Thursday, October 31, 2013

We've Only Just Begun

I'm so glad to know I'm not the only one who gets Karen Carpenter and Curtis Mayfield confused.




Tuesday, October 29, 2013

You Better Run

How many times did I watch/hear this as a teenager?


(Oh so many and not near enough is the correct answer.)

And then I'm informed that this exists:


I had no idea. 

I'm not worthy of writing on a music blog.

Monday, October 28, 2013

I Don't Like Mondays

I just learned that the school that inspired this song is only a bit over a mile from here. I've passed it I don't even know how many hundreds of times.


I'm more than a little uncomfortable with Bob Geldof's introduction to the song, true though it may be. But once he starts singing, I think it's the best performance I've ever heard him give. 

Sunday, October 27, 2013

RIP Lou Reed
















“It always bothers me to see people writing ‘RIP’ when a person dies. It just feels so insincere and like a cop-out. To me, ‘RIP’ is the microwave dinner of posthumous honors.” — Lou Reed

Friday, October 25, 2013

Beatle Birthday

So. Tomorrow's my 45th birthday.

No. That really is not a shameless attempt to solicit "Aw, that's great! Happy birthday!" Seriously. I had little to do with my being born, other than, y'know, being there when it happened. But I am saying it strictly for mercenary reasons. I am writing a post about it. Sort of.

The Beatles were the first rock-n-roll band I ever got into in a big way. Way back when I was 11 in the summer of 1980 and discovered the one Beatles record in my dad's collection, The Blue Album. Before then it had been all teeny pop stuff and movie soundtracks and, well, music just wasn't that big a thing to me. That all changed when I learned, within a few hours, the existence of "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "A Day in the Life" and "Revolution" and, most important to me in my early years, "Come Together" (which was my first ever "favorite" Beatles song.)

A few weeks later I bought The Red Album and by the time the fall rolled around, I was a full-fledged Beatlemaniac. That birthday that year, my 12th, was the first one for which I ever received Beatles albums as gifts. They were American releases and LPs, of course, so I got Beatles '65 and Magical Mystery Tour. Later that year I got four more albums for Christmas—Meet the Beatles, Abbey Road and two compilations (Hey Jude and Love Songs)—and really, was there anything better for a young music fan in the pre-CD era than seeing that distinctive shape of an LP gift-wrapped and waiting under the tree? I think not.

(That also was the year, lest I forget, John Lennon was killed. So within about six months of my newfound superfandom, even before that magical Chirstmas morning where all those perfect squares laid waiting for me under the tree, I knew for certain that there would never be any hope of a Beatles reunion. Which really bummed me out.)

But for me, because of those first initial gifts that came 33 years ago tomorrow, I always think of the Beatles on my birthday. It's another birthday entirely, really—the birth of my musical tastes.

So today and through the weekend I set out with one goal in mind, musically—to listen to every Beatles album, in order, by the time Sunday night gets here. It's a daunting task—by my best estimation it's right around 10 hours of music, stretched out over 210 songs (if I listen to the 27 songs from Past Masters that don't appear in some form on any other releases, which I plan to do. At the end).

So far I've made barely any headway—I am only up to Paul's rather stunning vocal take of The Music Man's "'Til There Was You," six songs into their second album, With The Beatles. It'll be what I listen to in the car and at home. I have (checking clock) about 60 hours to get this done. But I wish to do it. Because it's my birthday, after all. A time for wishes!

So. From this:




(And wow - how discordant and downright subversive is George's guitar solo, huh?)  

To this:



Onward.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

On the Radio

I never understood the whole "disco sucks" thing. I was only about 11, I guess, when it first started popping up, and while by then I was listening to more Led Zeppelin and Bruce Springsteen (and, yes, Kiss and Aerosmith) than Top 40, I didn't understand how someone could listen to this:



and not hear how obviously fantastic it was. Never mind that clearly the Rolling Stones and David Bowie and Pink Floyd and the Kinks saw the potential in disco. How does someone who thinks of himself as a music fan listen to this song and manage to miss its greatness? The melody, the vocal, the lyric and, yes, the beat. It's incredible stuff. How hard do you have to try to not hear that?

[I just finished reading the second day of the Donna Summer tribute on PopMatters by Christian John Wikane. Here's the first part. Do yourself a favor and click through and read it. It'll be time well-spent.]

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Swingin' Party

If you're going to cover a great song, own it. Make it yours. Play it harder, softer, faster, slower, more ornate, stripped down, instrumental, a cappella. Toy with the melody, the harmony, maybe even tweak the lyric. Find something in it the original performer—even if that was the writer—maybe missed. Unless you're Elvis, where hearing you sing is its own reward, bring something to the table or don't bother.

That's not to say this approach'll always work, of course.


I don't know how I feel about this. If I didn't know the original, I might very well like this far more than I like most electronic dance music. Would I love it? Maybe. Would I dislike it? Possibly. I do love the way it ends, though.

Monday, October 21, 2013

American Skin

As mentioned previously, it was an exhilarating two weeks over at the outstanding One Week//One Band music blog, where a dozen or so very impressive writers wrote exhaustively about 40+ years of Bruce Springsteen's lesser-known (but still extremely high quality) works. One of the more prominent writers was (as you have seen) my pal and compadre here at Reason To Believe, who offered some amazing takes on some amazing songs.

My turn finally rolled around at the literal very end; I got to serve as the anchorman (so to speak) with my post on "American Skin," Bruce's most misunderstood song ever, as well as one of his best.

Here is a quick tease:

And if you actually listen to “American Skin” and get past self-serving lip-service, you find a song steeped in empathy and begging for understanding. Is there anger? Maybe in the background, but it’s nowhere near the dominant emotion here. Sadness is. And in that sadness we find desperation, resilience, loneliness, fear, frustration and maybe, just maybe, a gleam of salvation. There are also, very critically, bits of religious imagery and that fractured Catholicism that Bruce has carried with him his entire career. But even that is different this time around—because this time that Catholicism is meeting head-on with his, for lack of a better term, Americanism. So while he’s talked about baptism before in unsettling terms (“Adam Raised a Cain,” “Reason to Believe”), it’s never quite like this. Where it’s not just water, but in “each other’s blood.” 

There is no good vs. bad paradigm laid out here. Springsteen takes us on a journey “across this bloody river, to the other side.” He takes us down to the darkened, unforgiving streets that he knows so well and used to bathe in such romanticism (“Incident on 57th Street,” “Jungleland,” “New York City Serenade”). But the romance is gone now. It’s replaced by hard reality of human judgment and human error. He begins the story with hints of atmospheric allegory before bringing it down to earth.

