Embroidery: Split Spine


There are almost 200,000 people living in the U.S. who were born with the birth defect Spina Bifida, and I'm one of them.

Spina Bifida literally means "split spine." Spina Bifida happens when a baby is in the womb and the spinal column does not close all the way. There are four different types of Spina Bifida, with varying degrees and types of disability they can cause.

Recently, during a tough time, I decided to make an embroidery piece of a spine, but a 'split spine'--one that never closed. I decided if I just left out the sacral elements, the impact wouldn't be the same, visually. But I also didn't want to try to embroider a meningocele. So I decided to do a flower similar in size. 

I made it for my cubicle, in what I'm going to call my Dark Corner. The rest of my cubicle is pastels and florals, lots of gold and pinks and light. But I have a blank wall that is basically hidden to anyone who isn't inside the cubicle (it's around the corner from the entrance). And in that Dark Corner, I'm putting this piece--my first ever embroidery on dark fabric, and certainly largest piece ever--next to some other black, stark art I've bought. The flower is the only color I intend to have in the 'gallery.' Everything else will be black and gray. It won't fit with the rest of the cubicle, but when have I ever kept to a single theme when it comes to decor?

#150: Darkness On the Edge of Town by Bruce Springsteen


Darkness On the Edge of Town by Bruce Springsteen (1978)

Favorite Tracks: "Badlands" and "Candy's Room" and "Racing in the Street" and "The Promised Land" and "Factory" and "Prove It All Night" and "Darkness On the Edge of Town"

Thoughts: Guys...guys....guys. Take a deep breath. Find someone you love and hold them tight. Make a wish. Take another deep breath.  The world is magic and we are alive. Darkness on the Edge of Town is here.

I've been MIA for a bit on this project/series, and frankly, it's this album's fault. I can't remember when I started this post, but a fear or not doing this album justice has kept me from wanting to hit 'publish.' I don't want to move on from it yet, even though I know more great albums await me.

This project often creates a strange sensation. No one is forcing me to go through this Rolling Stone list. If I wanted to, I could just review albums that I already know I like, and not listen to the ones that do nothing for me. But there's something about trudging through albums by groups like Red Hot Chili Peppers or Nine Inch Nails that make me truly appreciate getting to review albums like Darkness. It's an opportunity for me to feel grateful that these records exist, even though they've always been available for me to listen to. Not to mention the freedom I have to write about how they make me feel, well...I can thank the internet for that.

This is also gives me a chance to dig into an album as much as I can, more than I probably ever have before. For instance, in order to prepare fully for this review, I read Talk About A Dream: the Essential Interviews of Bruce Springsteen, watched The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town, Bruce Springsteen: A Conversation with His Fans, and Bruce Springsteen In Concert/MTV Unplugged--all of which the following quotes are from (along with Wikipedia of course).

I thought about holding back, wondering how much of this I'd already shared on other posts, tried to imagine ANYONE reading this whole thing, but in the end, I wrote this post for me, which meant I needed to give my all to it. (Which is the least Bruce has ever given to his music.)

Darkness wasn't an album I got to know until many years after I became a fan. My biggest albums of his when I started were The Rising and Born to Run. I had become a fan when my dad showed me the DVD of the band's reunion tour, Live in New York City, and then when 9/11 happened, The Rising kicked it into high gear. I didn't really listen to Darkness until 2010, when The Promise--an album of songs recorded for Darkness but that ultimately didn't make the cut--was released. I bought it for my dad for Christmas, ripped it for myself (thanks, Dad!) and then promptly forgot to listen to it.

