(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.)
(Here is another excerpt from my new book Counting Down Bruce Springsteen: His 100 Finest Songs. Another to come on Monday.)
31. “The Promise” (from 18 Tracks, 1999)
The Great White Whale of all Bruce Springsteen unreleased tracks, “The
Promise” gained its massive reputation based on live performances of it
during the period after Born to Run and before Darkness on the Edge of
Town. It finally got the grand stage it deserved when it was used as the
title track to Springsteen’s collection of Darkness outtakes from 2010.
Yet the track information listed above shows the album 18 Tracks,
which was a 1999 single CD–sampler of the best songs from 1998’s
Tracks (along with four unreleased fan favorites). “The Promise” was
included in that relatively unheralded collection, and it is that recording
that earns the song this hallowed ranking in the Springsteen countdown.
Before we get to the reason for that, there is some important information
about the song’s history that will help to explain. Since it was written
around the time Springsteen first became embroiled in a lawsuit with
former manager and producer Mike Appel, most people assume that the
legal imbroglio was the impetus for the song. While he has never come
out and said that was exactly the case, Springsteen has hinted that the
personal nature of the song is what kept it from being deployed on Darkness.
Concerning the song, he told actor Edward Norton in a 2010 interview
to promote The Promise documentary at the Toronto Film Festival,
“I left [‘The Promise’] out because it felt too self-referential and I was
uncomfortable with it. Maybe it was too close to the story I was actually
living at the moment”.
That may have been the case, but it’s also clear from the evidence on
The Promise that the studio version done by the band in 1978 robbed the
song of some of its power. The slow tempo seemed plodding with the
backing of the full band, and the arrangement lacked any real distinguishing
characteristic to make it special.
That’s why, when it was time to put it on 18 Tracks, Springsteen went
into a studio to record the song anew in a solo piano version. That version
is bittersweet magic. Springsteen’s husky vocal fits the narrative better, since it better represents the passage of time that has separated the narrator
from his ideals, now in tatters. The simple piano chords also project an
achingly elegiac tone. Do yourself a favor and search out this take if all
you’ve heard is the full-band take and compare and contrast them yourself.
In any case, “The Promise” is fascinating for the way that Springsteen,
just a few years removed from the heights of Born to Run, negates the
irrepressible spirit of that album. When he invokes “Thunder Road” here,
that famed highway that once promised to take him out of a “town full of
losers” is now despoiled: “There’s something dyin’ down on the highway
It’s fascinating that Springsteen inhabits one of the working stiffs in
the song instead of the guy working in a “rock-and-roll band lookin’ for
that million-dollar sound.” Maybe that was the byproduct of a guy a bit
jaded about the rock establishment. Or perhaps Springsteen was acknowledging
how, but for the grace of his incredible talent and a little luck, he
could easily have been struggling in his own work life.
“The Promise” calls into question all of the archetypes on
which “Thunder Road” and many of the hopeful songs on Born to Run
were built. Not only is the highway cast in a shadowy light in this update,
but the cherry car, in this case a Challenger, goes from the narrator’s
pride and joy to just another piece of ephemera to be sold. And when this
guy does make it out of town and gets a chance to fulfill the hope expressed
at the end of “Thunder Road,” the end result hardly seems worth
the effort: “Well I won big once I hit the coast, hey but I paid the big
The self-awareness of this guy is a far cry from the beat-the-world
naiveté found on Born to Run, which is why it sounds better when the
more mature version of Springsteen sings the song. That voice evokes
every mile traveled and every deep wound suffered, especially in this
powerful, summarizing couplet: “When the promise is broken you go on
living, but it steals something from down in your soul / Like when the
truth is spoken and it don’t make no difference, something in your heart
Springsteen implies that this character represents everyone who has
ever become disenchanted with life as their innermost longings are proven
to be counterfeit. He ends up all alone and far from home, but in the
song’s final moments, he still exhibits a loving nostalgia for those old friends who lived and loved hard and flamed out even harder. Maybe
“The Promise” hit way too close to home for Springsteen at the time he
wrote it, but the betrayals and defeats it eloquently catalogs are universal
experiences in a world so hard on fragile dreams.
(E-mail me at email@example.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. Counting Down Bruce Springsteen: His 100 Finest Songs is available now in the U.S. from all major online booksellers. In Europe, pre-orders are available for a scheduled October release date.)
(Here is another exclusive excerpt from my new book, Counting Down Bruce Springsteen: His 100 Finest Songs, available now. More to come on Monday.)
41. “Blinded By The Light” (from Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J., 1973)
Bruce Springsteen quickly realized that the wildly wordy, free-associating
madness of “Blinded by the Light” was both a commercial dead end
(the single, his first ever, didn’t chart despite much hype from Columbia
records) and an artistic point of diminishing returns.
