By Bill Kauffman | July 25, 2011
In May 1978 I had just finished my first unhappy year of college. Growing up, I had been hazily aware of social class; the lawyers’ kids joined Ski Club and the janitors’ boys took shop, but our town was too small for any real class segregation, even if anyone had desired it. So I skipped off to college the most naïve lad you ever did meet.
Nary a Frisbee had sailed ’cross the Quad before the suburban snot-noses and haughty prep-schoolers triggered my latent class-consciousness. These were just insecure kids projecting faux-worldliness, I later came to realize, but at the time—and even in retrospect—I was mightily pissed off by the casually superior way in which they ignored the workers at the school: the ladies ladling food in the cafeteria, the electricians and carpenters and security guards who kept the physical plant running. I knew which side I was on. I stayed drunk much of freshman year and wrote sprightly little ditties like “I Hate the Rich” for our forever-incipient punk band, The Mannicans.
My best friends at home were pumping gas and working on assembly lines or going to the community college. I felt like a traitor to my class. I had to get out of this place. (I didn’t, though I did commute for my final two years.)
I suppose this is why an album released that May—Bruce Springsteen’s “Darkness on the Edge of Town”—so moved me. Or, rather, riveted me—as in secured me to my place, by helping me to see it cinematically, melodramatically, allegorically.
I had been a fan of Springsteen’s earlier albums: the grandiloquent drive-in movie bombast of “Born to Run,” the carnivalesque “Wild, Innocent, & the E Street Shuffle,” even the prolix pileups and word clots of “Greetings From Asbury Park.” But those were full of New Jersey songs, some so specific as to be indecipherable to outsiders. Their characters were often callow, even goofy. “Darkness on the Edge of Town” cut deeper. It was “an honest record,” said Springsteen. It was mature; it stared bleakness in the face.
Bruce has been on my mind since I watched the new DVD “The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town,” a documentary by Thom Zimny. I hadn’t listened much to Springsteen for a quarter-century. He started to lose me when he sang of a pitcher’s ” in “Glory Days.” Speedball? He cut some weak records, and besides, when you live in the mansion on the hill you can’t pretend you see the ghost of Tom Joad.
Bruce was living in a New Jersey farmhouse, snared in a lawsuit against his ex-manager, Mike Appel (cowriter of the Partridge Family’s “Doesn’t Somebody Want to be Wanted?”), when he recorded his finest album.
“Darkness,” he says 30-plus years later, grew out of a “sense of accountability to the people I grew up with.” Despite what he concedes is its “apocalyptic grandeur,” it is not condescending, and hope peeks out from the dolor. (An exception might be the haunting dirge “Factory,” which my buddy Mark, who was working in a factory at 18, hated. The soundtrack in workingmen’s bars was Bob Seger, not Bruce.)
Like its successor, “Nebraska,” “Darkness” is a rural record in that it evokes plainspoken Americans within a landscape that is both vast and particular. Springsteen says that Hank Williams and John Wayne in “The Searchers” were his inspirations.
“Where are you gonna stand?” is the question to which the album is the answer, he says. If the protagonist of “Thunder Road” in “Born to Run” announced that “it’s a town full of losers, and I’m pulling out of here to win,” “Darkness” responds to other tugs—those of family, factory, faith. It’s probably a losing fight, the songs suggest, but there is nobility in that, too.
Bruce kicked off his “Darkness on the Edge of Town” tour (before the album’s release) at Shea’s Buffalo Theater on May 23, 1978. I went with my buddies Chuck and Mike. We would attend many other concerts together, but none that were as—to use a terribly unfashionable word that I do not mean as a putdown—sincere. To borrow from a Brit coeval, Bruce meant it, man.
Chuck and I haven’t seen Mike since he moved to Tennessee almost a decade ago to work in a chicken-processing plant. Maybe to escape the shadows, too. “You inherit the sins/You inherit the flames,” as Bruce sang. Mike’s got diabetes bad. Think I’ll put the 33 on the turntable and set the stylus to “Something in the Night.” I’m gonna play it real loud.
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