It was in high school in the early 1990s. A friend of mine and I had pooled our resources and bought an interesting import CD at a local record show in the Florida panhandle. It was called Smalltown Boy and it featured the kind of performance that seemed to go against everything I knew about Bruce Springsteen, which was admittedly very little. I had only recently started to listen to his studio albums, borrowing them from my friend’s older brothers who got them from the Columbia Music Club. Needless to say, this album was different than anything I had heard so far. First of all, I only recognized the names of about half of the songs listed. Secondly, there was an immediacy to these performances on the disc that brought you right into the venue, a seemingly small club that might be just around the corner. But it wasn’t; it was in a strange place called Bryn Mawr, which for all I knew was a small Welsh community. The fact that there were a few audio distortions in the recording made the sound seem even better, like tasting a bit of salt in between licks of an ice cream cone. It really emphasized how live and real it was. And then there were the stories, the asides and the songs I’d never heard before. This was our own little treasure, our forbidden fruit, and a secret Bruce Springsteen that was miles away from the flag-waving muscleman that most of my friends associated him with. The person I heard on this CD was greasy and funky, had friends with funny names, told stories about ducks and metal flake upholstery, sang for his girlfriend’s sister and had the coolest band introductions I’d ever heard in my life.
This left me in a daze. How could this live performance be so different than Bruce’s public persona? It was so odd, so grungy and so wonderful. How did the guy that did that forced looking “Dancing in the Dark” video do this as well? I didn’t have an answer, but another question did arise. What else was in this unknown world of Bruce Springsteen waiting to be discovered?
Record shows were few and far between in our region, but I noticed that there were a few interesting advertisements in the Record Collector magazines that I saw on the shelves in the local bookstore. They tantalizingly listed more of these recordings. That first one had whet our appetite and now were we were ready for more. The first problem was money. We were merely high school kids and these were expensive, generally twice as much as any normal CD in the mall. On top of that, there were so many listed, how would we know which ones we should take a chance on? They seemed to be from all different eras and sources. I had heard rumors of bad recordings and short discs and we really didn’t want to waste our money when they cost so much
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But this only made us want them more, it added to the quest, the exclusivity of it made us drool in anticipation as we started the search for treasure among the trash, a big monetary risk for an unknown reward. To the rescue came a borrowed copy of “You Better Not Touch,” a guide to these recordings that was featured in Backstreets Magazine. We carefully sifted through those pages, making notes and eventually choosing a few of them to hopefully buy. Hopefully, I say, because the process was a little bit intimidating. These were sold by overseas merchants, and it involved going to the post office to get an international money order, sending a ridiculous amount of money to a stranger and hoping for a response.
Once the money was in the mail, there was nothing to do but wait. There was no guarantee that we’d ever receive anything back. It was like a big black hole that you threw money into, and for some inexplicable reason, expected to receive CDs from in return. It sounded like a scam, but we were hooked on the first one, so we sent off our order. Truly, the waiting was the hardest part. Each day you would wonder if the mailman had stopped by yet, hoping there was a package with exotic looking postage on it.
And one day, there was!
It was part of a larger order, with other eager students in class getting discs of their own favorite bands. My friend had chosen Live In The Promised Land and I went for Pièce de Résistance. We took them home and listened.
I think we both knew very quickly that things had just moved to another level. This was no longer a funky cat telling funny stories and playing lovable rave-ups. This was a guy that was playing the greatest rock and roll that I had ever heard. It wasn’t just that he was playing the songs from his latest LP in front of an audience, but he was playing songs off of an incredible album, supercharging them to a state that seemed to send the whole audience (and this listener) into the stratosphere.
It starts with those 10 songs off Darkness on the Edge of Town. This album describes to me what it’s like to mature into an adult; it reassures that being a man isn’t about machismo; it explains that there are principles that people have, which they must stand up for. It’s about knowing that this is a cruel place to be, but that there’s a way through it, even if it’s not going to be pleasant.
