(New to the countdown? Catch up here.)
Kevin Seal returns! Over the past four-plus hours, he customarily introduces videos only when returning from a commercial break. But coming out of the Poison video, he has a Bruce Springsteen interview clip to set up. Seal notes that Tunnel of Love was Springsteen’s first studio album in four years, but that “a stack of gold records” didn’t mean a bigger recording budget.
Cut to Springsteen sitting backstage, flanked by a road case and a guitar. Oddly, he’s in a puffy white armchair–I wonder if he carried it from town to town, or if it was specified in his tour rider that the Bossly buttocks would never have to be on a folding chair? As the camera zooms in on him, he talks about the home sessions: “Recorded with the windows open and the cars going by, and for some reason, it didn’t pick up on the tape. It was funny.” I guess you had to be there.
The video for “One Step Up” starts with a slow-motion black-and-white shot of what looks like snow falling on a woman’s bare back. Director Meiert Avis also did a bunch of U2 videos around this time, including “With You or Without You,” which this shot evokes, and the two previous videos from this album, “Tunnel of Love” (which we will see later in the countdown) and the lauded but remarkably dull single-shot video for “Brilliant Disguise,” which starts out with Bruce in the kitchen and gradually zooms into an extreme closeup so you can inspect the man’s stubble.
Springsteen stands at a microphone, wearing a black shirt and a suede jacket, gently strumming an acoustic guitar. He’s not as ripped as a few years earlier, but he looks really good for 39 years old. On the lyric “Went out and hopped in my old Ford,” we cut to footage of Jersey taken from a moving car, and you can’t help but wonder if Bruce is going to segue straight into “Woke up this morning, got yourself a gun.”
We see the car that is presumably Springsteen’s: a vintage American coupe with tailfins. It’s painted bright yellow, and looks like a taxicab that got lost on the way to Newark Airport. The car stops at a train track, and a passenger train rolls by.
Springsteen walks into a bar, wearing a black leather jacket, and grabs a stool. It turns out that this is the neighborhood strip club: there’s a dark-haired girl in a red bikini discreetly wiggling on a small stage, separated from the customers by an knee-high iron gate. More threatening to his marriage, perhaps, would be the bartender serving up the beer. I’m not positive, even after repeated plays–the lighting is murky–but I think it’s a quick cameo appearance by Patti Scialfa.
Scialfa sings backing vocals on the track, which is a tender, conflicted ballad about contemplating infidelity and trying to make a failing marriage work. “One Step Up” was recorded in 1987 and released as a single in February of 1988; Springsteen and his wife Julianne Phillips separated soon after. Phillips filed for divorce in August, and by October, Scialfa was on the cover of People, billed as “Springsteen’s mystery woman.” So by the time of this countdown, expensive ironies abounded.
More slo-mo grainy black-and-white: two hands, fingers splayed, moving towards each other. Are they going to high-five? No! Their fingers clasp and intertwine, and droplets of water spray off both of them–so apparently we are seeing two people in love who just got out of the swimming pool.
A flash of lightning segues elegantly into a shot of the stripper, illuminated by a strobe as she demurely gyrates. Springsteen purses his lips, and taps his drink with his left hand, getting his fingers wet. We can see his wedding ring.
A whole series of black-and-white clips, some mysterious–there’s one that looks like somebody’s foot is launching off someone else’s bald head, but I’m sure that can’t be right. At the bar, a guy in a knit cap smokes a pipe and nods at Bruce, in a way that suggests he was a big fan of The River. We cut to Springsteen at the microphone, and see some superfluous effects pedals.
Back to the bar, where Springsteen is now wearing a tan leather jacket. I assume this is meant to underscore that he’s been coming to this bar too often, not to dazzle us with costume changes. He looks thoughtful–Bruce isn’t a great actor, but he can do pensive. At the train tracks, the yellow coupe still waits. Now there’s a train going the other direction.
Despite a few odd choices by Avis, this video nicely complements a lovely, adult song, which felt mature for MTV even in 1988 and would be wholly out of place today. You get the feeling that after a bunch of MTV misfires, Springsteen just wanted to put in a day’s work on the video shoot and not be embarrassed by the result.
The song’s lyric seems to finish with a glimmer of hope: the narrator dreams that he holds his girl in his arms, dancing into eternity. But the final chorus brings us right back to the reality of his crumbling marriage: “One step up and two steps back.” At the bar, Bruce closes his eyes and is tormented by tasteful black-and-white footage of a woman’s hand running over somebody else’s skin, and then a man’s hands, embracing a woman. He opens his eyes, as if he’s seeing the world anew.
“One Step Up” hit #13 on the singles chart. You can watch the video here.