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."
This story is from the July 13th, 1978 issue of Rolling Stone.
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