Lawdamercy, Springsteen Saves! Testimony from the Howling Dog Choir (or Tramps Like Us, Baby We’re Born Again)

Robert Duncan: Creem 1978

The middle-aged white man who runs the biggest oldies shop in the very old city of New Orleans is ranting hysterically on the edge of tears. He has recently seen the movie American Hot Wax and senses that history has passed him by one last time.

Springsteen_BigMan_1978_.jpg“That’s right. I was a disk jockey in Canton, Ohio when Alan Freed was a d.j. in Akron. I was playing nigger records, and you know what Alan Freed was playing? He was playing country & western! Country & western music! Then he starts playing nigger records and they fire him after a day. One day.

“Well, I’m sitting in this coffee shop with him afterwards, and he’s stirring his coffee real slow and looking over my shoulder out the window. I says to him, ‘Alan, just look at what you’re doing. ‘And he says, ‘What?’ And I say, ‘Alan, you’re stirring your goddamn coffee with a spoon! And there’s the cream and sugar sitting right over there and you haven’t put a one of them in!’

“Then I tell him that I’m just going to have to write his next contract for him and that he’s not going to get fired no more! A no-fire contract! I told him that you got to ask for what you want’ cause if you don’t, they figure you ain’t worth nothin’ anyway! And I did it! I did the contract! I did his contract! Listen to me! I created Alan Freed!!! Did you read that in the history? Did you see that in the goddamn movie??? I said, Did you see that in that goddamn movie?”

And he falls into a little red-faced jig behind his cash register with one arm stretching forward to detain us further and the other stretching beseechingly towards the sky. All we asked was how much for a Huey Smith record.

Several hundred miles up the road from New Orleans, in an empty, hermetically modern conference room that is acutely air conditioned against the buttery summer air, Bruce Springsteen, who’s never met the white man in New Orleans, tells me what he has been thinking about.

“It’s a real simple story. You grow up, and they bury you. They keep throwing dirt on you, throwing dirt on and dirt on, and some guys they bury so deep they never get out. Six foot, twelve foot down. Other guys, something comes along and they’re able to get some of it away. They get a hand free or they get free one way or another.

“I don’t think you ever really blow it all off, but the idea is to keep charging. It’s like anything. Everybody can’t make it. You can see the guys on the street who aren’t going to make it, and that’s a frightening thing.

“That’s what I’m talking about. That some people get dug in so deep that there’s a point where it stops getting shovelled on them and they roll over and start digging down. They literally roll over and start digging down themselves. Because they don’t know which way is up. You get down so deep that you don’t know which way’s up. You don’t know if you’re digging sideways, up, down, you don’t know.. until something comes along, if you,re lucky, and shakes you ’til all of a sudden you have a certain sense of direction and at least know where you’re going.

“A lot of people don’t ever get that. You go into the bars and you see the guys wandering around in there who got the crazy eyes. They just hate. They’re just looking for an immediate expenditure of all this build-up. They’re just screaming to throw it all off. But you can’t and it turns into, like, death throes. A guy walks into a bar, a little guy, and he walks up to another guy, a dome, and the little guy’s looking to get creamed. Looking to get massacred. He wants to. ‘Look,’ he’s saying, ‘I’m dying here and I don’t know what the fuck to do.’ It’s a scary thing when you see the guys that ain’t gonna get out, just ain’t gonna get out.

“But i guess it comes down to …You just see too many faces, you just see too many.. I’s a funny kind of thing. It’s the kind of thing where you can’t save everybody, but you gotta try.”

I remember the guy in New Orleans and how his herky-jerky movements and his near-weeping are less like death throes than like the throes of post-death, the confused, bizarre, parodistic behavior of a dead body responding to the last garbled signals of the brain. It seems a remarkable burden for Bruce Springsteen to have to “try” with this guy. But Bruce is radiant in the sense of his mission these days, reminding me of no one so much as Catcher In The Rye’s Holden Caulfield, whose similar passion steered him straight to the nuthouse. Bruce has never read the book, so I tell him about the key scene where Holden tells his baby sister Phoebe. Says Holden:

“You know what I’d like to be? I mean if I had my goddam choice?”

“What? Stop Swearing.”

“You know that song, ‘If a body catch a body comin’ through the rye’? I’d like-”

“It’s ‘If a body meet a body coming through the rye’!” old Phoebe said. “It’s a poem by Robert Burns.”

“I know it’s a poem by Robert Burns.”

She was right, though. It is “If a body meet a body coming through the rye. “I didn’t know it then, though.

“I thought it was ‘If a body catch a body,’ ” I said. “Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be. I know it’s crazy.”

“Wow,” says Bruce when I finish telling him the story. “That’s wild.”

***

Three years ago, Bruce Springsteen, a nice boy who loved rock ‘n’ roll more than anything, was dragged into the ugly and brutal fluorescence of American celebrity. For all his naivete (that same naivete that allowed him, for one thing, to love rock’n’ roll so much when everybody else had given up and gotten a job), and perhaps because of it, he bore up under the relentless scrutiny, managing in the process to acquit himself remarkably well during his first big league rock’n’ roll tour. In the meantime, his record company made hay from his new celebrity and hustled his Born To Run album to number one on the charts and eventually to platinum sales figures. And, so, three years ago a “superstar” was born; surely, the poet must die.

Darkness On The Edge Of Town took eleven months to record. Legal disputes of the kind that tend to accrue to anyone who is suddenly rich and famous occupies the remainder of his over two year layoff. But what appears to have really happened during this period is that Bruce Springsteen stood back, took stock of his world both in and, more importantly, out of rock ‘n’ roll, and focused back on his career with a newly keen and powerful vision, becoming more the artist than ever. This talent no longer overwhelms him of Darkness but is harnessed fully to a coherent, usually incisive, and definitely more mature view of the world. “This album’s stripped down,” Springsteen says, “to run as clean as possible and stay true.”

Paradoxically while it is stripped down, it is also more complete. Where there was once only hope, now there is also warning. Where he once dealt only with youthfulness and “kids,” he now also deals with age (“Racing In The Street”) and parents (“Factory,” “Adam Raised A Cain”). Where everything used to be about movement, the faster the better, now there is a concern with standing still and stiller (“Factory,” “Streets Of Fire”). Where a sense of community was all-important, with Spanish Johnny and the Magic Rat and Puerto Rican Jane and Eddie and a whole host of people crisscrossing one another’s lives, now a man stands alone on a hill, having lost everything and everyone, in “Darkness On The Edge Of Town.” Where he once put certain things into occasionally inadequate words, now he knows to wail wordlessly. Not that Bruce has forsaken the highway, the kids, the gang, the words, or any of that, just that on this new album these concerns have unfolded to reveal their many facets, their true intricacies and subtleties. “Darkness,” says Springsteen, “is a confrontation with a lot of things. Born To Run had a certain romantic feel. This is more realistic.”

But realistic is a misleading description. There’s nothing cold and hard-edged about Darkness. The realism here is more naturalism or social realism, realism with a purpose beyond the mere representational, something along the lines of what the WPA artist of the 30′s employed to inspire the common man from his massive malaise. No doubt, there is a reformer, a helper at work on this record and one who seems especially driven to the task by deep spiritual connections. I ask Springsteen if he feels religious.

“Yeah, well, but no in the organized way,” he responds. “I was raised Catholic and everybody who was raised Catholic hates religion. They hate it, can’t stand it. It’s funny, I went to a funeral the other day and all my relatives were there and we go to talking about it. It’s a funny thing, they’re all in their thirties, my sister and all, and they all feel the same way I do. But their kids go to Catholic scholl and to church every Sunday. They’re really under the gun to this Catholic thing.

“I quit that stuff when I was in eighth grade. By the time you’re older than 13 it’s too ludicrous to go along with anymore. By the time I was in eighth grade I just lost it all. I decided to go to public high school, and that was a big deal. If you got up in eighth grade class and said that next year you were going to Freehold Regional it was like… ‘Are you insane??? You are dirt! You are the worst! You’re a… barbarian!’” He gives a short laugh.

I tell him that what I wanted to get at is where the idea for a song like “Adam Raised A Cain” came from.

Springsteen explains: “I did read the Bible some. I tried to read it for a while about a year ago. It’s fascinating. I got into it quite a ways. Great stories. Actually, what happened was I was thinking of writing that particular song, and I went back trying to get a feeling for it.”

Elsewhere Bruce has mentioned The Grapes of Wrath (speaking of social realism and religious allegory) as having been a source of inspiration for Darkness. He readily volunteers that the movie was “one of the big influences,” but waxes a bit guilty when asked about the book. “I haven’t read it yet,” he says, adding quickly, “but I’ve got it in my suitcase. I have got it.

“The movie affected me a lot. It brought up a lot of questions I didn’t think about before. There’s the great part where he’s coming back from prison and he finds that little guy hiding in the closet. Little guy says, ‘They’re coming.’ ‘Well, who’s coming?’ ‘They’re coming. Taking away all the land.’ And then the guy comes on the tractor and it’s their friend. They ask him, ‘Who’s doing this?’ And the tractor guy just says, ‘Well, I got my orders from this guy and it goes back to him.’

“To me, it’s like, Where do you point the gun? There’s no place to take aim. There’s nobody to blame. It’s just things, just the way. Whose fault is it? It’s a little bit of this guy, a little bit of that guy, a little bit of this other guy. That was real interesting to me… And it was great that when that movie came out it was a very popular movie.” As I write, Darknesss is an immensely popular record.

Darkness On The Edge Of Town is not a tour de force like Born To Run. That could never be because the things on Darkness and in Bruce Springsteen have become too complex, too ambiguous. The album is a transitional piece, in two ways. It is transitional as far as content in that it is a questioning of the old values and a broadening towards the new; it is transitional as far as Springsteen’s career goes because it marks a full ripening of his artistic powers and the emergence as well of a serious social conscience.

Bruce is telling me why he likes touring. “Home never had a big attraction for me. I get excited staying in all these different hotels, in a whole lot of rooms. I’m always curious what the wallpaper’s gonna be like. Do I have a big bed or a little one? And what’s this funny painting? Always a sense of transition.” Darkness is a transitional record because Springsteen is devoted to the transition that is living.

***

I was on the road three days and nights with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, and that’s about as good a time stand in which to hold a resurrection as I can think of. The problem is I don’t know who exactly was more resurrected, Bruce and the band or me. Southside Johnny once spoke glowingly of Bruce in terms of “charisma.” But charisma has the odour of the secular. After what I saw, heard , and felt, I’m looking for a word that’s something more in the religious price range. And maybe three confirmed miracles.

