Courtesy of Mushroom Records
I first listened to Bruce Springsteen in a dark room my family nicknamed “The Dungeon”. It was hardly a room, more a basement space between the garage and the laundry. It had a cold stone floor, concrete walls and no windows. At night it was dark in there – can’t-see-your-hand-in-front-of-your-face, existential-panic dark.
I had shared a bedroom upstairs with my little brother, but when I turned 13, puberty blues prompted a desire for a room of my own, a desire so strong I was prepared to move into The Dungeon. It wasn’t that crazy really – a cousin of mine moved into the top space of a wardrobe.
In a way, of course, a dungeon is the perfect place for a teenager. There was an old rotary-dial phone that linked me to friends and the occasional girl, and I probably took up the conflicted hobby of masturbation down there. But mostly in that dark room, I just lay there listening to music.
I had a small, flat-deck tape player and, for a long time, just two blank TDK 90 cassettes, onto which I’d recorded four albums – one per side – from my elder brother’s collection. Five years older than me, he had a real stereo system, with real records, in a real teenage pad. I had The Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, Midnight Oil’s Head Injuries, and Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town. Apart from the typical blokey tastes, two of these titles contain a reference to darkness, one possibly to masturbation, and one arguably to mental health.
I would never rewind or forward these tapes, but just play them on a continuous rotation as I lay in the dark. I loved them all, but it was Springsteen who I found myself most eagerly waiting to come around again, launching into that opening riff of ‘Badlands’ with its appropriate opening line:
Lights out tonight
Trouble in the heartland
As a teenage boy in a dark suburban room, I was a long way from the turnpikes of New Jersey. I didn’t have a job, a car or a girl, just an Apollo 10-speed bicycle and a dungeon I called my own. What on earth was I connecting with here?
My favourite song was ‘Racing in the Street’, a song only a depressed teenager could love. It is a mostly depressing song about a guy with “a 69 Chevy with a 396, Fuelie heads and a Hurst on the floor”. I didn’t know what that was then and, not being a car nut, I still mostly don’t. But somehow I related to the song. There is a heartbreaking desolation in the story it tells:
When I come home the house is dark
She sighs, “baby did you make it all right?”
I must have been relating in my soul, because I hadn’t lived long enough to relate in any other way. Later in life we attach objects and experience to our fundamental longing, but back then the song just aligned with some kind of archetypal coding about emptiness and desire.
Unfortunately, my depression proved not to be just a teenage phase, but something I’ve struggled with for decades. It comes as no surprise to learn that Bruce has similarly suffered over the years. The signs have always been there in the music, but are often disguised by the upbeat popularity of many of his songs. There’s ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’, ‘Downbound Train’, ‘I’m Going Down’, and a song called ‘This Depression’. Heck, even when Bruce dances, he does it in the dark.
But I say ‘Racing in the Street’ is “mostly depressing” because, like so many of his songs, it culminates in some sort of redemptive escape. The closing instrumental lifts you out again. That is the power of the music. As Joe Strummer from The Clash once wrote, “The DJ plays ‘Racing in the Street’ and somehow life is worth living again.”
I’ve been riding with Bruce for more than 30 years since then, seen him live 10 times. And the reason is pretty simple: a Springsteen show is moving, powerful and a lot of fun, but above all, it is redemptive. I can’t think how many times I’ve been saved again by a new album, a new tour, or just by searching the back catalogue for a particular song that is the prescription for what ails. That’s why so many fans go back time and time again.
And now Bruce is returning to Australia, like my old TDK cassette coming round again, and I’ll be there once more, back in the arena, back in The Dungeon, dancing in the darkness.
» Richard Castles (@RichCastles) writes Hearsay for The Big Issue.
This article first appeared in Ed#529. For an extract from Springsteen's book Born to Run, buy a copy of The Big Issue before 10 Feb!