This blog entry was originally written in 2011, then revised and presented at the Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town: International Symposium at Monmouth University in West Long Branch, New Jersey, April 2018.
Back in 2011 a friend posted something on Facebook that was hard to swallow. He said after listening to Darkness on the Edge of Town by Bruce Springsteen for the first time in years that "Candy's Room" is still its only great song. Since Darkness is one of my favorite albums of all time I foolishly responded saying that I had to fight him on that. His response was “Convince me why I should dust off my vinyl copy for another listen.” Hours later I wished I hadn’t responded at all. I’ve come to despise debate about the merits of music, art, etc. It’s pointless. Still, I felt like I had to say something.
A lot has been said about Darkness on the Edge of Town over the years by rock critics, culture hounds and even, apparently, academics. I can only say what I feel about an album that’s been an important reference point for me as an artist and as a person. When I listen to that 1978 release I meditate on my dreams, the cost of straying from them, and the very real circumstances that make them so hard to achieve. Listening reminds me of the family bonds that can either build me up or tear me to pieces, and the pull of my darker sides. I hear Springsteen tell a story that reflects the impossible marriage of hope and despair that is the American Dream and the cost of believing in it. Darkness is a pivotal piece of art for me that, strange enough, I didn’t fully appreciate until I lived in South Africa, many miles and years removed from my New Jersey upbringing.
OK, I’ll admit that last paragraph looks like I cut and pasted it from the countless articles and interviews released in the fall of 2010 to promote the 30th Anniversary Darkness boxed set/uber package (on even from this conference’s website). In the wake of that media blitz it’s hard to justify writing this blog, which even for me, the biggest Springsteen fan in Western Massachusetts, was overkill. At times it seemed like carefully crafted PR moves to solidify Bruce’s legacy. That said, I believe every word of it. I also wouldn’t mind having his management team.
Having grown up in New Jersey you’d think I was a Boss fan from the beginning. Not so. My first true musical awakenings were in high school and ran parallel to the reign of Born in the USA over airways and pop culture in general. In the summer of 1984 there was no escaping that album while living in the heart of Bruce Country (not only did Springsteen and I have the same history teacher in high school, but he recorded his classic album Nebraska in the house right next to my drummer’s house. I hated all of it. With his bandana, ripped flannel shirt, dopey grin and cheesy videos the verdict was in: Bruce was a meathead, as stale and uncreative as the kids at school who wore his t-shirts. He couldn’t touch the heady music I was trying (failing) to emulate at the time: The Who, ELP, Yes, King Crimson and the like. That was REAL music; let me tell you, with lots of notes and ridiculous time signatures.
Like the narrator in “Born to Run” I eventually ran out of my dead end suburb desperate and with no plan for what came next. I landed in a New England college town full of self importance and left-wing political anger (thank you, Ronald Reagan), trying desperately to forget where I came from. It was then, ironically, that I started to see Springsteen as more than a face on the cover of People Magazine. With distance from home I could hear him. As I immersed myself into his first three albums I realized I knew the characters in his songs: the derelict kids roaming beach towns and the romantics yearning for something better, looking for meaning. I grew up and lived with those characters. I saw myself, too. It was a new way to listen to music for me: he was trying to sing to us, but about us. It was like Uncle Bruce putting his hand on my shoulder and saying “Kid, it’s OK. I’ve been there. We’ve all been there. Now put away your copy of Close to the Edge and let’s get down to business.”
When I got to Springsteen’s fourth album, Darkness on the Edge of Town, I found it very different than its predecessors. It was hard and claustrophobic, with stripped down arrangements that contrasted from the long meandering narratives and grandiose arrangements of his first three records. Gone was the romance and escapism, the wacky adventures of people like Hazy Davy and Crazy Janey, and the Dylan-esque ramblings of songs like “Blinded by the Light.” At 28 Springsteen’s message was clear: time to grow up, boys and girls. It’s a cruel world, so what are you gonna to do about it? This was some serious shit that I was not up for.
There were other problems. I didn’t care for its radio friendly 3:50 songs, it’s downtrodden and depressed characters, and its caveman rock arrangements. Songs like “Racing in the Streets”, in which the main character glorifies illegal drag strip competitions, typified my indifference toward the album. Ugh. Who cares!
When I saw Springsteen for the first time on The Ghost of Tom Joad tour in 1995 many of the songs from Darkness on the Edge of Town were weaved into his performance, in a set crafted to tell a larger narrative and story arc rather than playing hit song after hit song. The arrangements were really interesting and complemented Bruce’s Steinbeck inspired tales of the displaced, the disenfranchised, searchers looking for a better life. I decided to give Darkness a second chance and packed it to take with me to study abroad in South Africa the following month.