No sweat. It’s 100 degrees in Houston in July. The death toll from the Texas heat has topped 20 persons and is still rising and Bruce Springsteen is not sweating at the intermission of his titanic three-hour show. Now, some among our rock stars would approach such an accomplishment from the obvious direction – e.g. no effort, no sweat. But not Springsteen. “I’m jumping around and there’s oceans of sweat coming off arms and face and all of a sudden… no more sweat! I feel my face, bone dry. I guess I just got no more. Weird.”

And then he went out for another hour and a half.

Having not seen Springsteen and the band perform for nearly two years, what initially strikes me my first night on the road – besides the fact that the new songs sound great, besides the fact that he does superior versions of both “Fire” and “Because The Night,” besides the fact that the band is as tight and expressive a rock’n’ roll unit as I’ve ever seen, besides the fact that Clarence has achieved such elegance, such authority on stage and on the sax that he more than fills his billing as “King of the World,” besides all that and much, much more – is simply the fact that the set is so gruelling and the tour is so long. No sweat, no wonder.

Springsteen_Buffalo_1978_.jpgIn Houston, it occurs to me that Springsteen’s rap in the middle of “Growin Up” is sort of the glue that binds them. He talks about the days when he and Steve were playing around Asbury, waiting to be discovered, how they can’t figure out what the missing X factor is and how the ex-manager of the Byrds and the ex-manager of so and so have all said they’ll come down and see them and so forth. Eventually, Bruce winds it around to Clarence descending from a spaceship to make the band complete. Space travel aside, it’s clear that this is pretty much the way it was with this band (indeed, what band didn’t count on the helping hand of the friend of a friend of an ex-manager sometime?), and that reciting the story, remembering their humble beginnings, their shared past, provides a sense of – if you’ll pardon me – roots. That,along with love.

As if to confirm my theory, Bruce later tells me another story about the early days when they first travelled to Boston and were staying in the attic of a friend’s house where there were only four mattresses. “So every night after the gig we had to try and figure out whose turn it was to sleep on the floor.” He laughs. “But it really didn’t matter. The guys were great. They’re guys who you can go through that sort of stuff with. It was never a down. Me and Steve would always sit back and say, ‘As bad as this is right now, it will never be as bad as it was before we made an album or got a break.’ Who are we to complain? This is Easy Street. I’m lucky number one. So are all those guys. A bunch of lucky jokers. It’s a lot of work, but you’re doing something you like. We always considered ourselves to be way in front with the whole ball game.

“I know what it’s like not to be able to do what you want to do, ’cause when I go home that’s what I see. It’s no fun. It’s no joke. I see my sister and her husband. They’re living the lives of my parents in a certain kind of way. They got kids, they’re working hard. They’re just real nice, real soulful people. These are people you can see something in their eyes. It’s really something. I know a lot of people back there…” The picture looms vivid in his mind, so does what can only be described as his mission. “That’s why my album, a big part of it, is the way it is. It’s about people that are living the lives of their parents, working two jobs… It’s also about a certain thing where they don’t give up. I asked my sister, ‘What do you do for fun?’ ‘I don’t have any fun,’ she says. She wasn’t kidding… I’m just really thinking about a whole lot of things.”

He thinks at his hands for a moment. “A whole lot of stuff went down on me in the last year or two and then I was around home a lot and there was a lot of stuff going on with the people I was friends with back there, and I see it from all sides. Which is why I can’t go out on stage at night and not try and bring it home. Because… what an ingrate??? What a spit in the face of everything that is anything??? I could never do that. I’d rather get thrown off the bus. They should throw me off the bus at 60 m.p.h. ‘You don’t belong in the bus!’ It’s funny when I read something I say about this stuff. I always sound like some kind af fanatic, some kind of zealot. But I think there’s things that people take for granted. How can you take it for granted? I stick too close to the other side to know what’s real about this side. And I still got too many people who are close to me who are still living on that other side.”

The Bruce Springsteen tour rolls on into New Orleans in a sort of time warp trip from Houston, a forbidding city of the future, into this forbidden city of the past. “Who you got in here?” the cop who lolls about the lobby of our French Quarter hotel asks the desk clerk watching the unusual activity. “Bruce ‘Springsteen,’ “drawls the clerk, adding in his mind no doubt, “You know, that Jewish fellow from up north.” Bruce Springsteen? That’s right, or at least that’s how they’ve got him on the guest manifest.

Music. It’s everywhere. If anyplace, American music was born here, right down the block from the hotel at what is now called Jackson Square and what was once called Congo Square because that’s where all the blacks and their music were auctioned into slavery. Musicians. There’s probably more per square foot in New Orleans than anyplace in the world. (Just ask the white man at the biggest oldies shop.) Always a horn blowing somewhere in the heat. It’s not quite the 20th Century here. It’s not quite reality. Maybe it’s the movies, but it’s not faked. around the corner the Good Friends Bar has amended its factory-printed sign with some hand-lettering: “Under new management – Same old customers.” No future, only past in New Orleans. In the middle of Bourbon Street, a scrawny black kid dances a little circle, metal taps taped onto his raggedy sneakers. I take that back: No future, only New Orleans here. An existence outside of time.

He’s a tee-totalling Yankee, whose songs these days have more in common with the rural West than the South. But when he talks about rock’n’ roll as if it were some spirit creature that takes possession of a man, or, indeed, when he is playing on a stage like a man possessed, it is clear that he belongs in New Orleans, this musician/poet/Catholic/fallen-away Catholic/religious seeker/religious person (?)/exhortator/mad dancer and raspy-voiced shaman Bruce Springsteen along with his E Street tent show. Does he even know where he is? It’s hard to tell. But of the three shows I saw this tour, this one is the best.

Halleujah! The biblical wailing of “Adam Raised A Cain” becomes a voodoo chant here. The fever and “The Fever,” a song he has added in Houston, burn white-hot, turning the soaking air to steam. The jungle drums and jungle sound effects of “Not Fade Away”/”She’s The One” bounce off Jackson Square and echo back to the coastline of Africa. Like the spontaneous Dixieland parades that can spil down Bourbon Street at a moment’ notice, Bruce and Clarence spil off the stage and up the aisles into the reaching and exultant crowd, a rock ‘n’ roll parade. Then there’s “The Rap.”

Bruce Springsteen as usual steps out in the middle of “Growin’ Up” to talk. In Houston, he told a sci-fi/horror movie story about things that aren’t really spooky; tonight, he invokes the real thing, and it goes something like this:

“When I was a boy there were two things in my house that my parents didn’t like. One was me. The other was the guitar. ‘That goddam guitar!’ my father used to say. I think he thought all the things in my room were made by the same company, ‘That Goddamn guitar. The Goddamn stereo. Those Goddamn records…’ Anyway, one day my parents called me downstairs for a talk. And they sit me down at the kitchen table with ‘em and they start telling me it’s about time I start getting serious with my life. ‘And don’t tell me about that goddamn guitar!’ my father says. See, my father wants me to be a lawyer and my mother wants me to be an author. ‘Be a lawyer,’ my father tells me, ‘then you’ll be all set. Lawyers own the world!’ Now, my mother’s Italian and my father’s Irish – and I’m stuck here in the middle – so they decide I should go around the corner and have a talk with the priest about my life. ‘And don’t say anything about the goddamn guitar!’

“Okay, I go around the corner and I walk up the steps to the rectory and I ring the bell and after a while the priest comes out. “I’m Mr. Springsteen’s son,’ I say to the priest, ‘and he told me I should come over to you and have a serious talk what I’m gonna do with my life. ‘The priest, he thinks for a minute, and then says to me, ‘Have you tried praying, my son? I think you should speak to God about this.’

“So I go home and I’m thinking about how I’ve got to speak to God and how to find him and then I call up the Big Man, Clarence, ’cause he knows everybody. I say, ‘listen, I got to talk to God about my life. You know where I can find him?’ ‘Sure,’ he said to me, ‘I spoke to him last night. He’ll be up on the hill by the cemetery tonight.’ Great.

“That night I go over to the hill by the cemetery and it’s real dark and I’m climbin’ the hill and climbin’ until I’m almost at the top and I stop and I’m lookin’ all around. Then I look up at the sky and I say, ‘God?’”

Perfectly timed, right on the mark, out of the cavernous rapture of the audience a New Orleans kid yells in response: “What?” And Springsteen cracks up. Still laughing, he tosses back, “God’s in the cheap seats tonight. …Listen, God, if I’d've know I could’ve at least gotten ya a backstage pass or something.” The crowd whoops. The shaman is back in control.

Springsteen says, “‘God? You there?’” At which point, Danny Federici hits an eerie, piercing electronic note that ricochets around his speakers like a bolt from heaven. Springsteen crouches in the spotlight in awe and in alarm. “‘God, ya gotta help me. My mother wants me to be an author, and my father wants me to be a lawyer and they told me to go to the priest and he told me to come to you and all I want to do’” – he pauses reverentially – “‘is play my guitar…!” He pauses again. The music swells slightly but otherwise, there’s complete silence. The audience sits breathless, waiting to see: Can this Yankee rock’n’ roller conjure too? Springsteen resumes in a harsh, rushed whisper. “All of a sudden, there’s this light in the sky above me and a great big voice booms out and says…” Beat. The music drops down. “‘Let it rock!’” And the band hits it, Springsteen singing, “I stood stone-like at midnight…” The audience is on their feet cheering. It works!

After the show a group of European journalists is ushered backstage for an informal press conference with Bruce. While the rest of the band members casually make their way to the post concert party on the other side of town. Springsteen, who is as uplifting and inspiring a performer as there is, becomes almost vehement denying an English reporter’s suggestion that rock’n’ roll is about nihilism. Two days later I remind Bruce of the exchange. He makes a small boxlike gestures with his hands to try and contain this belief he feels is too big to contain.

“Sometimes people ask,” he tells me, “who are your favorites? My favorites change. Sometimes it’s Elvis. Sometime it’s Buddy Holly. Different personalities. For me, the idea of rock’n’ roll is sort of my favorite. The felling. It’s a certain thing… Like; rock’n’ roll came to my house” – again, rock’n’ roll becomes palpable, become flesh – “where there seemed to be no way out. It just seemed like a dead end street, nothing I like to do, nothing I wanted to do except roll over and go to sleep or something. And it came into my house – snuck in ya know, and opened up a whole world of possibilities. Rock’n’ roll. The Beatles opened doors. Ideally, if any stuff I do could ever do that for somebody, that’s the best. Can’t do anything better than that. Rock’n’ roll motivates. It’s the big gigantic motivator, at least it was for me.

“There’s a whole lot of things involved, but that’s what I think you gotta remain true to. That idea, that feeling. That’s the real spirit of the music. You have to give to the audience and try to click that little trigger, that little mechanism. It’s different things to different people. I got in a cab with a guy down South, and we’re riding around then he says, ‘Hey, you know what I like about your shows is I go see a concert and I’m fixed all day for the next day, and when I go to your shows I fell good for a week.’ ” Springsteen wheezes a laugh. “This is what it is. I thought that was a good review.”

