Monday, June 9, 2008

This Train; Darkness on the Edge of Town

Boss Tracks is introducing a new feature in association with Backstreets' historian extraordinary, ol'catfishinthelake, Jake Romanow. Periodically Jake will be digging deep into the background of Springsteen's own material, exploring the roots of the song and the significance it holds for his career. "Darkness on the Edge of Town" is the first one and I hope he'll do many more!

“When Bruce Springsteen sings on his new album,” Pete Townshend once famously said of Darkness On The Edge Of Town, “that’s not ‘fun’, that’s fuckin’ triumph, man.” And Darkness—the song—is as great a song about triumph as any on the album, so much so that Bruce used it as the album’s name and it’s closing track. This is even more notable, perhaps, when one considers that the song was not recorded until very late in the Darkness recording sessions, in November and December of 1977. First recorded in a more rockabilly-esque arrangement, Darkness quickly developed to its album form, with its redemptive final verse: “tonight I’ll be on that hill, ‘cause I can’t stop, I’ll be on that hill with everything I got. Lives on the line where dreams are found and lost, 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”—yet the album version is almost tragic, ending with Bruce humming the melody into the fade out. The album ends on a note not just of persistence (although there is that too), but also of bitter resignation.


MP3 File

When the E Street Band first played the song live, on 1978’s Darkness Tour, it was this sense of resignation that was emphasized. A mournful organ intro was added, and instead of the album lyrics, “where no one asks any questions or looks too long in your face,” simply describing soul-searching, to “you can drive all night and never make it around”—all your attempts at triumph, to prove it all night, are probably futile. Never before or since has Darkness taken quite so fatalistic a tone—yet this tone made sense for the show. After being played early in the second set for the first few shows, the song was moved to the 4-slot, where it would remain for the rest of the tour. Played after Badlands, the ultimate anthem to perseverance, and directly following Spirit In The Night, light and bouncy, Darkness brought a sense of despair into the Darkness shows, a reminder that triumph doesn’t come easy and that if you don’t “cut it loose” the darkest part of your soul will “drag you down.”

Darkness was again an every night song on 1980-81’s River Tour, again played early in the set. But this time, it was a song of triumph more than a song of despair. The song now began with a count-in, not an organ: indeed, the entire keyboard-heavy arrangement from ’78 was ditched for a new, more optimistic arrangement, led by powerful electric guitar during the choruses and complete with reggae-like picking during the verses. The original lyrics were back, and the vocal was as triumphant as ever, culminating in a full-own howl on the final “town”, hinted at in the ‘78 arrangement but drawn out here, as it would always subsequently be with the E Streeters. It was an arrangement from this tour that was released on 1986’s Live 1975-85 box set: Bruce was no longer as desperate as he had been in 1978, just after settling the lawsuit with Mike Appel, and the performance of Darkness on the River tour, and the selection a version thence for release, reflect this.

On 1984-5’s Born In The U.S.A. Tour, Darkness was played semi-regularly, with a faster tempo and a drawn out guitar intro—and an ever-more-confident vocal from Bruce, having conquered the world and singing like he knew it. “Well other folks they gotta fight for it, and they get it anyway, anyhow,” Bruce added, perhaps in a spark of self-congratulations. A couple off-tour appearances in 1986 were followed up by four performances on 1988’s Tunnel Of Love Express Tour, but it was at 1990’s Christic Benefit concerts that Darkness would receive its most dramatic transformation yet. At the Christic concerts, Bruce played Darkness on 12-string, a powerful arrangement that brought the dismay in the song to the fore. This was a narrator disgusted by the injustice of it all, one who has had enough of people keeping their secrets, trying to rise up and leave everybody else in the dust. The narrator is wounded and has nothing left to lose—there is none of the fervor to “be there on time” present through the 80s—instead, it is something he is doing out of necessity. The hurt is palpable, and the narrator still fears that he may “let it drag” him “down.”

