There’s an elephant, an unseen and unmentioned elephant in the recording studio in The Promise, HBO’s brilliant documentary on the recording of Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town, which aired on October 7th.
Bruce himself refers to that elephant, no doubt unconsciously, and does so in a way that tells us, if we want to listen, a lot about creativity, and the way tradition liberates creativity. Toward of the end of The Promise, Bruce sits at his piano and reflects on Darkness on the Edge of Town as a whole. He intimates that no matter how great the album is, and it’s very great indeed, it’s not great enough for him. Probably no piece of music can ever be as stupendous as what he hears inside his head. He could say what John Keats says in “Ode to a Grecian Urn”: “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard/Are sweeter…”
So Bruce shakes his head in frustration, and says that on the album he wanted to “transcend the limitations.” What pops out here is a (probably) unconscious memory of a key line in from Dylan’s Chronicles, the line in which Dylan mentions the difficulties that faced him when he left Hibbing for New York. “I could transcend the limitations,” he writes.
And how about us? None of us is ever going to be Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen — that’s for sure. We’re plenty lucky to be on the same earth and breathing the same air as these two geniuses. Still, we can transcend some limitations of our own, as they would want us to do; we can transcend the limitation of our belief in the simplistic opposition of originality and imitation. If we do that, we can understand why this quotation from Dylan’s memoir occurred to Bruce when it did — and a lot else besides. We tend to think that rock stars, actors, writers — creative people — who are totally original all the time are just imitators. That’s a limiting idea, and we can transcend it.
In rock and roll, though, as in life, the truth is more complicated than that. Just think of three key years in rock and roll history, and you start to understand the coherence of rock tradition, and the power of that tradition. Elvis Presley dominated 1955; Bob Dylan dominated 1965; and Bruce Springsteen dominated 1975. Apparently it takes us ten years to assimilate the impact of one superstar and prepare for the next one.
With the openness and thoughtfulness that is so characteristic of him, Bruce often talks about his predecessors. He is intensely aware of his place in rock tradition, and how much he’s benefitted from the great ones — especially Elvis and Dylan — who came before him. A few comments on the role of tradition his first two albums will show how they lead up to Darkness.
Bruce’s first album Greetings from Asbury Park, was a postcard from Bruce to Dylan, in which Bruce says, “I’m here!” Once he had established himself, and the opposition of New Jersey to Manhattan, he was ready to say to Dylan on Born to Run, “I can take the verbal complexity of your lyrics and fuse them with Phil Spector’s wall of sound to make something totally new. I’m my own man now.” I know of no clearer example of the liberating power of tradition than the songs on Born to Run.
And that brings us to Darkness on the Edge of Town. No one who watches The Promise and sees Bruce’s struggles — not least with himself — during the months and months and months that it took to make the album doubt can Bruce pondered every word and every chord — probably every note — that went into it. So if he chose “Darkness on the Edge of Town” as the title track, that means that the song has exceptional importance.
We now understand that it’s a prescient song, a warning that the frontier that President Kennedy so proudly had hailed when Bruce was a boy would turn dark. And indeed the global village in which we now live has dark frontiers no matter which edge of it we go to.
It’s valid enough to bring up the frontier, and the way the bright promises of American mythology that turned dark during Bruce’s lifetime, but the wellsprings of creativity do not arise from such historical sources. They arise from earlier masterpieces that have defined the artist’s styles, concerns, and themes. And one of Dylan’s masterpieces that defined, and continues to define, Bruce’s work is “Desolation Row.”
You have to listen to “Desolation Row” several hundred times — or more — to realize it, but it is a place of refuge. It is under threat from the “agents,” who are all the more threatening for not being described. And at the center, at the still point “Lady and I look out tonight on Desolation Row.”
Last night as my consciousness was reeling from the power of the completed version of “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” I realized that the song turns “Desolation Row” inside out. If “Lady and I” are together in “Desolation Row,” the girl in Bruce’s song is off in Fairview. (And she’s pretending to be high-class, too, like the woman Elvis addresses in “Hound Dog.”— and the woman Dylan addresses in “Like a Rolling Stone.”) However, he — the singer, the bearer of America’s heavily laden mythic unconscious, is in the darkness on the edge of town. The singer has gone from the center of Desolation Row to the periphery of Asbury Park, and American towns everywhere. He has gone from companionship (of an angel/muse/lover) to solitude. As Frederick Jackson Turner pointed out so long ago, the frontier has closed — and it’s left him all alone.
No sane person who has ever listened to so much as the first ten seconds of “Born to Run” can think that the mature Bruce Springsteen is a mere imitator of Bob Dylan. What we have to say, I think, is that Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen are karmically linked for this life, and maybe for the next one as well. To be sure, Bruce as a young man was overwhelmed by Dylan, like the rest of us; but unlike the rest of us he confronted the demons that told him that he would never be as great as Dylan, and made great music out of them.
On YouTube I found a video of Dylan and Bruce performing together, in the eighties I guess, that catches Dylan’s acknowledgement of Bruce as an equal. When he introduces Bruce, he says, “Mr. Bruce Springsteen.” The point is that even when Dylan performs with rock royalty, he doesn’t refer to “Mr. Eric Clapton” or “Mr. Mick Jagger” or even to “Mr. Paul McCartney.” But for him Bruce is “Mr. Bruce Springsteen.” That’s the equivalent of five minutes of lavish praise from anybody else.
Dylan has become the Grand Old Man of American music, songwriter who defined the terms and established the standards for subsequent songwriters. Yet in writing all those great songs he didn’t limit or confine Bruce’s imagination. By giving him powerful songs to react to, Dylan liberated him to write songs that Dylan could never have imagined. So if Dylan was the unnamed elephant in the studio with Bruce and the boys, then he was also the elephant that empowered them to change rock and roll with Darkness on the Edge of Town.