Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Promise

Sometime after 1pm today, the audio for the upcoming release of The Promise leaked out to the internet, ostensibly via a Sony Europe website. Within a couple hours, thousands of us had the mp3s on our computers, and it was seemingly the spring of 1978 all over again... with better technology.

Back then, I'd be in Sunday school at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York with a couple friends of mine, and we'd be passing notes back and forth, with whatever tiny little rumor we had -- or could invent -- about when Bruce Springsteen's 4th album might finally see the light of day. It came, finally, via a midnight airing on WNEW-FM, and even then we knew that for every song on the album, there were more that did not get released. Some, like "Independence Day," we heard when Bruce played shows that were broadcast on the radio that fall. Others, such as "Because the Night" and "Fire," became hits for other artists. Some were released on The River, or, many years later, on Tracks. Other bootleg items eventually leaked out to fans, in various conditions of completeness and sound quality.

Now we have The Promise. Or rather, we will have The Promise when it becomes official on November 16. This release gives a glimpse in to what might have been. What might have been, say, had Bruce's lawsuit with Mike Appel been resolved sooner than May 1977, or, perhaps, had Bruce not settled on a different final vision for what became the Darkness On the Edge of Town album.

The Promise has the love songs that ended up being discarded for Darkness. It has the horns Southside Johnny used so effectively on his Asbury Jukes records from the same period. It has the pop songs that helped out artists such as Patti Smith, The Pointer Sisters and Greg Kihn. It has been said, many times -- including on the video documentary to be released as part of The Promise Box Set -- that Springsteen's official releases, especially at that time, were presented as cohesive statements rather than as simply collections of his latest songs. The Promise has more of those latest songs, but... it is still cohesive in its way. We have, in it, a young man finding his adult voice. A man having moved on from the hemi-powered fantasies of Born to Run, but not yet having escaped The Circuit. A man, having asked the question, "Is Love Real," now searching and aching for anyone who might give a hint of an answer. And a rock and roll writer willing to infuse his music with whatever archival elements would fit.

The Promise is presented as an album on 2 discs, and each disc is roughly the length a vinyl record would have been in the late '70's. From the very start, the stately piano introduction to an alternate version of "Racing In the Street," the album is a compelling listen. While the alternate version presented here has most of the same lyrics as the previous official release, it is presented as a much harder rocking song, and also features a violin part by David Lindley. Does it supplant the song that is on the Darkness album? No, not for me. Not even close. But that doesn't make this new entry any less compelling. Other highlights on the first disc include "Outside Looking In," featuring a drum part straight from Buddy Holly's "Peggy Sue"; also, "The Broken Hearted," which evokes Roy Orbison; and "Candy's Boy," an instant transport to the boardwalk via Danny Federici's organ. There is also one notable dud for me on the first disc: "Someday (We'll Be Together Again)" somehow started reminding me of Abba harmonies, and whether it was the female backing parts or something else, that song just failed for me.

The 2nd disc starts out with a totally new recording, "Save My Love," and then rips in to two hits: "Ain't Good Enough," a funny rocker that could have been a hit for anyone else (and which bears more than a little resemblance to "This Little Girl," which eventually was a hit for Gary U.S. Bonds) and "Fire." This version of "Fire" matches up with a well-known bootleg that has circulated for many years, but with incomplete vocals. The working assumption for this song -- and several others on the set -- has been that much of the work done in 2010 was to finish those parts, such as vocals, that were never completed back in 1977. Yet the transition from parts recorded in 1977 to parts recorded in 2010 is largely seamless, to the extent that the transitions don't interfere with hearing the songs. Are the vocals to "Fire" new? I don't know, and, frankly... I don't care. Maybe I would if it came off sounding like a 61-year old stalker, but that trap was avoided here.

Most of the horn-based songs most suitable for Southside Johnny are on disc 2. These include "It's a Shame," a song previously unknown to me, but with a great little chorus line: "I (we) worked so hard, it's all in vain. Oh, it's a shame," and then taking the broken relationship off to the horn parts. "Talk to Me" basically is the track that was given to Southside to complete. I'm not going to do the A/B comparison, but it wouldn't surprise me at all to learn that it's the same take. I'll also note, here, that Steve Van Zandt's contributions to "The Promise" shine through repeatedly, never more so than on this track.

"Come On (Let's Go Tonight)" uses the melody that eventually became the Darkness song "Factory," but mostly with lyrics that went in to the 1984 b-side "Johnny Bye-Bye." Elvis Presley died in August 1977, while the Darkness album sessions were in progress, and this song marks, I believe, the first song of Bruce's career to be based directly on current events. The title track is, for me, the weakest track on the disc; to me it feels cumbersome, and the orchestration only seems to drag it down further. Finally, the disc concludes with a "bonus" track; "The Way," one of Bruce's best love songs, that was somehow left off both "Tracks" and The Essential Bruce Springsteen.

For those of us who became fans in the late '70's, for whom that period between the two records was one of seeming non-stop anticipation, The Promise is Thanksgiving, Hanukkah and Christmas rolled in to one. Nothing here displaces Darkness On the Edge of Town. There's not a single track here that I'd want to trade with one that's on that release, not one where I'd say, "Bruce selected wrong back then." And yet these are indispensable all the same. On "Outside Looking In," Bruce sings, "I'll do what I want to, I'll be what I am, I'm On the Outside Looking In." Tonight, I feel like the door's been opened, and I've just been let in.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town

Through the magic of bootlegging, I finally got a chance to watch the documentary "The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town" a couple nights ago. Then I watched it again Tuesday night, a little more carefully. It will be included, of course, as part of the Darkness On The Edge of Town box set next month.

