As the 1960s gave way to the 1970s, hopes of a freer and more egalitarian society arising from the flower power revolution and the Summer of Love gave way to disillusion and disenchantment. The on-going quagmire of the Vietnam War, Watergate and the 1973 oil crisis were the touchstones of this new era. The downbeat tenor of the times crystallised in its music: down-to-earth, blue-collar rock songs that perfectly conveyed the anger, frustration and powerlessness felt by millions of disaffected youths. The primacy of the British mega-bands of the 1960s—The Beatles, The Stones, The Who, Led Zeppelin—was challenged by a new wave of guitar-wielding heroes. Among these, a skinny kid from the boardwalks of New Jersey was to emerge as the pre-eminent spokesman of his generation: Bruce Springsteen.

Springsteen signed to Columbia Records in 1972. He was quickly labelled with the toxic epithet of ‘the new Dylan’ and his first album, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J., made little impact. Its follow up, The Wild, the Innocent and the E-Street Shuffle, was as eclectic as its title. But among its roughly polished gems there was promise—enough for Rolling Stone columnist Jon Landau to pen his famous quote: “I saw rock and roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen.” (The stilted grammar makes sense in Landau’s original column, written at 4 AM after a show at the Harvard Square Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Springsteen opened for Bonnie Raitt.)

Millstone

Columbia seized on Landau’s phrase to aggressively promote their underachieving starlet. The problem was that Springsteen didn’t have a record that lived up to the quote. It became another millstone when recording of his third album stalled. Springsteen resolved the impasse by hiring Landau as co-producer of what emerged in August 1975 as CBS 69170—better known as Born to Run. Forty years later the album remains a rock ‘n’ roll landmark, a glorious sonic onslaught that seamlessly marries a take-no-prisoners rhythm section to layered guitars, horns and vocals reminiscent of Phil Spector’s ‘wall of sound’ recordings of the previous decade. The lyrics, for the most part, echo the music’s strident optimism: for all the setbacks endured by the songs’ characters there is an underlying belief, almost desperate at times, that with just one more try they will make something of their loves and lives.

Born to Run catapulted Springsteen into the rock stratosphere—and there, once again, he faltered. A legal wrangle with former manager Mike Appel delayed Springsteen’s return to the studio until mid-1977. By then he had amassed a heap of new material. The hard-working E-Street Band approached it with largely the same sonic formula that propelled Born to Run to rock ‘n’ roll immortality. But something didn’t sit right. As the months ticked by and Columbia grew increasingly irritated, Springsteen gradually pared back the arrangements. He stripped out the sugary 1960s influences, creating a new sound dominated by the raw, relentless bottom end and the crunch of his Fender Telecaster.

Darkness

Bruce Springsteen’s fourth album, Darkness on the Edge of Town, appeared in mid-1978. Gone was the happy-go-lucky rocker from the cover of Born to Run, leaning with joyful camaraderie on the shoulder of the Big Man, E-Street sax player Clarence Clemons. Instead, an older and wiser Springsteen leans alone in the doorway of an anodyne house. Gone also was the fingertip-hold on optimism of the cast of Born to Run. That one last attempt to “get out while we’re young” proved as fruitless as the rest, leaving Springsteen to gaze out at the world—through both the record sleeve and his characters—with the weary fatalism typical of the decade.

But Springsteen went further than just being fatalistic. He saw through the specifics of the failures occurring in people’s lives and drew on his own troubled upbringing to glimpse the force responsible for this endemic misery. Of the three dozen songs Springsteen recorded in this period, only ten fitted his all-consuming focus on that… that something… that relentlessly destroyed the lives of decent folk. As Springsteen biographer Dave Marsh observes, “All of it points toward something—not the darkness per se, but what might be concealed there, discoverable only by those with immense vision and will.” Springsteen initially labels this shapeless but all-powerful force ‘they’ in the aptly titled ‘Something in the Night’, the towering ballad that anchors side 1 of the Darkness on the Edge of Town LP:

You’re born with nothing
And better off that way
Soon as you’ve got something they send 
Someone to try and take it away

On the surface, it’s the working class struggle to establish access to property and education. ‘They’ represents authority: the government, the military, school, rock-phobic parents like Springsteen’s own father (and mine). This was the era of the draft when kids just out of high school were siphoned off to fight in South-east Asia. Many didn’t come back; many more returned but left some essential part of themselves in the jungles and rice paddies of the Mekong Delta. (Springsteen was drafted in 1967; he failed the medical due to a recent concussion in a motorcycle accident whose effects he somewhat over-elaborated.)

Accomplices

Throughout his late-70s releases the protagonists of Springsteen’s songs—along with their female accomplices: Wendy and Candy; Terry, Cherry and Sherry—rail against authority. Their only means of escape is the car, which assumes mythic proportions in Springsteen’s canon, though to no avail. In the denouement of ‘Something in the Night’ it is ‘they’ who know where to find you, ‘they’ who know how to hurt you, and ‘they’ who always prevail:

When we found the things we loved
They were crushed and dying in the dirt
We tried to pick up the pieces
And get away without getting hurt

But they caught us at the state line
Burned our cars in one last fight
Left us running burned and blind
Chasing something in the night

The song’s closing couplet suggests that this ‘something’ is not an external value like money, a qualification, status or social desirability. It refers instead to an entirely different value system, one that is invisible and internal; this explains why ‘they’ seem to have so much inside information. Clarification comes in the album’s final song, the monumental title track of Darkness on the Edge of Town:

Everybody’s got a secret, Sonny
Something that they just can’t face
Some folks spend their whole lives trying to keep it
They carry it with them every step that they take

