Monday, May 28, 2018

To Live It Everyday: 40 Years of Darkness on the Edge of Town

“I think one reason it’s so many people’s favorite album is that they took what they feared, and they made a story out of it….so they could live through it.” –Dave Marsh on Darkness on the Edge of Town, E Street Radio, SiriusXM 20

            I’m guessing that quote is inaccurately remembered, but it’s how I hear it from about an hour and a half ago, driving the highway up from Oklahoma before I sat down to write this. It’s from an hour-and-a-half discussion between Jim Rotolo and Dave Marsh about the significance of Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town album, released 40 years ago this coming Saturday, and it will be playing repeatedly throughout the week. I have such a sense of urgency to write this right now because Sirius is offering a free week’s listening, and I want everyone interested to check it out. It was exactly what I needed to hear right now.
            My blog is living up to its title right now because I don’t think I’m making choices so much as grabbing wild pitches, and that feels like the right choice—take ‘em as they come. A few days ago it was the urgent need to write about Little Steven & the Disciples of Soul before their last American date. This week it’s about how and why my life changed because of the release of this album, one of the ties that binds me to my great friend and mentor Dave Marsh, whose life was also changed in substantial ways when his friend Jon Landau invited him over to his place to hear that new Springsteen album (a bit of a full circle for the moment, four years before, when Marsh got Landau out to a Springsteen show in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a moment that would change the direction of Landau’s life).
            Hearing Marsh talk about what that album meant for him in those first couple of plays, sitting on Landau’s couch, and how its meaning has evolved and changed over the years, is fascinating. I could play this track-by-track commentary like its own album from now on because it doesn’t nail anything down so much as open the album up wider than perhaps it’s ever been opened before—and that’s saying a lot since this is, for many of us, the heart of Springsteen’s evolution.
            When Marsh and I were talking about this the other day, I told him, “It sounded like nothing I’d ever heard before, and he asked me, as he would, “Why?”
            I didn’t have an answer, really, but a cascade of thoughts, and the certainty that I’d be trying to get them down in some fashion very soon. That’s at the heart of what I want to write about because that is a moment I allude to all the time as the moment music changed for me, but it’s terribly hard to articulate why.
            I will try to be succinct (not exactly my strong suit), but I do have to give some backstory. I was going-on-15 when this record came out, and I was just turning into someone who had gone from a fan of various artists to someone whose identity was being shaped by music. I spent a lot of time visiting my brother James McGraw’s trailer and/or the little house he moved into soon after, and he mentioned he picked up this new Springsteen record and that it was something he was excited about. He was also figuring it out, out loud, telling me, “It’s like he’s moved from being this guy that wrote all about the streets of the city to living in the country.”
            I think that's almost literally correct (and any Springsteen fan will know there were a lot of other moving parts, most important probably Springsteen’s break with his original manager which led to years of legal trouble and the inability to release a new record). I didn’t know any of that, of course, but it provided some context for me. Though I’d heard the city Springsteen, I couldn’t have told you which of the many jazz and rock records my brother listened to were the ones he made. When I heard this one, I heard something new, and it got under my skin.
            As a kid growing up in a (not quite small but certainly not big) Oklahoma oil town, I need to provide a little more context to what music sounded like at that time, at least to me. Of course, I’d grown up on Top 40 radio, which mixed genres in a way we didn’t hear after the 80s, but my identity was being shaped by capital R rock. That was Album-Oriented Radio, and it had become a very sophisticated form of ambitious, often artsy and often pretentious, spectacle. The transition, for me, to my AOR listening had moved from the legacy of the Beatles to Elton John and Stevie Wonder and, most notably in my identity formation, the sexy sophistication of Fleetwood Mac. (I believe my puberty is marked by wearing the Rumours t-shirt under my flannels almost the entirety of my 9th grade year of school.) My first concert was Jackson Browne, and my second was Yes. I also was becoming a bit of a Deadhead, and I had a lot of nostalgia for the communal and psychedelic. I adored Jimi Hendrix (and still do, of course).
            But I was aware of this new thing happening that we tended to subdivide into punk (think Sex Pistols) and new wave (think Talking Heads)—not distinctions that would have been made at New York’s CBGB’s in quite the same way, where everyone from the New York Dolls to the Ramones to Blondie was understood to be a part of this new movement. Before Springsteen, I believe I was hooked by Lou Reed and Patti Smith into whatever this new thing was. I lived in a time when, give or take disco, it didn’t seem like there had been a counterculture since the 60s, so these rumblings were exciting and felt like a wave begging me to catch it.
            Darkness on the Edge of Town exemplified this “new thing” for me while walking a line that synthesized all of it and sounded like none of it. A song like the first side closer, “Racing in the Street” could almost be a Jackson Browne song. It had a smooth, country-rock sophistication. And “Factory,” on side two, had a piano part that I knew came out of country. “Streets of Fire,” and many others here, made me think of Hendrix’s guitar. As Marsh points out in the interview, though Springsteen had been a guitar slinger since way back, this album introduced him as a guitar hero. 

