Saturday, March 29, 2014

DB's Song of the Day (day 88):"BRILLIANT DISGUISE" (1987) Bruce Springsteen

It was only a matter of time before this guy showed up. The album of his that got through to me earliest was Born to Run (1975) which I heard maybe a year after it came out (not counting the radio airplay on Philly stations down there in DE), but I don’t feel like talking about anything from that, yet, ditto Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978), which is the one I got when it came out and saw the tour, in Philly of course. Springsteen had the air of local boy makes good, in those days. But I’ll save that one for another day.

Maybe yesterday’s choice of a late Eighties R.E.M. track set up this track from the same year. The album, Tunnel of Love, came after Bruce had shown what he could do with the full-on double album epic, The River (1980), crammed with everything on his palette, and after he’d done the quiet, glum, stripped-down soul-search—kinda looking for the heart of America—Nebraska (1982), and after the “look at me girls, I’m a sex symbol, working-class rocker” bit with Born in the U.S.A. (1984). What to do next? This album is very uneven, showing some doubts about how to answer that question and even the good songs, like this one, suffer from the malaise known as the Eighties (what a wimpy drumtrack and those synths—he should’ve left them behind with “Dancing in the Dark”!).  Still, “Brilliant Disguise” is about as good a song as the Brucer ever wrote.

It’s also got a good, live singing video, directed by none less than Marty Scorsese. Bruce was trying to get back to grit, I guess. Singing to himself late night in the kitchen, we imagine. It works.

The song is a great brood piece on what kind of love the guy is stuck with. First of all, it’s a recognition that, while the romantics among us hope or expect love to remake us, giving us a new lease on life, we’re still stuck with ourselves as part of the equation. “I tried so hard, baby, but I still can’t see / What a woman like you is doin’ with me.” But it’s also a song that registers jealousy, suspicion, and the kind of doubts that make a “sure thing” so unsure. “I wanna read your mind / To know just what I've got in this new thing I've found.”

The idea of the “brilliant disguise” is, well, brilliant. It’s a nod to the fact that, when we want to impress people and make them fall in love with us, we tend to show them only what we want them to see, our best behavior, our wonderful sensitivity, our golden sense of humor, and so on. It’s a disguise of all the things we don’t want to let on about ourselves—that we’re boring, irritable, selfish, and not necessarily eager for eros. Or, at least, the erotic appetites of others can be downright inconvenient at times. And it’s that non-parity, the song suggests, that causes both partners to look for something else, maybe in hopes of finding what they never had, maybe in hopes of turning into someone new.

“I’m just a lonely pilgrim / I walk this world in wealth / I want to know if it’s you I don’t trust / Because I damn sure don’t trust myself.”  It doesn’t get spelled out better than that often. All that notion that we have to trust our lover sorta goes up in smoke if we’re not to be trusted, doesn’t it?

And then check out that final verse, which really gave me chills upon the first ten or twenty times I heard it:

Now you play the loving woman / And I play the faithful man / But just don’t look too close / Into the palm of my hand / We stood at the altar / The gypsy swore our future was right / But come the wee wee hours / Maybe, baby, the gypsy lied / So when you look at me / You better look hard and look twice / Is that me, baby, or just a brilliant disguise?

Up till this point the “brilliant disguise” had been hers, now it may be his too. Disguising, possibly, his unfaithfulness, and certainly his doubts about that gypsy’s fortune-telling. And Springsteen, who by this point had become a very sensitive vocalist, able to exploit that deep earnestness we all know and love, really lets us feel the “bottom just fell out of everything” notion that “maybe, baby, the gypsy lied”—and the gypsy ain’t the only one.

So, then, while we’re still reeling with the fact that the singer, in all his hurt and suspicion and longing and doubt, is also, possibly, in disguise, he gives us the real kicker:

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.

And then we see that all the doubt about her really amounts to nothing, though he may have already ruined it through suspicion, but, more to the point, he can’t free himself of doubting what he knows to be true. It’s a life of paradox, of the certainty that what you love is not to be trusted because you can’t trust your own heart. If the bottom already fell out of everything, here it becomes the canker that gnaws endlessly at the heart of it all. What if I’m wrong to love what I love? What if I’m a fool? What if I’m in disguise from myself?

It’s a great lyric and it’s delivered with a slightly slurred, hurried vocal that registers that sense of singing to oneself that Dylan does so well, and, like some of Bob's best songs on the mind-fuck of intimate relations, this one is for the books.

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