Sunday, December 27, 2009

Darkness Revisited

Lately I have been listening to Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town album a lot, partially because I haven’t in a long time, and partially in preparation for its upcoming re-issue. These are songs that have never left his live sets since Bruce first played them over thirty years ago. They have stuck around because they are songs that continue to resonate not only in his own life, but in the lives of his audience. After all, he continues to play them night after night not only because he particularly favors them but because they garner a certain audience response. And rock’n’roll is show business, after all.

Darkness is a unique album in the Springsteen canon, as it is one of only two albums (Nebraska being the other) that have gained some acceptance not only by his own fans, but by the far less mainstream world of punk rock as well. And it’s not just about the anger, the frustration, the aggression that are common to both worlds. It’s that the stark rawness both of the Darkness album and of the punk rock movement are both rooted in the music of Williams and Cash, of Presley and Cochran, artists whose own music was born of the old time country and blues of the rural south. It’s no accident that both Bruce and The Clash have gravitated to Bobby Fuller, that both Springsteen and Social Distortion have covered Johnny Cash.

Why then is Bruce still such a hard sell to the next couple generations of punk rockers? Why do they embrace Mike Ness and Joey Ramone and not see that Springsteen and those punk artists exist on different branches of the same tree?

I have a thirty-something friend who plays in a couple pop-punk bands in his home state of New Jersey. I met him at a New York Dolls show and we talked for hours about that scene, about The Ramones and The Heartbreakers and all that came after. Yet he was surprised to learn that I wrote for a Springsteen fan magazine. Considered Bruce's work kind of hokey, far too broad and mainstream to be considered outsider music in the punk vein. I tried to tell him how outside Springsteen once was, what a difficult sell the Darkness album was in its time. How Bruce used to hang out with Patti Smith and Robert Gordon and Joey Ramone, how they would come to see him play. But in his mind Bruce is just that guy waving the flag, the guy his parents listened to.

I don’t know if Bruce will ever completely come to terms with the wealth and notoriety that accompany mainstream success. As though music weren’t a job, as though being both well-known and commercially successful weren’t much of the reason that musicians do what they do. In addition, I have never been altogether sure that Bruce himself has been completely comfortable with some of the compromises he has had to make in his life as a result of that mainstream success: the loss of privacy and of some of the artistic freedom that comes from not having to appeal to a mass audience. I think he has, in some sense, felt trapped by that lack of freedom, and has only recently begun to understand that it has always been within his power to reclaim it.

As for me, well, I’m going to buy two copies of that Darkness reissue next year: one for me, and one for my punk rock friend. Because I think it’s time to listen to those songs again; to give them the freedom to speak for themselves that Bruce himself finally seems to have rediscovered. And, well, that punk needs to learn a thing or two about the record that Pete Townshend himself once called "fuckin' triumph, man."

Sunday, December 06, 2009

What Lies Beneath

I know my grandfather’s name was John Edward Peters and my grandmother married him because he was a good dancer. He liked to party, but he had a dark side too, a side that remains a mystery. He, like many, lost a large fortune after the stock market crash of ’29; he married my grandmother not long after. My grandfather never recovered from the loss, and his black moods and drinking increased until finally my grandmother threw him out; she eventually divorced him when my mother was five or six years old.

She married her second husband in 1941, and he went off to the war in Europe. My grandfather served in Europe as well. We don’t know much about his service except that he saw action in Germany and returned with “combat fatigue” for which he received no treatment; it was his second major breakdown. There may have been more, I’m not sure. I'm also not sure why they let him in the service in the first place with his history of mental trouble.

He returned to Baltimore after the war, and though my mother and her older brother rarely saw him, he did send her spending money--$10 a month or so—while she attended the University of Maryland, from which she graduated in 1955. My mother tells me that he would occasionally turn up in her neighborhood around this time, that he followed her and tried to catch glimpses of her. These days you would call it stalking, I guess, but back then it was just considered creepy. My mom says he once made some inappropriate comments to her, and that she doesn’t remember seeing him after that. He died some years later.

Is this where the darkness and despair come from? Do my own mood swings and depression and self-destructive behavior come from the Peters side? And what if they do? Does this change anything, or is it just an excuse? I don’t know. I just know that I need to know more about this mysterious, malevolent figure whom his own children rarely saw. I don’t know if I believe in the concept of closure or not; I just know that there’s a part of me that belongs to him, and I cannot rest without knowing more.