Springsteen: The Promise fulfilled

Back in late 1970s Liverpool, a regular gathering place for every variety of leftist – socialists, libertarians, anarchists and feminists – was Liberty Hall, where every Sunday night, downstairs in The Everyman Bistro, there would be an ever-changing programme of performance, music, talks and debates. After the main event, a dee-jay would spin discs, and the most popular for some while was Patti Smith singing ‘Because The Night’.

That magnificent rock anthem was, we understood, written by Bruce Springsteen; but what none of knew was that not only had Springsteen given away one of his best songs to Patti, but that it was just one of over 70 tracks, many of equal quality, that he had recorded but discarded on the road to releasing his third album, Darkness On The Edge Of Town.

Late last year, Springsteen finally released a double CD’s-worth of those discarded tracks – The Promise – and I’ve been listening to it a lot since receiving it as a Christmas present from a daughter who knows what kind of music her dad likes.  It’s crammed with the kind of songs I used to hear in the very early sixties on Radio Luxembourg in my bedroom at night with the radio’s tuning dial and valves (valves!) glowing in the darkness.  Beautiful, spine-tingling, magical sounds poured from the radio – the Drifters, the Phil Spector-produced singles, Freddy Cannon, Ben E King and Gary US Bonds. Those are the sounds that Bruce Springsteen heard in his head and captured on these tracks.

Last night BBC4 screened the hugely enjoyable The Promise: The Making of ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’, a documentary directed by Thom Zimny (who also directed Wings for Wheels: The Making of ‘Born to Run’).  The film uses intimate footage of Springsteen and the E Street Band working relentlessly in the studio, sometimes until they fall asleep where they stand.

The film tells how, due to legal problems, Bruce Springsteen was unable to follow-up his breakthrough success with Born to Run for three years. The footage was shot in the period between 1976 and 1978, when Springsteen was barred by court order from the recording studio while the legal attempt to seize back control of his work from former manager Mike Appel ran its course. After a period in which the band survived financially through live performances, they were finally able to return to the studio and lay down the recordings that eventually became Darkness on the Edge of Town, as well as dozens more, some of which we can now hear on The Promise.

From the 70 or so tracks that came out of these sessions, Springsteen deliberately selected 10 tracks for Darkness on the Edge of Town that shared a common landscape and cast of characters – working class men and women who had little, and were in danger of losing even that. Their only hope for redemption lay in working harder, and their only escape lay in driving the highways and backroads.

I’ve done my best to live the right way
I get up every morning and go to work each day
But your eyes go blind and your blood runs cold
Sometimes I feel so weak I just want to explode
Explode and tear this whole town apart
Take a knife and cut this pain from my heart
Find somebody itching for something to start
– ‘The Promised Land’

There was fury and pessimism in these songs but also a maturity, an adult perspective, that Springsteen was striving for – depicting lives burdened by work, family and social obligations, and individuals haunted by their errors or the possibility that their life might have been different.

Talk about a dream
Try to make it real
You wake up in the night
With a fear so real
Spend your life waiting
For a moment that just don’t come
Well, don’t waste your time waiting…

Workin’ in the fields
Till you get your back burned
Workin’ ‘neath the wheel
Till you get your facts learned
Baby I got my facts
Learned real good right now…
– ‘Badlands’

In Zimny’s film, Springsteen talks eloquently about his ambitions for the Darkness album.  He tells how ‘Factory’ emerged as a song honouring his father, whose hearing loss was the consequence of years working in the deafening noise of a plastics factory: ‘Honouring my parents and their history and the people I knew. These things weren’t being written about’.

Through the mansions of fear, through the mansions of pain,
I see my daddy walking through them factory gates in the rain,
Factory takes his hearing, factory gives him life,
The working, the working, just the working life.

End of the day, factory whistle cries,
Men walk through these gates with death in their eyes.
And you just better believe, boy,
Somebody’s gonna get hurt tonight,
It’s the working, the working, just the working life.
– ‘Factory’

He wanted the album to celebrate the place from which he came:

We all carry our landscapes within us. I felt a sense of accountability to the people I had grown up alongside. … It’s a reckoning with the adult world … with a life of limitations and compromises.  I was interested in my sense of place and there was a narrative there. I wanted to tell that narrative. … It was the beginning of a long narrative … a long conversation I’ve had with my fans that’s been one of the most valuable things in my life’.

For all the shut down strangers and hot rod angels
Rumbling through this promised land

Tonight my baby and me we’re gonna ride to the sea

And wash these sins off our hands

– ‘Racing in the Street’

Springsteen was meticulous to the point of obsessive in creating his imagined soundscapes on Darkness. Engineer Chuck Plotkin remembers how Bruce wanted the listener to experience the opening of ‘Adam Raised a Cain’ – as if, in the cinema, watching a scene of young lovers at a picnic, the camera abruptly cut to dead body.  And we do.

Darkness, Springsteen says, ‘was an angry record. I took the ten toughest songs I had. I didn’t want to cut that feeling’.

