At the music hall in Boston in late May, Bruce Springsteen begins a song in almost total darkness, a single blue spotlight faintly limning the singer during the quiet opening minutes of "Thunder Road." It's a magic moment, avoiding pretentiousness only because it works. Springsteen has carefully cultivated the Method actor's idiosyncratic timing, added a professional street character's sense of the dramatic, a dancer's knack for picaresque tableaux, and wrapped the whole package in explosive vulnerability and the practiced pose of a tender, punky hood. Thus the upcoming, split-second move from singular near-silence into vehement, resounding rock & roll as the band joins in-a strategy picked up from R&B groups and one which Springsteen will repeat all night–is a surprise only to the uninitiated, a delicious treat to the aficionado. The sound of the bass drum is so loud that the girl on my left literally clutches her heart. Tonight has an air of expectancy–one may say even privilege. There's an intensity present, a premonition that this is where the best music in America might well be happening in the next few hours, and the hope that it may be true. It is. Between songs, Springsteen practically becomes a member of the audience. He prowls the edge of the stage, shaking hands and talking to those ecstatic fans who, by standing on their seats, can lean forward and touch him. He's an easy mark. After "Born to Run," when the crowd offers him a tremendous ovation, he subverts the applause by holding up his guitar as if it were some communal instrument of magic, something which he alone does not own. All of a sudden, I realize that we are making this glorious noise not for the pride of one man but for the power of rock & roll.
Backstage, Bruce Springsteen is so shy and unassuming you could mistake him for his own roadie. Since he's shaved his beard, few people seem to recognize him immediately, a fact that producer Jon Landau verifies by saying that, during the making of Darkness on the Edge of Town, Springsteen could walk the streets of New York City totally unnoticed. Now, sipping a Pepsi and making everyone feel at home, he appears both eager to get people's reactions to the concert and LP and anxious to avoid drawn-out analytical questions about What It All Means. The notoriety of those Time and Newsweek cover stories about Born to Run still seems to haunt him somewhat, but like a tired, albeit polite, host who might secretly wish he could postpone all discussion until things cool out a bit, he's a model of professional and personal courtesy.
Springsteen and I first met in 1973, right before his first record, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J., came out. Tonight, I'm aware that this friendship gives me an edge – that instead of giving me a formal interview, he'd probably rather just talk – and I'm more than a little uneasy about it. When the tape recorder is turned on, both of us are careful not to cross a certain line. I'm glad to see him, but wish the circumstances were different. He seems to feel the same way.
Springsteen laughs when I ask him if it's true that he once said people riding in cars were his genre, and that he'd like to begin every song with the same line or image. And often seems to.
"Oh, yeah," he says. "During the record, I think Jon [Landau] said, 'What's all this about these cars?' I think we were doing 'Prove It All Night,' and it had a different first verse. But it [the car imagery] is just a general thing that forms the action in a particular way. The action is not the imagery, you know. The heart of the action is beneath all that stuff. There's a separate thing happening all the time. I sort of always saw it as the way certain people make certain kinds of movies."
Like detective movies and westerns?
"That's always how I saw the songs. They always had a sort of drive–in quality to them." Springsteen is animated now, smiling, punctuating his sentences with his hands. "Like I wasn't really going for – in a way, I was, aiming for the big Hollywood opening, but they really had more of a drive-in quality. Which is what I wanted because that's where I wanted to work. Plus I'd gotten into seeing movies. I saw The Grapes of Wrath on TV, which I used to turn off."
I shake my head in mock sorrow and horror. Springsteen breaks up.
"That's a terrible thing to say, but I always remember turning it off and turning on something that was in color. Then I realized it was a stupid thing to do because one night Jon and I watched it, and it opened up a whole particular world to me. It was very interesting, just a way to watch movies–just a way to observe things, period. Over the past year or two, I got into all the John Ford westerns and seeing just how he made his particular movies."
