It's two years into the first term of a young Democratic president, one whose election brought a sense of hope to the White House after two terms of a polarizing Republican presidency, but who now faces declining approval ratings and the loss of Congressional seats for his Party.
The year is 1978. America is in the middle of Jimmy Carter's first and only term as president when Bruce Springsteen releases his fourth album, Darkness on the Edge of Town.
It's been three long years since his breakthrough third album, Born to Run, delivered on the "future of rock 'n' roll" promise once prophesied for him. While the nation celebrates its independence in 1976, a lawsuit with former manager Mike Appel prevents Springsteen from entering the studio. Magazines have started to publish "What ever happened to?" pieces about him. But 1978 will be summer of cultural comebacks. The Rolling Stones and The Who revitalize their careers with Some Girls and Who Are You. Jaws 2 hits screens with the most memorable tag line of all time: "Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water...." Born to Run came out two months after the original Jaws and became the subject of a media blitz that included simultaneous Time and Newsweek cover stories. This time, Springsteen seeks to circumvent the media monster and only reluctantly concedes to any promotional efforts surrounding the album.
It's a risky move. While Springsteen is at his farm house in Holmdel, New Jersey, writing songs for the new album, the musical landscape is changing. Elvis, the nominal King of Rock and Roll, is dead. Time and Newsweek now both do features on the emerging punk and new wave movements. In the painstaking months that Springsteen and the band spend in the studio, recording as many as 70 or even 90 tracks from varying accounts, music fans see the release of seminal punk albums Rocket to Russia, Never Mind the Bullocks, and Easter, the U.S. releases of Elvis Costello's My Aim Is True and This Year's Model, and Warren Zevon's sardonic classic Excitable Boy. Other pop acts threaten to out-Springsteen Springsteen: Bob Seger scores a Top 5 hit with "Night Moves." Billy Joel, a Long Island lounge-singer version of Bruce from the same Columbia label, reaches his career peak with The Stranger. A blusterous act known as Meat Loaf releases the worldwide smash Bat Out of Hell aided by Springsteen camp members Roy Bittan, Max Weinberg, and Jimmy Iovine. Meanwhile, the anti-rock movie Saturday Night Fever pushes sister disco into the mainstream. Springsteen's brand of Crystals-infused retro-rock feels like yesterday's news.
His follow-up record is almost released in 1977 under the title Badlands, lifted from the name of Terrence Malick's bleak 1973 anithero film loosely based on the life of serial killer Charley Starkweather. (It is a season of serial killers: Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, Richard Chase, The Hillside Stranger, and the Son of Sam all make headlines in 1977-78.) But Springsteen opts against it. He struggles with song selection and sequence, and then over the album's mix, which Chuck Plotkin is called in to fix.
Finally, Darkness on the Edge of Town is released in June 1978. The ten-song, five-a-side sequence show a different Bruce altogether. The songs are more concise, eight less than five minutes in length, none reaching seven minutes. Springsteen has moved past the winding Broadway-by-the-backstreets narratives toward a more conventional verse-chorus-verse-bridge-chorus structure. Phil Spector's wallpaper has been torn down, replaced by the systolic and systolic beats of Max Weinberg's drums. Unlike the ivory-conceived narratives of "Thunder Road" and "Jungleland," the Darkness tracks are guitar driven, something that is immediately noticeable on the hard-driving opener "Badlands" and becomes unavoidable on the furious six-string attack that opens the next track, "Adam Raised a Cain." For this song, Springsteen's instructions to Plotkin--to create the mood of a cinematic scene change that goes from two lovers having a picnic to the shot of a dead body--cut a murderous swath through the heart of the record. By the time we get to the solo on "Candy's Room," we see a singer stepping up as a Seventies guitar hero.
His lyrics have changed, too. Inspired by Hank Williams and John Ford and the malaise of the working class, Springsteen has turned his gaze to the American heartland. Having shed his local cult label, he now seeks a wider relevance and looked to speak to the life of Small Town, U.S.A. The settings of his songs stretch as far south as Louisiana small towns and as far west as the Utah desert. Gone are the colorful names from the first three albums, giving way to anonymous Everymen. And the narrative mode is shifting, as well: Springsteen begins to write in the second-person, dispensing populist observations to the proverbial "you" like a rock-and-roll Woody Guthrie singing of the working life, of dreams unfulfilled, of the prices to be paid.
