Born to Run (2016)





Scene one: The grinding, deafening sound of plastic being cut on an open factory floor. I am standing inches behind my dad, holding a brown paper bag containing his night-shift lunch, an egg salad sandwich. I call to him in the din, feel my mouth move, my vocal cords strain, but nothing … no sound. He eventually turns, sees me, mouths a few unheard words and takes the bag.

Scene two: I am riding shotgun in my dad’s delivery truck. It is one of the great days of my childhood. We are traversing New Jersey on what mission I do not know, but its importance, to me, cannot be debated. We reach our destination, we deliver I don’t remember what. All I recollect is the sliding rear door of the truck, rolling up with a metallic roar into its tracks embedded beneath the truck’s roof. My father and other men unload large boxes from its enclosed bed, have a smoke, briefly banter amongst themselves, mission accomplished. I remember the bouncing springs of the truck’s suspension on the way home, my open window on a beautiful skippin’-school fall day, the black gearshift between my father and me, the smell of 1950s metal and leather in the truck’s interior and my heart beating with admiration, accomplishment and the pride of being claimed. I’m riding with the king. My dad has taken me to work. Oh, what a world it could’ve been.

Taxi driver, assembly line worker, autoworker, jail guard, bus driver, truck driver—these are just a few of the many jobs my pop worked to hold during his life. My sisters and I grew up in blue-collar neighborhoods, somewhat integrated, filled with factory workers, cops, firemen, long-distance truck drivers. I never saw a man leave a house in a jacket and tie unless it was Sunday or he was in trouble. If you came knocking at our door with a suit on, you were immediately under suspicion. You wanted something. There were good neighbors, filled with eccentricity and kindness and basically decent. There were creeps just like anywhere else, and you had your houses where you could tell something bad was going on. From my sixth to twelfth years, we lived at 391/2 Institute Street, in the small half of a very small, cold-water-only house. We only bathed a few times a week because the ritual of my mother heating up pots of water on the gas stove, then carrying them up, one by one, to slowly fill the upstairs bath was too much. My sister and I flipped a coin to see who’d get to go in first. Our walls were thin, really thin. The screaming, yelling and worse of our neighbors couldn’t be hidden or ignored. I remember my mother in her pink curlers sitting on the steps, her ear pressed to the wall of the half house adjoining ours, listening to the couple next door scrap it out. He was a big burly guy. He beat his wife and you could hear it happening at night. The next day you’d see her bruises. Nobody called the cops, nobody said anything, nobody did anything. One day the husband came home and tied some small glass wind chimes with faux Chinese decoration upon them to the eaves of the porch. This came to disgust me. When the slightest wind would blow they’d make this tinkling sound. These peaceful-sounding wind chimes and the frequent night hell of the house was a grotesque mixture. I can’t stomach the sound of wind chimes to this day. They sound like lies.

This was a part of my past that I would draw on for the roots of Darkness on the Edge of Town.

By 1977, in true American fashion, I’d escaped the shackles of birth, personal history and, finally, place, but something wasn’t right. Rather than exhilaration, I felt unease. I sensed there was a great difference between unfettered personal license and real freedom. Many of the groups that had come before us, many of my heroes, had mistaken one for the other and it’d ended in poor form. I felt personal license was to freedom as masturbation was to sex. It’s not bad, but it’s not the real deal. Such were the circumstances that led the lovers I’d envisioned in “Born to Run,” so determined to head out and away, to turn their car around and head back to town. That’s where the deal was going down, amongst the brethren. I began to ask myself some new questions. I felt accountable to the people I’d grown up alongside of and I needed to address that feeling.

Along with the class-conscious pop of the Animals, early-sixties Beat groups and the punks, I began to listen seriously to country music and I discovered Hank Williams. I liked that country dealt with adult topics; I didn’t believe you had to “age out” of rock music, so I wanted my new songs to resonate as I grew older. Film became a great influence, and my title Darkness on the Edge of Town was straight out of American noir. I’d settled on a sound that was leaner and less grand than Born to Run, one I felt would better suit the voices I was trying to bring to life. I was on new ground and searching for a tone somewhere between Born to Run’s spiritual hopefulness and seventies cynicism. That cynicism was what my characters were battling against. I wanted them to feel older, weathered, wiser but not beaten. The sense of daily struggle increased; hope became a lot harder to come by. That was the feeling I wanted to sustain. I steered away from escapism and placed my people in a community under siege.

