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In the 1990s, Bruce Springsteen occasionally performed “In Freehold,” an unreleased song in which he reflects on his youth in a small town. Some of the lyrics are nostalgic, emphasizing that Freehold, New Jersey was the place where Springsteen “had [his] first kiss at the YMCA canteen on a Friday night” and played in his first rock-and-roll band. Elsewhere, he accuses the town of harassing anyone who happened to be “different, black, or brown” and not showing much compassion when one of his sisters “got pregnant” late in her teens. Springsteen’s rapid shifts from lighthearted autobiography to poetic revenge are at odds with his usual songwriting practices, but his complicated view of his small-town origins should seem familiar to anyone who has listened to Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978). Throughout that album, Springsteen portrays the lives of working-class Americans as an endless struggle. Some of his characters convince themselves to persevere, believing that better times may arrive in the future. Others chase after excitement in the present through love, sex, and fast cars. The album also contains a few traumatized characters who seem unable to find any sense of purpose.

This article discusses Darkness’s representations of working-class distress and suggests that the album casts doubt on the notion that Springsteen’s music “celebrates” working people. (This reading, which came to light around the time Darkness was released, is still commonplace in critical and journalistic discourse about Springsteen. In A Race of Singers: Whitman’s Working-Class Hero from Guthrie to Springsteen, for example, Bryan K. Garman asserts that Springsteen’s career has been, among other things, a realization of Walt Whitman’s wish to inspire future poets “who would celebrate the working class and fulfill the promise of American democracy.” Similarly, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette announced in 2004 that “Rock superstar Bruce Springsteen, whose songs celebrate the working man, will join Joe Grushecky and the Houserockers and other local musicians Dec. 2 at Heinz Hall in a benefit concert...”) Springsteen’s empathy for blue-collar Americans is unmistakable, but it does not follow that his principal aim is to praise them. Darkness does not offer purely positive remarks about “the working man.” Springsteen’s small towns are complex, and his characters embody many kinds of anguish and optimism.

Critics have often observed that Springsteen’s approach to songwriting changed during the time in which he recorded Darkness. Robert Hilburn interprets the album’s relatively simple arrangements as a rejection of the Phil Spector-style grandeur of Born to Run (1975): “Where Born to Run was mixed at symphonic fullness, the sound on Darkness was moodier. Songs like ‘Promised Land’ still featured the dense mix of keyboards, guitars, and drums, but the solos are short, the players who blew so lustily on Born to Run are kept in
check. . . . Darkness is not a recitation of the great party sounds. That would have to wait until Bruce’s mood changed.” Other commentators attribute the album’s somber tone to Springsteen’s frustrations during his two years of litigation with his former manager Mike Appel. In Dave Marsh’s August 1978 Rolling Stone cover story on the Darkness tour, Springsteen worried that his audience was hearing dejection and hopelessness in his new songs:


It’s the title, [Marsh suggests]. “I know, I know,” [Springsteen] says impatiently. “But I put it in the first few seconds of ‘Badlands,’ the first song on the album, those lines about ‘I believe in the love and the hope and the faith.’ It’s there on all four corners of the album.” By which he means the first and last songs on each side: “Badlands” and “Racing in the Street,” “The Promised Land” and the title song. He is clearly distressed. He meant Darkness to be “relentless,” not grim.

Another interpretation holds that the explosive drums, guitars, and vocals featured in songs like “Adam Raised a Cain” and “Candy’s Room” demonstrate that Springsteen was writing under the influence of Patti Smith, The Clash, Elvis Costello, and other punk and new wave musicians of the time. Several critics have also pointed out that Darkness marks the time when Springsteen stopped writing about adolescents in abandoned beach houses and dusty arcades. Hilburn, for instance, writes that the album’s characters are “men well into adulthood caught up in the now-joyless rituals of adolescence. Preeminent among these songs was the stirring ‘Racing in the Street’ . . . The title and chorus played on Martha and the Vandellas’ ‘Dancing in the Streets,’ but there was little happiness for the aging drivers on the dragstrip, or for their forgotten wives and girlfriends. What’s left after youth and its passions have gone?”

All of these observations are worth considering, but they overlook Darkness’s central theme: the struggles of blue-collar Americans who live in small towns. If you doubt that the album is a meditation on working-class distress, read Springsteen’s essay introducing the album in Songs (1998). In the opening sentence, he recalls that after "Born to Run I wanted to write about life in the close confines of the small towns I grew up in.” Then he elaborates on the subject matter he had in mind:


I was searching for a tone somewhere between Born to Run’s spiritual hopefulness and ’70s cynicism. I wanted my new characters to feel weathered, older, but not beaten. The sense of daily struggle in each song greatly increased. The possibility of transcendence or any sort of personal redemption felt a lot harder to come by. . . . I intentionally steered away from any hint of escapism and set my characters down in the middle of a community under siege.

