Bruce Springsteen – “The Promise: The Darkness on the Edge of Town Story” (2010)

November 26, 2010 at 9:47 am (Bruce Springsteen, Music, Reviews & Articles)

Taken from Crawdaddy!, Nov. 15th, and written by Greg Gaston…

Besides Bob Dylan and his perennial Bootleg Series, what other major artist can offer up such a treasure trove of unreleased vintage material? Most artists, especially today, write just enough songs to fit their latest disc. With the release of The Promise: The Darkness on the Edge of Town, it becomes laser-clear that Bruce Springsteen, once touted in the ‘70s as yet another “new Dylan,” is one of the very few artists able to compete with Dylan’s prolific songwriting, sense of high quality control, and vision.

Columbia Records’ deluxe Darkness reissue edition gives us the original 10-song record with 21 other songs from the batch of 60 he wrote for these sessions. It also includes three extraordinary DVDs, a Thom Zimny directed documentary on the making of the record, a bootlegged concert in Houston from the legendary ’78 tour, and a 2009 film of the E Street performing the entire record to an empty Asbury Park arena.

To recap that era and place Darkness in context: Springsteen had already been sainted as the “savior of rock ‘n’ roll” by rock scribes for his transcendent performances, and had certified his jukebox hero status with the classic Born to Run. However, he lost all his career momentum in a three-year, protracted lawsuit against his manager, Mike Appel, for sole ownership of his song catalogue. From 1976 to ’78, Springsteen could not legally release any new material.

Darkness not only jumpstarted Springsteen’s stagnant recording career, but catapulted him into adulthood forever, leaving behind the last chance grandeur and romanticism of his first three records. It still remains Springsteen’s most pivotal record—and best—for several reasons. It’s where he reclaims his career from the massive hype of Born to Run; he begins his chronic habit of writing dozens of songs for each record, then paring them down thematically to fit his specific focus; and he starts mining his own working class background for material, forming what he calls his “emotional autobiography” in song.

In the set’s extensive handwritten notes, Springsteen writes, “Darkness was my ‘samurai record’, stripped to the bone, and ready to rumble.” From its opening anthem, “Badlands”, to the final title track, Darkness is aflame with gutbucket howls of trapped rage, father/son bitterness, exhausted dreams, and existential crises writ large across Jersey’s concrete swamps. The ecstatic, go-for-broke kids of Born to Run were older now, stranded in their dead end jobs, still burning down the asphalt—but with nowhere left to go. It’s all gasoline dreams, defeat, and balls-out yearning.

Influenced by England’s ‘70s punk scene as much as his cherished ‘60s R&B and soul records, he strips down the E Street Band’s bombast and punches out an intense, lead guitar-driven sound that peaks in the scorched earth psychodrama of “Prove It All Night”, “Candy’s Room”, and “Because the Night.” Clarence Clemon’s soaring saxophone only bursts forth on a few songs, just enough to rattle the record’s claustrophobic confines. The Darkness songs would help form the bedrock of his live shows for years to come.

Mixed by Jimmy Iovine and Chuck Plotkin, the original Darkness production sound was always too thin and trebly, focusing on the guitar at the expense of the E Street Band’s full range of instrumentation. This remastered version by Bob Clearmountain sounds fuller, allowing Garry Tallent’s bass and Max Weinberg’s drums to resonate with a thicker bottom.

When you first hear this set’s unreleased songs, you will discover something else too. In the film documentary, Little Stevie Van Zandt, always Springsteen’s first lieutenant as well as co-producer and best friend, only half-jokingly cracks, “It’s a bit tragic, in a way, because Bruce would have been one of the great pop-songwriters of all time.” And it’s true: The black and white film shows a t-shirted and skinny, 27-year-old Springsteen bopping at the studio piano and banging out Brill Building-style hooks to “Sherry Darling” and “Talk to Me”, while Van Zandt in his gypsy do-rag and pirate earring, backs him up with ragged vocals and drumstick rhythms. It’s an unguarded, quintessential moment that makes me think of earlier tandems, like Mick and Keith—full of nicotine and Rebel Yell—working on Exile in some dank, French basement, or John and Paul throwing Rubber Soul hooks at each other in the Abbey Road studio. Making music for the sheer joy of it all.

