Meet the Old Boss: Bruce Springsteen Revisits Darkness

Peter Birkenhead

On May 26th, 1978, Resorts International opened the first legal casino in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town was released one week later.

No, Bruce and the E Street Band hadn’t planned to punctuate the dawning of a new era with their record. They probably never noticed the coincidence. But in the new documentary The Promise: the Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town, you can see that the album was an attempt to articulate a confrontation with what Springsteen called “the dark heart of a dream,” the rot that was already capturing, and about to eat away at, the promise of America.

Filmmaker Thom Zimny has unearthed and assembled long-forgotten footage of rehearsals and recording sessions shot in the studio from 1976-1978, and cut it together with commentary from Springsteen and his band mates to create an experience that is intimate in perspective and bracingly expansive in scope

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In the film, Springsteen talks about “the promise of rock and roll” and the sense it can provide of “the never-ending now.” He’s talking about the heightened, sometimes transcendent immediacy a good three minute song can deliver, but he could also be talking about the experience of making, or listening to, or watching him make, Darkness on the Edge of Town, a record in the most literal sense, of a personal actualization and a pivotal American moment.

“More than rich, more than famous, more than happy, I wanted to be great,” Springsteen says, and his record bears him out. The Promise provides a fly-on-the-wall look at the creative process of a possessed, controlling, almost excessively talented artist at the most decisive point in his career. A three-year song-writing bender unfolds before our eyes. We see Bruce pull a seemingly endless supply of ideas, rough drafts and fragments from his ratty old notebooks. We cringe as he shouts at the band to “shut the fuck up!”, laugh as Steve Van Zandt and Roy Bittan place bets on how many takes the Boss will insist on at the next day’s session, and in one particularly revealing scene, watch slack-jawed as Springsteen barks the word “Stick!” over and over, and an obviously spent Max Weinberg repeatedly lifts and drops a drumstick, trying to hit his snare in a way that will satisfy his deranged taskmaster’s demand for the perfect, “stickless” drum sound. “Drum sounds were always bigger in my head,” the now smiling and much healthier-looking Springsteen says in commentary.

But it’s the songs, more than anything, that make the film so arresting. A quiet, powerful sense of their emotional authenticity, thematic unity, and wider resonance slowly accrues over the course of the documentary, just as it does on the record. It was on the following album, The River, that Springsteen would articulate the question, “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?” but he begins to ask it on Darkness. Born to Run’s grand, “wall of sound” canvas was perfect for a kid with big dreams, but Darkness was made by a grown up asking new questions, and it has a much more stripped-down, grounded sound that is somehow hugely cinematic. No other records were speaking its language or asking its questions in 1978. Saturday Night Fever was all over the radio. And Grease. And a bunch of good records from Elvis Costello and Warren Zevon and Talking Heads. But London Calling was still a year away, and until it arrived, Springsteen was pretty much on his own, creatively. The United States was in the midst of a recession, an energy crisis, and what President Jimmy Carter would call a “crisis of confidence” in what came to be known as his “malaise” speech, although he never uttered the word.

And just around the corner lurked Ronald Reagan, voodoo economics, lots more casinos in Atlantic City, a far more devastating recession, collective national delusion and thirty years of the kind of darkening of the American consciousness Springsteen was inveighing against on his record. In his speech, Carter said:

We are at a turning point in our history. There are two paths to choose. One … leads to fragmentation and self-interest … a mistaken idea of freedom, the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others … one of constant conflict between narrow interests ending in chaos and immobility … All the promises of our future point to another path … of common purpose. That path leads to true freedom for our nation and ourselves.

The “true freedom” Carter was talking about, the freedom afforded by a capacity for honest self-refection and an awakened consciousness, was the subject of Darkness on the Edge of Town, released a year before the President’s speech. In 1978, American culture was just beginning a tentative examination, through the prisms of Vietnam and Watergate, of the country’s myriad mid-century sins. The question in the air was whether we’d have the courage to keep looking.