Sometimes Ford and other auteur directors remade the same movie with a slightly different emphasis, I suggest.
"Yeah, and that had a big influence on the way I approached my own work. I loved all those movies, you know. I just felt real close to that stuff."
So close, in fact, that he and Landau, while trying to come up with a name for the new album, jokingly flipped through the film–titles index of Andrew Sarris' classic text, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968. Springsteen's choice was American Madness; Landau's, History Is Made at Night.
Bruce Springsteen credits Jon Landau as being "a big help to me. He helped me see things – to see into things – and somehow it would come out in the songs. It's hard to explain. There's a certain little consciousness barrier that gets broken down. What happens in a funny sense is if you grow up in a particular house where the concept of art is twenty minutes in school every day that you hate, and there's no books, no music, there's nothing – well, until you bump into someone who grew up in a house that had a lot of books and different stuff, it's [difficult]. That's a problem for a lot of people – a lot of my friends. You just don't bump into [anyone who's] going to make you more able to use whatever brains you've got.
"That's why the importance of rock & roll was just incredible. It reached down into all those homes where there was no music or books or any kind of creative sense, and it infiltrated the whole thing. That's what happened in my house, you know."
A mutual friend told me that Springsteen had said that the songs on Darkness on the Edge of Town are about "people who are going from nowhere to nowhere." I wonder if this is correct.
"Yeah, that's what I always thought. That's why a lot of the action always takes place around cars. It's like everybody's always in transit. There's no settling down, no fixed action. You pick up the action, and then at some point–pssst!–the camera pans away, and whatever happened, that's what happened. The songs I write, they don't have particular beginnings and they don't have endings. The camera focuses in and then out."
Springsteen says that he recorded thirty songs for the new LP and then made his final selection on the basis of "those I felt were the most important for me to get out. I wanted to put out stuff that I felt had the most substance and yet was still an album."
One of his best new songs is "The Promise," which remains unreleased. I ask why.
"Because too many people were interpreting it to be about the lawsuit. [Springsteen and former manager/producer Mike Appel sued each other, but settled out of court last summer.] I wrote it before there was a lawsuit . . . I don't write songs about lawsuits."
We talk for a while about the inordinate amount of time it seems to take Springsteen to make a record. He's developed a keen sense of humor about this.
"The main thing is you owe your best. That's how I feel toward myself. I just couldn't understand why people would rush to get out an album by a particular date and then regret it afterward. I mean, a date is just a date, except to the machine kind of thing.
"I was at the Spectrum [in Philadelphia] the other night, and some kids ran backstage and said, 'Hey, that one was good, it was worth the wait,' and that makes it for me, you know. I've never had a kid come up to me and say, 'Hey, what were you doing all that time?' or, 'What took you so long? I don't get it.' That's how it rings true for me. That's the big important connection – you see what matters to the kids. They want to have the stuff, but if it's not the best you can do, it's not worth doing. Not for me, anyway."
What about "Factory"?
"I wrote that song in about half an hour. See, that's the funny thing – the album took a long time, but most of the songs were written real fast. It was just figuring out what to do with them. 'Factory' – that's like everybody's old man or something."
I mention that there are a couple of songs about fathers on Darkness on the Edge of Town. Springsteen looks thoughtful.
"Yeah," he says. "Yeah, there are. I wrote three songs that had to do with that, and one didn't get on. And that might have been the best one, but it just didn't fit. It's a song called 'Independence Day.' We've never played it, but it was a ballad, and we had too many slow songs. So . . ."
He leans forward: "But 'The Promise' and 'Independence Day.' Those were two that I got that'll definitely be on the next record. Which should be about another three years." We both laugh.
Many of the characters in the songs on Bruce Springsteen's new album appear to be trapped in a state of desperation so intense that they must either break through into something better (or at least into something ambiguous) or break down into madness, murder and worse. Darkness on the Edge of Town seems to be about the high cost of romantic obsession for adults, not teenagers ("Mister, I ain't a boy, no, I'm a man" instead of the wonderful but more sentimental "'Cause tramps like us, baby we were born to run"), and while the LP offers hope, it's also Springsteen's blackest – though probably best – work.
