The first time I remember hearing Darkness on the Edge of Town, was on a September Friday in Frank Vultaggio’s Audi on the way to a college football game in Philadelphia in 1978.
Surely, I’d heard it before then. The album was released in June of that year.
But it’s the memory of that night that endures. The jugs of beer on the floor in the back of the car. The scream-along to the chorus of Badlands, the album’s opening salvo, followed by the unyielding guitar and dark narrative of Adam Raised a Cain and on through the rest of the cassette and two of our college-days anthems, Prove It All Night and The Promised Land.
Later that night, we watched Springsteen protégés Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes perform a post-game concert in the end zone before the hour-drive back with Darkness as the brooding midnight soundtrack.
It would be dishonest to say the album became my favorite that night. It took years before I came to appreciate it as the greatest of the great Springsteen records.
I had to live with those stories, and their characters and their unflinching look at everyday life, something no rock record had asked me to do. I had to sing along to those classics at one Springsteen show after another. The songs at the heart of the album — Badlands, Prove It All Night, The Promised Land and Darkness on the Edge of Town — have been concert staples for nearly 40 years for a good reason.
Like the best art, what the songs on Darkness mean to me has changed over time.
The album I first heard in 1978 evokes different emotions now than it did then or in 1997 when my children were born, or 2003 during The Rising Tour, or 2016 during The River Tour. It got me through breakups and celebrations, pain and joy, and more long road trips than I can remember.
A song like The Promised Land offered an unbroken horizon of possibilities hearing it in 1978. By the Rising Tour in 2003, it was a balm, the possibility of redemption. Now, it’s a reminder to still believe, to still explore, and to be present for the ride, a celebration of the hope central to life. It’s my favorite song, and it never grows old.
I’ve seen Springsteen more than twenty times. Each show is as rousing, redemptive, reflective, and joyous as the first. And, despite its dark lyrics, The Promised Land is a defiant, fist-pumping anthem at every show, testimony to the brilliance of the writing on Darkness.
There’s a dark cloud rising from the desert floor
I packed my bags and I’m heading straight into the storm
Gonna be a twister to blow everything down
That ain’t got the faith to stand its ground
Blow away the dreams that tear you apart
Blow away the dreams that break your heart
Blow away the lies that leave you nothing but lost and brokenhearted
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
I believe in a promised land…
Throughout Darkness, Springsteen pits the hard reality of the working life (listen to Factory) and the bitter setbacks of his weathered characters, against the thin line of hope and possibility that sends them trudging into each new day.
“You spend your life waiting for a moment that just don’t come,” Springsteen sings on Badlands, the charging opener. But at the end, he’s still finding hope. “I believe in the love that you gave me,” he says. “I believe in the hope that can save me. I believe in the faith and I pray that someday it may raise me about these badlands.”
Listen to the lonesome moan at the beginning of Something in the Night for a narrator who finds the things he loved crushed and dying in the street, but continues chasing something in the night.
Sit alone and ponder the lyrics of the daring ballad, Racing in the Street:
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.
On many of the album’s songs, the darkness grudgingly surrenders to the innocent belief there is something better within reach, whether it’s the promised land, whatever that may be, the escape of racin’ in the street, or the resolve to prove it all night. Throughout, the music and the lyrics are stripped down, serving the stories. Gone is the Wall of Sound from Born to Run, his breakthrough. Gone are the broad sketches of his early albums; for these songs, Springsteen zooms in on the characters. Their stories are as carefully sequenced as loosely-connected chapters or a novel, exploring work, love, family and our darkest fears and deepest hopes. Springsteen knows the journey isn’t linear or logical. Merely surviving can be a burden. But to survive is to have hope.
Springsteen was 27 and in the midst of a writing frenzy when he made Darkness. More than 40 songs were recorded during the sessions for the album, including Because the Night, which became a hit for Patti Smith, and Fire, a hit for The Pointer Sisters. He consciously left those off the record so they would not overshadow what he was trying to do. “I began to listen seriously to country music around this time,” Springsteen wrote in an essay two decades after the album’s release. “I discovered Hank Williams. I liked the fact that country dealt with adult topics, and I wanted to write songs that would resonate down the road.”
He’d long been into film noir and that became an even greater influence with films like John Ford’s “The Grapes of Wrath.” The album was written and recorded during the punk frenzy and those influences found their way into the songs. He culled the songs to the toughest, songs he says still form the philosophical core of what he and the band do today.
“Darkness on the Edge of Town,” he wrote, “dealt with the idea that the setting for personal transformation is often found at the end of your rope.”
On most of the ten songs, the characters are unnamed. They’re everyman and everywoman, you and me, our neighbors and friends. So we frame the meaning of those songs with our particular windows on the world, taking from them what we need.
In the end, Darkness is the rare album that examines what it’s like to be an adult who manages to move forward haunted by the ghosts of their regrets.
“Most of my songs are emotionally autobiographical,” Springsteen says. “You’ve got to pull up the things that mean something to you for them to mean anything to your audience. That’s how they know you’re not kidding.”
Looking back in 2010, Springsteen wrote to fans that he hoped he’d “written something that would continue to fill me with purpose and meaning in the years to come, that would continue to mean something to me and to you.”
For me, at least, he’s fulfilled that considerable ambition, creating a layered album that endures day after day, year after year.