In early 1996 I studied at the University of Fort Hare in the Western Cape region of South Africa as part of an exchange program at UMASS Amherst. Fort Hare was in a very rural town named Alice that was an hour away from anything I considered a city. Alice was in the heart of what was called a Bantustan during the Apartheid years: a segregated homeland where blacks were forced to live separate from whites. Needless to say I was one of the few white people around. My fellow exchange students and I were stripped of many of our Western conveniences and distractions. At first it was very jarring and unnerving. And this was before cell phones and the internet was just in its infancy: none of us were dependant on those things like we are now. Yet we were still going through cultural withdrawal.
For the first time Fort Hare, a formerly segregated black university, was accepting exchange students from the U.S. and Europe. I was one of 10 white students among thousands of Africans from places as far away as Eretria. Many South African radicals had attended Fort Hare over the years, including President Nelson Mandela. It was just six years after the end of Apartheid, Nelson Mandela had been president for two years and hope was in the air.. It was an amazing time in their history that I was lucky enough to be around for.
Can you imagine it: many of my fellow students…And they lived to see the day when Nelson Mandela walked out of prison after 28 years of detention.
It was here of all places that I had a Bruce moment. I was walking across campus and “Something in the Night” came on my walkman (remember those?). The line “you’re born with nothing and better off that way” brought me back to some heated political debates in my dorm the night before. It had been getting late and we’d covered a lot of ground: polygamy, land redistribution, circumcision rituals (I’m not kidding), foreign investment, etc. Talk often came around to me because a lot of the guys held up America as a role model for democracy and race relations, which I tried (unsuccessfully) to play down. Finally a guy I’d had run-ins with before stood up and said he’d heard enough. He was utterly unimpressed with me, which in a way was refreshing but also made me feel like a turd. For instance, he’d complain that I hadn’t learned enough Xhosa, the language of the Western Cape, and often refused to converse in English in my presence. His friends called him stubborn and rude.
He told us he was glad he had been raised during apartheid, in a segregated township where bare necessities like running water were hard to come by, where the threat of a crackdown from the oppressive white-minority government loomed every day. The bonds of community and family, he said, were strengthened during those times. In white South African society, with its political, social and financial power, he sensed isolation and anxiety. “Now that I can cross the lines and see how whites live I don’t think they’re any happier than we are…less happy, in fact.” He saw the fruits of privilege as antithetical to true happiness, instead breeding discontent and a longing for more. I could hear Bruce singing “As soon as you’ve got something they send someone to try and take it away.”
The optimism that many South Africans expressed at that time, after living so many years under Afrikaner rule, pulled songs like “The Promised Land” and “Badlands” out of FM anthem territory and into real life. I no longer heard naïve optimism or working class stereotypes. I started to see post-Apartheid South Africa, with multi-racial rule and the most inclusive constitution on the planet, as the Promised Land.
And like the characters on Darkness who hadn’t reconciled their hurt, I got glimpses of wounds still fresh from the Apartheid years. At parties at Fort Hare I’d often get taken under the wing of a former underground fighter, political prisoner or exile. They wanted to learn about the U.S. and I wanted to learn about them, an exchange I felt I got the better end of. As the alcohol flowed, however, the stories grew less glorious and more tinged with sadness as these guys relived their memories of war, detention, torture, the loss of loved ones; awful and sad tales. I’d never made sacrifices so big or known loss of that kind, and I could only guess how someone learns to live with it, or if they ever do. I’d walk around campus with heaviness from these conversations and hear these lines repeating in my head:
Everybody's got a secret Sonny
Something that they just can't face
Some folks spend their whole lives trying to keep it
They carry it with them every step that they take
Till some day they just cut it loose
Cut it loose or let it drag 'em down
Where no one asks any question or looks too long in your face in the darkness on the edge of town
Now, years later, I still think about my friends from Fort Hare when I listen to the recent re-release of Darkness. Funny how I had to travel to sub-Saharan Africa to find meaning in an album that’s supposed to be a meditation on the ups and downs of living in America. The songs ask really important questions: are you ready to grow up? Are you going to stay and deal with your life or run away? Can you reconcile where you came from, what you’ve been through and the baggage that comes with it? Now, as an adult and a father, I have to deal with these questions almost every day. Once I heard those questions being asked in those songs, and stopped fixating on the guy supping up his 59 Chevy for a drag race, I stepped into manhood. To me that distinction separates the boys from the men. I just wrote to my brother in Paris reminding him of this, asking that he someday explain to his son that the song “Racing in the Streets” is not about cars, but about how to live your life:
Some guys they just give up living
And start dying little by little, piece by piece
Some guys come home from work and wash up
And go racin' in the street