Springsteen steps out of the Darkness
In Toronto for the premiere of a documentary about the career-defining album that could so easily have been his last, a youthful 61-year-old Bruce Springsteen talks about retracing his steps to a creative fork in the road
AN ITALIAN RESTAURANT on a calm street in downtown Toronto. Bruce Springsteen sits on the inside of a long table, his back to the wall, the focus of such attention from the group lunching with him, who are leaning in towards him, that it would be understandable if the singer asked everyone to just back off a bit. He doesn’t. He talks on, answers every question and indulges those trying to hog the encounter, while making sure to address those at its edges. The cluster of record executives and journalists are all male, except for a Japanese woman whose colleagues manoeuvre her so that she’s directly to Springsteen’s right. Thereafter she sports the stunned grin of the starstruck.
It’s a popular look among those around the table. A waiter stops mid-service to earwig and is still there 15 minutes later. Already, Springsteen’s wife and E Street Band member, Patti Scialfa, has volunteered to be squeezed from the table: “I’m going to move out to let you guys get closer to him.” She does it with the generosity of someone who knows that some of us are in the thick of fulfilling a lifetime ambition. I won’t pretend I’m not among them.
That Springsteen has joined us is something of a surprise. He is in town because of Toronto International Film Festival and the premiere of a documentary about the making of Darkness on the Edge of Town,which itself comes in advance of The Promise, a box set comprising an album of other songs recorded for that session, plus new and old live footage and the documentary. That year-long Darknesssession, 32 years ago, off the back of a legal battle with his first manager, spawned dozens of songs. Some were half-finished, others dropped just as they were done, so that what Springsteen calls the “10 toughest songs” remained – including the title track, Badlands, The Promised Land, Racing in the Street, Factory, Streets of Fire– hewn from a session that drove the E Street Band “a good deal insane”.
Springsteen spent weeks alone just trying to get “the drums to sound like drums”, as the documentary explains. While sonically sparse compared with the previous Born to Run, Darkness on the Edge of Townis an epic of American landscape, dispossession and resilience born out of a “huge amount of ego, ambition and hunger”. He wanted to write something truly great. It wasn’t greeted too keenly by much of the press. It didn’t sell too much at first either. Then he toured it. “When they saw it live, then they got it,” he says. Today it is a classic.
When he was recording it he was doing so with the intensity of a musician who didn’t know if he’d get another chance to make an album once this one came out. At a time when a three-year gap between albums was career suicide he read “where are they now?” pieces about himself.
“We were dead,” he says, with a certain relish. “They just wanted to know if it was real or if it had been a construction.” So he focused on writing “the most important album we could, the biggest thing ever”. When Darkness was released Dave Marsh, in Rolling Stone, declared it an album that would change the way people listened to rock. In The Irish Times, Joe Breen said it confirmed him as “the most important songwriter in rock” – but not all reviews were so positive. “It wasn’t Born to Run2, so they didn’t get it,” says Springsteen. Then he took it on the road. “In one town,” he says, “this kid comes up to me and says, ‘Hey, Bruce, my friends say it’s not as good as Born to Run, but I think it’s okay.’ ”
Earlier in the day about 40 of us gathered in an old cinema where some of the “lost” tracks and concert footage were introduced by his manager, Jon Landau, whose 1974 quote “I saw rock’n’roll future, and its name is Bruce Springsteen” we are at this point obliged to reference. Verses appeared on the large screen in time with the songs. The first track was not one that had been lost as such but a version of Racing in the Streetthat was so lush it was like hearing it for the first time. When it faded out someone behind me gasped quietly. They’re record executives, of course. They’re paid to gasp. But, hell, through surround sound, with Panavision lyrics, in the soft hush of the cinema, it was goosebump stuff.
Seven more tracks were played, revealing a range of songs, with a more pronounced interest in love and relationships than present on the original album. There are some live clips from the DVD element of the box set, including a live recording of Darkness, in correct order, during which Springsteen is in full flight, neck straining, teeth gritted, making no concession to the fact that it is being recorded in an empty theatre.
After this Landau returns to his mic in the corner of the room. A spotlight struggles to keep up with him. He thanks a few of the people involved. Then he thanks Springsteen. He is sitting at the back of the theatre. The man behind me gasps again.
