Bruce Springsteen

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Peter Knobler

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You think of Bruce Springsteen as a guy who can take care of himself in a scuffle, who would intimidate his way out of a fight rather than duke it out. Just nobody messes with him.

Maybe, on his home ground. Apparently not always.

Bruce has been hurt. You can hear it all over Darkness on the Edge of Town: title, opening cut, vocals, lyrics, production. He's running scared. (p. 67)

On Born to Run, Bruce was flying down streets he knew, a flawless escape. On Darkness, he's being chased. It's not an easy album to listen to; Born to Run seems innocent beside it. This record is trouble.

I was disappointed when I first heard it. Bruce uses all the same settings—night, cars, driving—and the music sounded so much the same. He quotes liberally from himself—chord changes, guitar riffs, vocal tone—and there was a chilling moment when I thought that, maybe, Born to Run really had been as far as he could go; it is, after all, one of the half dozen best albums in rock 'n roll history—an incredibly hard act to follow. But part of what Bruce is running from is exactly those expectations.

The pressure to be the mythic character, BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN, is enormous. Bruce has all but become one of his own characters, written in history, invulnerable. Pain never used to show on him. "For You," from his first album, came out as a cocksman's triumph rather than an admission of need. In "Born to Run" he rhymed "sadness" with "madness" and blew right on by. But now he is owning up to it, doing for desperation what he did for release. The effect is unsettling, then staggering.

"Badlands" opens the album with a head-on collision, an anthem. The elements are familiar but they don't offer Bruce much comfort. Rather than hiding on backstreets, he's spitting in their metaphorical face. Where once he tied faith between his teeth, now he trusts in nothing…. The anger is raw and fresh and completely unexpected. (p. 67)

["Racing in the Street"] is a chiller. Uptempo it would be a classic summer single; sung as a dirge, it is a difficult, painful revelation of life on the street with all the fun taken out of it. That he refers through chords and guitar licks to both Martha and the Vandellas ("Dancing in the Streets") and his own heart-on-the-sleeve epic "Rosalita" heightens an irony which one is neither prepared for nor quite willing to face.

In "The Promised Land," Bruce conjures an Armageddon he may himself create ("Sometimes I feel so weak I just want to explode"). "The Factory" seems a song to a life which Bruce doesn't know how to document well, but its solemn tone leaves you depressed enough to feel the next cut, "Streets of Fire," deep in your bones. This is the song of the album. It borrows from "Backstreets" but it delivers Bruce one step further. Abandoned, betrayed, he wanders in obvious pain and with no relief in sight. His trust is gone ("when you realize how they tricked you this time") and so is the camaraderie which made the entire Born to Run album so accessible, so special:

          I live now only with strangers
          I talk to only strangers
          I walk with angels that have no place.
          Don't look at my face….

This could be the core of it. People have been looking Bruce over like so much meat for the carving. Even out of the spotlight his life has been drastically altered, perhaps not for the better, and he is railing...

(This entire section contains 726 words.)

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at it. When he howls, "I'm strung out on the wire," you feel it….

The power of Bruce Springsteen has always been that he writes what he knows, and that he's so in touch with it that he makes you feel it too. Up to now it's been his exuberance, his gut knowledge that life was just great—run with him and yours would be, too. Darkness on the Edge of Town leads you unsuspecting into Springsteen's own life and lets you know, want to or not, that, as he says, "You want it, you take it, you pay the price." (p. 68)

Peter Knobler, "Wounded in the Badlands," in Crawdaddy (copyright © 1978 by Crawdaddy Publishing Co., Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), August, 1978, pp. 67-8.

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