Another good review: During the show that night in New Orleans, a primitively fortyish woman leans over the edge of the stage and hands Bruce a tiny object. At the end of the song, I see him lean back down to her, trying to return the gift, but she won’t budge. Finally, there is nothing he can do but pocket the gift and get on with the show. “It was a ring. And I looked at it, and it looked like a real thing, you know, with stones in it. So I tell her – I can’t keep this. And she tells me it was her grandmother’s engagement ring, and she wants me to have it! That’s gonna make me keep it? Maybe if she’d told me she’d told me she’d just bought it at Woolworth’s for 39 cents… but her grandmother’s engagement ring??? Wow, what’s that?”

That, I tell him, must be True Love. He leaves the ring with the hall manager with the instructions to return it to the lady should she come around looking, having had a change of heart. That is caring.

Bruce heads back to the hotel after the press conference, and I’m over at the party at Acy’s Pool Hal & Restaurant on Sophie Wright Place. Situated in a poor black and white neighborhood outside the French Quarter, Acy’s is a windowless cement floor dump where the only light is from the abrasive fluorescent lamps swinging over the six fully occupied pool tables. Something right out of the movie Fat City (there is in fact a city outside of New Orleans called Fat City).

By the time I arrived, the crew and band had decimated the Dixie beer, leaving only Miller and Pabst Blue Ribbon, and Ernie K. Doe and his pick-up band playing off in the corner have decimated the band and crew. Ernie K. Doe had his one and only hit record with “Mother-In-Law” in the early 60′s and until an intrepid advance scout from Springsteen party unearthed him, had been living in relative obscurity like so many other greats of his era in New Orleans. As I walk in, Ernie K. Doe, dapper in a beige multi-vented suit over a dark open-neck silk shirt, every hair carefully pomaded into place, has run out of words to the song.

But he doesn’t want the folks to stop dancing, and is repeating “Well, all right” endlessly over the solid locomotive beat. When after a good five minutes Ernie K. Doe has run out of “Well, all right”‘s , he brings the music down and introduces the band – but not by name. “Let’s have a hand for the man on the bass!” he shouts, and there’s a round of applause. “Let’s have a hand for the man on the drums!” and so on, until he gets to Clarence Clemons, who is sitting in discreetly with his sax. I wonder. For all Ernie K. Doe knows, Clarence is just another guy who sauntered in off the street. Like I say, music is at least second nature to New Orleans. I listen carefully to his introductions. Without missing a beat, with not the slightest emphasis, Ernie K. Doe calls out, “Let’s have a hand for the man on the tenor sax!” The locomotive beat continues. Ernie K. Doe falls silent (these party gigs get tired after a while) and then while the steady semi-drunk dance floor continues to bop, Ernie K. Doe goes through the introductions (one more time!) for want of somthing better. “Let’s have another hand…” Clarence Clemons plays on discreetly, diligently, strictly “the man on the tenor sax” playing for the love of rock’n’ roll.

As much as you can take any of the Confederacy at face value (you can’t really), you can say that Jackson, Mississippi looks like a simple, sleepy town, and that it is. After a day off in New Orleans, the Springsteen/E Street juggernaut is off to Jackson, a couple hundred miles up the Delta. The auditorium there is probably the newest and largest structure in town, and two different times, as I’m standing in front of it, cars full of kids pull up to ask where they can find it. I tell them and assume they do, because the hall in Jackson is full later.

Bruce Springsteen says that playing new halls like this makes him nervous. He much prefers a place that’s been “broken into rock’n’ roll.” I understand his point. The crowd here is relatively subdued, almost indifferent to the carpeting and new chandeliers. But belying his statement, the show is about as loose as Bruce and the band get.

“Let’s get some lights on ya. I got a pimple on my face and you probably look better than I do,” Springsteen says to the crowd at one point in the show. By intermission, of course, caution has been cast to the wind and everyone’s clapping and bopping, and crowding the front of the stage as much as the older security guards will allow.

One underfed blond boy is particularly excited. Oblivious to the exhortations of the guards, he is dancing wildly at the edge of the stage, eyes riveted on his favorite rock’n’ roller. At one point, between songs, he tosses a Bruce Springsteen belt buckle onstage, a present. Bruce picks it up, admires it, thanks the boy, and without thinking asks jokingly, “So where’s the belt?” Need I say more? In a second, the fan has ripped off his belt and tosses it up, too. Next comes his shirt. The guards make their move. “I had my eyes closed to sing a verse,” says Bruce, “and the next time I looked, the kid’s shirt is on the stage. I’m looking around for his pants, when I see the guard grab him.”

There is a slight scuffle (slight compared to the heavy head-busting tactics of most of the sadisto New York security goons), and the boy disappears into the crowd. Bruce tramps the edge of the stage looking for the boy; implicit in his warning to the guard to cool it. Then he runs back to Miami Steve who relays the message to one of the road crew. “‘Find him. Find the kid,’ is what I said,” says Bruce. “‘Cause I don’t want him going out.’ What happens is that a lot of the security in a lot of places don’t understand. Kids get real excited, but they’re not mean; they’re just excited. I always watch out. Like in San Diego, I had to jump down and get this kid out. One of the security guards had the kid by the head. I’d seen the kid at a couple of shows and I’d talked to him outside. This kid’s not looking for trouble. What happens is the kids have a reaction to security, which is if the security guard grabs ‘em, they think they’re gonna get thrown out and they try to get away. People just don’t wanna get thrown out of the show. Anyway, this kid in San Diego’s real excited. He runs up to the stage. They grab him and try to pull him back and he tries to get away. So I went down and I pulled the kid away and the security guards are trying not to let go ’cause they’re afraid he’s gonna do something. Finally, we sent him up onstage and let him sit on the side. You gotta watch. You gotta do that. I can’t watch kids getting knocked down in the front row because that’s me. That’s a part of me.”

Did someone say something about a fisher of men? Maybe the times are too complicated for miracles. Maybe, as Springsteen says, “The enemy’s complicated, much more subtle now.” Maybe it’s just hard to be a saint in America. Too much dirt. Too many faces.

The underfed blond kid without his shirt has brought one more present to the backstage entrance after the show where he’s waited an hour a half for Springsteen to make his customary appearance (I have detained Bruce with this interview). Springsteen picks the kid out of the small crowd around the door, asks him how he is, laughs and then carefully autographs the boy’s pro-offered frisbee. “Thanks!” the kid says feverishly. “Thanks for comin’!” says Springsteen.

As Bruce turns his attention to other fans, the hungry boy looks at his back with intense hungry eyes, hesitates for a second, his jaw hanging open, his tongue secretly wrapping itself around a pronunciation he wants to get right. Then as the crowd flows between the boy and his idol, the boy decides to do it and then blurts at Bruce’s back. It’s a word he’s been working on for days, weeks, maybe months or years: it’s his last and dearest gift to this Yankee guy who means so much to him. “Shalom!” he shouts. That his final, extra special gift goes unheard in the hubbub doesn’t matter. The boy dashes off, happy to be saved again (at least for the week), happier that he has tried something for Bruce Springsteen.

“Where you all from?”

New York City,” my companion and I respond.

“I was producing shows at the Fox and then Alan came up and was producing shows at the Fox and Paramount, too. We were both doing shows, but you might say I created New York City!!!” The white man in the oldies shop goes on and on. We’re not allowed to leave.

“And that Hank Williams story, that movie, ya know [Your Cheating Heart, 1956]. There he is lying in the back of the car all dead on booze and pills and where was he headed for? Canton, Ohio! Did you read that? Did you see that in the movie? There I am backstage, cussing him all up and down, saying that when I get my hands on that son-of-a-bitch I’m gonna tear him limb from limb. I’m out 750 bucks! I was producin’ a Hank Williams show that night and I’m out 750 bucks! 750 bucks I don’t have! Wouldn’t that’ve made a much better ending for that movie? Me standing backstage pulling out my hair and cussing him out ’cause I’m out 750 bucks! Did you ever hear about that?

“Huey Smith, the same Huey ‘Piano’ Smith right here on this record. (He’s a preacher now. Don’t make no money. Nooo! Huey ‘Piano’ Smith mows lawns for two bucks an hour!) So Huey says to me he just wants to make enough money so he can sue that producer of his. I say, ‘You got it all wrong, Huey. That’s not the way to approach it.’ I say, ‘Huey, I got an idea. You and me are gonna put on a show with all the old New Orleans people and were gonna do it right over there in that Superdome! And then you know what? Huey? We are gonna laugh all the way to the bank!’”

But he isn’t laughing. And as we edge out the door he’s talking again. Half a block away as we round the corner, I’m sure he’s talking still. Weeks later, I’m sure he’s still talking and almost weeping. I’m sure that somewhere in the murky city of New Orleans a white man is detaining rock’n’ roll fans with his past. And somewhere out in the heartland, Bruce Springsteen is digging after him.

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Return of the Native: Bruce Springsteen

Mike Greenblatt: The Aquarian 1978

We’ve been sitting on a bench facing the ocean near the Casino Arena in Asbury Park. It’s 45 minutes past our appointed meeting time with Bruce Springsteen and we’re trying to light matches in the wind. It’s past 1:30 now and we’re wondering if he’s going to show up. Hell, it’s a beautiful sunny fall day, one of his very few days off from a grueling whirlwind tour of the country. And it’s his birthday to boot. Maybe he just ain’t gonna show.

But we’re determined. We’re prepared to wait for two more hours. Then, if he’s still not here, we’ll split. We’ve already tired of scrutinizing all the faces for something that will tell us it’s him in disguise. We forgot our quest and go back to the matches.

“Hi”, he says as he walks right up at us. “Sorry I’m late, I just got up.” He’s dressed in a blueish work-shirt and jeans. He has ever-present sunglasses on. We decide to break the ice over lunch.

Settling into a booth at the Convention Hall Coffee Shop, I order a BLT, photographer Sorce a cheeseburger, and Bruce a hamburger, french fries and coke.

“Yeah, we had a real rep”, Bruce starts to say. “We could draw two, maybe three thousand people on any given night. We played our own concerts here and also down south. It’s weird. Nobody would ever book us because we never did any Top-40. Never. We used to play all old soul stuff. Chuck Berry, just the thing we liked. That’s why we couldn’t get booked. We made enough to eat though.”

Springsteen_Philadelphia_1978_.jpgThe waitresses are starting to mill about the table so Bruce puts his shades back on and hushes up his tone. “The other night was amazing”, he whispers. “I went to see Animal house, and when I came out of the theatre there was a whole bunch of people that started following me to the parking lot. I wound up signing autographs for over an hour.”

“Anyway, after a while the kicks started to wear off and a lot of the time we didn’t make enough to eat. That’s why i signed with Mike (Appel). Anything was better than what was happening at the time.”

