Tales from an author

Archive for the tag “Springsteen”

A Great Idea for a Story #Asperger


One of the more positive aspects of my being an Asperger is an enthusiasm for stories – they feed an already lively imagination.

Stories are obviously central to my work as an author.

Beyond this, I take delight in piecing together links between my favourite books, films, television programmes, and music.  

The following piece, simply entitled Story-Telling, tries to convey the process.

“Begin at the beginning, and go on till you come to the end: then stop”. This advice was given by a King to a White Rabbit, during a bizarre trial, staged near the conclusion of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (published in 1865). There is a lot to be said for starting stories other than at the beginning – I often begin in the middle, hop backwards to the opening, and meander through several digressions, before reaching something like an ending. The curious world of Wonderland has been an unlikely influence on my story-telling, as an imaginary counterpoint to the facts I normally rely upon. Following this short diversion, it is time to mention I have been fascinated by stories for almost as long as I can remember. Good stories entertain and inspire us, often providing vital insights into people’s lives. Stories can be fact or fiction – and sometimes a hybrid.

Shortly before becoming a teenager, I moved from stories aimed at children to reading books primarily written for an adult audience. Football and history books were consumed with particular enthusiasm. I discovered the James Bond novels and stories, written by Ian Fleming, and read all of these during a spell of about a year. Bond led an intriguing life as a spy, with missions in exotic locations, while Fleming brilliantly described the thoughts and actions of the character – including Bond’s shower and breakfast routines, plus his appreciation of fine food, sophisticated drinks, and beautiful women.

Besides being an avid reader, I appreciated other types of story. A notable example was television situation comedies, with great programmes from the BBC in the 1970s including Are You Being Served?, Butterflies, Fawlty Towers, The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, and The Good Life. I also enjoyed comedy sketch programmes, such as Morecambe and Wise, The Dick Emery Show, and The Two Ronnies. The part of the latter show where Ronnie Corbett would sit in an armchair, telling a joke, surrounded by several minutes of tangential rambling, irritated me at the time. In retrospect, Ronnie Corbett’s style of story-telling appears to have had a great influence upon me.

In my youth, I planned to develop the enthusiasm for books, by becoming a writer. I started to read the works of George Orwell, who remains my favourite author, due to his profound ideas, expressed in a conversational prose style. Besides books published in his lifetime, I enjoyed The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, a posthumously-compiled four volume set. The series opened with Why I Write, an essay from 1946, in which Orwell gave a summary of his literary career. Orwell argued that writers are motivated by four factors, the first of these being “sheer egoism”, caused by a wish to be recognised as a clever person. Next came “aesthetic enthusiasm”, which could follow from appreciation of external beauty, the taking of pleasure in the usage of words, and a wish to share experience. The third factor was “historical impulse”, with an author finding facts to be used for posterity. Orwell’s final motive was “political purpose”, with writers seeking to be an influence on people’s ideas about the direction of their society.

What is my motivation as a writer? I think – we cannot always be certain about motives – that the central factor is a wish for communication. I feel a need to connect my enthusiasms, ideas, and knowledge with those of fellow human beings – often the effects of Asperger Syndrome make it more comfortable to do this through writing compared with other interaction. I also seek to give permanent record to experiences, many of which would otherwise be forgotten – probably a manifestation of my OCD. Enjoyment in the creation of a piece of writing is followed by a sense of satisfaction when it is published, read by others, and discussed. From the preceding sentences, it appears the second and third of Orwell’s themes are predominant for me. I must confess that ego plays a big (too big?) part, while politics has often been a feature of my writing. My books may appear diverse in nature – spanning history, politics, football, and autobiography – but they form part of a logical progression, as writing is interweaved with other activities. The books and experiences are twin facets of the developing story of my life, with personal activity placed in a wider context (I could say “the bigger picture”).

I have developed a role as something of a raconteur, offering funny (sometimes slightly exaggerated) tales of my experiences. Stories are told, in animated fashion, at social gatherings, sometimes fuelled by alcohol, although audience participation (or even heckling) often proves a more effective stimulant. I have a love of trivia, and thirst for knowledge, taking delight at links between odd scraps of information. Interesting turns of phrase are often adapted to new purposes in my writing. I also make (I think) good use of irony.

Inspiration arrives from diverse sources. One of my heroes is Bruce Springsteen, many of whose lyrics take the form of extended narrative. Bruce often tells thoughtful, or comic, stories to introduce songs during concerts. Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town, released in 1978, was re-packaged in 2010 within The Promise: The Darkness on the Edge of Town Story, a stunning set, in which three CDs plus three DVDs are housed within an extensive book – itself placed within a box. Bruce’s masterpiece, a 43 minute album, has been expanded into discs that stretch to eight and a half hours of music and film. This is story-telling in the grand manner. Another great musical act are the Velvet Underground, an American band, managed at one point by Andy Warhol, who (supposedly) produced their debut album, The Velvet Underground and Nico, and (definitely) contributed the front cover banana design. The Velvets sold few records during their creative peak, in the 1960s, but have built a legendary reputation, as innovators who influenced countless other artists. One of the strangest recordings by the group, and among the first I heard, as a teenager, is The Gift. A freakish short story, packed with telling incidental detail, is recited (not sung) against the backdrop of a monotonous piece of music. It is a work of genius. The words of The Gift were written by Lou Reed, and narrated by John Cale, in his native Welsh accent, this being an incongruous delivery of a tale taking place in the USA. Several years later, Cale produced Patti Smith’s astonishing debut album, Horses – which takes us to a land where poetry merges with punk rock. Patti Smith subsequently co-wrote Because the Night with Bruce Springsteen. In 1981 I read Dave Marsh’s Born to Run: The Bruce Springsteen Story. This included a reference to the novel You Can’t Go Home Again by Thomas Wolfe, which prompted me to read the latter book in 1984, when it was re-issued by Penguin. Wolfe’s novel, based on his experiences as an author, is outstanding, although rather patchy – it was compiled by an editor, Edward C Aswell, from an unfinished manuscript after the writer’s death. One section of Wolfe’s novel originated as a short story, with the clever title A Great Idea For a Story.

Hopping back over the Atlantic, from the USA to Britain, the television dramas and films of Stephen Poliakoff throw eloquent light on contemporary British society, characteristically featuring great ensemble acting, sumptuous settings, and atmospheric music. Poliakoff’s achievements as a writer and director include Perfect Strangers, depicting a large family gathering, with genealogy a major factor in a drama where secrets are unveiled, and Shooting the Past, which revolves around a photo library. Alongside film, I enjoy live theatre. One outstanding piece is Les Miserables, with dramatic action, and brilliant songs, making up for an almost impenetrable plot, set in nineteenth century France. I generally dislike films that are musicals, as the format appears false, but find the theatrical equivalent entertaining, with productions of Cats, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (from Ian Fleming’s non-Bond novel), Peter Pan, and Wicked springing to mind. Non-musical plays I recollect as being impressive range from an adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to the modern O Go My Man, written by Stella Feehily. The latter is a comedy about relationships (the title being an anagram of monogamy), set in Dublin. In the novel of Frankenstein, the (self-taught) monster reads books which include The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. In the real world, I have read Goethe’s amazing epistolary novel (a true original), plus his two part poetic play, Faust. Goethe worked on Faust at intervals across a span of 58 years, and referred to this masterpiece as “a private fairy tale”, having modestly decided the second part would not be published until after his death.

The oldest surviving stories in the world are The Iliad and The Odyssey, by Homer, possibly dating from around 700 BC. It is arguable that Homer was not really an author in the modern sense, given that his works were composed, and delivered, as oral poems. In presenting the adventures of Odysseus, Homer uses disjointed chronology, in an account full of repetition and circumlocution. This is a type of narrative that engages the attention of the reader. In the twentieth century, Homer’s The Odyssey provided a basis for Ulysses by James Joyce, who moved the action to Dublin. In a similar way, the novella Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad, set in the Congo, was adapted to a new setting, with a fictionalisation of the Vietnam War in Apocalypse Now, a film directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Another of Coppola’s works is Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which rates as one of the best cinematic portrayals of the tales of Dracula. The original Dracula novel by Stoker, set in Romania and Britain, during the late nineteenth century, is full of political symbolism and repressed eroticism. In 1993 I started to write a novel, (imaginatively) entitled Dracula, advancing the story first set out by Stoker, a century earlier, to the contemporary world. My novel is uncompleted, and dormant, awaiting possible revival in the future – just like a sleeping vampire – but that is another story for another day.

