#150: Bruce Springsteen, "Darkness on the Edge of Town" (1978)

150 Darkness on the Edge of Town.jpg

 I have never been able use “What’s your hometown?” as a security question because my answer changes depending on who happens to be asking. The irrefutable facts are as follows: I was born in Philadelphia to parents who lived just over the Ben Franklin Bridge in South Jersey, where I spent the first three years of my life before the Shipyard closed and my father’s job was transferred to Norfolk and we moved to a Southeastern Virginia town bordered by the ocean and a swamp and endlessly multiplying subdivisions, where my family still lives and I lived until I went off to college.

I have learned in adulthood to give whichever answer seems closest, geographically, and most appropriate for the context, a toss up in Washington, D.C. but simple when on business trips in Philly proper or Wilmington. At college, in a smaller town in less-South less-East Virginia, I would tell most people I was from the town where I’d spent the last fifteen years of my life—or rather one of the two more recognizable cities which cornered it into the North Carolina border, because other people were from that general area, too, and it was easy to bond over something like a knowing a pseudo-famous local haunt or notorious speed trap during a time when so much that should have been recognizable and relatable about myself seemed unnameable, unidentifiable, impossible.

But, when I was growing up in that Southeastern Virginia town I would later claim, I would tell people that I was from Philadelphia, because the perception of Philadelphia was less odious than the perception of New Jersey, and being from somewhere else was more interesting than being from where we were. Nevermind that my memories up unto age three are limited to the likes of birthday party decorations and riding in the moving truck and are scattered at best, or that I spent little time in the city itself when we’d visit when I was older, or that I truly did know more about the curves of the winding, hilly Turnersville roads than I did about the ancient intricacy of Philly’s streets; I had my mother, a proud, bonafide Philadelphia native, and her passion for the place from whence she hailed, the stories she told to keep it and the version of her that grew up there alive. In their vividness and her adoration, those memories and the knowledge they entailed were as good as my own.

At risk of publically aging her, my mother is a child of the Disco Days. Exceptions afforded for the stories about helping her best friend stalk Lee Mazili or working double shifts in department stores, most of the tales Sharon shared from her youth as I was growing up were about her summers at the Shoreparticularly the music she’d dance to while clubbing. Her heyday coincided with the heyday of the genre’s greatsDonna Summer, Gloria Gaynor, Diana Ross, on and on—and her younger brother even spent many of his weekends partying at THE Studio 54 in New York City.

In her youth, my mother found herself in an incredible place in an incredible time, a cosmic stroke of luck placing a young woman on a glorious cultural horizon so mesmerizing it practically begged you to dance along its ledges. My mother wears her disco fandom as a badge of honor with the same pride she imbues when announcing she is from Philadelphia, bolstering her authentic cred by spurning the other famous acts and genres of the ‘70s. I can’t remember her listening to any classic rock beyond Queen (the same Lee Mazili-adoring friend also loved Freddie Mercury), and she openly and publicly despises the likes of Fleetwood Mac. The only exception to her ire was Bruce Springsteen, hometown hero and raucous heartthrob. Perhaps it was birthright, being from South Philly and vacationing to Wildwood, but my mother loved the Boss; she’s just as quick to profess this as she is to note that she was an anomaly amongst her friends for her fanaticism, eager to tell you about falling in love in the early days after Born to Run was first released and he was running small club tours.

As moms are wont to do, mine tried her darndest to pass on as much as much good as she could, including her love of the music she grew up with, to her kids. Car rides to school were perpetually scored by the likes of the Four Seasons and the Shangri-Las; we decorated our Christmas tree to the musical stylings of the Sal-Soul Orchestra. When I was nine, and we were visiting my grandmother in south Jersey, we spent a whole summer evening in her kitchen, table pushed aside but ironing board standing, trying halfheartedly and clumsily as my mother passionately tried her hand at teaching my brother and me the Hustle, Bob Pantano’s Saturday Night disco radio show crackling over our grumbles and bumps into the furniture. Like so many other lessons she tried to teach and love she sought to give, her enthusiasm for disco’s golden oldies was, at the time, not something either of her children had inherited. Neither was her fanaticism for the Boss, not yet.