Little did the local rocker know that this early signing with Mike Appel would result in the latter claiming rights to the early material Springsteen had written. The rest of the courtroom drama is famous. Perhaps generously, Bruce had nothing bad to say about his former manager.

“He did a lot of good for me at that time”, he says, dipping one particularly long french fry into a mound of ketchup. “He introduced me to John Hammond (CBS bigwig responsible for signing Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith and others). He helped me on that first album”. He pauses as if he were ruminating on something. “I haven’t seen him since that day.”

“Actually, I was pretty shielded from the whole thing”, he continues. “Mike put the onus on Jon (Landau), claiming he was the culprit.”

I ask: You mean he charged Landau with stealing you away from him?

“Yeah, sort of. I was never good at the business end of things.”

Asked about the famous line Landau wrote for his Real Paper review (“I saw rock and roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen”), Bruce says, “That line is misrepresentative of the whole review. It’s funny. The review was nothing like that one line. It got taken out of context” – another myth shattered.

“I remember playing in a club where an earlier review that Jon wrote was splashed all over the outside wall. I was leaning against the wall, smoking a cigarette, when Jon practically bumped right into me. I had never met him. We hit it off right away.”

“When asked if he ever gave up during the long months of inactivity, Bruce still remains bright, completely devoid of bitterness. ” I knew that it was just a matter of time. We were playing almost throughout that whole episode even though we weren’t supposed to. I mean, what kind of law is it that is written specifically to stop a man from doing what he does to make his money?”

“The only real frustrating thing which did cause me grief was the fact that my songs weren’t my own. I didn’t own my own songs. That hurt.”

But that makes it all the more satisfying now. At Nassau Coliseum, thousands of kids screaming their guts out for him before he even played a song. They didn’t let up until he finished, drained and exhausted. At the Capitol Theatre, two nights before, he was surprised onstage by a giant birthday cake out of which a scantily clad girl bounced. He swears he didn’t know a thing about it (“I even told John Scher no cakes”). At Madison square Garden, 18,000 fans leaned on every note as if it were the last they would ever hear. A gala party was held for him in the plush Penn Plaza Club located deep inside the bowels of the Garden. Security was the tightest I’d ever witnessed.

We paid for the food and split for the beach. The conversation continued amid the sea, the wind and the hovering presence of the Casino Arena.

“I’m into a little photography myself”, Bruce says as Sorce adjusts his light meter. “I took some pictures of Lynnie (Lynn Goldsmith, photographer) that were published somewhere.”

When asked about his other interests, Bruce talks of softball. “Yeah, we used to play hard. we had to stop, though, when Clarence and myself used to get too battered up. We’d go on stage all wracked up and it would hurt. After a while, it got too important and too many people were into it. There’s no softball on this tour. What else do I like? Hmmm, I’ll tell ya…not too much besides music. Right now, music is it. I don’t care about anything else.”

We get back to talking of copy bands and the difference between making it with your own material and making good money playing copies. I tell Bruce I had to play “Shake Your Booty” to get booked anywhere.

“Shake Your Booty?” laughs Bruce, falling into the sand. “That’s a great song. KC, man, he’s great! He always comes out with those repetitive things. Over and over and over, that kind of stuff is great! It’s like the ‘Louie, Louie’ of today.”

Later on, in talking about what is written about him, he says, “I have Glen (Glen Brunman, CBS publicist) mail me everything that’s written about me. Hundreds of things, man. I read them all at once. That way I can get a pretty good perspective on what my press is like, rather than reading one thing at a time.”

“Near the end of Darkness, I wasn’t doing any interviews”, Bruce continues. “Then I did them until I noticed myself saying the same things to different people. There’s only one answer to each question; you don’t want to lie to these people. I really had myself in a spin. And each interview was a multiple interview situation with two or three people at once. I guess the problem was that I did too many of ‘em.” Walking off the beach, we talk of the Garden shows and his stretcher routine, whereby he sings himself silly until he has to be taken off the stage in a stretcher, only to break free and grab the microphone again until he’s forcibly restrained from the stage.

Springsteen_WPLG_.jpg That’s a great routine. Where’d you get that from? I ask. I know that professional wrestling has a stretcher routine where the good guy gets beat so bad they have to carry him off in a stretcher and the bad guy always kicks him off of it as it passes by. It’s classic.

“No”, answers Bruce, “I didn’t even know about that. We got it from James Brown. He used to get himself so worked up that the bassist led him offstage wrapped in a cape. He’d throw the cape off his shoulders and come running back to the mike stand some two or three times. It drove ‘em wild. So that’s where we got the idea for the stretcher routine.”

Sliding into the front seat of a borrowed ’78 burnt yellow Camaro, Bruce at the wheel, we’re on our way to the neighborhood where he grew up in Freehold. Shoving a cassette into the receptacle, he says, “A fan gave this to me outside a concert once. it’s real good tape.”

He turns up the volume, guns the motor and shifts into second. We take off. He turns up the volume a little more and starts looking for “Hello Mary Lou” by Rick Nelson. “This song has one of the greatest guitar parts ever on it.”

He can’t find the tune and settles for oldies like “If You Wanna Be Happy For the Rest of Your Life (Never Make a Pretty Woman your Wife)” and “Blue Suede Shoes”. He shifts into third.

Now for the first time, we do not talk. The music is loud and damn appealing. The windows are down so the wind is whipping furiously into the car. He shifts into fourth and takes off.

We’re rolling now. We settle uncomfortably behind a slow driver. He checks his rear-view mirror and roars past the driver. Seeing another slow-mover right ahead, he stays in the opposite lane and passes two in one fell swoop before settling comfortably back on the right. From the back, Sorce lets out a soft “Whew!”

It’s great moment. Chuck Berry is wailing out with “Maybelline”. Bruce is going faster. It’s such a fuckin’ beautiful day. The wind is rushing in and Bruce is feeling good, snapping his fingers, clapping his hands and letting out with a hoarse vocal or two on the last line of each verse. “Hello Mary Lou” finally comes on and suddenly everything is crystallized in one magic moment – the speed, the music, the sun, the wind, the company. Jeezez Christ! We’re rolling down the highway with fuckin’ Bruce Springsteen at the wheel! And he’s driving the way you would think Bruce Springsteen would drive.

Later, when we reach a light, Bruce impatiently waits on it before saying, “This is what we used to call a ‘quarterback sneak’”", and with that he takes off surreptitiously past the red light.

We’re in the old neighborhood now. Bruce drives slowly down Institute Street until he reaches the right number. It’s been painted now. “I lived here all through grammar school. There’s a Nestle’s factory near here. Man, when it rained we smelled that stuff all day long.”

The elder Springsteen would go to work in the morning, come home, go to sleep and wake up and go back to work at the factory. “I guess there was other things he wanted,” Bruce reflects.

We get back into the car and drive over to the factory. “Both my grandfather and my father worked here. It used to be a rug mill in the old days, but for some reason it ran out of business fairly quick. I was pretty young at the time.”

When I ask about high school, Bruce clams up. “It wasn’t exactly the best time of my life because I didn’t graduate with any of the others. It was a rough period.” I could see he really doesn’t pursue this avenue too long so I drop it. But I wonder what mystery is veiled beneath this wall of secrecy.

We get back into the car and tear out of there. Ironically enough, the tape Bruce shoves into the machine this time is an old Animals cassette. The first song could be a forerunner to much of the music Bruce writes. As the opening line comes out of the speakers, the dusty factory is just fading from view…”In this dirty old part of the city/Where the sun refuses to shine/People say that there ain’t no use in trying/My little girl you’re so young and pretty/And one thing I know is true/You’ll be dead before your time is due, yes you will/See my daddy in bed ad night/See his hair a’ turnin’ grey/He’s been working and slaving his life away, yes he has. The song is, of cours, “We Gotta Get Out of This Place”, and it was a fitting omen as we drove off.

As we drove, Bruce starts reminiscing. “Yeah, I lived in practically every single town around here, from Atlantic Highlands to Bradley Beach. We used to move quite often.

Springsteen_MSG_1978_.jpg“That’s where I had my very first gig,” he laughs as we pass a mobile setup. Looking out of the window, the 10 or 20 mobile homes facing us look worn and old. “The gig wasn’t bad…for our first job.”

Hey Bruce, are you gonna show up at the Capitol again like you did last year on New Year’s Eve? I ask him. It was announced earlier in the week that Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes would again party away the year in such grand fashion. Bruce turns around and answers, “I don’t know where I’m gonna be on New Year’s Eve.

“C’mon, I’ll show you where my surfin’ buddies used to live,” he says, changing the subject. We swerve sharply off the highway onto an exit. “This used to be a surfboard factory,” he says. We step out of the car near a small white building.

“Yeah, me and a fella named Tinker lived here for a year and a half, in one room. All the rest of this area used to be nothin’ but sand dunes.” He points to a huge expanse of stores, houses and construction. “None of this was here.”

“They used to make the surfboards downstairs. Tinker and I, we had a ball. Just one room! Two beds, a fridge and a TV – the rest of the room was filled with surfboards.”

“Since I was from Freehold, I was considered inland. All these guys used to surf every day. I was friends with ‘em all but never went. Finally, they got to me. One afternoon they were merciless. They just kept taunting me and kidding me about not surfing that it just sorta got me riled. I grabbed a board and we all headed out to the beach.

“I must have been some sight surfing for the first time, but I’ll tell you something – I got the hang of it pretty quick. Hell, it ain’t harder than anything else. It’s like riding a bike. I haven’t surfed in awhile. Now that’s something I’d love to do. As a matter of fact, I think I will.”

He seems resolute.

He continues: “This guy Jesse taught me the finer points of surfing. We used to stay in North End Beach in Long Branch all the time. Some guy owned the beach so we had the use of it for almost two whole years. We’d be there every day. We’d stay on the beach, go in the water. It was great.

“This area is really amazing. There’s really poor neighborhoods and then there’s real nice neighborhoods all in a five-mile radius.

“I used to go to New York a lot back then. I played at the Cafe Wha? a lot in ’68. I used to play there with Jerry Walker’s old group, Circus Maximus. Let’s see, I played the Night Owl (all these places were in the West Village). They had a lot of good bands there at the time – the Raves, Robin & the Hoods. Let’s see, the Mothers of Invention were playing all the time in that area and so were the Fugs.

“I didn’t go to too many concerts then. I much preferred playing and jamming with these people. There was a whole ‘nother scene taking place over in the East Village that I wasn’t part of at all – the Fillmore, the Electric Circus. I think my first experience seeing a rock star was going to Steve Paul’s Scene and seeing Johnny Winter. That was really something. I remember between sets, he came out and sat at the very next table from me and my friends.”

Let’s go back to Asbury, I suggest.

