Monday, November 22, 2010

Darkness and Promise

THE REASON I, and no doubt legions of other no-longer-boys staring down hairloss and paunchiness, am so excited about this ridiculous new Springsteen box thing is that it chronicles the Turning Point in the man's classic oeuvre.

Simply: there is a transition in every man's life from Born to Run to Darkness on the Edge of Town, a time when, suddenly, the rah-rah defiance of Born gives way to the crushing weight of Real Life. “No Surrender” and “Thunder Road” and “Born to Run” still mean something, they still rouse the spirit every time they're played, but it becomes a matter of nostalgia, whereas Darkness etches a place that has become much more familiar to him, a compromised existence -- “trouble in the heartland” -- that wasn't exactly what he had in mind when he was still young and girlcrazy and half certain he ejaculated rocket fuel. But there he is.

Make no mistake, he's still aflame with a desire to go out at night and find out what he's got, maybe more than ever before, but he's a little worried about what he might find. The confidence and certainty are gone. All he knows for sure are the love and faith that make getting up in the morning possible.

SONY IS PROBABLY the best of the majors when it comes to putting together these sorts of massive packages – maybe from all their experience cashing in on Miles' legacy – so I have no doubt that the box is worth delving into. But what seems more intriguing to me (and less likely to result in darkness in the middle of my wallet) is The Promise, the stand-alone double-album worth of material that didn't make the cut for inclusion on Darkness way back in 1978. This is the stuff, universally lauded as album-worthy, that Springsteen trimmed away to reveal the darkness of Darkness. This is the stuff deemed extraneous. You get the sense that there's plenty to be gleaned from these tailings, a sort of shadow version of the man's/America's mentality circa '77-'78.

SPRINGSTEEN IS A tough sell among a certain demo, mostly because the boomers think they own him. That makes it hard for some to think of him as possessing currency. But the fact is they own him like I own him, which is to say not at all. But it can be tempting, can't it, to look at the details of what an artist has produced, to feel a kinship, a recognition, and to declare yours the only generation who'll truly get it. “You had to be there.” Bullshit. Show me a time, a place, populated by people who didn't, at one time or another, seeth with the urge “to spit in the face of these badlands.”

But at work there's a crappy version of “Merry Christmas, Baby” in rotation, calling to my coworkers' minds the vision of a hunch-shouldered and pandering Bruce, grinning and beaming, dancing with Courtney Cox, hamming it up with Clarence. So when I express admiration in the face of such evidence of lameness, eyes roll. That's fine. I start up conversations with the older guys coming in to lay down their $100 for the thing, they smile and shake their heads and then they take it home and watch the DVDs alone, listen to the CDs alone, wives elsewhere, uninterested, kids scoffing. If I had the spare money, I'd do the same.

PICK A CLICHE and it fits me like a pair of size 11 Blundstones. The “writer” working retail. The father of three rushing headlong toward a midlife something. The jazz fan who thinks “if people would only give it a chance...” The white guy in plaid shirts who thinks Bruuuuce! a kind of demigod. But all I know is this: there are works of art, cultural artifacts, that seem to warp the very air around them, that hum and glow, overshadowing lesser works, speaking to something vital or unassailable. These things make so many of your other things seem worthless, trivial, unworthy of the space they occupy. Springsteen is, it seems to me, the author of several such works, including Darkness on the Edge of Town, and I welcome the chance to spy on the process of creating such a work that these two (undeniably cash-grabby) releases offer me. Call me curious. Call me a sucker. Call me old. I don't mind a bit.


Nirmala said...

Darkness On the Edge of Town remains my favourite Springsteen record, even though I don't always play it through (like I might Born in the U.S.A., 'cause, y'know, hits). As long as I can hear the "what it means to steal / to cheat / to lie / what it's like to live and die" bridge of "Prove It All Night", I'm happy.

AGF said...

I hear that. You need a little resolve to make it through Darkness intact. It slows down in such a way as to make "I'm on Fire" sound like "Dancing in the Dark." But for me it's Candy's sadness ("baby if you wanna be wild/you got a lot to learn"), the girlfriend with "the eyes of one who hates for just being born" in "Racing in the Street" and the narrator of "Badlands" who came hoping to sing a stirring BtR-style anthem, but ran headlong into the immovable object of quotidian existence.

Nirmala said...


Indeed, "Candy's Room" (that rollercoaster drum beat!), "Racing in the Streets" and, of course, "Badlands" are my other favourites from the record. What a classic (no doy).

Anonymous said...

check out the great companion book to Springsteen's new Darkness box set: