Monday, June 3, 2013

Bruce Springsteen's "Darkness on the Edge of Town" 35 Years Later


Yesterday marked the 35th anniversary of the release of one of the most important albums in rock music history, Bruce Springsteen's devastating Darkness on the Edge of Town. In the spring of 1978 popular music was in a state of flux, with an increasingly polarized audience split between rock-oriented FM radio (the preference of straight, white males) and pop/disco-dominated AM radio (the preference of everybody else). The heyday of classic rock was clearly in the past: it had been 8 years since the breakup of the Beatles and 6 since the release of the last essential album by the Rolling Stones (Exile on Main Street). To be sure, Led Zeppelin and The Who were still around (though both were to lose their famous drummers to substance abuse in the next two years), but the best years of both were, in retrospect, clearly in the rear view mirror. Despite the continued popularity of a few progressive rock bands like Pink Floyd and Kansas, by and large mainstream rock success was limited to soft-rock bands like Fleetwood Mac and melodic, pop-meets-hard rock acts like Steve Miller, Boston, and Foreigner.

Rock critics at the time, however, swooned over the burgeoning punk rock movement, led by such bands as the Ramones in New York and The Clash and Sex Pistols in London. Punk rockers despised what they saw as the excesses and "indulgences" of the rock music of the previous decade (let alone the "thoughtfulness" of the  testosterone-challenged singer-songwriters of the era). Improvised instrumental solos were shunned, deemed ostentatiously unseemly. Indeed, the punk ethos demanded of the most basic, stripped-down simplicity, with loud volumes, quick tempi, vocals devoid of subtlety, three (at most) chords, and only the most rudimentary musical proficiency.

Above all, however, the spring of 1978 was the high water mark of disco, which had moved out of the African-American and gay club scenes in New York and Philadelphia to conquer the world with its funky, four-on-the-floor beat and what Pete Townshend later that year would call its "flashy, trash dance." The primary reason for its crossover success and ascendancy was the overwhelming success of the 1977 film Saturday Night Fever, whose soundtrack album, featuring Australia's reinvented Bee Gees, reigned as number 1 on the US album charts from January 21 to July 8 that year.

On the face of it, Bruce Springsteen should, by all rights, have had a hard time fitting in such a musical landscape. Just three years earlier he had become an instant phenomenon with a straight-ahead rock 'n roll album, Born to Run—which I consider the greatest in the history of the music (see here)—and simultaneous cover articles in Time and Newsweek. Even at that time his music seemed sui generis. But in the intervening years the musical landscape had changed completely, drifting ever farther away from the roots sensibilities and Spector-influenced sonic splendor that adorned Born to Run. Nonetheless, Darkness managed to sell well, despite a lack of hit singles, remaining on the charts for almost two years and eventually being certified triple platinum by the RIAA.

Considering the unique musical landscape of the period, it is a matter of some interest that in the week of 2-9 June 1978 three of what I consider the greatest albums in rock history were released: The Cars' eponymous debut, The Rolling Stones' Some Girls, and Springsteen's Darkness. How they navigated the tricky waters and used them to their advantage is instructive. The Cars, of course, were the prototypical "new wave" band, visually stylish, icy cool, with a sound heavily indebted to Greg Hawkes' synthesized keyboards. Despite their undeniable musicianship and Ric Ocasek's intelligent, wry lyrics, The Cars clearly were indebted to punk in the stripped down, straightforward simplicity of their songs' structures and the blistering hard rock textures that propelled them. 

The Stones, meanwhile, had been in somewhat of a free-fall ever since the release of their magnum opus, Exile on Main Street, in 1972, with Keith Richards sinking into heroin addiction and Mick Jagger, ever the socialite, spending more and more of his energies in that direction. Some Girls, however, marked a definite return to form, with its freshness and renewed energy a clear nod to the prodding provided by both disco ("Miss You") and punk ("Shattered"). Even the straight ahead rockers on the album ("Respectable," "When the Whip Comes Down") sizzle like nothing they had churned out for years, almost certainly a response to punk's implicit criticism of their music.

