The Paths Bruce Springsteen Didn’t Take For His Fiercely Introspective ‘Darkness On The Edge Of Town’


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After 1975, with the release of his breakthrough album Born To Run, you’d think Bruce Springsteen would be over-the-moon thrilled with his commercial prospects and the trajectory of his career. He wasn’t. He was quite the opposite in fact. Celebrating the album’s 40th anniversary, let’s take a look back at what exactly was going on in Springsteen’s life at the time. A battle with his one-time manager Mike Appel, along with a run in with Uncle Sam over some back-due taxes had left him feeling disillusioned and despondent. For the longest time, he couldn’t even enter a recording studio because of his legal dispute with Appel, and so song ideas piled up, with nowhere to go.

Finally, in the autumn of 1977, Springsteen’s lawyers and Appel’s lawyers came to an agreement. Just a week later, finally unshackled, “The Boss” and the E Street Band hit Atlantic Studios in New York City, and got started on a nine-month odyssey of creating their next album, the mournful, confused, and contemplative Darkness On The Edge Of Town.

“By 1977, in true American fashion, I’d escaped the shackles of birth, personal history and, finally, place, but something wasn’t right,” he wrote in his memoir. “Rather than exhilaration, I felt unease. I sensed there was a great difference between unfettered personal license and real freedom.” Freedom had been the central thesis of his ebullient last record. Darkness was about reckoning with the costs that came from busting out. It’s a record where youthful exuberance meets the harsh realities of real adulthood.

For this record, Springsteen wrote songs where the characters were, “Older, weathered, wiser but not beaten. The sense of daily struggle increased; hope became a lot harder to come by. That was the feeling I wanted to sustain. I steered away from escapism and placed my people in a community under siege.”

The ten songs that made the final cut of Darkness On The Edge Of Town reflect that desire to a stunning degree. The album opener “Badlands” gallops with a defiant inhibition that belies the central hopeless that Springsteen can’t seem to shake. “I’m caught in a crossfire / I don’t understand,” he roars. That’s followed by the slashing, bile-filled screed aimed against the all-time great Springsteen foil, his own father Doug on “Adam Raised A Cain.” From there, the mournful howls of “Something In The Night,” the fantastical “Candy’s Room,” and finally the hollowed-out lament “Racing In The Streets” that closes out the first side of the record.

The second side opens on a hopeful note with “Promised Land” before it’s stomped out with the monotonous trudge that comes with “the working, the working, just the working life,” on “Factory.” That one’s also about Doug Springsteen, naturally. Then comes, without any trace of hyperbole, the greatest one-two punch of songs that Springsteen ever stacked back-to-back on any album, “Streets Of Fire” into “Prove It All Night.” Both are brimming with an intensity and an edge that are plainly staggering. Even more so live. Even more so live on the 1978 tour when Springsteen turned his Fender Telecaster into a full-on weapon of mass destruction, tossing off solos like a man possessed.

It all comes to an end with the title track; the moment where all of the album’s ideas finally coalesce together. The ennui has flooded his heart, his mind, his body, and still, when all is said and done you’ll find him, “On that hill cause I can’t stop / I’ll be on that hill with everything I got / Lives on the line where dreams are found and lost / I’ll be there on time and I’ll pay the cost.” You can knock him down, but The Boss will always get back up again.

Darkness On The Edge Of Town, I’d argue, is a perfect record. I’d go so far to say it’s Springsteen’s best record. Take away one song, and you lose some of the depth of emotion that Springsteen manages to convey. Add another song, and you’re just re-stating what’s already been said, and maybe less effectively. Getting this balance exactly right was the trickiest part of creating this record.

Unlike the recording of Born To Run, which was prolonged by Springsteen’s obsessive need to get every whack on the snare drum, every sax solo, every guitar note, every guttural screech exactly, perfectly correct, Darkness was prolonged by the simple fact that he couldn’t turn off the creative firehose of ideas. Okay, he also obsessed over the drums, sax lines, vocal takes, and especially the final mix-down, which certainly helped stretch everything out. I’m sure producer Jimmy Iovine probably has a mild PTSD flashback every time he hears the word “stick,” Bruce’s oft-repeated shorthand complaint for a subpar sound emanating from drummer Max Weinberg’s tom-tom.

Though only ten songs made it onto the final album, Springsteen and the E Street Band reportedly recorded or half-finished 54 different compositions while making Darkness. Four of them found their way on the ’90s collection Tracks. Another 21 were either polished off, or totally refurbished with new vocals on the 2010 compilation The Promise. Some, he revisited a couple years later and added onto his next album The River. One, “Fire,” became a hit for the Pointer Sisters. And then there are some, which remain locked away in the vaults, either in too raw a state to be heard by the public, or deemed inferior by the man who created them.