Springsteen gives a modest wave. He gets a standing ovation.
Twenty minutes later Springsteen and the cloud of people that gathers around him have been ushered from the venue for a restaurant next door. Small groups are brought to his table intermittently. Our turn comes, and we move up, glasses of wine where autograph books might be. It is just after the starters, and we spend the rest of the meal with him. For the journalists in the group it is a strange set-up: not an interview but not off the record. Throwing a Dictaphone on the table would change the dynamic.
He talks about survival, success, his memories of whichever country someone wants him to talk about. He talks about the way modern culture expects you to be ubiquitous. “They think I’m a recluse, that I never do any interviews,” he says. “I do interviews all the time. I think I’m pretty accessible. But if you’re not always out there, they think you’re Garbo.”
His presence in Toronto has been the focus of media coverage during the week. At a festival that cultivates queues regardless, the one for a Q&A with the actor Ed Norton began the night before. At that event, his voice a low rumble to Norton’s halting helium, he had talked mostly about Darkness on the Edge of Town, his “angry” record, informed primarily by his wish to write about his parents’ generation and their struggle to match the promise of the US with its reality – “honouring my parents and their history and the people I knew: these things weren’t being written about” – and to reflect the post-Vietnam era and his country’s loss of innocence.
Artistically, it was influenced by the attitude of the punk movement, by movies such as Mean Streetsand by Springsteen’s travels across the US, which took him out of New Jersey for the first time and sent him into an epic landscape that can be heard on the album. But most of all it was about reclaiming something of himself, post-fame. “I had my first taste of success, and I think you realise it’s possible for your identity to get co-opted,” he says. “When you have some success you have a variety of choices. I looked at some of the maps the people before me had drawn. ‘Here there be dragons!’ And the world was flat to them, and they fell off the edge. And that was something I’d rather not do. And part of that was keeping a sense of myself.”
He became “a mutant in your neighbourhood”. “I decided that the key to that was maintaining a sense of myself, understanding that a part of myself had been mutated . . . There was a thrust of self-preservation more than anything else.”
In the restaurant it is palpable how much he has built an inner circle, and fortified it over decades: Landau and co-manager Barbara Carr; the same record company; the core of The E Street Band has remained largely unchanged since the early days. He talks about this unit, how the film-maker Thom Zimny has become part of a crew that “go beyond committed” and a band who have to stay so in order to fulfil the stated mission.
In a politically polarised US he is now as big – probably bigger – outside his home country. Even among the committed, the reaction in the US doesn’t quite match that he receives in Scandinavia, Italy, Spain and Ireland. Landau had said it earlier, Scialfa backs it up over lunch, and Springsteen adds to it. “They just bring such a passion with them, and you feed off that,” he says, but without the emptiness that usually comes from praising one or other country’s audience.
Seven years ago he played a single show at the RDS. Over 2008 and 2009 he played five. I wonder if there was a cementing of that relationship during the Seeger Sessions tour in 2006, when the folk-heavy music was appreciated here on a level not matched elsewhere. “No,” he says, “it was on Devils Dust. I came and played the Point, and I thought I’d love to just do 10 of these shows. There was an intensity about that show that was powerful.” There was indeed, aided by the fact that it was raining so hard that the drumming on the roof offered an atmospheric duet during what was a solo performance.
The audience intensity is, though, a response to his own commitment on stage. He has toured relentlessly in recent years – 11 shows in Ireland alone since 2005 – and last time around he was playing almost three hours of bone-shaking brilliance without even the pretence of walking off for an encore. “You have to want to do it,” he says. “Also, you have to show, not tell. That’s why they call it show business. It’s not the ‘tell business’, it’s ‘show’ business’ ”
He talks about Sting once telling him, “You work too hard”, then later adding: “Oh, I get it, this is the only way you know how to do it.”
Springsteen’s drive has to be matched by the band’s, and he will not allow it to flag. “I would put any of our shows now alongside anything we did 30 years ago,” he says. “I want it to be that if your brother comes to see this, he won’t have seen us play better. If your father comes, he won’t have seen us play better. If you’re grandfather comes, he won’t have seen us play better.”