For this one song though, he proved he could do verbose as well as
anyone and create the kind of thrillingly reckless wordplay that somehow
connects at song’s end in a fashion that probably not even the songwriter
saw coming. And for all of Springsteen’s modesty about the song coming
out of a rhyming dictionary, the truth is that it is the rare talent that could
string together those rhymes into something both wildly off-the-cuff and
Of course, the obvious influence here is Bob Dylan, and it’s not for
nothing that Springsteen often quotes Highway 61 Revisited as the album
that turned him on to Bob. If it weren’t so subtly hopeful, you might
easily imagine “Blinded by the Light” alongside songs like “Highway 61
Revisited” and “Tombstone Blues” from that Dylan album. The barrelhouse
thrust of the music is similar, as is the way the lyrics take seemingly
unconnected characters and events and place them under the same
If anything, Springsteen crams even more into his charmingly chaotic
song. Dylan at least took a few lines each to tell us about manic characters
like Gypsy Davey and Mack the Finger in those classic songs. On
“Blinded by the Light,” Springsteen generally gives each of his cats and
kittens just a line or two to make an impression, but he stuffs those lines
so far past the breaking point that it’s like he’s devoted a novella to each.
The music of “Blinded by the Light” tumbles along with the same sort
of forward momentum as those Dylan classics. There is, as is the case on
several of the songs on Springsteen’s 1973 debut album, Greetings from
Asbury Park, N.J., the issue of sound quality. In the sections where the
entire band is rumbling all together, the instruments blend into a kind of
muddle. Still, Clarence Clemons’s saxophone pokes out of the mix to
provide some necessary personality, and the words were always going to
be the star here anyway, so it’s forgivable.
Springsteen’s cavalcade of misfits and malcontents all futilely try to
make their mark on the overarching scene, only to be lumped in with the
rest of their motley crew in the songwriter’s estimation, each one just
“another runner in the night.” Yet there is never any animosity directed
toward these folks by Springsteen. He may be able from his vantage point
to see the error of their ways, but he doesn’t begrudge them the right to
make those errors.
Which is why “Blinded by the Light” might be one of the best snapshots
of the glorious folly of youth ever laid down on disc. And Springsteen, himself around twenty-three when he wrote the song in late 1972,
nails it from the perspective of one who’s in the midst of it and can see
the allure of the daring nature of these folks even as they crash and burn.
Again, this is one of those songs where Springsteen tells a lot of
stories about a lot of people but also includes some moments where a
first-person “I” interacts with them. The narrator is the one with the
“boulder on my shoulder.” He’s the one who encounters the “silicone
sister” and her lustful promises. And he’s the one who checks the “kidnapped
handicap” out and gives him a clean bill of health only after
discovering the kid’s lack of brains.
So it makes sense then that Springsteen eventually declares that these
crazily romantic characters will “make it all right.” Since he’s in the
trenches with them, it would be kind of a downer to declare that the
whole scene is on a fast train to oblivion. When Dylan stood looking over
an entire avenue of outcasts and ne’er-do-wells, he called it “Desolation
Row.” In “Blinded by the Light,” Springsteen’s societal oddballs may be
individually messed up, but at least they can hold on to each other while
“Blinded by the Light” gained enduring popularity through the No. 1
cover version of it by Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, who made a cottage
industry out of bizarre, prog-rock renditions of Springsteen songs. Maybe
the song needed music as insane as many of its characters to truly reach a
mass audience. Whatever the case, it stands as Springsteen’s one true
entry into the New Dylan arena, which only served to prove how different
from Bob he really was, not in terms of talent, but in terms of temperament.
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. Counting Down Bruce Springsteen: His 100 Finest Songs is now available at all major online booksellers as well as for Kindle and other e-readers.)
(Here is another exclusive excerpt from my new book, Counting Down Bruce Springsteen: His 100 Finest Songs. Another one coming on Friday. Enjoy!)
Bruce Springsteen filled up an album with hard-luck tales of delusion and
defeat in 1984, yet ended up with not just the biggest hit of his career but
also one of the biggest hits of all time. The album was Born in the U.S.A.,
and Springsteen pulled off this sleight of hand by couching the downcast
stories in effervescent music.
It’s a pattern that repeats itself all through the album. Things don’t go
very well for the guys at the heart of “Darlington County” and “Working
on the Highway,” but you’d never know it from the light-hearted melodies
and ebullient arrangements. “Dancing in the Dark” and “Glory Days” are relentless in their depictions of midlife crises and still they paraded through the Top 10. The title track was the biggest trickster of all, making fans feel patriotic about the United States with the music while castigating the country in the lyrics.