When Bruce made this album, he was letting us know that he knew one of the secrets of the world. When he toured behind it in 1978, he let us know what that secret was. And what I heard was an explosion of rock and roll. It was filled with fury and passion, with parts of pure joy and goofiness. The songs from the album were performed in a way that wouldn’t be possible again. He was living these songs every night on stage and more importantly, off it, not looking back at them as he does today and channeling the hungry person he was when he wrote them.
When he sang back then, he hadn’t yet made it through the badlands, so everything took on a more desperate tone. To me, these are the most powerful versions of the Darkness on the Edge of Town songs, embellished from the album, with searing guitars and sweaty sax, with grunts, yelps, screeches and screams. All of this was the basis of the show, these already incredible songs being done in a way that spoke right to your soul, that showed someone looking for what you were looking for, struggling to find it, and knowing that the struggle is part of the answer.
From the first cut off the first disc, “Badlands,” the band charged with such incredible energy. Bruce is either singing or something is escaping from deep inside, I can’t really tell. The song ends with a scream, not something gratuitous, but a necessary exhortation, where nothing in the English language would do. It should be said that there is nobody that can do this like Bruce, growling out conviction and excitement with nary a word.
Then comes a great moment as the wind down of the first song melds straight into the ferocious guitar of “Streets of Fire.” You’ve just walked through a one-way door. It’s like you’ve only ever driven a golf cart before, and now you’re in a hotrod. The gas pedal has been pushed and all you feel is the acceleration in your back. It’s scary and it’s powerful, and you want to feel it again. These concerts seemed to be filled with these specials moments that make you just shake your head at how spot-on they are. This is how rock and roll should be.
Darkness on the Edge of Town is all its title suggests, but with more, with a light at the end of the tunnel. It’s bad now and it’s going to stay that way for a while, but it can change. The final “HUUHH,” is absolutely visceral and it can’t be any other way. It’s Darkness on the Edge of Town; there are no other words that need to be said, just a knowing nod is enough.
Bruce slaved over these lyrics, getting exactly the phrasing and images he wanted, so there’s nothing I can say about them except that they hit me right in the gut. They’re primordial and they say things that I always knew, but couldn’t express. The brilliance of the writing comes to the forefront, the nuance, what is said and left unsaid, what he tells you and what work is left for you, it is all expertly crafted.
It cannot be emphasized enough: The Darkness album is not the same without the Darkness Tour, and the tour couldn’t have been what it was without those amazingly written songs. And it’s not just those lyrics, but also the way they are sung. The reason a great song becomes a great performance is the way the singer communicates the message to you. The audience has to believe what they’re hearing. It can’t sound fake or made up and it can’t sound contrived or phony. It has to be authentic, and that’s the only way Bruce knows how to be. There’s no question that he is living these songs and that he’s singing from his own experience. We’re back to the music, and after asking the crowd for the latest baseball score, he then moves on to “The Promised Land,” with its harmonica, and he has hit upon something special.
And then the big one, the one everybody talks about. The one that tears your eardrums in half while you want to turn the volume up even higher. It’s “Prove It All Night,” and the way it was performed in 1978 was like nothing ever before or since. If you’ve heard it, you’ll never forget it.
There’s a big debate amongst fans about which one is the best, as it was played a little differently every night. There’s no wrong answer here, but for me, my favorite is from the Winterland show. It never stops. It never stumbles. It sways back and forth perfectly. It pierces your head. And unlike the way other shows from that tour were captured, the guitar is way up front in the mix, slicing away and not buried in with the rest of the band. There’s a point where it sounds like he puts the guitar right in your face. It sounds ludicrous but it’s true. And then another one of those moments comes. Just as the intro fades into the song, the audio is full of distortion; it’s too loud. It cannot be contained by the recording medium as the madness of the intro turns into the song we thought we knew. It’s like you slipped under water and you’re drowning for just a moment, and then your head pops back up and you gasp for air. If this were ever released officially, I would never want that moment to be cleaned up.