Springsteen was only 27 when he made Darkness. He was still a scrawny, hyper-kinetic manchild, playing four sweaty hours a night. But he had already begun to write about the freedoms, limitations and responsibilities of adulthood on Born to Run, already declared to the world that “I’m no hero, that’s understood.” And Born to Run brought him the kind of success that can stop a career dead in its tracks. Soon after critic Jon Landau (his future manager) famously anointed him “The Future of Rock and Roll,” Springsteen was caught up in a protracted legal battle over publishing rights with his manager, Mike Appel, which kept him from recording or releasing any music for the next three years. And he was wrestling with his own demons, many of them products of his stormy relationship with his father, a volatile, tragic but inscrutable figure in his life. So it made sense that this young, scruffy boardwalk rat might be called “Boss” before his time, and, once he was allowed back in the studio, make a record that was a fierce, clear-but-bleary-eyed look at the hard truths of modern American adulthood.

He spent those years touring and rehearsing with the E Street Band, (one of the many pleasures of re-listening to Darkness is discovering the ferocious musical command they developed during this period) and writing song after song about “how to carry our sins,”– the sins of our fathers, the burden of guilt, the temptations of living the kind of unconscious life “where no one asks any questions, or looks too long in your face,” and the desperate necessity of “heading straight into the storm,” defying the darkness and honoring, as he says in the film, “Life. The breath in your lungs:”

For the ones who had a notion, a notion deep inside / That it aint no sin to be glad you’re alive. / I wanna find one face that aint looking through me / I wanna find one place, I wanna spit in the face of these / Badlands.

The album is beautifully haunted, full of rage against the broken promises of America life, but it’s also full of hope, as each song’s narrator invariably reclaims those promises for himself:

I’ve done my best to live the right way / I get up every morning and go to work each day / But your eyes go blind and your blood runs cold / Sometimes I feel so weak I just want to explode… / The dogs on main street howl, / ’cause they understand, / If I could take one / moment into my hands / Mister, I ain’t a boy, no, I’m a man, / And I believe in a promised land.

In the film, Springsteen talks about wanting to write songs that were “angry, rebellious, but adult.” About the sense of loneliness he wanted to evoke, the sense of something more, “something in the night,” within himself and in the world, that seemed to require something essential from him. As we watch his commitment towards that force deepen, a sense of what’s happening in the world just outside the studio seeps in to the film, and it becomes clear that Darkness on the Edge of Town is a record of American reckoning, an accounting of the steep, dreadful costs of unconsciousness and the fulsome, liberating rewards of opening our eyes.

Springsteen never stopped writing during his forced hiatus. By the time the album was released he had written and recorded five times more songs than he ended up using on the record. (Twenty-one of those tracks were released by Columbia as a two-CD set, as “The Promise.”)

Most of the film is made up of footage shot in the 70′s by Barry Reebo, a friend of the band’s who used to follow them around the New Jersey club scene. Reebo apparently had a particular talent for making himself invisible while hanging around the studio during the Darkness sessions. Throughout the film, Springsteen and the band members seem entirely unself-conscious, clearly oblivious to Rebo’s presence, and completely immersed in the work at hand.

The record comes alive in a whole new way in the film, as the personalities of the band members, musical and otherwise, reveal themselves. Max Weinberg’s drumming is a massive, martial heartbeat, booming against the ribs of the songs in fear and defiance.

The interplay between Springsteen and Steve Van Zandt lives up to the legend of their friendship, in scenes like one in which they crack each other up as Bruce bangs out an elusive riff (which would later become “Sherry Darling,” from The River) on a piano while Miami Steve yelps adlibbed lyrics and drums accompaniment on a rolled up carpet.

And keyboardist Danny Federici, who died five years ago, speaks with short breath and visible love for his friends and their work. He contributed the film’s, and the album’s, most indelible musical moment: the plaintive solo at the end of “Racing in the Street,” a customarily swirling, keening wail made of equal parts lonesome calliope, funeral dirge and call to the faithful. It’s an incongruously light moment in a dark song, one that lifts it to a whole new place and magnifies the compassion with which Springsteen renders its narrator.

Darkness on the Edge of Town is full of that kind of light. Streetlamp light, early morning porch light, the dim, hot, cigarette light of vigil, lonely rage and yearning.

Rock & roll too often condescends to, ignores or sentimentalizes the everyday life of the people who move in and out of that light, who populate the highways, bars, and factories of these songs. But on Darkness on the Edge of Town they have their eyes wide open, bravely looking a hard life right in the face. And now as we listen to this haunted record again they haunt us. As we look back through the dark haze of thirty five years, and see them daring America to live up to its promise, it’s hard to escape the feeling that they’re somehow daring us to do the same.

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