While most musicians would take worldwide acclaim and use that fame to build an even bigger public persona, Bruce Springsteen took a different route.
After the massive success of “Born to Run,” Springsteen found himself — both by will and circumstance — wanting to scale back. From 1977-78, following a lawsuit over the ownership of his songs, Springsteen and his E Street Band locked themselves in the recording studio and put down dozens of tracks in what would be become both “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” and a multitude of songs that made their way into the public via mostly bootlegs and concert performances.
Those songs have finally been given proper handling in “The Promise,” a two-disc set that’s part of Springsteen’s return to the “Darkness” era. It’s a look and listen back to a time when the 27-year-old New Jersey native had the visceral understanding of not wanting to be famous, but, instead, to be great. In order to reach that potential, Springsteen would engage in endless rounds of writing and recording, writing and recording. It was a tedious process that took a toll on his bandmates but, ultimately, produced a plethora of great rock ‘n’ roll songs that are finally coming to proper fruition.
This massive multimedia package includes these 21 previously unreleased songs, a remastered CD of “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” the docu “The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town,” a collection of additional studio clips not seen in the doc, a performance of “Darkness” songs recorded at the Paramount Theatre in Asbury Park, N.J., especially for this set, and a bootleg show of a 1978 Houston gig.
In addition, all of the discs are encased in a virtual “notebook” that is a replica of the book in which Springsteen has penned some of his most iconic tunes. The joy of looking through the pages is to see lyrics written, crossed out and replaced with verbage that has forever been etched in musical history.
A package this encompassing doesn’t come cheap. At a retail price of nearly $120, that’s a lot to ask fans to pay, especially from an artist who, despite a massive bank account, has solidified his place over the decades as a blue-collar musician — a man of the people, even though very few people live as comfortably as him. Yet, for those who can afford it, the material feels worth every penny.
Of the new songs, longtime fans will be familiar with most, yet the material has never been released with such solid in-studio treatment. “Rendezvous,” for example, has made occasional concert appearances over the years, but to hear it so alive and fresh is a revelation. It’s one of a handful of under three-minute, up-tempo songs that Springsteen felt were too poppy to make the “Darkness” cut.
The same could be said for “Save My Love,” a wonderfully jubilant number that feels as joyous as any song Bruce has written in a while. With Roy Bittan’s solid piano contributions, the song could’ve easily had a place on “The River” — Springsteen’s two-disc follow-up to “Darkness” — but somehow never surfaced. It’s a welcome addition here that needs to make a concert appearance on Springsteen’s next go-around.
Entangled in the lawsuit and feeling morose not only for his own predicament but the depression that he saw in his father, who like other men of Springsteen’s youth had lost their dreams and ambitions in order to put food on the table, Springsteen wasn’t feeling particularly giddy during this period of his life. Catchy numbers like "Crush on You" and "Two Hearts" would have to wait until “The River.”
Springsteen has been generous in his career in handing out songs to other musicians. Here, both “Fire” and “Because the Night” are given their initial late ’70s renditions, prior to them becoming hits for the Pointer Sisters and Patti Smith, respectively. Listening to “Fire,” especially, it’s quick to understand why this sultry tune became so popular, and it will always be a mystery if Springsteen, had he released this single himself, would have secured the pop spotlight earlier in his career.
For longtime fans, listening to different versions of songs that have become Springsteen staples is a chance to go back in history and hear the creation process. The best example is the CD’s opener, “Racing in the Street,” which features a significant harmonica contribution not heard in the completed “Darkness” version. It’s a stirring song that, if it made it on to the album, would’ve been one of Springsteen’s best. It’s a credit to the artist, however, to tinker with a song that had no flaws but fine tune the material — an extra bass lick here, an additional snare there — until he felt it was just right, to put on vinyl what he heard in his head and make a great song even better.
It was Springsteen’s sometimes unhealthy pickiness, however, that prevented “The Promise” from landing on “Darkness.” Among the Springsteen legion, “The Promise” is the song that got away, one that should’ve been as much of a warhorse in the canon as “Backstreets” or “Jungleland.” A follow-up to “Thunder Road,” “The Promise” examines characters who weren’t able to fulfill their aspirations or even just ride off with the girl to some faraway location.
When Springsteen wrote, “When the promise was broken, I cashed in a few of my own dreams,” he was saying all that had been forecast in “Born to Run” wasn’t going to come true, and that life can be harsh.
Sadly, Springsteen felt he never recorded the song exactly the right way, calling it “too close” to him, and three months of studio time had been wasted. The inclusion now, however, erases that mistake. It’s late in arriving, but clearly worth the wait.
Docu “The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town” was previously released on HBO after its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in September. As the Variety review notes, one of the best parts of the film is watching Springsteen critique Springsteen — looking back at his obsessions in the studio, and how those decisions would ultimately affect who he would become as an artist.
From the Thrill Hill vault and director Thom Zimny are an assortment of studio clips that establish the brotherhood of the E Street Band. Scenes gravitate from lifelong friend Steve Van Zandt playing maracas to playful shots of Max Weinberg banging away on the drums. The contribution of the other E Street brethren — Bittan, bassist Garry Tallent, organist Danny Federici and saxophonist Clarence Clemons — were vital.
Later incarnations of the band included bringing on Nils Lofgren and Patti Scialfa in 1984 for the “Born in the USA” tour. The death of Federici in 2008 is still felt, though Charlie Giordano’s solid and stellar work on the accordion have made the sure the band hasn’t skipped a beat on stage on in the studio.
If listening and watching what into the “Darkness” sessions bring back an era that can never be duplicated, watching the band perform that same material today gives the album’s story proper context.
Playing “Darkness” in chronological order, from an empty and mostly dilapidated Paramount Theatre in Asbury Park, N.J., Springsteen rips into these 10 songs again like its 32 years ago, with the vigor of a younger man but the life experiences of a 60 year old. To see the band in their element is to reveal a secret Springsteen might have never wanted to give away: Though no performer may be more playful with an audience, he’s never really sang for the adulation of fans, but, really, for the guys he’s shared the stage for more than half his life. To see his chumminess with Van Zandt or watching him admire Clemons during a sax solo is to understand how that camaraderie has bonded this unit for five decades.
Finally, the Houston concert is a chance to watch Springsteen let loose on stage after being holed up in the studio. Whether dangerously jumping off concert speakers, standing atop Bittan’s piano or telling stories that would become his trademark, Springsteen finally had that release valve.
Being in front of an audience, he didn’t have the luxury of going back, turning a knob on the console and rethinking every note or every vocal, a much wanted escape from the “Darkness” sessions. After a difficult year, but one that brought about some of his finest material, Springsteen was ready to relish in the fact that it's ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive.