Bruce Springsteen: The Promise

I walked home from Nicole and Natalie’s place late Sunday night, during the height of the blizzard. It was a stupid thing to do. Normally a pleasant five-minute walk, that short stretch from their place to mine turned into the most painful and unpleasant experience I’ve ever endured, the fierce wind shooting little daggers of ice into my face and covering my body in snow. Somewhere around the corner of Newark Avenue and Second Street, I thought about just giving up and dying in it. It was so pretty. When I finally made it home, panting uncontrollably and hoping I hadn’t caused some permanent damage to my brain, I stripped down to my thermals, made a cup of tea, and sat nearly comatose on the orange couch, with only enough energy to reach over to Bruce Springsteen’s The Promise and load the player. I thought I’d listen to just one or two tracks, but I wound up listening to both discs, all 21 tracks.

By the time the snow had finally stopped, Jersey City had accumulated twenty-something inches of the stuff. That intersection of Newark and Second had become an enchanting white wall, nearly five feet high, and it never did get plowed. I saw residents of the area taking shovels into the street, but they too gave up before they could clear a passage for their cars.

Today, New York City is a gray and slushy mess. And it’s been kind of freezing in our offices. As we approach 5pm, I think the heat is just starting to kick in. I’ve spent all day with Springsteen’s version of “Because the Night” running through my mind. I wish I was at Nicole and Natalie’s place right now, eating some of those caramel treats Nicole makes and sipping that yummy Argentinean tea Nat introduced me to.

But, The Promise. I had it on this year’s Christmas list, and my mom came through. Woo! I’ve been going crazy over it. I go back and forth with this sort of thing all the time, but, if I had to choose just one, I’d have to say that Darkness on the Edge of Town is my very favorite Springsteen album. The Promise is the “lost” album that could have been released prior to Darkness. Or it’s the album that could have been released instead of Darkness. For those who are curious but don’t know the story behind the album, you can start your research by reading “Aural Robert” in our December 2010 issue. Briefly: In the summer of 1976, Springsteen filed suit against his former manager, Mike Appel, in an effort to void a predatory contract he had signed in 1972. Appel counter-sued and obtained an injunction to keep Springsteen from immediately releasing a follow-up to 1975’s successful Born to Run.

Can you imagine that? Bruce Springsteen, 27 years old and at the height of his creative energy, having just released a masterpiece, was being told he couldn’t release a new album and was under threat of losing the rights to his first three albums. Can you imagine how that must have felt? And can you imagine how Springsteen felt after regaining control of his music and his career? He wanted to destroy! He wanted to prove it all night! After the bombast of Born to Run, he wanted to make a different statement. He wanted to release the rawest, meanest album he could, and so he culled from all the material the band had compiled over the previous three years, and Darkness was born. Springsteen has said time and time again that Darkness was the right album to release. It was the perfect statement. But it should come as no surprise that those three years between Born to Run and Darkness were creatively rich.

The Promise is fascinating not only because every one of its 21 tracks are good—I especially love the extra horns (trumpets, trombone!)—but because of the way it bridges those two albums. It all makes such good sense and creates a clearer picture of Bruce Springsteen, the Jersey kid who was becoming a man. (I have to now also wonder why, after Darkness and with so much good material in supply, Springsteen decided to release The River, another double-LP which, in comparison to everything he had done before, is almost completely lame. And I say “almost” only because I have a soft spot for “Hungry Heart.”)

The package for The Promise deluxe edition is also awesome: Housed in an 80-page replica of the spiral-bound notebook Springsteen used when writing Darkness, bursting with lyrics and photographs, we get Darkness remastered by Bob Ludwig (I haven’t done any comparisons with the original yet), the two-disc Promise, and three DVDs: the 90-minute documentary, The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town, and two discs of red-hot concert footage. Now I just have to find a television.

Maybe I can get Natalie and Nicole to host a Springsteen night.

smittyman's picture

Stephen, I'm surprised a vinyl lover like you didn't go for the three disc vinyl version of The Promise. It's a little overpriced here in Canada at $100.00; not sure what it sells for stateside.

Opps, I stand corrected. Now available for $50.00 CDN. I guess they just jacked the price for folks who wanted it right after it came out.

Stephen Mejias's picture
I wanted all the other cool stuff, too, and as far as I know, there isn't a vinyl package that includes the notebook and DVDs.
smittyman's picture

You are correct, the vinyl version is just the three discs. I wasn't that interested in the other stuff - frankly I would likely watch the DVD's once; videos of concerts just don't interest me. I also didn't want to pony up $100 for music I hadn't heard. My usual belief is there is a reason why unreleased material is unreleased; if it wasn't good enough then why is it good enough now? I would have paid $50 but it seems they were hijacking the early purchasers, at least up here.

Enjoy all the goodies that came with the deluxe set. Totally agree about Darkness; easily my favorite Springsteen album, although I think you are being a little tough on The River; it would have been a very good single album but wasn't strong enough for a double.

Stephen Mejias's picture
My usual belief is there is a reason why unreleased material is unreleased; if it wasn't good enough then why is it good enough now?
I normally agree, but I think in this case there was a different reason for the stuff being unreleased. The songs were good enough, but Springsteen wasn't able to release them when they were new. When he was finally able to release a new album, he had to make some decisions and many songs got left behind. I think it's great that those songs were recorded at all.

When I first found out about the album, I listened to a couple of tracks and loved what I heard, so I had no worries.

satkinsn's picture

The concerts from the 'Darkness' tour spoiled most other live music for me.

I saw the band three times that year, and knew I might see great rock again, but never anything this perfectly formed, this complete. The dvds/blu-rays confirm it.

The only rival in live music that I can think of is Dylan and the Band in 66' and - from the stories you hear - the Clash in the late 70s and James Brown in, say, 68.'

All that said, to me, the absolute high water mark for the set, and the biggest reason to own it, is the 2009 ‘live without an audience’ performance of ‘Darkness’ complete. Springsteen’s voice isn’t what it was even five years ago, and some of these songs have been played to death.

Yet these old men dig deep into the album and produce something new: this is the sound of a man with a 20 year old son, telling stories, passing on advice about how to live. In his reading of the songs now, Springsteen seems to be saying what you lose in energy, you gain in desperation and wisdom.

Anyway, the songs don’t lack for energy either, and in particular the version of ‘Racing In The Street’ is one of the best.


smittyman's picture

I was definitely intrigued by the 'live' version of Darkness. Too bad it isn't available as a one-off; I would certainly go for that.

musicpub's picture

just picked up Springsteen's 'The Promise' box set companion book The Light in Darkness, amazing original photos and stories frm the Darkness tour. Limited Edition

Jamesd's picture

This album is great. All three LPs. The sound quality is excellent with natural sounding piano, horns, with a deep tight bass from Garry W Tallent. Candys Boy is a hidden gem that I've never heard before... Disagree with you regarding The River - but you nailed this album in your review.