The transcript for last week’s The Story Grid Podcast is running behind this week, so I thought I’d feature something I wrote for Steve Pressfield’s site, www.stevenpressfield.com way back in 2015. It concerns the Five Commandments of Storytelling and the making of Bruce Springsteen’s fourth album, Darkness on the Edge of Town. And I highly recommend the documentary about the making of the album called The Promise. Plus Springsteen’s autobiography is terrific too.
There’s a very instructive moment about the education of a writer in the documentary film, The Promise, a Story nerd nirvana experience about the making of Bruce Springsteen’s fourth album, Darkness on the Edge of Town.
Do you know this story?
Bruce Springsteen was that slight, shy but indomitable guy that those of us who grew up in the industrial heartland of America in the 1960s and 1970s all had at least one of in our school classes.
The Springsteen kid didn’t play football or run for student council or get straight “A”s. But we could all tell that beneath the dirty flannel shirt and primary layer wife-beater t-shirt, lurked the heart of a poet. He’d blurt out some bon mot when no one expected or banged out a rockabilly version of fur elise on the music teacher’s battered upright before class. And those of us jockeying for hierarchical supremacy in the secondary school madding crowd would look at each other, raise an eyebrow and nod respect.
But these kinds of guys all ended up in the same place before Springsteen came around. They’d usually knock up their first girlfriends, get married, and end up at the mill or as assistant manager of the meat counter at Piggly Wiggly…doing their best to make ends meet…getting one day into the next. Whining about wouldas, couldas, and shouldas (I would have been something, could have been something, should have been something if not for…) on bar stools across town.
But Bruce was different…he refused to dive into that dirty and pathetic river.
The beginning hook of the Springsteen narrative is irresistible.
Dad’s a factory worker/bus driver/blue collar guy almost always out of work. Mom is a legal secretary. They live in New Jersey…not Princeton either, like the real New Jersey. Son and father don’t get along so well. When dad stays at home while mom’s pulling in the wages, it ain’t easy on the old manhood. And a man can’t come down on his two girls like he can on his only son.
The inciting incident for the tormented son is aural. The messengers are named Woody, Frank, Elvis, Bob, and Phil. Those five poor boys got out of nowheresville and “made it.” Maybe if the boy does what they did, he can too…
He learns guitar and works out some rudimentary piano, but somehow knows he has to master words to express his vision. Problem is he really doesn’t have a vision, just instinct.
Here’s the moment in the documentary that struck me:
“I go back to most of my writing before “Greetings,” [Springsteen’s first album was Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J.] and it all appears simply terrible to me. You’re still writing a lot of bad words, you’re writing a lot of bad verses, ah so…try and learn how to write well. But your artistic instinct is what you’re going on…your artistic intelligence hasn’t been developed yet. Hopefully that increases and develops over a long period of time. Which gives you an ace to play down the road as you get older. At the time I’m going on artistic instinct and that’s a wide open game…I’m following all kinds of paths…all kinds of roads…and I’m going…that doesn’t feel right…that doesn’t feel right…that doesn’t feel right…that’s how I’m judging.”
Even though he’s a kid, Springsteen’s a writer, so he writes.
Fills notebook after notebook with terrible crap while absorbing the sounds that come from his radio, his mother and father’s phonograph, the seaside beach bars bands, the organ grindings from amusement parks and roller rinks, the clank and rattle from Freehold’s plastics factory etc.
He plays in bands beginning at age sixteen, The Castiles, Earth, Child, Steel Mill, Dr. Zoom and the Sonic Boom, Sundance Blues Band, The Bruce Springsteen Band, and keeps writing.
Progressive complications arise.
For ill: Band members leave, new ones must be broken in, being an opening act for headliners proves soul-crushing…through it all Springsteen keeps following his instincts. Keep writing, keep generating ideas. Think about SOUND PICTURES…
And for Good: The booking agent for Steel Mill, Carl West, tells an up and coming manager named Mike Appel about Springsteen.
Springsteen plays his best song for Appel who asks him if he has anything else. He doesn’t. Come back when you do. Most people never go back after hearing that.