Asking Bruce if he’d take me back to the old Upstage site where he held court almost every night, he gladly obliges and we get out of the car again in what could be termed downtown Asbury.

“I gotta be cool,” Bruce chuckles. “I ran out of here without paying the rent.”

We walk over to the site, which is upstairs from a shoe store.

“I lived here while Greetings From Asbury Park was being made. I slept in my sleeping bag on my friend’s floor for a good portion of that album.”

Bruce poses for pics while people pass by right and left. Surprisingly enough, nobody recognizes him (or if they do, they keep on walking).

“I’m lucky in that respect. What happened in the movies the other night is a rarity. Usually, I don’t get recognized. I don’t have that instantly recognizable feature that a lot of other people have.”

Yeah, like Frampton’s hair, I reply.

“My folks had already moved to California,” Bruce remembers, “and I was out of high school by the time I got to Asbury.

“Asbury was a great place for us to play. We played here an awful lot.”

In answering questions about his immediate future, Bruce says, “I have one more day off before we finish the tour. Then I have a whole month off before we start up again. In February we go back into the studio for work on the next album. I’m hoping it will be out by next summer.”

Just for the record, the tour ended officially in Atlanta on Oct. 1. It started in Buffalo on May 23. The new tour starts (possibly in New Jersey) on Nov. 1 and finishes by Dec. 20. If the time it took to cut Darkness is any indicator, then number five will be lucky to hit the stands by the summer after next.

The just-finished tour took in 70 cities and 86 shows in four months and eight days. That’s why Bruce has to be listed as a “great guy” to do up an afternoon on one of his rare days off. Another highly impressive thing is that he spent the whole day without the protective cradle of a publicist’s presence. Rarely have I done an interview without the artist’s publicist in tow.

In talking about the current LP, Bruce says, “The guy who took the cover shot for that album is a friend of mine from south Jersey who works fulltime in a meat market. The shots were taken at his house. He’s a great photographer.”

Bruce’s only comment about the self-destructive syndrome (dope-money-power) affecting so many rock stars is that “they let all the other things become more important than playing. Playing is the important thing. Once you forget that, you’ve had it.”

Bruce, obviously, hasn’t forgotten that. He’s been having fun with music since the start. Bruce Springsteen is the perfect assimilator of many styles – Chuck Berry/Stones/Elvis/Buddy Holly/Dylan/Little Richard/Animals. His image on stage is also an amalgamation of many images – Elvis/young Brando/James Dean. Somehow he melds all of these influences into one cohesive framework for his own strikingly original material. The man is all that he has devoured musically from the time he started listening to music, and it all pours out of him every time he steps on stage. “That Elvis, man,” Bruce says, “he is all there is. There ain’t no more. Everything starts and ends with him. He wrote the book. He is everything to do and not to do in the business.”

If Elvis Presley is Bruce’s prototype then Bruce, himself, is the focus for a lot of envy and speculation. We all have fantasies – Bruce included – of making it big and living as stars. Well, Bruce is living the ultimate realization of that fantasy right now. He’s made it through all the bullshit inherent in such a proposition. He’s doing it. And doing it in style.

Yet if you talk to him, he’s quite humble. Ask him what part he played in the writing of “Because the Night” and he’ll tell you that he only wrote the title line (although he admits he will probably put it on his next album.)

Seeing him so close up and listening to him speak makes one realize that, although not articulate, there is a certain aura about him. A certain intangible. His charisma is the well-worn persona of the working man.

His handsome/beautiful face could even make the transition to the silver screen as a prophet of the proletariat. His facial features are tough, yet there’s a certain hardness to him. You’d swear he’s Italian before you’re told of his Dutch descent.

His enthusiasm is real. The moment when Gary U.S. Bonds came over the car speakers with “Quarter to Three” – that’s when Bruce really started to groove. The song is in his encores in most of his performances. He still loves the original and still sings along with it when it comes on.

The essence of rock and roll can be distilled into a performance that a fella by the name of Bobby Lewis did on American Bandstand many years ago. Lewis performed “Tossin’ and Turnin’” on the show, lip-synched it, and drove the small television studio crazy with his slips and slides. Host Dick Clark did a never-before-done-thing – he, in his madness of the moment, screamed for Lewis to perform the same song again. The sound man cued it up and Lewis went back out onto the stage and really tore into it this time, twisting, turning, giving it all he had. By now his lip motions were completely out-of-synch with the record being played, but it didn’t matter. It was a piece of rock and roll heaven. And one, I’m sure, Bruce Springsteen would have enjoyed.

 

 

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Darkness on the Edge of Town – After Time and Newsweek

StoneponyLondon

Born to Run had made history and Bruce Springsteen had simultaneously been on the covers of Time and Newsweek. This time everyone was waiting for the next album, but most of 1976/1977 was a loss. Springsteen couldn’t bring himself to go back in the studio unless it was on his own terms. A contract signed in a parking lot in 1972 was bringing Springsteen’s career to a halt.

Clarence_Springsteen_.jpgIronically, this barrier may have actually been beneficial for Springsteen. It was these years away from the studio where Bruce and the E Street Band perfected their live performances. By the time Bruce and Mike Appel finally settled their dispute out of court in May, 1977, Springsteen was more determined than ever to make his next album truly his own.

Four days after the court settlement, Springsteen and Jon Landau headed to the Atlantic record studios in New York. The initial title for the album was to be American Madness, which eventually turned into Darkness on the Edge of Town.

“I think it’s less romantic – it’s got more, a little more, isolation. . . There is less a sense of a free ride than there is on Born to Run. There is more a sense of: If you want to ride, you’re going to pay. And you’d better keep riding.”

Springsteen_Clarence_1978_.jpgJon Landau once said, “Bruce had no interest in whether there was anything he could call a single. He was totally committed to making a record that was true to his own feelings. When you consider he had, but didn’t use, songs like Fire and Because the Night, you’ve got to assume he didn’t really want Darkness to be a big record. If success was what is was like with Born to Run, Bruce didn’t want that. He didn’t want one song that could be taken out of context and interfere with what he wanted the album to represent.”

A great deal of Springsteen’s best work can be found on this album. Badlands, a major Springsteen anthem, talks about ‘trouble in the heartland’ – an epic, dark, hard look at life across America. People fighting everyday to live decent, productive lives in the face of crisis. Adam Raised a Cain, a powerful look at conflict between father and son filled with Catholic imagery, both subjects Springsteen was very familiar with.

There is a good balance on the album as well. There are true rock n’ roll mantras such as The Promised Land and the powerful Prove It All Night, which became a center piece for the Darkness tour. There are also much more mature works such as Factory and Something in the Night. Perhaps one of the best songs Springsteen has written appears here as well: Racing in the Streets. One critic wrote, “. . . the muggy summer night, the street as the only source of escape. Springsteen has rarely sung better, or had more sympathetic accompaniment from the E Street Band than here. Sure, there are more automotive references. . . but this time there is a purpose. The racing in the street is the way out. When you have nothing and nowhere to go, it’s the only place you’ve got left.”

There were over 25 songs recorded for Darkness that didn’t make it onto the album. Many of them Bruce considered too light and carefree for the collection. Rendezvous, Heart of Stone, Frankie, Don’t Look Back, Iceman, Heart of Stone, Ricky Wants a Man of Her Own, Give the Girl a Kiss, and The Promise are just some of the songs that weren’t officially released until the Tracks box came along.

Finally, the album concludes with the title track. Darkness on the Edge of Town represents the very essence of what Springsteen is all about. An absolute marvel to hear live and a great Springsteen moment on the studio album. A song about the loss of dignity and the courage it takes to overcome life’s hard lessons when one’s dreams are ‘blown away’.

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Behind The Scenes of Darkness on the Edge of Town with Dick Wingate

For a unique perspective on Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town album, we contacted Dick Wingate, who was intimately involved in the launch and marketing of the album and tour. He offers an insider’s view of what the Darkness era meant to Bruce and the E Street band, while painting an often-humorous behind-the-scenes account of some of the tour’s highlights.

Enjoy, and be certain to check out the book The Light in Darkness, which one fan said, “… The Light in Darkness makes a great companion piece to the commemorative Darkness box set…”

I first met Bruce right after Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. was released. Columbia Records brought him to WBRU-FM in Providence, R.I., where I was music director, and later program director, and we were one of the first stations in the country to play Bruce.

He was very shy and clearly not used these sorts of situations. This was shortly after the first album had come out and he looked just like he did on the cover of The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle cover, rail thin, wearing a T-shirt, jeans and sneakers. It was mostly a quick meet and greet and we didn’t go on the air.

I’ve always wished I’d seen him play before I had met him. Later that night he played a gig at Brown University with the original lineup of the E Street Band and I was hooked for life.

Bruce’s performance at Brown was so incredibly dynamic compared to every other new act I’d seen at the time, and he really fed off his interactions with the band. He also made eye contact with many of the several hundred students in the crowd while performing, which made it feel so personal and powerful.

I fondly remember Suki Lahav coming out to play violin on “New York City Serenade” and it just floored me that this was the same group that had been playing bar band songs and David Sancious’ jazzy licks.

Two years later I became Bruce’s product manager at Columbia Records, a job which entailed coordinating all the marketing, packaging and advertising efforts and eventually, in 1978, writing the original marketing plan, which I still have, for Darkness on the Edge of Town.

Click on image to enlarge.Original marketing plan for Darkness on The Edge of Town album, with Picture Disc (top right) and In-store poster display (bottom right).

Bruce and Steve outside New York recording studio The Record Plant, October 1977. Notice Bruce is holding a cassette tape of the Darkness demos.Ross Gadye©

The album was held up because of the legal dispute between Bruce and his former manager, creating a three-year wait between Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town. Everyone at Columbia believed that no matter how many years between albums, Bruce Springsteen was one of the most important artists on the label. Evidence of this was shown when the label continued to support the pre-Darkness tours after sales of Born to Run had settled down, even when no new album was scheduled.

In the months leading up to its release I met with Bruce and Jon Landau several times to discuss the marketing approach. Jon was involved with nearly every detail and he instantly made me feel part of a special team. By this point of course nothing happened without Bruce’s ultimate approval. Bruce said to me that if it were up to him he would just have the album appear in the stores one day without any notice. He was adamant about not hyping it. He consciously moved away from the Born to Run album hysteria. No “future of rock and roll” type headlines. No hype, no beard, no earring, no sneakers. This was Bruce’s first album about adult themes.

I was not at any of the recording sessions. However, I was asked to come to the Record Plant to hear the album in its entirety upon its completion by Jon Landau. The only other people in the room besides Jon and myself were Jimmy Iovine and Mickey Eichner from Columbia A&R. At that point I don’t think any other people at Columbia had heard the album and I was thrilled to be invited.
It was obviously darker and that framed our approach to the advertising. So we agreed that the copy in all print, radio and TV advertising would be simply: “Bruce Springsteen. The new album: Darkness on the Edge of Town. In stores June 2nd.”

