Monday, May 28, 2018

Forty Years of Darkness on the Edge of Town

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN LOOKS LIKE a doofus. Admit it. He does.

The cover pic for Darkness on the Edge of Town does him no favors. Bed-headed, bleary eyed, lips midway between pursed and puckered, he looks like photographer Frank Stefanko rolled him out of bed at 3 a.m., said, "here, put this on..." and before the Boss could say, "Wait. What?" they were done shooting. It is not a flattering picture.

Which is odd because the album it graced is about a lot of things, work, faith, hope, sex, anger, resentment, resignation, determination and driving, literally and figuratively, but I wouldn't put weary dishevelment on the list.

Still, Springsteen's fourth studio LP turns a biblical 40 years old on June 2, so maybe it's only fitting that the journey with him to The Promised Land also starts with a bit of skepticism about the intended destination. The ransom note-typewriter typography of its title and track listing seem to beg the question: would you buy a record from this man?

Badlands, you've got to live it every day, 
We'll keep pushin' till its understood
 and these badlands start treating us good.

I did. More than once. In different formats. Others did too. And looking back across four decades, it's not hard to find the reason: Darkness -- sandwiched as it was between the fabulously bombastic Born to Run and the two disc tour-de-force The River -- is the definitive Springsteen album.

"It's a meditation on where are you going to stand? With who and where are you going to stand?" he said in a 2011 documentary.

More than any other release, this one is responsible for his enduring image as a voice of the forgotten blue collar man trapped by circumstance and grinding it out until that nighttime rendezvous in the field behind the dynamo, or after walking the darkness of Candy's hall.

Springsteen was just 28. Success, as he defined it, was still eluding him. Any guy in his mid-20s, working for unreasonable bosses, chasing unattainable girls and realizing that adulthood meant fighting for what you want and who you are, could relate. I certainly did.

But your eyes go blind and your blood runs cold. 
Sometimes I feel so weak I just want to explode.

My dad once called him, "the working man's millionaire." After many years of success, even the Boss himself admitted being "a rich man in a poor man's shirt." But we all know he didn't start out that way... that all this wiry kid from Freehold, New Jersey, had was that burning ambition to be somebody and it took some time for that image of who, exactly, to come into focus.

On his first three LPs, Springsteen was something of a chameleon: a stream-of-consciousness lyrical poet for Greetings From Asbury Park, a soulful troubadour on The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle and then the leather jacketed street hustler with the spectacular B.T.R., an album that put him on the cover of Time magazine and Newsweek in the very same week.

Full stop.

All that momentum slammed to a halt when Springsteen decided to break up with manager Mike Appel. Their three-year legal battle keep him out of the recording studio but continuing to tour and more importantly, to write. He poured out his frustrations and anger at The Man in a torrent of lyrics, enough for several albums. Out of that frenetic activity emerged Darkness, a record unlike anything he'd done before: a collection of angry, chip-on-his-shoulder rockers, full of searing guitars, slamming drums, coarse vocals and testosterone.

He comes across as angry, defiant, forever done taking shit from anyone. There's none of Born to Run's romantic optimism, none of the good time bonhomie that would temper the more fraught moments of The RiverDarkness is 10 tracks of darkness and Old Testament thunder.

Beneath all that there's a recognition that life doesn't play out the way its planned. Despite the bravado of driving 'cross the Waynesboro County line, down Kingsley and from Monroe to Angeline*, there's the sad surrender of the trophy girl in Racing in the Streets and in the title track finale where the narrator admits the enemy is within.

I lost my money and I lost my wife, 
them things don't seem to matter much to me now. 
Tonight I'll be on that hill 'cause l can't stop, 
I'll be on that hill with everything that I've got, 
Lives on the line where dreams are found and lost
I'll be there on time and I'll pay the cost,
for wanting things that can only be found 

in the darkness on the edge of town.

Despite its significance, Darkness seems more respected than loved. Its songs inspired a spinoff,  covers, imitation and parody, but when it comes to ranking the Boss's records, it's almost never the fan favorite. Not here, nor here or here and definitely not here, although finally, here.

It's often second-best, which is a shame, because while others may better define his career, none of them better defined the man.

* For Bruce, geography is a thing of the mind. The Promised Land opens with the narrator driving out of the Utah desert and across the Waynesboro County line, but there is no Waynesboro County anywhere in the U.S.  Nor, Prove It All Night fans, is there a place called Angeline, though there are plenty of starting points called Monroe, including Monroe Township, New Jersey.

Something in the Night lovers take heart, you too can drive down Kingsley with the radio up so you don't have to think. It's in Asbury Park, NJ. Send a postcard if you go.

-- Follow me on Twitter @paperboyarchive

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