Springsteen’s "Promise" and the Price You Pay

“Remember,” says Bruce Springsteen to a bandmate, “there’s always room to throw out.”

The black-and-white footage shows an astonishingly beautiful young Springsteen in the studio,  some time late in 1977 or early in 1978. He is, it appears, slowly driving his fellow musicians crazy with his capacity to write new songs, record them, then toss them away. The album that will finally be born in June 1978 is Darkness on the Edge of Town, and its gestation appears to be a process of elimination as much as of creation.

Even when it comes to the songs that he plans to keep, Springsteen — whose three previous albums swelled with lyrical and musical excess — seems intent on stripping them of anything resembling ornamentation.

“Roy, you playin’ any fills?” he asks his piano player, Roy Bittan. Before Bittan can reply, Springtsteen adds: “If so, they’re out.” His tone is mock-Bossy, with a hint of mincing, and he gets a laugh — but he is clearly serious.

These unusual images of a musician at work with his band were filmed by a friend of Springsteen’s, Barry Rebo, who was allowed to bring a camera into rehearsals and recording sessions. They appear in Thom Zimny’s new film, The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town — which along with other home-movie clips and live-concert footage fills no fewer than three DVDs in the extraordinary new box-set (three CDs! three DVDs!) of similar name. Extraordinary and pricy: here in Dublin it set me back €100 ($137) when it went on sale last Friday.

For the fans who can afford it, this set evokes a lyric from Darkness: “… if dreams came true, oh, wouldn’t that be nice.” The album holds a special place in our affections, partly because of the troubled process that produced it, but also precisely because of what it lacks: the hype of Born to Run, the mega-popularity of Born in the USA or the scattergun electicism of The River; Darkness is the pure stuff, unadulterated Springsteen arguably at his creative peak. In my own New Jersey adolescence it was the first record, by anyone, that I fully inhabited, and I’ve heard of a few adolescences, from Detroit to Roscommon to Pisa, in which it played a similar role.

As Springsteen describes it in the recent interview that anchors Zimny’s film, Darkness was a “tone poem”, with “power, directness and austerity” as its goals. The documentary relates Springsteen’s crazed pursuit of a relentless drum sound — “Stick!” he would shout, as he claimed he was hearing the drum-stick rather than the primal crack-boom of Max Weinberg’s drums. He got what he wanted to a great extent, which is just as well when so many songs on the album are so stripped down that the “melody” consists of little more than whatever note Gary Tallent’s bass intones whenever the bass drum sounds.

CD copies of Darkness have never, to my ear, captured those scarifying drums the way my original 1978 vinyl copy still does, and so over the years I’ve tended to revisit Darkness only on a turntable. Happily there’s a remastered CD included in the box-set that will remedy that situation: it has, at last, the big bang of the vinyl. Now I can preserve what’s left of the crackling LP, which I played endless that summer of 1978, and get back to something resembling the purity of Springsteen’s dark essence.

But with all that stripping clean and throwing away he was doing in 1977-78, what was left out? And anyway, why in God’s name was Bruce Springsteen only just getting into the studio two years after being the magazine-cover face of record-industry hype with the release of Born to Run in 1975? The answers to these questions go to the heart not only of the significance of this autumn’s “new” release, but also of the special place that Springsteen holds in the history of the business, as opposed (?) to the art, of rock ‘n’ roll.

For most of the gap between Born to Run and Darkness, Springsteen was hamstrung by a lawsuit with his former manager that kept him out of the studio. Although the suit was over quicker than, say, Muhammad Ali’s ban from boxing eight years earlier, and had none of its political meaning, it has taken on some of the same weighty significance for some Springsteen fans. We revel in his comeback from adversity, his defiance of The Man — but we still wonder what might have been, if he hadn’t been kept out of the ring in his absolute mid-to-late-20s prime.

The Promise, tantalisingly, purports to give an answer, in the form of a double-CD of 21 songs, also available separate from the big box-set — Springsteen’s “lost album”, the one he says “could have/should have been released” in those gap years.  Just to cement the confusion, the separate release is also called The Promise, with a different mouthful for a subtitle.

