December 15th, 2018, marks the 40th anniversary of the greatest rock show ever.
In June of 1978, Bruce Springsteen, then four years into his tenure as “the future of rock and roll,” released Darkness on the Edge of Town. The title unsubtly and theatrically announced a break from Springsteen’s past – and arguably rock and roll’s.
The invoice for romanticized juvenile delinquency and the ardent escapism portrayed in his earlier songs had come due – and it was a grim reckoning. The album launches on our protagonist’s desperate panic in realizing he has spent his life – all 29 years of it — “waiting for a moment that just don’t come” – and the song cycle swirls fitfully downward from there.
Springsteen and his band embarked on the austerely-named “Darkness Tour” in May of 1978, before the album was released, a series of shows that his fans universally revere and continue to loudly proclaim, in all manner of public forum, gratitude for having been lucky enough to attend. A key accelerant in the tour’s legendary status were several FM radio simulcasts of complete shows – the Roxy in LA on KMET (July), the Agora in Cleveland on WMMS (August), the Capitol Theater in Passaic, NJ, on WNEW and WBCN Boston, the Fox Theater in Atlanta on stations throughout the Southeast (both September), and finally Winterland in San Francisco on KSAN on December 15th, 1978. Every rock fan of a certain age is triggered at some level by this list – cassette tapes of these broadcasts circulated prodigiously for decades, and the recordings are all still easily accessed on the internet. Arguments regarding how the shows rank against one another persist as one of the leading symptoms of arrested development in the United States today.
In some circles, the Cleveland show is held in highest regard. It is a rollicking midsummer night’s dream, highlighted by the rolling amusement park organ of then-unreleased “Paradise by the C,” the exuberance of then unreleased “Sherry Darlin’” and the quasi-beatnik CV — he took “month-long vacations in the stratosphere!!” — recounted in “Growin’ Up.” But as the tour pressed on and the days got shorter, the promised Darkness began to descend.
By the time the band rolled into San Francisco, it was deepest winter, just days before the solstice. Listened to in light of Springsteen’s recent revelations of his lifelong battle with depression, the show fairly seethes with despondence, recrimination, and fading hope. While listening to the 15+ hours of archived simulcast recordings to get the full context of what leads up to this moment in Springsteen history is more than the one may be willing to invest, the reader is advised to check in to the KSAN broadcast about an hour and a half in to experience the tormented apex of the era. Accompanied by a sad Roy Bittan bell-toned piano melody, Springsteen starts into one of his trademark stories (Amp lugging! Snow! The Boardwalk! Steve!) about a particularly dispiriting Christmas past. The gloom is momentarily, whimsically lifted when saxophonist Clarence Clemons takes the stage, amid a wash of jingle bells, dressed as Santa Claus, to the audible delight of the crowd. But as it is wont to do, the thought of Christmas drives Springsteen into a seasonal affective ditch, seemingly bottomless, in the music that follows.
The E Street band, touring behind their new hit record, takes this opportunity to launch into a string of songs not on any Springsteen record. First up is “Fever,” an early classic gifted to Southside Johnny and his Asbury Jukes, who recorded it to some acclaim. In it, the narrator is distracted, sleepless, and haunted by his failure to hold on to a lost love – a love that grows, like a sickness, in direct proportion to its hopelessness. Springsteen sings it in a vaguely Waits-ian slur, extemporizing a long slow outro focused on unconvincing proclamations of intent to survive (“I’m gonna be all! (bang) right! (bang) now”), and shutting off the lights. The long-promised Darkness is upon us.
Next is “Fire,” a less-early classic gifted to retro rockabilly Robert Gordon, and brilliantly recorded to chart success by the perennially underappreciated Pointer Sisters. How is the weather, you ask? Well, there appears to be a disagreement on this point between our narrator and the object of his affection. “The kisses, they burn, but your heart stays cool.” The listener is left with no reason to believe this will end well.
The unrequited love parade continues to “Candy’s Room,” an actual commercially available song from the latest album. In it, our narrator runs, to the strains of Max Weinberg’s insistent high hat, to see his fancy call-girl would-be girlfriend. Where? “You gotta walk the darkness of Candy’s hall.” There is speculation about what she feels, what her clients don’t know, and what she really wants. What is not in question is our narrator’s willingness to give anything to have Candy to himself, and the utter impossibility of such an outcome. Sadness and need comingle among all parties. It’s not good.
You would be forgiven for pondering why Bruce is endlessly fascinated with these tragic, fractured, yet somehow irresistible and bewitching relationships. At this juncture of the show, he seems to sense our puzzlement, and provides this answer: “Because the Night.” Here is yet another shelved Springsteen classic, gifted to Patti Smith, who would come to be a co-writer on the song. It’s an anthem about the power of love that you probably have sung along with at some point in your life. Our narrator reassures his lover repeatedly, “They can’t hurt you now.” It’s unclear who “they” are, but it can’t be ruled out that he’s talking about his hands. Behind an agonized, virtuosic, and exceptionally gnarly space rock guitar intro and an emotionally fraught vocal performance, “Because the Night” may be the most harrowing passage in the sequence.
Does Springsteen inject some comic relief, some frat rock, some HOPE into the proceedings at this point, anything? With listeners all throughout the Bay Area flailing in the ditch Bruce has dragged them into, and unsure they’ll ever resurface? In a word, no. Remember, this is the Darkness Tour. It’s December 15th , one of those unreasonably short, merciless, cold days on which the warmth of the sun is a distant dream in both directions. The first words sung in the show were “Lights out tonight.” Bruce and his band are at Winterland – WINTERLAND!! The band starts into another new, previously unheard song, possibly left off of Darkness because it was just too bleak. In it, our narrator appears to reconnect with the girl from “Fever” – and she is no longer, shall we say, in her prime. “These days you don’t wait on Romeos. You wait on that welfare check.” At the risk of stating the obvious, Springsteen has dragged all of us, his adoring fans, flawed characters, dutiful band, sister Mary, the whole night gallery, to one inescapable conclusion. Nothing is gonna be all right. What is on the other side of all this darkness? “You wake up. And you’re dying. You don’t even know what from.”
Check out the complete show here.