Bruce Springsteen is big.
He is a big rock and roll star. He writes big songs about big ideas. His songs are expansive. Encompassing. Explosive. Gothic. Grandiose.
In 1975, Springsteen released the big Born to Run, a signature, seminal album filled with creation fables, escape stories, and tragic tales of redemption and retribution. It was the biggest selling album of his career to date, it put him on the cover of Time and Newsweek magazines at the same time, and he and the E Street Band toured the world for much of 1975 and 1976.
When it came time to record a follow-up to Born to Run, Springsteen could have tried to copy the template and success that brought him worldwide attention and acclaim, or he could have done something different. He did something different. And big. In 1978, he released the brilliant, comparatively dark and moody, Darkness on the Edge of Town album.
Though still firmly rooted in the mythic landscape of Springsteen’s home state of New Jersey, the new album reflected what he had seen traveling around the world, and the impression the barren desert of the American west made on him.
“The Promised Land” kicks off side 2 of Darkness on the Edge of Town, and the listener is already drowning in melodic hopelessness, tinged with just a touch of love, adventure and intrigue. And then we hear a loud double tap on the snare drum, and Springsteen wails away on the harmonica, sounding like a cross between Woody Guthrie and Sonny Boy Williamson.
“On a rattlesnake speedway in the Utah desert
I pick up my money and head back into town
Driving ‘cross the Waynesboro county line
I got the radio on and I’m just killing time
Working all day in my daddy’s garage
Driving all night chasing some mirage
Pretty soon little girl I’m gonna take charge.”
This same, nameless hard working, blue collar leading man appears in many of Springsteen’s songs. Nine to five jobs that don’t pay enough. Weekends that don’t come soon enough. Cars that don’t drive fast enough. Dreams that don’t come true.
“The dogs on Main Street howl
‘Cause they understand
If I could take one moment into my hands
Mister I ain’t a boy, no, I’m a man
And I believe in a promised land.”
He recognizes who he is, and where he is at. But there is opportunity, and he has to take that opportunity into his hands. He believes.
“The Promised Land” was never a huge hit, but Springsteen plays the song at almost every single E Street Band concert. It speaks to us all. Springsteen is writing with each and every one of us in mind, as recognition of where we are trying to go and what we are trying to do.
“I’ve done my best to live the right way
I get up every morning and go to work each day
But your eyes go blind and your blood runs cold
Sometimes I feel so weak I just want to explode
Explode and tear this whole town apart
Take a knife and cut this pain from my heart
Find somebody itching for something to start”
In concert, the 30,000 audience members become one. Fists are raised in the air. A massive, singular voice chants along with Bruce as he speaks a truth every single audience member identifies with and understands. We chant. We sing. We dream.
The photo at the beginning of this article was inspiration for Bruce as he was imagining what it must be like to live, every day, in the middle of the sand and sky, dreaming about something else, some place else. Bruce describes this very image in the lyrics of “The Promised Land.”
“Well there’s a dark cloud rising from the desert floor
I packed my bags and I’m heading straight into the storm
Gonna be a twister to blow everything down
That ain’t got the faith to stand its ground
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”
At the opening of Springsteen’s recent Springsteen on Broadway show, he said “Now I’ve never held an honest job in my entire life. I’ve never done any hard labor. I’ve never worked nine to five. I’ve never worked five days a week until right now. I don’t like it. I’ve never seen the inside of a factory and yet it’s all I’ve ever written about. Standing before you is a man who has become wildly and absurdly successful writing about something of which he has had absolutely no personal experience. I made it all up. That’s how good I am.”
That line gets a big laugh and around of applause, but of course he’s wrong. He’s wrong and he knows it. Bruce stared into the dark cloud, and plowed right through it. With faith, courage and passion, he stood his ground and walked in our shoes. He imagined a life different than his. Better. Worse. Take your pick.
We all have dreams to remember, to share, and we all have a promised land of our own. Skittering just beneath that dark cloud rising above the desert floor.
“The Promised Land”
Written by Bruce Springsteen
Performed by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band
Released October 1978