Now, Springsteen is hardly the only big old star to root through the archives/rejects for stocking-fillers. But The Promise is both more ambitious and more phony than the competition: Bob Dylan’s Bootleg Series continues this year with wonderful, sometimes messy early-Sixties demos; Neil Young’s obsessive-compulsive Archives has made the most of the vast multimedia storage, online connectivity and high-resolution of Blu-Ray;  God and Sony know what Michael Jackson’s “new” album will be like. But it’s only Springsteen and his PR machine who are playing “Back to the Future”, magically trying to re-create the missing 1977 Springsteen release: the vaults were full of unfinished works, so on the two-disc Promise about half the songs (the credits are maddeningly imprecise) are substantially revised, with vocals, instruments, even lyrics that weren’t there at the time.

In the liner notes he writes, absurdly: “I did what I would’ve done to them at the time and no more.” Not even “what I think I would’ve done”. No, 61-year-old Bruce knows 27-year-old Bruce so well he can reproduce exactly what his younger self “would’ve done”.

There is perhaps something endearing about Springsteen’s insistence that mere archives aren’t good enough, that he needed to tamper with, or even completely remake, his old recordings to make them worth releasing as a real 2010 album. The die-hard fans have, after all, heard many of the unaltered outtakes on various bootlegs down through the years. And maybe the blue-collar troubadour doesn’t want his shelf to look as preciously library-like as those of Dylan and Young.

Whatever the reason, the absurd claim that is this is somehow the “lost album” is demolished utterly when we recall that a handful of the best “rejects” from this period turned up on The River (1980) and several more appeared in 1998, on the four-CD Tracks box — those songs are not repeated here.

Nonetheless, the two discs of The Promise comprise a good old/new Springsteen album. From the opening piano and harmonica of “Racing in the Streets (78)” –  much like the song on Darkness itself, but in a slightly less monotonic voice and less fatalistic key, with beautiful fiddle — to the lament of the title track, it sounds at times like a more deliberate successor/response to Born to Run, and especially to its great romantic epic “Thunder Road”, than Darkness itself does.

But it sounds like a lot of other things too. Its songs are more conventional than most of those on Darkness, but like Darkness it is shot through with anxiety; this time it’s mostly romantic, but often material too. These are the songs of a man who was worried about money — which surely makes them an especially apt 2010 release, if a rather ironic one given their price. These days Bruce isn’t so worried: in concerts, when he gets to the climax of “Darkness on the Edge of Town”, Springsteen changes a lyric, “I lost my money and I lost my wife”, to “I lost my faith and I lost my wife.”

However, in 1976-78 he had every reason to be worried: his manager, Mike Appel, had held back on a half-millilon dollar check from the record company, with the apparent intention of  bringing Bruce around to his contractual way of thinking, and legal battle was joined early in 1976, with Springsteen essentially seeking to void his professional relationship with Appel. In the documentary (which, by the way, gives the charming Appel a fair if uncontentious hearing) 21st-century Bruce insists: “It wasn’t” — the word barely gets to an unconvincing final t, even by the low standards of New Jersey diction — “a lawsuit about money. It was a lawsuit about control.” But ten minutes later in the film he’s acknowledging his precarious financial position by the time the suit was resolved — to his long-term but not short-term financial benefit: “If I’d a had that one success [Born to Run] I’d a went back to Asbury Park millions of dollars in debt rather than the other way around.” The unusually fractured, arseways syntax from the carefully-spoken Springsteen may indicate just how painful the thought remains.

Later again, talking through the words of “The Promised Land”, he explains the lyric “Sometimes I feel so weak I just want to explode” in terms of his inability at the time to “look after” the E Street Band, by which he clearly means, well, money. As recording engineer Jimmy Iovine puts it bluntly: “We were all broke.”

This sense of the real meaning of money, and the danger of lacking it, though it may have be the consequence of a rather high-class legal dispute, is no small matter in the progress of his career. Darkness underlined more powerfully than any of its predecessors the class orientation of Springsteen’s art, even if its unmistakable mood of individualism and moralism raise questions about his class politics that have never been completely answered. His key characters here are not merely working-class; they are precariously proletarian. The bitter distinction between have-nots and have-even-lesses has rarely been captured better than in the line from the title song: “Now I hear she’s got a house up in Fairview/ And a style she’s trying to maintain.”