Great contemporary novelists include David Lodge, author of the academic romances Small World and Nice Work, plus Martin Amis, whose London Fields, published in 1989, looked ahead to a turn of millennium that is now part of our past. I have recently discovered the brilliance of Julian Barnes, through his Booker Prize winner The Sense of an Ending (2011), and flown back to Flaubert’s Parrot (1984). There is also A History of the World in 10½ Chapters (1989), a “novel” that is actually a cycle of linked short stories, mixed with some factual elements. The concept is original, and the book features some brilliant story-telling by Barnes, as various themes echo through the pages (I wish I could manage something like that). Another unusual novel is How to be Both by Ali Smith (2014), which features two stories – one set in the fifteenth century, the other contemporary – that overlap and complement each other. Half of the copies of the book were printed with one story at the beginning, while the other half of the copies start with the other story. Much earlier, the gentle writing of Henry James brought us The Bostonians and The Portrait of a Lady, described as “the two most brilliant novels in the language” by F R Leavis, one of Britain’s most influential literary critics – he strangely received a mention in the film of Bridget Jones’s Diary. In 1984 Merchant Ivory Productions released a film adaptation of The Bostonians – starring Christopher Reeve, Vanessa Redgrave, and Madeleine Potter. It is a fascinating work, in which the (admittedly unappealing) character of Basil Ransome seeks both love and success as a writer, amidst Henry James’ political satire and subtle comedy – “The Master” was a consummate story-teller. Five years earlier, during 1979, the same film production team had offered The Europeans, a dramatisation of another novel by James. Merchant Ivory have also filmed three of the novels of E M Forster, A Room with a View, Maurice, and Howards End (the latter being the book that gave us the phrase “only connect”). Moving from the sublime to the surreal, another cherished piece is The Hobbit by J R R Tolkien, a delightful fantasy about strange creatures. I was enchanted by a work that Tolkien introduces with the words “This is a story of long ago”. It also appears to be a tale from a far away land, judging by the strange maps, drawn by Tolkien, that appear in The Hobbit.

I take pleasure from the physical feeling of a well-produced book, preferring a solid hardback to the less sturdy paperback. There is sensual delight in the freshness of a new book, but I also enjoy the mature scent of an older book. In many cases, books are enhanced by attractive presentation. During the 1990s, I was a member of the Folio Society, which issues works of excellent quality. Folio publications I have read include The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy, Memoirs of My Life by Edward Gibbon, and The Folio Anthology of Autobiography, edited by Angela Thirlwell. Another outstanding Folio book is Columbus on Himself by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, which combines extracts from the writings of Christopher Columbus with biographical commentary. A visionary explorer, Columbus was also an eccentric, and often slipped into delusion. I am fascinated by the story of Columbus’ discovery of the Americas in 1492, and his attempt “to learn the secrets of this world”. Back in 1993 I read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland plus the sequel, Through the Looking-Glass, And What Alice Found There. The Folio Society edition of Lewis Carroll’s linked novels, the latter of which places Alice’s experiences within an oblique chess problem, consists of books with matching design (including blue hardback cover with a red cloth spine) presented in a blue slipcase. Renewed mention of Alice echoes the start of the current essay. I have reached the point where I will stop this example of story-telling, but elsewhere countless tales continue to develop, and be told, in a process full of wonder.


Nostalgia in the form of Vinyl LPs


The last few years have seen a resurgence of interest in vinyl records, as opposed to Compact Discs. I do not have enough technical music knowledge to comment on the relative sound quality produced by the two formats, beyond a belief in the idea that music can sound warmer on vinyl, compared to a clinical sound from a CD. I was recently reunited with a lot of my old vinyl LPs, which I had put in storage, and have been enjoying listening to them, with a sense of nostalgia.

I bought my first LP in 1979, as a teenager, and continued to acquire music in this format until 1992, at which point I upgraded from a record player to a CD player. I abruptly stopped buying records, and within a few years most record companies seemed to abandon vinyl. We were told that CDs were better, due to clearer sound and durability, as they did not scratch, jump, or hiss. I liked the idea of durability, and the convenience of playing a typical 35 to 45 minute album without having to get up and turn the record over half way through – indeed the capacity of CDs could provide over an hour of uninterrupted music. Another advantage of CDs was the facility to skip an unfavoured song, and go straight to the start of the next track, without fiddling with the stylus on a record player. On the other hand, CDs came in small packaging which lacked the impact of the covers for 12 inch records. LPs and their sleeves are better to hold look at, and hold. I wonder why CDs do not get sold in LP-sized packaging – presumably it is cheaper for record companies to distribute, and shops to sell, music in small packages.

Recent listening to old LPs has prompted me to produce a list (I like lists) of 10 old favourites.

The Beatles – Revolver (1966)

For some reason I did not acquire this one until 1984, five years after I first became a fan of the Beatles. Over the years, my mind has hopped in assessing the relative merits of Revolver, Sgt Pepper, and Abbey Road, but Revolver has generally been my favourite Beatles album. Indeed it is the only record I have felt inspired to review on Amazon – perhaps I should do more reviews. In the piece, posted in 2012, among other things, he said he said: “I cannot give the Revolver album anything other than five stars. It is acclaimed (by the experts?) as perhaps the Beatles second-best album, behind Sgt Pepper. The overall quality of songs is better on Revolver, with great variety, building into a showcase of the brilliance of the Beatles. Besides Paul’s majestic Eleanor Rigby, and the novelty of Ringo singing Yellow Submarine, there is an amazing trio from John – I’m Only Sleeping, She Said She Said, and Tomorrow Never Knows. George offers a couple of great songs in Taxman and I Want to Tell You. The studio experimentation of Sgt Pepper began a few months earlier in the Revolver sessions. The flaw is the brevity of Revolver, at just under 35 minutes. This may have been standard for the time, but Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited, released the previous year, clocked in at 51 minutes”. Four years after the review, I should add that a notable part of the appeal of Revolver is the way in which it displays an eclectic mix of styles, but also has a unity, powered the guitar and drums sound common to the uptempo numbers, and dreamy lyrics, that flow from Eleanor Rigby to Tomorrow Never Knows. The album title is a clever reflection of the way in which records revolve. There is also the original cover, with the psychedelic collage by Klaus Voorman on the front, and a photo of the band on the back – both in stark black and white. Revolver still sounds, and feels, modern – 50 years after it was recorded.

The Velvet Underground – The Velvet Underground and Nico (1967)

The Velvet Underground were managed at one point by Andy Warhol, who (supposedly) produced their debut album, and (definitely) contributed the front cover banana design. The Velvets sold few records during their creative peak, but have built a legendary reputation, as innovators who influenced countless other artists. The band. led originally by Lou Reed and John Cale, went through several changes of line-up, with the mysterious Nico (a German actress turned singer) being a guest vocalist on their debut album. By the time of their fifth and final studio album, Squeeze – released in 1973 – none of the original Velvet Underground remained in the band. The debut album contains some of their greatest songs, including I’m Waiting for the Man, Heroin, Femme Fatale, I’ll Be Your Mirror, and Venus in Furs. I believe in the proverbial fifteen minutes of fame, a concept introduced by Andy Warhol. As an alternative, fleeting moments of recognition may occur across several years. I modelled the front cover design of my book Fifteen Minutes of Fame on the cover of the Velvets’ LP, without breaching copyright – using a public domain banana, designed by Telrunya, inspired by Warhol. Fame has not come my way, in case any readers think that is where we are leading. It was more like fifteen seconds of fantasy. The number of books I have sold so far is only a tiny fraction of the amount of records sold by the Velvet Underground, whose seminal banana album leapt to number 171 in the USA’s LP chart during 1967. The album originally only had Andy Warhol’s name as the only wording on the front cover – the title of the album started to appear after it was released on CD in 1986. I have a 1987 pressing of the LP, without the album title on the sleeve.

Pink Floyd – The Dark Side of the Moon (1973)

One of the most famous albums ever made, and among the biggest sellers – worldwide sales have been estimated at 45,000,000 – this made it to the list just ahead of Wish You Were Here and The Wall. Back in the days when late I started buying albums, there were quite a lot of imports from the USA and Canada for sale. I recollect hearing that record shops would bring these in as cheaper alternatives to British pressings, although the quality of the vinyl was slightly inferior. I remember acquiring a Canadian version of The Dark Side of the Moon, which was virtually the same as the British version, from an independent record seller with a stall at a market in Basingstoke. Besides the striking design on the gatefold cover, there were big posters inside. In the space of 43 minutes, Pink Floyd tell a story that moves from birth to death, via a lot of experiences, including the fear of madness – prompted by the mental breakdown of former band member Syd Barrett. There is also a quite a bit of people talking to themselves. For me the highlights of the album are two long songs, Time plus Us and Them.