This is 1971 and Springsteen’s twenty-two years old. He returns to Appel in the winter of 1972 with more stuff and Appel signs him as a solo act. A deal that is industry standard, but nevertheless a one-sided contract giving Appel a stranglehold over Springsteen’s material and production…for life. Springsteen’s instinct says he should sign anyway.
Appel convinces legendary CBS Records executive John Hammond to audition Springsteen. Hammond agrees to a three record deal.
Released in January 1973, Springsteen’s first album, Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ in which CBS positions him as “the new Dylan,” bombs. So does his second album released that November, The Wild, The Innocent, and The E-Street Shuffle.
His musical and lyrical instincts are at times impressive, Blinded by the Light is re-recorded by the Manfred Mann Earth Band and it becomes a huge hit record,
Momma always told me not to look into the eyes of the sun
But momma, that’s where the fun is,
but the whole is not greater than the sum of its parts. Greetings and Wild are remarkable works…but they don’t gel and transition from one song to next in cohesive ways.
They don’t tell a global story. They’re story collections, not novels.
Granted, the record album as “novel” had only recently evolved…but any musician worth his salt knew immediately that the Global Story Album was the future. What was that novel album that shattered the form?
I’d argue that while Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was seminal, the concept album as coherent beginning, middle, and end didn’t arrive until Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon released in March 1973, right in between Bruce’s debut and his follow-up.
With two failed records behind him, Springsteen is down to his last chance. He’s reached his “all is lost” crisis…one of many more to come…
Still only twenty four years old, the Crisis of the Beginning Hook of his professional life story has arrived.
Will he play it safe and take a lesson from his one hit song and do more of that kind of work? An album full of Blinded by the Light riffs, playing up his “new Dylan” credentials?
Or will he stop, think, and collect himself, and instead of thinking about single songs…think about the whole, the album?
The best bad choice crisis…playing to commercial necessity in order to hang on to a dream (the first choice) or coming up with some sort of overarching “vision” for an entire album built song by song that will in all likelihood be ignored (the second choice).
Of course we could look at this crisis in terms of irreconcilable goods too. Choice one would be good to keep his career alive, but it would destroy the goodness of remaining true to an inner vision. And vice versa.
Now’s a great time to pull out that ace, eh? What’s that ace again? Artistic Intelligence.
Here’s part of that quote in The Promise again:
“…But your artistic instinct is what you’re going on…your artistic intelligence hasn’t been developed yet. Hopefully that increases and develops over a long period of time. Which gives you an ace to play down the road as you get older.”
So what does Springsteen do?
In between live performances to keep the wolf from the doors of his E Street band mates and himself, he comes up with a controlling idea/theme for his last chance album.
He decides intellectually after being led by instinct for the first eight years of his artistic life that the theme of his longform Story album has to be ESCAPE…
Can we leave the lives we are born into? If so, how? What will deliver us from the forces, both external and internal, that keep us from finding our purpose? That convince us to silence ourselves, to give in, give up, quit…
The Climax of Springsteen’s rise is Born to Run, a song/album/novel stuffed to overflowing with America-defining lyrical and musical virtuosity. It’s as much Woody Guthrie, as it is Frank Sinatra, as it is Elvis Presley as it is Bob Dylan…and it’s wrapped up in an updated blue collar Phil Spector-ian Wall of Sound.
Baby this town rips the bones from your back, it’s a death trap, it’s a suicide rap, we got to get out while we’re young.
The message all over that album was clear…if you don’t fight for autonomy chasing your own dream/vision, forces will conspire against you and you’ll become a stranger to yourself, doing someone else’s bidding. It’s no coincidence that after a lover’s betrayal, the album ends with a mournful final warning… Jungleland’s existential howling at the moon.
We all know The Resolution to the beginning hook of Springsteen’s Story.
He made the cover of Time and Newsweek…he became the new new thing,
The Promise is about what happened next…that terrifying moment when you’ve made it over the wall of your own private prison, the hounds are still dogging you, but they’re miles off your trail and you’ve reached that place where you really want to go.
What do you do now?