41 shots, and we’ll take that ride
Across this bloody river
To the other side
41 shots, cut through the night
You’re kneeling over his body in a vestibule,
Praying for his life.
Is it a gun? Is it a knife?
Is it a wallet? This is your life.
It ain’t no secret – no secret my friend.
You can get killed just for livin’ in
Your American skin.
It’s amazing the criticism this song received from those who clearly never heard it, or if they did, were unable to truly listen. Because there’s not some deep-hidden reveal that you need to listen to dozens of times to catch. It’s in plain sight, what he’s singing about:

You’re kneeling over his body in a vestibule
Praying for his life.
These are not the sentiments of someone who is seeking vengeance or blame—Springsteen literally puts the focus on the officer who so clearly made a mistake and realizes it, and gives him such humanity. Rather these are the sentiments of someone who sees something much bigger at play here and knows we are all a part of it. All of us who walk around in our American skin share in it.

Here is the link to the full post.

]


This was originally published on the music blog One Week// One Band, found at www.oneweekoneband.tumblr.com

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Part Man, Part Monkey

DT and I wrote a series of posts for the great One Week // One Band. They're all archived over there, along with an incredible number of other fantastic pieces. Here's the one I wrote about "Part Man, Part Monkey."

***

Rock, country, folk, jazz(ish), pop, blues, rockabilly, metal, torch, surf, frat, prog, R&B, punk, soul—by the late 80s, there were few genres Bruce Springsteen hadn't at least given a try. One exception: reggae. Until "Part Man, Part Monkey."




The song made its debut the first night of his Tunnel of Love Express tour, and remained part of the set through to the tour's bitter end. Its topic—love or, at least, lust—fit the tour's general "love" theme better than some of the more well-known songs and was a highlight each night. Among other things, although moody and atmospheric, it fit the band musically much better than many of the quieter, more intimate Tunnel of Love songs, which—although brilliant songs off an absolute masterpiece of an album—never quite made the transition to the stage effectively. Not so "Part Man, Part Monkey," despite what would have seemed an awfully foreign music milieu. Clarence Clemons' sax, in particular, worked especially well, something that could not uniformly be said by that part in Springsteen's musical development.

The first verse lays out the scenario, and it's a funny look at a bit of American history every American (hopefully) knows:
They prosecuted some poor sucker in these United States
For teaching that man descended from the apes
They coulda settled that case without a fuss or fight
If they'd seen me chasin' you, sugar, through the jungle last night
They'da called in that jury and a one two three said
Part man, part monkey, definitely
Okay. So far, lyrically, this is a fairly standard humorous Springsteen song. (Which is to say great—in fact, I think it's one of his very funniest ever.) But the second verse takes a surprising turn:
Well the church bell rings from the corner steeple
Man in a monkey suit swears he'll do no evil
Offers his lover's prayer but his soul lies
Dark and driftin' and unsatisfied
Well hey bartender, tell me whaddaya see
Part man, part monkey, looks like to me
So while the final couplet there fits in with the first verse (as well as having a nice nod back to "Louie Louie"), the first four lines become suddenly serious. They still address sexual desire, but instead of a witty history lesson, they suddenly bring contemporary politics and religion into the mix. And instead of Springsteen's Catholicism popping up as it so often does, it's taking aim right at evangelical Christianists, and it's not complimentary.

The bridge goes even darker, but now it shifts its focus to the singer himself:
Well the night is dark, the moon is full
The flowers of romance exert their pull
We talk awhile, my fingers slip
I'm hard and crackling like a whip
And just like that, humor's nothing but a distant memory. Springsteen's singing here of lust more directly and intensely here than he ever has before. "Blinded by the Light" had all the scattershot focus of a horny puppy, while "Fire"—which seems a tad, well, rapey when viewed with 21st century eyes—kept its humor (albeit frustrated humor) from beginning to end. (Switching genders by having it sung by The Pointer Sisters also helped make it less disturbing.) "I'm on Fire" seemed like a sensual ballad verging on torch the first few dozen times you heard it, until you realized this guy wasn't just turned on, he was nearly out of his mind with desire, and the correct answer should have been "hell, yeah, my daddy's home. And he's holding a loaded shotgun."

But here the singer isn't just aroused, he's making his move. Do his fingers really slip? Or do they "slip"? And how's this little oh-my-goodness-would-you-look-at-that-how'd-that-happen? received by the object of attention? Is she a willing participant in this game? Here's hoping, because the singer sounds like he's not to be easily deterred.

The final verse ties it all together:
Well did God make man in a breath of holy fire
Or did he crawl on up out of the muck and mire
Well the man on the street believes what the bible tells him so
Well you can ask me, mister, because I know
Tell them soul-suckin' preachers to come on down and see
Part man, part monkey, baby that's me
Here we've got religion and sex all bound together in one sweaty, confusing, tangled ball of yarn. Springsteen had never approached either subject this way before, and never has since, practically entering into Prince territory—only with anger, rather than ecstasy. Prince sang of sex and God tied together some sort of glorious virtuous circle. The singer of "Part Man, Part Monkey" finds sex base and dirty...and he likes it.

Musically, too, it's far from Springsteen's usual fare. Obviously, most of that's due to its reggae beat. And while Max Weinberg and Garry Tallent are never going to be confused with Sly and Robbie, they acquit themselves surprisingly well. Max's playing—especially his initial entrance—back in 1988 was odd and effective, and Garry's bass line is unusually busy for him. Clarence's sax is interwoven throughout the song's fabric in a way that it had almost never been since the Born to Run album. "Part Man, Part Monkey" is also in a minor key, another relative rarity for Springsteen. What's more, it's a blues, one of the very few Springsteen's ever written. And, live, it ended with Patti Scialfa singing a bit of Mickey & Sylvia's 1956 hit, "Love Is Strange." It certainly is.

Springsteen later recorded a studio version of the song for Human Touch, the recording turning up as the b-side to "57 Channels (and Nothin' On)." (Tangent: I can't believe he released "57 Channels" as a single. I love the song, and think his performance of it on SNL is still one of his best TV performances ever, but it should have been a b-side itself—and a great, great b-side it would have been.)

The recording is a wonder, crystal clear, and with the anger turned up even higher. Whereas Springsteen would occasionally burst into laughter when singing the song on stage back in 1988, here there's no trace of comedy. Superstar guest drummer Omar Hakim's snare cracks like, well, a whip, and David Sancious returns to add some magnificent keyboards. Springsteen himself plays the bass, and as is his custom when he plays the bass himself, the lines are busier than Garry's, and mixed more prominently. Clarence's sax is nowhere in sight, replaced by what may be Springsteen's first slide guitar on record.

And that's another unusual feature of this unusual recording: Springsteen's guitar is uncharacteristic in several ways. His guitar tone is much cleaner than usual; for a guy so closely associated with Telecasters, it's ironic that his tone is generally much muddier than the famously twangy Tele sound. Springsteen also plays more bends on this recording than he usually plays in any given song, and far few triplets (a live Springsteen guitar solo hallmark). And the solo itself is one of his most aggressive, something of a cross between "Adam Raised a Cain" and "Cover Me."