Album no. 4 is more populist, but not necessarily more popular. Darkness peaks at #5 on the Billboard chart. The first single, "Prove It All Night," barely breaks registers on American Top 40, and the second, "Badlands," peters out just below Casey Kasem range. But the record provides the muscle behind a memorable tour. When Born to Run broke back in '75, Springsteen and the E Street Band were still playing the college-and-club circuit. Now with two hits records to his name, Bruce and the band bring their gaslit anthems to civic centers and arenas across the country. Radio listeners tune into live broadcasts of marathon shows--often three hours plus an intermission--at the Roxy in LA in July, Cleveland's Agora Ballroom in August, the Capitol Theatre in Passaic, NJ, and Fox Theatre in Atlanta in September, San Francisco's Winterland in December. Springsteen is at the height of his performative powers, a musician confirming his place in the popular culture, a driver taking the nation for a ride.
It's 2010. We're mid-way through Obama's first term, and he's having a tough time of his own. Springsteen has released The Promise: The Darkness on the Edge of Town Story, a six-disc CD/DVD box set documenting the Year Springsteen Changed.
I had missed it all at the time. I was too young in 1978, and I lacked an older sibling to introduce me cool albums. I didn't even get KISS. The only pop album I remember liking at the time was Star Wars and Other Galactic Funk from the sci-fi disco band Meco.
But I do remember the gas lines and the energy crisis and the co-op dwelling hippies from the local state college campus coming to our class and getting us to sign petitions against nuclear energy. (Fears of a China syndrome obscured those of diminishing fossil fuels.) Alternative energy sources were much on the mind of Americans during the 1970s. The previous April, President Carter had delivered a televised speech about the on-going crisis:
Our decision about energy will test the character of the American people and the ability of the President and the Congress to govern. This difficult effort will be the "moral equivalent of war" -- except that we will be uniting our efforts to build and not destroy.
I know that some of you may doubt that we face real energy shortages. The 1973 gasoline lines are gone, and our homes are warm again. But our energy problem is worse tonight than it was in 1973 or a few weeks ago in the dead of winter.
Fittingly, Springsteen remembers his fourth album as his "samurai" record, stripped to the frame and ready to rumble," as he writes in the liner notes to The Promise. "Power, directness, and austerity were my goals."
No song on the new set embodies this sense more than "The Promise," in which Springsteen tears down his own mythology. Wistfully name-checking Born to Run's "Thunder Road" and its Wild Ones kiss off ("It's a town full of losers/And I'm pulling out of here to win") the singer looks back in disillusion: "I followed that dream just like those guys do up on the screen...we were gonna take it all and throw it all away." Strapped for cash, he even has to sell the Dodge Challenger he built--the ultimate self-defeating statement in Springsteen's fuel-injected body of work. On Born to Run, he sang of romantic fatalism, of dying on the streets at night in an everlasting kiss. Three years later, he sang wearily and less romantically of that nameless something in the night, of "somethin' dying on the highway tonight."
Yet with all the talk of this being the beginning of a darker phase in Springsteen's work, a slew of songs on The Promise show a brighter side: the Brill Building sunlight sheen of "Gotta Get That Feeling" and "Someday (We'll Be Together)"; the simmering soul of "The Broken Hearted" and "One Way Street"; the enjoy-the-hurt bar rockers "Ain't Good Enough" and "It's a Shame"; the would-be Elvis hit "Fire" and soon-to-be hits "Because the Night" (for Patti Smith) and "Talk to Me" (for Southside Johnny); the Buddy Holly bounce of "Outside Looking In"; the pop-perfect "Rendezvous." Some songs are noticeably retrofitted from the original sessions and share common ground with Working on a Dream, as does one new/old track, "Save My Love," recorded anew in 2010.
The introspective gem "City of Night" depicts a john's taxi ride into Leiber and Stoller territory ("12th and Vine") to street walker with the stillness of an Edward Hopper study. "Come On (Let's Go Tonight)" speaks more of restlessness than the blue-collar despair of its later incarnation, "Factory," a track on Darkness that might have been even more suited to the misappropriated Reagan-era blockbuster Born in the U.S.A. Even the obsessive "The Way," hidden stalker-like at the end of the second disc, speaks to the prevailing theme among the newly released songs that is largely absent from Darkness: that of love and sex, lost and found. In his vinyl fanfare for the common man, in which even "Candy's Room" seems to be more about loneliness than lust, such notions are a luxury to those beaten down by the working life.