Since the turn of the decade he has become fascinated by his own past and is keen to catalogue it. “I’ve become interested in the history of the band, in putting it together,” he says. “For a long time I was u ncomfortable about filming, but about 10 years ago we decided to film everything. And this is about putting things together for all of those who are new to us, who have come to our shows and started listening to us but who weren’t even born when Darknessfirst came out.”
Two years ago Born to Runreceived the box-set treatment, but what makes Springsteen so vital is that he has not turned to the past in the need to remind the world of his relevance. In his producer Brendan O’Brien he has found a steady hand on recent albums, but the core has been Springsteen’s creative purple patch.
His most recent album, last year’s Working on a Dream, was in some ways a sigh of contentment after previous albums that were politically charged ( Magic, The Seeger Sessions), intimate ( Devils Dust) or spanning both personal and public grief and resilience ( The Rising). Although even Working on a Dreamwas an exhalation of relief, following Barack Obama’s election.
His music, he says, has always been a search for what he calls the “essential”, that element that gets to the core of everyone’s experience, “that essential thing that matters to me, that matters to him, that matters to you”. He has stuck with Martin Scorsese’s line about getting an audience “to care about your obsessions”.
Darknesswas the beginning of what he calls the “long narrative” of his songwriting, a story he began to tell with it and which he has committed himself to carrying through everything since.
The night before, he had told Ed Norton that he always understood this necessity. “I said there’s other guys who play guitar well, there’s other guys who front really well, there’s other rocking bands out there. But the writing and the imagining of a world, that’s a particular thing, you know. That’s a single fingerprint. All the film-makers we love, all the writers we love, all the songwriters we love, they put their fingerprint on your imagination, in your heart. And on your soul. That was something that I felt touched by, and I thought, well, I wanted to do that.”
It has meant that his themes have been not just political or societal but very personal. He writes, after all, about ageing in a way that few other artists are brave enough to do. There has to be a commitment to that, he says. He must be unflinching, must not shy away from saying that people change and age, and that you have to deal with it. “Write about it,” he says. “Don’t be scared of it.”
When recording the Darknesslive set he demanded that the decades be on stark display. He found a way in an unlikely source. “I saw this Jean-Claude Van Damme movie. I don’t know if you’ve seen it: it’s called JCVD, and he plays himself in it and gets caught up in a bank robbery. But it’s filmed in this washed-out way, very grey, and it really shows his age. And I said to Thom, that’s what I want for this recording.”
Springsteen turned 61 on Thursday. He is tanned, fresh; even the crow’s feet are taut. His hair is dark enough that you wonder if it might be dyed, but grey splashes about his ears. He has an enthusiasm that seems to bubble through from his 27-year-old self, a wick of youthfulness that burns through.
It becomes clear that, over the course of a couple of days, Springsteen has returned more than once to the notion of survival, of Darknessbeing recorded with an intensity born of an understanding that this could have been the last album he recorded. Stunted by the legal wrangle with his manager, Springsteen had to survive on live shows and the reputation of Born to Run. That album had made him a global star and was the thing that put him on the cover of Timeand Newsweekin the same week in 1975. In a sense, it had the power to kill him too.
From this perspective Darknessis integral to the flow of his career, but from his own viewpoint at the time it could have been the end. He expresses deep pride at the result, how it sounded then, how it sounds now. But it is also becomes clear that his open excitement is from a keen appreciation that he is not just revisiting an album, a session, some old video footage, that this is not merely a holiday with nostalgia, but that he is revisiting a fork in the road with the satisfaction of knowing that his younger self chose the right path.
The lunch ends. Springsteen’s meal has been half-eaten, accompanied by a largely untouched glass of orange juice. He has to be encouraged to leave for his flight.
Ten minutes later a photograph is posted on Twitter by someone who lives by the restaurant. It is of Springsteen, in check shirt, jeans and sunglasses, with a huge grin, sitting on a motorbike on the street, posing with a fan. It is making someone’s day. You’d be hard pressed to tell whose.
The Promise: The Darkness on the Edge of Town Story, a 3CD/3DVD box set, and The Promisedouble CD are both released on November 12th