And above it all is the kind of forceful vocal performance expected of Springsteen (although largely missing on the Human Touch LP), but with that certain extra edge brought on by the confrontational, accusatory lyrics. The anger is undercut, or leavened, slightly by what I think is the first appearance of what has become a common feature of Springsteen since in the past few decades, his countryish yelp—an interesting juxtaposition against the blues with reggae beat of the instrumental backing.

The Human Touch album is widely considered Springsteen's worst ever, and with good reason. Among many other problems, it seemed rather by the numbers, and surprisingly soulless—especially surprising and disappointing given how many songs were literally soul songs. "Part Man, Part Monkey" wouldn't have fit on the album very well, but perhaps if a few of the songs on there had shown the kind of emotion this recording did, the album would have been considerably improved.

In the end, "Part Man, Part Monkey" is not only one of Springsteen's funniest songs, it's also one of his angriest songs ever. And given that it's something of an attack on radical Christianists, it could have been his most controversial song ever (or at least until "American Skin (41 Shots)"). Perhaps it's a good thing he buried it on a b-side. But then again, in 1990, the song seemed something of a parody, a laugh at how absurdly backwards people were in the dark ages of the early 20th century, as well as a poke at the then-recent spate of televangelists who'd been caught in scandals, often literally with their pants down. That was then. By the early days of the anti-science 21st century America, unfortunately, "Part Man, Part Monkey" now seems horrifying prescient.

***

The original post can be found here, along with the other amazing posts that week. And while you're there, check out their other weeks, featuring so many great pieces on so many great artists.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Two for the Road

DT and I wrote a series of posts for the great One Week // One Band. They're all archived over there, along with an incredible number of other fantastic pieces. Here's the one I wrote about "Two for the Road."

***

"Two for the Road" is one of Bruce Springsteen’s shortest songs—of his officially released material, only "Held Up without a Gun," "The Big Payback" and "Johnny Bye-Bye" are shorter. (And it’d beat at least "Payback," if it didn’t have such an unusually long fadeout.) Perhaps that’s because this Tunnel of Love-era b-side is one of his relatively rare completely straightforward love songs.

Or at least so it seems. But is it?



The song opens with a sweet updating of the Carl Perkins classic, “Blue Suede Shoes,” but rather than a cautionary declaration of independence, Springsteen’s is just the opposite, a lovely invitation to his new love to join him in that most sacred of Springsteenian places: the open road.
It’s one for the money and one for the show
I got one kiss for you honey so come on let’s go
I didn’t see it coming but girl now I know
It takes one for the running but two for the road
The second verse is even sweeter, with lyrics that would almost seem to verge on greeting card territory but, thanks to the deftness of his writing, don’t actually.
One thousand dreams whispered in the dark
But a dream’s just a dream in one empty heart
It takes more than one to rev it up and go
So let’s get it running, we’re two for the road 
Two one-way tickets and a diamond ring
Hell it don’t matter what the rain might bring
When this world treats you hard and cold
I’ll stand beside you, we’re two for the road
Slight mixed metaphor aside—if they’re headed for the road, how can he can stand beside her or anyone or anything?—it’s a lovely bridge.

The final verse, too, has some slightly confused writing, with him promising to be with her in spirit when he can’t be in person… but then saying he’ll also be there in person, which doesn’t quite track. And taking into account what a considered writer Springsteen tends to be, it seems possible that the lyrical confusion is not entirely accidental. (Either that, or he decided early on it was destined to be no more than a b-side and thus not worthy of too much further revision.)
When you’re alone my love’ll shine the light
Through the dark and starless night
I’ll hold you close and never let you go
C’mon now girl ‘cause we’re two for the road
Well it’s two to get ready, babe, c’mon let’s go
Me and you, girl, we’re two for the road
Although the harmony vocal of its doubled vocal line seems to feature an early-Elvis style of reverb, and its opening paraphrases Carl Perkins, in many ways it’s Springsteen’s most Buddy Holly-like song, melodically, calling to mind songs such as “Words of Love” and “Well All Right” and, especially in what sounds almost like a celeste in the background, “Everyday.” And yet, as with so many of the songs from the Tunnel of Love era, “Two for the Road” reveals a darkness hidden in its ostensibly sweet message and by its beautiful melody and arrangement.

It’s almost always tricky to look at an artist’s work through the lens of biography, but withTunnel of Love it’s nearly unavoidable, given that upon its release Springsteen was one of the most famous people—not just in rock or entertainment, but in the entire world—married to a (then) famous young model-actress wife. His marriage had been front-page news, so when he released an entire album which dealt with the trials and tribulations of love from a mature, adult point of view, it was darn near impossible not to notice that few of the songs seemed to present long-term relationships in even an ambiguously positive light. (As DT has pointed out, the simple “Thanks Juli” in the liner notes seems especially harsh in retrospect, although I suspect that’s not even remotely what the artist intended.)

So. Is this sweet song a case of Springsteen whistling past the graveyard? Or was it written in the first blush of their whirlwind romance, and only later turned out to be a dream that became a lie because it didn’t come true? Springsteen had been writing more and more about love for the past few years, but most of the songs had a twist, such as “Hungry Heart,” wherein the singer simply walks away from a relationship he claimed he’d known from the start was doomed, even as he admits no one like to be alone, or “Working on the Highway,” where love seems to be nothing but trouble (to put it mildly—and that’s without even considering its original title of “Child Bride”…although I guess I just kinda did), or “The River,” with love’s tragic inability to survive the harsh economic realities of trying to provide for a young family in the midst of a crippling recession.

At first, “Two for the Road” seems to have little in common with any of those (although it does have a slight similarity, thematically, to “Cover Me,” where love is nothing more than the last desperate hope for refuge from an ugly world). This quiet b-side appears to take one of his most common themes, albeit one he’d been getting away from, that of running, moving, going going going. Here they’re going together, which is a sweet updating—as well as, perhaps, a callback to running away with Rosie—and which would seem to make all the difference. Until you look at the lines more closely and realize the lyrics rely on variations of “darkness” and “blindness” a disconcerting number of times, given how short the tune is. And through the singer’s insistence on getting gone, you can almost see this longtime loner, blindsided by this unexpected new relationship and the discombobulating power of his emotions, nervously tapping his foot, anxious to keep moving, unable to settle down and just let it all be. And in the context of the album, you have to wonder: is he lying to himself? Is he trying to convince himself as much as woo her? Does he even believe what he’s singing?

I tend to think he doesn’t. I also don’t care. Because while I find those questions fascinating, for the two minutes the song lasts, intellect and introspection and analysis are all out of the window. All that matters is one of Springsteen’s prettiest melodies and most tender recordings and as long as it plays, I believe it’s true love and that he’ll never ever let her go and she’ll never want him to.

***

The original post can be found here, along with the other amazing posts that week. And while you're there, check out their other weeks, featuring so many great pieces on so many great artists.

Bruce Springsteen - Vietnam

One of the amazing things the both of us have taken in by being part of this project over at One Week//One Band, where we and many others are posting extensively about Bruce Springsteen's lesser known works for the past and next several days, is how much we have learned. We thought we knew plenty, no doubt. But as Mom always said, there's still plenty more to take in as long as you keep your eyes and ears open.