Born to Run had earned me a Steinway baby grand piano and a 1960 Chevrolet Corvette with Cragar wheels I bought for six grand from a kid behind the counter at the West Long Branch Carvel ice-cream stand. There wouldn’t be much else but bills—studio bills, instrument rental bills, bills from all the folks Mike (we?) had stiffed to keep us rolling; there would be lawyers’ fees, back taxes and tiresome fighting. Some enterprising young man at the IRS must have seen those Time and Newsweek covers and said, “Who is this guy?” The answer was, he was a guy who’d never paid a single penny in income taxes his whole life, and neither had most of his friends. Bang! … Meet your uncle Sam. We were all so used to living financially off the grid, it never dawned on us that we might qualify as taxpayers. Even after the amount of money coming in would’ve brought us up to the bar, Mike had said he used it all for our survival. In a flash, I was hit for back taxes for all my “earnings” since in utero and had to pony up for all the band’s too, because they were broke. It took a long time. The entire Darkness tour I played for someone else every night. Lawyers, creditors, Uncle Sam, sound companies, trucking companies—all came out of the woodwork to tap our meager earnings. That, along with piling up astronomical studio bills while we learned our craft, would keep me broke until 1982, ten years and millions of records after I’d signed with CBS. If those records had bombed, I’d have ended up back in Asbury Park, with my only reward a drunken story to tell.

We cut forty, fifty, sixty songs of all genres. Maybe after our two-year shutdown I was just hungry to record, to get all the songs and ideas out of my head, to clear a space for the record I really wanted to make. Very slowly … that’s what happened. We were so rusty when we returned to the studio, weeks went by before a note of music was played. As with Born to Run, our recording process was thwarted by our seeming inability to get the most basic acceptable sounds. Days went by with the only sound emanating from Studio B at the Record Plant the dull, endless thwack of Max’s drumstick on a tom-tom. “Stiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiick!” That was our frustrated mantra, shouted day and night, over and over. It meant rather than the richness and tone of a true snare or tom-tom, one was hearing the unsatisfying slapping sound of slat wood on taut drum skin. We were literally hearing the drumstick. No thunder of the gods there. We trudged on, blind men in a black alley.

At bottom, we were amateur producers and simply failed to understand the basic physics of getting sound to tape. Recorded sound is relative. When the drums are forceful but moderate, they leave room for a big guitar sound. When the guitars are powerful but lean, you can have drums the size of a house. But you can’t feature everything, for in effect you’re featuring nothing. Phil Spector’s records aren’t sonically big. The technology wasn’t there. They just sound bigger than your world. It’s a beautiful illusion. I wanted everything, so I was getting nothing. We kept on, exhausting ourselves in the process, but exhaustion has always been my friend and I don’t mind going there. Near the bottom of its fathomless pit I usually find results. We failed until we didn’t.

I began to find some inspiration in the working-class blues of the Animals, pop hits like the Easybeats’ “Friday on My Mind” and the country music I’d so long ignored. Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie: here was music that emotionally described a life I recognized, my life, the life of my family and neighbors. Here was where I wanted to make my stand musically and search for my own questions and answers. I didn’t want out. I wanted in. I didn’t want to erase, escape, forget or reject. I wanted to understand. What were the social forces that held my parents’ lives in check? Why was it so hard? In my search I would blur the lines between the personal and psychological factors that made my father’s life so difficult and the political issues that kept a tight clamp on working-class lives across the United States. I had to start somewhere. For my parents’ troubled lives I was determined to be the enlightened, compassionate voice of reason and revenge. This first came to fruition in Darkness on the Edge of Town. It was after my success, my “freedom,” that I began to seriously delve into these issues. I don’t know if it was the survivor’s guilt of finally being able to escape the confines of my small-town existence or if, as on the battlefield, in America we’re not supposed to leave anybody behind. In a country this rich, it isn’t right. A dignified decent living is not too much to ask. Where you take it from there is up to you but that much should be a birthright.