            But I think the thing that made this album sound so punk to me—and I would become very much a punk fan soon after and always hear it in this context (the second most significant such moment when I heard my first Clash record)--was the way it subverted melody. A little while ago, I heard an early acoustic version of “Wings to Wheels,” the previous album Born to Run’s “Thunder Road,” while I was thinking about how that record seemed more the template for Darkness than perhaps anything anyone had done before. The early version of “Thunder Road” was extraordinarily melodic, and you could imagine it being a hit in the singer-songwriter era. The version that made Born to Run was something of this new quality.
            While a lot of what we would call punk simply had an amateurish or purposefully alienating quality, Darkness sounded at once precise and “off” in a way that was very difficult to define. Again, I think it had to do with the subordination of melody. The opening track, “Badlands,” exemplifies this for me. The melody seems somehow built around the bassline. The band sounds accomplished and big—it has piano serving as both a rhythm instrument and almost hidden decoration, ringing guitars, enormous drums, and, of course, sax. In some ways it sounded like the biggest rock record I had ever heard, but the band wasn’t being used the way I was used to hearing bands being used. It was like one great rhythmic instrument, and something of the totality of the sound suggested a horse being whipped to full gallop.
            In other words, as sophisticated as I know it is today, it sounded unrefined, raw and about to run out of control. Of course, Springsteen’s bellowing vocal set the tone. When I later heard his earlier records, I knew he could sing refined, soulful and slinky, but here he sounded just shy of overwrought, and I have to admit that was the hook that kept me listening (and soon after, singing at the top of my lungs to my car 8-tracks). By any conventional standard, I had to wonder how well this guy could sing or write a proper song, and every bit of that made it all the more exciting. After all, as many people have said in many different ways, from the garage rock of the 60s to the endless variations of punk launched in the 70s, a huge part of the appeal was a sense that “I can do this,” which led thousands of kids to pick up thousands of guitars and make the loudest noise they knew was possible. 
             However, the role of this expert guitar was crucial. It was raw, sometimes sounding like an accidental squeak or pop of feedback was the heart of the matter, but again, as Marsh pointed out in the interview, that guitar was clearly a weapon, and it was clearly a weapon that could get the job done.
            None of which, alone, explains the mysteries that kept me coming back for more, playing the record endlessly, sometimes leaving that 8-track playing through in the car for weeks and then going home and putting it on the turntable.
            The key there is that Springsteen made an utterly unique album that spoke as powerfully and directly as a (somehow benevolent) point blank gunshot to the head. The setting did feel rural. Springsteen could describe “driving down Kingsley,” cranking his radio, and it sounded like me driving the six mile length of my hometown over and over again. Though I didn’t exactly live in a factory town, the song about a dad losing his hearing and gaining his life (and looking to pick a fight) in the factory made me think of my own blue collar jobs and also of the beat-down look I’d seen for years in the white collar workers I sold papers to coming out of the oil company. The apocalyptic “Something in the Night” sounded like some nightmare I might have run into in Osage County or up north along the Kansas border. When Springsteen sang of the dogs on Main Street howling in response to his own fear, I could hear the dogs throughout my hometown.
            It’s the darkest record I can imagine that somehow insists on hope. The kids on the first side wind up “running burned and blind” before finding release in a darkened lover’s room. The sons of the workers on the second side walk tightropes, shouting out, “don’t look too long in my face” to avoid falling into fiery hell.  

            But again and again, there is faith in the struggle. Each side works as its own album, and the album as a whole works, too, in order to establish some reason to fight. “Badlands” opens the record urging “don’t waste your time waiting” for a moment that will never just come your way. “Racing in the Street” walks a fine line of resignation but insists, “tonight my baby and me are going to ride to the sea and wash these sins off our hands.” Side Two begins by insisting part of being a man is believing in a promised land, and it ends by insisting the singer’s very salvation insists that he meet that thing waiting in the darkness on the edge of town.
            In many ways, through my passion for music and the politics that followed, I’ve spent my life embracing the struggle in that darkness. This album not only gave me permission to do that, it insisted my sense of what I had to do—what was right and just and defied the expectations that surrounded me—was precisely what I had to do. It’s all inextricably linked but summed up by the album’s would-be single, “Prove It All Night,” which both embraced the fact that we all “steal” and “cheat” and “lie,” but those sins don’t absolve us of our responsibility. We have to keep trying to do what’s right—in our hearts and in our minds and in our souls—and though we may fail to achieve our goals, there’s really no other way to live.
            The urgent call of this music urged me—and 40 years down the line continues to urge me—to live the best way I know how. It not only said I should do it; like the best of punk, it convinced me I could do it. And equally important, its dark knowledge of my failings has a helluva lot to do with why, when I fall short, I find a way to get up and try again.