perfectly capture the Tunnel of Love Express Tour, and its own double meaning.

Chimes of Freedom matches its tour in its strangeness and unusual nature, and though it isn’t really an essential piece of music in Springsteen’s catalogue, it paints an interesting picture of the environment Springsteen found himself in, with his career and his band. It is a post-script to Live/1975-85, and the first step of the post-E Street Era, a time of great turbulence and uncertainty for the Boss.

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