Case in point. Did you know that Bruce Springsteen, during his Nebraska sessions, had a song called "Vietnam?" Which was pretty damn good? But which he scrapped 90% of or so, only to keep a few strands? Well, he did. And those strands turned into nothing more than two masterpieces: "Born in the U.S.A." and its heartbreaking flipside, "Shut Out the Light?"

Because I sure didn't. And now my mind is sufficiently blown.

Here's the extremely well-written post about the aborted "Vietnam" song by Mark Richardson.

Here's the song itself, in the raw form Bruce initially created it back in December 1981.


And here are the two immortal songs it turned into.



I swear. Watching the creative process slowly unfold like this? Watching something good get discarded, only to have it repurposed a bit later on as something so much more amazing?

 I love music.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Janey, Don't You Lose Heart

DT and I wrote a series of posts for the great One Week // One Band. They're all archived over there, along with an incredible number of other fantastic pieces. Here's the one I wrote about "Janey, Don't You Lose Heart."

***

Few rock major rock stars have been as prolific as Bruce Springsteen; Steven Van Zandt has said Springsteen always has at least a half an album of unreleased songs ready to go. And during the recording of Born in the U.S.A. Springsteen was prolific even by his standards, with stories of him coming in every day with two or three new songs they’d cut and then never play again; at least 70 songs were recorded for the 12-track LP and maybe more. And that’s just one damn album. The fact that there were apparently 300 songs under consideration for the Tracks boxset, the vast majority of them unreleased, lends credence to these tales even as it boggles the mind.

Springsteen has said that these songs provide a sort of alternate map, a road-not-taken, what-might-have-been view towards his catalog. Many of the songs were omitted from albums not because they were in any way lacking in quality, but simply because they didn’t fit the larger theme in some way, lyrically or sonically or atmospherically.

Which brings us to “Janey, Don’t You Lose Heart.” The b-side to “I’m Goin’ Down,” the sixth single released off Born in the U.S.A., “Janey” is perhaps the most unabashedly direct love song Springsteen had yet released.


The lyrics begin with an odd and arresting image:
You got your book baby with all your fears
Let me, honey, and I’ll catch your tears
I’ll take your sorrow if you want me to
Come tomorrow that’s what I’ll do
Listen to me
Janey don’t you lose heart
Janey don’t you lose heart
Janey don’t you lose heart
Janey don’t you lose heart
The opening verse could have come across as a simple pick-up line, or as a man trying to appear heroic as he Prince Charmings to the damsel in distress’s rescue. But the chorus changes that. Yes, he’s offering to catch her tears, a romantic if not overly useful gesture. But he’s not offering to solve her problems. He’s offering to help her…but mainly he’s encouraging her own efforts and offering her emotional support. The fact that he’s focused on such an abstract concept as her fears leads more depth to the lyric. He doesn’t see her crying over a broken heart; he sees her destabilized by her own insecurities. Not the average song topic from a male rocker in the 80s—and that the song seems to be about a woman who has a string of one-night-stands, and the male singer passes no judgment is also (sadly) noteworthy.

The second verse amplifies this:
Well you say you got no new dreams to touch
You feel like a stranger babe who knows too much
Well you come home late and get undressed
You lie in bed, feel this emptiness
Well listen to me
Here Springsteen sings about a woman getting undressed and into bed and yet somehow manages to make it not the least bit sexual or creepy but instead entirely relatable—who hasn’t had those kind of days, where they just want to crawl into bed, hoping against hope for some respite from that hollowness inside?

The final verse turns from the intensely personal towards the kind of imagery he’d rarely used post-Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ, albeit in a much less verbose manner, and with a “God Only Knows” backhanded approach:
'Til every river runs dry
Until the sun honey’s torn from the sky
‘Til every fear you’ve felt burst free
And gone tumblin’ down into the sea
Listen to me
Janey don’t you lose heart
I’ll tell you, a guy says that to me in my darkest hour? I might just consider switching teams.

As with most of even his seemingly simple songs, there’s usually more going on beneath the surface than is immediately noticeable to those who’ve been conditioned to view Springsteen as a pumped-up heartfelt arena rocker. (Which isn’t to say that’s not part of his persona.) I remember Springsteen being criticized at the time for his use of the familiars “baby” and “honey” and “girl” and so on. Even the fact that he used Janey, the diminutive form of the name, could be viewed in this light. (Or course, you’d have to then ignore the many male names—Billy, Bobby, Charlie, etc—he used in similar fashion.)

But Springsteen’s women, unlike most of those of most other artists of his stature, are neither perfection upon a pedestal nor simply vessels for male satisfaction. They are imperfect characters but treated with and deserving of respect, reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130. Janey, as with so many of the females (and males) in Springsteen songs, has been beaten down and is on the verge of losing faith. But she hasn’t yet. She’s obviously still fighting, or the singer wouldn’t be imploring her to stay strong.

Musically, “Janey” is one of the most immediately catchy songs Springsteen ever released. Sure, it’s bathed in those cheesy 80s synths that make this era so hard for many to take seriously (although I don’t think they’ve aged nearly as badly as their reputation would suggest—I think they’ve aged, sure, but it’s more that it’s cool to show your disdain for those sounds now…some of which are pretty deserving of disdain, admittedly), and it’s got a trademark Clarence Clemons sax solo, as well as a trademark Springsteen one-line repeated chorus. But “Janey” is unusual in that it starts not the expected tonic chord (an E, since the song’s in the key of E), but instead the subdominant chord, so the song begins with an already slightly unsettled, searching feel. This same subdominant chord is also the most frequent chord in the fadeout, again, leaving the song in an unresolved state, and the listener with an ever so vague sense of disquiet.

There’s also that one last final solo vocal of Nils Lofgren’s that I’ve never been able to figure out. I could argue it’s showing a sense of community or something like that but, really, I just think it’s weird. But cool. Nils Lofgren’s E Street Band studio debut FTW!

"Janey," more than just about any other officially released song from the Born in the U.S.A. era reinforces what “Blinded by the Light,” “Because the Night” and “Fire,” should have—but didn’t—make obvious previously, which is that if he had wanted to, Springsteen could have been a writer of pop songs along the lines of Bacharach and David, Goffin and King, Mann and Weil and so on. His melodic gifts are often overlooked, but then that’s largely due to his own decisions—after all, he’s the one who decided to discard “Fire” and “Because the Night” and “Janey, Don’t You Lose Heart.” (Springsteen later showed his mastery of melody in spades on Working on a Dream…but unfortunately at the seemingly unnecessary expense of lyrical depth). “Janey” is melodically reminiscent of, and could have stood proudly alongside, such 1960s gems as “Walk Away Renee,” “When You Walk in the Room,” “Look Through Any Window,” etc, and reminds us that as much as he was a fan of the Beatles, Stones, Who, Kinks, Dylan, CCR, etc, it was the wonderland that was pop radio at large in the 1960s that was his main influence.