The two “new” CDs of The Promise, seen together with Darkness, seem to contain more references to money, price, cost and status than anything in the rock-era canon outside Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. And that’s far from the only thing it has in common with the best of soul music. Springsteen, who has never had much of a black audience, had nonetheless already been pursuing black idioms, and for a time in 1974 the E Street Band had three African-American members. But the soulful music on his first three albums seemed somehow to have been filtered through the sensibilities of Bob Dylan, Van Morrison and Phil Spector, respectively. On The Promise there’s a more direct line to the likes of Otis Redding and the Drifters; the white mediators, such as they are, are the somewhat less self-consciously artful sort: Buddy Holly, say, or the Righteous Brothers. “Ain’t Good Enough for You” is stuck catchily in my head like something from Martha and the Vandellas, and it could be Ray Charles rather than Springsteen who sings smuttily in “City of Night”: “i got a cute little baby down at 12th and Vine/And she opens for business ’round about closin’ time.” The extent to which he eventually decided to steer Darkness away from black musical roots is evident in the film, when he discusses his desire to minimise Clarence Clemon’s saxophone on the album, because he thought of it as “an urban instrument”. One could be forgiven for hearing the word “urban” as a euphemism.

Guitarist “Miami” Steve Van Zandt suggests in the film that Springsteen could have been known as one of the great pop songwriters if he hadn’t kept throwing out the catchy tracks. The thesis will no doubt get an airing in the response to The Promise, but it needs to be assessed with some scepticism. It’s true there is some lovely pop here, but it’s not the pop of its time: a few tracks sound like they could have been in the pop and/or R&B charts in the mid-Sixties – but probably not in the late Seventies. In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal Springsteen himself refers to some of his tendencies in this period as being a sort of genre revivalism, “neo-soul”.

History gives us something better than a thought experiment when it comes to Springsteen’s pop capacities. While he was paring down Darkness to a tone poem, he was in fact letting some of his “pop” songs leak out to other performers. Several of them went to his Jersey-shore pals, Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes. The Jukes were  wonderful  — their live shows provide some of my warmest memories of the late 1970s — but the highlight of their set was a Sam Cooke medley, i.e. 15-year-old songs with a 15-year-old sound. Even with songs like Springsteen’s “Talk to Me” (itself one of the highlights of The Promise, the singer crying repeatedly to his lost love “I got a full week’s pay!” over a Stax-like horn section) they made little impact on the charts.

The two Seventies “hits” that feature in Springsteen’s own versions on The Promise don’t do much for Van Zandt’s thesis either. Patti Smith reached the top 20 with Springsteen’s “Because the Night” after he couldn’t finish it, but that was a straight-ahead rocker. And, you know, he couldn’t finish it. The Pointer Sisters’ version of “Fire” did get to number 2; but the Sisters were in part something of a novelty act, with clothes and harmonies drawn from mid-century pop. They suited the (terrific) song perfectly, but it scarcely provides evidence of Springsteen’s contemporary pop sensibility.

This is no crime: Bob Dylan, among other artists, spent much of the Sixties writing great, partly derivative blues songs, when the blues were far from the charts. And anyway, in 2010 we’re catholic enough in our tastes that we don’t complain about the vintage of our pop stylings: this album should do well commercially. But if a lurking part of The Promise’s premise is that in the late 1970s Bruce eschewed the temptations of first-order commercial success to pursue a line of maximum integrity, it’s dubious – not simply because of his rough-edged voice, but because his melodic and rhythmic sensibility drew too heavily on an earlier period. It is true, however, that no one forced him to produce an album quite as dark and unhooky as Darkness. And it’s also true that when he relaxed into the Eighties he did show himself capable of making some inroads into the singles charts — without ever approaching the inventive transcendence of the period’s sublime pop artists, Michael Jackson and Prince.