Bob Dylan – Blood on the Tracks (1975)

How many times has the question been asked, which is the best Dylan album, Highway 61 Revisited or Blonde on Blonde? For a long time I thought the answer was Highway 61, but then I discovered Blood on the Tracks. A decade on from his supposed peak, Dylan released the greatest record of his career. Blood on the Tracks is a thematic collection of songs about failed relationships, thwarted love, and disillusion (with an allusion to Watergate on Idiot Wind?). Tangled up in Blue plus Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts are extended narratives about flawed, but engaging, characters. The unfocussed photo of Dylan on the front cover adds to the mystique. I guess that the picture on the back cover represents fractured relationships. The album was recorded in 1974, and released the following year – with the copyright date showing as 1974 on the cover. The inner sleeve is plain blood red paper.

Patti Smith – Horses (1975)

One of the most famous rock debut albums, in which Patti Smith takes us to a land where poetry merges with the spirit of punk rock. Having discovered Patti’s music a few years after the release, I bought the album in 1980, at Paignton in Devon, during a family holiday. Opening with a radical re-working of Van Morrison’s Gloria, Patti weaves tales of lesbianism, alien abduction, love and death, with references to Arthur Rimbaud plus Jimi Hendrix. The record was produced by John Cale. The front cover has a black and white photo of Smith, sporting an androgynous look, taken by Robert Mapplethorpe. The top right-hand corner of the picture has a triangle of light, deliberately captured by the photographer, but since lost in CD packaging. In 1996, fully 21 years after the release of Horses, I saw Patti Smith give a concert, in London, during which she performed three songs from the album – Free Money, Redondo Beach, and Gloria.

Bruce Springsteen – Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978)

Bruce is my favourite artist, and this is the first of his albums that I bought, back in 1980. I still remember the shopping trip to Croydon, along with my brother, and three of our cousins, after research in the Yellow Pages informed us of the names and locations of the town’s several record shops. I bought the Bruce record at the town’s Virgin shop, and listened to it on an almost daily basis for several weeks. As an uncertain teenager, I drew comfort and inspiration from the album’s story of a life in which struggle is combined with optimism. Thirty six years later, it is still my favourite album. The lyrics are amazingly evocative, bringing a direct sense of the lives of the characters Bruce writes about. Extensive cross-referencing of key words across the 10 songs gives the album a great unity. This is reinforced by the musical backing, which sounds very similar throughout the album. Bruce spent an enormous amount of time in the final selection from dozens of songs recorded during the sessions. This coincided with a lot of thought about the sequencing of the album. He was influenced by what his manager and producer, Jon Landau, called the four corners approach – with the strongest four songs being used as the first and last tracks one the two sides of the record. The pressing of the LP that I own says it was made in Holland – I think CBS meant the Netherlands says Mr Pedantic. Besides the timing of each track appearing on the label, there is a second figure, showing the length of the instrumental introductions. I have not seen this on any other record – and presume it was for the benefit of radio stations, where DJs might talk over the start of a song.

Blondie – Parallel Lines (1978)

Long afterwards I can still recall walking home from the centre of Fleet, my hometown, on a cold day in early 1979, with lots of snow on the ground. I had just bought Blondie’s Parallel Lines LP, this being the start of a record collection, which grew rapidly in the next few years. I was attracted to the album by the hit singles, Hanging on the Telephone, Picture This, and Heart of Glass – the latter of which was at number one when I bought the album.  Sunday Girl soon followed as a single, and was another number one. Blondie were fronted by Debbie Harry, singer and adorable illusion, who was joined by five blokes. The black and white lines on the cover design were mirrored on the inner sleeve, which contained lyrics, and a poem. Then there was a second inner sleeve, which was plain white. I remember that whenever I put the record away, this had to be done in a certain order. The label of side 1 of the record would show through the transparent part of the inner sleeve. This side 1 would then be aligned with the side lyrics on the inner sleeve. I did not realise I had OCD until many years later, but here was a clue from a 14 year old. Ever since then, I have been meticulous about putting the record into the inner sleeve of any LP in the right order, and then following suit when inserting the inner sleeve into the outer sleeve. There was also a clear method of ordering of LPs in a record rack, alphabetically by artist, and then chronologically within artist by release date. I used to say I would be able to find a particular album in the dark during a power cut, even although I would not be able to play it. Strangely I have not got around to organising CDs logically – perhaps I just do not feel so much affection for them.

Elvis Costello – Imperial Bedroom (1982)

For many years, Elvis Costello – lyricist of genius – was among my favourite artists, and I bought all of his albums through to the mid-1990s, following which I kind of lost track of things as he increasingly moved into various genres besides rock. For me Imperial Bedroom is Elvis’ finest work, as a consistently strong collection of songs about difficult personal relationships. The cover features a painting inspired by Picasso. The inner sleeve features most of the lyrics, rather awkwardly set out without any gaps between the songs. A few of the words are printed on the label for side two of the record, and can be matched up with the rest of the lyrics by moving the disc to align them in a gap in the inner sleeve. I do not know why the record company did that – or whether my explanation of the strange format makes enough sense. An earlier album by Elvis was entitled Almost Blue but the song of that name did not appear until the Imperial Bedroom LP. Then the song Imperial Bedroom was absent from the album of that name, was released as a B side of a single, and later as a bonus track on a CD reissue of the album. I could not recall where I bought Imperial Bedroom, but a sticker inside the cover says it was Woolworth – I bought a lot of records at Woolworth in Fleet in my youth. In the compilation of this list, Imperial Bedroom narrowly edges out Spike, an album including several songs that I saw Elvis perform at the Albert Hall shortly after its release in 1989.

Pretenders – The Singles (1987)

Over the years I have bought many greatest hits / best of albums, and this one remains among the most notable. Having followed the Pretenders from the early days of their career, I already owned most of the songs on this album when it was released, but it still seemed a worthwhile purchase. Here are the 15 singles released by the Pretenders between 1979 and 1986, plus the guest appearance by their singer, Chrissie Hynde, on a version of I Got You Babe by UB40. At 57 minutes long, it is a collection of depth. The Pretenders consistently released great singles, with Brass in Pocket being their biggest hit, but my favourites are the haunting Kid and the enigmatic Hymn to Her. The packaging of the LP is simple, but attractive, with the black and white blocks logo of the band featuring on the cover, inner sleeve, and record label.

Lou Reed – New York (1989)

After many suggestions, across the 1970s and 1980s, that Lou Reed might have a new album to rank alongside the brilliance of his work with the Velvet Underground, this finally happened in the last year of the latter decade. New York is a celebration of Reed’s home city, and a lament for the way in which its people had suffered the effects of the Reagan presidency. The album includes the brilliant ecological protest The Last Great American Whale, plus the rawness of Romeo Had Juliette and Dirty Blvd. The latter is one of two songs on the album to include the original phrase Statue of bigotry. A few months after the album was released, I saw Lou give a show at the London Palladium (a venue that looks better on television than it really is). He started by playing most of the songs from New York, before going back to earlier material, including Rock and Roll plus Sweet Jane, from the Velvet Underground days, and Walk on the Wild Side. Reed, who died in 2013, was a great role model, with the gift of self-parody (too often under-rated). The back cover of the New York album had a note from Reed, advising “It’s meant to be listened to in one 58 minute (14 songs!) listening, as though it were a book or a movie”. I have listened to the album many times, and think it will soon be time to spin this again.


Asperger’s Syndrome and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

I have Asperger’s Syndrome combined with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. These conditions have been formally diagnosed by mental health professionals in the last few years, but I had known for many years that I probably have Asperger’s and OCD. I have long intended to write a piece about my condition, but have found the prospect daunting. I find it difficult to talk, and write, about these things.

A lot of people who know me well do not seem to realise that I have Asperger’s and OCD. I do not know to what extent this is due to a lack of common knowledge about the conditions, and the clues as to who has them. It may be a result of my having the conditions at a relatively low level. Alternatively it could be due to my not openly speaking about them. Actually I am able to write about the conditions in the sense that they are central to my book Fifteen Minutes of Fame, the satirical autobiography of an obscure writer. I have had several books published, with limited success. Perhaps the obsessions that spur me to write also undermine my ability to actually promote books when they are published.

My Twitter profile announces that I have Asperger’s and OCD, and I have about 900 followers, some of whom share my interest in mental health issues. On the other hand, how many people regularly check the profile detail of people they follow and re-tweet? Actually I do such a thing – it is part of the obsession. Also I will often become obsessed about a particular news story, read and post loads of tweets about it for a day or two, before moving on to the next obsession.

