The titles came to him first. They were evocative, bold, full of B-movie swagger: "Racing in the Street," "Badlands," "Streets of Fire." The hard part was writing songs that could live up to their promise – but Bruce Springsteen was 27 years old, and he had plenty of time. Even as a legal clash with his former manager barred him from the studio for months, Springsteen stayed up all night in his rented farmhouse just off a Jersey highway, writing song after song, draft after draft: Should the guy in "Racing in the Street" drive a '32 Ford or a '69 Chevy? Should the girl in "Candy's Room" have "pictures of her heroes" on her wall or "pictures of her saviors"? "I didn't have any problem spending hours and hours in pursuit of what I was after," he says now.
The ultimate result, to be reissued this month in a lavish six-disc box set, was Darkness on the Edge of Town – a lean, stark album that produced some of his most enduring live tunes, and established the themes that would shape much of his subsequent work.
Springsteen had just gone from cult hero to anointed rock savior with Born to Run's tales of romance, redemption and getting the hell out of New Jersey – but when he got off tour in 1976, he took the Garden State Parkway back to the only home he knew. Thirty-four years later, he's still there. "I was looking for a haven," Springsteen says, perched on a wooden stool by a crackling fireplace in a modest guesthouse on the edge of his vast, verdant property in Colts Neck – five miles south of his Darkness-era farmhouse in Holmdel. "It was something I knew – I was provincial by nature. When we came back, we sort of hunkered back down, which, in retrospect, was not such a bad thing."
In Jersey, Springsteen couldn't get away from his past – a theme that spilled over to his lyrics: If Born to Run offered fantasies of escape, Springsteen's characters on Darkness sought the strength to stand their ground. "I was looking toward the connection with where I'd grown up and where I'd come from," he says. "I was frightened of losing that because of my circumstances." A lyric from "The Promise," one of the best songs Springsteen wrote for Darkness, hints at his thoughts: The narrator wins a big race, "but… inside I felt like I was carryin' the broken spirits/Of all the other ones who lost."
He began to confront hard truths in his lyrics – from America's class system to the bitterness that can pass for love between fathers and sons. His relationship with his dad – a bus driver and factory worker who didn't support his son's early musical ambitions – had already fueled years of tragicomic stage raps ("There were two things that were unpopular in my house: one was me, and the other was my guitar"). It became the core of two of Darkness' most personal songs, "Factory" and "Adam Raised a Cain."
Springsteen cut "The Promise" from the album – feeling it was too "self-referential" – but the studio version is finally coming out in the new box set, along with 20 other lost songs and alternate versions, from the hand-clapping frat rock of "Ain't Good Enough for You" to the sweeping Sixties pop of "Someday (We'll Be Together)." As detailed in the documentary The Promise: The Making of "Darkness on the Edge of Town," Springsteen wrote dozens of songs in an endless procession of styles before he found the core of the album. "I hadn't formulated the record conceptually," he says. "I found that out as I went along and began to choose and shape. To see what I didn't want to do, I had to do it. I had to make the albums I didn't want to put out."
You say in the documentary that, more than rich, more than famous, more than happy, you wanted to be great. But were you anywhere near happy while you were working on Darkness?
No [laughs]. So I didn't have to worry about that part.
You were on a vampire schedule while you were writing the record, sleeping until 4 p.m. – that kind of isolated state doesn't sound healthy.
I'm an alienated person by nature, always have been, still am to this day. It continues to be an issue in my life, in that I'm always coming from the outside, I'm always operating in distance, and I'm always trying to overcome my own internal reticence and alienation – which is funny, because I throw myself the opposite way onstage. But the reason I do that is because while the stage and all those people are out there, the abyss is under my heels, and I always feel it back there. I've accepted that as just my nature, and it's given me the ability to write a "Rosalita" or "The Rising" or "Waitin' on a Sunny Day" or "Nebraska" or "Straight Time" or "The Ghost of Tom Joad." You can't write those without having had at least a taste of the abyss. It's allowed me to have an emotional breadth and subject matter in my work that is very wide, but then you also have to live with it [laughs].
