Reviews of my musical collection.

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Thursday, March 28, 2013

Bruce Springsteen "Darkness on the Edge of Town"

As someone who clung to my LPs for decades, I have lost touch with several records that I haven’t converted to .WAV files or purchased a CD replacement. One  of these albums was Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town. In fact my first version of this recording was on 8-track. I got it through Columbia House, which used to send you a recording every month, the latest issue they were pushing. Growing up in a panhandle town in Oklahoma, I didn’t hear a wide spectrum of music that was available even in nearby Amarillo or Oklahoma City. This was 1978, and I was just starting to drive. My best friend was Mike, a kid with a ‘72 Chevy Monte Carlo and the driving skills of a moonshiner. We would roll through the streets of the town or down the dirt roads surrounding it, listening to this album over and over. Mike’s taste in music was more toward the soundtrack of Grease or disco, but he humored me or else really liked the lyrics about driving, racing, and darkness. Even with our close friendship, Springsteen’s album felt like my own secret music. I just shared it with Mike. From the cover, which at first I thought, man, this guy looks like hell, to the growling moan and melancholy of his voice, Springsteen sang to me. I had spent the summer in Europe, and while in England experienced the sound of the Sex Pistols. Their brashness and irreverence, as well as Steve Jones’ guitar worked on my mind, and when I came back to the states, I fully expected to find their album in the stores and their music on the radio. Wrong. I couldn’t find the record in my local record store, and since I didn’t get to Amarillo or Oklahoma City very often, I lost touch with them. But I found Bruce.
Most people had found Bruce years before with Born to Run, but again, in the panhandle with one local radio station playing country western and the nearest Kansas station playing Casey Kasem, I hadn’t heard of him. So I got him fresh with Darkness. He blew me away. I must have listened to this album thousands of times, and when I recently went to the public library and saw a copy of the CD, all those songs immediately resonated from my distant past. When I got home and listened to it, the album still sounded as strong and immediate as it had to me then. The production and sound are still stark and don’t have the dated feel of Born in the USA or Born to Run. The stinging guitar, which is some of the best he’s ever done, still cuts sharply and interplays with his voice with the same intensity that Lester Young’s saxophone did with Lady Day.
Obviously a fruitful time for the Boss, he recorded a large amount of music that he pared down to the ten songs on the album. “Badlands” opens the album, and while it didn’t touch the charts, it may have to do more with how close Gary Gilmore’s spree still was in the psyche. The clear lack of options in a flat landscape with no hopeful horizon really made a connection to a teenager who used to climb the town’s water tower at night to look into the darkness surrounding him. The character spoke to me literally from the first person, but also as a man. He spoke to his woman, to his friends, to his community. He was angry but resigned as well. “Adam Raised a Cain” hit this young aspiring poet with its biblical allusions and twisting of the story to the son’s perspective, not the Father’s. This became my personal theme song, looping in my head as I committed acts of vandalism and wanton teenage angst. It’s charging beat and shamelessly defiant chorus still makes me want to punch a wall or some stupid adult. The ballad “Something in the Night” continues this desperate urge to run, to chase the dream down a dark highway into eternity. But it is Springsteen’s moan in the middle over the bridge that really haunts the song. No redemption from the neighborhood, no sympathy from the authorities, aid from friends and compatriots useless and futile against the forces that prevent finding ‘something in the night’, an unknown but clearly understood entity. How many miles did Mike and I put down chasing that something around the dusty roads of my hometown.
Then you’re hit with the drumming of “Candy’s Room” and Bruce describing a prostitute’s abode. This didn’t exist in my hometown, and the only prostitutes that I’d been exposed to were in movies or cop shows. They usually had a tired, hard look but a heart of gold. Well Candy’s got the look, but she’s no angel. The music accelerates from the opening on the drumming of Max Weinberg who churns the beat into a fierce drama. Candy let’s the narrator know that he’s not up to snuff, has a lot to learn, he needs to burn, burn holes in the night. No man can keep her safe, and those who try will fail. She’ll be there though with him, even if she has to invite other men to pay the bills. Another ballad, another character chasing dreams in a souped up automobile, “Racing in the Street” lays claim to all the dream chasing of the album, an anthem to working for something more than a paycheck and a house to call home. The narrator sets up the home with his woman, but their white picket fence life hollows out quickly with her “sitting on her daddy’s porch” and him racing cars for no reason. The dream chaser of “Something in the Night’ settled down, accepting that he couldn’t get out. He tried to make do with the dream that the town offers, but that dream has no depth, no meaning beyond wage slavery and “looking for something that just isn’t there”.
In the old-school parlance of the LP era, side two begins with “The Promised Land” a song that again alludes to Old Testament tales from Sunday school. ‘Mister’ that authority or smug outsider the character addresses needs to know what the promised land isn’t: a place of broken hearts, getting nothing for your hard work, not being torn apart by broken dreams. The character works in his daddy’s garage and has NO FUTURE, the same bleak realization that I’d felt in the Sex Pistols music and in my teen life in a small town of limited horizon dreams. “Factory” is an ode to the working life, with its chorus repeating that phrase without sentimentality, just reality. I didn’t come from a working family background, but many of my friends did, and even more so, the men and women caught in my small town did, where the meat processing plant provided most of the jobs outside of farming and ranching. The small businessmen who were my father’s friends and neighbors were just beginning to feel the bite of the corporate takeover, which they never saw as the threat it was. Even as they watched their friends’ businesses dry up competing with the bigger stores in Amarillo and Oklahoma City, they denied that it could happen to them, until it did. Today Walmart sells everything, and everyone shops there. Former proud small businessmen now greet their fellow townspeople and wheel them a cart. No wonder the Boss hated Reagan so much. “Streets of Fire” is another anthem made for dragging main street and flirting with girls, trying to be hard and tortured. The attempted hit “Prove it All Night” also makes for great posturing. The sexual overtones of the verse and the deeper sense that the singer will prove his love with more than just sex, with his life and his dreams give the song an ironic tint. Here Springsteen’s guitar solo burns in the night, cutting apart the apathy, the frustration unleashed in a searing fury. “Darkness on the Edge of Town” sums up the album with its ambiguous longing and searching for ‘darkness’ that cannot be understood but must be explored, the ‘darkness’ that calls from around the corner but disappears when one nears. Again the wail of Bruce’s voice, again the sear of the guitar evoke the sense of angst-ridden melancholy, a term that I’d heard as a teenager reading “Romeo and Juliet” but had never really understood wore me like a glove.
The sound and production values on this album are stark, and even with the Spector Wall of Sound that Bruce always follows, this album wears well after 30 plus years. It will go back into heavy rotation on my playlist.

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