Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness On the Edge of Town turns 40 today. As with any piece of art that age, it’s hard to say anything new about it. Anyone who’s listened to it with even a modicum of attention has their own idea of what it means; either that, or you’ve watched the documentary.
We’ve traversed the badlands, dangled over the streets of fire, and trudged out of the factory countless times. Springsteen’s lonesome howls and greasy hot guitarwork straddle the divide where the present met the past at the time — soul music through a punk lens. It’s such a stark turn from Born to Run’s gloriously wide-eyed, quintessentially New Jerseyan view of The City and all that it purports to promise. Instead, this album captures the feeling of getting off the train after midnight, covered in the magical scuzz of New York, and surveying your hometown. It’s familiar, but darker, eerier, and more foreboding. It’s the comedown, the world you actually live in. And in being those things, it makes you question yourself.
I’m from a small town. Totally unremarkable, save for being the birthplace of the graham cracker and the home of a burger joint that at one point burned down twice in a month. I discovered Darkness in high school, sometime around its 30th birthday, and immediately latched onto the slivers of hope it offered. I saw the boasts of believing in a “promised land”, coupled with those of being able to “prove it all night” as deep affirmations of what it meant to come from a nowhere place. But that’s just youth — a surface read. Bruce is in his late 20’s by ’78, not yet old enough to be anywhere near wise, but having already been punched in the mouth by life. The exuberance that comes from wanting and waiting to get out of your podunk town fades by then. He’s writing about what it means to be stuck.
And so those boasts aren’t so much deeply-held beliefs as they are covers for how you really feel about where you’re from. You embrace the outmoded James Dean archetype because that at least offers a facade of toughness you can hide under. All of the characters on this album are like this. They’re callous because they’ve known everyone around them since age 5, and everyone knows them. They’re adults, but they don’t have the luxury to shape their own backstory. Privacy is at a premium, and always has been if you grew up in a tiny place. These characters are estranged from their families, working dead-end jobs, and getting on with the “wrong” crowd. They’re hoping against hope that no one will ask any questions or look too long in their face, and destroying themselves in service of it.
When I was in kindergarten this kid used to kick me in the balls at recess. He did this a bunch of times, it was crazy. We were never friends and, obviously, ran in different circles as time went on. I never really gave a shit about what he did later on, but I heard around the way in high school that he was a self-styled street racer. That revelation, combined with his whip, got more than a fair share of snickers. He’d drive around a beat-up Civic from the early aughts with a vinyl cover on the hood and, apparently, no muffler. Getting scoffed at like that had to be hard to handle, especially where we lived, where every word reaches every ear eventually.
Full disclosure: I’m not much of a car guy. I couldn’t tell you what was under that hood, if anything. Maybe it was tricked out on the inside. Street racers mod Hondas all the time, I guess. Regardless, I imagine that guy, at least back then, wasn’t too different from the character in “Racing in the Street,” probably my favorite song from the record. We think of the ’69 Chevy in the song in nostalgic terms, but in ’78 it was less than a decade old. The car’s owner in that song just pours himself into what he knows, searching for some glory bigger than what he came from, some sense of pride. That chase creates a better persona than the one you’ve been assigned by the world, even if it means nothing to anyone else. Darkness On the Edge of Town captures this small-town malaise in such a unique way, and that’s why it endures.