Spineless Books.

Bruce Springsteen, Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978)—Study Guide


Larry McCaffery


Some Opening Remarks

“Surprising? What’s surprising about that? Have you ever heard Darkness on the Edge of Town?”— Thurston Moore, responding to an interviewer’s comment about how surprised Sonic Youth fans were about the Springsteen tee shirt he was wearing on tour:

“When Bruce Springsteen sings on his new album [Darkness on the Edge of Town], that’s not about ‘fun,’ it’s fucking TRIUMPH, man.”--Pete Townsend, 1978.

“Mister, I ain’t no boy, no, I’m a man/And I believe in the Promised Land”--from Springsteen’s “The Promised Land” on Darkness

“The whole idea is to deliver what money can’t buy. That’s the idea going on out there. You don’t go out there to deliver seven dollars and fifty cents’ [then-current ticket prices] worth of music. My whole thing is to go out there and deliver what they could not possibly buy. And if you do that, you’ve done whatever you could do.”--Springsteen to Paul Nelson in Rolling Stone, summer 1978.

“That was the record where I spent a lot of time focusing. And what I focused on was this one idea: What do you do if your dreams come true? Where does that leave you? What do you do if that happens? And I realized that part of what you have to face is the problem of isolation. You can get isolated if you got a lot of dough or if you don’t have much dough, whether you’re Elvis Presley, or sitting in front of a TV with a six pack of beer. It’s easy to get there.” —Springsteen, cited in Rooksby, 117.

“I brought all the contact sheets up and Bruce said, “Good, let’s look at them.” We spread them all over the place—on the floor, wherever—and suddenly Bruce produced a flashlight loupe (a magnifying device). I thought, “Well, this guy knows how to get right into something!” He started really looking at each frame. We sat there and critiqued the whole pile of contact sheets. He wanted to know, could I move this over or make something else a little darker? He got very involved in the technicality of the graphics and the photographs. Then I would go back to the darkroom, reprint the images, and present them to Bruce again. . . . I was amazed at how artistic and acutely aware of his surroundings he was and how totally involved he became, not only with writing great songs and playing them, but also with every facet of the packaging of his art. Bruce lives through every part of what he produces, whether it’s his own lyrics and music or the graphics and text designed for his album or CD. It’s all part of who he is. The pictures were raw....their directness, their toughness, were what I wanted for my music at that time."” Frank Stefanko (photographer who shot the album cover of Darkness), Days of Hope and Dreams, 36-7

“Bruce Springsteen is the Nabokov—or Stanley Kubrick—of Rock”--Larry McCaffery

Production Details

Darkness on the Edge of Town. Released 6 June 1978. Prod.: Springsteen and Jon Landau. Production assistance: Steve van Zandt. Recording engineer: Jimmy Iovine. Mixed by Chuck Plotkin and Jimmy Iovine. Cover and other photographs, Frank Stefanko. Personnel: Springsteen (vocals, lead guitar, and harmonica); Clarence Clemons (saxophone); Gary Tallent (bass); Max Weinberg (drums), Danny Federici (organ); Steve Van Zandt (guitar); Roy Bittan (piano).
Tracks: Badlands; Adam Raises a Cain; Something in the Night; Candy's Room; The Promised Land; Factory; Racing in the Street; Streets of Fire; Prove It All Night; Darkness on the Edge of Town.
Key Outtakes: “Because the Night,” “Don’t Look Back,” “”Fire,” “Frankie,” “Hearts of Stone,” “I Wanna Be with You,” “Preacher’s Daughter,” “The Promise,” “Rendezvous,” “The Way.”


When Bruce Springsteen’s raw, poignant, disturbing, exhilarating album, Darkness on the Edge of Town, was released in 1978, it had been a full three years since the much ballyhooed release of Born to Run landed him on the covers of Time and Newsweek. During that three year interlude, Springsteen had been involved in an ugly legal battle with his former manager and producer Mike Appel over who controlled the rights to Springsteen’s songs. These legal wrangles wound putting Springsteen’s career completely on hold for over a year, during which he was legally barred from recording any new music, from playing any live concerts—or even from playing any of his own songs in any public venue. Once Springsteen (successfully) settled his law suit with Apple, he gathered the members of his band and began nearly two years of work in the studio on what became Darkness on the Edge of Town.

Darkness is the pivotal album in the career of a rock artist who has made an entire career out of making each successive release a “pivotal album” in the sense of making a significant break with earlier styles, themes and sounds. But while all of Springsteen’s albums have been in this sense pivotal, Darkness can be said to be the most pivotal of all in terms of the way it indicated a dramatic shift in Springsteen’s sense of artistic consciousness and maturity; it also introduced a number of themes and formal tendencies that would occupy him in various ways throughout the rest of his career.