Bruce’s TV spot ran on Saturday Night Live the Saturday before and after release of the album. The TV spot was very simple, as this was the way Bruce wanted it. The Darkness tour was the key to generating the excitement with the press, the media and fans and that is why we did broadcasts on leading FM stations, which allowed millions of fans to hear Bruce live for the first time. AM radio was not supporting the album very much. We did a lot of local and national print advertising as well, and he did cover stories in Rolling Stone, Crawdaddy, Musician, Creem and all the major publications of the day.

 

DarknessAD208_Copy22While we would have hoped for more top 40 radio airplay, everyone was extremely pleased with the results. We were very proud to have Bruce’s first double platinum album.

Badlands242_Copy20The original album cover, an extraordinary sepia-tone photo by Born to Run photographer Eric Meola, showed Bruce driving straight toward the viewer in the badlands under threatening skies in a convertible; but this was scrapped in favor of a simple portrait taken by Frank Stefanko in Bruce’s house.

Unfortunately the original image did not reproduce as well as we would have liked, and slight color differences in the proofs would alternately make Bruce either look sunburned or jaundiced! So Bruce requested to actually go to the printing press when the first covers were being printed to approve it. No artist had ever gone to the printer before, and this indicates the level of attention Bruce gave to absolutely everything.

Doug Yule©

The photo taken of Bruce and I at the printer, which appeared in Dave Marsh’s book Born to Run, was taken by Doug Yule, a former member of The Velvet Underground who was working at the printer at that time and just happened to have a camera!

As part of the marketing plan we purchased a billboard on LA’s Sunset Strip, and wouldn’t you know it, Bruce and the band actually defaced their own billboard one night with spray paint. I have to agree it wasn’t the best looking billboard.

Before and after photos of the infamous Los Angeles Sunset Strip billboard. Bottom billboard: Robert Landau ©

This was in July 1978 when Bruce did an unforgettable performance at The Roxy, where he debuted “Point Blank” and “Independence Day” on the same night. It was one of only a handful of clubs he did that tour and was broadcast live on KMET in Los Angeles.

A few days later we went to Phoenix to shoot Bruce’s first ever music video, live performances of “Badlands,” “Prove it All Night”, “Born to Run” and “Rosalita.” Only “Rosie” was seen fit for release by Bruce, and I was able to have it debut on ABC as the closing video in a two-hour special on the history of rock and roll. The girls who jumped on stage in Phoenix during “Rosie” and knocked him down were not scripted or encouraged, it was real, and the video helped expose the

Dave Marsh and Dick Wingate on the set of the Phoenix video shoot, July 1978

Springsteen aura to the many who had never seen him play. But we didn’t get a video to help promote the Darkness album itself. I think Bruce felt the other performances were good but not great, and in looking at them again now, 30-plus years later, “Badlands” and “Prove it All Night” didn’t feature the other band members all that much in the editing. Still, I hope they are released as part of the Darkness box set.

I accompanied Bruce and the band on many key dates on the Darkness tour and have many great memories. I was at opening night in Buffalo, Philly, Boston, Nassau Coliseum (where Bruce asked me to intro the band on stage!), Los Angeles (The Forum and Roxy), Phoenix, Miami, New York’s Madison Square Garden, New Haven, New Jersey’s Capitol Theater, Cleveland’s Agora, Princeton (where I brought Elvis Costello with me), and New York’s Palladium.

Dick, Bruce and Mike Pillot, backstage at Madison Garden, New York, August 1978

In Miami, we took the band to Joe’s Stone Crab, one of the most famous seafood restaurants in the city. We had to wait like everyone else because they didn’t take reservations. After a long time we sat down at the table, looked at the enormous menu of seafood and Bruce simply asked, “Do you think I could get a hamburger?” It just seemed funny after the extended wait and everyone had a good laugh.

Shortly before the tour, Bruce’s agent Barry Bell and I brought Robin Williams and his wife to Bruce’s house one afternoon, while Robin was in New York recording his first album at the Copacabana. Robin had not met Bruce and was really looking forward to it. Barry hired a limo for the four of us, and when we arrived Bruce was on a three-wheel ATV far away in the yard. He caught his leg between the bike and a tree and when he came back to the house he was limping. As the day went on, Robin and Bruce naturally got along great — after all they were the best performers in their respective fields — and I remember we had a meal cooked for us. Bruce kept his leg raised as much as possible to reduce the swelling, but he must have been in more pain than any of us realized or he admitted. The next day Jon Landau told me that as soon as we left he went to the local hospital for treatment and if I remember correctly he had to stay off his feet for a few days.

One of my favorite memories was a trip to Yankee Stadium with Bruce and Little Steven prior to the release of the new album. Bruce had been out of the public eye for a long time and had recently shaved his beard. We took the subway to Yankee Stadium and not a single person recognized him, or Steven for that matter. During the game a guy behind us walked over and asked, “Is that Bruce Springsteen?” And that was it for the whole day. It was quite astounding, and I realized that the images from Born to Run — the sneakers, the beard, the earring, the cap — were gone now and the image of Bruce we were forming for the Darkness campaign would be tougher, cleaner and more adult. Incidentally, even though Bruce and Steven ate just about every kind of junk food you could get at the stadium, they still wanted to stop for pizza on the way out.

Having seen Bruce play for nearly 40 years, I am convinced that the 1978 tour was the tightest, most aggressive and emotional tour that Bruce and the E Street Band ever did. It was the young adult becoming a man, just as the album was. It was the bar band taking arena-size stages for the first time and conquering America. We attended a party at Bill Graham’s house after the Winterland show, my last on that tour — a concert so good I had tears in my eyes.

Dick Wingate

Dick Wingate was the product manager at Columbia Records from 1976 to 1978 and was instrumental in launching Bruce Springsteen’s fourth album, Darkness on The Edge of Town. He was a pioneer indigital music while head of content at Liquid Audio, and is currently a digital entertainment consultant with TAG Strategic.

Order your limited edition copy of The Light in Darkness.

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Darkness on the Edge of Town: Forget Born to Run, Born in the USA

Amazon.com Reviews

Springsteen_Clarence_.jpgForget “Born to Run”. Forget “Born In the USA”. Forget it all for a little while. “Darkness on the Edge of Town” stands alone as Bruce’s truly defining album. It is his first foray into the dark side of life. It is the place where the characters in “BTR” ended up–a roadblock on Bruce’s long highway. His optimism has waned and his perspective is bleak. Bruce is no longer looking through the eyes of a teenage rebel with a dream.

Despite the legal battles behind the scenes of this album that were quite the catalyst for his descent into darkness, it seems like it was the only logical way to go after embarking on the hopeful escapes in his first three albums. It was the natural progression of his maturity into the music. I would be so bold to say that without this record, Bruce Springsteen may have never reached the heights that this newfound lease on life provided him.

But…enough with my take on the importance of “Darkness…”. The songs speak for themselves on this record. I think the best track is “The Promised Land” because it is like the workingman’s anthem, so to speak. It is Bruce declaring that even though he is living a desolate, machine-like existence just to get by in the cruel world, he still holds on to the dreams of the promised land. Another favorite of mine on the album is the title track. His passion in this particular song you can feel in your veins…literally.

WMMS_poster_1978_.jpgBut…the showstopper track has to be “Racing in the Street.” When I first heard this heart wrenching masterpiece, it gave me chills. I do believe that it is probably the most painfully beautiful song I have ever heard. The reality of it will floor you alone.

Overall, the anguish of Bruce on this record can be heard in every track. From the understated cynicism, to his angered and wounded cries and shrieks, this record is a must own.

 

 

 

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Darkness on the Edge Of Town Revisited

Gavin Edwards: Rolling Stone 

Springsteen_1978_.jpg
This review originally ran in Rolling Stone as part of a series that looked back at classic albums.

Springsteen_Darkness_1978_.jpgFor his fourth record, Bruce Springsteen cut off his beard — and also shaved the shaggy romantic epics of Born to Run. What emerged were ten taut rock songs about people crushed by family, by lust, by living in this world every day. (He was so focused on the theme of living with broken dreams, he left off “Fire” and “Because the Night,” which became hit singles for the Pointer Sisters and Patti Smith, respectively.) Despite its lyrical weight and dour title, Darkness on the Edge of Town is not a bleak record. Its characters are groping toward redemption: “I believe in the hope that can save me,” Springsteen sings on “Badlands.” The narrator of “Racing in the Street” may never find the absolution he seeks by winning small-time drag races, but his vision of a better life is what keeps him driving and what keeps him alive.

The album isn’t punk — Springsteen got a shave, not a mohawk — but it’s colored by the raw sound happening in rock at the time. The E Street Band members play each song like it’s their last chance to make music before their hands get cut off. Max Weinberg drums with particular passion, anchoring the record that stands as the E Street’s best.

More than half the songs make some reference to driving, from streets of fire to the dusty road from Monroe to Angeline. But while Bob Dylan had Highway 61 and AC/DC had a highway to hell, Springsteen knew that the highway went everywhere: heaven, hell and the world men make for themselves.


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Bruce Springsteen – Darkness on the Edge of Town – Reflection & Review

Anthony Kuzminski: antimusic.com

Mister I ain’t a boy, no I’m a man 
- “The Promised Land”

Springsteen_Clemons_.jpgThe Bruce Springsteen who wrote and recorded Born To Run was a ghost by the time his fourth album, Darkness on the Edge of Town, was recorded and released in 1978. The wide-eyed virtue previously found on tracks such as “Night”, “Born To Run” and “Thunder Road” was long gone. In its place was no longer a boy but a man who had seen the true darkness life and adulthood had to offer. While despair played a part on Born To Run, its dreamy imagery and roaring accompanying music were streamlined on Darkness. After Born To Run, Springsteen was thrown into the limelight in a way that he wasn’t comfortable with and ultimately, he no longer saw eye to eye with his manager Mike Appel. What followed was an ugly lawsuit where Springsteen learned the callous realities of the music business and Appel managed to keep Springsteen out of the studio during this time. It wasn’t until the summer of 1977 when Springsteen and the E Street Band were able to record again. During this time, the band executed thirty-plus compositions in the studio, but to everyone’s amazement, Springsteen discarded a number of tracks everyone thought would be immense hits including “Fire” and “Because The Night”. Springsteen had control of his life and career once again after the lawsuit. He had a clear vision of what he wanted and this involved a complex studio album consisting of songs that discuss the grim reality of life.