Triumph

Despite the bleakness of Springsteen’s vision, fatalism does not equate with defeat. In the song’s final verse the singer sets his jaw and marches on, refusing to be cowed by the insuperable odds against him. “That’s fucking triumph, man,” opined The Who’s Pete Townshend, himself one of the most articulate lyricists in the business. But is it courage or simply a lack of alternatives? The song’s unsentimental outro makes it clear that Springsteen understands the question is immaterial. For the man who has nothing, to fight against the forces that keep him oppressed is the only source of dignity. Springsteen articulates this in ‘The Promise’, one of the many discarded songs from the Darkness sessions:

All my life, I fought this fight
The fight that no man can ever win
Every day it just gets harder to live
The dream you’re believing in

Why can no one ever win this fight? Darkness left the question unanswered, though it continued to trouble Springsteen. After a hugely successful world tour he returned to the studio to record his fifth album. Once again Springsteen had a wealth of new material to choose from—and this time he didn’t cut so deep. 1980 saw the release of the double-LP The River. In keeping with the change of decade, the album’s sound was brighter than its predecessor. Lyrically, there was a shift, too: the recurring presence of imagery referring to invisible chains, prisons and debts: ‘The Ties that Bind’, ‘Jackson Cage’, ‘The Price You Pay’. In the two years since Darkness on the Edge of Town Springsteen’s concept of ‘they’ evolved into an invisible force that is effectively a life sentence of misery:

In the Jackson Cage 
Down in the Jackson Cage 
You can try with all your might 
But you’re reminded every night 
That you’ve been judged and handed life 
Down in the Jackson Cage

Squirm

Springsteen circles this concept of an invisible prison throughout The River. Yet, for all his prowess as a writer, its specifics always seem to squirm away between the lines of the songs. Nowhere does he come closer to pinning it down than ‘Point Blank’, the 6-minute downbeat ballad that opens side 3:

Do you still say your prayers little darlin’
Do you go to bed at night
Prayin’ that tomorrow everything will be alright 
But tomorrows fall in number
In number one by one 
You wake up and you’re dying
You don’t even know what from

Gary Tallent’s bass rumbles like the distant thunder of a buffalo stampede. Max Weinberg cracks rim shots like Wyatt Earp at the OK Corral. The song relentlessly blasts away at the idea that this force, whatever it is, operates at point blank range. It resides within us—within our hearts, our minds, our veins, our very DNA—and over time it destroys all love, all joy, all hope:

Point blank, shot straight through the heart
Yeah, point blank
You’ve been twisted up till you’ve become
Just another part of it

Childhood

Here, with a Dylanesquely imperfect rhyme, Springsteen’s “vision and will” is truly immense: this force is so pervasive, so ubiquitous that it has become invisible. It hides in plain sight, where even the most talented songwriter of his generation can only glimpse it indirectly, through the devastation it wreaks on Springsteen’s own family and the working class neighbourhoods of his childhood.

“When I was growing up, there were two things that were unpopular in my house. One was me and the other was my guitar,” Springsteen used to quip in his live shows. In a working class family, another child is another mouth to feed, another drain on resources, another constraint on the time available to work. Physically and emotionally exhausted parents, themselves the products of this system, fail to nurture their children, instilling in them a lifelong sense of shame so profound it unconsciously impels them to wreck their own lives through poor decisions, rash impulses and destructive addictions.

As Springsteen observes in song after song, there is no escape from this—language fails me here just as it failed Springsteen. We have no vocabulary for the way shame makes us feel. And so we run—or try to—like countless of his songs’ protagonists. The closer Springsteen gets to the shadow of shame, the more auto-obsessed The River becomes: ‘Cadillac Ranch’, ‘Stolen Car’, ‘Drive all Night’. By ‘The Price You Pay’, the principled fatalism of Darkness on the Edge of Town has been replaced by the need to compromise simply to survive:

You make up your mind
You choose the chance you take
You ride to where the highway ends
And the desert breaks
Out onto an open road, you ride until the day
You learn to sleep at night with the price you pay

Futility

‘The Price You Pay’ is a paean to the futility of lives doomed from their outset. Bruce Springsteen was that one-in-a-million kid that the Zeus of rock ‘n’ roll reached down and zapped with the lightning bolt of divine talent, prodding the song’s protagonist, like his predecessors on Born to Run, into one last attempt at redemption:

So let the game start
You better run, you little wild heart 
You can run through all the nights and all the days 
But just across the county line
A stranger passing through put up a sign 
That counts the men fallen away to the price you pay
And, girl, before the end of the day
I’m gonna tear it down and throw it away

‘The Price You Pay’ ends with this defiant call, though The River itself closes with the dolorous ‘Wreck on the Highway’. Here the car—once the only source of salvation—becomes the avenging angel. Haunted by the sight of a wreck, the singer clings to his lover in the middle of the night and wonders how long it will be before some cataclysm strikes his own life. It’s not long in coming. In the first verse of the opening song of Springsteen’s next release, 1982’s stripped-to-the-bone Nebraska, the singer goes out driving with his girl—and shoots ten people dead.

With a career spanning nearly 50 years and over 60 million album sales in the US alone, Bruce Springsteen remains an iconic figure in the rock pantheon. The foundation of his success was a trilogy of late-70s albums where he—more successfully than any of his contemporaries—documented the dispiriting sense of shame shared by teenagers and young adults the world over. Though Springsteen never found the antidote to that shame, he gave us the vital sense that someone, somewhere, understood—and cared.