Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness On The Edge of Town
Recorded in late 1977 through early 1978 and released in late spring of 1978, Bruce Springsteen’s album Darkness On The Edge of Town is a pinnacle of masculine artistic achievement. The album explores themes of male emasculation, suffering and redemption, sacrifice, ambition, courage, passion and desire, solitude, soul death, and solemnity. I consider this album the crown jewel of Springsteen’s catalog. It retains all of the fire and thunder of his early years. It captures the desolation and anguish Bruce paid for becoming legally entwined with an inadequate and jealous manager, a lesser man he battled in court for 10 months over commissions, contracts, and legal minutiae. Springsteen went on to become a musical superstar and a major torch bearer of American songwriting. Mark Appel, the former manager, contributed absolutely nothing to the music industry after his legal battle with Springsteen.
The wounds left in Bruce as a result of this legal battle and forced hiatus from recording, as well as the older wounds triggered up by the battle, gave the artist an edge and a determination to survive, live, and thrive by the force of his artistic will. This mix of suffering, grit, and redemption is captured perfectly in Darkness On The Edge of Town.
Before proceeding, I thought it worth mentioning that as Springsteen has not yet released a substantive autobiography, this essay should be regarded as theoretical and speculative (though I tend to think there’s a good dose of truth in it). It is my contention that had Bruce self-reflected more closely and intimately in the years after his battle with Mark Appel, he would not have so prone to adopt the working class politics he imbibed from populist authors such as John Steinbeck proceeding the Darkness… release and tour and preceding the release of his album Nebraska. Had Springsteen sought repair through psychotherapy instead of the intellectual abstraction of progressive politics and the anti-authoritarian stylings of Pete Seeger and others, he would have confronted the horror and terror of having had a father who loathed his long hair and his guitar and whom sought to influence him as a teen to become a lawyer, a father who sought to destroy his artistic spirit through the lens of legality. Bruce was compelled to repeat this drama as an adult by unconsciously choosing an exploitative and unambitious manager, Mark Appel, who would once again put the artist’s creative soul on trial.
The last song on the album, “Badlands,” approximates most accurately the struggle to cope and survive with another trial on his original voice:
I wanna spit in the face of these…
Badlands, you gotta live it everyday,
Let the broken hearts stand
As the price you’ve gotta pay,
We’ll keep pushin’ ’til it’s understood,
And these badlands start treating us good.
Replace the word “badlands” with the word “parents” and we see clearly a young man who was exploited constantly by his parents because of his great musical gifts. I personally relate and sympathize with this man’s experience given my exploitation at the hands of my parents, particularly my mother, for my gifts as a healer. I also had a father who sought to stifle my artistic voice, a man who nurtured secret hopes that I would join the military where “a man would be made” out of me. Springsteen had to fight to preserve his gifts and to retain his original sense of what it meant to become a man in the face of pressure from his parents. More on that in a bit.
The Darkness On The Edge of Town years for Springsteen were perhaps his most lucid, as evidenced by the heights of his band’s musical performances during the album’s tour that have long since become rock n’ roll lore, yet no one was the “adult in the room” to witness Bruce’s true plight. There was no true, benevolent father figure to help Bruce grieve the dampening of his childhood brilliance by a judging and somber father. To his credit, Bruce did work to build within himself that benevolent father figure and he did attend some therapy in the late 80’s and early 90’s, perhaps more. With Darkness.., however, his fans and listeners became his witnesses. He bore his soul openly during the album’s tour, saying this during the famous August 9th 1978 Cleveland show at The Agora:
They (parents) said, “You gotta get serious. It’s time that you put that guitar down. It’s okay for a hobby but you’re not gonna get anywhere with that.”
As with any subject that strays near his emotional suffering, Bruce chuckles off the path that leads to grieving and takes up a wild story instead. While the defense is magically charming and has earned Bruce the adoration of millions of listeners (including the fans in attendance that night), the roots of sorrow, anger, and terror remained untouched and unprocessed.
The wild stories of his younger years as a songwriter, stories of innocent players in the free market, have turned into somber stories of working class heroes, immigrants, and outcasts as Bruce has aged. His anger at his father’s profound judgement and betrayal remains ungrieved, hidden behind the chuckle and wink of a gypsy.
In terms of coping mechanisms, what saves us as children kills us adults. Nearly 40 years have now passed since Darkness… was released and one of Bruce’s primary dramas was relived. The coping the man has used to offset the horror of his father’s betrayal has now solidified and twisted its way through his personality. We can see it in his open support of socialist politicians such as Barack Obama and Marxist artists such as Tom Morello. Bruce has been unable to fully process what was done to him in childhood and what he re-enacted as a young adult. He has become a betrayer: of the promise his childhood once held before his father sought to kill his artistry, and the promise his musical career once held (Born To Run held the recipe to the next stage of evolution for rock n’ roll) before Mark Appel dragged him down into a year out of the studio at the fever pitch of his musical vitality. Bruce Springsteen’s politics kill the working class while his music seeks to build it up. The heights of artistic achievement of Born To Run cannot again be reached when there is no middle class left in the USA to support truly vibrant, virtuousic, and full music. Young musicians are not incentivized to practice assiduously and take artistic risks when their parents are on government welfare programs as a result of socialist politics, hardly lifting a finger to set good examples for their children. Bruce remains fundamentally split off from himself and his father’s treachery remains embedded in his personality. He never truly grieved the betrayal and in a certain sense, he has never truly left the courtroom of his childhood. His continued advocacy of progressive politics is our proof.
Darkness On The Edge Of Town bares open the artist’s core wounds for everyone to witness. All of the parts that saved him from his mother and father in the final trial of his musical childhood are in there. It is for this reason I venerate the album and always will. I encourage you to listen closely. Every honest work by an artist allows us to a chance to bear witness. Darkness On The Edge Of Town is the searing of the lightning along the crack that formed on Springsteen’s heart. It is the entrance of corruption into the town of his conscience. He has been trying to go back ever since. His wounded child is seen and loved. May the man find the peace he seeks and put down the banner of statism before it destroys the chances of anyone else reaching what he reached as an artist.