What little I had heard of Darkness up to that point didn't seem to have the frenetic energy and youthful romantic ideals that I'd found in Born to Run, and so it just sat in my music library...until Feb. 2011. I saw a clip of Bruce Springsteen: A Conversation with Fans, where he got an amazing question: "What character from [Darkness on the Edge of Town/The Promise] would you most want your children to understand?"
"Racing in the Street" sums up a lot for me. I suppose I would like them to be...untouched by that particular sadness. If I could, you know? But that's not the way the world works.
This hit me hard. 2011 was my first year since 2008 without my facing another major surgery for my Spina Bifida. That medical journey had stripped me of so many hopes and dreams and strength. I hadn't heard "Racing in the Street"--or if I had, I didn't remember it. I opened up Youtube and and listened to the first video that popped up. Like so many artists with massive discographies, sometimes songs wait for you to find them. They're not on the Greatest Hits compilations, they don't come up first in iTunes searches. They sit in the background, waiting for you to be ready to discover them. The very things about Darkness that had made me ignore it--it's very literal darkness and disillusionment--were now the reason I connected with it most. I no longer saw the world through Born to Run glasses, like my stage for acting out epic dramas and living life to its absolute fullest. Now I just needed to know how to make it day to day, how to keep living in the midst of loss and isolation. Darkness asks those same questions.

Bruce was 27 when he began to write Darkness, and was in the midst of recovering from the massive success of Born to Run in 1975 (which is waiting gloriously for me in my reviewing future). In 1976 he was also embroiled in a lawsuit with his former manager (his contract said he couldn't go in the studio with a producer not approved by the manager--his "only form of protest" and means of keeping control over his own work was to choose to not record at all). He was facing the financial reality that his next record--if not as successful as Born to Run--could be the last record he might ever get to make. There was no guarantee of tomorrow, just this moment in time.

Fortunately, the lawsuit went in Bruce's favor, and he was able to start recording with the E Street Band in October 1977 in New York. Bruce had written about 10 songs for Born to Run (8 made the cut), but with the 3 year break from recording, Bruce came to the studio with SEVENTY songs in hand, including "multi-versions" of the same songs. Almost all of these songs--usually those with a stronger 'pop' feel--wouldn't make it onto Darkness, but would go on to make it onto The River or Tracks or even later, The Promise in 2010.

One such song was "Because the Night," which Bruce brought to Patti Smith (through their mutual engineer/producer Jimmy Iovine) to help him finish the lyrics and then for her to ultimately record, because in his words:
I knew I wasn't gonna be able to finish this song...because it was a love song, and I really felt like I didn't know how to write them at the time. There were so many of them out there, I figured I'd do something different. And also a real love song like "Because the Night"--I was reticent to write...I think I was too cowardly to write at the time. But she was very brave. She had the, you know...she had the courage.
It went on to be Patti's only hit record. In fact, the two 'biggest' songs written and recorded for the album didn't make it onto Darkness, but were also released in 1978. One was Patti's, and the other was "Fire" which was a (problematic) song also made famous by women: The Pointer Sisters.

I think the hefty number of songs Bruce brought to the studio explains why an album that took 5 months to record still sounds fresh. Over those 5 months they were recording so many songs that the ones that made it to the album still ended up being 'new' to the band in the studio. This is thanks to Bruce's approach to recording:
I usually don't teach the band the songs until we're in the studio, until we're about to record. Then I show them the chords real quick, so that they can't learn how to play it, because the minute they start learning to play it, they start figuring out parts and they get self-conscious. But the first two takes when they're learning it, they're worried about just hanging on. So they're playing right at the edge, and they're playing very intuitively, which is in general how our best stuff happens right now.
Another Patti, Patti Scialfa, Bruce's wife since 1991 (and a kick-ass musician and E street band member in her own right), has a great perspective on why the songs that didn't make Darkness didn't end up belonging on the record.
I know there were a lot of brilliant songs that were written that just didn't make the album. They would have altered the picture. When you look at Darkness, the person's not really attached to anybody else in that record. There are no love songs on that record.
The romantic, escapist dreamer narrator of Born to Run was not in the same place as the narrator in Darkness. E Street Band's drummer Max Weinberg:
One of the elements that was so striking between Born to Run and Darkness: on Born to Run you had the characters saying, you know, "Baby, we were born to run. We're gonna get out." In the ensuing three years between Born to Run and Darkness, it was made painfully clear: you can't just run away.
Music writers Roger Scott and Patrick Humphries:
There was a brash exuberance to his debut Greetings From Asbury Park in 1973. With verbose enthusiasm, Springsteen crammed everything into his debut like it was his last chance. Born to Run in 1975 was an album of epic panache, Springsteen elevating the street suss characters of his first two albums into heroes of the American Dream, arriving at their rock 'n' roll goal in burned-out Chevys. By Darkness on the Edge of Town in 1978, the dream had turned sour, and the album's 10 songs dealt in the darkness of disillusionment and despair."
Today,  Bruce describes Darknesss thusly:
A reckoning with the adult world...with a life of limitations and compromises...but also a life of resilience and a commitment to the breath in your lungs, you know? How do I keep faith with those things? How do I honor those things? ...That was the question that record asked over and over and over again.
 Adult life is a life of a lot of compromise, and...that's necessary. There's a lot of things that hey, you should be compromising on. And there are some essential things where you don't want to compromise, you know. So figuring those things out. What's the part of life where you need to compromise your get feed your make your way through the world. And then what's the part of life where's a part of yourself that you can't compromise with, or you lose yourself.
...It's a meditation on 'where are you going to stand? With who, and where are you gonna stand?
 After the year of recording, listening to all the stuff that we had, I stripped the record down to its--really its barest and most austere elements, and I decided I wanted something that felt like a tone poem, and I didn't want any distractions from the narrative and the stories that I was telling. And I wanted to have a sort of...apocalyptic grandeur.
Are you ready for me to get to the songs already? We're getting there, I promise! The album's mixer, Charles Plotkin:
It's not an ordinary sounding record. It captures the band in its leanest. You hear in the aural environment things struggling to make a place for themselves; it's not a grand, smooth, open space. It's a harder and darker place. You hear the dynamic of the players fighting for space inside the music. If you get the voice too high, it sounds always feels like much ado about nothing. You can't get it way out in front. You gotta get it just so that it's some kind of intelligible. So when all hell is breaking loose, it's...there's that strain as a mixer to keep the voice tucked that you feel like you could understand the words if you wished to try harder.
I think that quote's the perfect intro to this album. Let's go.

