Forty years ago today, Bruce Springsteen’s best album (there, I said it, no “sometimes I think it’s his best” or “it’s one of his best”), was released. I was seventeen and it was the beginning of the summer of my senior year in high school. I lived in South Bend, Indiana, which wasn’t exactly a hotbed of Springsteen fans – I’m not sure if any of my friends even listened to him, and he certainly wasn’t on the radio all the time. (One of my friends called him “Bruce Bedspring” because she couldn’t stand the rust and rasp of his voice.)
I’d discovered Born to Run when it blew up in the national music press; at 14, when that album came out, I was already a pretty big music fan and spent a lot of time reading Rolling Stone and other music magazines – I’d even go to the public library after school or on weekends sometimes and read Billboard and Variety as well as Creem and Rolling Stone and whatever else I could get my hands on. So when Born to Run came out, I read the reviews and figured I’d better check it out. I loved the baroque poetry of its lyrics, the characters who definitely didn’t live in Indiana, the wall of sound. I asked for, and got, his two earlier albums for Christmas that year; they didn’t resonate as strongly with me but there were definitely songs on those two that I also loved.
Because of my extracurricular excursions into the music press, I knew about Springsteen’s lawsuit and that he wasn’t able to release another album until all of that was resolved. When I read – probably in Rolling Stone – that he finally had an album coming out in the summer, I was excited. Darkness on the Edge of Town was the first album that I knew to look forward to before it was released.
I was listening to a lot of music then: Fleetwood Mac, Peter Frampton (don’t judge! the guy is a good guitarist), Heart, Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, lots of Beatles still as well as Wings (I tried listening to John Lennon’s solo work and I just didn’t get it – yet), Boston, Pink Floyd, Leo Kottke, Al DiMeola, Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane – I’ve always been a multi-genre listener with a soft spot for great guitar of whatever kind. Then there was Patti Smith, whose Horses album I’d bought because the cover image intrigued me. It took a while for me to understand what she was doing but I spent a lot of time with that album; Easter, which also came out in 1978, struck me much more immediately and viscerally, and when I learned via the liner notes that Bruce Springsteen had co-written “Because the Night,” a lot of things suddenly made sense to me.
But when Darkness finally came out, it was the one that, probably more than any other, made me feel alive. I wasn’t sure why I fell in love with it so hard. The characters, again, didn’t live where I lived. “I got a ’69 Chevy with a 396, fuelie heads and a Hurst on the floor” may as well have been in Latin – actually, I’d taken a year of Latin, so I probably would’ve understood Latin better. But the whole album just felt so honest, so … lived. I was in the process of learning how to be a writer then, and most of the time when I was home I was by myself in my room, listening to music through headphones or writing bad poetry or both at once. And the way Springsteen approached the lives of his characters, people who were like him in some ways and who lived not too far from him and who no doubt encapsulated some of his own feelings and experiences but who weren’t, exactly, him – and how he used those characters to say something real and true about the world, so real and true that a 17-year-old middle-class wannabe-poet from the Midwest could identify with them – that taught me SO MUCH about how to write. There were a lot of characters in Born to Run too, and they were fun, with a core of truth to them in the way they wanted to get out of where they were (what teenager can’t identify with that?) – but they weren’t real the way the characters in Darkness were.
At seventeen, you’re facing one more year and then a Big Big Change. Or I was, anyway. You’re trying to figure out what in the hell your place in the world is going to be. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” has transformed from a fun little game in which you can be a doctor or a rock star or a famous poet or a keeper of unicorns to the realization that you are going to have to find a way to live, a way that might be different from how your parents live, something that might involve screwing up and facing consequences. It’s exhilarating and terrifying all at once, and Darkness talked about both the terror and the exhilaration. I used to blast “Badlands” as I got ready to go to my minimum-wage summer job, realizing that something called “work” was going to have to be a part of my life for a long long time, feeling every bit the oppressed worker (ha!) and finding some kind of hope and comfort in the fist-pumping resolve of that song. “Racing in the Street” enchanted me, though I didn’t understand what it was saying, really – to be honest I didn’t really understand that one until I was much, much older, maybe in my thirties.
Darkness was an album about the contentious relationship between the individual and a world that isn’t always kind to individuals. It’s an album about growing up and figuring out what you have to take on, and how you’re going to do it without giving up who you are – or how to live with what you do give up. In some ways I immediately understood what it was saying, in some ways I understood it viscerally but couldn’t have put it into words, and in some ways I am still just understanding it, forty years later.
So happy record-release anniversary to Mr. Springsteen and to Darkness. I wouldn’t be who I am today without this music, I’m quite certain of that.
Oh yes, and then after the album had become a deep part of me, after listening to a couple of concerts that were broadcast live on the radio (THAT blew my mind, for sure), I finally got to see Springsteen and the E Street Band in September of that year. Talk about a transformative experience… I’ll write about that one for its anniversary. Promise.
(Thanks to Backstreets, whose compilation of commentary on Darkness inspired this post. And thanks also to Ultimate Classic Rock’s Darkness at 40 roundtable, which also helped me think about what the album meant to me.)