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
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.

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