1) "Badlands" 

(Album Version.)

My introduction to this song was from the Live in New York City concert. It's perfect for live shows, because of the arm punch you get to do for each "Bad" and "lands" in the song, not to mention the "whoa-whoa-whooooa"'s. I've been fortunate enough to get to see it in person. And when my sister and I road-tripped through North Dakota, she kindly let me listen to this song on repeat. I've wanted to try karaoke-ing it but (Bruce would agree) it's a real voice-strainer. Like most anthems, it sounds best sung in large groups, and I don't think any of my karaoke friends know it. :)

Darkness has a more rural flair to it than Bruce's previous work, but it doesn't keep Clarence from delivering an epic saxophone solo--an instrument not usually found on 'heartland' tracks--on this track.

I wanted to post just my favorite lyrics but it turns out that's all of them, so instead I'll direct your attention to the lead up of the second bridge (and the bridge itself) which gives me the chills every damn time. I mean, WATCH THE WHOLE DAMN VIDEO, but if you must skip to the guitar solo that leads to the sax solo and then the second bridge build to 2:36 (when he starts vocalizing at 3:41 my whole body starts humming):

2) "Adam Raised a Cain"

When I was last at my parents' house I played Darkness on the turntable two times in a row. And both times the opening of "Adam Raised A Cain" made me jump out of whatever reverie I was in from listening to "Badlands." I remember even thinking, "Oof, what a rough transition! This song is so hard." So when I watched the making of documentary, I LOVED hearing how Bruce described the song to the album mixer, Charles Plotkin:
And [Bruce] says, "Look, I'm-a tell you a little somethin' about this song..." He says, "Here's what I want you to do: Imagine you're in a movie theater. On the screen is the two lovers havin' a picnic. And then, the camera shock-cuts to a dead body. Every time this song comes up on the album," he says, "This song is that dead body."
I mean, WHAT. And it's true, the song is shocking and disruptive and harsh, but oh-so-good. I didn't used to like Bruce's harder rock songs, but this one delivers. Bruce has stated it's semi-autobiographical, but that the ultimate question the song is asking is "How do we honor our parents?"

(Apparently the song is in the series finale of Sons of Anarchy, but I haven't brought myself to finish season 7 yet.)

3) "Something in the Night"

(Album version.)