A community under siege – that phrase captures the spirit of Darkness on the Edge of Town. The album’s characters are trapped, surrounded by various forms of pressure that never seem to let up. And while they all feel the anxieties of small-town life, they respond to those anxieties in a number of different ways.

The response that probably comes to mind first for most Springsteen fans is the mixture of determination and hope expressed in “Badlands.” The words this character uses – lights out, trouble, head-on collision, caught in a crossfire, fear, waste – suggest that he feels as though his surroundings were a combat zone. He seems convinced that his troubles are inescapable, yet he delivers a high-spirited chorus that pulls together stoicism, optimism, and slang: “Badlands, you gotta live it every day / Let the broken hearts stand / As the price you gotta pay / We’ll keep pushin’ ’til it’s understood / And these badlands start treating us good.” Later in the song, the character’s protests give way to a secular prayer: “I believe in the love that you gave me / I believe in the faith that can save me / I believe in the hope and I pray / That someday it may raise me above these badlands.” Where does he find this love, faith, and hope? The question is left unanswered. Springsteen simply implies that there is something heroic about this character – he has what it takes to keep moving forward. The same could be said of the character whose story we hear in “The Promised Land.” He admits that he feels powerless and worries that he may be wasting time “chasing some mirage,” but near the end of the song, in what A. O. Scott describes as “a climactic vision of purifying destruction,” he imagines that the future will take the form of a tornado with the power to blow away his disappointments.

Springsteen’s examination of perseverance becomes more complicated in “Racing in
the Street.” Early in the song, Springsteen’s racer, like the drivers in “Don’t Worry Baby” and “Little Deuce Coupe,” boasts about his success on the dragstrip:


We take all the action we can meet, and we cover all the northeast state
When the strip shuts down, we run ’em in the street, from the fire roads to the interstate
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 racing in the street.

The Beach Boys’ characters keep the focus on their cars: “I got the fastest set of wheels in town . . . comin’ off the line when the light turns green / She blows ’em outta the water like you never seen.” Springsteen’s racer, by contrast, emphasizes his own ability not to be overwhelmed by his everyday struggles. His life sounds exciting – and too effortless for the world of Darkness – until the third verse. As Hilburn observes, the racer understands that the satisfaction he finds in competition does nothing to comfort his girlfriend, whose unexplained despair causes her to stare “into the night, with the eyes of one who hates for just being born.” Suddenly, Springsteen inverts the relationship featured in “Don’t Worry Baby”: in this song, the racer seems confident and his girlfriend needs to hear some reassuring words. Will she hear them? Again, the question is left unanswered. The racer speaks mysteriously about riding to the sea and washing away sins, but his closing lines focus on new possibilities, not necessarily on reconciliation or relief.

For another group of Darkness’s characters, love and sex provide temporary distractions. The young man in “Candy’s Room” says a few ominous words about “strangers from the city” and the “sadness hidden in [Candy’s] face,” but throughout most of the song his erotic daydreams force everything else out of his mind:


We kiss, my heart’s pumpin’ to my brain
The blood rushes in my veins . . .
We go driving, driving deep into the night,
I go driving deep into the light in Candy’s eyes.
She says, Baby if you wanna be wild, you got a lot to learn
Close your eyes – let them melt, let them fire, let them burn . . .

The character in “Prove It All Night” seems more easygoing than his counterpart in “Candy’s Room,” but even he feels the pressures that torment every character on the album. His curiously old-fashioned references to pretty dresses and long white bows are apparently meant to console his girlfriend, but phrases such as you deserve much more than this, pay the price, and what it’s like to steal, to cheat, to lie continually darken the song’s atmosphere.

“Something in the Night” offers a portrait of resentment, isolation, and defeat. “You’re born with nothing,” the character wails, “and better off that way / Soon as you’ve got something they send someone to try and take it away / You can ride this road ’til dawn, without another human being in sight / Just kids wasted on something in the night.”

“Streets of Fire” may be Springsteen’s bleakest narrative. First of all, the doom-filled organ and slashing guitar make the song the closest thing to heavy metal Springsteen has ever recorded. “Streets of Fire” also stands out because its main character is incoherent. Why doesn’t he care anymore when the night’s quiet? What does he mean when he says he’s dying and can’t go back? His reference to being “strung out on the wire” suggests that he may be an addict, but he isn’t even able to make that clear. In one respect, however, this character is representative of the album in general – he finds it impossible to explain what has been troubling him. Springsteen’s characters speak at length about their problems, but their remarks about the sources of their problems are brief and laced with abstractions. One character wants to tear this old town apart. Another wants to spit in the face of these badlands. A third, forced to settle for a pronoun, says that it’s never over; it’s as relentless as the rain. (Marsh suggests that the absence of clearly defined antagonists on the album may be connected to Springsteen’s admiration of the 1940 film adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath: “For Springsteen, the most striking part of [the film] is the early scene when the Dust Bowl farmer is trying to find out who has evicted him from his land and is confronted with . . . images of faceless corporations. Similarly, a vague, disembodied ‘they’ creeps into songs like ‘Something in the Night,’ ‘Prove It All Night,’ and ‘Streets of Fire’ to deny people their most full-blooded possibilities.”)