Was it music 24/7 for you at that point in your life?
I was extremely intellectually curious and constantly exposing myself to books and new things. I started to do a lot of reading. I did study a lot, just for pleasure. But at that age, my life was 100 percent music, and I had a very distorted relationship with it. It was my one shot at redemption – redemption from what? I couldn't tell you. A thousand things. But it was my life preserver. At the time, working and playing made me happy, but the thing that was the most difficult was that I was very drifty. I didn't have a place, I never felt at home, even when I was home. I had no inner sense of home. The closest I could get to it was the band and playing. Whenever I wasn't doing those things, I was spiritually and emotionally wandering, really adrift. I couldn't get my feet on anything solid.
You were 26 years old – you'd escaped school, 9-to-5 jobs, all of that. And here you were facing guys in suits and ties, having to give depositions in a lawsuit against your manager. How did that affect you emotionally?
It was so bad, emotionally. You were totally caught in the system of all those things, and as a musician, particularly when you're young, you're off the grid, you're out of sight, out of mind. I didn't pay a penny of income tax until I was on the cover of Time and Newsweek. Some guy must have seen me and said, "Who is that? Whoever that guy is, he hasn't paid any income tax," and neither had anybody else in the band, so we all got stuck. The collision of our world with "the real world," the business world, is a big, big, defining moment. You realize, "I'm going to have to negotiate these places, and all of my tools are useless. Everything I've learned, everything I know, everything I'm good at is useless in this world. And this world scares me a lot." I'm 22 when I'm signing all my agreements, and I'm 26 when I'm going through this thing, and I'm by myself. My parents had moved to California. They were 3,000 miles away, and they're living their own life. I had friends, but it was very, very frustrating. It was quite frightening at the time.
The outtakes from Darkness are soul- and Sixties-pop-influenced. How did you get from there all the way to the sound of Darkness?
I didn't want to be pegged as a revivalist, so I was hesitant to wear my influences too clearly on my sleeve at the moment. If you listen to the two CDs we put out, the influences are all over, there's soul, there's Brill Building, there's all kinds of things, and it's extremely melodic, the arrangements are changing keys and moving. In that way, it really slid out of Born to Run. But on Born to Run, I had a theme that tied it together, and this material slips more into something like we did on The River. "OK, that would be a great song to play in a bar, this is a great neo-soul song." But I wasn't trying to be a neo-soul singer, or neo-anything. I said, "No, I'm trying to find a voice, a voice that's singular and feels of this moment," and when I began to move toward the Darkness material, which is not super-melodic, it really begins our folk-based rock, going back to blues and folk structures. I was not trying to be really melodic, because that immediately pulls you into the pop world. I was trying to create this mixture, this sort of rock-folk music that stretches back all the way to Woody Guthrie and country music and up through the Animals. It was thematically influenced by punk music and the times. It was 1977, so there were tough times. . . .
Like now. It was another time that people felt their kids weren't going to have it as good as they did.
Absolutely. The lights were going out on the Christmas tree at the White House [by '79], right? "No Christmas lights this year!" [Laughs] So you were living in a time where there was going to be no Christmas.
"No Christmas" – that's the alternate title for the record.
That should have been it [laughs].
How did you start writing about your father on "Factory" and "Adam Raised a Cain"?
I don't know if kids care as much about their parents as people as they should until they're in their late 20s, at best. They're furniture until then, and as a parent, you want to be a sturdy piece of furniture if you can. I was beginning to realize a part of me was going to keep a leg in my history, and that my history was tied to my parents' experience, and my experience growing up. That was a mystery to me, and I was very interested in beginning to investigate that mystery. Suddenly I recognized there was a life lived here when I was a child – there were several lives lived here. Those lives impacted my life tremendously, and yet I've also had the unusual experience of escaping the tethers of the hardest of their circumstances. That gave me a position to reflect and observe from. All artists are psychologically and emotionally driven to tell their stories. I'm not so sure we choose the stories – they choose you. We don't ever completely understand the things that drive us, but I do believe that a good deal of the thrust of the direction of the choices I made, when I had a choice about where my life was going to go, was back in deep pursuit of the mysteries of the past in order to find out "Who am I, who am I going to be, where's my future?"