The twenty-six songs that have officially been released in one form or another through the years paint an intriguing portrait of the paths Springsteen could have taken, but chose not to, for one reason or another. Prime among the cuts that didn’t make the album is the mournful piano ballad “Because The Night,” that he left half-finished before handing it off to Patti Smith, who fleshed the rest out — the line “have I doubt when I’m alone / love is a ring, the telephone” was written while waiting for a call from her husband Fred “Sonic” Smith — and turned it into a Top 20 smash. Apparently, Bruce wasn’t interested in adding yet another love song onto Darkness, which is why he decided it was okay to cast it aside, but he certainly recognized its potency and power, and the song became a regular part of his live show in intervening years.

A cursory listen to the four songs from the ’77-’78 recording sessions that were included on Tracks bolsters Bruce’s instincts to leave them by the wayside. “Give The Girl A Kiss” is a nice throwback to ’50s rock touched with a little bit of swing. “Iceman” is a poignant piano ballad about busting out where Bruce repurposes his refrain from “Badlands” that he wants to “go out tonight / I wanna find out what I got.” The bitterest song is “Heart Of Stone,” in which Bruce tries to assuage a former lover in hushed tones in mixed company, all while trying to rush her off the phone. Clarence Clemons bursts in like the Kool-Aid Man with one of his best sax solos on this track. And finally, you have “Don’t Look Back,” another song about busting out that finds drummer Max Weinberg putting in work. “Heart Of Stone” is the only track that could have conceivably fit into the formula Bruce was laying out on his new record, but that one might carry too much antipathy for even a record as antipathetic as Darkness On The Edge Of Town.

The motherlode of un-utilized Darkness material came in 2010 with the release of The Promise. 21-tracks comprising some of the best material Bruce had ever written. Songs overflowing with deeply personal self-reflections, with heartbreak, with joy, empathy, desire, and resignation. Chief among these songs, and the only one next to “Because The Night” that can match the material that made it into the final cut of Darkness On The Edge Of Town, is the compilation’s title track, “The Promise.” It’s a mournful elegy of the American Dream that seemed so faded and lost in the era of Jimmy Carter. A song about a guy working a dead-end job, who sells out on his dreams because he needs the cash. Who couldn’t relate?

“It was a song about defeat, and it was self-referential, which made me uncomfortable,” Springsteen told The New York Times about “The Promise.” Apparently, the message was too potent, which fed into his decision to leave it out of the final tracklist. “I didn’t want it to overtake the album, which, in the end, was not my personal story,” he said. “I wanted Darkness to be completely independent of that. So I left it off.”

Though there might not have been space for them on this particular record, The Promise runneth over with some incredible tracks that could have conceivably worked as an impressive stopgap between Darkness and The River. “Rendezvous” for example is a joyous track that would have been right at home in the context of Born To Run. “Wrong Side Of The Street” is another phenomenal composition that really shines a light on the power of his interplay with Clarence, weaving an electrifying guitar solo in and out of the way of his saxophone. “Candy’s Boy” gives Professor Roy Bittain a chance to shine on the organ over Bruce’s vivid tale about cheap hotels, old cars, and longing after someone above your station. “It’s A Shame,” is a powerful take on doing everything you can to make someone you love happy, and still coming up short. “Gotta Get That Feeling” has some fantastic, throwback doo-wop vibes with the rest of the E Street Band chiming in with a series of “Sha-na-na’s.” Then, of course, there’s “Fire,” which is Bruce’s homage to his all-time hero Elvis Presley.

That being said, not all the glitters on The Promise is gold. “Someday (We’ll Be Together)” is a saccharine throwback to the Brill Building era of music that nearly becomes cloying. “Outside Looking In,” is a fine uptempo rocker that feels more like the start of an idea than a fully-fleshed out song. “Come On Let’s Go Out Tonight” has a similar structure to “Factory,” but replaces the hopelessness of a future filled with monotonous work with the distracting, fleeting thrill of a night out on the town. Then there’s “Talk To Me,” which is Bruce’s attempt to harken back to his teenage years in a song about stealing away into the night with a girl, out from under the nose of her watchful father. As you can imagine, that last one really pales in comparison to the depth and anguish of songs like “Racing In The Streets” and “Adam Raised A Cain.”

You can quibble all you’d like about what did or didn’t or should’ve made the final cut on Darkness On The Edge Of Town when it was finally pressed into wax in 1978, but in all honesty, there’s something to be said for laying out an actual vision and following through with it. “Party songs, love songs, Brill Building pop, absolute top ten smashes (“Fire,” “Because the Night”) all came and went,” Bruce wrote in his memoir. “It was my way. I wasn’t sure what I wanted but I smelled something in the air and knew when I didn’t have it.”