As I write this, various ideas are popping into my head. I am sometimes asked what my conditions feel like. The OCD involves a lot of regular routines, which leave me feeling uneasy if they are not followed. There is also a lot of worrying, intrusive thoughts, and a strange belief in doing deals with fate to make things better. The main point about Asperger’s is a difficulty with social interaction. I often avoid doing things so as to reduce worry about being in a difficult social situation, and then regret that I missed out on something enjoyable. I have spells of depression, which can last for days or weeks, which reinforce the avoidance. Apparently worry about Asperger’s and OCD leads to depression.

There are lots of overlaps between Asperger’s and OCD. I had a quick look around the Internet recently to see if there is a term for people having both conditions, but I did not find anything that straightforward. Perhaps I should just call it “my condition” in so far as it relates to me. Everybody experiences things differently.

There are some positives in having Asperger’s. Such people usually have the ability to master a particular subject that interests them. The woman who assessed me for Asperger’s said that the most interesting part of the process is when people tell her about their “special interests”. I outlined some of my special interests, including football statistics. I also said “I like to write lists about things that interest me. One day I plan to write a list of my favourite lists”. The assessor lady burst into (supportive) laughter, saying this was the funniest response she had heard yet.

I often deal with a worry or obsession by finding another obsession to replace it. Having planned in the last few days to focus on this piece, I have found myself spending too much time on Twitter. There has been lots to debate, and share, on Twitter, including the calls for David Cameron to resign as Prime Minister, but the mental energy I devote to this is excessive. My tweeting about the links between the Panama Papers and tax avoidance by Tories, among other things, has led to a rapid growth in the number of followers I have on Twitter. I have reached a (relatively modest) personal record with one message, asking David Cameron if he is guilty of tax avoidance, getting 11 retweets, and 26 likes. I feel positive when people interact with me on Twitter. The responses are often fast, and give a short feeling of positivity. They are certainly faster than writing a book, and the process of publishing it, only for a small sprinkling of people (more like hundreds than thousands) to read it.

It was not until a few years ago that I realised that people with Asperger’s Syndrome have difficulty reading people, and body language. This has long been a problem for me. Until recently, unless somebody verbally told me there were not interested in what I was saying to them, I would assume what I had to say was of interest. I have got better at reading body language, but it is still an issue. When I am feeling confident, I have a lot to say for myself. When I am feeling stressed, I often try to counter this, using humour, and end up having too much to say for myself. This can cause confusion, and misunderstanding in the workplace – I have worked in offices for a series of private and public sector organisations. At work I am good at the technical elements of a job, but struggle in my interaction with colleagues.

Ever since I was a teenager, many years ago, I have been fascinated by politics. I have been a member of the Labour Party for 32 years. Sometimes I have been very active, other times I have withdrawn. I have stood for local council elections several times, but not been elected. Once I thought I had a decent chance of victory, but things ended badly, with political passions, clashes of ego, and party managers who did not seem to know how to manage me. The outcome was demoralisation and withdrawal. Going out door-knocking, and talking to the general public, used to feel very daunting, but I managed a few years ago to start doing this regularly – even frequently. I generally got a good response from the public.

I am a bit of a perfectionist. If I get something 95 per cent right, the wrong 5 per cent often feels more important. Sending the simplest of emails can be a struggle, as I search for exactly the right wording. I like to think I am good at grammar, spelling, and punctuation. I can also be a bit pedantic about such things as the incorrect use of apostrophes.

I take comfort, and even find inspiration, from the achievements of people with similar conditions to my own. Bruce Springsteen and David Beckham have both spoken about their having OCD. Back in the past, Samuel Pepys and Jean-Jacques Rousseau displayed symptoms of what we now know to be OCD. People believed to have Asperger’s Syndrome include George Orwell, in the past, and Bob Dylan in the never ending present. In the course of writing this piece, Internet research has informed me that Lionel Messi was diagnosed with Asperger’s as a child – a piece of knowledge that somehow eluded me when I wrote a profile of Messi four years ago.

I wish I could speak confidently to more people about my condition. I often find the condition tough, but there are advantages. I like to be different, although I generally tell people this is due to my being eccentric. In a way we are all different, and all struggle with some things, but some people are more different than others. There is also the theory that people who are not on the Autistic / Asperger’s spectrum suffer from something called Neurotypical Syndrome. People from the Autistic spectrum have displayed brilliant humour in their satirical definitions of Neurotypical Syndrome – including a suggestion that it features “preoccupation with social concerns, delusions of superiority, and obsession with conformity” while “there is no known cure”. Think I will leave this Blog post now, before it becomes something I work upon for far too long. Also I wonder how many people will read this. I may return to the subject.


Writing, politics, and holidays in the sun – tales from the 1980s

Here is another chapter from my new story-cycle book, Fifteen Minutes of Fame

In December 1985, on the day before my twenty first birthday, I held a large celebratory drink-up at the pub across the road from where I worked. This was attended by many members of Dresdner Bank’s staff, and they arranged for me to be visited by a stripagram lady – rather embarrassing, but also amusing. At the start of 1986, I moved departments at work, joining the foreign exchange section. I became a lively personality in the new setting, developing into the office comedian, with lots of self-deprecating humour. Work on the book about the Conservative Party did not go as well as hoped, and I took a break, starting in February 1986. I retained enthusiasm for writing, and within a few months began another book. The 1986 World Cup finals prompted a decision to write a history of the competition. England made a poor start to the tournament, held in Mexico, before enjoying successive 3-0 victories against Poland (with a hat trick from Gary Lineker) and Paraguay (Lineker scored twice). In the Quarter Finals, England lost 2-1 against Argentina, with Diego Maradona grabbing two goals within a few minutes, early in the second half. The first effort should have been disallowed for handball (the infamous “Hand of God”), but Maradona’s second goal was a brilliant solo effort. There was a late onslaught from England, in which Lineker scored, but it was too little, too late. Argentina went on to win the World Cup, beating West Germany 3-2 in the Final.
I began work on The World Cup on August 18, the day after returning from a visit to Portugal. I spent a week at Estoril, and took regular walks to the neighbouring town, Cascais. One lunchtime I enjoyed a variant on fish and chips, with the main part of the meal being fried swordfish. Having left the restaurant, I was chased down the road by a waiter. I thought that he thought that I had not paid the bill, but he was actually checking I was sure about the (slightly larger than usual) scale of the tip left in appreciation. In November I bought Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band Live / 1975-85, a five LP box set. One of the inner sleeves featured a photograph taken at a concert by Bruce, and the band, at Wembley in 1985, and I appeared in this picture, stood in the crowd – a wonderful link to a hero. The real highlight of this collection was the first release of Springsteen’s version of Because the Night, taken from a 1980 concert. Bruce’s rendition replaced Patti Smith’s performance of the song as my favourite record.
During the latter part of 1986, I produced a mass of notes, and statistical material, for The World Cup. In the early months of the following year, I wrote the narrative section of the book, completing the process in May 1987. As a Labour Party activist, I was involved in the General Election that Margaret Thatcher had called. The Conservatives looked set to win the Election, but I hoped Labour would prevent a repeat of the Conservative landslide of four years earlier. It was an unpleasant surprise when the Conservatives won a majority of 100 seats in the poll, held in June 1987. I went to Wembley, in August, for a match that marked the centenary of the Football League. A Football League selection beat a Rest of the World team 3-0, with two goals from Bryan Robson, and one from Norman Whiteside. I was thrilled to see Diego Maradona and Michel Platini play for the Rest of the World, combining magically in midfield. Pele was introduced to the teams prior to the match, as guest of honour. A few days later, I began a holiday at Funchal, on the beautiful Portuguese island of Madeira. For Sunday lunch – far away from England – I ate up-market fish and chips, sat outdoors at a restaurant, wearing shorts and a T-shirt. A lovely meal could have been improved with a thematic cherry cake.
Back in England’s green and pleasant land, I attended the fourth day of the match that marked the bicentenary of the Marylebone Cricket Club, with an MCC team playing the Rest of the World. I returned to Lord’s the next day, only for play to be rained off. I will admit to being a bit pedantic sometimes (or more than sometimes). I once noticed that the 1986 edition of Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack incorrectly stated that Michael Mates, the first MP to score a century for the Lords and Commons team, represented Petersfield. In 1988 I corresponded with Graeme Wright, the editor of Wisden, and Mates, suggesting a note be put in the Errata section of a future Wisden, as Mates was MP for East Hampshire. Wisden and Mates each attributed the error to the other, but declined the idea of a correction. Mates gave his views in a scrawled handwritten letter. Wright stated electoral constituencies could be confusing, adding “a sound grounding in the works of Lewis Carroll would seem essential were one to take them seriously”.
My diary entry of Sunday October 18 1987 began with a promising event in my writing career, and moved on to the awful effects of the British hurricane:

Much has happened since my last entry – including the lights going out! On Thursday I was pleased to receive a letter from Collins Willow which suggests that they are interested in The World Cup, and wrote the reply that they asked for (giving biographical and bibliographical details). This seems to be a major breakthrough and I am excited about it. On Thursday night I went to bed only to be kept awake by a tremendous storm for literally hours.

