Revisiting Bruce Springsteen’s History-Making ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’ Tour
When the Darkness on the Edge of Town Tour kicked off at Shea Hall in Buffalo, N.Y. on May 23, 1978, Bruce Springsteen was looking to restart his career after nearly three years on the sidelines. By the time it ended seven months later, he had cemented his reputation as one of the most electrifying performers in the entirety of rock music.
The problems Springsteen encountered making Darkness on the Edge of Town are well-known. The success of Born to Run in 1975 made him a star, but he soon learned that the contract he signed with manager Mike Appel put his lucrative publishing rights in Appel’s hands. Springsteen sued to break the contract, and Appel counter-sued, getting an injunction barring Springsteen from entering a studio.
Unable to make the follow-up to Born to Run, Springsteen spent most of 1976 and 1977 on the road. The concerts furthered the E Street Band’s reputation as one of the best live acts in the country, as well as further integrating drummer Max Weinberg, pianist Roy Bittan and guitarist Steven Van Zandt – all of whom joined in 1975 – into the band.
In May 1977, two months after the Lawsuit Tour ended, both parties finally came to an agreement, and Springsteen and the E Street Band began the marathon sessions recording Darkness on the Edge of Town. A year later — 10 days before the album was released — Springsteen returned to the stage.
At the time, three years between releases was practically unheard of. Springsteen has often said that he was worried that the general public had forgotten about him in the interim. With punk and disco capturing the public’s imagination during his layoff, he had no idea how the new material would be received, and channeled that into his performance when he took the stage that night in Buffalo.
“What I remember most was the raw emotion that Bruce presented on stage,” Lawrence Kirsch said about that opening night in The Light in Darkness, his 2009 collection of essays about the tour. “I would even say he was a bit tentative and nervous. But by the time he launched into ‘Something in the Night’ and screamed so his body shook, we knew that he was going to take no prisoners that night, even if it killed him, and us.”
Concerts on the Darkness Tour, which usually ran between 2 hours and 45 minutes and three hours, were broken into two sets. The first often opened with a cover of an early rock song, such as Buddy Holly’s “Rave On” or Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues.” Springsteen then moved into “Badlands” and most of the other songs on Darkness, including an extended version of ‘Prove it All Night’ (revived on the Wrecking Ball Tour) that featured a searing introductory guitar solo. The set closed with “Jungleland,” after which the band took a 15-20 minute break.
Springsteen usually began the second half with a few songs he hadn’t yet released, like “Fire,” “Sherry Darling” or “Paradise by the ‘C’,” a spotlight for saxophonist Clarence Clemons. From there, however, he took fans on a roller-coaster ride through his then-small catalog. “She’s the One” often began with a few verses of “Not Fade Away” or Bo Diddley’s “Mona.” Then it was “Growin’ Up,” which featured Springsteen making up a story dealing with his own frustrations as a teenager with rock and roll dreams before launching into the final verse.
Then it was on to “Backstreets,” which, as it had during the Lawsuit Tour, included a stream-of-consciousness break down before the coda that became known as “Sad Eyes.” The section involved Springsteen describing a betrayal by a lover that could easily be interpreted as his anger towards Appel, which took the already-emotional song to new heights. The second set closed, as always, with “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight).” “Born to Run,” “Because the Night” and a cover of Eddie Floyd’s “Raise Your Hand” formed the bulk of the encores on most nights.
A handful of the dates on the Darkness tour — most notably Los Angeles (July 7), Cleveland (Aug. 9), Passaic, N.J. (Sept. 19), and San Francisco (Dec. 15) — were broadcast over radio, and the tapes from those shows remain among the most beloved Springsteen bootlegs. In addition, the performance of “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)” from the July 8 concert in Phoenix was filmed and broadcast the next year on an ABC television special called Heroes of Rock and Roll.
By the time the tour ended in Cleveland after more than 110 shows on Jan. 1, 1979, Springsteen had graduated from theaters and ballrooms to arenas in his biggest markets. He would soon be filling stadiums worldwide on the heels of the success of Born in the U.S.A., but the Darkness tour remains the favorite of many of his most devout fans.
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