I really wonder about some of the personal history he mentions here, whether it went down quite the way he said it did, though I also don’t think the truth of it is ultimately that important. Take the Sex Pistols.
“Darkness” was also informed by the punk explosion at the time. I went out and I got all the records, all the early punk records, and I brought “Anarchy in the UK,” and “God Save the Queen,” and the Sex Pistols were so frightening. They literally shook the earth. And a lot of groups managed shocking. But frightening, frightening was something else. There were, very, very few rock groups that managed frightening. And that was a great quality, and it was, part of their great beauty.
They were brave, and they challenged you, and they made you brave and lot of that energy seeped its way into subtext of “Darkness.” “Darkness” was written in 1977, and all of that music was out there, and if you had ears you could not ignore it. And I had peers that did. And they were mistaken, you could not ignore that challenge.
It’s well documented that Springsteen loved Suicide and was an early champion, but I don’t remember him mentioning the Sex Pistols at all in interviews from the late 70s and early 80s (let me know if I’m wrong on this). What I remember reading about the Darkness period is that Springsteen was pretty much broke, a vagabond, and may not even have had a record player. In interviews from the 70s, he is clear that he wasn’t a huge record collector even though he was a huge music fan, and that a lot of how he “studied” music came from the radio. Also, the idea that if you had ears in 1977 you couldn’t ignore the Sex Pistols is crazy. They hadn’t even done their one U.S. tour. They were not played on the radio. It was very easy to miss punk completely in 1977 and most people did. I’m not convinced that Springsteen was there and “got all the records” but I’m willing to be persuaded otherwise.
If anything, these aspects of the speech might say something about how our memories are influenced by media. He frames all of his experiences here in terms of the prevailing historical narrative when the reality is that our in-the-moment experiences of any given event are often very different from how history records them.
In the Promise box, on one of the pages of notebook that is supposedly a copy of the one Springsteen carried around the studio during the darkness sessions, it has a to-do list and one of the items says “Rent Badlands movie.” The idea being that Springsteen was doing research for the record and was going to rent the Malick film for background. But the first video rental store in the world opened in 1977, and it was in California, and very, very few people had VCRs. The idea of “renting movies” hadn’t entered the culture at all in 1977; the phrase simply didn’t exist. So it seems unlikely that Springsteen had written it in his notebook at the time. Which means it’s hard to know what, exactly, is “real” in the notebook.
All of which to say that Springsteen is very canny about his legacy. He’s smart and he should be. And he’s done a lot of good and made a ton of incredible music and inspired and even changed the lives of many people, including mine. But you have to remember to keep those two contradictory ideas about him in mind at the same time.
Paul McCartney in the Beatles Anthology is exactly the same way, telling us what he thinks we want to hear, echoing a narrative that got away from him. If I remember correctly, in the Julian Fellowes Sex Pistols documentary from a few years back, Lydon is sort of the opposite of this. He’s able to actively contradict the Rolling Stone version of the Pistols’ story (which is the one that Springsteen feeds into here, a bit).