BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN’S “DARKNESS ON THE EDGE OF TOWN” (Columbia)
The release of the spectacular “Darkness on the Edge of Town” boxed set retrospective is being greeted with the same kind of excitement that the original album generated in 1978—which is remarkable on several levels. How few times in pop music history has an album had the feel of a landmark the day it was released and to still demonstrate the same brilliance more than a quarter century later when it is being heard in a vastly different social and cultural climate.
In my 2009 memoir “Corn Flakes with John Lennon,” I describe in detail the thrill of hearing the album for the first time in the late spring of 1978 and recall an interview a few years later with Bruce where he described what he felt was an obsession with music in the 1970s that was so extreme that he virtually cut himself off from other things that eventually proved important in his own search for happiness. The following graphs appeared in slightly different for in the book.—Robert Hilburn
HEARING “DARKNESS” FOR THE FIRST TIME.
Bruce’s “Born to Run” album in 1975 was such a bold, inspiring work that it made you believe once again in rock ‘n’ roll and rock ‘n’ roll heroes at a time when so many early rock stars had either self-destructed or compromised their art and new rock bands were sterile. As a relatively new pop music critic at the Los Angeles Times, I was especially thrilled because I just loved the music and I felt Bruce had such ambition and passion that he could set a leadership tone in rock for years.
In the three years before “Darkness,” however, I began to worry about him. Two dangerous career traps face anyone gifted and lucky enough to deliver an album as transformational as “Born to Run.” First, you may want to hold on to the newfound popularity so badly that you end up repeating yourself the next time out. The second danger stems in part from becoming preoccupied with avoiding the first: You are so determined to ‘grow’ that you end up moving too far from your strengths.
Bruce also faced a third challenge in the lengthy period leading up to “Darkness”—a fierce legal battle for control of his career. Even though he won the lawsuit against his former manager, he could have come away from the experience so battered emotionally that he lost touch with the uplifting message that fueled his creative impulses. Creativity is delicate—more than the result of someone’s emotional makeup than sheer craftsmanship.
I thought about these dangers the day my advance copy of “Darkness” arrived. My teenage so, Rob, loved “Born to Run” as much as I did and he wanted to listen to the new record with me, but I wanted to listen to it alone. I didn’t want anything coloring my judgment. Once I closed the door in my office at home, I waited several minutes before putting the LP on the turntable. I felt that so much was riding on Bruce that I was afraid of being disappointed. I had to go all the way back to Elvis Presley’s early singles to remember being so apprehensive about hearing a new record. In the 1950s, I was such a big fan that I wanted every new Elvis record to be exciting enough to go to No. 1—to prove that Elvis was still the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll.
In Bruce’s case, I loved the way he lifted the sights and spirits of the rock audience. Selfishly, I wanted Bruce to deliver a great album because it meant I could look forward to several years of writing about someone who mattered. I didn’t want to spend that time writing about disco, heavy metal or the Captain & Tennille, and I’m not joking. Though there seem to be lots of appealing acts in rock at any given time, the gap between the good and the very best is enormous, and no one was spreading the rock ‘n’ roll gospel with the conviction and punch of Springsteen.
When I finally played the album, I picked up right away on the traces of optimism, a holdover from “Born to Run.” As the album progressed, however, I became more intrigued by the expressions of hardship. This was new, ambitious territory for Bruce. He pointed to what stood between people on the edges of society and their dreams. In the title track, he rejected one of rock’s underlying themes by saying that the victories of youth may not—probably will not—be permanent. This made Bruce’s mythical darkness on the edge of town even more threatening than the backstreets of “Born to Run.”
I listened to the album twice and I had my answer, but I was in my early 30s. I wondered what teenage fans might think. Would they resist moving from the romanticism of “Born to Run” to the somberness of “Darkness”? I asked Rob to listen to it, and then left him alone so I wouldn’t give away my feelings. I paced around until the office door opened. When he appeared, I could see the answer in his face. He, too, was enthralled.
I spoke with Bruce in Minneapolis at the opening of the “Darkness” tour and he was much more secure when talking about himself and his music than he had been in the days before “Born to Run.” Sitting in an arena dressing room minutes after the concert, he said he was grateful for the loyalty of his audience during the three years between albums. “When I was off, I never felt lost about what I was trying to do,” he said. “The great thing now is to go out there every night and see those kids and get that kind of response. It’s like something special with that crowd. In a way, I like to think I was off three years and they were off three years. It’s like they were rooting for you. There’s a little extra thing that’s there now. It’s just a little more satisfying.”
