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Bruce Springsteen Keeps His Promise By Embracing The Darkness

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They simply couldn’t have hit this amazing story any better.

But for anyone who hasn’t yet seen, heard and otherwise fully experienced Bruce Springsteen’s long awaited, just released deluxe The Promise: The Darkness On The Edge Of Town Story boxed set, there are a few bumps along the road to what is otherwise quite possibly the most lovingly crafted and executed repackage of what was already a damn near-perfect record ever.

So, I thought it best we get these out of the way early on.

For many fans, the biggest pull of this set is going be the DVD of the complete performance from the Houston stop on what is now considered the mythical 1978 Darkness tour, and the performance included here does not even remotely disappoint.

For those same fans, the fact that the Houston show has had nowhere near the widely bootlegged exposure of stops in Passaic, NJ (Bruce’s “birthday show”), and at venues like San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom is a definite plus.

Captured on a particularly hot night in Texas, Springsteen and the E Street band are nothing short of electrifying here. The extended piano and guitar intros on “Prove It All Night” — long the stuff of legend, and now finally out there for wider public consumption on an official release — are worth the price of admission alone.

The video footage is likewise better than anything that has been gathering dust in a warehouse God knows where all these decades has any right to be. However, the occasional drop-offs in sound quality — especially for those of us who already have soundboard bootleg recordings of those 1978 Darkness shows — are, admittedly, a little frustrating.

When stacked up against the Houston performance — as well as the extra Darkness tour footage from Phoenix — Bruce and the ESB’s 2009 run-through of the complete Darkness album before an empty house at Asbury Park’s Paramount Theatre also comes up a little flat, at least comparatively speaking.

Don’t get me wrong here.

Even now, there is no band in all of rock and roll that holds a candle to the collective tightness of the E Street Band. They remain a well oiled machine that is simply unmatched in terms of tightness and musical chops.

But without the rapturous crowd and communal sing-along party atmosphere of their present-day arena and stadium shows, they also look a lot like what they actually are — which is a bunch of old guys playing the hits. Again, make no mistake here. I have nothing but respect for these guys, and I would pay the big bucks and book the plane tickets to see Bruce and the E Streeters run through Darkness in a New York heartbeat.

But here, it comes off as kind of anti-climactic — especially after viewing the three-plus hours of a young, hungry vintage ESB hitting on all cylinders in Houston seen here on the Darkness tour. Bruce in particular, seems to really be straining on some of the vocals — although in all fairness, he totally nails “Something In The Night.”

Which is one of the many unexpected surprises of The Promise: The Darkness On The Edge Of Town Story. Most of the other high points occur on the real centerpiece of this set — an undeniably manufactured, but nonetheless amazing sounding “lost album” of Darkness outtakes called The Promise.

But we’ll get to all that soon enough.

What mostly separates this set from similar digital revisions of both historically significant and otherwise classic rock albums though, is the way it so completely tells the story of what actually went down at the time. Coming off of the success of Born To Run, Bruce Springsteen was at a pivotal career crossroads in the three years between the time he was anointed as the savior of rock and roll on the covers of Time and Newsweek and the 1978 release of his followup album, Darkness On The Edge Of Town.

During this time, Bruce didn’t so much carry the world on his shoulder, as he did in a notebook of lyrics and half-scrawled ideas, which is reproduced here in one of this sets nicest touches. Rather than the usual essay from some critic or (dare I say it) would-be “Rockologist,” this is that all-too-rare boxed set annotation that provides a unique look inside the mindset of the actual artist at the time.

Taken together with the DVD documentary film on the making of the Darkness album here, what emerges is a portrait of a future legend with everything on the line at the time in a true make-or-break moment.

Faced with lawsuits that kept him from recording at the time, Springsteen refused to either compromise or, more importantly, to fold. Some of the best moments of this entire boxed set in fact come on the rare glimpses of Springsteen performing covers like the Animals’ “It’s My Life” on the road, while he was in a purgatory state of legal limbo that kept him from recording.

In that respect, this is exactly why The Promise: The Darkness On The Edge Of Town Story is so much more than just another digital remaster of an iconic rock classic. This one tells a story, and a very riveting one at that.

But there are lighter, and more humorous moments on the video portions of this set as well.

Seeing a shirtless 1977-era Springsteen sporting what comes close to a full blown Afro, and rare footage of Steve Van Zandt’s actual hair are absolutely priceless, as is the way Bruce pokes fun at engineer Jimmy Iovine in the lyrics to “Aint’ Good Enough For You.”

Mostly though, Thom Zimmy’s documentary on the making of the Darkness album is a rare look into Springsteen’s legendarily painstaking recording process at the time.