One of the many things that makes Springsteen’s albums different from most other albums is the fact that they are all conceived as “concept albums”—that is, rather than simply being a collection of individual songs, his albums are unified, with the different songs all dealing with specific ideas or concepts. As a result, if one goes back and examines each of the 10 tracks on Darkness , one discovers that they interact with each other (and with earlier Springsteen songs) in various ways, with each song examining or representing different aspects of the album’s central themes and motifs. Here, the basic unifying idea underlying the album is suggested by rich set of associations having to do with the title’s reference to a “darkness” existing somewhere just outside the boundaries of the familiar world (just as a warm up exercise, consider going through the album, locating the references to “darkness” and try to identify some of the ideas and concepts associated with this term—and how these are produced by the specific contexts of each song. ).

Darkness is further unified by Springsteen’s introduction of a set of related characters whose socio-economic backgrounds, personal experiences, beliefs, and shared sense of urgency about not allowing their circumstances to destroy them collectively add up to that of a single representative figure. Since the outset of his career Springsteen had been creating a series of “everyman” figures who would be consciously linked from album to album, with their changing circumstances being reflected in each successive album. Thus, DARKNESS can be seen as being specifically a continuation of the story that had unfolded in Springsteen’s previous (1975) album, Born to Run. The songs on BORN TO RUN told the stories of young men feeling stifled, frustrated and bewildered by a life that felt more like a cage than anything else; in that album’s title song, a narrator who spends his days on “the streets of a runaway American Dream” in a “town that rips the bones from your back/It’s a death trap, a suicide rap,” seeks companionship, escape, and a better life with a woman named Wendy, with “chrome-wheeled, fuel-injected” car being both the literal means of escape and a symbol of personal freedom, the road offering the same kind of promises that the “open road” has always offered Americans from the time of Huck Finn up through Kerouac’s hipsters (note the allusion to these figures at the conclusion of “Racing in the Streets”). In BORN TO RUN, even though a certain amount of fear begins to creep into the lyrics, these young men retain a sense of hope and faith that simply running away from their problems (a classic, arguably THE classic motif in American literature) is an option that can lead to a better life.

In DARKNESS, however, Springsteen—now 28 years old—picks up the story of the lives of these characters three years on down the road, so to speak. Which is to say that we are now given intimate, troubling glimpses into the lives of men who ran away--and who now find themselves running out of options.

The songs on DARKNESS, then, examine and give voice to a series of characters for whom hard times, frustration, isolation, and disillusionment have offered a harsh “wake up call” that has largely dispelled the romanticism, optimism and naiveté that set them off in search of “The Promised Land” in the first place. These carefully crafted lyrics, created in a style influenced now more by Hank Williams than Bob Dylan, provide listeners with plenty of hints and insights about what is responsible for the sense of desperation felt by most of these characters; throughout the album we witness their struggles to rise above the socio-economic situations that threaten to grind them down and break their spirits, their sense of isolation and inability to communicate with others, their desire for some measure of “control” (a key word in several of these songs). In songs like “Badlands,” “Racing in the Streets,” “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” “Prove It all Night,” we also observe their efforts to find alternatives to what’s happened to people around them—men who “start dying little by little, piece by piece.” Springsteen depicts these lives via the use of a series of familiar metaphors and symbols--most notably those of the car and the road, and of the “darkness” referred to in the album’s title—which are introduced into various stories and narrative contexts as a means of suggesting a wide range of specific emotional states, fears and longings, and other “meanings” and associations..

Note: most of these songs are presented from the perspective of first-person narrators—in effect, they are dramatic monologues delivered by characters who share certain traits and interests with their creator but who are also drastically different as well. Springsteen’s use of this form allows him to present the lives, voices, and beliefs of these characters with far greater subtlety and rich ambiguity than the typical rock forms, in which the narrator and singer are nearly always assumed to be essentially one and the same. On the other hand, a great deal of misunderstanding about Springsteen has been generated precisely by the fact that most rock fans aren’t used to making these sorts of distinctions between narrator and artist (this has led to analogous misunderstanding of the songs of Randy Newman and Tom Waits). At any rate, Springsteen’s use of the dramatic monologue form allowed him to display his wonderful ear for “street language”—the odd, vivid, slang and poetic idioms used by his narrators to express themselves; it also permits him to create a crucial “distance” between himself and his characters so that we can assess their viewpoints recognize features of their lives and attitudes, and make judgments about these things which the characters themselves don’t have access to (cf. the role of “dramatic irony” here).