On Friday I discovered the details of the storm. It had in fact been a hurricane. It has caused widespread damage throughout south east England. I saw some of the local damage, in our back garden, and in a short trip with dad in the car, followed by a walk back. We were without power from the early hours of Friday until Saturday breakfast time. I spent Friday evening alone by candlelight, having gone round the shops in the afternoon to get some candles. That afternoon I posted my letter to Collins Willow. I had always thought of hurricanes as something that occur in other countries, but not here. It appears that the last one to hit Britain with such force was way back in 1703. The damage done, and the loss of life, have been terrible. We lost power again shortly before I began this entry, and have yet to receive it back.

Collins Willow were part of William Collins, one of Britain’s largest publishers. Across a period of several months, leading into Spring of the following year, I had dialogue with Michael Doggart, an editor at Collins, who came close to offering to publish the book, before eventually deciding against this. The World Cup was rejected by a steady stream of publishers, although quite a few considered signing me up for their team. In March 1988, I returned to writing A History of the Conservative Party, after a break of two years. I decided to leave Dresdner Bank, having worked there for more than four years, and have a spell in which temporary work would overlap with concerted effort to get a writing career underway. On my final day at the bank, May 13, I invited colleagues to join me for a drink-up at a pub. In an echo of my twenty first birthday celebration, I was visited by a stripagram lady. By leaving the bank, I exchanged a secure job for an uncertain future, but felt excited by the possibility of becoming a writer. When Benjamin Disraeli persuaded the Conservatives to take a gamble by passing the second Reform Act, in 1867, Lord Derby, Prime Minister and Party Leader, described the action as “a leap in the dark”. I was following the example of Disraeli, taking a personal leap.
In June I made my third visit to Yugoslavia, spending a week at Bol, a village on the island of Brac, in Croatia, accompanied by Phil, a friend I worked with at Dresdner. Brac was quiet, but picturesque, particularly the Zlatni Rat (Golden Cape) beach near Bol, this being a promontory that emerges from a pine wood. At the hotel, Phil and I sampled a local drink, mishmash, composed of red wine sat on top of orange juice, with the two components kept separate in the glass. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band toured Britain in the Summer, and I saw two concerts, the first at Villa Park, in Birmingham, and the second at Wembley Stadium. Both shows featured Because the Night. The Wembley concert lasted three hours and 35 minutes, as Bruce sang 33 songs – including 10 encores, in response to loud, and lengthy, calls from the crowd for more songs.
A couple of months after leaving Dresdner, I resumed the role of something in the City. At intervals over the next two years, I worked on an agency basis for a long list of banks. These were London and Continental Bankers (British), Rabobank (Dutch), Sanwa Bank (Japanese), Banca Nazionale del Lavoro (Italian), Dai-Ichi Kangyo Bank (Japanese), Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce (you guessed), SDS Bank (which was Danish), Norddeutsche Landesbank (based in West Germany), Tokai Bank (Japanese), and Arab Banking Corporation (based in Bahrain, but jointly owned by the states of Abu Dhabi, Kuwait, and Libya). I said it was a long list.
Dorothy Collings died of cancer on September 13 1988. Dorothy was a wonderful woman, who was to be sadly missed by her family, just as Ernest, her husband, had been. Following granny’s death, we learned that Ernest had been illegitimate, but con¬cealed this. The revelation prompted resumption of work on my family history, put on hold a decade earlier. Helped by membership of the Society of Genealogists, I was able to discover a great deal of information over the next few years, taking my known ancestry back to the 1700s. Later progress to earlier dates will be outlined later in this book. I visited France in October 1988, spending a long weekend in Paris with Phil. We visited historic sites, and I went to places of personal interest. At Montparnasse cemetery, I found the grave of Alexander Alekhine, a Russian who became a citizen of France. Alekhine was world chess champion from 1927 to 1935, and then 1937 until his death in 1946. I also followed in the footsteps of George Orwell, along the Rue du Pot de Fer, the road where he lived while writing his first book, Down and Out in Paris and London (published in 1933). In December, the Clapham Junction train disaster caused the deaths of 35 people. I was very lucky not to be involved in the crash, as I regularly travelled to work on one of the trains that collided, but did not use it that particular day.
I attended an Amnesty International concert, at Wembley, in September 1988. The headline performance by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band followed impressive sets by Youssou N’Dour, Peter Gabriel, Tracy Chapman, and Sting. I became a member of Amnesty International, supporting the battle for human rights throughout the world. I also joined the Chile Solidarity Campaign, which participated in the struggle for the resto¬ration of democracy in Chile. The country had ceased to be a democracy on September 11 1973, when Salvador Allende’s government, which was transforming Chile into a Socialist society, was overthrown by a military coup, and replaced by a Fascist dictatorship. The achievements of Chile’s Socialist government provided a great deal of inspiration for the British left, and Allende was one of my political heroes. At this time I voted in a Labour Party Leadership contest, supporting Tony Benn, as he was a com¬mitted Socialist intent on a clear programme of radical reform in Britain, but Neil Kinnock won. During the Spring of 1989, I attended the annual general meeting of Chile Solidarity, chaired by Judith Hart, a Labour MP dedicated to Socialist causes. I also stood as a Labour Party candidate in the Hampshire County Council Election.
In May 1989 a publishing company offered to publish The World Cup. This was followed by a cruel change of fortune, as a few days later the company mysteriously changed their mind. Refusing to be beaten, on the day I learned of the rejection, I set to work on producing an expanded version of the book. During June, I saw England beat Poland 3-0 in a World Cup match. Prior to this I had seen England draw 0-0 with Sweden, and beat Albania 5-0, in their 1990 World Cup qualifying campaign. In the space of a few days, either side of England’s match against Poland, I saw concerts by Elvis Costello and Lou Reed. Elvis Costello performed a solo acoustic set at the Royal Albert Hall, in which the highlight was an amazing Alison. Lou Reed’s show at the London Palladium (a venue that looks better on television than it really is) started with his playing most of the songs from the recently-released New York album, one of the peaks in a long career. This was followed by earlier material, including Rock and Roll plus Sweet Jane, from the Velvet Underground days, and Walk on the Wild Side. The back cover of the New York album had a note from Reed, advising “It’s meant to be listened to in one 58 minute (14 songs!) listening, as though it were a book or a movie”. Lou Reed, who died in 2013, was a great role model, with the gift of self-parody (too often under-rated).
There was a rapid return to the electoral front, in a Hart District Council By-Election. On polling day, the Labour candidate was midway through a holiday, at Playa de las Americas in Tenerife. Phil and I climbed the peak of Mount Teide, besides spending long nights in the bars and discos of our town. Here is a diary account, written on June 16, of helter skelter events:

As the polls were closing in Britain last night, Phil and I were off for what proved to be a remarkable night. The first stop was a pub called the Waikiki. After the Waikiki we went to a couple of other places. At one of these I got talking to a soldier. He told me about being shot twice by the IRA. I decided not to get into an argument about Ireland. The early hours of this morning saw our daily visit to the Crow’s Nest. At this venue I found myself dancing at one point with about eight girls. It seemed fun at first, but events took an unfortunate turn. These girls literally ripped my shirt off, and refused to return the torn remnants. It was the shirt I got in exchange for my spare Bruce Springsteen ticket, at Birmingham last year. I did not wear the shirt much, but I am annoyed at having lost it. The girls tried to take my jeans off. I managed to restrain them. I then left the disco. I waited outside to see if Phil would follow. When he did not I walked back to the apartment alone. The man at the reception reluctantly gave me our key, complaining that I should have been wearing a shirt.

Phil soon returned and we exchanged stories. He said that while I was being attacked he was snogging with a girl he had met. Her friend wanted to meet me when Phil said it was I who had been attacked, but I was by now gone. Phil also bumped into the soldier we had met earlier. Phil managed to knock the soldier’s pint of lager all over the pool table. Besides buying a replacement drink, Phil had to pay the barman the cost of damaging the pool table. The good news of the night is that Phil arranged to meet the two girls he was with. We are due to meet them at the same venue at midnight tonight. Walking home from the Crow’s Nest last night I felt demoralised, but Phil’s story brightened me up. Today we have been able to look back on last night as quite funny. It was certainly different.