Springsteen_MSG2_.jpgOpening with “Badlands”, the E Street Band kicks open the door with a screaming anguish desperate to be heard. The album’s most dynamic song (and its second single) has stood the test of time and is one of a handful of anthems performed every night with the E Street Band. It was a proclamation of frustration where the narrator spews forth lyrical torment. He’s tired of being walked on and taken for granted and this is a self-righteous anthem aimed to vent. The lashing “Adam Raised A Cain” features a sadistic guitar that wields its father-son aggravation with biblical force. “Candy’s Room” has a splintering manic drive that echoes the carnal yearning of the narrator. This is a marvelous example of where the lyrics on paper are numinous, but the weighty nature of the E Street Band proves to be merciless and lift the song to classic status. The band’s dynamic puts you inside not just the mind but the actual body of the narrator where he probably felt as if his heart would rupture from his chest. The same could be said of the only Top-40 track, “Prove It All Night”, another rebellious number with a resilient guitar work as the narrator lives on the edge of sin and redemption somewhere between life and death, because without a drive to want something more out of life, are you even really alive?
The pining “Racing In The Street” is a somber reflection similar to the anthems of despair on Born To Run but here the music is far more retrained and sobering. However, the accompanying piano and organ by Roy Bittan and Danny Federici is the stuff of legend. It’s so incandescent and inviting that you could get lost in it…which is what many do. The car is a metaphor for renewal and hope and serves as a diversion is from much harsher realities of the world (“Some guys they just give up living and start dying little by little, piece by piece”). One of the reasons the album continues to resonate is because of the brutal and truthful depictions of these struggles. Few people had ever written about the woes of daily work the way Springsteen did in “Factory” without sounding ludicrous. Springsteen manages to do so because he experienced the same hardships. He witnessed his father’s dreams be shattered by the challenges and impediments of life and he sings with a truly uncorrupted and indisputable voice. Other artists have tried to harness this authenticity, but it can’t be stolen or bought; it only comes from life experiences.

“The Promised Land” (the album’s second classic) is a clear indicator of where Springsteen was headed. He wanted to face life head on. He saw many around him suffering and trying to merely survive. He took this struggle and infused it with his more restrained production. While it may not be as triumphant as Born Ton Run, this was done so purposely. He wanted to dial down the music so that the lyrics wouldn’t just be deciphered, but felt and absorbed. Lastly, the album’s title track is finds a narrator who has experienced immense loss but that doesn’t stop the fiery determination. A far cry from the lightweight material that was the rage in the 1970′s, Springsteen takes the listener on a voyage through disappointment and lost illusions. Not as romantic as “Backstreets”, but more primordial but ultimately redeeming. At the song’s and album’s conclusion, these characters may be broken, but they’re not defeated. The philosophical nature of these songs elevates the record and Springsteen’s mystique. The album as a whole is more potent as a collection than when listened to individually. Songs like “Streets of Fire”, “Factory” and “Something In The Night” may not be in the upper echelon of Springsteen’s collective work, but their themes are the glue that holds this record together. Without them, the album wouldn’t have maintained its credibility or weightiness.

Springsteen_Winterland_.jpgIs Darkness on the Edge of Town an unqualified five-star classic? It’s close but just misses. One thing Springsteen fans tend to do is romanticize the prominence of Darkness. By no means is it bad, but people tend to confuse the scorching live versions of these songs with their studio counterparts. The tour in support of this record was one for the ages. Never before had anyone seen a performer so willing to not just give so much physically every night (with almost every show passing the three-hour mark), but the emotional drain on his psyche had to have taken a hit as Springsteen didn’t just perform these songs…he lived them. The performances elicited far more than your standard blood, sweat and tears. The E Street Band, while always a great band, reached new heights on the 1978 tour. They became the band all others were judged by with their marathon shows and illustrious performances. If there is one thing missing from Springsteen’s catalog, it is an official release from this tour. Rolling Stone magazine and numerous other publications raved about the tour and when you listen to the FM broadcasts from the Roxy, the Agora, Passaic and Winterland, you find a band that would shake the foundations of the theater to its core. The Darkness material soared to new heights on this tour and would continue to do so on The River tour a few years later. Springsteen has often commented how he feels the live versions of these songs are the way they were meant to sound. He’s also commented on not being happy with the final mix of the album, leaving numerous people wondering why he’s never attempted to remix it. The album could have even proven to be even more significant, as he left off “The Promise”, arguably Springsteen’s most cherished outtake. A re-recorded version appeared on 18 Tracks in 1999, but it lacks the time stamp of this period and the floating outtakes (while a tad pompous) probably should have found its way onto this album. Despite whatever reservations I have about the sound, production, songs left on the sidelines and mixing of this record, it doesn’t make these songs any less reverberating. These ten songs encompass the sound of dashed dreams and bewildered souls who are incensed at those who have held them down. There’s no thunder road to take flight to this time, these characters want a better life and instead of running from it, they hope to conquer it.

Tonight I’ll be on that hill ’cause I can’t stop
 I’ll be on that hill with everything I got
- “Darkness on the Edge of Town

While the sweeping romanticism and sunnier melodies of Born To Run were long gone, the world was left with an artist with a keen eye on the daily fight to live. Instead of a street poet, a socially conscious artist emerged who would redefine the singer-songwriter definition over the next six-years. He put these unpretentious humans on a pedestal as people to look up to and a spotlight on their common trials and tribulations, making the fight to overcome them all that more miraculous. Darkness on the Edge of Town is a spiritual guide for living life and learning how to come to terms with its hardships and ultimately to take action and make it better. Amidst these ten songs are harsh truths many of us don’t want to contemplate, but with Springsteen laying it out for us, it’s impossible to deny. In the end, he remains defiant and we do as well.

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Darkness on the Edge of Town: Review

 David Bowling: Discographer 

Born To Run made Bruce Springsteen a star, yet nearly three years would pass before his next release, Darkness On The Edge Of Town.

It is interesting to reflect upon the scope of Springsteen’s back catalogue, noting the variations in his musical vision as well as how he maintained his artistic integrity and expanded his commercial appeal. His early releases ranged from the sweeping storytelling and improvisations of The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle to the energetic and epic grandeur of Born To Run to the darker lyrics and textures of his fourth album, Darkness On The Edge Of Town.

Bruce_Springsteen_MSG_.jpgFor this work, Springsteen now turned his attention to the underbelly of ordinary life, in part evoking how the passage of time is less romantic than realistic and, though it’s a fate often resisted, it’s something one ultimately must face. Musically and lyrically, he exhibited sophistication and an increasing ability to convey his songs in mature and moving ways. In a genuine sense, this is Springsteen emerging from adolescence into adulthood.

Springsteen_Cleveland_.jpgThe sessions for Darkness On The Edge Of Town produced a plethora of songs that Springsteen didn’t release at the time, some of which were covered by other artists and, perhaps ironically, garnered more Top 40 success than the singles to come from his own album. Tracks such as “This Little Girl” by Gary U.S. Bonds, “Rendezvous” by The Greg Kihn Band and “Fire” by the Pointer Sisters served Springsteen well, though, as their eminence increased his popularity and esteem as a songwriter.

“Something In The Night” features a beautiful and sensitive piano on this narrative of chasing elusive dreams. “Racing In The Street” portrays a refusal to grow up and the loss of relationships. “Streets Of Fire” is an exhausted lament.

The song that most resonated with me at the time of this album’s 1978 release was “Factory.” I spent a summer working in a toy factory in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, making plastic pumpkins for Halloween and, by the end of the first week, I hated having to get up in the morning. Many people, including myself at this time, perceived Springsteen as writing about defeat, giving up, and the dreariness of everyday life.

The only songs that are even remotely hopeful here are “The Promised Land” — in which there are hints of faith despite the realities of life — and the title song, which at least suggests that one can go down fighting.

Despite the sobering lyrical content, Darkness On The Edge Of Town is pure, energetic rock ‘n’ roll and one of the best works that Springsteen would create. A masterpiece of music resonating with brilliant textures and poetry, it makes for a powerful and emotional rendering of a road less travelled.

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Darkness on the Edge of Town Album (1978)

 William Ruhlmann: Allmusic.com 

Bruce_Clarence_.jpgComing three years and one extended court battle after Born to Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town was highly anticipated. Some attributed the album’s embattled tone to Bruce Springsteen’s legal troubles, but it carried on from Born to Run, in which Springsteen had first begun to view his colorful cast of characters as “losers.” On Darkness, he began to see them as the working class: his characters, some of whom he inhabited and sang for in the first person, had little and were in danger of losing even that. Their only hope for redemption lay in working harder, and their only escape lay in driving. Springsteen presented these hard truths in hard rock settings, the tracks paced by powerful drumming and searing guitar solos. Though not as heavily produced as Born to Run, Darkness was given a full-bodied sound; Springsteen’s stories were becoming less heroic, but his musical style remained grand; the sound, and the conviction in his singing, added weight to songs like “Racing in the Street” and the title track, transforming the pathetic into the tragic. But despite the rock & roll fervor, Darkness was no easy listen, and it served notice that Springsteen was already willing to risk his popularity for his principles.

Badlands
“Badlands” is a powerful statement of purpose from Bruce Springsteen. Over a martial beat and a majestic rock track paced by striking piano chords and a slashing electric guitar part, Springsteen sings of his determination to succeed in the face of overwhelming opposition. He uses violent images to detail the “trouble in the heartland” he has encountered — a head-on collision, a crossfire — and contrasts the dream he is trying to make real with a fear that wakes him in the night. His solution is to redouble his efforts: “You gotta live it every day…We’ll keep pushin’ till it’s understood.” When “Badlands” was released as the leadoff track on Springsteen’s fourth album, Darkness at the Edge of Town, in 1978, his fans felt they knew exactly what he was talking about. After his commercial breakthrough in 1975, Springsteen had broken with his manager, Mike Appel, and the two had traded lawsuits that prevented Springsteen from entering the recording studio for more than a year. “Badlands,” the first song on the first album he released after the debacle, was easy to interpret as referring to his recent career difficulties. But there was a much larger meaning as well. Increasingly in his writing, Springsteen had moved from mythic depictions of street characters to accounts of the ways in which those people’s real lives fell short of their dreams. Born to Run, his third album, was filled with songs about overcoming the mundane details of life to live a more heroic, idealized existence. But by the time of Darkness on the Edge of Town, Springsteen had turned a corner in this conflict and become unsure that such a triumph was possible. (The key song in his work of the period was “The Promise,” which he began performing in concert in 1976, but did not include on Darkness on the Edge of Town, with its devastating conclusion that the promise had been broken.) Set to a pounding, relentless musical pattern, “Badlands” was his clearest recognition yet of the evil in the world, one that left no room for escape: “Poor man wanna be rich/Rich man wanna be king/And a king ain’t satisfied/Till he rules everything.” This indictment of desire was a blanket condemnation in which even the dreams of Springsteen’s beloved outcasts could be viewed as a kind of imperialism. But having seemingly realized that his aspirations were themselves a part of the system he disdained, Springsteen nevertheless maintained his determination to succeed, though he expressed that determination somewhat confusingly, stating tautologically that “I believe in the faith that can save me.” He seemed to be basing his perseverance on romantic love and (perhaps) religion, but his description of the opposing forces seemed overwhelming.