Some folks are born into a good life
Other folks get it anyway anyhow
I lost my money and I lost my wife
Them things don’t seem to matter much to me now
Tonight I’ll be on that hill `cause I can’t stop
I’ll be on that hill with everything I got
Lives on the line where dreams are found and lost
I’ll be there on time and I’ll pay the cost
For wanting things that can only be found
In the darkness on the edge of town
– ‘Darkness On The Edge of Town’

So the songs that Bruce discarded were ones that did not fit the tough, angry template, the exploration of adult themes. Richard Williams has remarked:

The ambition was to make his audience view him in a different light: as a man of conscience rather than a mere purveyor of exuberant revivalist rock’n’roll, the guise in which he had made his appearance earlier in the decade.  How deliberate it reveals the parent album’s hard, lean, bleak tone to have been. … “Lean”, “angry” and “relentless” are the words Springsteen now uses to describe the feelings and sounds he was trying to capture in the follow-up to Born to Run, the hit album that landed him on the cover of Time and Newsweek and led some to write him off as just another victim of record-company excess. Delayed by a bitter legal battle over his management contract, he finally presented the public with a version of Darkness from which all traces of joy and release had been purged, replaced by a sense of desperation. The claustrophobia of ordinary lives trapped by work and family ties provided his metaphor.

What were discarded were not demos, but fully-formed band recordings, many of which rank among his best work.  Where most differ from the Darkness tracks is that they are joyful pop tunes, echoing the era of classic American pop, and celebrating youthful exuberance and romantic entanglements.  There’s a scene in Zimny’s film that captures this: Springsteen and Steve Van Zandt are working out an embryonic version of what became  ‘Talk to Me’ or ‘Sherry Darling’. Bruce is on piano while Steve drums against a rolled-up carpet, and they are having the greatest fun. Elsewhere in the documentary, Van Zandt claims that Bruce ‘could have been one of the great pop songwriters of all time’ – and you believe him.

Towards the end of the second CD there’s a song, ‘City of Night’, the apotheosis of the landscape of urban streets, movie houses and bars where young lovers meet that Springsteen has created in these songs:

Taxi Cab, Taxi Cab, at the light
Won’t you take me on a ride through this city of night
I got some money and I’m feeling fine
I ain’t in no hurry so just take your time
Some people wanna die young and gloriously
But Taxi Cab driver, well that ain’t me
I got a cute little baby down at 12th and Vine
And she opens for business just about closing time

Well we busted out of class
Had to get away from those fools
We learned more from a three-minute record
Baby, than we ever learned in school
– No Surrender

In his introduction to the collection, Springsteen recognises what inspired this aspect of his music in the mid ’70s:

I was still held in thrall by the towering pop records that had shaped my youth. Echoes of Elvis, Dylan, Roy Orbison, the full-voiced rockabilly ballad singers of the Fifties and Sixties along with my favourite soul artists and Phil Spector, thread throughout. As I page through my thirty-year-old Darkness notebook, I see a young man filled with ambition, a local culture/B-movie-fuelled florid imagination, and thrilled to be a rock ‘n’ roll songwriter. The nights of listening to Lieber and Stoller, Goffin and King, Barry and Greenwich, Mann and Weil, the geniuses of early rock ‘n’ roll songwriting had seeped deep into my bones.  Their craft inspired me to a respect and love for my profession that’s been the cornerstone of the writing work I’ve done for the E Street Band and my entire work life. Music, music, music, big choruses, big melodies, rich arrangements…

The fifth track in, ‘Someday (We’ll Be Together)’, is definitely one of that breed – an anthemic pop ballad that sounds like something The Ronettes might have sung – while the hilarious and joyous ‘Ain’t Good Enough for You’ is an infectious handclap, call-and-response celebration that could have been sung by Gary US Bonds.  On ‘The Brokenhearted’, Bruce turns in a superb vocal performance channeling Roy Orbison, and Orbison’s spirit also haunts ‘Breakaway’, not least in the drum figure that recalls ‘It’s Over’.  ‘Outside Looking In’ has a galloping rhythm that recalls Buddy Holly’s Peggy Sue, while best of all is ‘Gotta Get The Feeling’ , a celebration of being alive that brings to mind the Phil Spector singles,  something by the Four Seasons, or perhaps Ben E King’s  ‘Spanish Harlem’:

Yeah girl, now won’t you come on out tonight
Yeah girl, where the stars are shining bright
Gotta get that feeling…

Tonight, we ain’t got money but we don’t care…

Oh – and don’t overlook the beautiful hidden track, ‘The Way’.  It’s testament to Springsteen’s determined commitment to his vision for Darkness that he should kick a classic song like this into the long grass.

There are a few songs here that would sit more easily in the company of those on Darkness On The Edge of Town – most obviously the title track, ‘The Promise’, about the crumbling of the dreams articulated on Born To Run:

Johnny works in a factory. Billy works downtown.
Terry works in a rock and roll band looking for that million dollar sound.
Got a job down in Darlington. Some nights I don’t go.
Some nights I go to the drive in. Some night I stay home….

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..

There’s a beautiful meditation by Joe Posnanski on the personal meaning of this song on his blog (brilliantly-titled Joe Blogs).  I prefer the version that Bruce recorded for 18 Tracks with just piano accompaniment, and I’m also not that keen on the alternate version of ‘Racing In The Street’ that opens the album – it’s a bigger, more orchestrated rendition, and I prefer the leaner version on Darkness.

There was a telling moment in last night’s documentary where co-producer Jon Landau points to Springsteen’s bulging song notebook, as the band sprawl in exhaustion: ‘The only thing that can come out of this book is more work!’ he pronounces, only half-joking.  The film is testimony to Springsteen’s exhausting discipline and dedication to his craft.


One thought on “Springsteen: The Promise fulfilled

  1. Thank you for a wonderful discussion of The Promise. As a rather new Springsteen fan I am finding it almost too huge to grasp and I don’t have the musical (and English!) vocabulary to pinpoint my feelings and opinions like you. So it was really good to read yours!
    Do check my Springsteen blog at http://www.marilebetterdays.wordpress.com

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