I confuse the title of this song with "Spirit in the Night" which is a fun rocker. But "Something in the Night" couldn't be more different. It's slow and contemplative and depressing. I love it. The studio version has nice accompaniment, but I really love the version Bruce sometimes did on the road, with just the piano, which is what I embedded above (though the concert's from 1976 so the song was still in formative stages, lyrically). It's almost a taste of what's to come with "Racing In the Street."

4) "Candy's Room"

(Album version.)

Confession: In the past I've always avoided listening to "Candy's Room" because of the name. I didn't like that her name was Candy, and I didn't like the idea of Bruce in a room owned by a girl named Candy. I now am ashamed of that, A) because people named Candy didn't pick their own name, or B) even if they did, they deserve love too, or even C) if they can get a rock star in their room, more power to them. Basically, I want to support other women, no matter their name or what rock stars they get to come into their rooms.

Plus, it turns out the song is super, super, super good. I mean, the guitar solo alone gives me goosebumps. Even though it's got a quick beat and raucous energy, it's probably the closest thing to a love song on the album, but as writer Dave Marsh says, "[Bruce is capable] of tying together his hopes and fears--the most joyous of songs are awash with brutal undercurrents." The lyrics do infer that Candy is either a sex worker or 'sugar baby' to other men, and won't paint the narrator as her rescuer:

There's a sadness hidden in that pretty face
A sadness all her own
From which no man can keep Candy safe

But compared to the next song (the last one on Side A), "Candy's Room" might as well be "What a Wonderful World."

5) "Racing in the Street"

(Album version.)

Well, here we are. The song Dave Marsh calls "the line of demarcation separating casual Springsteen fans from the fanatics." And it's no joke. Have you listened to this song on repeat driving through the streets at night? I have. It doesn't get old. It gets depressing as F**K, but it doesn't get old. (Wikipedia goes so far as to call it a "near-dirge-like ballad.")

I have more than one version of the song, both with different vehicles. The first is the album version, which is:
I got a '69 Chevy with a 396
Fuelie heads and a Hurst on the floor

Yes, I definitely had to ask my dad what 'fuelie heads' and 'hurst on the floor' were. The live version I first heard has:
I got a '32 Ford, she's a 318

And yes, I also had to ask the difference between a 396 and a 318. For the how big a fan I am of Bruce and Meatloaf, I really need to take some time to learn more about how cars and motorcycles work. Anyway, back to the song. Bruce described the song thusly:
"You know, a lot of the songs deal with my obsession with the idea of sin and what is it? What is it in a good life? Because it plays an important place in a good life, also. How do you deal with it? You don't get rid of it. How do you carry your sins? That's what the people in "Racing in the Street" are trying to do. How do you carry your sins?"
When I hear the opening notes of Roy Bittan's piano, usually in my own car, I always have to take a deep breath. Take a deep breath, slow down, and get in touch with my own melancholy.  It's just a really, really perfect song.

The album version starts out with just Bruce and the piano, but eventually adds Max's percussion and Danny's organ. I love it, but I think the piano-only versions are so powerful. If I could, I'd fill this whole post with one version after another, but if I have to hedge my bets that you will probably only listen to one, I have to pick one. This is a solo take, an early demo, again with alternate lyrics. I can't confirm it, but I really like to imagine that Bruce is playing the piano...

(A wonderful live version from 1978Emmylou's cover, Patty Griffin's cover.)

6) "The Promised Land"

This is what I like to refer to as a 'tattoo song,' though it would more appropriately be called a 'someday tattoo song.' There are lyrics here that I want put on my body permanently, I just can't decide where or the font (or when to get it). It's day might be coming soon.

Bruce on the question this song asks: "How do we honor the community and the place we came from?"

The energy and angst of the studio version is perfect for a long drive (like most Bruce songs). But I think I listened to it for years without really hearing the lyrics. When I really discovered the bridge, it was what Julia Alvarez calls 'touching bottom' in my life, in the way when you're in a body of water and you sink down and touch the bottom--it's grounding, surprising, clarifying. You're moving through life untethered, when all of a sudden, something--a person, an idea, a song, a poem--shows you where you are.

