Counterbalance No. 112: Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’

Bruce Springsteen
Darkness on the Edge of Town

Klinger: For nearly 40 years, Bruce Springsteen has given countless rock critics a reason to get out of bed in the morning. His sincere sound is fully rooted in rock traditions, and his lyrics are usually reaching for Big Statements (except when they’re not, in which case they’re considered knowing riffs on party rockery). In fact, Springsteen is such a darling of the criterati that it’s more than a little surprising to me that it’s taken The Great List this long to get back around to one of his albums. The mathematical vagaries could have delivered us to the mega-hit Born in the U.S.A. or the grim, acoustic Nebraska (the Springsteen album that’s OK for indie types to like), but somehow we landed on 1978’s Darkness on the Edge of Town, Springsteen’s hard-earned follow-up to Born to Run.

I’m inclined to say that this choice seems about right. Darkness on the Edge of Town to me sounds like Springsteen in quintessence, what we talk about when we talk about Bruce Springsteen. The twinkly piano of Roy Bittan playing off the golden-toned organ sounds of Danny Federici, the lyrics chronicling the travails of blue-collar life, and the comfort we take in knowing that there’s a Clarence Clemons saxophone solo just around every corner. And epic conceptual pieces like “Jungleland” were given the old heave-ho. For years, when anyone did a Springsteen parody, loving homage, or blatant rip-off, this is the sound they drew from. So having said all that, Mendelsohn, your past experience with Bruce left you cold, but that was a long time ago and I’m sure you’ve grown considerably since then. Are you on the trolley this time around?

Mendelsohn: I can’t find my ticket. Well, that’s not entirely true. I just didn’t buy one. I spent all of my money on candy and whiskey. So . . . I’m just going to drunkenly chase the trolley down the street, jump on the back, and hope no one notices while I hang off the platform and wash down the rest of these Pixie Sticks with whatever is left in this bottle.

My appreciation for the Boss has increased since our last go around over two years ago. And while I have enjoyed my time with Darkness on the Edge of Town, I found myself going back and forth between real exuberance for this record and something registering slightly above complete apathy. What it really came down to was what song was playing at the time. I think I only really like certain things the Boss does while I can’t stand other aspects of Springsteen’s songwriting nature. I have a hard time taking Springsteen as a whole. I’m much more apt to really enjoy the raw energy of “Adam Raised a Cain” as opposed to the soaring melodrama of “Something in the Night”. In between those two aspects of Springsteen I find something like “Badlands”, and I’m trying to figure out if it’s the Springsteen I like or the Springsteen I could do without. Why do I have such a problem seeing the Bruce from the Springsteens?

Klinger: OK, let’s start out by saying “Badlands” is the Springsteen you like. Trust me.

But I think I see what you’re saying. Darkness on the Edge of Town marked the point where Springsteen started moving away from romanticizing his experience (and the experiences of the people he grew up with) and began more actively chronicling it. Born to Run was all mythology and the notions of a young man who was breaking free. And there are still some vestigial elements of that here on this album—”Something in the Night”, which you mentioned, “Streets of Fire”, maybe the title track.

Those numbers that are lyrically unvarnished are, I agree, the strongest, though, and that may be a function of the process by which this album came into being. After the success of Born to Run, Springsteen ended up embroiled in a protracted legal battle with his manager, Mike Appel. As a result, he was effectively barred from recording, and that artistic (and financial) frustration had to have taken a toll on him just as he was surely hoping to take a victory lap. There’s nothing romantic about endless contractual disputes, and that dismal drabbery had to be informing his approach.

Mendelsohn: Darkness on the Edge of Town is indeed a much bleaker album than Born to Run. I think that’s what I like about this record. Born to Run was too glossy in its over-romanticization of suburban escapism. The escapism is still present in Darkness on the Edge of Town, but it has taken on a much darker tone as the harsh truths of reality start to creep in around the seams. I find it sad in a way that real life beat the untarnished, optimistic escapism out of most of his songs. But those songs that move away from the mythology into the darker side of real life feel much more true to my ears. “Candy’s Room” is one of those songs that cuts closer to the truth, as Bruce details a young man’s naive love of the damaged Candy.

For me though, the true masterpiece on this album is “Factory”. There is something Dylan-esque about Springsteen’s take on the working life, and like all good Dylan songs, there is a twist at the end of “Factory”, that hits me every time I hear it. I like that dose of realism, I like the fact that Springsteen has muddied his escapism with the sadness and desperation of reality. Like real life there are the high and lows, the desperation and redemption. I know that’s what Springsteen was ultimately trying to achieve, and I like it much more than I thought I would.

Klinger: Well, good. For a long time I had been worried that younger generations were having trouble seeing past Springsteen’s baggage (the terrible ’80s videos, the fact that people seem to want to call him “the Boss”). But Darkness on the Edge of Town might actually be a pretty good point of entry for the uninitiated. For one thing, Bruce made a conscious decision to favor guitar solos on this album—he felt they were less in your face than sax solos, and it also helps dispel some people’s preconceptions.

I must disagree with you, though, and state for the record that the album’s defining moment is in fact “Racing in the Street”. I’ve been listening to this album for going on 30 years, and it’s only recently hit me how powerfully constructed that song is. It’s a straightforward enough drag racing ballad at first, but then at 2:37 (right after the Martha and the Vandellas drop), there’s a joyous little interlude. Then thirty seconds later, it’s gone and we’re in a tale of a sad young couple—two people who bought into the beautiful sucker myth of “Thunder Road”. Suddenly the same Martha and the Vandellas reference at 4:43 takes us into a mournful build-up as these people solemnly make their way toward some form of redemption. And it’s all the sadder because you kind of know they aren’t going to make it. Springsteen and the E Street Band create those little moments throughout the album (the constant escalation of tensions in the first part of “Candy’s Room” is a great example), but I was taken aback by the subtlety on “Racing in the Street”. Now if you’ll excuse me I’m a little choked up right now.

Mendelsohn: Dry your eyes, Klinger. Seeing a grown man weep at the beauty of rock ‘n’ roll makes me feel weird.

It’s not that I don’t agree with your interpretation of “Racing in the Street”—I do, I agree wholeheartedly. “Racing in the Street” is the song that anchors this album. As the last song on side one, it will leave you thinking as you pull yourself from the chair to flip the record, questioning whether or not you want to continue living in Bruce Springsteen’s world (even if there is much less saxophone). But then all of that sadness seems like a distant memory as Springsteen tears into the optimistic “The Promised Land” (and its sweet, sweet guitar solo—followed by the obligatory sax solo—followed by a surprising harmonica solo).

I will maintain, however, that the song “Factory” remains the true emotional centerpiece on this album. After the uplifting “The Promised Land”, “Factory” starts off with what sounds like an ode to steady employment, but ends with the realization that the monotony of such jobs can be soul crushing while breeding disdain, desolation, and violence. And if you want to talk about a great little moment created by Springsteen and the E Street Band, I would direct your attention to the last verse of “Factory” when Springsteen sings, “And you just better believe, boy, somebody’s gonna get hurt tonight”. On the word “hurt” Max Weinberg hits the crash cymbals to add just enough extra emphasis to send shivers down my spine. Every time I hear it, Klinger, every time.

Klinger: Well with all the shivering and welling up, this has turned into a curiously emotional Counterbalance. But that’s not surprising, I reckon. The 1978 Springsteen was a raw nerve, coping with the frustrations that arise when romantic dreams become day-to-day realities. That’s what comes through on Darkness on the Edge of Town—that realization that even when you do get what you want, you still got to live it every day.