The first break comes and it’s: huh, Huh, HUUUUH! Let’s go! I can’t express how marvelously those five syllables come out. Clarence blares out the solo, then Bruce turns on his chainsaw for a quick burst of pure energy. How can anyone sit in their seat and listen to this? I feel nothing but raw adrenaline and this is years after the fact. What were those poor souls who were in the building feeling? How did they cope? How did they process what they were hearing and seeing? Bruce roars through the last verse and then melts more faces with the outro solo and Danny’s organ. It’s hard just to put into context; it’s so off the charts for me. All of this and we’re still in the first set of the show. The amazing “Racing in the Street” comes next, the Geronimo story and then “Thunder Road.” It’s moving enough that you understand why Bruce kisses Clarence right smack on the lips. It can’t be explained and it doesn’t need to be because it’s all right there, aural evidence that you’re experiencing something significant disguised as a rock concert.
Later I expanded with the shows from the Roxy and the Agora, each having their own different brilliant moments, those moments. With the opening drums and guitar of “Summertime Blues” at the Agora, it sounded like the band is sitting right in the room in front of you. The story of “Growin’ Up” showed the full cosmic irreverence of the band. With the Roxy, it’s the cocksure attitude of “Rave On” opening the show, the off-the-cuff “Heartbreak Hotel” and the lovable “Paradise By The C” that dares you not to shake your butt, contrasted with a heavy “Adam Raised a Cain” and the jungle-like “Mona/She’s the One.” And “Backstreets,” every time there was “Backstreets.” The emotional build up and release. You couldn’t just play that song at any arbitrary time, you had to be ready for it, you had to know you could make it through, because this wasn’t any bubblegum pop song playing in the background on the radio. This was a monumental piece of drama, ready to draw tears from your eyes and make you feign you had something caught in your throat. Fortunately you know that “Rosalita,” “The Detroit Medley” and “Quarter to Three” were likely not far behind, ready to give relief.
You’d think that it can’t get much better than this, but it does, because then came the video. I can’t actually remember how this came to be in our hands. After memorizing these broadcasts, seeing what was happening was like a blind man opening his eyes for the first time. I remember seeing the joy on Bruce’s face with Clarence hanging over shoulder, the happiness that can’t be contained as he rambles through “Sweet Little Sixteen” or busts out the opening solo. The unbounded charisma and the nose picking. You can’t teach this stuff. Bruce is all over the stage. It’s like those dynamic 15 minutes from the No Nukes movie, but for three hours. Someone throws a Duke St. (Kings) hat and Bruce catches it mid-step while on top of a huge stack of speakers and wears it around. I mean, who is this guy?
This is a taste of why Darkness on the Edge of Town album and tour resonates so much with me. I write this as someone who was late to the party, who wasn’t there, and who heard all of this secondhand and in diluted form. And it still knocks my socks off every time. The incredibly moving and relatable songs that were whittled down to a dangerous blade. The powerhouse versions. The levity of the covers. The long shows and the unreleased songs. The stories, both ridiculously campy and honest, and the manic, heart-stopping endings. I can only imagine what it would have been like in person.
There was an order of CDs that disappeared into a black hole, that we never received back in our high school days. I never worried about it though; as after we got those first two records, I knew we had already gotten more than our money’s worth.
Celebrate the Holiday Season with Bruce Springsteen.
Discover the Limited Edition Bruce Springsteen book, The Light in Darkness.
The Light In Darkness is a collector’s edition, we are almost sold out. Less than 225 copies remain. A great companion piece to The Promise box set, it focuses on the 1978 Darkness on The Edge of Town album and tour.
Read about the iconic concerts from fans who were there- the Agora, Winterland, Roxy, MSG, Capitol Theatre, Boston Music Hall, The Spectrum and over seventy more!
A perfect gift for the holidays.
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