Whatever happened to The Boss & I? There was a time – the summer of 1981, if memory serves – when my whole life seemed to revolve around the bloke. ‘The River’ and ‘You can trust your car to the man who wears the star’ and ‘Born to Run’ hardly ever seemed to be off my turntable and I spent a lot of time and money that year travelling around the UK to see Springsteen & the E Street Band ripping up a succession of theatres and arenas. I even queued up all night, sleeping on the pavement along Hyde Rd to get tickets for his two Manchester Apollo gigs….
And then, there was a lengthy hiatus until ‘Nebraska’ appeared the following year. By that time, I’d relocated to the north-east and a lot of things had changed. ‘Nebraska’ came as a huge shock and even the revisionism of the passing years hasn’t changed my opinions about it. Too sparse, too bleak, a lot of so-so songs – just not what I’d hoped for. And where was the band? For Springsteen it must have seemed like a bold statement; I just thought it was a severe error of judgement. By the time he returned with ‘Born in the USA’ two years further down the line, it had all become very manicured….the videos, the stadium anthems…….what a let-down.
‘Born in the USA’ ..the album, the video, errr…….the shoe
Some years later – about 1988 at a guess – I had a moment of epiphany whilst stranded on a train on my way home from where I was working in north Birmingham. Springsteen was playing a gig at Villa Park and my train went right past the stadium. Somewhere between Witton and Aston stations, the train ground to a halt and sat there ticking in the heat right next to Villa Park. We were all cooking gently with the train windows open, when suddenly, the opening fanfare of ‘Born in the USA’ came blatting out of the stadium with an accompanying roar from the crowd. A couple of girls laughingly got to their feet and started pretending to dance in the aisle of the carriage to general mirth, but my overall feeling was one of sadness. The train suddenly lurched on and it came to me in a flash that I had, too. All that romantic stuff, all those Mancunian serenades and burning down the M62 at 3a.m. with a head full of pharmaceuticals and ‘Jungleland’ blaring out of the cassette player – it was all gone – I felt like a wage-slave for probably the only time in my life.
Springsteen had moved on, too. The Columbia Records machine enfolded him in its grasp and he was recreated as America’s official bona-fide blue-collar rock & roll hero. What had previously seemed like glorious chaos, a genuine grassroots phenomenon bursting out of the Jersey badlands with monstrous intensity now seemed like a shrewd and calculated play for megastar status. It was as though, the music, the albums, the shows weren’t gripping enough on their own – and from 1975 to 1981 they certainly had been. The video for ‘I’m on fire’ made Springsteen , his blue jeans and white workshirt, sleeves carefully rolled to the elbow, look like an airbrushed fake or a Tussaud’s waxwork. Before, they had been songs, albums, shows – now it was just product.
I pretty much gave up on the guy at that point. Through the years, the Columbia hype machine churned out endless schtick about his integrity and his place in the great rock songwriting tradition, but for me, 1984 onwards was the period where Springsteen went from being a surefire Hall-of-Famer, up there with just about everyone except Dylan, to being a guy who ‘coulda been a contender’ but blew it by allowing the Columbia suits to groom and photoshop his career.
Even the very ‘worthy’ Pete Seeger project of a few years back smacked of a slight degree of desperation. Bruce the folksinger? I don’t think so, folks. This guy was born to rock and roll.
Which brings me to ‘The Promise’, the first instalment in a glut of Springsteen ‘product’ coming your way just in time for Christmas.
Briefly, the 3-year hiatus between 1975’s ‘Born to Run’ and 1978’s ‘Darkness on the edge of town’ was a time of massive creativity for Springsteen, but although he and the E Street Band criss-crossed the States building a reputation as a formidable live act, he was unable to release any records due to a dispute with a former manager. The band was certainly recording, however, and it’s those 1976–7 recordings that form the bulk of this 2-cd set. Some of the songs (‘Breakaway’, ‘Candy’s Boy’, ‘Rendezvous’) are familiar from bootlegs, whilst other songs – notably ‘Fire’ and ‘Because the night’ – were farmed out to other performers.
Stylistically, there’s a sizeable gulf between the Phil Spector – inspired romance of ‘Born to Run’ and the lean, edgy gloom of ‘Darkness on the edge of town’. It might be convenient to see ‘The Promise’ as the missing link between these two albums and in a way, it is. Nonetheless, ‘The Promise’ seems to me to have far more kinship with ‘Born to Run’ than ‘Darkness’. Whilst there is no defining mood to the collection, it definitely leans more to the widescreen romanticism of 1975 than it does to the watchful wisdom of 1978. The excellent black & white cover shot would tend to support such a view; a moody Bruce slouches on the bonnet of his retro-looking motor on a long straight track through the desert.
Given that the post-punk landscape of 1978 must have looked substantially different to Springsteen at the end of his ‘gardening leave’, it’s possible to understand why this stuff wasn’t released once he was free to do so. It’s all a bit too head-in-the-air romantic and by ’78, Springsteen had taken a fair pummelling from the slings & arrows of the press and the courts. ‘Darkness‘ was a better fit for 1978’s cynicism and in itself probably carried the seeds that eventually produced the bleak minimalism of ‘Nebraska’
Anyway, for anyone like me who feels that 1975-1981 represents the key period of Springsteen’s career, ‘The Promise’ is just fine, despite odd bits of 2010 ‘re-touching’ here & there. Of course, the passing years have rendered it a good deal less ‘important’ or ‘crucial’ than it probably would have seemed had it been released in 1976. Even so, there are some really good songs here, very much in the tradition of blue-collar romanticism that characterises songs like ‘Meeting across the river’ or ‘New York City Serenade’. It’s an Apocrypha, of course, but no less enjoyable for all that. One thing that emerges very strongly from the collection is the range of influences on Springsteen at the time. Many of his heroes are in here; Buddy Holly, Jackie Wilson, Motown, Stax….the glockenspiels tinkle and the castanets clatter; all that had long gone by the time ‘Darkness’ emerged a couple of years later. The stylistic changes of these ‘lost years’ are perhaps best summarised by the early version of ‘Racing in the Streets’ which starts the album; this take has an amended melody and the bleakness of the lyric is pretty much drowned by the operatic nature of the production. When the definitive version emerged a couple of years later on ‘Darkness’, the message was less cluttered, but the romanticism was also more tarnished and tempered with reality
‘Darkness’ is going to be subject to its own dose of revisionism, as it’s being re-released in a deluxe package with assorted DVD’s of live performances from the 1978 era which should be well worth a view. There’s also a documentary floating around called ‘Wings for Wheels’ about the making of ‘Born to Run’, so we’re virtually awash with Springsteen product right now. Make of that what you will.