“Adam Raised a Cain” and “Factory” begin Springsteen’s emotionally charged sequence of “father songs,” which would later include “Independence Day,” “My Father’s House,” and “Walk Like a Man.” They might also help to account for Darkness’s preoccupation with the fears and disappointments of working men. Springsteen’s earliest exposure to working-class distress was probably his childhood observation of his father, who struggled to find steady employment and eventually gave up on Freehold, moving the family (with the exception of Bruce, who refused to leave his friends and the Jersey Shore music scene) to California in 1969. The elder Springsteen’s anxieties, then, could be the underlying model for these songs, framed by the experiences of a variety of characters. Another interesting feature of Darkness’s father songs is that they are not, strictly speaking, about fathers. It would be more accurate to call them narratives about young men’s observations of their fathers. In “Adam Raised a Cain,” the son snarls that his father, like the father in the Animals’ “We Gotta Get Out of this Place,” has been cheated out of the best years of his life: “Daddy worked his whole life for nothing but the pain / Now he walks these empty rooms looking for something to blame.” We do not see the father in these lines; we see the son as he catalogues the ways in which his father has suffered. “Factory” also portrays a father’s daily routine as an alarming spectacle. The narrator watches his father leave home in the morning and walk through the factory gates. At the end of a shift, he thinks he can see death in the eyes of the workers. The son does not comment directly on his father’s way of life, but the words he chooses to evoke it – fear, pain, someone’s gonna get hurt tonight – suggest that he despises “the working life” and has no intention of following his father’s path.

The title song closes the album with a strong dose of mystery and ambiguity. The main character seems solitary, determined, and resilient, but aside from those traits the audience learns very little about him. How did he lose his money and his wife? What does he mean when he says he’ll be “on that hill”? Why, in these soul-searching verses, does he spend so much time commenting on other people’s experiences? (They’re still racing out at the Trestles. They cut their secrets loose or let themselves be dragged down. Some folks are born into a good life. Other folks get it anyway, anyhow.) What is “the darkness on the edge of town”? Is it a place? A state of mind? What are the things he wants, and why can they only be found in the darkness? This song, it seems to me, is one of the most daring moves in Springsteen’s career, a conclusion in which nothing is concluded. The title songs of most of his albums – “The River,” “Tunnel of Love,” “The Ghost of Tom Joad” – are detailed introductions to some of the themes he wants to examine. In this title song, Springsteen suggests that words cannot express this character’s anguish. Part of what he feels has to reach the audience through the sound of Springsteen’s voice, his guitar, and his band.

The core of Darkness is a paradox: the album’s characters are united by the fact that they all feel the pressures of day-to-day life in small towns, but they are divided by their responses to those pressures. Thus, to conclude that Springsteen “celebrates” working people in these songs is to miss the point. Darkness does not generalize about the kinds of people Springsteen knew when he lived in Freehold; it insists that their experiences and temperaments are as diverse as those of people in any other community. Springsteen’s commitment to complexity and ambiguity may help to explain why listeners often find his representations of small-town Americans even more compelling than those of talented blue-collar songwriters such as John Mellencamp and Steve Earle. The resentment of the farmer in “Rain on the Scarecrow” and the critique of Reaganomics offered by the disillusioned Texan in “Good Ol’ Boy (Gettin’ Tough)” are staged with clarity and passion, but they seem two-dimensional, smaller than life, when compared to the confessions of Springsteen’s characters.

Springsteen’s music has had had a cinematic quality ever since he included “Lost in the Flood,” “Incident on 57th Street,” and other story-songs on his first two albums, but on Darkness Springsteen’s informal but broad-ranging study of film begins to pay off in a new way. How do John Ford’s characters feel about their surroundings in the old West? How do Martin Scorsese’s characters feel about turning to crime on dangerous city streets? These questions cannot be answered in a sentence or two. Directors like Ford and Scorsese choose narrow areas of experience and then demonstrate how much drama and mystery those strictly limited spaces can contain. Springsteen began to experiment with that method of storytelling in the 1970s and has continued to use it throughout his career. How would you describe the relationship between the character in “Brilliant Disguise” and his wife? Is it dominated by love? Suspicion? Confusion? Shame? What does the character in “The Rising” have to say about his violent death? Is he wounded by his separation from his family? Proud that he did his job under extraordinary pressure with courage and skill? Shaken by the moments of crisis that made him a victim and a hero at the same time? Any effort to sum up a “message” conveyed by these songs would be futile. Like Darkness on the Edge of Town, they demonstrate that Springsteen’s aim is to represent experience in convincing ways, not to sing his characters’ praises.

January 2006

From guest contributor Alexander Pitofsky, Assistant Professor of English at Appalachian State University

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