Immediately after the holiday, I arranged publication of The World Cup with Nimrod Press, based at Alton, in Hampshire. I was delighted with my bouncebackability. Is that a real word? If not, it should be. I soon completed re-writing the book, which was scheduled to appear in the Autumn. Continuing research included trips to the headquarters of the Football Association, in London, having arranged access to the library with its custodian, David Barber. On one visit, as I sat in the reception of the Football Association, admiring a replica of the Jules Rimet trophy, Graham Kelly, the Chief Executive, walked through, casting a disapproving look at the casually-dressed young man, who had somehow been admitted to the plush building. I corresponded with the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), based in Switzerland, and received positive letters from Guido Tognoni, head of public relations. In the light of points I made, FIFA corrected errors in the official World Cup statistics. My efforts were also recognised by a freebie from FIFA, as I received a set of postcards, combining reproductions of publicity posters for each World Cup tournament, and match statistics.

Bruce Springsteen’s masterpiece – Darkness on the Edge of Town

Thirty five years ago today – Darkness arrived. Here is a piece I wrote when it was followed by
The Promise in 2010.

“Lights out tonight, trouble in the heartland”. How many times have countless Bruce Springsteen fans been thrilled by the evocative opening words of the Darkness on the Edge of Town album? While Born to Run and Born in the USA are the most famous records in Bruce’s career, a substantial body of opinion regards the Darkness album as his masterpiece. Across the thirty seven years since the release of his first discs, through many peaks, and some disappearances from view, Bruce has enjoyed the support of loyal fans. For many of these people the apex of Bruce’s career was 1978, a year that saw the release of Darkness on the Edge of Town, and a lengthy tour across North America, while Bruce has often spoken of the Darkness album as a crucial part of his music and life.

Re-winding five years, Bruce’s debut album, Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J., and its follow-up, The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle, had both arrived in 1973, when he was aged 23, achieving a fair degree of critical and commercial success. The real breakthrough was Born to Run, which appeared in 1975, amidst much hype. This proved to be well-founded, as Born to Run is still held by critics to be one of the greatest albums in the history of rock music. Bruce suddenly achieved fame across the USA, being simultaneously featured on the front covers of both Time and Newsweek. The following year, Bruce’s career was put on hold, as he sought to extricate himself from an unfavourable deal with Mike Appel, his manager and record producer. Bruce asserted his position in a lengthy legal battle with Appel, that was not resolved until May 1977.

On June 1 1977 Bruce returned to recording, with John Landau, who had joined the production team for the Born to Run album (and was destined to become Springsteen’s manager), now at the helm in place of Appel. Within a few days of arriving at Atlantic Studios, in New York, Bruce and the E Street Band had recorded versions of 20 songs for possible inclusion on a fourth album. A few months later Bruce had an album’s worth of material nearly ready for release, but he was not satisfied with this, and the record was shelved. There was a change of studio from Atlantic – Bruce was not happy with either the sound or facilities there – to the Record Plant, also in New York, during October. Bruce continued to write and record new songs so that eventually about 70 pieces, some of them variants on other songs, were worked upon for the album. Bruce sought perfection, and continually re-worked his material, as the sessions drifted into 1978. At one point Bruce planned to call the album American Madness – a title borrowed from a 1932 film, directed by Frank Capra, about the Great Depression. Bruce worked through his own madness in the studio, with able support from John Landau, the two men being joint producers of the album, and Steve Van Zandt, who was credited as an assistant. Chuck Plotkin joined in the latter part of the process, to provide important help with the mixing, alongside Jimmy Iovine. After much consideration by Bruce of both song selection and sequencing, a group of recordings from the Record Plant sessions were chosen to be his fourth album.

The album cover featured stark photos, taken by Frank Stefanko, of Bruce stood in a bedroom – although this is not obviously the location. After a trip to the printers to approve the album cover, Bruce returned to the studio for a late remix of The Promised Land, which delayed the appearance of the record. Darkness on the Edge of Town was finally released on June 2 1978. The album contained a new lyrical approach from Bruce, with a hardness in the writing. Out of the dozens of songs recorded across many months, Bruce presented a set of ten tracks which portrayed the lives of working people, struggling amidst a gathering recession in the USA, but living lives of decency, and hoping for a better future. The overblown music of Born to Run was replaced with a leaner instrumental sound, which Bruce subsequently revealed had been influenced by the recent emergence of punk rock.

This collection of songs, each of which Bruce sang in the first person, was given unity by several recurring themes. The words “darkness” / “dark” appear in six of the tracks, while nine of them feature the “night” / “tonight”. “They” are mentioned in eight songs, with a general suggestion of nameless people who exert a negative influence (admittedly on The Promised Land “they” are “the dogs on main street”). “Work” / “worked” / “working” form part of six songs, and so do the words “dream” / “dreams”. Six is also the number of songs in which Bruce and his characters are found “driving” / “racing” / “riding”, or mentioning the names of cars. There are references to “blood” in four of the tracks, and the same number of songs use the word “born”. There is also time for “love” / “loved” in four of the songs on the album.

The album is greater than the sum of its parts, and the songs speak louder than a commentary, but a track-by-track review may provide some illumination of Darkness. The record opens with Badlands, a song destined to become one of Bruce’s concert anthems, with the enigmatic suggestion that “it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive”. Adam Raised a Cain, one of Bruce’s songs about family, is given a wider context with Biblical allusions. Something in the Night sees Bruce struggling against some faceless oppression. Candy’s Room is one of Bruce’s many songs about girls, but different to those of the past – Candy being a hard girl from Easy Street. In the old days of LPs, the first side closed with Racing in the Street, as Bruce hops into a 69 Chevy with a 396, to ride with his partner Sonny, and then an un-named girl. The instrumental passage at the end of the song is a moment of warmth – which has been powerfully extended in live performances. The second half opens with The Promised Land, a stirring tale of optimism and dignity, which echoes Badlands. Factory is the shortest song on the album (at 2 minutes 17 seconds), and understated, but an affecting tale about the rigours of work. Streets of Fire depicts a dramatic struggle against un-named forces. Prove It All Night is a great rock’n’roll love song, but one in which the battle against people lurking in the background – defined as “they” – is still real. The record closes with Darkness on the Edge of Town, the title track being the defining moment of the album, the tale of a man who seems to be fighting a losing battle in his life, but resolves to keep the struggle going. Bruce explained the outlook of the Darkness album in an interview with Tony Parsons, for the New Musical Express: “The characters ain’t kids, they’re older – you been beat you been hurt. But there’s still hope, there’s always hope. They throw dirt on you all your life, and some people get buried so deep in the dirt that they’ll never get out. The album’s about people who will never admit that they’re buried that deep”.

On May 23 1978, shortly before the release of Darkness, Bruce and the E Street Band set off on a tour of the USA, plus a few hops across the border to Canada, that was to stretch until the first day of 1979. Liberated from the pressures of the recording studio, and back performing in front of their fans for the first time since March 1977, Bruce and the band provided epic entertainment, with shows stretching towards three hours. The concerts received rave reviews, and led to a growth in Bruce’s reputation. A recording of Prove It All Night, from Berkeley on July 1, with the instrumental Paradise by the Sea, from the same show, as the B side, was prepared for a promotional single. Prove It All Night was a great version, with a lengthy instrumental opening, in which Bruce’s powerful guitar work was prominent. Paradise by the Sea used the melody of So Young and In Love, a Darkness out-take. The promotional record was cancelled, but the two recordings were issued to radio stations, and film of Bruce and the band performing Rosalita (Come Out Tonight), at Phoenix on July 8, was subsequently released to television companies, bringing footage of the exuberance of the live show to a wider audience.