You were still very young – how much distance did you have from that adolescent conflict with your dad?
I had a good distance from it at the time, but I'd also say I generalized that relationship. Our actual relationship was probably more complicated than how I presented it. Those songs were ways that I spoke to my father at the time, because he didn't speak and we didn't talk very much. I think if you weren't really close with someone, particularly children, the way they become close with that person is you take on their personality, you take on an imitation. The subjects I was drawn to, the issues I was moved to investigate, the clothes I wore, wear . . . when I went to work, I really went to work in my dad's clothes, and it became a way, I suppose, that I honored him and my parents' lives, and a part of my own young life. And then it just became who I was.
As you moved into the Darkness material, your lead guitar stepped forward in a way that I'm not sure it has before or since. What was it about your second voice through that lead guitar that resonated for you at that point?
I originally made my living as a guitarist for many, many years. I wasn't known as a singer, I wasn't known as a songwriter, I was basically known as a frontman, and primarily a guitar player, the first eight or nine years of my life here on the Jersey Shore. I was the Man [laughs]. I got very, very good at it, and it was where I thought that my fortunes would lie at one point. But then when I hit my early 20s, I started to say, "Really, I want to summon up a world," and songwriters do that. There was a select group of guitarists that do it, and those are the very, very, very, very rare exceptions – Hendrix or the Edge, you can pick them out – that manifest a world with their guitar.
So I knew I was very good, but I didn't know if I was that good: "Do I have a vision with my guitar?" That's what I was interested in, and I said, in the end, "Well, I don't think so." I said, "Man, I can play the shit out of this thing, but I don't know if I have that." I got signed in the pack of new Dylans – Elliott Murphy, Loudon Wainwright, John Prine. Billy Joel a year later. But I could turn around, kick-start my Telecaster and burn the house down. It was my ace in the hole.
But if I want to call up a world, that's songwriting, for me. If you're Frank Sinatra or Elvis, you can call it up with your voice. If you're not, you'd better think of something else. I felt I'd been gifted with a very, very high-octane journeyman's capabilities. I felt if I put those things together really thoughtfully and with enormous will and vitality, I can turn all of that into something that transcends what I felt were my modest abilities. The center of it was songwriting, so I delved into that with everything I had.
The guitar on Darkness came around because the music had moved to a somewhat less urban area, and I said, "There will probably be less saxophone, that makes room for a little more guitar-playing." The sax is warm and melodic, the way we've used it, and we use it very orchestrally. If I wanted something that was just going to be nasty and burn, that's the guitar. For that group of material, I wanted the aggression, I wanted the harshness of the guitar, and I got a chance to play.
Until Brendan O'Brien came along on "The Rising," the rhythm guitars never got that loud on your records.
This would be Steve's [Van Zandt] ax to grind if he was here. It was just a choice. We had a huge keyboard presence. When Roy [Bittan] entered on Born to Run, I wrote all those Born to Run songs on the piano, but Roy, in the end, his attack and formulations of what I showed him really created a very, very unique sound, and if people hear that today, they go, "That sounds like the E Street Band." So that became very, very powerful. Usually, when something like that happens, the first thing I do is I move away from it, because then you're just sounding like yourself [laughs].
But in the film in the box set of you guys playing Darkness at the Paramount Theater in Asbury Park last year, the guitars are louder than ever.
The band is a more aggressive band today than it was when we were in our 20s. We were still little boys, you know, in truth. If you go back and you watch old footage of us – and we're playing the stuff great on the DVD, stuff from Phoenix – then you move up to the performance from last year, it's better, it's just better. We're a band that has never lost their focus from when we hit the stage, so now you have this collection of years, which we gather instead of try to deny, you have the power of the oncoming train that's chasing you now, right at your back, you can hear that whistle blowing, my friend [laughs], so it's now or never. We've doubled down on now or never, which we did in the beginning anyway. Bob Clearmountain mixed the new performance and did a great job. I said, "You've got to turn the guitars up," and he mixed it once. I went back and said, "Mix it again and turn all the guitars up," and that's what he did.
