Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Where nothing is forgotten or forgiven

(The following is an abridged and edited version of an essay I wrote in 2009, reprinted here in advance of this weekend's Asbury Park Bookfest, where Dennis Tafoya and I will host a screening of the classic 1945 film noir DETOUR.)

It may seem a stretch to equate noir master Cornell Woolrich's doom-laden novels and stories with the music of Bruce Springsteen, but they share a lot of common ground.

Woolrich was, as his biographer termed him, "The Poe of the 20th century and the poet of its shadows." The dozens of novels and short stories he wrote over four decades, many of which were filmed, were almost always set in urban nightscapes, and shared a pervasive feeling of dread. His characters were often pursued for crimes of passion they didn't commit – or maybe they did. The titles alone set the mood – NIGHT HAS A THOUSAND EYES, THE BRIDE WORE BLACK, WALTZ INTO DARKNESS, RENDEZVOUS IN BLACK, all evocative of the noirest of noir sensibilities. Woolrich's protagonists were haunted and hunted, tripped by fate and trapped by the night.

Along with their fondness for nocturnal imagery, the best of Springsteen's earlier songs often shared that haunted – and haunting – quality found in Woolrich's work. The narrator of Springsteen's "Stolen Car" (from 1980's "The River") is an archetypal Woolrich character, mourning a lost love while driving a stolen car "through a pitch-black night," wracked by guilt and fear that "in this darkness, I will disappear."

Many Springsteen songs could easily have been Woolrich titles – "Darkness on the Edge of Town," "Downbound Train," "Point Blank" "Because the Night," "New York City Serenade" (Woolrich had his own "Manhattan Love Song"). And years before Springsteen came along, Woolrich found his own muse in Asbury Park, setting several stories in that once-glamorous but forever-fading seaside resort. The best-known of these is probably 1935's "Boy With Body," which was reprinted as "The Corpse and the Kid" in the 1988 Woolrich collection DARKNESS AT DAWN.

One of the most Woolrich-esque Springsteen titles is "Something in the Night," from his 1978 album "Darkness on the Edge of Town." It's one of the great but lesser-known Springsteen songs, filled with evocative lyrics and existential angst. It's also one of his most geographically specific songs, set on Asbury Park's Kingsley Street, which at one time formed a oval with Ocean Avenue known as "The Circuit," where aimless teenagers cruised on hot summer nights. The Circuit is also mentioned in that other Springsteen song with a quintessentially noir title, "Night," from 1975's "Born to Run."

While listening to some archival Springsteen shows, I came upon the first-ever version of "Something in the Night," from a concert at the Monmouth Arts Center (now the Count Basie Theatre) in Red Bank, N.J., on Aug. 1, 1976. Springsteen and his E Street Band were performing a six-night stretch there, debuting new material while an ongoing lawsuit kept them from recording (other songs premiered that week included the equally haunting "The Promise.")

This earliest version of "Something in the Night" is even starker than the one on the album. Slowed down, with only a simple keyboard accompaniment, the Red Bank version is radically different from what was released, with bleak impressionistic lyrics and references to a night when the devil "will walk these streets like a man."

Springsteen refined the song further through the years, leading up to the "Darkness" version, which is the one he currently performs, albeit infrequently. The various live versions also offer an insight into his songwriting process, as he gradually reshaped both the lyrics and mood of the song. By the time of a widely-bootlegged performance at New York's Palladium in November 1976, Springsteen had added a mournful trumpet to the arrangement, along with a new final verse. The album track lyrics can be found here. The Aug. 1, 1976 Red Bank version follows.

Well, I'm riding down Kingsley figuring I'll get a drink
I turn the radio way up loud so I don't have to think
And I ease down on the gas, looking for a moment when the world seems right
And I go tearing into the heart of something in the night

I picked this chick up hitch-hiking, she just hung her head out the window and she screamed
Said she was looking for someplace to go, to die or be redeemed
Well, you can ride this road 'til dawn, without another human being in sight
'Cause baby, everybody's gone looking for something in the night

And me I gotta stop running, I gotta stop my fooling around
Well, I got this stuff running around my head, I can't live with or live down
She wants me to push this machine until the whole world disappears out of sight
And just me and you baby, we'll surrender to the kindness of something in the night

Now tonight no sins are forgotten, no sins are forgiven
And when I look out on these streets sometimes I can't tell the dead from the living
Just winners and losers, mumbling about some vague wrong and right
And kids like us, rumbling over something in the night

And now you people out on the island, lock your doors and take your children by the hand
Put on your black dress, baby, because tonight the devil will walk these streets like a man
I don't know about you, but I'm gonna bring along my switchblade, in case that fool wants to fight
If he wants me I'll be running down the highway, chasing something in the night.

Audio of the Palladium version below.

(TOP: Artist Larry Schwinger's cover painting for the 1982 Ballantine Books edition of Cornell Woolrich's THE BLACK CURTAIN.)

Below: Singer-songwriter Matthew Ryan's version:

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