I always took "Promised Land" to be a song like so many others, about longing for and dreaming about something better somewhere else. But in the bridge, Bruce's character (to me, at least) releases himself and commands you to do the same:
Blow away the dreams that tear you apart
Blow away the dreams that break your heart
Blow away the lies that leave you nothing but lost and brokenhearted
I don't know if it was his intention, but to me, these instructions seem antithetical to so many of Bruce's themes of keep trying, keep dreaming, keep fighting, don't give up, you'll make it. But with these lyrics, I feel asked to examine my dreams. Is what I'm dreaming of possible? Is what I'm dreaming of something I've been told I deserve/can have, but that's not true? Are my dreams keeping me broken-hearted and lost? Do I need different dreams--dreams that are not only attainable, but life-giving and good for me?

Based off what Bruce has said about the song, I think he wanted those questions to the ones the song might make you ask.
"Deep despair, and yet resilience...and determination, assessment of limitations, desire to transcend those limitations in the way that you can."
In specific reference to the lyrics I included above:
"You had to lose your illusions, you know. You had to lose your illusions, while at the same time holding on to some sense of possibilities, you know. But more so, your illusions of adult life, and a life without limitations, which I think everyone dreams of and imagines at a certain point. The song that needs to be sung is this song about well, how do you deal with those things and move on to a creative life and a spiritual life, a satisfying life, and a life where you can just, make your way through the day and sleep at night?"
So much of Born to Run encapsulates that youthful idea of a 'life without limitations,' a life with endless possibilities and potential. But this song, and so much of Darkness, is about growing up and facing real limitations, real responsibilities, which explains why it didn't appeal to me much back in high school and college when I brushed it off as a downer album. But even in facing the reality of our lives and situations, how do you move on to have a creative and spiritual life, one that's satisfying and manageable? The promised land isn't one where you get everything you want at no cost. Maybe it's where you choose what's most important to you, and learn to live in harmony with those choices.

(Live solo acoustic version.)

7) "Factory" 

Bruce on the song:
"How do we honor the life that our brothers or sisters and parents lived?"
"That [song] was just the paradox of earning your living and getting life from a place that also takes--takes a lot out of you...which was just something I saw as a kid because my dad lost his hearing [working in a plastics factory]."
"There's people that get a chance to do the kind of work that changes the world, and makes things really different. And then there's the kind that just keeps the world from falling apart. And that was the kind my dad always did."
I mean, I don't think I can add anything to that. A beautiful, heart-breaking tribute.

8) "Streets of Fire"

This is probably my least favorite song on the album, but only because there's so many other good ones. This is a spectacular vocal performance by Bruce. I love the organ.

9) "Prove It All Night"

(Album version.)

For the promotion of the album, a giant billboard was put up on the Sunset Strip. Bruce said it was "the ugliest thing I've ever seen." So one night Bruce and members of the band and crew decided to vandalize it. "We just got out the paint and started to work on the thing. And then we wrote "Prove It All Night" and I wanted to get-- I wanted to write E Street, the band's name up there, so Clarence says, "well, get on my shoulders." So I got on his shoulders and we're like six stories up, five stories up, and I'm saying, "Clarence, you tired yet?" He says, "no, I got you, Boss, I got you." Clarence"--I'd do a letter--"you tired yet?" He'd say, "no, no, I got you, I got you..." I looked back and it was nothing but the pavement. But it was fun to do."

This is the 2nd song in the New York concert, and it's intro still makes me so, so happy. It's a killer love song, too.
Everybody's got a hunger, a hunger they can't resist,
There's so much that you want, you deserve much more than this,
But if dreams came true, oh, wouldn't that be nice,
But this ain't no dream we're living through tonight,
Girl, you want it, you take it, you pay the price. 
These lyrics remind me of one of my favorite MST3k lines.
Character [SINGING]: "I wish I had a castle in the sky." 
Mike: "Well, wish in one hand and crap in the other, and see which one piles up first."
Well, it's not quite as dark as that, but it recognizes that getting what you deserve or want isn't usually how the world works. And on those rare occasions when it does, there's still a price to pay.

I would tell you the timestamp for this song in the video, but there's only one song before it and you should really listen to it, too.

10) "Darkness on the Edge of Town"

Perfect song is perfect. Perfect, perfect, perfect. I've run out of ways to say how good this album is.

Is This Better Than Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy?:

Don't make me choose, I can't compare Elton and Bruce. But Darkness is now the album the rest on the list will be measured by!