Bruce Springsteen – Darkness on the Edge of Town (Columbia – 1978)


The impetuosity of youth led to a pseudo-rebellion which dismissed Springsteen, nay ‘The Boss’, as some kind of relic of eighties excess and saccharine stadium rock and as a covert representative of The Man, jeans manufacturers and a gauche shiny commercialism. That could never sit well with first my teenage allegiance to Britpop’s fey heroes and later the post-rock cult champions which would define my attempts at defining a casual outsider chic in place of a personality. How could it not? The arrogance of the cover of ‘Born in the USA’; the gasping, seemingly outmoded saxophone which sounded nothing like anything that would possibly reach into a musical era enamoured with the whimsy of The Kinks or reimagining The Beatles through Noddy Holder’s nonsensical lense of communal stomp. There was also sense that this may well be a man who your mother found deeply sexually attractive. It said nothing to me about my life as The Smiths nearly sang, yet Springsteen’s career peak could just about be one the most quintessential albums that would connect with a young man growing up in a crumbling post-industrial town and a faltering desire to explore a romanticism he could barely articulate.

While ‘Born to Run’ was of course my way in, for not loving the title track is probably akin to saying you dislike the laughter of children or the concept of joy, replete with a groove the jet propulsion of a fifties B-movie soundtracked by Phil Spector, it’s the innate questioning of what comes after the first rush of romance that runs central to ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’, for as sure as that first teenage love is the greatest rush of your life, the sickening come down and facing up to reality of life in a chokingly small town is just as necessary to growing up. ‘Born to Run’ may have adrenaline rush of ‘She’s The One’, but the melancholic sob for the barely realised expectations of a youth filled with a desire to escape in ‘Racing in the Street’ spoke far more of life’s realities. Yet irrespective of the lyrical concerns, it seems implausible that an album which glistens in reverb and irrepressible energy could have not moved a teenage heart so intent on discovering the new, had it only been given a chance.

One of the album’s most striking qualities is the sense of yearning which shoots through its heart, be that for an escape from small town blues or sheer sexual energy. Opener ‘Badlands’ plays like a fanfare but reads like call to arms against forces of greed and self-interest, while ‘Adam Raised a Cain’ is a furious portrait of working class life, with violence bred from desperation and an inability to articulate fury at the world. The title track and album closer explores this same theme with an inescapable melancholy of a town falling apart and the working man of ‘Factory’ losing his identity at the hands of an ever changing economic landscape. It’s of course a theme which seems a relevant now as it ever did then but the North East of England has been in decline from my earliest memory, so why couldn’t that have had a resonance with my instinctually and indoctrinated teenage socialist self?

Of course what that version of myself could not have possibly come to terms with is the fact that this album, for all it has a dark heart, has a sexual energy to it that I’ll perhaps never be able to articulate. The adrenaline rush as the drums kick in on ‘Candy’s Room’, the way that Bruce croons ‘I’m a liar’ on ‘Streets on Fire’ like he’s just invented seduction and that he can get away with singing ‘Prove It All Night’ without resorting to leather trousers, yet still we believe him as we suspend our disbelief and listen on slack-jawed and incredulous. Generational issues aside, could this have been a barrier? When growing up faced with notions of a Britpop England I recognised but barely felt a part of, that was often laddishly confrontational or meekly apologetic, could I really have taken a now middle aged man tell me he’d ‘prove it all night’? I suspect not but then I was almost certainly afraid of Prince too.

However, at its core, this is an album for whom the reoccurring motifs of ‘darkness’, ‘work’ and ‘dreams’ hint at the insecurity at the heart of us all. His much derided populism is of course his greatest strength, as even now at the age of 63 he and the E Street Band remain one of the most thrilling live bands whose music actually makes sense at the stadium of your local underperforming sports team. But nearly 35 years on and as he, just like some of his illustrious near peers he undergoes a relative creative revival, it seems unlikely that the first person narratives of this album, both brittle yet cocksure will ever speak a greater truth about what it’s like to be a confronted with the reality of accepting the tribulations of an uncertain future. No great philosophical introspection, just ‘the working life.

James Tiernan