Other tidbits.

Springsteen considered many different titles during long period of DARKNESS’S gestation. “AMERICAN MADNESS” (the title of an old Frank Capra film from the 30s) was among these.

The 3 year period that separates BORN TO RUN from DARKNESS was a difficult and frustrating period for Springsteen, who was kept out of the studio and away from touring for much of this period by the bitter legal struggle that took place between Springsteen and his former manager and producer, Mike Appel. But one positive thing that emerged out of this period was that, for the first time since he was 14, Springsteen had some time to himself--time to reflect and consider where he had been and where he wanted to go, musically and personally--and time as well to read books, see films, and to absorb a wider ranger of musical influences (the “adult” content and stripped down sound of C&W, the socio-political tranditions of Guthrie, Seeger, and other figures from American pre-Dyan folk music). In this regard, Jon Landau, Springsteen’s new manager and co-producer, was an enormous help as throughout this period he passed along a series of films, books, and albums that would decisively influence the rest of Springsteen’s career. It was Landau, for example, who first showed Springsteen the John Ford classic film version of THE GRAPES OF WRATH--an experience which Springsteen has often cited as offering him for the first time a clear vision of the kind of art he wanted to create.

It should also be pointed out that despite his personal difficulties, the period leading up to DARKNESS’s release was also a very productive time for Springsteen —he wound up writing over 50 songs for the DARKNESS album, which he then sifted down into the 10 songs he felt were most consistent with the vision he had in mind. This selection process was necessarily ruthless; among the songs he left off DARKNESS were a half dozen instant pop classics that he gave to other singers to cover (e.g., “Rendezvous” was given to Greg Kiln, “Fire” was first given to Robert Gordon and later became an even bigger hit for the Pointer Sisters,” “Because the Night” was given to Patti Smith, whose version became her first A.M. radio hit, “Hearts of Stone” and “Talk to Me” became highlights of Asbury Jukes third LP); there were also several other new songs such as “The River,” Independence Day,” “Sherri Darling,” and “Point Blank” that were later included on Springsteen’s next album, THE RIVER (1982).

Along with rock songs, films have always been important sources of inspiration for Springsteen, particularly those made by filmmakers like Ford, Sergio Leone who could depict almost identical situations dozens of times in dozens of different films--and yet make each of them different. Among the numerous films which helped shape Springsteen’s idea for DARKNESS were Terrence Malick’s 1974 film Badlands (see my discussion below), John Ford’s adaptation of Steinbeck’s THE GRAPES OF WRATH, and the film version of another Steinbeck classic, EAST OF EDEN-- whose depiction of the struggles of a young man trying to escape from the terrible power of his father were one of the inspirations for “Adam Raised a Cain.” Also important were the Sergio Leone “spaghetti Westerns” as well as John Ford’s earlier, “classic” Westerns (most notably, The Searcchers) which demonstrated the ways that genre artists could continually return to a relatively limited set of genre elements and yet make something new of them in each new cinematic context (cf. Springsteen’s use of cars here).

Some Notes and Commentary on Individual Songs:

In many ways, the album’s first song, “Badlands,” serves as a kind of overture for the rest of the album, a song in which the major themes and motifs of the album are introduced. The title alludes to the 1974 Terrence Mallick film which starred Martin Sheen (this role got him the lead in Coppola’s APOCALYPSE NOW) and Sissy Spacek and which was loosely based on the infamous 1958 killing spree of Charles Starkweather and his girlfriend; Springsteen later borrowed this storyline in the title song of his 1982 acoustic album, NEBRASKA. After you’ve gotten familiar with the entire album, go back and look at “Badlands” and see what topics, themes, and motifs introduced here are later taken up in later songs.

“Adam Raised a Cain”—although this song was specifically inspired by the film version of EAST OF EDEN, it also is more personally rooted in Springsteen’s own troubled relationship with his father. What’s the source of the tension existing here between father and son? Note the possible connections here between this song and later songs in the album, like “Factory,” which help provide a fuller picture of the father’s bitterness, or the line in “Racing in the Streets” about “Some guys just give up living, and start dying little by little piece by piece.”

“Racing in the Streets”—Note the disparity between what appears to be suggested by the song’s title (i.e., swaggering machismo, Martha and the Vandellas, the Beach Boys) and the slow, haunting, almost dirge-like quality of the sound here. Try and get inside this character’s mind and life—what do we know about him (check out the opening stanza)? What do we see and understand about this guy that he may not be able to recognize himself? What, finally, are we supposed to think and feel about this man? Note the reference here to his wife—who now “sits all alone on her daddy’s porch”—and the way this echoes the same scene in the first stanza of “Thunder Road” which opened BORN TO RUN.

