Today is the thirtieth anniversary of the release of my favorite album of the rock and roll era, Darkness On The Edge Of Town.
Thirty years? Ooof.
Here’s what I wrote two years ago – a piece I’m still kinda proud of:
Tonight My Baby And Me Are Gonna Ride To The Sea
It was 28 years ago today that Darkness on the Edge of Town came out.
For the past 25 or so years, it’s been my favorite album of all time.
Everyone remembers Born to Run, a timeless procession of suicide machines and old girlfriends and happy-go-lucky petty thugs and dresses flying in the wind and visionaries in parking lots dancing to late-night radio to the light of nearby billboards.
Darkness is the album for when the cruising’s over, and you have to grow up and live your life for real.
There’s a reason the album has stuck with me for almost thirty years – and why so many Bruce fans say that it, rather than Born to Run or The River or Nebraska, is their favorite Springsteen record.
There has never been a better record written about isolation – personal, geographical, cultural, and emotional – ever. Which may be why it resonated so much for a kid for North Dakota who desperately wanted to be elsewhere. In fact, “the Promised Land” is about exactly that:
On a rattlesnake speedway in the Utah desert
I pick up my money and head back into town
Driving cross the Waynesboro county line
I got the radio on and I’m just killing time
Working all day in my daddy’s garage
Driving all night chasing some mirage
Pretty soon little girl I’m gonna take charge
The dogs on Main Street howl
’cause they understand
If I could take one moment into my hands
Mister I ain’t a boy, no I’m a man
And I believe in a promised land
Foreigner and Black Sabbath never wrote about being stuck in a small town, bored out of your skull. I was sold.
The first cut, “Badlands”, is a decoy; it’s almost “Born to Run”-ish, with its gleefully-sloppy guitar/sax interplay, big beat (almost danceable, by Springsteen standards) and exhortation that “it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive”. But after “Badlands” it’s clear – being glad you’re alive is no sin, but it’s something you gotta work for. “Adam Raised a Cain”, a brutal, plodding dirge, raises the ante; you can be glad you’re alive, but your past wants its due:
“Daddy worked his whole life for nothing but the pain
Now he walks these empty rooms looking for something to blame
You inherit the sins, you inherit the flames
Adam raised a Cain…
“Something in the Night” reads like an obituary to the teenage dream; like an almost-thirty-year-old is driving down the same route he covered ten years earlier – maybe the route “through the mansions of glory”, for all we know.
But he’s alone, this time:
I’m riding down Kingsley,
figuring I’ll get a drink
Turn the radio up loud,
so I don’t have to think,
I take her to the floor,
looking for a moment when the world
And I tear into the guts,
of something in the night.
Well nothing is forgotten or forgiven,
when it’s your last time around,
and I’ve got stuff running ’round my head,
that I can’t live down…
So it’s been 28 years since I first heard the record, and about a quarter century since it’s been among my 2-3 favorite records ever. For me, it’s been a long stretch; a couple of careers, two and a half kids, a marriage that splintered like a Wal-mart dining room set, and a few dreams along the way that had to get wrapped up and put away for later, whenever “Later” is.
And at the end of it all – on the title and final cut on the album, the slow, mournful “Darkness on the Edge of Town” – a late-night tale by a guy who staked a big chunk of his life on a losing bet, a song that sounds like 4AM after a long bender, about the time when resignation gells into resolve:
Well, they’re still racing out at The Trestles
but that blood never burned in her veins.
I hear she’s got a house out on Fairview, now,
and a style she’s trying to maintain…
He’s been there. He’s thought about it.
Well, some folks are born into a good life,
and other folks get it anyway, anyhow.
And I lost my money and I lost my wife,
Them things don’t seem to matter much to me now.
Tonight I’ll be on that hill ’cause I can’t stop
I’ll be on that hill with everything I got
Where the lives are on the line, where dreams are found and lost,
I’ll be there on time and I’ll pay the cost
For wanting things that can only be found
in the darkness on the edge of town…
The album has stayed with me like none of Springsteen’s other records – partly because I associate it so closely with that part of my adolescence when I was just starting to figure out who I was and where I belonged, but mostly because it’s about things that are pretty timeless.
It aint’ no sin to be glad you’re alive. It’s also something you have to earn:
Well everybody’s got a hunger,
a hunger they can’t resist.
There’s so much that you want,
you deserve much more than this.
Well, if dreams came true, aw, wouldn’t that be nice?
But this aint’ no dream, we’re living all through the night.
You want it? You take it, you pay the price…
So earn it.
I remember a friend of mine and I staying up til midnight at the end of term in ‘78 to hear the college radio station play the long-awaited new album on its release day. After all the anticipation I found it rather anti-climatic. I didn’t really like the album the first time through; there didn’t seem to be the “BTR” or “Rosalita” type anthem or a real party song. After the last cut finished my buddy asked me what I thought. I said it sounded as if Bruce had traded the city streets for the highways. I mean, how did he get from “E Street” to “a rattlesnake speedway in the Utah desert”? Didn’t stop me from buying it, of course, and it did grow on me.
I’ve found that to be true with a lot of music; a lot of my favorite albums ever – London Calling, Empty Glass, Tunnel of Love, Exile on Main Street, Pleased To Meet Me, Poor Man’s Son and probably quite a few others – didn’t totally grab me right out of the gate. Oh, there were songs I liked on each right out of the sleeve – but it took a while for things to really insinuate themselves into my brain, and deeper.
And while it’s been a long, long time since I first heard it, some of my favorites on Darkness today are the ones I skipped past when I was in high school. Oh, things like “Badlands”, “The Promised Land” and “Prove It All Night” grabbed me in my adolescent gut, but I remember thinking “Racing In The Street” was a lab project to cram in as many traditional “Springsteen” cliches – cars, girls, driving, the shore – into one song as possible. My friend Rich actually broke out laughing when he first heard the song’s opening verse…:
I got a ’69 Chevy with a 396, fuelie heads and a Hurst on the floor.
She’s waiting tonight down in the parking lot behind the 7/11 store.
…and, truth be told, I couldn’t really object. Not then, anyway. It took me years, and a lot of life, to really figure that one out.
Which may be why I love this album so much, more even than any other Springsteen album (and I love so much of that to begin with); there’s just as much there for me now as there was when I was 17.