And then of course there is the real meat of this set — the two-disc set of Darkness outtakes, assembled here into a manufactured “lost album” called The Promise.

Many of these tracks will be already familiar to hardcore Bruce fans with healthy bootleg collections, including songs like “Spanish Eyes,” “Outside Looking In” and “The Way” (which shows up here as a hidden, uncredited track on the end of the second disc). And of course, there is also the first appearance on an official release of the full E Street Band version of “The Promise” itself — a track long regarded by Springsteen fans as one of his greatest officially unreleased recordings.

More interesting however, is the way these songs reveal the very possibly different path Springsteen’s career might have taken had they been released on an official recording at the time they were first recorded.

In the Making Of Darkness documentary on this box, Van Zandt (and other E Streeters) repeatedly bemoan the songs that got away. Hearing them here now, it’s hard to disagree.

In addition to songs which became hits for other artists like “Because The Night” (Patti Smith), “Rendezvous” (Greg Kihn Band), “Fire” (Robert Gordon, The Pointer Sisters) and “Talk To Me” (Southside Johnny), a convincing case can also be made that with songs like the lesser known “Save My Love,” “The Brokenhearted” and “Someday (We’ll Be Together),” Springsteen could have easily made his mark as one of the all-time best writers of the great three-minute romantic pop song.

The evidence offered up on The Promise: The Darkness On The Edge Of Town Story makes it hard to disagree. If the “lost album” they are calling The Promise here actually did come out in say, 1977, I’d rank it right next to Born To Run, The River and Darkness itself in my all-time top five Springsteen albums.

For hardcore Bruce fans, the songs on The Promise also offer a rare look into Springsteen’s songwriting process. As the documentary DVD reveals, Springsteen often pieced bits of lyrics floating around in that notebook of his, to eventually form more fully realized songs. Evidence of this on The Promise can be heard in songs like “Come On, Let’s Go Tonight” (“Factory” meets “Out In The Street”) and “Breakaway” (“The Price You Pay”).

Whether you are already a dedicated Springsteen fan, or have just always wondered what the fuss about this guy is all about, here lies your answer. Oh, and by the way, they did a bang-up job on remastering the original Darkness album too.

As these digitally remastered versions of music history go, it simply doesn’t get any better than this.

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About Glen Boyd

Glen Boyd is the author of Neil Young FAQ, released in May 2012 by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard Publishing. He is a former BC Music Editor and current contributor, whose work has also appeared in SPIN, Ultimate Classic Rock, The Rocket, The Source and other publications. You can read more of Glen's work at the official Neil Young FAQ site. Follow Glen on Twitter and on Facebook.
  • but it’s in a fucking arena. i hate arena shows.

    Bruce in an arena: he manages to shrink that arena down to the size of a garage. i’m not kidding. glen will back me up on that i’m sure.

  • From my reading, it seems that Springsteen had a direct hotline to his muse for a period of years, roughly from the end of Born to Run up to Born in the USA. Darkness, The River and BITUSA all have enough material to manufacture a companion album of outtakes for each. And they all overlap, like it’s all one story about this guy and his life. Was that Bruce himself? Some of it perhaps. But it’s a story that takes place over some 80 – 100 songs, and I don’t think anyone would want to write that many songs about one idea. So I don’t see “scattershot” as a insult to Springsteen’s talent – it just again proves how driven he was for all those years.

    It’s kind of odd to consider the whole concept of a double album nowadays – some of the classics like Blonde On Blonde or Exile on Main Street you can fit onto a single disc. London Calling and Zen Arcade too. Errr ….. sorry – I had to leave off my typing for a minute and forgot what was the point I was gonna make. Anyways – on a different tangent – I wonder if Bruce has prepped 80 songs for any of his recent albums? Or has he learned how to pace himself?

  • …and just for the record Greg, my opinion on Sandinista remains unchanged. Woulda’ made a hell of a double album, but at three discs there’s just too much filler there. Now London Calling on the other hand, that’s one MF’er of a record.


  • Greg,

    I’ll see your Sandinista and raise ya’ two Rivers, one Darkness and a Born To Run. But hey, at least it isn’t your Band On The Run to my Duran Duran Arena…


  • Greg Barbrick

    Ok Glen, gotta throw my two cents in here. Since you and zing got into about The River, I thought I would mention something you may have forgotten. Just about 30 years ago I walked into your record store with a unopened copy of The River that I had been given for Christmas and traded it for The Clash’s Sandinista.

    You looked at me like I was crazy, but it was the beginning of a long friendship. And I still think you got the short end of the stick on that deal!


  • My mistake Zing about the “scattershot” comment.

