It has often been commented on that it is hugely ironic that the man who best represents blue-collared, working-class America in the arts is a man who has never had a proper job in his life. It is an irony that is not lost on Bruce Springsteen. He is also very aware that his nickname, The Boss, also carries a certain amount of irony given he’s never had one in the traditional sense.
Bruce Springsteen’s life changed immeasurably and permanently in 1975 with the release of Born to Run, an album which saved and arguably still defines his career to this day. After years of trying and falling short, he had finally hit on the formula – on what was arguably his last throw of the dice – which brought him the success and critical acclaim he had craved. Nothing, it seemed, could blot his apparently permanently sun kissed horizon. He was up and running and nothing could stop him, or so he thought. However, by the time Springsteen came to record Born to Run’s follow-up, Darkness on the Edge of Town, he had found out the hard way, and to his own financial cost, that fame and success can sometimes be a double-edged sword.
Within a year of Born to Run being released Springsteen was in a heavy legal dispute with his manager Mike Appel to regain the rights to his own songs, which he had unknowingly and naively signed away on a contract he didn’t even take the time to read. As Springsteen became increasingly suspicious about his deal with Mike Appel he sought counsel in John Landau, a music critic whom Springsteen had befriended and was beginning to trust above anyone else.
Landau agreed to help and arranged for his attorney to review the contracts which Springsteen had signed, and as suspected they were heavily weighted against Springsteen and in favour of Appel.
To suggest that Springsteen was being taken for a ride is an understatement. In fact such was the poor nature of practically every clause in Springsteen’s contracts that top entertainment lawyer David Benjamin – who Landau had brought in and who would later take on Springsteen’s legal work – audibly gasped in disbelief when he read them. Benjamin suspected that the contracts were so loaded with ‘every trick in the book’ that it was highly unlikely that a relative novice to management like Appel could be responsible and suggested that Appel’s lawyer, Jules Kruz, was more likely to be the man behind them. However, regardless of who the culprit was, Springsteen’s sense of injustice and paranoia had been pricked by the revelations and he wanted out. Landau took over responsibility for looking after Springsteen’s affairs – starting a working relationship that is still running to this very day – and the legal battle to release Springsteen from the cash draining deals with Appel began.
The process was long (10 months of courtroom exchanges) and arduous, and it meant that Springsteen and the E Street Band – which included the likes of Roy Bittan, Clarence Clemons and long-term collaborator Steve Van Zandt – didn’t enter the studio until June 1977 to begin work on Darkness on the Edge of Town.
The sessions started in Atlantic Studios in midtown Manhattan and latterly moved to the Record Plant. Landau and Van Zandt oversaw production duties. The sessions were long and blighted by technical issues, the first being a faulty rigging in the studio which impacted on the sound of Max Weinberg’s drums – an issue that was never really fixed.
Springsteen was aware of the pressure he was under to deliver an album of similar magnitude to Born to Run and confided in Elvis Costello that he was feeling the heat stating: “In the end my music was always about identity, identity, identity. Who am I? Where do I belong? What is the code I am trying to live by?” The fact was that by this point Springsteen was unsure of himself and couldn’t answer any of these questions.
The switch in mindset on Darkness…. is obvious. On Born to Run Springsteen promised us that we’d “get to that place” and “walk in the sun” and told his sweetheart Mary in ‘Thunder Road’ that they were in a town ‘full of losers’ and needed to get away in order to attain their hopes and dreams. On Darkness… Springsteen seems to be offering hints that he had chased his dreams successfully and came out of the experience bruised and questioning the point of it all.
In ‘Adam Raised a Cain’, a song that charts Springsteen’s troubled relationship with his father, he tells us: “Daddy worked his whole life for nothing but the pain. Now he walks these empty rooms looking for something to blame. But you inherit the sins, you inherit the flames.”
In ‘Factory’ Springsteen sounds even bleaker: “Through the mansions of fear, through the mansions of pain, I see my daddy walking through them factory gates in the rain. Factory takes his hearing, factory gives him life, The working, the working, just the working life.”
