A Map of the Future: Bruce Springsteen’s “Darkness on the Edge of Town” at 30

(In 2008, the Friends of the Springsteen Collection at the Asbury Park Public Library asked me to write a piece for their website commemorating the 30th anniversary of “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” originally released June 2, 1978. Here is that piece as it appeared on the Friends website. Eventually, the piece was published with updates in 2012 in Eric Meola’s book “Streets of Fire: Bruce Springsteen in Photographs and Lyrics 1977-1979” (It/HarperCollins). The Bruce Springsteen Special Collection has been housed at Monmouth University in New Jersey since 2011. – Joyce Millman)


“Here be dragons.” According to legend, medieval map-makers used that phrase to signal the dangers of unexplored realms. In 1978, Bruce Springsteen drew a map and wrote “here be dragons” on it – except his warning read, “Darkness on the Edge of Town.”

The “darkness” haunts this album like a living, often fire-breathing, presence. On the title track, “dreams are found and lost” within its shadows. On “Streets of Fire,” when Springsteen yowls, “In the darkness, I hear somebody call my name,” it’s as if his anguished character has imagined the voice of darkness itself. On “Adam Raised a Cain,” the narrator is swallowed up by an abyss of adolescent pain: “In the darkness of your room, your mother calls you by your true name/ You remember the faces, the places, the names/ You know it’s never over/ It’s relentless as the rain.” “Darkness” has many meanings on the album. It’s temptation and salvation. It’s what we desire and what we fear. It’s a crucible through which our true selves are revealed. It’s the sin we hide deep in our souls.

In the 1998 book “Songs,” Springsteen wrote that he envisioned the characters of “Darkness” as “a community under siege” from the emotional and financial struggles of working-class life. Thirty years after the album’s June 2, 1978 release, Springsteen is still guided by his old map, still squinting at the darkness on the edge of town. His most recent album “Magic” (2007) returns to a community under siege, but, this time, the siege is literal. On “Magic,” the darkness takes the monstrous shape of governmental arrogance, and the toll of that arrogance hangs over the Springsteenian Anytown landscape like a soul-chilling fog. The gypsy biker is returning home in a flag-draped coffin. There are bodies hanging in the trees. Our own worst enemy has come to town.

Through the prism of “Magic,” we can now see that “Darkness on the Edge of Town” was Springsteen’s great transitional and transformative album. It broached thematic territory to which he would return again and again: the struggle to live up to the promise of our better natures as individuals and as a society. And, musically, it charted a new course that he would follow for the rest of his career.

Springsteen’s first three albums, “Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.” (1973), “The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle” (1973) and “Born to Run” (1975), were big, tumultuous blends of eclectic rock/jazz/soul orchestrations, cascading boardwalk poetry and technicolor turnpike psychodrama. These records owed a debt to ’60s radio, Bob Dylan and Martin Scorsese’s operatic vision of Italian-American manhood, “Mean Streets.” But “Darkness” was something else entirely, a break with the past so sharp and unsentimental it looked more like an escape. 

Take the album cover, for a start. The scraggly-bearded scamp of the previous records was gone, replaced by an unsmiling, (relatively) clean-shaven Springsteen gazing straight into the camera, sleepy-eyed and defiant. Dressed like vintage Brando or James Dean in a white T shirt and black leather jacket, Springsteen is incongruously posed against faded-pink flowered wallpaper and graying Venetian blinds in an old house. On the front and back cover shots, photographer Frank Stefanko positions Springsteen in a nook right up against the blinds, so he seems too large for that small, stifling space. The message is clear: You can’t go home again. And indeed, Springsteen had left home. “Darkness” followed a messy legal emancipation from manager and producer Mike Appel; it was the first album made solely with new producer/mentor Jon Landau, the former rock critic who had proclaimed him the “rock and roll future” a few years earlier.

The mood of the music inside the album sleeve matches those broody, yet vulnerable, photos. On his previous records, Springsteen surrounded himself with a gang of lovable losers: Hazy Davy, Killer Joe, Spanish Johnny, Crazy Janey, the Magic Rat. But his lyrics for “Darkness” contain no such cameraderie. His characters here are anonymous, intensely alone and isolated.

“I live now, only with strangers/ I talk to only strangers/ I walk with angels that have no place,” Springsteen sings on “Streets of Fire.” Clarence Clemons’ sax solos, the sound of warmth and kinship on previous albums, only appear on three of the 10 cuts on “Darkness.” Springsteen’s vocals are gruff and growly, the guitar solos savage and scalding. Danny Federici’s dirty-blues organ riffs on “Prove it all Night” and “Adam Raised a Cain” hark back to the rumbling working-class anthems of the early Animals. The stately ballad “Factory” and the harmonica-driven “The Promised Land” reflect Springsteen’s new (and lasting) interest in Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie and other country and folk musicians. Lean where “Born to Run” was grand, “Darkness” jump-starts the straight-ahead, roots-rock sound that would hit full throttle on Springsteen’s fifth album, “The River” (1980), the studio release that best captures the spontaneity of the E Street Band in concert. 