There were still dozens of fans waiting outside the arena when Bruce later stepped through the backstage door and headed for the tour bus. One kid called out to him. When Bruce turned his way, the boy said he was also from New Jersey, and he asked for Bruce’s autograph. “From Jersey, eh?’ Bruce said as he signed the fan’s concert ticket. “Hey,” the youngster said, “you talk just like you sing.” Bruce looked at him and gave his nervous, but disarming laugh. “Well, it is me up there, you know.”
That bond was at the heart of Bruce’s music and passion; it’s what made fans want to follow him from city to city to see the shows, knowing that each night would be different. This wasn’t a case of someone figuring out the most effective set list and then repeating the songs in the same order and with the same arrangements night after night. This was a living exchange, highlighted by Bruce’s stories between songs. I though inspiration was rock ‘n’ roll’s greatest quality, and one reason Bruce fascinated me was that he made that inspiration the central theme of his music. He saw himself, his band and his audience as part of a community; a brotherhood of true believers—and he vowed to hold that community together.
AND ON BRUCE’S FINDING FAMILY
One of the most striking things about the “Darkness” documentary included in the new boxed set is Bruce’s single-minded focus on his music—a dedication which seemed to leave little room for anything else. Thinking about that now, it reminded me of why “Living Proof,” a song on the “Lucky Town” album, is for me the single most powerful song Bruce ever wrote because it marks the day he moved fully in his personal life from the isolation of the “Darkness” years to the day when he fulfilled his search for the love of his own family. Here’s another section from “Corn Flakes” that addresses that remarkable change in Bruce.
Bruce’s retreat from the front lines of rock ‘n’ roll following his divorce and the breakup of the E Street Band was as dramatic—and as necessary—as John Lennon’s house-husband period and Bob Dylan’s disappearance after his motorcycle accident in the 1960s. It was a time for mending and renewal. Above all, he wanted the relationship with Patti Scialfa to work. The first of their three children, Evan James, was born in the summer of 1990, and the couple was married the following June.
Bruce eventually began to work on what would be a two-album project, and we got the first glimpse of the new music at two benefit concerts for the Christic Institute, a public-interest law firm, in late 1990 at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. It was a key moment for Bruce because his fans were demanding to know how all the changes in his personal life had affected his music. A lesser artist might have retreated into the safety of his best-known numbers, but Bruce respected his audience and his art too much. He knew he had to address the issue of change in the show. I saw the first signal of Bruce’s intent in his dress—he had his shirttail hanging over his faded jeans rather than sporting the suits he had favored on the “Tunnel of Love” tour. I sensed that the old Bruce was back.
When I sat down with him for his first print interview in four years, I asked him to comment on the emotions behind “Living Proof,” which was about his joy of becoming a father and finally filling that long-aching void of family. He replied, “I tried Patti’s patience pretty regularly. I think I was just trying to re-find myself and dig up the guts to try to move ahead, and I was having a hard time doing that. “Living Proof” is about the birth of our first son. It was just this unbelievable feeling of conditional sort of love for Patti and the baby.
“It was probably the single most powerful thing I ever felt, and I understood why I ran from it for so long, because along with it came this enormous fear, probably the fear of loss, the fear of showing your cards, admitting something is that important to you and that you can’t have it unless you show yourself,” he continued. “Part of it is you are with somebody who makes you feel safe enough to do that, and Patti just gave me that particular confidence.”
Bruce often used interviews to clarify his feelings about himself and his music. But I never sensed it more than I did on this June, 1992 afternoon in Hollywood, as he spoke in his slow, thoughtful way during breaks in rehearsal with his new band. As he leaned forward on a lounge sofa, he wanted to explain why something had gone wrong in his life, which was hard for someone who was obsessed with doing things right.
“When I was young, I truly didn’t think music had any limitations,” he said. “I thought it could give you everything you wanted in life, and music did that for me—more than I had ever dreamed of. But you eventually get to a point where you realize there are other things you need…things that music can’t give you. That’s when you have to put down the guitar and step into the real world.”
Some artists find it difficult to speak about moments of doubt and insecurity, but Bruce felt that being open and honest was part of his bond with his fans. “I just kind of felt lost for a while after the ‘Tunnel of Love’ tour,” he said. “I went through the divorce, and anybody who has been through that knows it is tough. You lose a lot of faith in yourself and your ability to connect with people.”
Bruce frequently stopped and tugged at his shirt or rubbed his hands together.
“The point is, everything about you doesn’t grow at the same pace,” he continued. “You can become very capable in a certain area, even to the point of doing something so well that you are heavily rewarded and everybody applauds and tells you that you are great. But you can be completely unable at the same time to function in almost every other way. In my case, I wrote a lot about community and relationships, yet personally I lived very internally. But eventually you notice that your friends are started to get married and you even see some of the fans at the shows have kids on their shoulders, and you feel you are missing something important in your life. That’s when you have to see if you can live up to the words in some of your own songs. For me, that step took almost ten years.”