Such tactics are delicate and can only be pulled off by the nimblest of
songwriters, a group that certainly includes Springsteen. The one song on
the album where he chose to simply allow the darkness of the lyrics to
fully invade the music as well is “Downbound Train.” It’s a pretty bleak
affair, although Springsteen and the band make it palatable with a compelling performance.
Born in the U.S.A. is the first album where Springsteen made heavy
use of synthesizers, but he did it in such a way that it didn’t betray the
inherent earthiness of his music. The title track is just the most celebrated
example. On “Downbound Train,” the way the synths are played by Roy
Bittan manages to add interesting shades to the song without allowing
things to get too bright and take the sting out of the words.
Springsteen explained this technique to UK magazine International
Musician and Recording World in a 1984 interview. “Like on ‘Downbound
Train,’ it can sound pretty haunting,” he said, describing the synthesizer. “It gets this real austere sound, and I liked that. A little bit of coolness” That coolness perfectly plays off the minor keys and ominous guitars within the song.
“Downbound Train” was originally included as one of the demos that
became Nebraska, where it was performed at a much faster pace. It’s one
of the few survivors of the so-called Electric Nebraska sessions, whereby
Springsteen attempted to beef up those stark demos with a full-band
sound. What’s interesting is that the subject matter, a man pushed to the
limit by his dwindling work opportunities and the seemingly bottomless
despair of his surroundings, could easily have fit in on 2012’s Wrecking
Ball, an album released thirty years after the song was written. Come to
think about it, maybe depressing is a better way to describe that phenomenon than interesting.
The narrator quickly lets us in on his situation in the first few lines
with his use of the past tense: “I had a job, I had a girl / I had something
going mister in this world.” What follows are descriptions of a neverending
series of occupations and of his constant torment, the whistle in his ears pushing him deeper and deeper into the depths of his misery even as he hallucinates the kiss of his ex-lover on his lips.
Speaking of hallucinations, the elongated final verse plays out like a
fever dream that is representative of this character’s tortured state of
mind. It’s possible to take it literally, since it’s never expressly said that it
isn’t really happening, in which case the narrator would have to live
within running distance of where the woman lives even though they’re
separated by an entire forest. It’s more likely though that this guy’s mind
is playing tricks on him, buffeted as it is by the pressures of his life.
In any case, the build-up to the climax is painfully suspenseful, as the
low whine of the keyboards hints to us that there is no chance for a happy
reunion despite the man’s insistence on her need for him. Instead, he ends
up at his former home only to find it empty, at which point he collapses
pitifully in tears.
Springsteen wisely realized that this was a tale that no amount of chiming organs or whooping and hollering could, or should, for that matter, ever lighten up. This “Downbound Train” may not ever stop its descent, and what really makes the song so potent is the realization that this poor soul isn’t the only rider.
(E-mail me at email@example.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. Counting Down Bruce Springsteen: His 100 Finest Songs, is available now.)
As promised, the first of several exclusive excerpts from my new book, Counting Down Bruce Springsteen: His 100 Finest Songs. The excerpts that I share here are exclusive to the blog as a little reward for my loyal readers. Another one coming up on Wednesday
86. “Straight Time” (from The Ghost of Tom Joad, 1995)
It’s a counterintuitive notion that someone who served time in jail might be anything less than thrilled to be free. Yet Bruce Springsteen handles “Straight Time,” from The Ghost of Tom Joad, so adeptly that he convinces you that, for the hard case within the song, freedom’s just another word for nowhere to go.
The Ghost of Tom Joad is often thought of in the same vein as Nebraska when Springsteen’s albums are compared in that they are both moody affairs full of folk-based, topical songs. One major difference is that Joad actually contains a few band performances interspersed throughout the songs that feature just Springsteen on acoustic guitar and vocal.
Those band songs, for the most part, hold an advantage over the
acoustic solo songs on the album because they have a bit more melody.
On the acoustic songs, Springsteen seems so focused on the stories that
he’s telling that the tunes can seem like afterthoughts. On songs like
“Straight Time,” the interplay between the instruments creates some extra
added atmosphere and inspires Bruce to break out of any monotonous
In the case of “Straight Time,” the atmosphere conjured by the assembled band, which features E Streeter Danny Federici on keyboards and longtime collaborator Soozie Tyrell on violin, is one of creeping dread.
The song never breaks out of that tension, leaving the listener expecting
the worst after the song concludes.
That’s the perfect musical setting for the protagonist of “Straight
Time.” By singing the song in the first person, Springsteen allows us to
get inside and see what makes this guy tick, and it’s not pretty. Despite
his efforts to walk “the clean and narrow” in the time since he was
released from prison, his worst self continues to pull him back into a
criminal’s life: “In the darkness before dinner comes / Sometimes I can
feel the itch.”
The people that surround him don’t believe in his reformation, which
only serves to push him further back to the dark side. His uncle, who still
revels in crime, bribes him into recidivism. His wife can’t shake the
feeling that he’ll return to his previous ways, even as she tries to hide it:
“Mary’s smiling but she’s watching me out of the corner of her eye.” All
this leads him to believe that any dreams of a different life on the outside
were unrealistic. “Seems you can’t get any more than half free,” he ponders.
Any uncertainty about where this is all headed is laid to rest as the
song wends toward its conclusion. “In the basement huntin’ gun and
hacksaw / Sip a beer and thirteen inches drop to the floor,” Springsteen
sings. The way that the act is described makes it seem like the protagonist
had no free will about reconfiguring the gun to better suit criminal purposes; the excess barrel just falls to the floor as if it had a mind of its own. It’s a clever way for Springsteen to evoke the restlessness and inner void that drives this character to what will likely be a calamitous fate, one that will bring all his loved ones down with him.
“Straight Time” is one of the few songs on The Ghost of Tom Joad
that doesn’t delve into a specific social issue. Songs like “Sinaloa Cowboys,” “Balboa Park,” and others on the album are so tied to their specific, overarching topic that they can come off sounding like lessons rather than story songs. “Straight Time” avoids this pitfall both through its
subtle musical flavorings and by the way Springsteen creates a compelling
character and makes his story somehow relatable even to those in his
audience who have never thought of committing a crime in their lives.
We leave this character on his pillow dreaming, “driftin’ off into
foreign lands.” The methods that he’ll use to get to such far-off places are
no longer in doubt. His sentence to “Straight Time” is clearly just about
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. My new book, Counting Down Bruce Springsteen: His 100 Finest Songs, is available now at all major online booksellers.)
A few days earlier than expected, Counting Down Bruce Springsteen: His 100 Finest Songs, is now available to be shipped in the U.S. (My European readers will have to wait a bit longer.) I’ve included the links below to both Amazon and Barnes And Noble, but all major online booksellers should have it for you. I hope everyone checks it out and lets me know what they think. I should have some excerpts to share with you next week as well.
One of my readers did this for me with Dylan when I did Retro Reviews on his albums, and I thought it would be a neat idea to sort of wrap up what I’ve been doing the past several weeks with Springsteen. The basic idea is to take the star ratings for each of the songs, add them up, and divide them by the number of songs on each album, thus yielding a sort of rating for each album. And here’s how it turned out, from best to worst:
1. Born To Run-4.5
3. Darkness On The Edge Of Town-4.2
4. Born In The U.S.A.-4.16
5. The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle-4.14
6. Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ-4.00
7. The River-3.8
8. Tunnel Of Love-3.73
10. Wrecking Ball-3.55
11. Working On A Dream-3.54
12. The Ghost Of Tom Joad-3.33
13. Lucky Town-3.3
14. The Seeger Sessions-3.23
15. The Rising-3.13
T16. Devils & Dust-3
T16. High Hopes-3
18. Human Touch-2.71
A few observations:
– I find it interesting that Greetings is ranked so well. I always talk about it as being uneven, and I still think it is, but I find the songwriting fascinating even when the songs themselves are flawed on that album. And the songs that cohere on that album are stellar. So I guess I just hold a soft spot in my heart for those early days when Springsteen just threw everything he had at every song, as opposed to being the tough editor he eventually became.
– Wrecking Ball nips Working On A Dream, but I think if I could take only one of them to a desert island right now, it would probably be the latter. That could be because I’ve heard Wrecking Ball more often due to its being more recent and oft-played (especially on E Street Radio), but I still think the numbers betray my true feelings a bit here.
– Interesting how Lucky Town outstrips some albums that probably have a better reputation, but I feel like the ranking is accurate. Had Springsteen only released that album and shelved Human Touch, I think Lucky Town would certainly have a better standing among the faithful. It gets bogged down by its association with the weakest album in the Bruce canon.
– Nebraska at #2: I can live with that because of its stunning consistency, and the way that Bruce makes an album of acoustic songs still sound so varied. Maybe that’s why The Ghost Of Tom Joad suffers a little bit; where Nebraska zips by, Joad can feel like a bit of a drag when taken all in one sitting.
Overall, this little mathematical exercise was enlightening. Obviously, trying to quantify music is somewhat foolhardy; as much of a sabermetric fan as I might be, I can’t make the leap that you can render a piece of words and music as a set of data in the same way you can a baseball player’s performance.
Yet I think that anyone can do this kind of thing, using their opinions as the basis, and it can provide a pretty good overview of the quality of an artist’s work over time. The old adage that says numbers don’t lie doesn’t completely apply in this case, but I think it’s fair to say that they are somewhere in the vicinity of the truth.
Stay tuned next week for excerpts from my new book Counting Down Bruce Springsteen: His 100 Finest Songs, now available at all online booksellers.