“The Promised Land.” Is there a disparity here between what this man thinks about himself and his life, his hopes and fears, and the judgments we make about him? Why is the line “If I could take one moment into my hand” so revealing here—and how does it relate to other moments in others songs?

“Prove It All Night”—the titles suggests another macho display of sexual prowess, and in part this song is indeed that. But what ELSE is going on here? For instance, how does the opening line of the song—“I been working all day trying to get my hands clean”—not only suggest the literal (and limiting) nature of his personal circumstances, but also establishes something about the moral and psychological dilemmas he is facing?

“Darkness on the Edge of Town.” How does this song serve as a summation of everything that’s come before? How does it relate to earlier songs on the album? What’s the significance of the reference here to “Sonny”?

The Darkness Sessions—What they involved, and how Springsteen’s sense of the craft of making a studio album eventually resulted in work unlike any other in rock music..:

The legendary producer and music critic John Hammond—who signed Springsteen to Columbia Records in 1972 and who had earlier discovered and promoted figures ranging from Billie Holiday, Pete Seeger Big Joe Turner, and Bob Dylan (among many others)— has remarked that what most impressed him about Springsteen initially was his “sense of absolute dedication to his craft.” And indeed, throughout his long career Springsteen has retained arguably an unparalleled degree of devotion to craft even this craft continued to expand, mature, and deepen.

The Darkness recording sessions were among Springsteen’s most prolific. These were the first sessions where Bruce came into the studio and worked out his songs, as well as writing new songs in the studio. Bits and pieces of many of the unreleased songs from these sessions were worked into other songs that appear on Darkness and The River.

Knowing that the popular and critical success enjoyed by Born to Run would mean that his next album would be heavily scrutinized, Springsteen was determined to create an album that would justify the acclaim he’d already received while also announcing a new direction for his work. In other words, there was a lot of pressure, both external and self-generated, surrounding the creation of Darkness. During the album’s long, often excrutiating gestation period, Springsteen created dozens of songs that he recorded and then eventually discarded, as he gradually pared the new album down to 10 tracks. These included a number of songs that would appear on his next album, The River and that he performed during the triumphant Darkness tour (“Independence Day, “ “Point Blank,” "Sherry Darling," etc.). Moreover, even in the case of songs that were eventually included, Springsteen endlessly experimented with different versions , melodies, rhythms, and lyrics for his songs, almost as if he wouldn’t be satisfied until he had approached the song from every possible perspective.

Just how far Springsteen was willing to go in his search for an album that was as perfect as he could get it, can be gleaned from the meticulous account of the Darkness studio sessions provided by Charles R. Cross in “Spare Parts: Springsteen’s Studio Sessions.” Cross offers an enormous amount of useful information about these sessions, including documentation about the songs eventually released on the album and singles, as well as songs recorded hut never released. He further divides the unreleased songs into two categories: outtakes (completely recorded songs that were considered for release but never made it onto a record) and alternative tracks (including variant recordings, such as the rockabilly version of “Born in the USA” that Springsteen recorded during the Nebraska period), and reference tracks or alternative mixes of songs that have already been recorded but that are remised in the studio to create a different effect; as Cross notes, for each studio album there are literally thousands of these different mixes for each record, so he only provides information about those he felt were dramatically different from the released versions. These listings show just how prolific Springsteen is as a songwriter and arranger, and provide a much better insight into the breath and variety of his work.

The overall sense one gets from these accounts of the Darkness sessions is that the body of work he has officially released is just the tip of Springsteen’s creative iceberg—that he’s created a considerably more varied and body of work than could be deduced from hearing his studio albums. But the real revelation in Cross’s account is the album’s track history which tells us which of the different studio takes were eventually selected to appear on the album. Let’s run through some of what we find here: We learn, for example, that album version of “The Promised Land” required “only” 5 takes; where “Badlands” was take 23; Darkness on the Edge of Town,” “Streets of Fire” and Factory each required 28 takes, that’s a lot of takes, but they were only getting warmed up: ”Candy’s Room” and “Something in the Night” both were selected from take 42, “Racing in the Street” was take 46, and “Prove It All Night” take 49. This track history demonstrates just how grueling and uncompromising Springsteen was throughout these recording sessions. Obviously, it also indicates that these sessions produced a tremendous number of alternative takes—48 for “Prove It All Night” alone!


