Counting Down Springsteen: #68, “Adam Raised A Cain”

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Videos by American Songwriter

Darkness on the Edge of Town

The following is an excerpt from Counting Down Bruce Springsteen: His 100 Finest Songs, a new book available now from American Songwriter contributor Jim Beviglia. We’ll be offering a sampling of song entries — one out of each batch of 10 — over the next few weeks. Purchase the book here.

When a child first catches adults out — when it first walks into his grave little head that adults do not always have divine intelligence, that their judgments are not always wise, their thinking true, their sentences just—his world falls into panic desolation. The gods are fallen and all safety gone. And there is one sure thing about the fall of gods: they do not fall a little; they crash and shatter or sink deeply into green muck. It is a tedious job to build them up again; they never quite shine. And the child’s world is never quite whole again. It is an aching kind of growing.

Based on the way that Bruce Springsteen has written about the relationship between father and son in many of his finest songs, you might assume that it was the Boss himself who gave the above quote. It actually comes from John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, which is a sort of retelling of the biblical tale of Cain and Abel, which itself partly inspired “Adam Raised a Cain,” Springsteen’s searing rocker from Darkness on the Edge of Town.

It just goes to show that the subject matter has been popular for time immemorial and still no one has come anywhere near understanding its vast complexities. That didn’t stop Springsteen from trying though, which is a good thing for his fans in this case. “Adam Raised a Cain” is as hard, dark, and true as anything Springsteen has ever written.

In a 1978 interview with Creem magazine, Springsteen was asked if he was indeed getting downright biblical with his listeners in the song. “I did read the Bible some,” he said. “I tried to read it for a while a year ago. It’s fascinating. I got into it quite a ways. Great stories. Actually, what happened was I was thinking of writing that particular song, and I went back trying to get a feeling for it” (86).

He may have gone back to the oldest book there is to get a feel for the story, but the musical setting in which he placed it was vividly modern. The flickering electric guitar that starts the song eventually builds into anguished squeals in the solo. Even with the hard-rock trappings of the guitar, Garry Tallent’s bass line is inherently soulful, keeping things from getting too sludgy. The backing vocals sound like they’re emanating from some ghostly chain gang.

It’s probably a bit of a stretch to look at the musical landscape at the time and say that this was Springsteen’s answer to punk. While he may have been attempting a bracing kind of sound, the musicality of the song is just as much a part of its success as its raw power. Maybe a better comparison would be the primal-scream rock that John Lennon undertook on his John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band album. Springsteen’s raspy howls certainly recall Lennon’s wild screaming on that landmark record.

“Adam Raised a Cain” begins with a baptism, but what the narrator realizes is that the rite that is supposed to introduce a child to religion instead simply begins the suffering he was preordained to feel. It’s a suffering that will be passed along to him by his father, bound as they are by their familial connection: “With the same hot blood burnin’ in our veins.”

The song struggles with the notion that a son should naturally follow his father. “They fit you with position and the keys to your daddy’s Cadillac,” he sings, a Cadillac that might as well be the black one carting your body away from the church for the meager opportunity such a life will afford. After all, this father’s life is not one anybody in their right mind would ever want to live: “Daddy worked his whole life for nothing but the pain.”

Such a life breeds resentment that builds up until it explodes onto others in the vicinity: “Now he walks these empty rooms looking for something to blame.” The narrator can’t make sense of why it happens, but to paraphrase another Darkness song, at least he has his facts straight at the end: “You’re born into this life paying for the sins of somebody else’s past.”

Much of what makes Darkness on the Edge of Town such a striking album is its fearlessness in detailing the bleaker aspects of life, “the dark heart of a dream” as it’s so hauntingly described here. If it all begins with children and parents, then that dark heart beats most purely in “Adam Raised a Cain,” a song where a son goes wallowing into the “green muck” that Steinbeck described and comes up a little wiser and a lot dirtier.

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