The Boss circles back to an (ethnic) road not taken in The Promise
Like all great artists, Bruce Springsteen has always been first and foremost a great editor. Any Springsteen album in the last four decades has always begun with many more songs that actually ended up on the record, and no doubt much of his work has ended on a proverbial cutting room floor for good. In the last dozen years, however, Springsteen has begun opening his vault to release what he regards as worthy work. Tracks (1998) was a broad, multi-CD collection that spanned his whole career, as was an intriguing bonus CD of rarities that accompanied The Essential Bruce Springsteen (2003), part of the fine Sony Records Essential series. Springsteen has also taken to repackaging his work -- like Born to Run, released in a 30th anniversary edition in 2005 -- and releasing live performances, audio and video. He's taken this process a step farther this fall with The Promise, a package that exists in multiple iterations: a documentary on the making of his classic 1978 album Darkness on the Edge of Town, a reissue of the album itself, and -- the focus here -- a two-disc collection of material recorded at the time of the Darkness sessions that did not actually make it to the album.
Of course, even merely talking about this music in such a way dates it. With the advent of digital downloads, owning recordings has become a virtual experience more than a literal one. The album, vinyl or CD, as an artifact is a largely generational phenomenon, and Springsteen is tapping a large, relatively prosperous and middle-aged fan base here with a product line well-insulated from the fickleness of mass taste or the recent upheavals of the music industry. Notwithstanding some real gems that have surfaced in this segment of Springsteen's oeuvre -- like his beautiful tribute to his mother, "The Wish" (Tracks), or the deceptively comical “From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come)” (Essential Bruce Springsteen), this is not really the best way to meet The Boss.
Nor is The Promise. If the first Springsteen songs you ever heard were "Racing in the Street ('78)," "Come On (Let's Go Out Tonight)" or "Candy's Boy," you would plausibly regard them as fine pieces of songcraft. But they're just not as good as the "Racing in the Street" that ends up on Darkness, or the transformation of “Come On” into "Factory," or that of “Candy’s Boy” into "Candy's Room." The final “Racing” and “Factory” have a more stripped-down arrangement and stately pace; “Candy” is more frenetic. Each makes more emotional sense in its final version. It's fascinating to hear the insertion of a reference to Elvis Presley's death in "Come On," or the reference to a 1932 Ford in "Racing," given that a 1969 Chevy is what (more plausibly) made it on the album. But this makes these songs curios, not great pieces of music.
That said, The Promise is also an intriguing document of a road not taken. Darkness on the Edge of Town marked a decisive turn in Springsteen's work in opening up a imaginative landscape with settings that included the Dakotas ("Badlands") and the Utah desert ("The Promised Land"). He wrote hard, lean songs stripped of the ornate embellishments that had characterized his first two albums, and the baroque arrangements that dominated Born to Run, typified by the ten-minute epic of "Jungleland." This new orientation is evident on the packaging of this music, which has always emphasized its western orientation.
But Springsteen's core influences, much more apparent in his live shows than in his recordings, had always been the classic rock of the late 1950s and early 1960s. That means Elvis, of course, and Buddy Holly, whose spirit is palpable here in "Outside Looking In." It also meant Gary U.S. Bonds, whose career he helped revive in the eighties, and represented by "Ain't Good Enough for You." And Phil Spector, whose girl groups receive homage treatment in "Someday (We'll Be Together)."
More specifically, though, there was an east coast, urban -- and, more specifically still, an Italian -- strain in Springsteen's music of the seventies. Ethnically, he's pure American mutt; "Springsteen" is a Dutch name, but his father was mostly Irish. His mother Adele's maiden name was Zirilli -- Irish/Italian marriages where what passed for multiculturalism in the mid-twentieth century -- and it's his Zirilli side that that decisively shaped his persona. That may be why one influence that hovers over many of the songs in this collection is Dion (as in DiMucci), who enjoyed a string of hits in the late fifties with the Belmonts and as a solo act in the early sixties with songs like "Runaround Sue" and "The Wanderer." The Promise evokes another Jersey Boy, Frankie Valli, whose work with the Four Seasons is discernible in tracks such as "Gotta Get that Feeling," even if Springsteen is smart enough not to even try emulating Valli's unforgettable falsetto.
This vein in Springsteen's body of work did not entirely disappear with Darkness on the Edge of Town. He gave some of these songs away. "Talk to Me" became a signature tune for Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, who carried this metropolitan torch into the eighties. Patti Smith had a Top Ten single with "Because the Night" in 1978, as did the Pointer Sisters with "Fire," which Springsteen himself released as a single a decade later. "Rendezvous" became a staple of his live shows, much beloved by Boss cognoscenti. So it's a real pleasure to see this material resurface in this collection.
Though none of it appears on The Promise, some of the material from this phase of Springsteen's career did enter his canon, principally on The River (1980), an album far more emotionally and musically variegated than Darkness on the Edge of Town, and for that reason a more satisfying experience (and a good place for a Springsteen novice to begin). In the documentary on the making of Darkness recently broadcast on HBO and included in some versions of the package, there is footage of Springsteen performing "Sherry Darling," which ended up on The River, with bandmate and buddy Steve Van Zandt -- born Steven Lento, and known by millions of Sopranos fans as Silvio Dante, the character he played in that series. With its boisterous crowd noise and hand-clapping in the background, redolent of life on a Brooklyn stoop, "Sherry Darling" encapsulates this moment in Springsteen's musical life.
In recent years Springsteen has been seen as an American icon in the Woody Guthrie tradition, in large measure because he's positioned himself that way, typified by his 2006 album The Seeger Sessions, and a carefully sculpted public image as a liberal godfather in the Age of Obama. The Promise reminds us of the vast sprawl in his lifetime of music-making, and of Springsteen's legitimate claim to the Ellis Island branch of American identity. If Springsteen's body of work is a meal, The Promise is a cannoli.