The Heart of ‘Darkness’

Under an early autumn sky here in central New Jersey, Bruce Springsteen pointed north toward nearby Holmdel, where 33 years ago he began recording “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” likely the most important album of his notable career. Then, turning east, he said, “And I recorded ‘Nebraska’ five miles that way.” His birthplace, Long Branch, he added, is about a dozen miles from where he stood. On their first date, Mr. Springsteen said, he took Patti Scialfa, his wife of 19 years, on a drive down the nearby back roads to show her a home for retired circus animals.

Now 61 years old, Mr. Springsteen may have been alluding to his loyalty to the Garden State, but he also was relating how once he’s determined that something’s right, he stays with it.

He’s kept the core of his E Street Band together since 1974—the band that stood by him when, coming off his 1975 breakthrough album, “Born to Run,” he was embroiled in a lengthy legal dispute: In essence, he couldn’t release new music until a lawsuit with a former manager was settled. Incurring a huge debt, Mr. Springsteen and the band kept touring, then hunkered down in Holmdel to work on his new compositions. The battle, and Mr. Springsteen’s ultimate triumph, is depicted in the Thom Zimny documentary “The Promise: The Making of ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town,'” which has been presented at film festivals and on HBO. It’s part of a new six-disc “Darkness” boxed set that includes the original 1978 album, early drafts of what evolved into the album’s songs, previously unreleased tracks and two performance DVDs.

Hurt and embittered, a determined Mr. Springsteen used the three-year period between albums to re-examine his purpose as a songwriter and bandleader. He decided there’d be no big, brash “Born to Run II.”

“I tend to think that by the time we finished ‘Born to Run’ my thought process was moving forward—you know, ‘How do I not do that again?'” Mr. Springsteen said.

“I probably did start out trying to remake a Brill Building-influenced album,” he said, referring to the New York City home to many ’60s R&B and pop composers, some of whom provided songs for the Phil Spector productions that influenced “Born to Run.” “I hadn’t moved into my passion for country music or political or social music.” But, he added, “I didn’t want to be mistaken for a genre artist or neo-soul. I didn’t want to be neo- anything.”

“The lawsuit gave me a lot more time to reflect,” he said, sitting in his guesthouse, a crackling fire at his back. “By nature, I’m cautious in many ways. I knew I was playing with dynamite. I was suspicious of success and its potential to derail your inner life. It’s a huge distorting mirror. I had a pretty good self- preservation streak, but I had lots of fears.”

Though he’d been on the cover of Time and Newsweek in 1975, one of those fears was the possibility that he might soon be forgotten. “There was no cable TV, no electronic media, no newsstands filled with entertainment magazines,” he said of the mid-’70s. “The tyranny of the pop-culture media didn’t exist. You were a young kid and nobody gave a damn.”

He continued, “At that time, I didn’t feel I had the room to play around. I couldn’t be too casual. I felt like an adult doing my job. I was in pursuit of an adult voice and I was interested in an adult-type rebellion. It hadn’t been addressed.”

Mr. Springsteen leaned on what would become his greatest strength—narrative songwriting—and funneled his anxieties and concurrent willfulness into songs and performances so lean, harsh and direct that they remain startling more than three decades later. “Darkness” is an album in which its characters are angry, aggrieved and alienated, and yet when faced with a hopeless situation they hold on to hope. Though they doubt, they still want to believe, as did Mr. Springsteen way back then.

“It was like pulling a rubber band really, really tight, then leaving it tight,” he said.

Mr. Springsteen set aside the boyish tales and derivative sounds of “Born to Run.” Instead, he focused on supporting the complex emotions in his songs, which were built on simple unembellished chords and delivered with bite and innate power. On “Darkness,” the E Street Band is restrained until it must explode, and when it does Mr. Springsteen’s voice is a raw yowl. So is his guitar playing. I proposed that the album’s most affecting moments rise from Mr. Springsteen’s searing, whip-crack guitar solos. He’d have none of it.

“Look, I was the fastest gun in central New Jersey,” he said. “When I was a kid I made my living as a guitar player frying brains and making 20 bucks from the club owner. But I set out to become a songwriter and a bandleader. I was much more interested in canvases of sound—painting the big picture lyrically and developing the sound of the band.”

The new “Darkness on the Edge of Town” box includes a video, recorded last December, of Mr. Springsteen and the E Street Band playing the original album’s 10 songs. His guitar playing on those tunes still expresses defiance and rage.

Risking his career, Mr. Springsteen became who he remains: a distinctive songwriter with the ability to represent the aspirations and frustrations of working men and women who hold tight to the American dream—John Steinbeck with a Fender Telecaster. In subsequent years, he created “Nebraska,” “The Ghost of Tom Joad” and the underappreciated “Lucky Town,” all of which stem in their ways from “Darkness,” an album in which a grown man who had experienced success and stood on the precipice of elimination dug in to say what he wanted to, all else be damned.

“‘Darkness,'” Mr. Springsteen said, “made very clear what we were after: music built strong enough to be about sustaining things—family, your job. Things that are always relevant.”

As for changing his voice and sound after having achieved success, he said, “You don’t risk, you don’t get.”

Mr. Fusilli is the Journal’s rock and pop music critic.

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