With “Darkness,” Springsteen also unveiled a stunning new songwriting style, with language that was newly spare and stripped-down, but no less vivid or poetic for its terseness. The songs were no longer exclusively set on urban turf. “Lights out tonight/ Trouble in the heartland” goes the first line of the first song, “Badlands,” and from the “rattlesnake speedway in the Utah desert” of “The Promised Land” to the “dusty road from Monroe to Angeline” of “Prove it all Night,” “Darkness” crosses the Jersey state line to embrace prairies and plains and a wider, all-encompassing version of America. As if we couldn’t guess from the literary-looking typewriter font of the album cover and lyric sheet, Springsteen had set out not to make just a great rock album, but to write his version of the great American novel. And in many ways, he did. 

In its vinyl incarnation, “Darkness” comprises 10 songs, five on each side, perfectly mirroring one another in theme and mood. “Darkness” is a looped tale; finish one side, turn it over, and you find different characters in exactly the same emotional, if not physical, place as their brethren on the opposite side. And that’s the whole point: The struggle to realize our dreams, to break out of pinched, repressive or hopeless circumstances, is a universal one, repeated from generation to generation, relentless as the rain. Springsteen sings most of the songs in the guise of a restless Everyman, but the ferocious “Adam Raised a Cain” stands apart as a close-to-home confession. Steeped in Catholic guilt and alluding to both biblical Genesis and Steinbeck’s “East of Eden,” “Adam” is the first song Springsteen recorded that nakedly depicts his turbulent relationship with his father. 

But, then, all of the characters on the album share a desire to escape the dead-end, dead-eyed “workin’ life” of their fathers (so succinctly and chillingly articulated on “Factory”). These people long to be somewhere, and, often, someone, else. And while all the songs on “Darkness” take place after sundown, this is not the sensual, liberating summer night of “Born to Run,” but, rather, a darkness ambiguous and impenetrable, in which the characters drive around and around “chasing some mirage.” But for all its car and road imagery, “Darkness” is really about the illusion of movement. Few of these characters truly get anywhere, except in their dreams.

The ones that do make it are haunted by the cost – betrayals, severed ties, disappointment – of pursuing their desires and ambitions, for “wanting things that can only be found/ In the darkness on the edge of town.” On the heartbreaking “Racing in the Street,” the narrator – possibly the kid from “Thunder Road,” who lured Mary off her front porch and into his front seat, crowing “it’s a town full of losers / And I’m pullin’ out of here to win” – has failed the girl he loves. He promised her a better life, but they’ve ended up back where they started, “on the porch of her Daddy’s house.” The girl’s “pretty dreams are torn”; the guy races cars to keep from “dying little by little, piece by piece” – to keep moving, even if he knows he’s just spinning his wheels. And yet, the song ends with the possibility of redemption and escape: “Tonight my baby and me, we’re gonna ride to the sea/ And wash these sins off our hands.” 

Battered, tenacious faith in the promise of a better life – that’s the glimmer of light at the heart of “Darkness,” and it shines brightest on each side’s opening tracks, “Badlands” and “The Promised Land.” Indeed, these two songs are the foundation of the populist spirit that has become an integral part of Springsteen’s music. Against a churning beat, the narrator of “Badlands” is “caught in a crossfire” of emotions and impulses. He wants to get out of this nowhere life, take control of his future, but he wonders if it’s possible to realize his heart’s desire without losing his soul. Is it preordained that to succeed in America, you have to succumb to selfishness and cynicism and adhere to the social and economic facts of life that dictate, “Poor man wanna be rich/ Rich man wanna be king/ And a king ain’t satisfied/ Till he rules everything”? The narrator considers going over to the dark side, but his heart isn’t in it; the pull of youthful idealism and innocence remain too strong. He keeps coming back to these two words: “I believe.” In the emotional crescendo of the song, Springsteen sings, “I believe in the love that you gave me/ I believe in the faith that can save me/ I believe in the hope/ And I pray, that someday it may raise me/ Above these badlands.”

The assertion “I believe” recurs in “The Promised Land.” The scenario is similar to “Badlands” – the young narrator works in his “daddy’s garage” by day and drives around aimlessly by night. He feels weak and trapped and longs for a purifying “twister to blow everything down/ That ain’t got the faith to stand its ground.” But, he hasn’t yet given up hope in what might wait shimmering for him in the wreckage: “Mister, I ain’t a boy, no, I’m a man/ And I believe in a promised land.”

