Darkness on the Edge of Town
Bruce Springsteen's bounty
Reviewed by Raoul Hernandez, Fri., Dec. 17, 2010
"Many a hand has scaled the grand old face of the plateau." – Meat Puppets, "Plateau"
Lost in translation from black, 12-inch vinyl records to 4¾-inch aluminum compact discs beginning in the mid-1980s was classic rock's double album. The Beatles (aka the White Album), Rolling Stones' Exile on Main St., Led Zeppelin's Physical Graffiti – sprawling song blasts from the music gods.
Bruce Springsteen's stake into such exclusive ranks, The River, at 20 tracks, runs some four minutes too long to fit onto an 80-minute commercial CD. Originally, the album was turned in to Columbia Records as a single disc, only to be second-guessed by its author, who then added to and subtracted from it for another year. "Many songs were cut, and many were judged not up to par," reveals Springsteen in 1998 lyrics catalog Songs. The River was overflowing.
By contrast, in Wings for Wheels: The Making of Born To Run – the documentary for the 2005 deluxe reissue of Born To Run – Springsteen recalls spending laborious months birthing the Spectorian title track that ultimately made his name only to realize he still needed to write the rest of the album. Jersey's prolific boardwalk angel grew into his craft as if he owned stock in the spiral-bound notebooks he filled one after another, but according to The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town, another long-form DVD doc included here, when the time came to follow up 1975's Born To Run, a protracted litigious blackout with the singer's former manager prevented him from releasing records. So he recorded around the clock.
As mined in The Promise: The Darkness on the Edge of Town Story box set, which doubles its predecessor's album update by bulking up to no less than six discs (three CDs/three DVDs), the Boss' wrecking crew cut many albums' worth of material before throwing out babies, bathwater, and everything else save 10 tracks on the original 1978 gauntlet, remastered right out of the gate.
"Darkness was my 'samurai' record," writes Springsteen in the new set's spiral-bound notebook, which houses handwritten lyrics, alternate lyrics, countless LP sequences, pictures, you name it. "[S]tripped to the frame and ready to rumble."
That Darkness comes hacked out of the hungry heart of an unimpeded compositional current explains plenty. Springsteen's fourth full-length plays like most of its iceberg is underwater. Born To Run is a surface record – the anthems go off like the Fourth of July. Darkness on the Edge of Town slums among the best of them ("Streets of Fire"), light and dark and dusk in the middle, where shadows are long and blind spots are around every sharp corner. That's "The Promised Land," "Prove It All Night," and the titular closer, respectively. First in, "Badlands" proves as killing as its 1973 silver-screen precursor by Austinite Terrence Malick. Stark realities inherent to Nebraska, which followed The River, began gestating in Darkness.
A stand-alone set also sold separately, the 2-CD The Promise, subtitled The Lost Sessions: Darkness on the Edge of Town, unearths an additional 22 cuts. They "could have/should have been released after Born to Run and before the collection of songs that became Darkness on the Edge of Town," shrugs their Boss daddy, and combined with "the material from Tracks that had Darkness as its origin and you have upwards of forty songs, four albums." Tracks (1998), four CDs' worth of non-LP Springsteen bonanza, could have almost landed "Iceman," "Hearts of Stone," and "Don't Look Back" onto Darkness.
Little on The Promise conforms to the unblinking sonic verité of Darkness, which Springsteen notes, "was also written and recorded at the height of the punk explosion," but its sweeping jingle-jangle avalanches the chain reaction of creative abundance. Its elegiac intro, "Racing in the Street," a band-beat alternate to the album cut, slides into a "Thunder Road" side-street housing the Brill Building snap of "Gotta Get That Feeling," while "Outside Looking In" mimics the muffled thump of Buddy Holly's "Peggy Sue." A gorgeous wall of orchestration on "Someday (We'll Be Together)" anticipates the rapture that became Patti Smith's "Because the Night," here in a somewhat stiff yet still thrilling version by its muse. Unabashed Roy Orbison prom clutch, "The Brokenhearted," and early Greg Kihn adoptee "Rendezvous" accompany Darkness' "Candy's Room" spin-off, "Candy's Boy," featuring a front-and-center organ sweep courtesy of the late Danny Federici. Darkness it ain't, but The Promise delivers.
"Ain't Good Enough for You," on the second disc, with hand claps, gang-boy chorus, and soda fountain bounce, rewrites Gary U.S. Bonds' "This Little Girl," which is actually a Springsteen song, the Boss and henchman Stevie Van Zandt putting together the Detroit soulman's 1981/1982 outings Dedication and On the Line; the latter rocking seven out of 10 songs penned by Bruce, including "Rendezvous." His stab at "Fire," made famous by Oakland's Pointer Sisters, pulses quick and rockabilly intimate, as if from the same sessions of "Dancing in the Dark" b-side "Pink Cadillac." "It's a Shame" shakes an embryonic proto-blues version of "Prove It All Night," and the two-minute "Come On (Let's Go Tonight)" feels out Darkness' "Factory."
"The Promise" itself finally wanders in like a ghost through the Darlington County between Born To Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town, its return to "Thunder Road" providing built-in nostalgia. The line "something dyin' down" on the road predicts The River closer "Wreck on the Highway." On the box's Thrill Hill Vault 1976-1978 DVD, a recording session for "The Promise" delivers even better, though the real standout turns out to be Springsteen and Van Zandt banging out an early version of The River's "Sherry Darling" at the piano, laughing it off as a one-time-only performance. Fat chance.
Darkness' third and last DVD, Thrill Hill Vault Houston '78 Bootleg: House Cut, already stars a pair of The River breakouts, album opener "The Ties That Bind" and .45 caliber murder ballad "Point Blank," which are here preserved in a three-hour live siege that's positively Baptist. With any luck, the powers that be will pop out a CD counterpart as they did with Hammersmith Odeon, London '75 from the Born To Run box. Live, 1970s Springsteen maintains its own religion.
Equal righteousness inhabits Springsteen & the E Street Band reviving the entirety of Darkness on the Edge of Town last December, in (where else?) Asbury Park, at an empty Paramount Theatre. The Bossman gripping his Fender guitar's headstock and wringing feedback at the start of "Adam Raised a Cain" portends his ensuing six-string retribution.
The Clash's 1979 double album, London Calling, clocks in at 65 minutes. The London punks, feted by Springsteen this summer on his London Calling: Live in Hyde Park DVD, followed it up with a triple album, Sandinista! (see "The Magnificent Seven," May 19, 2000). Artistic plateaus normally happen once or twice for acts great and small. Bruce Springsteen built a warehouse there.