Context is everything.
I've found that to be a pretty good rule of thumb, in general, but when it comes to Bruce Springsteen's music, especially so. Springsteen himself seemed to recognize this, as illustrated in a story told by Dave Marsh in his book Glory Days. When Ronald Reagan and others first began misinterpreting the songs on Born in the USA, especially (but not exclusively) the title track, Bruce was bemused but not terribly concerned; surely in the context of his entire oeuvre, the meaning was unmistakable. Only once it was pointed out that Born in the USA had sold more than all his other albums combined had did he realize how many of his fans had no knowledge of his previous work and how easily, therefore, they could misconstrue his artistic intent.
Which brings us to "Valentine's Day," the gorgeous closer to Tunnel of Love, perhaps his most overlooked masterpiece. Of all the times rock and roll has broached the subject of love—which is to say, pretty much as long as rock and roll has existed—only Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks is superior to Tunnel when it comes to entire album-length meditations on the topic. With only a few exceptions, the songs all deal with the difficulties of sustaining an adult relationship. It's only on the final track that the narrator seems to finally realize what he's got and accept that the only path to happiness for him is through the love of his (presumably) wife.
It opens with the singer, as in so many Springsteen songs, driving. True to form, he's driving a big ol' car on the highway at night.
I'm driving a big lazy car rushin' up the highway in the dark
I got one hand steady on the wheel and one hand's tremblin' over my heart
But unlike the narrator of "Racing in the Street," for instance, or certainly "Stolen Car" or "State Trooper," he's not looking for comfort or saftey in solitude or the open road—this time the road itself is bringing absolutely no peace.
It's pounding baby like it's gonna bust right on through
And it ain't gonna stop till I'm alone again with you
And then, for what was then tremendously rare, Springsteen wrote of fatherhood in unambiguously positive terms:
A friend of mine became a father last night
When we spoke in his voice I could hear the light
Of the skies and the rivers the timberwolf in the pines
And that great jukebox out on Route 39
They say he travels fastest who travels alone
But tonight I miss my girl mister tonight I miss my home
The bridge is interesting. The narrators ask several (unusally flowery) questions:
Is it the sound of the leaves
left blown by the wayside
That's got me out here on this spooky old highway tonight
Is it the cry of the river
With the moonlight shining through
But the answer doesn't seem to quite follow logically:
That ain't what scares me baby
What scares me is losing you
So...he's out on the highway not on business but, apparently, because he's scared of losing her? Meaning, what, that he wasn't due to return home yet?
We'll get back to that.
Let's skip, instead, to the final verse:
They say if you die in your dreams you really die in your bed
But honey last night I dreamed my eyes rolled straight back in my head
And God's light came shinin' on through
I woke up in the darkness scared and breathin' and born anew
It wasn't the cold river bottom I felt rushing over me
It wasn't the bitterness of a dream that didn't come true
It wasn't the wind in the grey fields I felt rushing through my arms
No no baby it was you
So hold me close honey say you're forever mine
And tell me you'll be my lonely valentine
And this is where context becomes vital. Because what finally hit home for the narrator, the huge epiphany he had, was never found when he was actually with her—it all came to him in a dream, when he was miles and miles away from her. So now he's on his way back home to be with her...but he's not there yet. And given that the things that have affected him the most are talking to a friend on the phone and a dream of his girl, it's highly unlikely that these overwhelming feelings of love will last long once they're actually together. The idea of love, his belief in the importance of love, is more powerful than love itself, or at least, than the love he and this woman have for each.
There are several clues that lead to that conclusion. The first is the context of the album: song after song explores just how hard it is to make a relationship work—and even the very few that seem, at first glance, to have things going okay actually reveal, upon examination, serious hidden and potentially fatal flaws in them. ("All That Heaven Will Allow," for instance: again, the narrator is trying to get to the girl but is unable to.)
But the other is right there in the final words. He sweetly asks her to be his valentine. But not his tender valentine or his loving valentine or his gorgeous valentine or his blushing valentine. He asks her to be his lonely valentine. But...what kind of valentine is lonely? Unfortunately, not a truly happy one.
And yet the keyboard line as the music fades out—one of the extraordinarily rare non-4/4 songs in the Springsteen catalog—is ever so lovely and gentle and soothing that you're tempted to believe things'll work out for them, that they'll live happily ever after. But even there's a hint: he could just as easily have gone with an ascending melody. Instead, it's falling. Beautifully, but inexorably.