It happens in the final verse, when a narrator whose marriage is on the rocks silently flirts with a woman in a bar. “There’s a girl across the bar / I get the message she’s sending / She ain’t looking too married / And me, well, honey, I’m pretending,” he sings. On that last line, another voice enters the picture: E Street Band backing vocalist Patti Scialfa. They harmonize a bit and then trade vocals in the coda.
Springsteen first met Scialfa in the early ’70s when she unsuccessfully auditioned for one of his early groups. Scialfa went on to become a fixture on the Jersey Shore music scene, and shortly before the Born in the U.S.A. tour began, Springsteen caught her at the Stone Pony in Asbury Park singing the Exciters’ “Tell Him.” He then hired her to help with the harmonies following the departure of Steven Van Zandt.
At that point, Springsteen was still married to Julianne Phillips, a model and actress 11 years his junior. They’d met during a seven-show stand in October 1984 at the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena. They married the following May, but all wasn’t well behind the scenes. His next album, 1987’s Tunnel of Love, was a song cycle about the emotional pitfalls of relationships. Its tone seemed to pivot on a lyric in the bridge of “Brilliant Disguise”: “I wanna know if it’s you I don’t trust / ‘Cause I damn sure don’t trust myself.”
During the Tunnel of Love tour, which began in February 1988, Springsteen brought Scialfa to the front of the stage, and the sexual chemistry between the two played out nightly. Questions as to whether the flirtation was real or performative were answered shortly after they hit Europe in June — the pair were caught by photographers in their underwear on a hotel balcony in Rome.
Springsteen was forced to admit that he and Phillips had been separated for about a month. Phillips filed for divorce that August, and it was made final in March 1989. Springsteen and Scialfa were married in June 1991.
But none of this was public knowledge when “One Step Up” arrived as a single on Feb. 27, 1988, four months after the arrival of Tunnel of Love and two days after its tour began. Built around a repeating acoustic guitar arpeggio, a warm synth pad and an overly compressed electric guitar, “One Step Up” is as close to a perfect country song as Springsteen has ever recorded; Kenny Chesney even covered it in 2002. He combines simple imagery — a broken-down car, a cold house — with details of a relationship falling apart. “One Step Up” peaked at No. 13 on the Billboard Hot 100 and hit No. 3 on the Adult Contemporary chart.
In his 2016 autobiography Born to Run, Springsteen wrote that he and Scialfa first got together on a September night, without specifying the year, while Phillips was out of town working. “One Step Up” was recorded in the late spring of 1987. However, Peter Ames Carlin’s 2012 biography Bruce cites insiders who suggest that the two had been together during the Born in the U.S.A. tour, before Phillips entered the picture.
So, that begs the question: By showcasing Scialfa in a song which features no other members of the E Street Band, was Springsteen subconsciously owning up to his affair or predicting it?
Watch the Video for Bruce Springsteen’s “One Step Up”