Springsteen, however, reacted more subtly, though no less noticeably. The background story to the production of Darkness is well known. Due to an unresolved contractual dispute with former manger Mike Appel, the Boss was barred from the recording studio until the summer of 1977. Meanwhile, he was in the midst of his greatest period of artistic fecundity, writing upwards of 40 songs in the interim, most of them potential classics, some of which he gave away to others ("Because the Night" to Patti Smith; "Fire" to the Pointer Sisters), the sonic breadth and diversity of which only became widely known with their release on his 4-disc 1998 rarities compilation Tracks and 2010's The Promise. Meanwhile,  for those of us, largely from the Boss's "home territory" between Philadelphia and New York City, who had responded immediately to his music in the early-mid '70s, the wait for his follow-up to Born to Run seemed interminable. What ultimately led to his selection of the ten songs that found their way onto the album? The Boss explains:
Music, music, music, big choruses, big melodies, rich arrangements, that is the direction I initially started to go in the aftermath of "Born to Run" but "Darkness" was also written and recorded at the height of the punk explosion. I had a little record shop in New York City where I bought all the early punk singles as they hit the street. I took them home, heard something unique, undeniable and not so foreign to my experience. My musical path had been chosen but the uncompromising power of these records found its way onto "Darkness" through the choices and themes of my material. I culled my music to the toughest collection of songs I had, songs that still form the philosophical core of what we do today, swept the rest away and headed on. (Liner notes to The Promise, dated 26 July 2010).
The sonic grandeur of Born To Run matched the songs' lyrical expansiveness. The album was populated by youths on society's margins who lived in dead end Jersey towns with few legitimate prospects to lift themselves up, but who nevertheless retained enough youthful romanticism to believe that better prospects lay just a motorcycle or car ride away out of town (see especially the all-time classics "Thunder Road" and "Born to Run"). Darkness on the Edge of Town is populated by these same characters. Only these characters are older and somewhat wiser, beaten down by the inevitable vicissitudes that characterize life lived in the "badlands," on "streets of fire," where lives are on the line, where dreams are found and lost, but can only be found in the "darkness on the edge of town."

Indeed, Darkness's relationship to its celebrated predecessor is most clearly understood via a song that, for stylistic reasons, didn't make the cut to be included on the album. I'm speaking, of course, of the legendary "The Promise," first made officially available after 32 years in 2010 (a piano-accompanied solo version was recorded and released on his compilation 18 Tracks in 1999). The song explicitly cites "Thunder Road," the thoroughfare that supposedly would lead to escape from the "dead ends and all the bad scenes" that held the song's protagonist and his mates in their grip. Yet, partly due to his own mistakes, "the promise" held by Thunder Road was broken, leading the narrator to realize that the fight he fought was a hopeless one, and the dream he dreamed an evanescent one. As a result, "Every day it just gets harder to live/This dream I'm believing in." Yet life must go on, and the cost is a significant one:
When the promise is broken you go on living
But it steals something from down in your soul
Like when the truth is spoken and
it don't make no difference
Something in your heart turns cold.
If one were to choose one word to characterize the existential atmosphere that permeates this album, it would be despair (for this theme in Springsteen's classic work, cf. this essay by Michael McGuire, originally published in Rhetorical Dimensions in Media: A Critical Casebook [2nd. ed.; ed. Martin J. Medhurst and Thomas Benson; Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt, 1991]). In some songs, most notably the deceivingly devastating "Factory" (for my own theological ruminations on this underrated masterpiece, see here) and "Streets of Fire," this despair borders on hopelessness. But Springsteen's characters are too resilient to give in entirely, holding on to a stubborn hope because to do otherwise would be unthinkable. Typical is the album's opener, the classic "Badlands":
Lights out tonight,
Trouble in the heartland,
Got a head-on collision,
Smashin' in my guts, man.
I'm caught in a crossfire,
That I don't understand.
But there's one thing I know for sure girl:
I don't give a damn
for the same old played out scenes,
I don't give a damn for just the in betweens.
Honey I want the heart, I want the soul,
I want control right now.
You better listen to me baby:
Talk about a dream;
Try to make it real.
You wake up in the night
with a fear so real.
You spend your life waiting
for a moment that just don't come.
Well don't waste your time waiting.
Badlands you gotta live it every day,
Let the broken hearts stand
As the price you've gotta pay.
Well keep pushin' till it's understood,
And these badlands start treating us good.
Workin' in the fields
till you get your back burned,
Workin' `neath the wheels
till you get your facts learned.
Baby, I got my facts
learned real good right now.
You better get it straight darling:
Poor men wanna be rich,
rich men wanna be kings,
And a king ain't satisfied till he rules everything.
I wanna go out tonight,
I wanna find out what I got. 
Now I believe in the love that you gave me.
I believe in the faith that could save me.
I believe in the hope and I pray that some day it
Will raise me above these Badlands...
For the ones who had a notion,
a notion deep inside,
That it ain't no sin to be glad you're alive.
I wanna find one face that ain't looking through me,
I wanna find one place, I wanna spit in the face of these Badlands...