As usual, however, the scales were tipped by the music itself, a celebratory, driving force, complete with saxophone solo, that supported the singer’s hope-against-hope message. “Badlands” served as an excellent introduction to a group of similar songs on Darkness on the Edge of Town and was intended to be the album’s title song until Springsteen found out that fellow New Jerseyan Bill Chinnock had an album called Badlands scheduled for release and changed his own LP’s name to avoid a conflict. On tour to support Darkness on the Edge of Town, Springsteen opened his concerts with “Badlands,” and the song was released as the album’s second single, peaking just below the Top 40. It has been consistently considered one of Springsteen’s best songs, and he put a version of it on his 1986 box set Live 1975-1985, as well as including it on his 1995 Greatest Hits album and on the 2001 disc Live in New York City. The song is so closely identified with Springsteen that no one else seems to have attempted to cover it. (Incidentally, Springsteen appears not to have seen the Terrence Malick film Badlands at the time he wrote the song. He did see it afterwards, however, and its depiction of the killing spree of Charlie Starkweather had a major influence on the songs he wrote for his 1982 album Nebraska, including the title song.)

Bruce_piano_.jpgProve It All Night
Darkness on the Edge of Town couldn’t have had a more telling title. Each of its songs bask in the bleakness, the disparage, and the malignity of Springsteen’s portrayal of the city and its decay of promise. From the gothic depiction of urban life to the disheartening images of factories and industries, Springsteen’s writing is effectively empathetic and significant, but he does seep hints of hope and the strength of human aspiration into a few of his tracks, especially the mildly impassioned “Prove It All Night.” Within its lines, Springsteen sings of once again exiting the boundaries of the city with his girl he wants to impress, as she represents a symbolic characterization of innocence and wholesomeness while he signifies the coarseness and unrefined stature of the city. The fact that seeing her and then trying to convince her that someday he’ll be everything she wants is classic Springsteen, emitting rays of ambition and hope through the cracks of his character’s otherwise discouraging life. The song itself was his second Top 40 single, reaching number 33 in July of 1978, the only track to do so from Darkness, with “Badlands” halting at number 42. Clarence Clemons’ sax playing holds the song up while Roy Bittan’s piano aids in the tune’s destitute-like air. Darkness on the Edge of Town’s material may have been slightly trumped by the songwriting of both Nebraska and Born to Run, but tunes like “Prove It All Night” give it a strong foundation.

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Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978)

Springsteen_Winterland_.jpgSpringsteen_Palladium_.jpgRobert Christgau

“Promised Land,” “Badlands,” and “Adam Raised a Cain” are models of how an unsophisticated genre can illuminate a mature, full-bodied philosophical insight. Lyrically and vocally, they move from casual to incantatory modes with breathtaking subtlety, jolting ordinary details into meaning. But many of the other songs remain local-color pieces, and at least two–”Something in the Night” and “Streets of Fire”–are overwrought, soggy, all but unlistenable. An important minor artist or a rather flawed and inconsistent major one. B+

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Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978)

Dave Marsh: Rolling Stone

Springsteen_Madison_Square_Garden_.jpgOccasionally, a record appears that changes fundamentally the way we hear rock & roll, the way it’s recorded, the way it’s played. Such records — Jimi Hendrix’ Are You Experienced, Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, Who’s Next, The Band — force response, both from the musical community and the audience. To me, these are the records justifiably called classics, and I have no doubt that Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town will someday fit as naturally within that list as the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” or Sly and the Family Stone’s “Dance to the Music.”

One ought to be wary of making such claims, but in this case, they’re justified at every level. In the area of production, Darkness on the Edge of Town is nothing less than a breakthrough. Springsteen — with coproducer Jon Landau, engineer Jimmy Iovine and Charles Plotkin, who helped Iovine mix the LP — is the first artist to fuse the spacious clarity of Los Angeles record making and the raw density of English productions. That’s the major reason why the result is so different from Born to Run‘s Phil Spector wall of sound. On the earlier album, for instance, the individual instruments were deliberately obscured to create the sense of one huge instrument. Here, the same power is achieved more naturally. Most obviously, Max Weinberg’s drumming has enormous size, a heartbeat with the same kind of space it occupies onstage (the only other place I’ve heard a bass drum sound this big).

Now that it can be heard, the E Street Band is clearly one of the finest rock & roll groups ever assembled. Weinberg, bassist Garry Tallent and guitarist Steve Van Zandt are a perfect rhythm section, capable of both power and groove. Pianist Roy Bittan is as virtuosic as on Born to Run, and saxophonist Clarence Clemons, though he has fewer solos, evokes more than ever the spirit of King Curtis. But the revelation is organist Danny Federici, who barely appeared on the last L.P. Federici’s style is utterly singular, focusing on wailing, trebly chords that sing (and in the marvelous solo at the end of “Racing in the Street,” truly cry).

Yet the dominant instrumental focus of Darkness on the Edge of Town is Bruce Springsteen’s guitar. Like his songwriting and singing, Springsteen’s guitar playing gains much of its distinctiveness through pastiche. There are echoes of a dozen influences — Duane Eddy, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix, Roy Buchanan, even Ennio Morricone’s Sergio Leone soundtracks — but the synthesis is completely Springsteen’s own. Sometimes Springsteen quotes a famous solo — Robbie Robertson’s from the live version of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” at the end of “Something in the Night,” Jeff Beck’s from “Heart Full of Soul” in the bridge of “Candy’s Room” — and then shatters it into another dimension. In the end the most impressive guitar work of all is just his own: “Adam Raised a Cain” and “Streets of Fire” are things no one’s ever heard before.

Much the same can be said about Springsteen’s singing. Certainly, Van Morrison and Bob Dylan are the inspirations for taking such extreme chances: bending and twisting syllables; making two key lines on “Streets of Fire” a wordless, throttled scream; the wailing and humming that precede and follow some of the record’s most important lyrics. But more than ever, Springsteen’s voice is personal, intimate and revealing, bigger and less elusive. It’s the possibility hinted at on Born to Run‘s “Backstreets” and in the postverbal wail at the end of “Jungleland,” In fact, Springsteen picks up that moan at the beginning of “Something in the Night,” on which he turns in the new album’s most adventurous vocal.

Springsteen_Clarence_.jpgOne could say a great deal about the construction of this LP. The programming alone is impressive: each side is a discrete progression of similar lyrical and musical themes, and the whole is a more universal version of the same picture. Ideas, characters and phrases jump from song to song like threads in a tapestry, and everything’s one long interrelationship. But all of these elements — the production, the playing, even the programming — are designed to focus our attention on what Springsteen has to tell us about the last three years of his life.

In a way, this album might take as its text two lines from Jackson Browne: “Nothing survives — /But the way we live our lives.” But where Browne is content to know this, Springsteen explores it: Darkness on the Edge of Town is about the kind of life that deserves survival. Despite its title, it is a complete rejection of despair. Bruce Springsteen says this over and over again, more bluntly and clearly than anyone could have imagined. There isn’t a single song on this record in which his yearning for a perfect existence, a live lived to the hilt, doesn’t play a central role.

Springsteen also realizes the terrible price one pays for living at half-speed. In “Racing in the Street,” the album’s most beautiful ballad, Springsteen separates humanity into two classes: “Some guys they just give up living/And start dying little by little, piece by piece/Some guys come home from work and wash up/And go racin’ in the street.” But there’s nothing smug about it, because Springsteen knows that the line separating the living dead from the walking wounded is a fine and bitter one. In the song’s final verse, he describes with genuine love a person of the first sort, someone whose eyes “hate for just being born.” In “Factory,” he depicts the most numbing sort of life with a compassion that’s nearly religious. And in “Adam Raised a Cain,” the son who rejected his father’s world comes to understand their relationship as “the dark heart of a dream” — a dream become nightmarish, but a vision of something better nonetheless.

There are those who will say that “Adam Raised a Cain” is full of hate, but I don’t believe it. The only hate I hear on this LP is embodied in a single song, “Streets of Fire,” where Springsteen describes how it feels to be trapped by lies. And even here, he has the maturity to hate the lie, not the liar.

Throughout the new album, Springsteen’s lyrics are a departure from his early work, almost its opposite, in fact: dense and compact, not scattershot. And if the scenes are the same — the highways, bars, cars and toil — they also represent facets of life that rock & roll has too often ignored or, what’s worse, romanticized. Darkness on the Edge of Town faces everyday life whole, daring to see if something greater can be made of it. This is naive perhaps, but also courageous. Who else but a brave innocent could believe so boldly in a promised land, or write a song that not only quotes Martha and the Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Street” but paraphrases the Beach Boys’ “Don’t Worry Baby”?

Springsteen_buffalo_.jpgBruce Springsteen has a tendency to inspire messianic regard in his fans — including this one. This isn’t so much because he’s regarded as a savior — though his influence has already been substantial — but because he fulfills the rock tradition in so many ways. Like Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly, Springsteen has the ability, and the zeal, to do it all. For many years, rock & roll has been splintered between the West Coast’s monopoly on the genre’s lyrical and pastoral characteristics and a British and Middle American stranglehold on toughness and raw power. Springsteen unites these aspects: he’s the only artist I can think of who’s simultaneously comparable to Jackson Browne and Pete Townshend. Just as the production of this record unifies certain technical trends, Springsteen’s presentation makes rock itself whole again. This is true musically — he rocks as hard as a punk, but with the verbal grace of a singer/songwriter — and especially emotionally. If these songs are about experienced adulthood, they sacrifice none of rock & roll’s adolescent innocence. Springsteen escapes the narrow dogmatism of both Old Wave and New, and the music’s possibilities are once again limitless.

Four years ago, in a Cambridge bar, my friend Jon Landau and I watched Bruce Springsteen give a performance that changed some lives — my own included. About a similar night, Landau later wrote what was to become rock criticism’s most famous sentence: “I saw rock & roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen.” With its usual cynicism, the world chose to think of this as a fanciful way of calling Springsteen the Next Big Thing.

I’ve never taken it that way. To me, these words, shamefully mistreated as they’ve been, have kept a different shape. What they’ve always said was that someday Bruce Springsteen would make rock & roll that would shake men’s souls and make them question the direction of their lives. That would do, in short, all the marvelous things rock had always promised to do.

But Born to Run was not that music. It sounded instead like the end of an era, the climax of the first twenty years of this grand tradition, the apex of our collective adolescence. Darkness on the Edge of Town does not. It feels like the threshold of a new period in which we’ll again have “lives on the line where dreams are found and lost.” It poses once more the question that rock & roll’s epiphanic moments always raise: Do you believe in magic?

And once again, the answer is yes. Absolutely.

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