The Art of Tone and Quality

On Bruce…

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Something in the Night – Bruce Springsteen, Darkness on the Edge of Town, and Growin’ Up

In the spring of 2000, a few months short of my high school graduation, my father received a phone call from a couple family friends, inviting us to join them at a Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band show.

Those were the days of blissful innocence, after-school guitar lessons, and sports games I reluctantly endured in order to hit a Cream tune during breaks (that the high school janitor pulled the power cord late one evening after I refused to quit playing was of little trauma, and perhaps even a source of pride after seeing The Beatles’ rooftop concert).

It was a time of security, being well provided for, teaching guitar on the weekends to raise some extra cash and burn it on vinyl LPs (the beginning of a lifelong affliction known as record collecting), and growing up in a comfortable middle-class home where the blues singers, poets, and folkies my high school English teacher had turned me onto were mythological figures in my imagination, mostly uncared for by my peers in the musical climate of a post-Cobain era.  Particularly in Olympia, WA, minutes away from Kurt’s childhood home.

Meanwhile, my American Literature teacher was loaning me recordings of Albert Collins, J.B. Lenoir, Skip James, Otis Rush, Muddy Waters, Richard Thompson, John Fahey, and more, while passing on an excitement for Langston Hughes, Billy Collins, W.B. Yeats, Flannery O’Conner, Steinbeck, and Hemingway.  I was a weird kid.

Thus it should come as no surprise that at the age of seventeen I had not yet progressed towards any semblance of appreciation for contemporary or even any post-‘60s populist rock music.  In fact, I was going backwards.

So backwards that when we got the phone call inviting us to the show, Bruce’s music and performances held no particular significance to me.  Springsteen was another face I’d seen on the cover of Rolling Stone, a guy who had been photographed with a beat up old Telecaster that looked like it would emit horrible tones and worse notes, the leader of some notorious bar band from the Jersey shore known as The E Street Band, and singer of “Born in the USA” (as I had not yet heard his fantastic Roy Buchanan influenced playing on “Cover Me,” those icy notes on the intro of “Incident,” musically forshadowing the sister’s breakdown at the apex of Bruce’s gorgeous lyric, the anthemic hook on “Born to Run,” or the inherent soul in his rhythm guitar playing on “New York City Serenade.”  All sentiments which would have likely made my childhood jazz-nazi guitar teacher echo Greil Marcus’ opening lines to the review of Dylan’s oft-ridiculed Self-Portrait:  “What is this shit?”)

But a free ticket is a free ticket and we were after all going with old family friends.  Thus it came to pass that Bruce Springsteen changed my life.  A lot of people say that.  So much so that it’s become a cliché of sorts after nearly four decades of fame and hype.  Yet, I repeat.  Bruce Springsteen changed my life.

On a magical April evening in the Northwest, he and the E Streeters put on a performance that was part Bob Dylan (who had already thoroughly permeated my lyrical conciousness), part Rolling Stones (with all the swagger and grit sans incoherent mumbling from Keith), part James Brown (who I’d already seen two or three times), and entirely Bruce with those songs, those songs, those songs.  It was also the one and only occasion on which I was fortunate enough to have seen Danny Federici and Clarence together before their untimely and tragic passings from such saddenning and sobering un-rock and roll circumstances.  For that I remain a lifelong gratefulness to our friends Gerry and Karen, who insisted we join them (we miss you Handsome Billy and Big Man).

It wasn’t long thereafter that I began to amass a growing collection of recordings and expanding appreciation for the man’s music, artistic vision, and prolific chronicles.  The Tracks box was devastatingly amazing, especially considered that this was his cutting room floor material filled with narratives more interesting, engaging, literate, and cinematic than most artists’ best releases (just spin “Zero and Blind Terry” and The Wild The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle LP back to back, and it becomes plain as day that even in his early days of record making, material was discarded due to thematic rather than quality control concerns), The River was outright inspiring, and Born to Run as anthemic as the hype of 1975 would have you believe.