This tenacity is likewise evident in the opener to the original side 2, "Promised Land." But the real weight of the album needs to be placed on the two songs that close the two sides of the album, "Racing in the Streets" and the title cut, "Darkness on the edge of Town." The former, in particular, ironically quotes Martha and the Vandellas' famous "Dancin' in the Streets" at the close:
Tonight, tonight the highway's bright
Out of our way, mister you best keep
'Cause summer's here and the time is right
For racin' in the Street.
This is no mere summer escapism. It is far darker than that. Early in the song the narrator divides men into two categories:
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.
Racing here is clearly a metaphor for escape, but escape from dead end jobs and dead end lives, doing anything just to keep on going with life. And the toll is a grim one, in particular, for the narrator's girlfriend, whom he "won" from a competitor after blowing his Camaro away in a race. Three years later, however, her life was every bit the dead end the narrators is. All her previous delusions had come to a regretful end:
But now there's wrinkles round my baby's eyes
And she cries herself to sleep at night ...
She sits on the porch of her daddy's house
But all her pretty dreams are torn,
She stares off into the night
With the eyes of one who hates for just being born ...
Musically, the songs of Darkness simply sound different from anything Springsteen had recorded before. Part of it is due to the eschewing of its predecessor's "Wall of Sound" approach, where the individual instruments (apart from Clarence Clemons's saxophone) are mixed so as to sound like one instrument. Here each instrument is distinct, with Garry Tallent's bass and Mighty Max Weinberg's drums standing out like they hadn't in the earlier effort. More importantly—and it is here that the influence of punk is most readily seen—this is musically the toughest set of songs that the Boss ever recorded, with Miami Steve Van Zandt adding extra guitar muscle and the Boss providing one slashing guitar solo after another, most notably on the brilliant "Adam Raised a Cain"—Springsteen, the lapsed Catholic, makes excellent use of biblical imagery here to illuminate his complicated relationship with his late father—and "Prove It All Night."

But the best two songs are undoubtedly the first and last songs on side 1. "Badlands," indeed, is on the short list of greatest songs ever written and recorded by Springsteen. From Weinberg's opening salvo and Springsteen's programmatic riff (a thinly-disguised [and readily admitted] rip-off of the one Eric Burdon used in the Animals' "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood"), the song is propelled by martial beat signalling the protagonist's steely determination to succeed despite the odds, and finds the Boss in perhaps his best vocal form on record up to this point. The fine solos by Clemons and Springsteen in the middle are icing on the cake. "Racing on the Street," however, is the polar opposite: a ballad of sorts (though it originated as a dirge-like rocker, as the alternate version found on The Promise attests), with mournful vocals that contrast with the ironically-escapist title, and an outro organ solo by the late Danny Federici that will generate the bleakest of melancholy in the soul of any attentive listener. No greater contrast with the lightweight drivel of the era's popular music could be imagined.

I leave you with these two songs for your listening pleasure. But the entire album must be listened to as a whole for the proper effect to be experienced. You will not be disappointed.

No comments:

Post a Comment