You get a great sense of your friendship with Steve Van Zandt in that documentary. We've heard you sing about it on "Bobby Jean" – "We liked the same music, we liked the same bands, we liked the same clothes" – but what was the nature of your bond?
Just music, it was just about music. We're each other's best audience – everything he did I thought was funny. Steve';s incredibly smart. He was the other guy who came out of this area, as far as I know – with very little education – who's simply very, very smart in many ways. Your friendships, often, you're driven toward that intelligence, and your minds are going [buzzing noise] together. He felt about music the way I felt about it: "This is actually the only shit that matters, and don't let anybody tell you different." There's a moment in your life when you say, "There's this, or we die, my friend." And so there was another guy in the area who understood that, it's not this, or seeing my girlfriend on Friday night – no, it's this or nothing. That extremism was very valuable at its time, and continues to be invaluable today, as long as it's tempered so you can have a life. But we've corralled that energy in a way, and we used it well, and we still use it well. We do no half measures. When it's on, it's all on. That hasn't changed – these guys are hitting 60, and that hasn't changed. Steve and I, I walked in and looked at him for the first time and he looked at me, and it was one of those moments of "I know you."
There's a lot of romantic calamity going on in the unreleased songs. Was it a genre exercise or autobiographical?
It was a genre exercise. A lot of it was just trying to write a clever lyric, because I liked how the idea of the Brill Building was "OK, we're going to write a breakup song, or the girl, she won't talk to the guy. You can't satisfy her. Go!" I was having an enormous amount of fun with the toolbox of rock & roll, all the things that were already sort of in there. I'd write something to hear Clarence [Clemons] play the sax, and if you write well enough, what you end up with has nothing to do with whatever its initial spark was.
There's a reproduction of your song notebooks included in the box. When you look in the notebooks and you see the title "Badlands" and a bunch of not-so-great lyrics that don't end up in the final song – did you know that all these lousy drafts would eventually lead to a classic song?
I never said, "Maybe I'm going to write a classic." I said, "Maybe I'm going to write something I can stand to sing and have other human beings hear." I wanted to write something that just doesn't embarrass me. I was sort of praying for that. Of course, at the same time, there's some part of you where you want to be great and you want to make records that have the same impact as the records that enriched your life so deeply: "Oh, man, if I could only deliver that, I could live with myself for another day or two." They sort of went ahead and put a semblance of the notebook out with this package. I didn't realize that's what they were doing, and in the past, I would never have allowed it, because I would have been too embarrassed, because there's a lot of bad writing and bad verses of purple prose. But it was what I was drawing from … B movies … there was a certain kind of teenage poetry, I guess.
Yeah, and films, those were my influences, and I would just write down anything, and then I would come back later and I would edit. "OK, I can't sing that, but maybe I could sing a version of that here, I could sing the first half of that.'' When you pick a song title like "Racing in the Street," that's a hard song to write. But that was sort of the local culture of Asbury in the Seventies, which was still deeply enmeshed in car culture. If you went to the Stone Pony, it was a constant circle of souped-up muscle cars on Saturday and Sunday. Once again, I sort of stood outside of it, I was hitchhiking, I didn't have a car! But I wanted one real bad.
So I came up with titles, and I went in search of songs that would deserve the title. "Badlands," that's a great title, but it would be easy to blow it. But I kept writing and I kept writing and I kept writing and writing until I had a song that I felt deserved that title. Same with "Darkness on the Edge of Town," I had that title and said, "Well, I'd better come up with something that deserves that title." That's what I was always very, very good at – I didn't have any problem thinking really hard about what I was doing. Any other pressing questions?
Was Candy a hooker, or what?
Does it matter, does it really matter? [Laughs] I'll never tell.
This story is from the November 25, 2010 issue of Rolling Stone.