If I were forced to choose just two Bruce Springsteen albums for a desert island stay (boxed sets don’t count), I wouldn’t hesitate to choose Born to Run (1975) and Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978). When I was a teenager, these albums captured my imagination in a way that few albums ever have. They still do. More than that, they represent a key transition in Springsteen’s vision as a songwriter. First there’s Born to Run – the colorful characters, the driving anthems and the lush wall-of-sound production. Then there’s Darkness on the Edge of Town – powerful and raw, a head-on collision between hope and desperation. But never surrender. As the street poets give way to factory workers and the romantic dreams of escape turn to a darker reality, Springsteen finds heroism in the everyday struggle. The appeal of The Promise, the two-disc collection of songs recorded in 1977 and released last month by Sony, is that it captures the moment of transition. It’s a glimpse into the making of an artist.
Professional athletes peak at the age of 27 or 28. For artists, there’s no such rule and no such limit. Still, for most of us, turning 30 represents something pivotal. As adults, we’re just finding our footing, still coming to understand the world, our community and our place within them. Our dreams and ideals aren’t necessarily abandoned, but they’re recalibrated and redefined in light of maturity and new understanding. These discoveries are expressed in the work of writers and artists. At the age of 28, Bruce Springsteen had recorded three albums, including the acclaimed Born to Run and had appeared on the cover of Time and Newsweek. He was emerging as something of a rock star but was a long way from mega-star or celebrity status. He had also been involved in a nasty legal dispute with his former manager over the rights to his songs. And when he looked around, he saw a post-Watergate nation living in doubt and he saw working class people from the towns he knew struggling to make sense of their lives.
Like other serious fans, I was already familiar with some of the tracks on The Promise through the magic of bootlegging (“Rendezvous”, “Outside Looking In”, “The Promise”) and I was pretty sure the album was going to be something special. Still, I wondered if this was the sort of release that would appeal only to hardcore fans. Were the unreleased songs left off previous albums for good reason? Was The Promise just a desperate ploy on the part of a dying music industry to pry cash from fans on the strength of one of the label’s few profitable artists?
If it was a ploy, it was one of the better ones that Sony has come up with. The Promise offers alternate takes of songs that appear on Darkness (“Racing in the Street”), favorites better known from versions by other artists (“Because the Night”, “Fire”, “Talk to Me”) and a terrific collection of rockers, 60s-style pop and soul, and heart-felt ballads which span the mood and the musical distance between Born to Run and Darkness. There’s a wealth of tasty material here. The boxed set also includes DVDs of some riveting live performances with the E-Street Band and the special which aired on HBO on the making of Darkness on the Edge of Town. In the sessions, the loose-limbed Springsteen is alternately light-hearted and intensely serious. But there’s no mistaking the drive, the restlessness and the creative energy.
The two-disc set can be seen as a sort of “lost” Springsteen album from, arguably, his most creative period. It’s not merely a collection of rejected outtakes and not-quite-good-enough songs. It more than holds its own as a cohesive work and it also offers fascinating insight into Springsteen’s creative process. The songs don’t simply come to him in fevered dreams or moments of inspiration. Instead, we see Springsteen the tinkerer, a craftsman at work. He tries different melodies with different lyrics, he mixes and matches verses, attempting different concoctions until he arrives at something that fits with the mood, the characters and theme of the story he wants to tell.
“Candy’s Boy” features most of the lyrics that would eventually make up “Candy’s Room” but a different melody and slower tempo give the song an entirely different feel. It’s a bittersweet lament rather than a desperate rocker. “Spanish Eyes” has a lyric that would appear on Born in the USA seven years later (“Hey little girl is your daddy home, did he go away and leave you all alone”). “Come on (Let’s Go Tonight) uses the melody and a few lines from “Factory” but it’s a completely different song. It also has the line that would emerge years later on the underrated B-Side, Johnny Bye-Bye: “The man on the radio says Elvis Presley died.” We’re reminded that a good writer is also a judicious self-editor. It’s as if Springsteen (perhaps with Jon Landau whispering in his ear) said “I LOVE this lyric but it doesn’t work for the story I’m trying to tell right here.” So he files it away for another day.
This fruitful recording session ultimately produced Darkness on the Edge of Town, a landmark album for Springsteen. It was the first album in which he explored in depth the subject that mattered most to him throughout his career – the American Dream. And as good as The Promise is, you don’t hear any song on it that causes you to say “He should have put THAT on Darkness." For one thing, Darkness isn’t wanting for much of anything. But most of the songs on The Promise are too sentimental by comparison. The one possible exception might be the song, “The Promise,” which was as unsentimental a song as Springsteen had ever written. Just two years after he was “pulling out of here to win” on “Thunder Road”, Springsteen recorded these lyrics:
All my life I fought this fight
The fight that no man can ever win
Every day it just gets harder to live
This dream I'm believing in
Thunder Road, oh baby you were so right
Thunder Road there's something dying down on the highway tonight
He's a long way from Born to Run. In the Nick Hornby novel, High Fidelity, there’s a great passage in which the 30-something narrator muses:
In Bruce Springsteen songs, you can either stay and rot, or you can escape and burn. That’s OK; he’s a songwriter, after all, and he needs simple choices like that in his songs. But nobody ever writes about how it is possible to escape and rot – how escapes can go off at half-cock, how you can leave the suburbs for the city but end up living a limp suburban life anyway. That’s what happened to me; that’s what happens to most people.
Nick Hornby’s narrator probably hadn’t heard “The Promise.” The choices are NOT simple. The escapes don’t always work. Springsteen’s character drives his Challenger down Route 9 through dead ends, chasing ghosts. Dreams can wither and die. And life goes on. The struggle continues. The beauty of Darkness is the way Springsteen tries to capture that struggle without flinching and without ever succumbing to resignation. When Pete Townshend first heard Darkness on the Edge of Town he summed it up this way: “When Bruce Springsteen sings on his new album, that's not 'fun', that's fucking triumph, man.”
What The Promise offers is that same triumph but with a bit more fun.