Like a couple of small meteors crashing through my roof, a few bits a Springsteenalia came my way yesterday. One is that on Thursday, October 7th, HBO will be showing a documentary called The Promise: The Making of The Darkness of the Edge of Town. You can see a glimpse of it by clicking here.
If you don’t know Springsteen’s history and why he became as revered as he has, part of the story is with his first two albums, which came out in the early seventies. He was regarded as a talent whose records had critical praise and a small devoted audience, but he was no big seller. That changed with a confluence of three events. First was a legendary ten-show performance in August 1975 at the Bottom Line club in New York, which was broadcast live and won over many critics. That same month, his third album, Born to Run, appeared, and a fluke of publishing landed him on the covers of both Time and Newsweek on October 27, 1975. In a few more years and a few more albums, he would be selling out coliseums.
Before that, though, he had a big legal problem. For Born to Run, he’d replaced his manager Mike Appel with Jon Landau, and Appel sued. Springsteen could not create album #4 until the lawsuit was settled. By the time that happened, he had not recorded for three years, but he’d written over seventy songs. He wanted to make his fourth album, Darkness on the Edge of Town, thematically one piece, which means he didn’t want a hodgepodge of songs.
Springsteen in an interview had said then, “I’m twenty-eight years old, and the people in the album are around my age. I perceive them to be that old. And they don’t know what to do … There’s less of a sense of a free ride than there is on Born to Run. There’s more of a sense of: If you wanna ride, you’re gonna pay. And you’d better keep riding.”
As Dave Marsh writes in the his biography, Bruce Springsteen: Two Hearts, “It was more difficult for Springsteen to conceptualize his fourth album because it really should have been his fifth; the lawsuit had kept him from making an album the year before, and in the early days of recording Darkness on the Edge of Town, he must have been torn between making the record he would have the previous year and the one he was ready to do now.”
He needed to winnow down what he had to ten recorded songs. As Marsh explains, Springsteen took a close look at himself and what he believed in life. The album evolved into “the lives of the sort of people he knew,” which included his father and others who worked, didn’t have any sort of plans, and wondered where things went wrong.
I learned more about this yesterday when there on my Kindle was the announcement of two free essays from Bruce Springsteen. I downloaded them.
In one of those essays, Springsteen says in making the fourth album that he “was trying to prove he wasn’t a flash-in-the-pan, a ‘one-hit wonder,’ a creation of the record company star-making machine. I knew who I was (well, I was pretty sure) and who I wanted to be. I knew to stakes I wanted to play for, so I picked the hardest of what I had, music that would leave no room to be misunderstood about what I felt was at risk and what might be attained over the American airwaves of popular radio in 1978. Power, directness, and austerity were my goals.”
“Darkness was my ‘samurai’ record,” Springsteen writes, “stripped to the frame and ready to rumble. But the music that got left behind was substantial.” That brings up the last bit of good news. Twenty-one songs that didn’t make The Darkness on the Edge of Town will be released on November 16th as The Promise.
These are tough times, and as I listened today to songs on Darkness on the Edge of Town, the lyrics speak to me more than ever. My son Zach, 23, has been living with us over a year and has been trying to get a second part-time job for the last twelve months. He’s paying off enormous debt that he got himself into while in college, and his Office Max job isn’t enough.
I don’t want him to “just give up living / And start dying little by little, piece by piece” as Springsteen sings in the title song. Rather, I want Zach to take heart—pursue his dream of finishing college with a degree in math. I want him to keep hope alive. When I saw Springsteen in concert last year and he started with “Badlands,” the last verse shot into my soul: “For the ones who had a notion / A notion deep inside / That it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive.”
It’s hard when you don’t make enough money. Still, we’re at all work trying to rise above our circumstances.
Last, for me, Springsteen has shown me a path for an artist. He seeks truth in his writing, which remains my own goal. I’m on my fourth rewrite of a novel that feels as if it, too, is getting the power and directness I’ve wanted as well as humor and pathos that I’ve sought. I’ll let you know in another month if it’s working.
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