It’s not surprising Springsteen left this off Born in the U.S.A., as there’s nothing else remotely like it on the LP. But it’s also not entirely surprising that he recognized it was a great enough song to be deserving of an official release, and not just stuck in the vault for a few decades. For most other good artists, ”Janey, Don’t You Lose Heart” would have been a highlight of their career. For Springsteen, it was just good enough to make the b-side of the album’s sixth (sixth!) single. That’s one hell of a plethora of riches.

***
The original post can be found here, along with the other amazing posts that week. And while you're there, check out their other weeks, featuring so many great pieces on so many great artists.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Under Pressure

So this once happened.



Here's my ever so erudite, incisive, perspicacious yet pithy musical analysis of this performance:

Sweet fancy Moses.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Be True

DT and I wrote a series of posts for the great One Week // One Band. They're all archived over there, along with an incredible number of other fantastic pieces. Here's the one I wrote about "Be True."

***

Ah, the 1980s. Such a simple time. An ignorant time. A time before that wild and wooly western frontier known as the internet. When an international superstar like Bruce Springsteen could play in concert an officially released song and few of even his long-time fans would know what it was, because the previous night’s setlist hadn’t been posted in real time. (And later we’d ride our dinosaurs back to our caves.)

The first time I heard “Be True” was in Worcester, Massachusetts in late February 1988. It was the second show of his Tunnel of Love Express tour and I’d paid a lot of money for a scalped ticket—a scalped ticket I soon learned was, in fact, not even authentic. That it still got me in is a matter that confuses me to this day, but about which I was not and never have been exactly displeased.

I’m sure I’d heard of the song before that night—I was Springsteen-crazy enough to study various hard to get b-sides in catalogs and discographies and what have you—but I’d certainly never actually heard it. Back then, to hear a rare b-side, you had to either know someone who owned it and would let you listen, or you had to send away for a copy, a process which was expensive and time-consuming—and not just compared to today, where you can download an mp3 or play something on the YouTube with a few clicks of the mouse, but even compared to being able to run down the record store, back in those halcyon days of such marvelous things as record stores existing.

So the song was entirely new to me. And while I generally take a while to warm up to songs, I loved this from the first. It was catchy and the E Street Band was putting their all into it, and the interplay between Bruce and Patti was delightful, engaging and arresting and an effective visual component to the concert’s overarching theme. (And am I misremembering that I thought their mock romantic on-stage behavior was…let’s say, unusually believable? Or is it merely later events which have implanted faulty memories?)

Sometime thereafter Springsteen released an EP on a mini-CD, with four previously unreleased live songs: “Tougher than the Rest,” his amazing acoustic version of “Born to Run,” and his cover of the Byrds’ cover of Bob Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom.” And “Be True.”

If it were possible to wear out a CD, I would have at least come close. I listened to that damn disc scores upon scores of times. And while it’s not possible to love a recording more than I loved that first acoustic “Born to Run,” my feelings for “Be True” came close.



"Be True" wasn’t quite like any other Springsteen song. When I later learned to play the guitar, I realized that at least in part it’s because it’s got far more chords than the average Bruce tune. By Darkness on the Edge of Town, and especially by the time of The River and Nebraska, Springsteen had famously stripped down his music to, for the most part, three and four chord songs. (Yes, there are many, many exceptions, but then this is a guy who put out a four-disc, 66-song set of unreleased songs 15 years ago, and even at the time, that was apparently less than half the unreleased songs they considered releasing—he and the band recorded over 50 songs just for The River album alone. The point being, he’s written kind of a lot of stuff, so anything you can say about his music, you can also find a lot of exceptions to the rule.)

"Be True," by contrast, had the kind of busy chord changes he’d used on his first few albums. Melodically, it was more River era. Lyrically, however, it wasn’t quite like anything else he’d released. It’s an unabashed, heartfelt love song…albeit, in classic Springsteen fashion, with an object of his desire who’s a million miles away from the simple T&A the Rolling Stones were singing about (literally) at the time. Nor is she some untouchable goddess on a pedestal. This is a woman who’s been hurt, who’s made bad decisions and who has a proclivity to continue to do so, and yet is smart enough not to fall for what she suspects are simply the singer’s pickup lines. She is, in other words, a smart but flawed person, hurt but hopeful but wary. In other other words, she feels real.

Springsteen’s lyrics, as I said, don’t quite fit into any pre-existing category. They’ve got clever wordplay, like his earlier material, but without any of the excessive words for the sake of words of his first album. (Which I adore.) Rather, he make use of allusions and metaphors in a way he’d rarely if ever done before, and would only rarely do afterwards. (And most of those kept “Be True” company on Tracks.)
Your scrapbook’s filled with pictures of all your leading men
Well baby don’t put my picture in there with them
Don’t make us some little girl’s dream that can’t ever come true
That only serves to hurt and make you cry like you do
Well baby don’t do it to me and I won’t do it to you

You see all the romantic movies, you dream and take the boys home
But when the action fades you’re left all alone
You deserve better than this, little girl, can’t you see that you do
Do you need somebody to prove it to you?
Well you prove it to me and I’ll prove it to you
Now every night you go out looking for true love’s satisfaction
But in the morning you end up settling for just lights, camera, action
And another cameo role with some bit player you’re befriending
You’re gonna go broken-hearted looking for that happy ending
Well girl you’re gonna end up just another lonely ticket sold
Cryin’ alone in the theater as the credits roll
You say I’ll be like those other guys
Who filled your head with pretty lies
And dreams that can never come true
Well baby you be true to me
And I’ll be true to you
Looking at the lyrics and considering the rest of Springsteen’s output from the time, it’s hard not to wonder if the song isn’t actually surprisingly autobiographical, and that he’s actually singing about himself, and simply switching gender.

"Be True" reminds me of Elvis Costello’s "Everyday I Write the Book," but using cinematic terminology, rather than literary. (Interestingly, Costello has said he likes "Everyday I Write the Book" less than almost anyone else—obviously, Springsteen liked "Be True" okay, or he wouldn’t have put it out as a b-side, much less played as the second or third song of a major tour for the next four months. On the other hand, he didn’t like it enough to put it on an album or play it on earlier tours, waiting nearly a decade to do so.)

So. A few years later, sometime in the early mid-90s, I shelled out the twenty or so bucks for the “Fade Away” single, just so I could hear the original version of “Be True.” And I was amazed. The energy was off the charts. I couldn’t believe how much faster it was—somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 BPM faster. The result, however, while exciting, is that the song feels somewhat lightweight, with Max’s drums skittering rather than pounding, and Roy’s piano sounding like Schroeder’s toy. I love the record. But, frankly, despite his modern confusion over the issue, Springsteen was right to choose “Crush On You” over the original “Be True.” (Confession: I’m an unapologetic “Crush On You” apologist.)