Yet Darkness on the Edge of Town remains my most personal and memorable association with the man’s vast collection of work.  For it was Darkness on the Edge of Town that came into my life the summer I turned twenty-one; the greatest summer of my life.

Every once in a while a recording coincides with a personal events and transitions to create an indelible impression marked by vivid detail even years later.  But make no mistake about it, these moments are not commonplace, and in fact become rarer with age.  I could easily count on the digits of two hands the number of times this has happened, and still have room for a few more. A November evening around 4:45 PM with Dire Straits’ Making Movies in the eleventh grade (coincidently, an LP which includes Roy Bittan on keys); Bob Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home with “Subterranean Homesick Blues” in a Washington D.C. hotel room a year or so later;  Are You Experienced? as a young aspiring guitar player at the age of twelve; thunder and lightning flashing in the late afternoon sky so affecting I can recall it years later – suspending time as the greatest works of art do.  It’s a short list which Darkness on the Edge of Town rightfully belongs on.

There I was on a May afternoon at the old Berry Hill location of Grimey’s New and Pre-Loved Music on Bransford Avenue in Nashville.  Perusing through the records and taken by a photograph of Bruce on the cover, standing in a white gym shirt and leather jacket, as if he had been beaten but not broken.  Gone was the picture of Bruce arm in arm with Clarence on Born to Run, the youthful gaze of wonder on the cover of The Wild The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle, and the cartoonish invitation of Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ.  And in its place was a guy who looked like he might have even more to say this time around; as if something important had been on his mind and imagination.

I took it home with me, placed it on the turntable and felt, yes, however much I hesitate to compromise my literary and editorial creativity in favor of lifting a few words from Jon Landau…like I was hearing music for the very first time.

This was the summer I remained in school, living with a fantastic musician and recording engineer roommate who turned me onto Newcastle and REM (in that order), walking to class and spending large amounts of time in the college library (along with my half-speed mastered pressing of Darkness in the third floor listening room).

I spun that record morning noon and night, alone and with the best of friends, ecstatic and miserable, sober and drunk, in my room and on a home-made cassette for the car, over loudspeakers, headphones, and silently in my mind as the din of kids “wasted on something in the night” crept thru thin apartment walls.  From the struggle against invisibility in “Badlands” to the realism of “Racing in the Street,” to the hope of “The Promised Land” and proving ground in “Darkness On the Edge of Town” (not to mention the sheer electricity of “Candy’s Room”), these weren’t songs that moved me because of someone else’s story, but rather, how ubiquitous their themes remain in our collective story and the human condition itself.  Inspiration and desperation, resolution and defeat, acceptance and surrender; these were songs that articulated and defined the coming of age and adulthood, with all its contradictions, paradoxes, and unexpected twists.  For that I owe a great debt to Mr. Springsteen in the soundtrack of my life; perhaps, yes, more than Dylan.

It was unpretentious too – a rare quality for any writer as intelligent, thoughtful and literary as Bruce.  Balance in the midst of loss and rejection, tied to a resolve to stare straight into that great challenge of maintaining idealism after the loss of innocence. Take Pete Seeger,  Elvis, Woody Guthrie, Bob, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, John Lee Hooker, The Ramones, Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels, The Who, The Clash, The Beatles and Hank Williams.  The “A-list” of 20th century verbal music which Bruce Springsteen rightfully belongs on, giving form to this tension as magnificently, masterfully, and compassionately in the best of his work.

As anyone involved in the creative arts at any level well knows, we stand in the shadows of those who came before us.  Jimi Hendrix remains the most innovative electric guitar player rock and roll will ever know – essentially a fact in a field of subjectivity (speaking as a lifelong electric guitar player who saw his first red Stratocaster in a store window as a wee lad and “had to have one,” much like Mark Knopfler years earlier); Dylan the most prolific and complete artist to merge old and new song forms updated with electric instrumentation and popular appeal in an incalculable wave of influence.  But that long arc of a career is all, all, all Bruce Springsteen, who had the talent and vision to identify where those who’d come before him had lost themselves along the way.  That’s singular in rock music and staggering in and of itself.  Decency is another word which comes to mind.    You can’t be a big star and not make a specatacle of yourself in the public eye.  It’s not allowed. You’re supposed to go dancing in the street with David Bowie, bark on all fours in the hotel lobby (and write anthemic songs anyways, to your credit – make sure it has a B3 break that makes you happy to be alive); at least hit the tabloids with your latest breakdown.

