Counting Down Bruce Springsteen Excerpt: #4 “Darkness On The Edge Of Town”Posted: June 27, 2014
(Here is another exclusive excerpt from my new book Counting Down Bruce Springsteen: His 100 Finest Songs. Stay tuned for more excerpts from other outlets in the coming weeks.)
“When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose,” Bob Dylan once sang.
The protagonist of “Darkness on the Edge of Town” takes that theory to the fiercest extreme. Serving as the title track to Springsteen’s toughest,
rawest album, the song not only serves as a summation of many of the
ideas proposed in the previous songs on the record but also as a musical
release of all the tension that has been building and waiting to uncoil.
Much of the song’s power lies in the arrangement of the music. In the
verses, everything stays quiet and composed, as if to reflect the staid
nature of the life the protagonist once knew. In the refrains, called into
action by Max Weinberg’s furious snares, the music explodes into a
lurching powerhouse, with Weinberg banging the house down and Roy
Bittan playing like a mad scientist.
Springsteen’s vocals are pitched in much the same manner. The verses
capture him in a croon so polite as to sound innocent. When he gets to the
refrain, it’s a serrated cry, the lyrics shouted out as if they’re tumors that
need to be forcibly excised by the power of his lungs. In the instrumental
break, Springsteen punctuates his solo with guttural cries.
The narrator quickly sets up a contrast between the life that he’s chosen
and the one that his ex now lives. Actually, “chosen” might not be the
right word since this separation is described as something that was beyond
his control, the product of an innate desire that his wife never had:
“Well they’re still racin’ out at the Trestles / But that blood it never
burned in her veins.” Instead, she has moved on to a life of “style,” a far
cry from the street racing that he still favors.
As he has throughout the Darkness album, Springsteen is once again
shining a harsh spotlight here on those characters that once populated his
songs with their wild and innocent exploits. Those characters morph into
the man-child at the heart of “Darkness” who clings to that past lifestyle
long after the romance of it has faded. He does it now because it’s preferable, to him anyway, to the folks who hold in their innermost secret “Till some day they just cut it loose / Cut it loose or let it drag them down.” Say what you will about this guy, at least he is no longer burdened by
In the final verse, Springsteen crystallizes the conflict that the whole
album has been forging. The narrator has shed all of his connections to
home and stability: “Well I lost my money and I lost my wife / Those
things don’t seem to matter much to me now.” And as the refrain approaches, he makes his case for a life that many would call reckless,
wasted, or doomed. “Tonight I’ll be on that hill ’cause I can’t stop / I’ll be
on that hill with everything that I got,” he screams, reinforcing the notion
that his fate is settled and glossing over the fact that he no longer has
anything at stake. His only possessions now are those primal impulses
burning inside of him.
So he willingly goes to a place with “lives on the line and dreams are
found and lost.” And he willingly makes the ultimate sacrifice: “I’ll be
there on time and I’ll pay the cost / For wanting things that can only be
found / In the darkness on the edge of town.” That “cost” is stability,
serenity, maybe even sanity, but he pays it because this world of danger
and recklessness is the only thing that now makes any sense to him.
As the music plays out with some delicate piano from Roy Bittan and
one last moan from Springsteen, the songwriter leaves his audience with
some profound questions. Are we to admire this character or scold him?
Are the things he has given away worth what he has gained? And is a life
spent on the invigorating yet precarious edge of the abyss preferable to
one where the stable ground runs on forever even as the skies press
You’d like to believe there’s a happy medium somewhere, but Springsteen’s point with this extreme character, and with the entire album, is that life doesn’t allow that sometimes, so what can you do? Having already lost it all, this character makes his peace with the fact that for him, it ends in the “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” one way or the other.
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. Check out Counting Down Bruce Springsteen: His 100 Finest Songs, available now in the U.S. and soon in Europe.)