One of the original recording’s most interesting features is how, in retrospect, very punk it is. The River's debt to rockabilly is often noted, but I think its allegiance with punk has always been unjustly overlooked. The River and “Be True” were recorded at almost exactly the same time the Clash—big Springsteen fans and vice-versa—was recording London Calling, and except for its lack of low-end, they share a certain energy. Which helps remind a perhaps incredulous modern audience that Springsteen, that most classic rock American rocker, was considered something of a punk at the time, friends and admirers of the Clash, the Ramones and Suicide—fans of early rock and roll as at least the first two bands were. It’s a refreshing reminder and helps limn the rest of recordings from that era in a slightly different light.

I’m one of the rare hardcore Bruce Springsteen fans who doesn’t subscribe to the notion that the songs always sound better in concert, that that’s where they only truly come to life, and that you need to see Springsteen live to really get him. I love Springsteen live. I love seeing him in concert and I love listening to live recordings, of which I have over…well, at least three times as many as someone sane would have. But I’ve just never bought into the belief that he’s always better live. He’s sometimes better live, often better, maybe even usually. But not always. And I have to believe Springsteen himself agrees, otherwise, he’d release more live recordings, or even go the Running on Empty/Big World route and record his new material in front of live audiences. But “Be True”? “Be True” is one instance where it’s absolutely true—the live version is markedly superior to the original studio recording.

It’s a great song. And the original is a wonderful recording. I love it. But it’s not a great record. I love it. But Springsteen was right to leave it off The River, as it didn’t fit sonically or thematically. But, damn, am I glad he did release it on its own and as part of Tracks.

***

The original post can be found here, along with the other amazing posts that week. And while you're there, check out their other weeks, featuring so many great pieces on so many great artists.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Promise

DT and I wrote a series of posts for the great One Week // One Band. They're all archived over there, along with an incredible number of other fantastic pieces. Here's the one I wrote about "The Promise."

***
Somehow I missed hearing any of the legendary performances of that most legendary of unreleased Bruce Springsteen songs, “The Promise,” despite having acquired a fair number of live bootlegs throughout high school and college. So the first time I actually heard “The Promise” was the day 18 Tracks was released. 
A lot of hardcore Springsteen fans find his (then) new, solo recording of it severely lacking, in contrast to the 1970s performances. Having, as I said, never heard any of those, I didn’t have the same reaction. At all.
The first time I listened to “The Promise” was on a small boombox in a small room in the small Queens apartment I was sharing with my wife and two very small children. I had no idea what the song was going to sound like, melodically, or in terms of tempo. I just pressed play. And didn’t move for two minutes and eight seconds, awestruck by the song’s quiet power. 
Until the first time Springsteen sang “thunder road.” The moment he did, the moment those sounds hit my ears, I got goosebumps as badly as I’ve ever gotten in my life. The power of those three syllables I’d heard so many thousands of times over the years they were practically embedded in my DNA, yet here so unexpected and in such a different context, was just…and the same thing happened when he got to the song’s second ”thunder road” section.  
And when the song was over, I just sat for a few minutes. Then I stood up and started to leave the room but realized I wasn’t ready to see anyone else just yet. So I sat back down. But I didn’t play the song again. I wasn’t ready for that either. I just sat. I know that probably sounds melodramatic to most people, but my guess is, if you’re reading this, you’re the kind of person that’s happened to a time or two yourself. 
After a while, I played the song again. And again, the words “thunder road” caused goosebumps, both times. But this time, having now heard it once and therefore knowing how the song was going to end, those words also felt like a punch in the chest. And when the song was over again, I remember thinking, “That’s about the most powerful fucking thing I’ve ever heard. No wonder he didn’t release include it on Darkness.” Then I thought, “And thank God.” 