First Christic Night

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For much of 1992-3’s World Tour with the infamous “other band”, Darkness was played in a new arrangement, with River-tour like guitar and a big infusion of gospel backing vocals, released on the Plugged DVD and CD, that brought the song back to its 1985 feel of empowerment. The now rich Springsteen changed the lyrics from “I lost my money and I lost my wife” to “I lost my faith when I lost my wife”—the song was no longer so much about the daily grind of Night, Factory, and Open All Night, but instead about a more spiritual crisis, more about that secret than about any physical loss. While this particular lyric would never revert, however, this turning back of the clock to a happier Darkness proved short-lived, however, and the solo 12-string arrangement occasionally returned on the final leg of the Other Band tour in 1993, but with a much less wounded vocal—instead, the song is a fuck-you to her, with the “style she’s trying to maintain”—this is the arrangement where the song started to get really angry.

Anger was certainly the defining emotion of the versions stemming from the short-lived E Street reunion in 1995, yet another new narrator who despises the secrets, the darkness, the lies that killed us, and the truth that ran us down. He finds these aspects of human nature intolerable, and goes to that spot out ‘neath Abram’s Bridge to escape them. It is this voice that was merged with the 12-string musical arrangement regularly on the Ghost Of Tom Joad solo tour (as released on the Europe-only Ghost Of Tom Joad EP and separately on the Missing single). And when the E Street Band reunited at last in 1999 for the Reunion Tour, it was the ’95 arrangement that returned with it. It was still an important enough song to the show that Bruce released it on the Live In New York City DVD (and in audio form on the Waitin’ On A Sunny Day single)—having transformed from its original tone, it remained a cornerstone of the live show.

This did not change on the next tour, 2002-3’s Rising Tour, where the song appeared regularly in the Reunion arrangement and also once in something closer to the Joad tour arrangement. In each case, Darkness had firmly established itself as an angry, indignant song, whose narrator’s triumph amounts to more of a “so there” than any true success. Meanwhile, the acoustic arrangement opened the Somerville Doubletake Benefits, Bruce explaining how his narrator “asserts his will” in the final verse of Darkness “at that last moment of survival where his will is the only promise he has and its all that he can give out”—“I’ll be.” It also reminds Bruce, he says, of the “artist’s promise”—“if I’m going there, then you’re coming with me.” The narrator’s triumph stems from desperation, and his only overcoming is within himself.

The song showed up on 2005’s Devils & Dust solo tour in both its Joad tour arrangement and in a solo piano version, but the narrator kept the same voice—after searching for 17 years, Bruce appeared to be satisfied with the character he had created for this song in 1995. The Reunion version appeared once again early in 2007-8’s Magic tour, but there was one last twist (so far) for the song to take. After E Street organist Danny Federici’s death to melanoma in April of 2008, the lyrics to this song were tweaked once more. Having sung “I lost my faith when I lost my wife” since 1992, the line was changed once again to “I lost my faith when I lost you.” All of a sudden, the song is no longer about a woman, or about simple personal crisis—the darkness on the edge of town is the place you go to deal with loss. The secret becomes death. The triumph becomes no triumph at all, just the ability to move on. “I still sing that one with gusto,” Bruce said of Darkness at the Somerville shows, and indeed, in all of its iterations, it has been a vital part of the Springsteen oeuvre since its initial release. And never has the song strayed from its most basic message: we shall—nay, we must—overcome.

Tampa Magic Tour

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Steven said...

Wow, what a great post! That is a stirring, illuminating, wonderful piece of writing and of scholarship. Thank you very much, and congrats on having produced it. It's really good.

Gina said...

Simply wonderful!!
Awesome writing Cat!
Another brilliant entry Alex!!

Thank you again!! :D

cbrown said...


As someone who has only recently begun to appreciate the depth of Springsteen's catalog, this post is an invaluable resource.

I can't wait for the next installment.