I used to tell people that I found and fell for Bruce through my own musical discoveries. I fell in love with Bruce Springsteen heading back to my mother’s house in a sleepy suburb at two a.m. one New Year’s Day when “Mary’s Place” was the first song I heard played on the staticky local radio, blood rushing with the headiness that comes only from being with people you love in the place where you became yourself and being reminded of it all over again. I fell in love with Bruce Springsteen caterwauling along to “Atlantic City” in a cramped kitchen of my friends, our voices cracking as if we understood the town and the time just as Bruce had sketched them. I fell in love with Bruce Springsteen analyzing the jubilant ownership of self-determination in “Rosalita” late at night, and I fell in love again when, years later, I would tell my mother “closets are for hangers; winners use the door.”  I fell in love with Bruce when I was desperately trying to fall in love with myself. I fell in love with Bruce Springsteen alone, in moments of reflection when this man from a place I never lived but claimed as my own sang about his longings, often unspeakable, and his successes, small and all the more tangible for it. I fell in love with him, and the music, and the person I thought I was when I was listening to his music—this specifically named protagonist, this character so anchored to place, this beautiful disaster with a beginning, middle, and end in their four corners.

At least, this is the myth I tell myself, the musical Hometown I offer when asked. The irrefutable facts are as follows: Bruce Springsteen was likely a prominent musical figure throughout my childhood and early teen years, and I know my mother mentioned having seen him before I would have found it cool to have done so; I adopted Bruce because it’s an easy leg up if you’re from New Jersey, and I say I’m from New Jersey when I need a leg up with my love of Bruce, and it gives me a sense of place and history when I so often willfully ignore the ones I’ve been given; when a mentor with whom I’d lost touch passed away, I spent my afternoon champagne drunk and lying in bed as I listened to the album version of “Racing in the Street” on an hours-long loop, knowing Bruce’s lyrics were an adequate representation of the contemporary poetry she so championed and that felt, somehow, like an appropriate outsourcing of mourning; part of my love of Bruce, so achingly, seems to be the shared passion of every person I love’s love of Bruce, from writers I admire and will never meet, to those friends with whom I group chat as we speak, to those mentors who loved me so fiercely I couldn’t help but push them away, to the mother whose passion and so wholly-lived self has given me so much I cannot bear to look its brightness directly in the face so I pretend it doesn’t exist at all.

Darkness on the Edge of Town is a turning point in my mind for the Boss, the album a nod to his explosive and bombastic success with Born to Run and straight arrow toward the bleaker, less hopeful ruminations he’d soon release with Nebraska and The River. On Darkness, Bruce sees where he came from and where he is going and finds a perfect sense of self within the two, understanding that no version of a person can be based on just one half of the equation. This is no more perfectly exemplified than on his expertly deployed four cornersthe joy of an open road on “Badlands” is reduced to fear and desperation in the wake of that very same road on “Racing in the Street,” and the defiance and ownership of the self on “The Promised Land” muddled as external pressures are realized on the eponymous album closer. He gives beginnings, middles, ends, yes—but he also gives us people complicated in their interim incompleteness, a personal history and origin created as the song goes.

I still waffle when asked about my literal hometown, but here are the irrefutable facts: when I was twenty-one, a few weeks after my birthday, I saw Bruce Springsteen play a giant amphitheater with my mother in my small Southeastern Virginia town, myself home for barely a day to make the show, where Clarence Clemons’s nephew subbed in for the late saxophonist and Bruce made a big deal about how this was Clarence and Jake’s hometown show, and how he, Bruce, remembered fondly playing shows just up the road in the early days, in the days when my mom, too, was fondly listening to him play small shows a few hours north when she was in her early twenties and feeling like the entire possibility of the world was dancing right in front of her, where she commented on how old I suddenly was and how young I simultaneously seemed to be, where Bruce and the E Street Band played “Badlands” and “Darkness on the Edge of Town” directly after each other, closing the corners, making the origin and the destination the exact same point.

—Moira McAvoy