Did Bruce Springsteen level out his infidelity to One Step Up?

There is a moment in “One Step Up” when Bruce Springsteen can admit the turmoil that is engulfing his personal life at the time.

It happens in the last verse when a narrator whose marriage is on the rocks quietly flirts with a woman in a bar. “There’s a girl across the bar / I get the message she sends / She doesn’t look too married / And I, well, honey, I pretend,” he sings. On this last line, another voice comes into the picture: E Street Band singer Patti Scialfa. They harmonize a little and then swap the vocals in the coda.

Springsteen first met Scialfa in the early 1970s when she auditioned unsuccessfully for one of his early groups. Scialfa became a fixture on the Jersey Shore music scene, and just before the tour began in the US, Springsteen caught her playing the Stone Pony in Asbury Park and sang the Exciters’ “Tell Him”. He then hired her to help with the harmonies after Steven Van Zandt left.

At the time, Springsteen was still married to Julianne Phillips, a model and actress who was 11 years his junior. They had met during a seven show booth in October 1984 at the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena. They got married the following May, but behind the scenes everything wasn’t all right. His next album, 1987’s Tunnel of Love, was a cycle of songs about the emotional pitfalls of relationships. His tone seemed to turn to a text in the bridge of “Brilliant Disguise”: “I want to know if it’s you that I don’t trust / because I damn sure don’t trust myself.”

During the Tunnel of Love tour, which began in February 1988, Springsteen brought Scialfa to the top of the stage, and the sexual chemistry between the two played out every night. Questions as to whether the flirtation was real or performative were answered shortly after their arrival in Europe in June – the two were caught by photographers in underwear on a hotel balcony in Rome.

Springsteen had to admit that he and Phillips had been apart for about a month. Phillips filed for divorce in August and it became final in March 1989. Springsteen and Scialfa were married in June 1991.

But none of that was publicly known when “One Step Up” arrived as a single on February 27, 1988, four months after Tunnel of Love arrived and two days after its tour began. Based on a repetitive acoustic guitar arpeggio, a warm synth pad, and an overly compressed electric guitar, “One Step Up” comes as close to a perfect country song as Springsteen ever recorded. Kenny Chesney even treated it in 2002. He combines simple images – a broken car, a cold house – with details of a relationship that is falling apart. “One Step Up” reached # 13 on the Billboard Hot 100 and # 3 on the Adult Contemporary chart.

In his 2016 autobiography Born to Run, Springsteen wrote that he and Scialfa first met on a September night without giving the year while Phillips was out of town. “One Step Up” was recorded in the late spring of 1987. However, in Peter Ames Carlin’s 2012 biography, Bruce quotes insiders who suspect the two were together on the Born in the USA tour before Phillips got into the picture.

So this begs the question: did Springsteen subconsciously accept or predict his affair by presenting Scialfa in a song that does not feature other members of the E Street Band?

Check out the video for Bruce Springsteen’s “One Step Up”

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