Finally, the piece of me that lived in the working-class neighborhoods of my hometown was an essential and permanent part of who I was. No one you have been and no place you have gone ever leaves you. The new parts of you simply jump in the car and go along for the rest of the ride. The success of your journey and your destination all depend on who’s driving. I’d seen other great musicians lose their way and watch their music and art become anemic, rootless, displaced when they seemed to lose touch with who they were. My music would be a music of identity, a search for meaning and the future.

Closing In

Party songs, love songs, Brill Building pop, absolute top ten smashes (“Fire,” “Because the Night”) all came and went. It was my way. I wasn’t sure what I wanted but I smelled something in the air and knew when I didn’t have it. As with Born to Run, it was the subtle shaping of the times and the work of creating an identity, an immediate “me” I could live with, that kept me moving toward what I hoped was light. I eventually cut the massive block of songs I had down to the ten toughest. I edited out anything that broke the album’s mood or tension. The songs I chose wore big titles—“Badlands,” “Prove It All Night,” “Adam Raised a Cain,” “Racing in the Street,” “Darkness on the Edge of Town”—and were filled with will, resilience and resistance. “Adam” used biblical images to summon the hard inheritance handed down from father to son. “Darkness on the Edge of Town” proposed that the setting for personal transformation is often found at the end of your rope. In “Racing in the Street” my street racers carried with them the years between the innocent car songs of the sixties and the realities of 1978 America. To make “Racing” and those big titles personal, I had to infuse the music with my own experience, my own hopes and fears.

Out went anything that smacked of frivolity or nostalgia. The punk revolution had hit and there was some hard music coming out of England. The Sex Pistols, the Clash and Elvis Costello all were pushing the envelope on what pop could be in 1977. It was a time of great endings and great beginnings. Elvis had died and his ghost hovered over our sessions. (I’d written “Fire” especially for him.) Across the sea there were raging, young, idealistic musicians looking to reinvent (or destroy) what they’d heard, searching for another way. Somebody somewhere had to start a fire. The “gods” had become too omnipotent and had lost their way. The connection between the fan and the man onstage had grown too abstract. Unspoken promises had been made and broken. It was time for a new order, or maybe … no order! Pop needed new provocations and new responses. In ’78 I felt a distant kinship to these groups, to the class consciousness, the anger. They hardened my resolve. I would take my own route, but the punks were frightening, inspirational and challenging to American musicians. Their energy and influence can be found buried in the subtext of Darkness on the Edge of Town.

Darkness was my samurai record, all stripped down for fighting. My protagonists in these songs had to divest themselves of all that was unnecessary to survive. On Born to Run a personal battle was engaged, but the collective war continued. On Darkness, the political implications of the lives I was writing about began to come to the fore and I searched for a music that could contain them.

I determined that there on the streets of my hometown was the beginning of my purpose, my reason, my passion. Along with Catholicism, in my family’s neighborhood experience, I found my other “genesis” piece, the beginning of my song: home, roots, blood, community, responsibility, stay hard, stay hungry, stay alive. Sweetened by cars, girls and fortune, these are the things that guided my musical journey. I would travel far, light-years from home, and enjoy it all, but I would never completely leave. My music began to have more political implications; I tried to find a way to put my work into service. I read and I studied to become a better, more effective writer. I harbored extravagant ambition and belief in the effect of popular song. I wanted my music grounded in my life, in the life of my family and in the blood and lives of the people I’d known.

Most of my writing is emotionally autobiographical. I’ve learned you’ve got to pull up the things that mean something to you in order for them to mean anything to your audience. That’s where the proof is. That’s how they know you’re not kidding. With the record’s final verse, “Tonight I’ll be on that hill … ,” my characters stand unsure of their fate but dug in and committed. By the end of Darkness, I’d found my adult voice.