And then there’s Bruce Springsteen.  Big brooding tower of American music, who understood that despite (or perhaps, hand in hand with) rock music’s physical form, it is not inherently anti-intellectual (much as Bruce himself said of his own childhood inspiration Bob, delivering one of the most moving tributes ever delivered from a post-‘60s rock star to an earlier vereran at the 1988 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony).  Bruce Springsteen who faltered – only a little bit – but never stopped writing great songs. No lost weekends or blood transfusions.  No baseball-bat shaped guitars, even in the ‘80s!  It’s his integrity.  I always think of Bruce as if Updike and Scorsese had gotten into songwriting; with touches of Roy Orbison in there too.  Darkness rocks and it swaggers; the band is loud and the music striking.  But it is the lyrical content, inseparable from the compositions, which fully realizes (and answers) the dividing line between youth and adulthood first begun on Born to Run:

“There’s a dark cloud rising from the desert floor,

I’ve packed my bags and I’m heading straight into the storm

Gonna be a twister to blow everything down that ain’t got the faith to stand its ground

Blow away, the dreams that tear you apart

Blow away, the dreams that break your heart

Blow away, the lies that leave you nothin’ but lost and broken hearted…

Well the dogs on Main Street howl ‘cause they understand

If I could take one moment into my hands

Mister I ain’t a boy, no I’m a man

And I believe in a promised land…”

We’re all grown ups now.  Thunder Road is still out there, but lined with lost lovers and fixed games (that “The Promise” did not make the studio release remains one of the great perplexities of rock and roll).  Nostalgia is gone, romanticism’s barely hanging on by a thread (and mostly in the outtakes!), but hope remains.

Darkness On the Edge of Town came into my life at a time when time dictated I move forward, either with courage and love or disillusionment and fear.  A record of staggering honesty, resolve, and heart, the choice is summed up in one of the most impressive couplets of the rock era:

“Now 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 streets”

And as the more complete answer to what began out there between Thunder Road and Jungleland, “Racing in the Street” continues the search while confronted with realism:

 “As a songwriter I always felt that one of my jobs was to learn from the music that I’d written.  To face the questions that evolved out of that music and search for the answers as best as I could.  It was a service that I provided to my fans and to myself.  For me the primary questions I’d be writing about for the rest of my work life first took form in the songs on Born to Run.  What do you do when your dreams come true?  What do you do with they don’t?” – From Wings For Wheels: The Making of Born to Run

Despite insurmountable loss,

“For all the shut down strangers and hot rod angels rumbling through this promised land

Tonight my baby and me we’re gonna ride to the sea and wash these sins off our hands. 

Tonight, tonight the highway’s bright.  Out of our way mister you best keep.

‘Cause summer’s here and the time is right for racing in the street”

In this and the rest of the music on Darkness, a voice is given to the voiceless, a resolve to the defeated, and a choice to those of us somewhere between the Badlands and our own Darkness on the Edge of Town.  Or as Roy Bittan would articulate years later, “he’s older and wiser but he never strays from his basic values; he cares as much, more, about the losers than the winners; he’s so unlike everything you think a real successful rock star would be.”

Indeed, Darkness On the Edge of Town is music of balance, music of love, loss, heartbreak and joy. And ultimately, adulthood.

Thanks Boss.


Written by toneandquality

December 6, 2011 at 7:54 am

Posted in Rock and Roll

One Response

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  1. That was great! I could really feel what you mean as I am learning guitar…the only difference is that I dont use records 🙂


    December 6, 2011 at 6:35 pm

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