While The Promise enlightens the focus of Darkness by showing what Springsteen chose not to include on his fourth album, it also frustrates in what was still left unreleased. Bootleg packages from the 1977-78 sessions include two out-of-control rockers, "Breakout" and "Don't Say No," that show Springsteen at his most frantic, surpassing the best high-energy moments of The River, his roller-rink-flavored double album from 1980. "I'm Goin' Back" was a harmonica-heavy romp that sounds like Bo Diddley via The Rolling Stones. "Janey Needs a Shooter," a quirky sex ballad, resurfaced in 1978 from a murky demo tape pre-Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J., and lent its chorus to Warren Zevon's rewrite two years later.
The most surprising omission, and my nomination to assume the title of best unreleased Springsteen song, is "Preacher's Daughter," a slow, seething track with a subdued Diddley pulse. (Some lines of the song can be heard in Springsteen's reworked version of "Mona" on the Houston '78 Bootleg: House Cut DVD.) Its lyrical landscape seems straight out of Hank Williams territory, haunted by the echoes of "Jungleland":
I got a date with the preacher's daughter
She give me life she bring me water
Every Sunday I watch her work
Pretty little self in a pretty little church
Daddy gives her a nod she takes collection
Daddy gives her a nod she kneels by her side
Well I'd sell my soul for just one touch
The Lord would too if he loved her half as much.
Well I got a date with the preacher's daughter
Her Daddy say that the boy's no good
Just want to raise some coons out through the back woods
Well baby better believe what your Daddy say
Just wanna ramrod baby my life away.
It's a long walk to heaven and a road filled with sin
And they better open up the freeway to let me in.
'Cuz I got a date with the preacher's daughter
Well now I don't care what the preacher say
Well now I don't care what the preacher do
I don't care what the preacher like
I don't care what the preacher think
Leads me to water but won't let me drink.
He leads me to water but won't let me drink.
And now out on this little road on Saturday night
Two boys fighting in a halo of light
Car door flung open and a radio loud
And everybody shouting and running around.
Two guys bloody and one I don't know
And all little girls shouting "Go Billy go"
Well just as I got the preacher's daughter ready for a light
And missed a VH fire and something ain't right
And like a she-devil howlin' from the gates of hell
Goddam here come the preacher in his Coupe De Ville
Burnin' up the backroad kicking in the dirt
And oh baby preacher thinks he is in church
Well now your lips they shine in the willow mist
And I swear I'd take you down the aisle for just one kiss
I got a date with the preacher's daughter
Considering the Darkness outtakes already released on the 1998 Tracks box set--"Frankie," "Don't Look Back," "Hearts of Stone," "Give That Girl a Kiss," "Iceman," and "I Wanna Be With You"--along with the several River tracks that date from the Darkness sessions, and one can imagine a mammoth "Badlands" box set rivaling the complete "Basement Tape" bootlegs that document the 100+ recordings Bob Dylan, post-motorcycle accident, laid down with the Hawks in the Catskill mountains in 1967.
Springsteen's post-lawsuit record remains a signature recording in his career, the first album in a populist phrase that began with the oft-overlooked Born to Run track "Night" and continued on the records that completed his transition from turnpike hoodrat to heartland hero: The River, Nebraska (with a title song that was, like Badham's film, inspired by the Starkweather story), and Born in the U.S.A. In these albums and beyond, he would remain committed to exploring the territory laid out in Darkness--the dynamic tension between the defeat of "The Promise" and the reassertion of faith in "The Promised Land."
Springsteen's comeback album also captured a changing mood in America. Amid the decade's second major energy crisis in July 1979, Carter would speak of the nation's creeping malaise in his "Crisis of Confidence" address:
I want to talk to you right now about a fundamental threat to American democracy.
I do not mean our political and civil liberties. They will endure. And I do not refer to the outward strength of America, a nation that is at peace tonight everywhere in the world, with unmatched economic power and military might.
The threat is nearly invisible in ordinary ways. It is a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our Nation.
The Reagan Era was around the bend. Morning in America. Trouble in the heartland.
For the highlight of The Promise box set, check out the three-hour concert on the Houston '78 DVD, an amazing document of a rocker in his prime.