Review: Bruce Springsteen - "The Promise"
My wife walked in the door as I was cranking The Promise, a two-CD set of unreleased songs originally recorded as part of Bruce Springsteen's Darkness on the Edge of Town sessions. She managed to get halfway into the kitchen before she stopped, turned around and remarked, "You're listening to Springsteen?? You HATE Springsteen!" I mumbled some defensive comment, along the lines of, "I never HATED Springsteen, I just like lots of other singers better." But, she wasn't too far off, truth be told.
In mid-to-late '70s, my soundtrack was Priest, Sabbath, Zep, Kiss, UFO, Scorps, you get the picture. Bruce music sounded to me like the stuff you'd hear as Saturday Night Live broke for commercial; the piano/sax-driven soundtrack for the NYC cocaine set too sophisticated for disco. I placed him in the same corner as Van Morrison, Randy Newman, Bruce Cockburn, etc, all of which I never cared for back in my teens (and as I later learned, this was the stuff that music journalists of the day fawned over - now it's the Hold Steady). Born In the USA hit in '84, and by that time I was dipping my toes in the punk pool. During the Reagan years it was pretty uncool to be both proud of the US and into punk rock, and so the Boss's flag-waving patriotism on BITUSA provided more fuel for my ire. So, as a result, I never bought a Bruce Springsteen album, never listened to Nebraska or The River, let alone Darkness or Born to Run all the way through. Sure, I knew about all the five-star reviews, but my mind was made up without even taking time to listen - I did not like Bruce Springsteen. My buddy tried to help me out by taking me to one of his legendary three-plus hour shows, and I just fell asleep. No way, no how.
I don't know what got me to play the online stream of The Promise last week, but something funny happened when I did - I felt a strong urge to turn it way up. And once it was done I played it again. Now that punk has mostly faded from my rear-view mirror, I've found that I now enjoy listening to Randy Newman, Steely Dan, Van Morrison, Paul Simon, from time to time (Oops, there's my wife again, "What do you mean? You HATE those guys!"). And you know what? The Promise sounded GREAT! Yeah, sure, Bruce & the E-Streeters wear their influences loudly and proudly on their sleeves on this collection - a factor which apparently led to the scrapping of most of these songs when Bruce took his editing pen to create the final song lineup for Darkness on the Edge of Town.
The legendary Ronettes/Spector "Then He Kissed Me" drum pattern - complete with castanets - is unashamedly nicked in at least a few songs (if only that drummer could collect royalties!); the gorgeous masterpiece "The Brokenhearted" might as well be a lost Roy Orbison song; the shimmering ballad, "Someday (We'll Be Together)," despite lifting the title from the Supremes, is another stunner, and these last two revealed to me what a great singer dude really is (I'd only really heard his "ballad voice" on the hit "I'm On Fire.") There's a homage to '60s garage rock (the stellar "Wrong Side of the Street"), nods to the Byrds (12-strings front-and-center on "Rendezvous"), Sam Cooke (the finger-snappin' "Aint' Good Enough for You," basically an awesome rewrite of his "Twistin' the Night Away"). But there are other songs that are all Bruce - the sultry, bluesy "It's a Shame"; the jump-in-the-car-take-the-top-down-we're-hitting'-the-road feel of "Save My Love" (see "Born to Run" for another example); the hyper, horn-laden R&B of "Talk to Me," and the Darkness piece de resistance, "Racing in the Streets," of which I am told is the "rock" version (never heard the original version until this week, of course…see below for that story). The Promise also includes fine versions of the songs he wrote for Elvis Presley and Patti Smith - "Fire" and "Because the Night," respectively (although Elvis didn't bite, the Pointer Sisters and Robert Gordon both recorded decent versions of "Fire").
The thing that truly blows me away about The Promise? These 22 songs have been under wraps for thirty-plus years and there is not a single bad one in the bunch. Even more amazing, the majority of them are truly great songs - classics even - stuff that most real rock 'n' roll bands would kill to be able to write. After I listened to it for the third time and finally read the story behind it, I remembered that not long ago a friend gave me a box of vinyl he was getting rid of. And somewhere in that box was a Bruce Springsteen album that I filed away. Went down to the basement, and sure enough, it was Darkness on the Edge of Town. I put the needle to the groove and enjoyed every minute of it. Now off to Easy Street to fill in some of the rest of the gaps. Perhaps one of the biggest Boss fans I know of - MY boss - will point me in the right direction.