Springsteen himself says: "My songs are all action songs. They're action, you know. All my songs are about people at that moment when they've got to do something, just do something, do anything. There's no half way in most of the songs because I don't approach what I do in that way. There's just no room to compromise. I think, for most musicians, it has to be like life or death or else it's not worth it. That's why every night we play a real long time, and we play real hard. I want to be able to go home and say I went all the way tonight – and then I went a little further.
"My whole life, I was always around a lot of people whose lives consisted of just this compromising – they knew no other way. That's where rock & roll is important, because it said that there could be another way, you know. That's why I write the kind of songs I do, why they have a particular kind of immediacy. As you go along, I think you have to deal more directly with whatever's confronting you because that's the only way to get across.
"It's real hard to talk about the record because what I have invested in it-I'm not talking about money-what I have invested is so much . . . !"
It strikes me that Darkness on the Edge of Town is less urban than many of his albums, especially The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle. Springsteen agrees.
"The stuff I always felt closest to was the small-town kind of stuff, because that's the way I grew up. And I thought about the things I liked best about the last record, what was the truest. Plus that's where I live – I don't live in New York. So when I wrote 'Racing in the Street,' that's like home. And 'Darkness on the Edge of Town.' 'The Promise' was, too. That's home stuff, you know.
"And the tone of the songs. The saxophone's a very urban instrument, and when Clarence plays it, it's got that warm, human kind of thing. On some of the songs, it collided with the texture or just the particular character of what was happening in a funny way. You can make it work – it worked on 'Born to Run' and it works on 'Prove It All Night' – but it's tricky. With the saxophone, there's no distance – that thing, it's right up to your face. But the guitar has always been a little cooler instrument, and the tone of the songs was a little cooler, so I played more guitar on this record than I did the last time. Whatever's functional, you know."
Backstage, Springsteen looks particularly boyish. Tired but pleased. He hooks a foot under the bottom rung of his chair and tilts it back and forth. Onstage, he's like an exuberant but dreamy montage of every rock & roll and film star whose picture ever graced your wall: Montgomery Clift, James Dean, Elvis Presley, Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, et al. The collective resemblance is uncanny. Now that he's conquered rock & roll, can the movies be far behind? (Those close to him say he's thinking about it.) Bob Dylan figuratively replaced James Dean, and it's a better-than-even bet that Bruce Springsteen could succeed both of them.
The interview is over, but I can't resist telling Springsteen that he seems to have as much loyalty to his fans as they do to him.
"You've got to have that," he says. "These people work all week and a lot of times wait in line for ten hours or some incredible amount of time. I mean, I go to shows–it's hard to go to a show. You can get bonked by somebody sitting next to you, or you don't know what's happening-it's totally disorienting. It's like you're stepping out there a little bit, you know.
"The kid, he's doing his bit. He's forking over his bucks, he's coming down. You've got to make sure he can come down, sit in his seat and not get blown up. That's your responsibility to the crowd, and that's the most important thing. That's much more important than anything.
"You can never take it for granted. I feel that very strongly. For the first four years, I had an attitude-I went into every place expecting it to be empty. So whoever was there was a big plus. I was glad they were there, and we played our best to whoever was there, always. You just don't lay back in this band, you know. That just doesn't happen. That's why people come down to see us-because something more is going to happen. Something–just somehow, someway.
"You've got to look into some of these people's faces. It's very important to have that contact because you get such a feeling. Sometimes after the show the kids'll wait out back, and that's the best part. It's like Christmas or something. They don't take it lightly, so you have no right to, either. It's something that I've never done and I never will do. I'll quit before I do that.
"The whole idea is to deliver what money can't buy. That's the idea of going out there. You don't go out there to deliver seven dollars and fifty cents 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."