The Dreams and Rage of Manhood: Bruce Springsteen, Darkness on the Edge of Town

By Daniel Garrett

Bruce Springsteen, Darkness on the Edge of Town
Produced by Jon Landau and Bruce Springsteen
Columbia Records, 1978

Springsteen has become one of the most significant figures in American popular music history, but his is no longer the sound of the present or the future: he is one more idol. Bruce Springsteen has captured as well as anyone the facts of American life, its drudgery and anger and hope, and the passion for the transcendence of human experience in love and community and art, while suggesting the resources of folk tradition, culture, and politics. The awaited Darkness on the Edge of Town was one of the milestone recordings of Springsteen’s career, though for all the album’s ambitious but sometimes imprecise lyrics, it is Springsteen’s furious singing that completes the vision he is trying to create, the sense of ambiguity and possibility and frustration and pain in ordinary lives.

Bruce Springsteen’s focus and intensity remain connected to recognizable characters and situations; and that is what makes his work more than self-indulgent feeling and mythmaking. The opening song on Darkness on the Edge of Town, “Badlands,” despite its uptempo, thick sound, driven by guitar, drum, and horn, is one of frustration, with references to mediocrity and hunger and ambition: “I don’t give a damn for the same old played out scenes/ I don’t give a damn for just the in-betweens/ Honey, I want the heart, I want the soul/ I want control right now.” There is intellect—analyses, sometimes informed by history, literature, film, and folklore—as much as genuine response, or observation, in Springsteen’s work. Yet, one perceives a desperate grasping for meaning. “Adam Raised a Cain,” a melodramatic, raging song focused on father and son, and a boy in his community, and what is passed from one generation to the next, a song of signal importance, has a lumbering, sensual beat. The narration shifts from scene to scene, a tale told in fragments. “You’re born into this life, paying for the sins of somebody else’s past./ Daddy worked his whole life for nothing but the pain./ Now he walks these empty rooms, looking or something to blame,” Springsteen sings. The song presents a knot of emotion and conflict as the narrative chases connection and illumination, citing the Christian bible and the travails of working class life, but it is the intense, rough-voiced singing that persuades most. Springsteen is a drama king, a master of male turmoil. A hopeless sense of life is conveyed in the lyrics of “Something in the Night.” The pleasures described are surface pleasures—brief, sensual, fleeting. More palpable is the atmosphere of conflict and desperation. New Jersey rocker Springsteen is trying to translate an attitude and a vision into music—and his themes are akin to the blues of African-Americans and the country music of white, rural Americans.

The singer and guitarist Springsteen has wanted reflection and redemption for the music he has made alone and with his great band: saxophonist Clarence Clemons, organist Danny Federici, pianist Roy Bittan, bassist Garry Tallent, guitarist Steve Van Zandt, and drummer Max Weinberg, journeymen whose dedication raised them to a higher realm. Springsteen worked to have his music capture the hope and terror of people’s lives, and to be a fulfillment of their faith in community. His song “Candy’s Room” has a tawdry romanticism, as what is desired is something just beyond what is named: pictures of idols on the wall, the cheaply seductive gifts of strangers, and a boy who doesn’t understand much. (Is there a hint of the Velvet Underground in some of Springsteen’s phrasing, possibly even the suggestion—including the use of the name Candy—of a deep joke about gender and sexuality?) Masculinity and its rigors—how it is made and tested—are a fundamental part of the singer-songwriter’s subject. The thrill of car racing, with the propensity for masculine camaraderie and isolation and distraction, is at the heart of the downbeat “Racing in the Streets.” Something that might be fun seems an expression of an anxious, reckless, hopeless seeking of confirmation that one is alive and matters. Is that portrait really the way to be true to ordinary people living fractured lives? Do people want their misery reflected and handed back to them? Or do they want an alternative—and transcendence? The music at the end of the song is pretty, like having cake after eating vegetables—or a cold drink after a fight.

“Mister, I ain’t a boy, no I’m a man. And I believe in the promised land,” sings Springsteen in “The Promised Land,” a song I have found, often, heartbreaking. Its music is exuberant, but its poignancy is sadly touching, for its pride, for its need to say what should not have to be said. The murderous routine of working class factory life is the subject of the streamlined, oddly pleasant “Factory,” suggesting both pain and resignation. “When the night’s quiet, and you don’t care anyone,” begins Springsteen in “Streets of Fire.” Beautiful, intense—really miserable—is “Streets of Fire,” a timelessly resonant godless hymn: here are the isolation and despair and rage, the betrayal by others and disappointment in self, of a peculiar American male loneliness. “I live now only with strangers,/ I talk to only strangers/ I walk with angels that have no place, streets of fire.”

Work, romance, and the possibility of marriage, with an acknowledgement of ambition with little opportunity, are the foundation stones of the ordinary trap—in which private life is asked to provide the fulfillment that public life does not, with the compensations of love and sex—and that reality forms the complex subject of the song “Prove It All Night.” Springsteen gets at the deep appeal feminine presentation has for men, how simple things become invested with erotic magic, with a promise of transforming difference and vital distraction: “Baby, tie your hair back in a long white bow,/meet me in the fields out behind the dynamo…” There is sweetness and lamentation in his depiction of heterosexual love.

Comfort versus discomfort. Wealth versus poverty. Health versus sickness. Truth versus lies. In the collection’s title song “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” are stark choices and circumstances—and the days lived on the side of misfortune, on the margin of society, with the increasing obliteration of feeling and conscience. “Some folks are born into a good life./ Other folks get it anyway anyhow./ I lost my money and I lost my wife./ Them things don’t seem to matter much to me now,” sings Springsteen, staying true to the disappointment he has seen.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today. Daniel Garrett has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader..

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