Along with Dylan, Neil Young, and (a different case) The Grateful Dead, Springsteen has been the most bootlegged performer in rock music. There’s several reason for this—first off, for many years it was almost impossible to see a live Springsteen performance unless one attended a show. In fact, during the first 20 years of his commercial career when Springsteen was developing the reputation as rock music’s greatest live performer on the basis of the triumphant Darkness or River tours, or the legendary earlier shows before the Born to Run hype made him famous—bootlegs videos were literally the only option (other than attending the show, of course) fans had for seeing Springsteen perform live. Not only were there no concert videos officially released (the first wasn’t until 1999!), but also no live television appearances (this policy didn’t change until 1992 when he made his live television debut on Saturday Night Live). And even after he did reluctantly agree to music videos in the mid 80s, these rarely featured live concert footage. Bootleg cassettes (and later bootleg CDs) also provided access to the enormous stockpile of material that Springsteen had recorded but weren’t used on his albums.

Fans were also aware that whether he was in a recording studio or performing in front of a live audience, Springsteen, like Dylan, rarely did the same version of a song twice—meaning there were frequently dozens of alternate takes of songs, many of them reputedly just as good if not better than the released versions.

With all this demand and so little “product” officially available, bootleggers have produced an enormous amount of illegally copied material over the years (for anyone interested, there are several comprehensive books that provide information about and rate each bootleg on the basis of sound quality, performance, etc.) The Springsteen pro-zine, Backstreets, even features reviews in each issue of the most significant recent bootleg releases. As can be expected, the quality of these boots varies wildly; increased sophistication by professional bootleggers have also meant that there has been a huge increase in both quality and availability of bootlegs of more recent Springsteen tours. The listings below are extremely selective and are mostly restricted to a few of the Darkness-related bootlegs I’ve picked up over the years.


Capitol Theater, Washington DC. September 19-21, 1978.. Black and White. 2 hours. The visuals are a bit grainy and the tape doesn’t include the entire selection of songs Springsteen performed during these shows, but the sound is excellent; more importantly, from the time the lights go out and the Roy Bittan piano opening to “Badlands” starts the show, Bruce is absolutely on fire for the entire show. Highlights include an incendiary version of the rarely performed “Streets of Fire,” one of the early performances of “Independence Day,” a show-stopping version of “Prove It All Night,” “Factory,” “Kitty’s Back” (long jam session), and the amazing concluding sequence of “Point Blank” (one of the earliest versions, with different lyrics and arrangement), “Because the Night,” and “Mona/She’s the One.” An excellent 3 CD audio bootleg of this show has been released under the title Piece de Resistance (see listing below).

Phoenix, 12-31-77. A bootleg of one of the first professionally-shot videos of a Springsteen performance. Includes only 4 songs, including “Badlands,” Prove It All Night (featuring a blazing opening guitar solo that later shows up on several documentaries), and the version of “Rosalita” that eventually aired in the mid-80s on MTV.

Largo, Maryland, 8-15-78. Color. 2 hours and 40 minutes (approximately). This may be the best of all the bootleg videos of Springsteen during the Darkness tour.


The Definitive Darkness Outtakes Collection (two discs; 2nd pressing, digitally remastered). E.St. Records. Includes an excellent series of liner notes that provides recording information and commentary for most of the songs. Disc One: Rendezvous, Break Out (a.k.a. All Night Long),Don’t Say No, Say Sons (a.k.a Down by the River); Factory (featuring David Lindley on violin), English Sons, Hearts of Stone, The Iceman, City at Night (a.k.a, Taxi Cab), I Wanna Be with You, Outside Lookin’ In, I’m Going Back, Candy’s Boy, Frankie, Janey Needs a Shooter, Badlands (with differently lyrics), Candy’s Room (instrumental), Talk to Me (instrumental), Don’t Look Back (instrumental). Disc Two: Don’t Look Back; Because the Night, The Promise, The Way, Spanish Eyes, Sherry Darling, Racing in the Street (harmonica version), The Fast Song, Fire, Get that Feeling, Something in the Night, Streets of Fire, Drive All Night, Badlands (instrumental).

The Iceman Cometh—Definitive Darkness Outtakes 1978, Vol 1.(no linger notes, no commentary, and no other recording information). First in a series of 3 discs released in this series (the others: THE WAY and THE PROMISE). Tracks: Streets of Fire, Ramrod, Drive All Night, Janey Needs a Shooter, Outside Looking In, I Wanna Be with You, Talk to Me (instrumental), The Iceman, Don’t’ Say No, Preacher’s Daughter, All Night Long, Factory, The Ballad, Taxi Cab, Down by the River, Groin’ Back.

Piece de Resistance. 3 CDs. Excellent quality audio version of one of the best shows from the Darkness tour (some of the recordings are from the same show that the Capitol Theater video draws from).


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