Initial excitement about the album was tempered by disappointment, from the perspective of fans, that several major songs were omitted from Darkness, as Bruce felt they did not fit in with his concept. The inclusion of some of these songs, either in a double album, or as replacements for lesser tracks (Something in the Night and Streets of Fire spring to mind – both being made a bit over-dramatic by Bruce’s hollering) could have improved the record. The most significant omission was The Promise, which Bruce thought was too personal, as a song about himself. This tale of hopes and dreams which have been thwarted – or even betrayed – was a brilliant sequel to Thunder Road from the Born to Run album. There were suggestions that the song was a comment upon Bruce’s legal struggle with Mike Appel, to which Bruce responded by saying “I don’t write songs about lawsuits”. The Promise, which was first performed in August 1976, can be seen as a wider comment upon the way in which Bruce’s innocent dreams of rock’n’roll stardom were betrayed, starting with the hype surrounding Born to Run, before the culmination of the legal struggle with Appel. Dave Marsh, in Born to Run: The Bruce Springsteen Story, published in 1979, suggested that The Promise deals with “the price everyone pays for success – and the dangers of settling for anything less”. Marsh added that the song may possibly have been inspired by Greil Marcus’ book Mystery Train, an exploration of the place of rock music in the culture of the USA. Marsh is married to Barbara Carr, a member of Bruce’s management team, and we can be confident he knows more about these things than most people, but the link to Mystery Train has seldom been taken up as an explanation of the song. Sometimes an artist’s motivations are sub-conscious, and it is possible to see the words “all my life, I fought this fight, the fight that no man can ever win” as an example of Bruce battling with his obsessive methods. Bruce recorded Because the Night, but decided not to use it. A tape of the song was passed to Patti Smith, working on her Easter album at the same studio complex as Bruce, by Jimmy Iovine. He was multi-tasking (or multi-tracking), as engineer on Bruce’s album and producer of Patti’s record. Patti wrote some changes to the lyrics, with Bruce’s approval, and had a major hit with her version of Because the Night, which was released in the Spring of 1978, a few weeks before the arrival of Bruce’s album. Bruce’s songwriting collaboration with Patti Smith, the “High Priestess of Punk”, would have strengthened the musical theme of the Darkness record. Fire was a song that Bruce submitted to Elvis Presley shortly before the latter’s death. Bruce subsequently passed the torch to Robert Gordon, who released Fire as a single in 1978, with Bruce playing piano. A cover version by the Pointer Sisters arrived later that year. Hearts of Stone and Talk to Me were recorded by Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, featuring on their Hearts of Stone album in 1978. A couple of other songs from the Darkness sessions, Frankie and Rendezvous, were known to Bruce’s fans from live performances. The next few years saw the appearance of bootlegs covering out-takes from the Darkness sessions, and also concerts from the 1978 tour. The studio bootlegs showed that Bruce had recorded many impressive songs that were omitted from Darkness. Drive All Night, Independence Day, Ramrod, and Sherry Darling were each subsequently re-recorded, and released on The River in 1980. Other great recordings from the Darkness sessions included Don’t Look Back, Outside Looking In, Preacher’s Daughter, Spanish Eyes, and The Way. There were also Candy’s Boy and The Fast Song, two pieces which merged to become Candy’s Room.

As far back as the mid-1970s, fans had been asking Bruce to release a live album. In 1984 Bruce, interviewed by David Hepworth for a BBC The Old Grey Whistle Test profile, said that the absence of a live album stemmed from his belief that the excitement of a concert could not be caught on a recording. Bruce did, however, express an interesting alternative view: “There are songs that I want to re-record, that I was unhappy with the original studio recordings of. Mainly the Darkness album, which was a record that I thought had some of my best songs, but I always felt was a little dry recording-wise. I felt we kinda underplayed and oversang a little bit. That stuff sounds quite a bit different in performance, and I’d be interested in getting different versions of some of those songs”. A live album finally arrived in 1986, in the form of Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band Live / 1975-85, a brilliant five LP box set (or three CDs for those who had moved on to the new format). Six songs from Darkness were included (the omissions being Something in the Night, Factory, Streets of Fire, and Prove It All Night), but only Adam Raised a Cain was a recording from the 1978 tour. The remainder of the Darkness songs were performances from 1980, 1981, and 1985 – including a version of Badlands that Bruce used to open a show in Arizona on the night after Ronald Reagan won his first Presidential election. The live set brought the first official release of both Fire and Because the Night (from concerts in 1978 and 1980 respectively). Non-Darkness songs from 1978 tour included Backstreets and Rosalita (Come Out Tonight). There was also a version of Paradise by the ‘C’ recorded at the Roxy in Los Angeles, six days after that planned for a promotional single, with a slightly new spelling of the title. The appearance of Paradise by the ‘C’ was paradoxical, given that the promotional version of Prove It All Night was omitted from the live box set – the latter recording has still not been officially released. Following the appearance of the live album, Bruce declared himself pleased with the results, as the concert versions gave a new perspective on his music: “I was never completely satisfied with any of the recorded versions of things we did – certainly not before The River. I never felt the band learned to play in the studio before The River. On Badlands or Darkness, the live versions are the way that stuff was supposed to sound. And we couldn’t have ever got that in the studio, even if we had been playing well – because the audience allows you to attack something with a lot more intensity, and if you did it the same in the studio, it would sound overdone or oversung”.

Bruce disbanded the E Street Band in 1989, and embarked on a new phase of his career, which proved to be far from prolific. After releasing Human Touch and Lucky Town as simultaneous albums in 1992 (nearly five years on from their predecessor, Tunnel of Love), Bruce toured with a new, and nameless, band in both 1992 and 1993. An MTV special from 1992 was released as the In Concert: MTV Plugged live album the following year, featuring a new version of Darkness on the Edge of Town. There was a brief reunion between Bruce and the E Street Band in 1995, for a recording session that provided some new songs for a Greatest Hits album. The only track from the Darkness set in this collection was Badlands, with Bruce writing in the liner notes: “This was the record, Darkness on the Edge of Town, where I figured out what I wanted to write about, the people that mattered to me, and who I wanted to be. I saw friends and family struggling to lead decent, productive lives and I felt an everyday kind of heroism in this. Still do”. Columbia expected long-time fans of Bruce to buy a CD that was mostly old material, that they presumably already owned, in order to obtain four previously unreleased tracks, but the return of the E Street Band was pleasing. Bruce and the band filmed some promotional videos together, but a few months later Bruce released The Ghost of Tom Joad as a virtually solo album (although there were some contributions from other musicians, including Danny Federici, Patti Scialfa, and Garry Tallent). Bruce also set off on a lengthy solo tour, with the E Street Band left at a loose end.

Tracks, the quadruple CD set released in 1998, brought together out-takes and rarities from across Bruce’s career. Similarly to the live set that appeared in 1986, this was something that aficionados had wanted for many years, and the Tracks collection was an outstanding alternative route through Bruce’s music. There were, however, some rather odd choices, in terms of both inclusions and omissions. Five out-takes from Darkness appeared in the collection, namely Give the Girl a Kiss, Iceman, So Young and in Love, Hearts of Stone, and Don’t Look Back. There was also a live version of Rendezvous, but from a concert on The River tour in 1980. This still left many songs from the Darkness sessions unreleased, and there was widespread surprise (to put it mildly) that The Promise had not appeared on Tracks, while space had been found for many lesser songs. Bruce explained he was not happy with a recording he had of The Promise from the Darkness sessions, feeling it was “plodding”. The release of Tracks prompted the appearance of one of best of the Bruce bootlegs, Deep Down in the Vaults, a triple CD of unreleased studio and live tracks spanning Bruce’s career to date. There were five pieces from the Darkness sessions, including a previously unknown version of The Promise, which was slow, stark, and awesome.

Tracks was followed in 1999 by 18 Tracks. Four years after Greatest Hits, fans of Bruce were given the choice by Columbia of buying an album that was mostly taken from Tracks in order to acquire three previously unreleased recordings. Many people did so, as 18 Tracks featured The Promise, with the song finally being officially available. It was not, however, a version of The Promise with the E Street Band from the Darkness sessions. Instead it was a new solo recording, from 1999, with Bruce simply singing and playing a piano. Bruce had carried out some overdubs for the recordings on Tracks, and touchingly recalled Vincent Lopez, sacked from the band in 1974, for a beefing up of Thundercrack. Lopez immediately returned to relative obscurity of playing with local bands in New Jersey, but the box set re-appraisal of Bruce’s career was followed by another revival of the past. High hopes of a lasting reunion between Bruce and the E Street Band, planted in 1995, reached fruition with a world tour during 1999 and 2000. Live in New York City, released in 2001, was a double CD of recordings from a couple of shows at Madison Square Garden the previous year. This included Badlands and Prove It All Night (this live version was nowhere near as good as that from 1978), plus Don’t Look Back. The DVD of the concerts had some extra songs, among them Darkness on the Edge of Town and The Promise, the latter being performed by Bruce as a solo piece with piano.

The Rising, Bruce’s response to the tragic events of September 11 2001, was released in 2002, being his first album of new material since The Ghost of Tom Joad, seven years earlier. The next few years saw regular record releases and concerts by Bruce, including The Rising world tour with the E Street Band, during 2002 and 2003. Columbia issued The Essential Bruce Springsteen in 2003, this being a triple CD retrospective, in which the first two discs featured 30 of Bruce’s best recordings across his career. These two discs were basically an expanded update of Greatest Hits, with 12 songs appearing in each collection. The 2003 compilation featured three pieces from Darkness, namely Badlands, the title track, and The Promised Land. In his liner notes, Bruce mentioned a few omitted songs that fans might think should have been there, with Racing in the Street being one of these. The disc of rare or previously unreleased material that completed The Essential Bruce Springsteen could be seen as an extension of Tracks, but the earliest material came from 1979, and there was not anything there related to Darkness.