If Springsteen has any kind of leg-up on his music brethren, it’s rooted in his exhaustive work habits and willingness to go above and beyond—whether in his marathon studio sessions or fabled three-and-a-half-hour concerts. A New Jersey native, Jon Stewart reminded us in his Kennedy Center, Washington DC induction speech last year, “Whenever I see Bruce Springsteen do anything, he empties the tank.” Stewart later nailed it with the crackpot but true shaggy dog story, “I believe that Bob Dylan and James Brown had a baby—and that kid was Bruce, yes—and they abandoned this child—as you can imagine at the time—interracial, same sex relationships, being what they were—they abandoned this child on the side of the road, between the exit interchanges of 8A and 9 on the New Jersey Turnpike.” Finally, we have the man’s rightful birthright.

No doubt a handful of these songs are minor entries in his repertoire, but Springsteen often wrote pieces as an exercise in different genres—for the hell of it, as well as for the craft. One day he might try writing a Ben E. King, Drifters’-style romantic lament like “Someday We’ll Be Together”, and the next he would toss off a frat-rock, handclap gem like “Ain’t Good Enough for You.” He swaggers through “Outside Looking In”, a Buddy Holly style vamp played out beneath his brooding voice. “City at Night”, a slow piano coda, follows a taxi cab through the NYC late night streets, faded romance meets the Lower East Side

As Springsteen admits in his liner notes, he could have put out four different records of material from these sessions. His next record would be the sprawling, double record, The River, only equaled in 1980 by the Clash’s London Calling. Both records weighed in as counterpoints to the false dawns offered by the Reagan and Thatcher political eras.

At the same time he gave obvious hit singles like “Because the Night”, “Fire”, and “Rendezvous” to Patti Smith, the Pointer Sisters, and Greg Kihn, respectively, just because they didn’t fit what he wanted for Darkness’ monochrome intensity. He made sure that Darkness shared the same flint bitter hues of his favorite B-movie film noirs, like Robert Mitchum in “Thunder Road” and “Out of the Past.” If Born to Run was West Side Story styled melodrama on steroids, then Darkness is John Ford’s Grapes of Wrath, righteous anger crossed with fate and circumstance.

What steals the crown in this box set, though, is the Houston ’78 bootleg house cut show. This is Springsteen and the barnstorming E Street Band at their best, exuberant, rockin’, and slightly crazed. The famed Springsteen charisma spills all over the place in his intimate, tall tales shared with the audience, livewire, rabid energy run amuck, and encores that go on and on, in bleed on the stage, true soul revivalist, “I’m just a prisoner of rock ‘n’ roll”-style testimony. This tour ranks with the best on record by anyone.

Springsteen concerts, as a rule, usually spoil you for other shows—when you realize that most performers don’t or can’t put out this kind of energy, this kind of passion. Let’s be honest: The man’s a bit of a freak that way, but in a good sense. I saw him perform twice last year, and at age 60, he’s still testifying and pumping it out in ways that frontmen half his age wouldn’t try.

Springsteen will be remembered for his songwriting and the shelf of great records, it’s true, but his most important legacy will be his live performances, what he pours out on stage. This is what truly separates him from his rock peers.

Fittingly, this set ends with “The Promise”, a strong contender for the best of the unreleased songs. Like Dylan’s “Blind Willie McTell”, a Bootleg Series revelation, this mournful soul-stirrer stands up with any of the man’s classics. And who else—besides Dylan—dares to leave off some of his best work on records? We heard a similar standard on Springsteen’s previous boxset, Tracks, which was filled with quality, unreleased material.

Whether out of some kind of perverse integrity or not, these two men will not be budged from what they hear, what they envision. “The Promise” leaves us with Bruce’s moan of a voice, and his desperate gravitas, “Inside I felt like I was carryin’ the broken spirits of all the ones who lost / When the promise is broken you go on living / But it steals something from down in your soul.” From this point on, Darkness on the Edge of Town would provide the blueprint for Springsteen’s later records, themes, and writing style. Like the best music, it’s a life-changer.

 Greg Gaston

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