Out of the Darkness
by Phil Robinson
Phil is a singer/songwriter based in NY, as well as the founder of both Roomful of Sky Records and Roomful of Sky Events. Phil feels deeply indebted toward those creative souls who've gone before and made the way a little easier for the rest of us. Here, he shares the origin story of his rampant Bruce Springsteen fanatacism.
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"At the age of fifteen, nothing was more useful to me than an old rock record by a guy from Jersey..."
The personal experience that led me to recognize the value of art and culture in our society involves my encounter with a particular piece of music at a young age. My experience of this little bit of culture wound up being incredibly useful to me during my formative years and still holds great meaning for me to this day.
The story, of course, becomes a cliche, and perhaps something to more and more roll one's eyes at from an increasingly adult perspective, but none of that changes the fact that this was a true and almost incomprehensively powerful experience for me at the age of 15.
To say that Bruce Springsteen's album,
Darkness on the Edge of Town, made an impression on me when I was 15 years old would be an understatement. In truth, it did nothing less than kick open a door in my young mind to a whole world of new ideas.
To frame the experience, let me describe something of my early life in a broader context.
In every society, there are many mechanisms by which each generation passes on a set of core ideas or values to the next generation. This happens in a variety of ways, of course: within the bounds of family life, in the context of being raised within a religious tradition, through a quality public education system, through participation in sports, through a shared set of cultural touchpoints, and so on. Often, it is a combination of all of these which enable a young person to formulate a set of concepts about the world, a value system, and a means of imagining a role within the context of society.
Each individual growing up, of course, will be more or less sensitive to some of these than to others.
In my case, at the time, I drew less value from most of these than I otherwise might have. I had unfortunately been caught in the middle of my parents' messy divorce, so much of the sense of continuity and stability that a young person might derive from the experience of participating in family life was not available to me. Another example is that I grew up in a household where a plurality of religious ideas were present all at once: some Christianity, some Judaism, some atheism. In place of the cohesive world-view that I observed some of my friends growing up with, my experience was more one of perpetual disparity.
I could go on, but enough of the picture is painted: my early years were more of a groping for something that felt like a calm sense of being and belonging in this world rather than actually feeling it. For lack of a better word, my groping was for the feeling of being at 'home' in the world.
In short, many of the typical societal streams of connection in my case did not succeed in communicating in a full and vital way to my young self.
The thing that did reach me, however, was the music of Bruce Springsteen.
Simply put, Bruce's music was the right thing at the right time.
To encounter the set of ideas expressed on the Darkness album at that young age was a powerful experience. The songs expertly communicated themes which resonated with each other in a novelistic way such that the whole was much, much greater than the sum of its parts.
The themes (to me, at least) included:
- the possibility of finding redemption in simple everyday acts of decency
- the recognition of the painful yearning of wanting more for oneself than one presently has
- the sense of decay of life's promise that encroaches when one remains inert
- the ability of a person to transform his or her life situation through sheer force of will and commitment to action and then by following through
- the concept that you could take all you want from life if you are willing to pay the price
- the idea that all the power in the world is embedded in the choices that we make
- the concept that each generation must inevitably take up the work left to them by the previous generation
- the idea that hidden vistas of possibility are there to be found if you have the resolve and strength to continue to walk through the darkness
In fact, it was nothing short of an alternative ideology that I had not been otherwise exposed to, delivered through the vessel of music that was altogether irresistible and undeniable in its power.
In addition to the story Bruce was telling, Bruce's own story, as well as the story of culture that was expressing itself through him, was compelling to me as well.
The realization that a 27-year-old Bruce could sit by himself in a room and work hard and diligently for a year, deliberately groping for a set of ideas and values that felt real and important to him, then challenge himself to distill that set of ideas into an accessible body of music and to get that music out into the world, and that that music could float around in the culture for fifteen years and somehow find its way to 15-year-old me sitting in my room, and happen to be just the key to assist me in seeing through my sense of desperate isolation at that age-- it was an incomprehensible, nearly religious experience.
Following the thread of initial inspiration, I read more about the background of Bruce Springsteen: what made him the person he was, what drove him to pursue the kind of lifestyle he pursued, what experiences could have possibly shaped him such that as a grown man he would still find ultimate meaning in the writing of songs and getting them out into the world as he did? Weren't these childish pursuits, to be put away once one reaches maturity? That's what I had been raised to believe.
I discovered that young Bruce was motivated, at least initially, by that same sense of isolation that I was quite familiar with, and that upon seeing the jubilant energy of Elvis Presley performing on TV at a young age, he found a key and a blueprint for his own future, a bold vision of how he might be able to connect to and participate in the world in a constructive way. He imagined that he, too, might be able to create that same kind of positive energy through music on as broad a canvas as possible, just as Elvis had, and earn for himself a role in society much like Elvis's.
And then, for me to realize that not only did the young Bruce formulate such an unlikely vision for his future, but that he was also able to carry through in a methodical fashion and succeed at it-- at the time, I knew of no true story that was a grander adventure of fulfillment and of potential realized.
And then for me to take a step back and realize that I had simply been the latest link in a chain, the most recent young person on the receiving end of a process of culture which continues to unfold and renew itself in perpetuity-- this was just as powerful a realization.
15-year old me dared to hope that, perhaps, I could play a small part in perpetuating that ongoing stream of culture as well-- to contribute to it, to be part of the process of its renewal so that it may continue to serve as a resource for successive generations.
Suddenly, a way of being in the world, a vocation, a calling, a worthwhile vision of how a life could be lived was made clear to me. It was not some theoretical, crazy idea-- it was a real phenomena, something that I knew to the core of my being was possible, simply because I had experienced it firsthand, by being on the receiving end of it. Culture need not be a one-way street only-- Couldn't we be contributors to it as well as consumers? Isn't that what Bruce himself had made clear?
In fact, that epiphany felt like the truest thing that I had experienced up to that point in my life, and the resultant vision I was able to formulate for my own life was, I felt, among the greatest things I had been fortunate enough to be able to envision for myself.
For this 15-year-old, at least, coming across that old rock album was just the thing that was able to reach me. It awakened me to experiencing the world with a much, much wider horizon, and introduced me to a set of values, a workable sense of the world, a vision of my role within it, and a meaningful way of being.
Bruce's music was, and still is, for me, a portal to a world where self-realization seems not only possible, but also necessary and encouraged. All art or cultural expression can do that. To this day, I remain grateful that cultural (eg. creative) expression exists alongside other avenues such as religion, family, education, etc., as a viable stream of ideas binding us all together as a community and providing meaningful signposts for each successive generation.
Other ideas have come and gone in my life, of course, and other visions of lifestyles or vocations to pursue have been contemplated and explored, but to this day, I remain convinced of the power and importance of culture. It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that participating in culture is the bedrock of my very being.
Age and maturity bring with them various ideas and perhaps the passions of youth get tempered a bit with an increased experience of the world...
...but perhaps one can let the experience of the world in, and have it inform rather than overwhelm their passion, thus making youthful ideas all the more able to mature alongside them and thrive..
For myself, I can still imagine no greater pursuit than a lifetime given over in service to culture-- to participate in it, to contribute to it, and to help perpetuate it-- THAT is the grand privilege of my lifetime.
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