"The Promise” is one of Springsteen’s most amazing creations—and, yeah, I know how bold a claim that is. But I stand by it. “The Promise” is a staggering deconstruction of his own (arguably) best song, something virtually no other artist of his stature ever even attempted—with the obvious and important exception of John Lennon’s “God.” (Although that’s more a deconstruction of Lennon himself than one of his best-known songs, a small but important difference.) And although I’m not sure Springsteen has ever spoken as extensively as, say, Pete Townshend about the way art becomes something else, something new, once it’s shared with an audience, I find it hard to believe he doesn’t agree with this statement of Townshend’s:
“Rock is art and a million other things as well—it’s an indescribable form of communication and entertainment combined, and it’s a two-way thing with very complex but real feedback processes as well." 
It’s not a coincidence that Springsteen took to playing "Born in the USA” in various different arrangements so often in his post-80s years; obviously, the way the song was received and misinterpreted was a source of some consternation and the rearrangements an attempt to provide less-easily-mistakable clarity. 
So I like to think that it wasn’t just the impression that “The Promise” was about the Appel lawsuit that kept Springsteen from releasing the song at the time. I like to think that he looked out at the people in the crowd singing back to him, “have a little faith, there’s magic in the night,” and he thought, “right. I can’t do that to the song. I can’t do that to them." 
So. Below is an updated version of a piece I wrote about the song a few years ago. I’m only sorry I didn’t have time to write more about it. 
***
“Thunder Road,” virtually any Bruce Springsteen fan (and many who aren’t) would agree, is one of Springsteen’s greatest and most important songs—as well as one of his most popular. The never-mistaken Wikipedia said about it (in part):
In 2004, it was ranked #1 on the list of the “885 All-Time Greatest Songs” compiled by WXPN (the University of Pennsylvania’s public radio station). Rolling Stone magazine placed it as #86 on its “500 Greatest Songs of All Time.” The song came in at #226 in Q magazine’s list of the “1001 Greatest Songs Ever” in 2003, in which they described the song as “best for pleading on the porch.” Julia Roberts, when asked which song lyric described her most accurately, chose "Thunder Road”’s “You ain’t a beauty, but hey, you’re alright.” The song is featured in the book 31 Songs by British author Nick Hornby. “Thunder Road” has also been ranked as the 188th best song of all time, as well as the #3 song of 1975, in an aggregation of critics’ lists at acclaimedmusic.net.
Among other things, “Thunder Road” is one of Springsteen’s very first songs to make explicit themes—the power of the automobile and the freedom of the open roads—which would come to dominate his music for the next decade and beyond. Although never even released as a single, it would become a staple of AOR radio in the 1970s and 1980s, and Springsteen would go on to release multiple versions of it, from the piano-based live version on Live 1975-1985, to the 1979 No Nukes version on his video anthology, to his acoustic guitar rendition on MTV Unplugged in 1993. Springsteen himself acknowledges the song’s power, while seeming a bit mystified by it:
“I’m not sure what that song has. We played it the other night at the Sony studio, when we were taping a European show, and it just felt all-inclusive. It may be something about trying to seize a particular moment in your life and realizing you have to make very fundamental and basic decisions that you know will alter your life and how you live it. It’s a funny song because it simultaneously contains both dreaming and disillusionment.” (“Human Touch: Bruce Springsteen reflects on his music, life with and without the E-Street Band, and the glory of rock & roll,” Neil Strauss, Guitar World, October 1995)
In August 1976 Springsteen began playing a new song in concert, “The Promise.” Speculation immediately began as to the song’s “meaning,” speculation which was later to play a part in determining the song’s fate. The main interpretation was that it was about the contentious lawsuit between Springsteen and his manager, Mike Appel. In an interview with Paul Nelson, Springsteen denied that it was about the Appel situation, per se. “I wrote it before the lawsuit,” Springsteen claimed. “I don’t write about lawsuits.” (Bruce Springsteen: The Rolling Stone Files, 70) He did, however, much later admit on the Charlie Rose show that “The Promise” was indeed a continuation of the “Thunder Road” narrative, when responding to a question as to why it wasn’t on the Tracks album:
“Basically, I went back and I listened to it and we never really got a good recording of it in my opinion. It’s been a favorite song of a lot of..a lot of people mention it. It sort of was the sequel to “Thunder Road” in some fashion, it referred back to those characters. But I went back and we sort of had a very plodding, heavy-handed version of it. I couldn’t quite live with it, so maybe another time.”
One of the keys to Darkness on the Edge of Town is the hope to be found in each and every one of its songs. While its pervasive sense of the grimness of reality is the album’s most prominent feature—indeed, following the youthful romanticism of Born to Run, it feels like its defining feature—that nugget of hope contained in each song is the key to the album. In many of its most popular songs—most obviously “Badlands” and “The Promised Land”—the optimism is unmistakable, but even the album’s most somber songs, the ones which upon first examination seem devoid of any spark of hope, reveal themselves to have at the very least a glimmer. “Factory,” for example, may very well be the starkest, most desolate song on the album, yet even it contains the line
Factory gives him life
Coming as it does hard on the heels of the previous line
Factory takes his hearing
it is, at the very least, a mixed blessing, to be sure. Nevertheless, as compromised and difficult a life as it may be, the fact remains that the factory does give him something—and not just anything, but specifically life. What’s more, the song ends with the promise
And you just better believe, boy, somebody’s gonna get hurt tonight
Even after all the workers have been through, years and even decades of back-breaking, grueling, (almost) thankless and unrewarding work which has taken its toll, the men are still fighting, not just metaphorically, but literally, an act which in and of itself proves that they’ve not acquiesced, surrendered or given up. It’s not ideal…but nor is it nothing. It’s not ideal, but it is still something.
That stands in stark contrast to “The Promise,” perhaps the bleakest song Springsteen had written up to that point, and thirty years later, still one of his grimmest songs. The narrator runs down a list of his friends and acquaintances:
Johnny works in a factory and Billy works downtown
Terry works in a rock and roll band
Lookin’ for that million-dollar sound
It’s interesting to note the way “The Promise” begins here, with not just a nod to early Sun records, but also a recitation of the narrator’s friends, as opposed to the only characters in “Thunder Road”: just the singer and Mary. No one else is named in the earlier song, and there’s barely even a mention of another human, in fact, save Roy Orbison’s disembodied voice singing about loneliness. The only other people who get brought up are Mary’s lovers, for whom she idly and vainly makes crosses, until the end of the song:
There were ghosts in the eyes
Of all the boys you sent away
They haunt this dusty beach road
In the skeleton frames of burned out Chevrolets
They scream your name at night in the street
Your graduation gown lies in rags at their feet
And in the lonely cool before dawn
You hear their engines roaring on
But when you get to the porch they’re gone
On the wind
So are they even real? Are they ghosts? Are they merely metaphorical? Whatever they are, they’re not physical, tangible presences like Mary and the singer, no more able to touch or be touched than Roy Orbison’s voice floating in the background.
There may be one additional character in the initial song, but it’s not human: it’s Thunder Road itself, the only other proper name in the song, and which exhibits some decidedly human traits:
Lying out there like a killer in the sun
Hey I know it’s late we can make it if we run
Oh Thunder Road, sit tight take hold
Thunder Road
Is the singer directing Thunder Road to take hold? Is he telling Mary to grab onto Thunder Road? Is he telling her to grab onto him in order to keep that killer in the sun from snatching her? Whatever the answer, the result is that Thunder Road itself becomes an actor in this drama, and one which shows up in the sequel.
“The Promise” (recorded January 12, 1978 at the Record Plant, New York, NY; available on The Promise)
Acting, in the sense of taking action, is notably missing from “The Promise.” The narrator’s friends may have jobs to which they go, but he himself isn’t exactly ambitious
I got a little job down in Darlington
But some nights I don’t go
Some nights I go to the drive-in, or some nights I stay home
This isn’t the romantic rebellion of a guy stuck in a job he hates, who’s willing to throw it all away for a shot at something bigger and better, and it’s not a former grad student filled with what he imagines is intellectually-viable existential ennui: this is a man who’s learned the ugly truth of what the world is really like. As Springsteen himself said in Philadelphia on December 9, 1980, “It’s a hard world that makes you live with a lot of things that are unlivable.”
