It isn’t often you find yourself transported to an earlier time in your life, but with the opportunity to view that period with the 20/20 hindsight of today. On Thursday night, I caught the HBO documentary, “The Promise,” about the making of Bruce Springsteen’s “Darkness on the Edge of Town.” It was a fascinating snapshot about the many challenges of being an artist after fame and success have happened, changing life forever.
I remember vividly waiting and waiting and waiting for this dynamic follow-up to Bruce’s breakthrough “Born to Run,” which catapulted him simultaneously onto the covers of Time and Newsweek. I had been lucky enough to catch one of his legendary live marathons in Bucknell’s tiny Davis Gym. The exhilaration of a three-hour-plus E-Street Band show was everything that reviewers raved it was.
In the mean time, I had graduated college, spent the summer in Houston, moved back to Philadelphia, found my first job in advertising, moved to my first apartment, all the while thinking something was missing from my life — it was any hint of any sign of a follow-up record from my favorite artist.
“The Promise” sheds a whole new light on that period. The two-to-three year delay was explained in dovetailed interviews with Bruce, band members, and his manager at the time, Mike Appel. The post “Born to Run” contract that was signed gave Appel extraordinary creative control over Bruce’s future recordings. It was like an alternate pilot episode to “Who’s The Boss.” When the dust settled, legal proceedings ensued, restrictions kept Bruce out of the studio, bills racked up, and pressure mounted. The fame of the moment turned into questions whether Springsteen was a one-hit wonder.
Ironically, the opposite was taking place. Bruce and the band holed up in a farmhouse in Holmdel, writing and playing songs for month after month. Meanwhile, the suit dragged on and sounded every bit as nasty as Beatles vs. Capital-EMI and John Fogerty vs. Saul Van Zaentz. Eventually, a settlement was reached and today, Bruce and Mike Appel appear to be friends again, with both reflecting openly and honestly in the documentary. It really came down to creative control and it only ever makes sense for that control to reside with the artist.
The rest of the documentary tracked the painstaking process of making the new record, finding the right sounds and tone, and not killing each other over the course of a very long time in the studio. Incredibly, Bruce wrote over 70 songs during this period and spent months figuring out which puzzle pieces fit the picture he was carefully creating.
There were clips of Bruce and Steve Van Zandt playing “Talk to Me,” which Bruce later gave to Southside Johnny, of Patty Smith’s gratitude for Bruce handing off “Because The Night” to her, and of John Landau discussing that track and “Fire,” which Bruce shared with the Pointer Sisters. “The Promise,” the title of the documentary is a gem that the band polished for three months, but still Bruce left it off the record. He hints at influences that shaped the album, from the emergence of punk to his first taste of country in Hank Williams.
“Darkness on the Edge of Town” is a terrific ode to the difficult transformation from youth to adulthood. The toll that blue collar work exacts. The respect for his father but the desire to never follow in his footsteps. The longing for a better life amidst the many forces that stand in your way. Bruce Springsteen won that fight when he held his ground back in 1978. Now, I find myself waiting again, but looking forward to hearing those 60-odd tracks that didn’t make the record, many of which will be released on a multi-disc set, including live tracks, the documentary, and related content on November 16.