The overriding sense on Darkness… is one that Springsteen – the boy who has never had a job in his life – has discovered a sense of what it is like to face the daily toil of the steel mill, the factory or the kitchen. To put the effort in and get very little back. He has discovered what it is really like to be powerless in the land of the free. For the first time his optimism has been pierced, and he is shaken as a result.
Although he has never had a job, Springsteen’s childhood meant he was well versed in how working class communities operated, stating in his autobiography: “My sisters and I grew up in blue-collar neighbourhoods, somewhat integrated, filled with factory workers, cops, firemen, long-distance truck drivers. I never saw a man leave the house in a jacket and tie unless it was a Sunday or he was in trouble. If you came knocking at our door with a suit on, you were immediately under suspicion. You wanted something.” The experience with Appel appears to have reawakened Springsteen’s inbred working class suspicion of authority. The result being that the hopes and dreams of Born to Run are replaced on Darkness… with a more sinister realisation of what working world can do to you. There is anger and hurt on this album – something that wasn’t prevalent on Born to Run. However, despite the overriding bleak mood of Darkness… , it does provide one glimpse of optimism on ‘The Promised Land’ – a song borne out of a road trip with Van Zandt and photographer Eric Meola.
All three flew to Salt Lake City, jumped in a red 1965 Ford Galaxie 500XL convertible and headed for the deserts of Utah, driving fully 30 hours and investigating every nook and cranny of the seemingly endless desert. When they stopped at a small gas station, Meola took the opportunity to take out the camera and take some shots. One showed Springsteen leaning on the car, the enormous emptiness of the desert sprawling behind him with a huge and extremely dark storm cloud hanging in the horizon.
All three of them watched the storm from a safe distance, Meola claimed he had never seen anything like it. They then drove further up the dusty road before sleeping in the car overnight. All through that hot and humid night there were dogs howling in one of the streets of the small town where they had settled. In the morning they headed back to Salt Lake City for the flight home.
Meola returned with several iconic images, but Springsteen also came back with inspiration and used the events of that night as the foundation for ‘The Promised Land’.
Lyrics like “On a rattlesnake speedway in the Utah desert”, “The dogs on Main Street howl ‘Cause they understand” and “There’s a dark cloud rising from the desert floor, I packed my bags and I’m heading straight into the storm” are directly derived from the road trip with Van Zandt and Meola, and despite ‘The Promised Land’ encapsulating a lot of the overall bleakness of Darkness… – “ I’ve done my best to live the right way, I get up every morning and go to work each day, But your eyes go blind and your blood runs cold, Sometimes I feel so weak I just want to explode” – the song’s overall mood is one of defiance and belief that there is something better out there.
By the time the recording session for Darkness… finished, Springsteen and his band had amassed 70 songs – although only ten would make the final cut. Most were discarded, some were handed to other artists (most famously with ‘Because the Night’ going to Patti Smith) and some appeared in Springsteen’s next album, The River.
Darkness… was released on 2 June 1978 to lukewarm reviews. Jon Tobler stated in his review for ZigZag that: “I refuse to allow any sentiment to colour my feeling that this album is pretty ordinary”. Peter Silverton commented in Sounds that Springsteen “sounds a frightened man”. Such reviews, however, did not prevent the NME naming it as its album of the year ahead The Jam’s All Mod Cons, Elvis Costello’s This Year’s Model and Talking Heads’ More Songs About Buildings & Food.
Darkness on the Edge of Town is a pivotal album in the Springsteen roster. Despite appreciation for it being slow on its release, it was a strong enough album to convince the wider public that Born to Run wasn’t a fluke. It also displayed a level of anger and sense of injustice surrounding class inequality that Springsteen wouldn’t revisit to the same degree until 2012 and Wrecking Ball.
But the main thing about Darkness… is Springsteen’s own realisation that, despite being the boy from the blue-collared neighbourhood who avoided having to do a proper job, he was not immune to the feeling of despair and vulnerability that was par for the course for working class America.
As Pete Silverton said: “He sounds a frightened man”.