That use of “Mister” in “Promised Land,” as if the story is being told to an observer just out of our view, brought a documentary dimension to Springsteen’s songwriting; he would pursue the “Mister” (or “Sir”) structure further in the sparse and spooky modern folk music of his 1982 solo masterpiece, “Nebraska.” But, in hindsight, “The Promised Land” may well have been Springsteen’s first true folk song. Like Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” “The Promised Land” is a subversive – a people’s – national anthem. It suggests the breadth and natural majesty of the land (that “dark cloud rising from the desert floor” is one of the most hauntingly visual images in all of Springsteen’s songwriting) and the resilience of working-class optimism.

But it’s shadowed with the dark side of the American Dream – the socioeconomic inequalities, the “lies that leave you nothing but lost and brokenhearted.” In “The Promised Land,” we can find the seeds of two bittersweet latter-day Springsteen folk songs, “Land of Hope and Dreams,” a passionate invocation of an America more generous and inclusive than the one we’re living in, and “American Land,” a rambunctious Irish-flavored salute to – and defense of – the immigrants who have followed their dreams to our supposed land of opportunity.

The question is, after eight years of the Bush Administration, after Iraq, torture, wiretaps, the erosion of the Constitution, the loss of moral standing in the eyes of the world, the disappearance of the middle class and the scapegoating of immigrants, legal and illegal, is it still possible to believe in America as the promised land? Springsteen thinks so, if his April 16 endorsement of Sen. Barack Obama for President is any indication. Springsteen wrote of Obama, “He speaks to the America I’ve envisioned in my music for the past 35 years, a generous nation with a citizenry willing to tackle nuanced and complex problems, a country that’s interested in its collective destiny and in the potential of its gathered spirit.” 

But even if Springsteen had not written those words, his faith in the “gathered spirit” would have been evident from the pivotal set list positions he gave “The Promised Land” and “Badlands” on the 2007-08 legs of the E Street Band’s “Magic” tour. “Magic” is an autumnal record, with references to ill winds and gray skies and a pervasive sense of identities, personal and national, breaking down. The deceptively upbeat “Livin’ in the Future” is a litany of all the things that have fallen apart during the Bush years: “The earth it gave away/ The sea rose toward the sun . . . My ship Liberty sailed away … The groundskeeper opened the gates and let the wild dogs run.” While the choruses repeat, “We’re livin’ in the future and/ None of this has happened yet,” it’s clear that this is only wishful thinking; to borrow a line from “Prove It All Night,” this ain’t no dream we’re livin’ through tonight. In nearly every concert of the initial North American portion of the “Magic” tour, “Livin’ in the Future” was followed – and contradicted – by “The Promised Land.” The latter song’s sweet harmonica intro rose up in the wake of the bleak imagery of “Livin’ in the Future” like a cleansing rain after a long, punishing dry spell. The words “I believe in a promised land” never sounded so cathartic, so welcome and so urgently necessary. 

On the “Magic” tour, “Badlands” usually made its appearance at the end of the first set, immediately following “Long Walk Home,” a cornerstone of the “Magic” album. On “Long Walk Home,” Springsteen turns the map around, so that he’s coming home out of the darkness – “in the distance I could see the town where I was born.” He’s out of the car and walking, just like Woody Guthrie in “This Land Is Your Land,” but as he enters the heart of town, he sees that something has gone very wrong. The diner is shuttered, the VA hall is abandoned, the townspeople are “rank strangers.” Once upon a time, his father proudly told him, this town – which is, of course, America itself – was a “great place to be born,” and the flag flying over the courthouse “meant certain things are set in stone/ Who we are, what we’ll do/ And what we won’t.”

The closing repetition of the wistful line, “It’s gonna be a long walk home,” alludes to the daunting work of reversing the moral, psychological and physical damage of the past eight years (“a great American reclamation project,” Springsteen called it in his Obama endorsement). But “Badlands,” with its holy trinity of belief in love, faith and hope, and its exhilarating assertion that “it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive,” reassures us that the task is not insurmountable. In concert, placed after “Long Walk Home,” the fervent declaration “I wanna spit in the face of these badlands” became a rejection of the moral wasteland of the Bush years, a refusal to remain a community under siege. 

In “Songs,” Springsteen wrote that “Darkness on the Edge of Town” was the record on which he found his “adult voice.” But it’s now clear that this was the record on which he found his political voice as well. “The Promised Land” and “Badlands” are simple yet profound affirmations of democratic ideals; they remain relevant today as commentaries on the darkness of cynicism and the dragons of endless war that threaten to wipe our town off the map. Like the whole of “Darkness,” these songs were built on a faith that can stand its ground. 

© 2008, 2016 by Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape