Life and career
Springsteen suddenly veered off the normal rock career course, following The River with the stark solo acoustic Nebraska in 1982. According to the Marsh biographies, Springsteen was in a depressed state when he wrote this material, and the result is a brutal depiction of American life. The title track on this album is about the murder spree of Charles Starkweather. The album actually started (according to Marsh) as a demo tape for new songs to be played with the E Street Band - but during the recording process, Springsteen and producer Landau realized they worked better as solo acoustic numbers; several attempts at re-recording the songs in a studio led them to realize that the original versions, recorded on a simple, low-tech four-track cassette deck in Springsteen's kitchen, were the best versions they were going to get.
While Nebraska did not sell especially well, it garnered widespread critical praise (including being named "Album of the Year" by Rolling Stone magazine's critics) and influenced later significant works by other major artists, including U2's album, The Joshua Tree. It helped inspire the musical genre known as lo-fi music, becoming a cult favorite among indie-rockers. Springsteen did not tour in conjunction with Nebraska's release.
Springsteen probably is best known for his album Born in the U.S.A. (1984), which sold 15 million copies in the U.S. alone and became one of the best-selling albums of all time with seven singles hitting the top 10, and the massively successful world tour that followed it. The title track was a bitter commentary on the treatment of Vietnam veterans, some of whom were Springsteen's friends and bandmates. The song was widely misinterpreted as jingoistic, and in connection with the 1984 presidential campaign became the subject of considerable folklore. Springsteen also turned down several million dollars offered by Chrysler Corporation for using the song in a car commercial. (In later years, Springsteen performed the song accompanied only with acoustic guitar to make the song's original meaning more explicitly clear. An acoustic version also appeared on Tracks, a later album.) "Dancing in the Dark" was the biggest of seven hit singles from Born in the U.S.A., peaking at No. 2 on the Billboard music charts. The music video for the song featured a young Courteney Cox dancing on stage with Springsteen, an appearance which helped kickstart the actress' career; a number of the videos for the album were made by noted film directors Brian De Palma or John Sayles.
During the Born in the U.S.A. Tour he met model Julianne Phillips. They were married in Lake Oswego, Oregon, on May 13, 1985 surrounded by intense media attention. Opposites in background, their marriage was not to be long-lived. Springsteen's 1987 album Tunnel of Love described some of his unhappinesses in the relationship and during the subsequent Tunnel of Love Express tour, Springsteen took up with backup singer Patti Scialfa, which Phillips found out by reading tabloids. Phillips and Springsteen filed for divorce in 1989. The divorce was finalized in 1990.
The Born in the U.S.A. period represented the height of Springsteen's visibility in popular culture and the broadest audience demographic he would ever reach (this was further helped by releasing Arthur Baker dance mixes of three of the singles). Live/1975–85, a five-record box set (also released on three cassettes or three CDs), was released near the end of 1986 and also became a huge success, selling 13 million units in the U.S. and becoming the first box set to debut at No. 1 on the U.S. album charts. It is one of the best selling live albums of all time. It summed up Springsteen's career to that point and displayed some of the elements that made his shows so powerful to his fans: the switching from mournful dirges to party rockers and back; the communal sense of purpose between artist and audience; the long, intense spoken passages before songs, including those describing Springsteen's difficult relationship with his father; and the instrumental prowess of the E Street Band, such as in the long coda to "Racing in the Street". Despite its popularity, some fans and critics felt the album's song selection could have been better. Springsteen concerts are the subjects of frequent bootleg recording and trading among fans.
After this commercial peak, Springsteen released the much more sedate and contemplative Tunnel of Love (1987), a mature reflection on the many faces of love found, lost and squandered, which only selectively used the E Street Band. It presaged the breakup of his first marriage, to actress Julianne Phillips. Reflecting the challenges of love in Brilliant Disguise, Springsteen sang:
I heard somebody call your name, from underneath our willow. I saw something tucked in shame, underneath your pillow. Well I've tried so hard baby, but I just can't see. What a woman like you is doing with me.
The subsequent Tunnel of Love Express tour shook up fans with changes to the stage layout, favorites dropped from the set list, and horn-based arrangements; during the European leg in 1988, Springsteen's relationship with E Street Band backup singer Patti Scialfa became public. Later in 1988, Springsteen headlined the truly worldwide Human Rights Now! tour for Amnesty International. In the fall of 1989, he dissolved the E Street Band, and he and Scialfa relocated to California.