The years 1977-78, when most of The Promise and indeed Darkness were recorded, were about disco, early stirrings of hip-hop, punk and the death of Elvis. And of these only Elvis figures prominently on The Promise, both as a source of inspiration and with a mention in a lyric. (A few years later, disco-diva Donna Summer recorded his searing “Protection”, but it left barely a trace on radio playlists or the charts.)  Springsteen was impressed with the explosion of punk, and studio bootlegs from the autumn of 1977 contain New Jersey’s answer to the Clash’s “Janie Jones”, a stormer called “Break Out”, but it’s left off The Promise.  (So, sadly, are the rockingly Presleyan “Preacher’s Daughter” and “Crazy Rocker/It’s All Right”.) Punk is more relevant to the humourless austerity and power of Darkness than to anything on The Promise,which in 21 songs offers an incomplete portrait of the artist as he came of age.

So we’ve got an unproven thesis about Bruce the lost pop genius; a rather questionable archive exercise; and a highly listenable Springsteen album that melds a part (mainly the black part) of his late-Seventies sensibility with the overproduced poppy-nostalgia that dominated his weak 2009 album, Working on a Dream. His current Promise single, “Save My Love”, is a heavily reworked Seventies-Noughties concoction that would have fit on that album.

But the video for that single reminds fans why we care. Shots, old and new, of Bruce and his band mix with images of his fans and even of some of the bootleg LPs that helped us fill in those old gaps between albums. In this era of industry paranoia about piracy, the video reminds us how the pirates of yore gave us Springsteen’s music when the industry couldn’t oblige. Bruce gets it. (Even while I was writing about the new release last week for an Irish newspaper, the pirates were more efficient than Sony at giving me a sneak peak.)

Then there’s the “Notebook” that comes in the box-set, a spiral-bound facsimile containing many pages of Springsteen’s own scribblings from the time. (If you’re about my age and provenance, you will honest-to-god keep mistaking it for something that has somehow surfaced from a long-forgotten box in the basement.)  Sure, it’s probably almost as “inauthentic” as many of the songs on the album, but who cares? Look here, where it says the album was at one point called The Story of Frankie and Sonny and the Darkness on the Edge of Town! And here, where he makes a note to himself to give two songs to the Jukes! And look at these lyrics that didn’t turn up on record until the Eighties! How many verses did he write for “Badlands” anyway?!

The box-set has other contents that are valuable if something short of treasurable. There’s a full 2009 performance of the ten Darkness songs,live without an audience, with only the late lamented organist Danny Federici missing from the original line-up.  It’s only mildly revisionist, with Roy allowed a few fills and Bruce sparing his larynx the scraping he gave it three decades earlier; the few tiny lyric changes jump off the screen with their rarity.

The box’s full-concert video from 1978, in Houston, is a bit disappointing: it’s shot dully on video — with occasional quickfire outbursts of horrible Seventies TV-style direction — meaning that it compares unfavourably to the film of the E Street Band’s 1975  London performance that featured in the Born to Run box-set five years ago, and to the marvelously shot and edited footage of five songs in Phoenix in 1978 that has circulated for years on bootlegs and is also tucked elsewhere in this box. Moreover, this Houston show came late in the 1978 tour and it feels roughly as routine as Springsteen gets: still a great rock ‘n’ roll gig, but without the sense of occasion and spontaneity that makes those other films so revisit-able.

Still, to my mind an imperfect document and a merely good album are both better than none at all, especially since all the material will quickly be available online for fans who can’t or won’t take this as another opportunity to contribute generously to the corporate coffers. With this release we can see, through the marketing fog and in sudden poignant clarity, a crucial, painful moment of transition in one of rock ‘n roll’s greatest, most emblematic careers. On the song “The Promise”, recorded in 1977, the nearest thing to a song “about” his lawsuit, Springsteen manages to configure what he had lost and what he feared losing as a sort of heroic sacrifice he had always intended to make: “we were gonna take it all and throw it all away.” Well, he didn’t. We didn’t. And (to hell with sacrifice!) 33 years later we’re glad he and his work – the great, the good, the indifferent — were carried back to us from the edge of the business’s abyss.

HARRY BROWNE lectures in journalism at Dublin Institute of Technology and is the author of CounterPunch’s Hammered by the Irish. Email harry.browne@gmail.com



Harry Browne lectures in Dublin Institute of Technology and is the author of The Frontman: Bono (In the Name of Power). Email:harry.browne@gmail.com, Twitter @harrybrowne