In some respects, this film is brilliant and indispensable. It presents a clear narrative -- albeit more than a bit repetitively -- that ultimately tells us, clearly, why Bruce went in the direction he did with Darkness, why it was important for him to make the album in that way, and what it ultimately meant both for that record and for his career since that record. Darkness is presented as the pivot for the past 30 years, and though that would hardly be news to long time fans, the clarity of its place here is still striking.

For the most part, the film is presented as a reasonably straight-forward timeline. The first 20 minutes deal with Bruce's lawsuit against former manager Mike Appel and its fallout, which included having to stay out of the studio due to an injunction. So Bruce and the band played live to make enough money to live, and rehearsed at Bruce's rented farm house in Holmdel, NJ. Miraculously, Barry Rebo captured many of the sessions on video, and they are presented here. Most of the rest of "The Promise" focuses on the recording sessions for the album once the lawsuit was settled. I'm writing that out explicitly, because the first time I watched, I missed some of the detail there; even after the 2nd viewing I'm not certain if it's ever mentioned that the bulk of Barry Rebo's footage is presumably from studio work in New York City.

There were some things in The Promise that I absolutely loved. In fact, there's a sequence featuring Miami Steve, about 15 minutes in to the film, that all by itself makes this documentary worthwhile to have. It has to do with his... appearance. For those who haven't seen it yet, I won't spoil it, but it literally took me repeating viewings last night before I stopped asking myself, "who the hell is that man?," and realized that that was Steve!!!

Some other highlights:
* Bruce's statement of purpose: He didn't just want to be rich, famous or happy, he wanted to be great. Sure, it's a conceit, but bless him for saying it straight out.
* Letting Mike Appel speak.
* Patti Smith's discussion of Because the Night. I had never heard anything beyond Jimmy Iovine's part, certainly not how literal the "ring on the telephone" line was. Another segment worth its weight in gold.
* Bruce's discussion of the two choices wrt lyrics for "Racing in the Street." I had never heard Stevie's rationale for wanting the version with the girl, but it's totally brilliant. Look closely and you'll see a lyric sheet with the notation, "Sonny's a She." Wonderful!
* Any segment with just Bruce and Steve vamping for the camera. Is "Talk to Me" better, or "Sherry Darling"? Amazing stuff.
* Some of the outtakes casually thrown in. Oh, hard core fans will get many of them. But probably not all.
* Topless Bruce rehearsing "Candy's Boy" and the early version "Something in the Night" with Rick Gazda. My jaw dropped. oooo-la-la.
* Live footage from 1976. HFS. HFS. I'm told it's from Red Bank in August, 1976, and yes, there will be at least one song from there on the official release. I want more!!
* Bruce pretty much admitting, finally, that leaving "The Promise" off the album was related to the lawsuit... or, as Bruce put it, he was too close to a song that was about fighting and not winning
* Danny rehearsing in a "Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band" t-shirt
* Chuck Plotkin explaining Bruce's vision for what he wanted the songs to feel like ("this song is that corpse").
* Jon putting the whole thing in context, not just for Darkness but for every album that's been worth owning: That Bruce is a man with a vision and in search of a vision, and the album's not done until he's advanced that vision.

I'm sure I could look at this a dozen more times, picking out fantastic details I have missed so far. Things like previously unknown song titles such as "I Wanna Be Wild" appearing on an album list, or another track starting with the word "Mansion." Details in the footage, over and over and over again. Any live shots.

For all of these reasons, for seeing so much of it as it evolved, for seeing the drive, the determination, and the sheer relentlessness with which Bruce pursued -- and largely achieved -- his artistic vision, and for having the story told so clearly, there's plenty here to like. And I do like it, and will probably watch it much more than "Wings for Wheels."

But, as I put at the start, I only saw "The Promise" as brilliant in some respects. Maybe I'm too much of a "hard core" fan, and maybe some of this is just too much quibbling, but I thought the film missed the mark in some respects, as well.

To me, what really resonated with Darkness in 1978 was how frank it was about his life with his father. Maybe it hit me because I was 16 and had my own difficult relationship with my father, but to me there was simply no way to hear "Adam Raised a Cain," or "Factory," or, when I heard the Capitol Theater show that September, "Independence Day," and not just be smacked upside the head with it. Yes, I know: Bruce made peace with his dad before his dad died. But still, why gloss it over so completely?

Also, the film does not seem to acknowledge that there was a world outside Holmdel, or later the NYC studio. Watching that film, one might be tempted to believe that the band never broke for food or took bathroom breaks. It's not just isolated from the world at large, but also from what was going on musically. Bruce references the influence of punk and of country, but there's no context as to what, in particular, he got out of either one or how that's reflected on the album. Disco ruled most of the non-WNEW airwaves in 1977, and yet it's not even mentioned in passing. And then there's the ghost of Elvis: "Fire" is mentioned by Jon, but there is no reference at all that it was supposedly written for Elvis, nor that Bruce and Steve celebrated the lawsuit settlement by driving to Philadelphia the same day to see Elvis play, that they were supposedly horrified by what they saw, or even that Elvis died right in the middle of the recording period for Darkness. Not that I want to dictate what specific events should be mentioned in the film, but I'd have liked at least some context.

I had some other minor quibbles: the use of video montages or unrelated stock shots, Bruce's strummed renditions of his Darkness songs, Patti's comments (love her, but she wasn't there), and that the film seemed to me to go in to repeat mode just after the 50 minute mark.

The story starts with Bruce trying a take of "The Promised Land," and ends with Bruce performing the finished song at the end of the Darkness tour... and then flashing back to that very same rehearsal take. Full circle. I think it's a nice summary... if not quite all I hoped it would be.