    As for The River though, many of the songs on that album are in fact leftovers from the Darkness era (“Independence Day” “Ties That Bind” and “Sherry Darlin'” — which can be seen in an early version on the documentary here — being among them).

    Bruce had more songs than he knew what to do with back then. But I think what they were going for on The River, at least initially, was to create a rawer, more raucous sound closer to the live ESB shows, than the studio sheen heard on Born To Run, and to a lesser extent, on Darkness. The party rave-ups like “Sherry” “I’m A Rocker” “Ramrod” and “You Can Look…” contrast sharply with the deeper, moodier songs found on side four (“Price You Pay” “Drive All Night” and “Stolen Car”).

    It’s almost like hearing two records in one, and in that way I think the comparison to Prince’s Sign O The Times is actually quite accurate. The thing is, I really love both of those albums.


  • zingzing

    jc–for some reason i got zappa in my head.

    glen–just to be clear, i said the river was “scattershot,” not darkness. my theory is after the lawsuit, the not knowing if he was the one in control of his career, recording stuff for a day he wasn’t certain was going to come, he recorded the stuff for the river in a blind, drunken rush of freedom just to be able to do it. and maybe springsteen works better with a clear purpose in mind. but i’ll have to give it another listen, as it has been years. probably at least 5 at this point.

    sigh… i remember i bought every springsteen up til 1987 on vinyl in one go for $8 at a used record store. thems were the days. actually, who am i kidding? i get get it all for free in one go nowadays. psh. nostalgia is for the honest.

  • There is nothing the least bit “scattershot” about Darkness, and this boxed set really puts an exclamation point on that.

    If anything, the songs from The Promise and the footage in the documentary prove that Bruce probably left some of his best songs behind — much to the chagrin of other band members, and Steve Van Zandt in particular — in the interest of making a record very specifically focused on the characters and stories he wanted to tell.

    Listening to The Promise, you find just how wildly diverse Springsteen’s songwriting really was. There was definitely more to him than just songs about cars and girls (as he was often perceived at the time).

    Thanks for the comments, guys. Nice thread you got going here.


  • Yeah – ‘sfunny how that all works out.

    Or, as another dead guy once sang, “Any way the wind blows / Doesn’t really matter to me.”

  • zingzing

    “who would’ve thought 30 years ago that the public would see Prince as the musical genius and Michael as the perv?”

    well, who would have thought the perv would turn all kooky religious and the king of pop would be dead?

  • zingzing

    yeah, the only problem with sequencing the black album/lovesexy thing is lovesexy’s tendency for the tracks to bleed together. luckily, i’ve got about 30 prince bootlegs from 86-88 (the greatest creative burst ever in my opinion), so i can sub in a lot of demos and slight variations. i am a bit of a nut about prince.

    i think springsteen and prince benefit from being such great live performers when it comes to sequencing. they can really tell what songs work in juxtaposition to others, how to build momentum, when to throw in a grinding halt for a little breather, etc. prince has lost of some of this, i think… one of his later albums has something like 4 treacly ballads right in a row at one point. and his albums are endless… and the quality control is gone. damn it.

    i still want to see them both live. my friend saw springsteen last year or the year before and said it probably the best show he’d seen in a decade. my brother saw prince and said it was the best musical experience of his life. he’s playing here (or at least in nj) next month… but it’s in a fucking arena. i hate arena shows.

  • I never though about it before, but that Black Album/Lovesey thing might sound quite interesting. I’m kind of a nut about sequencing – I think it’s one of the most underrated X factors in the album making process. I think Springsteen’s incessant choosing and juggling of tracks is one of his natural gifts – and if not, then he just works at it harder than most.

    (As an aside – some comedian once said something along the lines of who would’ve thought 30 years ago that the public would see Prince as the musical genius and Michael as the perv?)

    Did you ever hear the bonus tracks of Exile On Main Street? Now there’s a great piece of sequencing – the tracks that were cut weren’t brilliant – just filler really, and didn’t deserve to be include the first time ’round. Somebody was on the ball there.

  • zingzing

    well, i’d whip out my record right now, but a friend of mine borrowed my record player. then he cheated on his girlfriend. and she kicked him out. and my record player is still over there. drama. but i’ll get around to it soon. a few years and a different perspective might be a ticket in, and it’d be really nice to find a new vintage springsteen album to like.

    i’ve taken to putting the black album together with lovesexy to create a really whacked-out double album. the bands were pretty much the same, although the musical setting is a bit different. the funk on lovesexy is just as remarkable as on black album, although it’s sleek and psychedelic whereas black album was more tough and loose. when you mix the tracks, what seems like such a vast difference between the albums is less noticeable and it just turns out eclectic. (the sequencing i gave it comes a bit from the live shows he was doing in 88, where a lot of these songs were mixed up to form some sort of quasi-religious good and evil fight for prince’s soul thing.)

