Wednesday, January 05, 2011



by Wayne Robins

It was early New Year's Eve, and I played Bruce Springsteen's "The Promise" for the friends with whom we spend that night—and sometimes only that night—each year. They recognized the familiar prelude to "Thunder Road" that opens the album, and marveled how well it worked instead as the introduction to the version of "Racing in the Street ('78)" that opens "The Promise."

Soon they were filled in on the back story of "The Promise": That these 21 completed songs (not demos), over two discs, are part of the bounty of about 40 recordings Springsteen made in 1977 and 1978 for the album that would become "Darkness at the Edge of Town." That essential transitional album, finally released in 1978, was his first since "Born to Run" in 1975 made good on Springsteen's claim to greatness. The delay was caused by lawsuits over management contracts, music publishing and other intellectual property.

Springsteen writes a most eloquent essay about the time and circumstances, why some tracks were selected for the "Darkness" album and these left behind. "I'd been out of the recording scene for three years, I was in my mid-twenties and already trying to prove I wasn't a flash in the pan," he writes. "I knew who I was...and who I wanted to be. I knew the stakes I wanted to play for."
The tracks selected for "Darkness At the Edge of Town" had a specific purpose, musical, cultural and personal. Aware of punk, aware of treacherous economic times, he was acutely aware of his desire to "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."

From the first listen to these other songs from the "Darkness," you realize that "The Promise" was from an earlier time. But it would have been incomprehensible in 1968; in 1965, they would have sounded like a maudlin anachronism. No. This Bruce Springsteen music, in source and style, in the heart of his imagination, precedes the Beatles, although it anticipates their gift: To unify the disparate streams of early 1960s American pop and rock. Specifically, the music of "The Promise" is steeped in the sounds of 1961, 1962 and 1963. For those of us who were born in 1949 (Springsteen is about three months older than I), these were the years of sixth, seventh and eighth grade. "The Promise" is for me a vessel for time travel: I have been listening to it for quite a few weeks, in carefully administered doses with long spaces between listens, as if I know that if I spend too much concentrated time hearing it I might never come back.

Sixth through eighth grade: It is in these years that most young people begin buying records, when the music moves us in ways we can't quite explain, as our hormonal gravity pulls us in ways we definitely can't explain. The best music in the rock era has helped us understand some of these inexplicable events.

Springsteen's essay inside "The Promise" CD acknowledges this. "Post 'Born to Run,' I was still held in thrall by the towering pop records that had shaped my youth and early musical education." He cites the great songwriting teams of this era: Goffin and King, Leiber and Stoller, Barry and Greenwich, and Mann and Weil. He also mentions, of course, Phil Spector, the musical architect of mini-cities of the heart that could be heard and felt in "Born to Run."

I hear more. I hear Ernie Maresca (Dion), Frank Guida (Gary U.S. Bonds), Kal Mann and Dave Appel's madly prolific writing and producing at Philadelphia's Cameo-Parkway Records (Chubby Checker, Bobby Rydell, the Dovells, the Orlons, Dee Dee Sharp). I hear Beach Music, the rhythm and blues music that entertained, and in some cases woke up, the Atlantic coast, from Florida to South Jersey. In my native Long Island, New York, with its own suburban beach culture, we mirrored Southern California in the early 1960s; no one called it "beach music" and we heard little except the few national hits from regional acts like Bill Deal & the Rondells, the Tams, Willie Tee, and Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs.

It is no accident that the most lasting and memorable musical moment from the 1979 "No Nukes" concert was Springsteen and Jackson Browne leading the way on Maurice Williams' "Stay": On "The Promise," you can hear this an inch beneath the surface, like those mini-crabs you find scraping the damp sand away from retreating waves at the beach.
On "Gotta Get That Feeling," the second song of "The Promise," one hears Ben E. King and the Drifters; it instills a hunger to hear Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band perform the Drifters' "I Count the Tears." The Drifters' could have done "Wrong Side of the Street," though they may have wrestled with the lyric: "You and your poetry and your cool, cool world/You've been working on that face of a martyr girl." Patti Smith — already in high school in 1961—may not have been as much of an outsider if she had heard lyrics like that on the radio then. "The Promise" contains Springsteen's own version of "Because the Night," his gift to South Jersey's St. Patricia of Pitman.

Even some of the titles echo other songs from the early 1960s. "Outside Looking In" taps into the romantic vein of Little Anthony and the Imperials' "I'm On the Outside (Looking In)." The next song, "Someday (We'll Be Together)" is less related to the 1969 Supremes song than it is to the Four Seasons' 1964 "Rag Doll," from which it quotes explicitly. Ditto, "The Brokenhearted": One doesn't think about Jimmy Ruffin's 1966 "What Becomes of the Broken-Hearted" as much as one wonders how the late Roy Orbison missed recording it, either during his 1980s comeback, or the embryonic version that perhaps appeared to the 12-year-old Bruce Springsteen in a dream in 1962.