Two years later another re-packaging arrived, as Born to Run: 30th Anniversary Edition was issued in 2005. A digitally remastered CD version of the album was combined with two DVDs, one being Wings for Wheels: The Making of Born to Run, which was a documentary, while the other disc was film of a famous (or infamous) concert at the Hammersmith Odeon, from a few weeks after release of the original album. The DVDs were excellent, but the lack of any new music in CD form was disappointing. Admittedly few songs other than the eight featured on the album had been recorded, but there were some extra tracks available, plus interesting alternative versions of the songs that appeared on Born to Run.

Fans hoped that an expanded version of Darkness would follow to mark that album’s thirtieth anniversary. When 2008 arrived, Bruce had a hectic schedule, touring and recording Working on a Dream, plus campaigning for Barack Obama in the US Presidential Election. Plans for a Darkness reissue were put on hold, although at the start of 2009 John Landau confirmed that a re-release was intended when time permitted. For the moment, there was a different reissue of material, as in January 2009 a second Greatest Hits album was released, this time billed as by Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band. The album was initially available in the USA, Canada, and Australia, featuring just 12 tracks. An expanded version, with 18 tracks, was released in Europe in June 2009. The collection was doubtless bought by completists, who already owned some of the individual recordings several times. The new Greatest Hits featured tracks starting in 1973 and concluding in 2007, but there was an eighteen year gap between 1984 and 2002. Part of this chasm was due to Bruce’s split from the E Street Band from 1989 to 1999, but the gap could have been lessened with tracks from the 1987 album Tunnel of Love, and Live in New York City, recorded in 2000. A further bridging of the gap with something from Bruce’s 1995 session with the band for that year’s Greatest Hits collection would have been a neat touch. Both the initial and expanded albums featured Badlands and Darkness on the Edge of Town. The inclusion of Because the Night and Fire (from Live / 1975-85) on the expanded version meant that 4 of the 18 songs stemmed from the Darkness-era. This was testament to the importance of Darkness in Bruce’s career, and possibly an admission from Bruce that he should have made more of Because the Night and Fire.

At the end of 2009, John Landau specifically said that a Darkness box set was 93 per cent complete. Landau’s figure subsequently proved to be misfounded, due to a return of perfectionism from Bruce, who went into Thrill Hill Recording during the Summer of 2010, to add overdubs to some of the Darkness out-takes. In August, Columbia announced details of a Darkness box set, the large scale of which had fans excited. The next few weeks saw the cinema release of a documentary film, which would be included in the box set, and the trailing of both audio and video clips from the collection on the Internet.

The Promise: The Darkness on the Edge of Town Story, released on November 15 2010, is an incredible box set, featuring three CDs, three DVDs, and a book. In one of the most audacious re-packagings of material in the history of rock music, Bruce’s masterpiece, a 43 minute album, has been expanded into discs that stretch to eight and a half hours of music and film. This is story-telling in the grand manner. The presentation is impressive, with the box holding the book, into which the individual discs are inserted at intervals. The CD of Darkness on the Edge of Town is a digitally remastered version, produced by Bob Ludwig on June 2 2010, thirty two years to the day after the original album was released. There is a clear improvement in the sound quality on the new version. Amidst the continuation of a severe world recession, that had been triggered by a crisis in the banking system in 2007, the lyrical themes of Bruce’s Darkness album remain as relevant as they had been back in 1978.

The original record is followed by The Promise, a double CD, which was simultaneously released as a stand-alone album. This is a hypothetical album that could have been released between Born to Run and Darkness. The Promise features 22 songs, which were outtakes from the Darkness sessions, with several tracks having been partly re-recorded, apart from Save My Love, which was a new recording in 2010 of a song written ahead of Darkness. The highlights of the album are the title track and Because the Night. The appearance of The Promise meant that a version of this song from 1977-78 had finally received official release, but there were flaws, as one verse was missing without explanation, while the addition of a string arrangement detracted from the starkness of the original design. Because the Night had Bruce singing Patti Smith’s lyrics, which suggested a new vocal track from 2010, given that Bruce had consistently used his lyrics in live performances. Racing in the Street (’78) was a rougher alternative to the version previously released, with some different lyrics (the 69 Chevy being swapped for a 32 Ford). Come On (Let’s Go Tonight) was a prototype for Factory, and Candy’s Boy later became Candy’s Room. The studio original of Fire was longer than the live track from 1978, with the former lacking some of the greatness of the latter. On the other hand, the studio Rendezvous was as good as the live version from 1980 that had appeared on Tracks. The Promise also delivered top quality recordings of several other songs known to fans for many years, such as Gotta Get that Feeling, Outside Looking In, Spanish Eyes, and Wrong Side of the Street. The Way featured as a hidden song at the end of the album, on the same track as City at Night. The five songs from the Darkness sessions that appeared on Tracks were not used again on The Promise. At the end of the process, there had still not been an official release of Preacher’s Daughter or The Fast Song.

The book within the box set opens with two essays by Bruce. The first, covering the Darkness album, previously appeared in Songs, Bruce’s book of lyrics, published in 1998. The second essay is a new piece from Bruce, in which he writes about the choices that led to the content of the Darkness album, and the discarding of much substantial material. With a slight exaggeration, Bruce suggests that the songs on Darkness, the relevant outtakes on Tracks, plus the songs now on The Promise could have filled four albums. Bruce also writes about the musical influences that helped shape the songs recorded during the Darkness sessions. The remainder of the book combines copies of pages in Bruce’s notebook from the Darkness-sessions (with lyric and song selection ideas), the final lyrics to that album, photos of Bruce and the band, concert posters, and a newspaper report. There is also a separate insert with the lyrics of The Promise album. The book stands as a great document, combining insight into Bruce’s working methods with nostalgia.

The DVD content starts with The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town. This is a fascinating documentary about the Darkness sessions, combining film of Bruce, the band, and the production team in the studio, with recollections from the same participants filmed in recent years. Bruce recalls that when he worked on Darkness, “More than rich, more than famous, more than happy, I wanted to be great”. In black and white film from the studio, Bruce is shown facing the frustrations of attempting to deliver his vision, something that, supported by the band and production team, he eventually achieved. The cover for the DVD has a photo of Bruce sat at a petrol station, in the night, which had been considered for the cover of Darkness. During the film, Bruce talks about his obsessive compulsive methods. Bruce expanded upon this theme in an interview with Brian Williams, broadcast on NBC’s The Today Show, a few weeks before the release of the box set. Bruce said “your OCD comes in handy” when Williams asked about the drive to make Darkness on the Edge of Town a great record. Bruce suggested: “Madness is not to be underrated. Madness in the appropriate place, and sometimes at the service of an aesthetic ideal, can help you get to higher ground sometimes”.

The second DVD features two pieces, present and past. First there is film of a performance of each of the songs from Darkness on the Edge of Town by Bruce and the E Street Band. Taking place in 2009, this is a spirited show, but its setting at an empty theatre in Asbury Park is rather unusual. The aim was to re-create the stark atmosphere of the album, by playing the songs without an audience. With the songs having developed in live performance over the years, Bruce had realised the suggestion he made about re-recording Darkness in 1984, albeit in film rather than on a record. The second half of this disc consists of Thrill Hill Vault, 1976-1978, which has film of Bruce and the band rehearsing / recording / performing 12 songs. These include a portrayal of a studio version of The Promise. The disc concludes with five songs filmed at Phoenix during 1978, including the familiar performance of Rosalita (Come Out Tonight), and a great Prove It All Night.

The final disc in The Promise set is Houston ’78 Bootleg: House Cut, the film of an entire concert, lasting a few minutes short of three hours. The quality of the film is not quite as good as at Phoenix, but the performance by Bruce and the E Street Band is amazing. The concert features seven songs from Darkness (the exclusions being Adam Raised a Cain, Factory, and Something in the Night), along with Because the Night, Fire, and Independence Day. There were also appearances from The Ties that Bind and Point Blank, new songs since the Darkness sessions that would feature on The River. Reverting to tradition, the concert included renditions by Bruce of other great material, including Spirit in the Night, Rosalita (Come Out Tonight), The Fever, Born to Run, Thunder Road, and Jungleland. The concert DVD is a fitting conclusion to a brilliant set, which belatedly, but with brilliance, tells the full story of the central sequence in Bruce Springsteen’s career. The response from fans, many of whom had been hoping for something like this for more than thirty years, was ecstatic. Across the various elements of The Promise, an amazing tale of Bruce’s artistic creation is told, expanding the mystique of “wanting things that can only be found in the darkness on the edge of town”.

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