So sometimes the singer goes to his job and, well, sometimes he doesn’t. And when he doesn’t, it’s not to run off to the beach—or even some sleazy hot sheets motel—with a girl, it’s to go to the drive-in, apparently alone: certainly there’s no mention of Mary or any other female. Unless he doesn’t go to the movies either, on those nights when he can’t even be bothered to do that. And yet the listener doesn’t get the impression that the narrator’s what would later be termed a “slacker,” a guy who’s voluntarily, even happily, dropped out of society, seeing it for the receptacle of inherently shallow set of values it is. The narrator of “The Promise” is man who has learned, to his crushing disappointment, that despite what he was always told growing up, this is the reality of the adult world. This, we discover, is a man who tried the best he could to play the game the way he was taught in school, and learned the hard way that the game is a fake, that it’s rigged, that the American dream is a con, a shell game, and that guys like him, from his socioeconomic class, are always the marks.
I followed that dream just like those guys do up on the screen
And I drove a Challenger down Route 9 through the dead ends and all the bad scenes
And when the promise was broken, I cashed in a few of my dreams
Like the singer of “Racing in the Street,” and so many other Springsteen songs, the narrator of “The Promise” views cars as, among other things, a means to freedom. And as a symbol of rugged American self-reliance, both singers actually built (or, more accurately, rebuilt) their own cars themselves. From “Racing in the Street”:
I got a sixty-nine Chevy with a 396
Fuelie heads and a Hurst on the floor
She’s waiting tonight down in the parking lot
Outside the Seven-Eleven store
Me and my partner Sonny built her straight out of scratch
So too the singer of “The Promise”:
Well now I built that Challenger by myself
But unlike the singer from “Racing in the Street,” whose car continues to be a means of support, both financially and spiritually:
And he rides with me from town to town
We only run for the money got no strings attached
We shut ‘em up and then we shut 'em down
the singer of “The Promise” has lost his car:
But I needed money and so I sold it
But the loss of his car is more than merely an inconvenience. It symbolizes his loss of faith and hope later in the song.
All my life I fought this fight
The fight that no man can never win
Every day it just gets harder to live
This dream I’m believing in
Thunder Road, oh baby you were so right
Thunder Road there’s something dyin’ on the highway tonight
How far the speaker has come since the Born to Run album. Then the highway was an escape. From “Born to Run”:
Sprung from cages out on highway 9
and “Thunder Road” itself:
Well the night’s busting open
These two lanes will take us anywhere.
The road signifies freedom and unlimited possibilities, and any fear Mary feels isn’t so much fear of the open road or its chances, but her own reticence, her hesitation to leave the safety of home—and perhaps her doubts about the long-term prospective of the singer. It may not have been an easy path to freedom:
The highway’s jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive
but the fact that it’s jammed means it’s clear that everyone knows what the highway is: it’s the way out. Furthermore, note who it is on the highway—broken heroes—and they’re not merely fleeing but on “a last chance power drive.” Even the language implies strength and a vital desperation, compared to “The Promise,” where death, whether physical or spiritual, awaits. It’s not even clear just what’s dying—it’s ambiguous, as though it’s too dark and murky to be able to tell for sure. But that something is dying there, there’s no doubt.
The narrator of “Thunder Road” had seemingly limitless beliefs in himself and life’s possibilities:
Show a little faith, there’s magic in the night
but by “The Promise” any such illusions have been stripped away and he’s learned that even if you seem to have won, it’s not enough:
I won big once and I hit the coast
But somehow I paid the big cost
Inside I felt like I was carryin’ the broken spirits
Of all the other ones who lost
When the promise is broken you go on living
But it steals something from down in your soul
Like when the truth is spoken and it don’t make no difference
Something in your heart goes cold
As with many of the other songs on the Darkness on the Edge of Town album, “The Promise” takes the singer far from the east coast of the first three albums. But whereas the Utah desert of “The Promised Land” had its share—maybe more than its share—of trials and tribulations, the region of “The Promise” has nothing to offer but rundown dives without even the devastating power of a tornado:
I followed that dream through the southwestern flats
That dead ends in two-bit bars
And when the promise was broken I was far away from home
Sleepin’ in the back seat of a borrowed car
Even here, so far from home, so broken-hearted, it comes back to cars. But how things have changed, how far he’s fallen: he’s in a car, but he’s not racing it, nor is he cruising—he’s sleeping, apparently homeless. But not just homeless: despite being reduced to living in a car, it’s not even his car—he actually has to borrow a car to sleep in.
Thunder Road, for the lost lovers and all the fixed games
Thunder Road, for the tires rushing by in the rain
Thunder Road, Billy and me we’d always say
Thunder Road, we were gonna take it all and throw it all away
The listener never actually finds out what promise was broken, not literally, but it doesn’t really matter. The very ambiguity attached to that mystery enables the listener to identify all the closer with the concept, for who hasn’t had a promise broken and felt the accompany devastation of betrayal? The singer doesn’t overly romanticize the reality of the harm done: he admits it’s not life-threatening, that the damage isn’t physical. But he insists that it robs a piece of your soul, with the strong implication that if it’s not a fate worse than death, it’s not far from it, at best. And yet the singer is “merely” wounded, and not even dead. He lacks the strength to even throw it all away—perhaps because he feels it was already taken from him or perhaps because he’s just a shell of the man he used to be. Either way, he’s a man who’s been pushed beyond his limits. And, unlike other Springsteen characters who find that out beyond their furthest limits they have still more as-yet-untapped resources of which they’d never even dreamt (such as the singers of “Darkness on the Edge of Town” and “The Promised Land”), the narrator of “The Promise” has no such resolve. He has been beaten and can do nothing more than lie in the dark, listening to the melancholy, woeful sound of cars driving past him in the rain—and is there a more evocative image, a more powerful memory than that of lying there, listening to cars drive past in the rain? driving past him, away from him, leaving him behind, again and again and again, and the existence of the rain implying he’s no longer in the southwest but is instead right back where he started from, in the northeast again, but with a decidedly untriumphant homecoming—as he, carless and bereft, is impotent, powerless, unable or unwilling to act.
Which may just give a clue as to what the broken promise was: perhaps it was the promise the narrator of “Thunder Road” felt was made by those two lanes, and which he, in turn, then tried to sell to Mary. “We’re pulling out of here to win” is not just an exultation, it’s a promise, a guarantee that good times and good fortune lie ahead. And indeed, the narrator of “The Promise” seems to have won, at least once, and that apparently a big win. But what the narrator seems to find out is either that one big win doesn’t make one a winner or perhaps that it doesn’t guarantee future wins. In any case, it makes that closing promise of the earlier song a lie. That is the promise which has been broken and which has, in turn, so utterly broken his spirit.
It’s fascinating to note that while Springsteen himself admits “The Promise” is a sequel of sorts to “Thunder Road,” that there’s no mention of Mary. Whether she decided to stay on the porch and forced the narrator to travel on alone, or whether she’s the cause of the narrator’s crushed spirit is unclear: there’s no textual evidence to support either view. But her very absence looms large either way, especially as through the rest of his career Springsteen would continue to use the name Mary again and again, in more than a dozen songs, and even more than that if one were to count the number of times “Maria” pops up in his work. It is as though the Mary of “Thunder Road” became a prototype for The Springsteen Female, almost an archetype to which he returns times and again. (Yes, earlier, there’d been “Mary, Queen of Arkansas,” but the less said about that the better.) Yet in “The Promise” itself she’s notable mainly by her glaring omission, especially when limned against the dramatic appearance of Thunder Road itself in the chorus.
Additionally, knowing his biography as well as many even casual fans do, it’s not hard to imagine Springsteen’s looking at some of his fellow rock and roll-obsessed musicians from the early Asbury Park days and the results of his fabulous success and wondering just who really won and what the price was. 
“The Promise” is one of the finest songs Springsteen wrote in the 1970s, with a beautiful melody and unexpected yet still logical chord changes, and a complex lyric. But it’s also an utterly pessimistic song, lacking any of the optimism to be found in even the grimmest of songs on his first four album (save, perhaps, “Lost in the Flood”). While there’s no doubt that the way song was already being viewed vis-à-vis the Appel lawsuit was a major, perhaps even the major, reason for the song’s exclusion from Darkness on the Edge of Town, it is this unrelentingly harsh viewpoint which makes the song more fitting for later Springsteen works such as Nebraska and merits exclusion from the album, regardless of its high quality. Additionally, it is hard to discount the idea that Springsteen himself backed away from casting such a negative light on “Thunder Road,” a song which had already begun to take on a mythical, almost mystical quality, as he himself would admit. It’s one thing to write and sing such a bleak sequel in concert; it is something else entirely to go on and release it on an album.
I’m beyond happy that he finally released the song—several times now, in fact. But I’m even happier that he didn’t put it on Darkness on the Edge of Town.

The original post can be found here, along with the other amazing posts that week. And while you're there, check out their other weeks, featuring so many great pieces on so many great artists.