Critic’s Notebook: ‘The Promise: The Darkness on the Edge of Town Story’
Let the broken hearts stand as the price you gotta pay — Bruce Springsteen, “Badlands”
You’d better be some kind of genius to ask the world to admire your spiral notebooks. Bruce Springsteen, who’s spent a quarter-century-plus absorbing the love of people who feel his music changed their lives, can afford to be that presumptuous. “The Promise: The Darkness on the Edge of Town Story” is a boxed set disguised as a scrapbook, its packaging full of scribbled lyrics and tentative track listings and notes revealing — celebrating — the painful process of making a masterpiece.
The masterwork in question was the album that, Springsteen writes in the set’s liner notes, granted him an adult voice. “More than rich, more than famous, more than happy, I wanted to be great,” the 61-year-old admits, chuckling at the twentysomething egotist he was then, in Thom Zimny’s fine film about the making of his 1978 album “Darkness on the Edge of Town.”
This archival set goes to exhaustive lengths to prove that Springsteen accomplished his goal, though “Darkness” was neither breakthrough (that was 1975’s “Born to Run”) nor blockbuster (1984’s “Born in the U.S.A.,” icon jeans-clad derriere and all).
In three DVDs (the making-of film and two live sets, one vintage and one contemporary), a double album of rejected material, and the remastered original album, “The Promise” set illustrates how Springsteen used the circumstances surrounding “Darkness” to hone in on his Monument Valley, to reference his cinematic influence John Ford: a setting, both sonic and lyrical, that could hold the stories he needed to tell.
An ex-manager’s lawsuit and the pressure to follow up the hit “Born to Run” put restrictions on the creative process; a monster writing streak, and the dedication of his E Street Band and longtime producer Jon Landau, broke it open. “What we had were our relationships and the music Bruce was writing,” says the drummer Max Weinberg. This detailed, ruminative look back is not just an attempt to nab the shrinking music-buying public with a commemorative plaque; it’s more like self-analysis, a long-standing creative team’s attempt to understand the process it’s come to take for granted.
“Darkness on the Edge of Town” is a highly focused classic that set Springsteen on a new path. In Zimny’s film and the set’s liner notes, Springsteen states and restates that this album revealed his major theme: the pursuit of happiness not just in youth, but within the more complicated realm of adulthood. Sharing what went into that process of revelation is a gift this collection gives Springsteen’s fans; maybe it was one he wanted to give himself too.
Springsteen and his mates absorbed much as they explored this territory, which, to them, felt new. (Others had been there: Marvin Gaye, for example.) They learned from punk and Hank Williams, tried new production methods, recording styles and drum sounds. Equally important, and somewhat hidden within the narrative this boxed set presents, is what they left behind.
The two-volume rarities album “The Promise,” available both in the boxed set and as a separate release, celebrates the sound from which Springsteen turned away. That sound was bewitched by radio-oriented pop — by the voice of Ronnie Spector and the seductive gestures of dandyish rock pioneers such as Elvis Presley and Roy Orbison. On “Born to Run,” Springsteen and the E Street Band found a way to meld that brashly commercial sensibility with the grandiosity of classic rock.
As a set, the previously unreleased material feels experimental, not in tone but in spirit. Some songs, like the brooding hymn “Come on (Let’s Go Tonight)”, are the seeds of others on “Darkness.” Others could stand on any Springsteen album, relating familiar tales of freedom or peril on the highway, or love in dark tenement corridors, within arrangements that lack the sharpness of the “Darkness” material but often have more warmth.
Springsteen devotees will know some of this material from bootlegs and live renditions, but to revisit it as a set — pristinely remixed by Bob Clearmountain — is to realize that Springsteen, just as much as Bob Dylan, is a great lover and thief of American pop history. These songs journey from Spanish Harlem to the punk den of CBGB, invoke murder ballads and doo wop corner serenades, and using these sources, allow Springsteen to build his own world — a sonic environment that, when streamlined on “Darkness,” would seem to belong only to him.
With “Darkness,” Springsteen set out for somewhere beyond that space — beyond the porch where the radio plays. He moved toward darker areas where men gather to do business or hurt each other, or set forth on journeys that they might never complete.
And he abandoned romance.
What he turned from was specific: the flirtatious, dreamy, deeply feminine spirit of the pop music he loved. Working to make what his producer Landau then called “the highest thing in rock” — a concept-driven album — Springsteen found his mojo by going to a masculine extreme.
“It’s a bit tragic,” says the E Street Band guitarist Steven Van Zandt in the film. “He would have been one of the great pop songwriters of all time.” “The Promise” album, with gems like the Crystals’ homage “Ain’t Good Enough for You” and the lilting ballad “Candy’s Boy” (a far cry from “Darkness’ ” aggressively lustful revision “Candy’s Room”) showcases the danceability, catchiness and even sentimentality Springsteen had to rein in to create “Darkness.”
In Zimny’s film, Springsteen’s wife and band mate, Patti Scialfa, zeroes in on what this shift meant. “When you look at ‘Darkness,’ the person’s not really attached to anybody else on that record,” she says. “There are no love songs on that record.”
On the surface, Scialfa’s words seem wrong. What about songs like the sweaty vow “Prove It All Night”? Or “Racing in the Street,” with its tender mention of “the wrinkles round my baby’s eyes”? Or “Candy’s Room,” the sexiest Springsteen song next to “I’m on Fire”?
But Zimny’s film and the sound of “The Promise” outtakes support Scialfa’s insight. Not one female appears in the old footage from the Jersey farmhouse where the Boss and the band recorded those 70 songs. Van Zandt recalls that no one involved had a girlfriend that mattered; Springsteen says he had “no life,” and cajoled his collaborators into a similar monk-like state.
The sound this band of brothers worked toward turned away from the feminine within Springsteen’s earlier work. The warm embrace of Clarence Clemons’ saxophone became a sparer element punctuating the music’s movements like sniper shots. Giving what love songs he did write to other (female) artists, Springsteen filled “Darkness” with elegies and work songs, stuff that reminded him of punk and country. He clearly preferred Hank Williams to Loretta Lynn.
Then there are the lyrics, so crucial to Springsteen. Only one woman, the hardened Candy, has a name on “Darkness.” These songs express an isolation that can’t be remedied by pop’s love potions.
Two years later Springsteen would open himself back up to other sounds and subjects. “The River” album puts seductions like “Crush on You” next to starker meditations like “Wreck on the Highway.” He’d never completely return to that imaginary space of “Darkness.” But for a time, like the hero whose character he inhabited, Springsteen made a sacrifice. The man he imagined had to stand alone. That meant leaving your woman behind.