  • Exactly right about Sign O’ the Times, although I think The Black album is a real close runner up for Prince’s shiniest gem in his crown.

    Once again, Springsteen’s very unsureness that you mentioned I feel is the best bit, especially in hindsight. It’s obvious with Darkness that he had enough songs to make a completely different album, and the same holds true for Born the USA. But the outtakes from The River just make it a three disc set. That’s why I wondered why you didn’t like it – that emotional ambiguity that permeates The River I thought would be right up your alley.

  • zingzing

    his other albums also had an individual sound to them, which i feel like the river lacks.

    that said, you could say the same exact stuff about “sign o the times” by prince (scattershot, no individual sound, a gathering of all that is x) and i’d say that’s why it’s prince greatest album. but prince was obviously riding a hot streak, while i think springsteen sounds a bit hung over and unsure of which direction to go.

  • zingzing

    it has been a while since i listened to it. and it definitely was the album i listened to the least out of all his stuff when i was really heavily into him. i’ve never liked it. but i guess i could be wrong. it just seemed unfocused and scattershot, where most of his other albums had a thrust to them.

  • Interesting, but I couldn’t disagree with you more. If anything, I would suggest that this is a case where he wasn’t painting by the numbers – he wasn’t even painting inside the lines. In many ways its ambiguous nature is the root of its brilliance.

    A quote from the Boss himself when he discusses The River in Marsh’s Born to Run biography:

    Rock and roll has always been this joy… but Rock is also about hardness and coldness and being alone…. but I finally got to the place where I realized life had paradoxes… and you’ve got to live with them.”

  • Baronius

    “too different in tone from the celebratory Born to Run”

    I’ve heard other people contrast those two albums. To me, they’ve always sounded similar. They’re my favorites of his, by far.

    Thanks for writing this aritle, Glen. I probably wouldn’t have heard about this new album otherwise.

  • zingzing

    it’s like springsteen by numbers except it borders on parody. he spread himself too thin, and he’d done (or would do) everything he does on the river elsewhere better.

  • Ach – zing – you’re no fan of The River? Would you care to elaborate?

  • zingzing

    darkness was never my favorite either. something in the songs and production sounds really tired. oh, it’s the songs and the production. then again, it’s been a few years since i listened to it. maybe i’m missing out.

    at this point, i’ve grown fairly critical of springsteen. his first two are kinda dull and malformed, born to run is overplayed, darkness is tired, the river just stinks… but then there’s the 1-2 punch of nebraska and born in the usa. i love those albums. everything he did well done perfectly. after that, it’s a steady slide toward mediocrity, with a few high points here and there. springsteen in a lazy paragraph.

  • Darkness was never one of my fave Springsteen albums – too muddy, too grim, too different in tone from the celebratory Born to Run. But The Promise creates a whole different perspective from which to experience the Darkness album. Combining parts of both albums, and you end up with a preview of The River, where the dull plodding of the working day can momentarily be absolved by the shut up and dance attitude of rock ‘n’ roll.

    But apparently he wasn’t ready to make such a big statement at this point in his career. Still, these missing pieces illustrate that Bruce had been working from two different bases of operation from the post Born to Run years right though to the Born in the USA phenomenon (which has its own set of outtakes and MIA songs). Maybe in some parallel universe his career plays out differently, and he’s more a songsmith than an icon. I dunno – I’m just happy to add 20 more Boss tunes to my collection.

  • Can’t wait to hear this. I’m afraid it’ll be a letdown after “Whip My Hair,” though.

  • Yeah, heck Mark…i admit I’m nitpicking (at least a little).

    The truth is, I was so overwhelmed by the Houston thing — Prove It brought me to near tears — I couldn’t help from drawing a few comparisons (and Bruce’s vocals do strain a bit in places .. seriously, tell me I’m wrong).

    I was however completely bowled over by how he so unexpectedly nailed “Something In The Night” (talk about a rarely played gem much tougher to get than something like “Promised Land” for instance).

    Overall, I’m more than blown away by this set though, and I hope my overall love for it showed through.

    Since everybody who reads my stuff here regularly here already knows I’m a bit of a Bruce nut though (especially for what in my estimation is his greatest record), I just wanted to demonstrate that my devotion is not completely blind, or non-objective.

    Nice to see you still troll these pages on occasion by the way though…your more active presence is sorely missed.


  • well, i have to totally disagree with you about the Paramount recreation. the intent was to revisit and distill the energy and focus of Darkness and the performance was seething. heck, even the nit-pickers at btx agree with me.

    flat? no way.

    p.s. in case you missed it, here’s my take on the Paramount dvd.