Darkness on the Edge of Town – 1978

The past couple weeks I’ve rediscovered something that I hadn’t paid a lot of attention to recently, but like an old friend it resurfaced and has been hanging around.  That is the album “Darkness of the Edge of Town” by Bruce Springsteen.  A couple weeks ago it was re-released as a special box set and it reminded me just how great it was back when I first discovered him.

I’d been planning to write about some of my other more distant concert experiences, so this seems a great opportunity to ease into doing that and take a look at an awesome new release at the same time.

It was Friday night, July 7th, 1978.  I had a date with Sherry Grotjan to go hear some music at the Cuckoo’s Nest in Costa Mesa.  I picked her up and as we drove to there I tuned in to KMET.  They were playing a live show from the Roxy by this guy, Bruce Springsteen that I’d heard of, but never really listened to.  It was decent stuff and a good sounding show, but we reached the club and shut it off to go inside.

Lost to the mists of time and memory is the name of the band who wee playing that night.  But, there’s a reason for that…nothing special and the club was half empty as they ground out their set.  We sat for a while and finally they took a break.  I asked if she was enjoying them and the answer was no, so I suggested that we leave and maybe grab a pizza or something back closer to home.  We walked out and got in the car and wow…the same guy was still playing.  We listened to the show as we drove around…(Pretty much like a complete Springsteen cliche, driving around with a girl in my Camero looking for something to do.)  We were both commenting on how good he sounded and really enjoying the show.

I remembered that the ad for the show he’d just played at the Forum had listed a San Diego show on Sunday the 9th.  So I asked her if she’d like to drive down with me Sunday and see this guy live?  She said sure and we made a plan for me to pick her up Sunday afternoon and dive to the San Diego Sports Arena.

The drive was uneventful that Sunday and we arrived and parked.  I walked to the box office and bought a ticket.  (These were the pre-hype days, when you could still do that.)  The ticket was $5.75 and I still have it to this day (Upper 17A, Row 12, Seat 10).

We took our seats and waited, when the band hit the stage it was an explosion.  (I’ve gone back and relived this setlist many times and even found a bootleg a few years ago that confirmed my memories.)

“Badlands” opened and then led into one of the best versions of “I Fought the Law” that I’d ever heard.  Up next was “Night” from the Born to Run album.  This was one of the tightest bands that I’d ever seen; and they played with an passion and urgency like nothing else in the world could matter more at that moment.

Those first three songs were short, taut slices of music.  And the band played them as a declaration of freedom from everyday worries and strife.  It was pure passion…punctuated by sax solos.

I’d been going to concerts a little over a year and the only thing even close to this of this quality was maybe Lynyrd Skynyrd the previous summer, but even they hadn’t connected in the way that these songs cut right to heart of matters and spoke so clearly to me.  The forth song was “Spirit in the Night” and it was highlighted by Bruce jumping from the stage and dragging a long cord behind him climbed to the upper reaches of the arena opposite me.  Up there he stood and traded vocals with the crowd around him…”…All night, All night”…”  I’d never seen a someone break the wall with the audience like that.  He wasn’t trying to be a “ROCK STAR”, he was reaching out and drawing the crowd in with him.  The message seemed to me to be that we were all a part of this…I was completely hooked by the forth song.

Next up was “Darkness on the Edge of Town” a stark look at the dark side of unfulfilled dreams.  The message coming through that while this was a party, there were still wolves at the door and troubles you can’t always escape.  The menace of Darkness gave way to the driving restless desire of “Candy’s Room” that exploded into a taut screaming guitar solo, then into “For You” for another view of longing and desire.

But, because this was ultimately to be a show that wasn’t about bleakness and the dark side of life the next song began the climb from unfulfilled and unhappy to a better place. “The Promised Land”.  The message seemed that while there were struggles and disappointments you could seize your place.  But even when you did, you’d still have to “Prove It All Night”….this was the epic version of the song, a long intro of Roy’s piano with a story about a cab driver that morphed into an amazing guitar solo as the band slowly built behind him before launching into the hook and main song after nearly five minutes of building.  I’d never seen someone who was so effective at dynamics and context.  Solos meant something and weren’t just an exercise to show off.  Even the way the songs were fit together told a greater story and were like chapters in a book.

Up next was maybe one of the best songs I’ve ever heard…”Racing in the Street”.  I can’t really describe how amazing this song can be live.  But I will say that the long play out where the piano and organ intertwine over a clockwork beat and punctuations of guitars and sax is one of the most moving rock instrumentals I’ve ever heard.

Here’s a version from a month later that’s very close to what I heard that night:

Finally the music all drops away and over a distant piano Bruce tells a story about driving through the Arizona desert which becomes the introduction to “Thunder Road”.

At this point the band begins leaving….what an amazing set, but on the way off stage Bruce says we’re going to take a quick break and we’ll be back.  Stunning!  That was only half the set?  I was thrilled.

True to their word, they came back for “Round Two” as Bruce put it and broke into the instrumental “Paradise by the C” that allowed Clarence to shine.  Next came “Fire” a song Bruce had given to Robert Gordon and then the Pointer Sisters.  Then, “Streets of Fire” and “Adam Raised a Cain” from the new album. Then a a great blend of “Not Fade Away” and “Gloria” leading into “She’s the One”.

Next up was  “Growing Up” and in the middle Bruce told a story about having just seen the movie the “Buddy Holly Story” and the well known story about his parents wanting him to be a doctor or  lawyer and how he just wanted to rock.  I’ve heard lots of versions from him over the years, but this was the first and hearing the Buddy Holly references made it really memorable, since I’d just seen the movie too.

Then came two epic versions of “Backstreets” and Rosalita” that combine clocked in at almost a half an hour!  The set wrapped with the one song of his I’d really known before arriving at the show…”Born to Run” with full house lights.  Breathtaking….

They came back and did “Because the Night” and “Quarter to Three” as encores, but at that point I’d have listened to them recite the phonebook.  I was hooked and have remained a Springsteen fan ever since.

Sherrie enjoyed the show as well, but we drifted apart as happens at that age.  I lost track of her and always sort of wondered how life turned out for her.  I didn’t get to see Springsteen again until the River tour, but I’ve seen him over twenty times since this first show and I’ve never been disappointed.

This month he released a box set with two extra discs of material from that era.  I was blown away at just how many great songs were left off the album.  Yet, as I listen to them I can totally see why he made the decisions that he did.  Darkness, like his shows tells a specific story in a specific way and to alter it would have changed the story.  But, if you’re a fan of brilliant writing, I’d suggest you give the other songs a spin.  I can’t think of many acts that could have ever left two albums worth of material off of a release the way they did and still had anything worth listening to!

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