I was an eighth grader when I purchased the album Darkness on the Edge of Town. Actually I purchased the cassette. Probably at Korvette's in West Orange. Maybe at the music store on Bloomfield Ave. in Caldwell. Probably at Korvette's because it would have been 50 cents cheaper.
I had a little yellow Panasonic tape player that served as my stereo, even though it wasn't actually a stereo. One speaker. The seven or eight bucks I spent on Darkness had a negative impact on my ultimate savings goal, which was the $100 or so it would cost to buy a boom box.
From the first drum beats (duh-duh dum-dum, duh-duh dum-dum) that led me into Badlands, I just knew I was listening to something different from anything my ears had ever heard before. I was 15 years old, living in the most affluent of New Jersey communities, so I'm not sure what the lyrics meant to me. But I knew I liked the stuff like, "Poor man wanna be rich, rich man wanna be king, but a king ain't satisfied 'til he rules everything..." It sort of made sense. Maybe not.
I just knew that it was moving me.
Next came Adam Raised a Cain, which sent chills down my spine. I grew up on Jim Croce, the Beach Boys and Simon and Garfunkel and wasn't really prepared for this kind of anger.
And I loved it. Why? Not sure.
I won't take you song by song through the album because, chances are, if you're reading this you know all about it. I won't say Darkness became "the soundtrack to my life" (even though it's true) because that's become the most ridiculous of Springsteen cliches. But I will tell you this...
I listened to it over and over. Thirty-two years later, I can still sing every word without hesitation. Not only from the studio album, but also from the bootlegs I started collecting later in high school and college. For example, in Prove it all Night, on the album it's "I've been working real hard tryin' to get my hands clean" while on the bootlegs (circa '78) it's "I've been working real hard, to get my hands clean." Years later, when me and my buddies would be singing out loud to the album, we'd often inject the subtle changes from the bootleg lyrics, simply to pronounce our superiority over what we considered to be pseudo Bruce fans. You know, the folks who shout "Born to Run!" and "Hungry Heart!" throughout a concert.
I think it was the live performances of Darkness that made this album my favorite of all-time. And it's been cool to hear Springsteen during his recent interviews admit that these songs, while full of...darkness...come to life in a different way when performed live.
Again, if you've made it this far into this post, you know that in the studio, songs like Badlands, Prove it All Night, Promised Land and the title track do not even come close what you experience live. I do not know that I can say the same thing about Springsteen's other albums. I've never really needed to hear Born to Run or Jungleland live. Not that I don't enjoy those songs live. But there's something different about the songs on Darkness. I can only describe it as emotion.
I'm not even sure it's the lyrics that strike the nerve. I have these 25-year old memories of laying on my bed in the house where I was living in Germany in the summer of 1985, listening on my walkman to a bootleg version of Racing in the Street, which runs for more than 10 minutes. I remember how I could feel Gary Tallent's bass line deep in my soul. How I could close my eyes and listen to each note of Bruce and Steve Van Zandt's electric guitars. And how I would actually get a lump in my throat, sometimes a tear in my eye as Roy Bittan carried the piano "out-tro" on and on and on... I once read how Pete Townshend of the Who mocked Racing in the Street because it was just the quintessential Springsteen song about cars and girls. But it's not.
I realize that now. It's not about cars and girls. I don't think so.
Today Springsteen releases The Promise box set. I've heard the whole thing already and it's a dream come true for any Springsteen fanatic. You've got cuts you've heard on outtake bootlegs. You've got songs that were handed over to others. What newer Bruce fans may not realize is that, if you were from Jersey, back in the late 70s and early 80s scoring a ticket to a Springsteen concert was like getting a ticket to the Super Bowl. How many folks do you know who've been to a Super Bowl? Telling someone, "I saw Bruce live" was akin to that. It was a badge of honor.
As an aside, the next best thing back then to going to see Bruce was going to see Southside Johnny at the Asbury Jukes, usually at a college somewhere. My first-ever concert was Southside at Princeton's Dillon Gym. My second-ever concert was Bruce at the Garden. I can thank my brother Bob for both of those experiences, and I'm forever in debt. Can you imagine being a 21-year old recent college grad and taking your 16-year old brother to a Bruce concert? Back on point, in the late 70s, Bruce was handing over songs to Southside. Songs like Talk to Me and Hearts of Stone. Great songs that Southside sung soulfully. Well, on The Promise, Bruce unleashes at least half a dozen songs that, when you listen to them, you say "Southside."
It's like being able to relive a part of my life.
A couple of weeks ago, I ordered HBO for one night ($1) so I could watch the documentary about the making of Darkness on the Edge of Town. In this weird way, listening to Bruce talk about the album has helped me understand what I was feeling, yes, back when I was 14.
What Bruce was singing about, turns out, is the thing I've struggled with my entire adult life. And that's the guts to stand up for what you believe in. Darkness did not come out for three years after Born to Run because Springsteen was fighting against a manager who enticed him into signing a bad contract. Springsteen didn't want anyone controlling his writing or his music.
For my entire professional career as a writer, I've let others call the shots. It's how I've put food on the table for my family. There have been times when I've stood up for myself, insisted that its my story and they need to be my words, but many more times when I've compromised because of what needs to be done to please the guy who writes the checks.
Thankfully, Springsteen had the guts, the faith to stand his ground...yeah, I'm plagiarizing.
Not many of us do. And maybe that's why Darkness remains my album.