The Promise – Bruce Springsteen’s Missing Link

I have always been a big fan of Bruce Springsteen. For me, it started with Darkness on the Edge of Town. It was a dark record, but it had some hope to it. From “Candy’s Room” to “Badlands” to “Adam Raised a Cain” to “Racing in the Streets” to the title track, some of my favorite Springsteen songs are on this record. The record found the band playing with a ferocity unmatched on any other Springsteen work before or since. Case in point…

As the 1980s came along, a lyrical desperation entered Bruce’s songwriting on The River, Nebraska, and Born in the U.S.A. I always knew Bruce had a treasure trove of songs stashed away. I thought most of them had been released on Tracks a few years ago. Was I ever wrong. It turns out there were upwards of 70 songs recorded for the Darkness sessions.

What has emerged in the past few months is a double album of material that although written during the late 1970s Darkness period, parts of it were re-recorded. What has emerged is a collection of songs that somehow links Born to Run to Darkness on the Edge of Town to The River. Musically, The Promise is a mixture of all three albums. Lyrically, it is something unique. Not like the anger seen on Darkness, The Promise is unlike the anthemic nature of Born to Run.The result is a record that has more in common with The River which would come out some three years after the recordings.

Ten days ago, I returned home from a conference in Denver, Colorado. As soon as the wheels touched down, all I could think of was listening to The Promise in two days. For the past week, The Promise and bike rides have created an appreciation of the record beyond what I thought I could possible have. The record has a few recognizable bits to it. Included is Springsteen’s version of the classic “Because the Night”, co-written with Patty Smith. Also, included is the song “Fire” recorded by the Pointer Sisters. “Rendezvous”, released as a live track on Tracks, makes its studio debut as do alternate takes of “Racing in the Street” and “Candy’s Room” – renamed “Candy’s Boy”. The highlights for me include “Save My Love” which could have been a hit for Tommy James, and the title track, “The Promise”. It is a sprawling track – almost a lyrical sequel to “Thunder Road”.

Johnny works in a factory and Billy works downtown
Terry works in a rock and roll band lookin’ for that million-dollar sound
And I got a little job down in Darlington but some nights I don’t go
Some nights I go to the drive-in or some nights I stay home
I followed that dream just like those guys do way up on the screen
And I drove a Challenger down Route 9 through the dead ends and all the bad scenes
And when the promise was broken, I cashed in a few of my own dreams

Well now I built that Challenger by myself, but I needed money and so I sold it
I lived a secret I should’a kept to myself, but I got drunk one night and I told it
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 somethin’ dyin’ down on the highway tonight

I won big once and I hit the coast, oh but somehow I paid the big cost
Inside I felt like I was carrying the broken spirits of all the other ones who lost
When the promise is broken you go on living, but it steals something from down in your soul
Like when the truth is spoken and it don’t make no difference, somethin’ in your heart turns cold
Thunder Road, for the lost lovers and all the fixed games
Thunder Road, for the tires rushing by in the rain
Thunder Road, remember what me and Billy we’d always say
Thunder Road, we were gonna take it all then threw it all away

The songs never saw the light of day because of lawsuits between Springsteen and his former manager, Mike Appel. Appel had gotten Springsteen an audition with Columbia legend, John Hammond. The subsequent record deal for Springsteen saw Appel at the helm for Springsteen’s first two records – Greetings From Asbury Park, and The Wild, The Innocent, and The E Street Shuffle. When it came to the Born to Run sessions, the songs Springsteen heard on the tapes were not the songs Springsteen heard in his head. Instead, Springsteen fired Apple and went with Rolling Stone Magazine’s Jon Landau. The resulting record turned out to be a classic. Released in 1975, Springsteen would not release Darkness on the Edge of Town until 1978 because of the dispute between he and Appel.

A film called “The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town” reveals some of the details of the period, but the lawsuit is never fully discussed including the settlement. However, it does not take away from the music. For me, personally, Danny Federici’s organ and glockenspiel steal the show. Darkness on the Edge of Town and The Promise share little in common. One is a dark, complex, and gritty rock record. The other is a great pop record that stands on its own. It is easier now to see how The River developed out Darkness. It is The Promise Part 2.

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One comment

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