"Talk To Me" doesn't resemble the 1958 Little Willie John song of the same title; but "Fire" (the Springsteen written hit for the Pointer Sisters, here in its minimal, sensual glory) resembles the 1957 Little Willie John hit, "Fever." Springsteen's "Talk To Me" contains the central riff from Little Peggy March's 1963 hit, "I Will Follow Him." If Little Peggy March married Little Willie John...well, in 1963, in most states, it would have been illegal, as mixed race marriages were most everywhere until a 1967 Supreme Court (Loving v. state of Virginia) ended such discrimination.

"Rendezvous" has been heard before, and not just on Springsteen's 1999 compilation "18 Tracks": It's one of Springsteen's rockers most evocative of 1961-1963: The exotic Frenchness of the title, when "French" meant french kissing. It also connects with our pre-Beatles expectations of romance: "Haven't I told you girl, how much I like you? I get a feeling that you like me too," Springsteen sings. The emphasis was on "like," because we were too young to understand anything as deep and complex as love. No "Love Me Do," no "She Loves You." It's more like the unnamed, untamed desire of Dion's swaggering 1961 hits after he left the Belmonts, "The Wanderer" and "Runaround Sue." At the very least, it's Del Shannon after "Runaway" and "Hats Off to Larry."

"Candy's Boy" went through a complete evolution when it emerged on "Darkness at the Edge of Town" as "Candy's Room." The "Candy" of the well-known public version has pictures of "her heroes" on the wall: You think of it as a throwaway line—a self-editing for radio—after hearing Springsteen sing, in "Candy's Boy": "There are pictures of her savior on the wall." I had no sense, for the last 32 years, what "Candy's Room" looked like; in "Candy's Boy," the "pictures of her savior" bring us deep inside the room, into Candy's struggles of spirit and soul, her conflicts, her moods, her abandon and regret. That "picture of her savior" is the reason they have to go to a "cheap motel" to go all the way; There is no motel, in "Candy's Room": The drive "deep into the night" becomes metaphorical, where in "The Promise," it is literally a highway—Route 9—that must be traveled to reach a climax. A little rough for radio in 1978, "Candy's Boy" might have led to outright banishment from radio in 1962.

The comical "Ain't Good Enough for You" is a slice of topical humor that Leiber and Stoller might have written for the Coasters, though my ear hears the Dovells singing this. The Dovells, featuring Len Barry as lead singer, were of heroic importance in the greater Philadelphia/New Jersey/New York area thanks to their hit "Bristol Stomp," a Mann-Appel composition. The dance never became popular much beyond the confines of Bristol, Pa., where it was born in the nearby shadow of Philadelphia-based "American Bandstand."

But you can draw a straight line from "Bristol Stomp" to the E Street Band. "We pony and twisted, and we rocked with Daddy G," the Dovells sang in the song that welcomed us to seventh grade in September 1961. Who was Daddy G? The saxophone player for Gary U.S. Bonds of Norfolk, Va., whose 1960 hit, "New Orleans," established the party-in-the-studio sensibility of the live E Street Band, and whose "A Quarter to Three" (No. 1, June 1961) was a cornerstone of the Springsteen/E Street Band encore set for decades. Springsteen and Miami Steve Van Zant produced Bonds' comeback in the early 1980s, and Clarence Clemons sax style is such a direct descendant of Daddy G's that the Big Man himself played the horn on Bonds' 1982 Bruce-produced "Out of Work."

The set ends with three songs that stand apart because of the emotional maturity, the dark realism, the pessimism of their lyrics. "Breakaway" is about people who take too much risk trying to change their (mis)fortunes with a dishonest roll of the dice and leave only mourning, disappointed survivors. It utilizes the "ronday-ronday-sha-la-la" singing syllables of the Shirelles, but it recognizes evil in the world the way the music of the early 1960s never could, the saddest "sha-la-la" ever sung. "The Promise," something of a prequel to "Thunder Road," captures the battered spirit of those stuck with no way out: "All my life I fought this fight/The fight that no man can ever win," Springsteen sings. Now that's mashed potatoes, no gravy, no steak, no fork. Just a knife.

"City of Night," the closer, is only incrementally brighter, a guy in a taxicab picking his girl late at night: "I don't believe what I see in this street/I don't know how people can take the heat/Well baby, I'm a liar, I'm a cheat, and I don't care," the protagonist sings, as he anticipates going out and painting the darkness at the edge of his town a few more dull shades of brown.

It is a reverie interrupted. We have been transported to that eighth grade dance: We've twisted and ponied and waddled and slopped with the band everyone's been talking about, Bruce and the Spring-Teens. And suddenly, they're singing this really serious stuff. We stand, scowling, disoriented. Some of the girls are sobbing. The muscle guys with the Lucky Strikes rolled up in their shirt sleeves have their arms folded across their chests, sullen, bewildered and angry. It is like the dark side of that scene in "Back to the Future," where Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) joins the band playing at his parents' prom and brings things to a halt with yet to be invented Hendrix/Van Halen guitar feedback. "Don't worry," the singer is saying at my dance. "You might not like this now, but if you trust the music, it will still be yours, and will sound even better, 50 years from now." I start to clap, alone, but soon everyone is clapping and cheering, and I'm home, not sure how I got here, but still loving it.

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