There are two Bruce Springsteens in tonight’s don’t-miss HBO special The Promise: The Making of Darkness On The Edge of Town. There’s the Springsteen of the late 1970s, ambitious and anxious and eager to get on with his career in the wake of his then-recent ascent to super-stardom with Born To Run. Then there’s the Springsteen of 2010, ambitious and contemplative and willing to let you in on how much he thinks that young Springsteen succeeded in his goals.
The documentary, directed by Thom Zimny, makes extensive use of 1976-78 footage shot in back-and-white by Barry Rebo, which captures the painstakingly long recording sessions Springsteen and the E Street Band endured. If you’re a fan, you’ll love the watching the agony — the endless experiments to get the “right” drum sound; Springsteen poring over spiral notebooks into which he’d scrawled literally scores of lyrics and song ideas, as the band waits around listening to their hair drop out; the occasional flashes of temper from The Boss and his minions (Steve Van Zandt feels especially free to say when he thinks something “sucks”). Springsteen says now with a dry chuckle, “I didn’t have a life [back then], so everyone had to suffer with me,” and suffering is indeed what it frequently looks like. And of course, out of this emerged a great album as well as songs that became hits for others, most notably Patti Smith’s version of “Because The Night.” (Smith is interviewed here, and speaks with with her usual charm and frankness about how to her, the song was a love letter to the man she would marry, the late Fred “Sonic” Smith.)
Yes, it’s striking how much time the young Springsteen spent in the studio without a shirt on (cue screaming fans). But what’s much more impressive is his artistic purpose: The latter-day Springsteen, looking back, says, “More than rich, more than famous, I wanted to be great.” And Rebo’s ’70s footage bears him out, as Springsteen sought “a leaner, angrier sound” (punk rock was breathing down his neck) and, as comments from Springsteen and Landau attest, how seriously the singer-songwriter approached what could have been just a relatively fast, easy, hit-single-filled follow-up to Born To Run. Instead, Springsteen sought to make a “sonic movie,” the equivalent to the soulful, sere John Ford Western The Searchers.
Young viewers may even be perplexed by Landau’s mission statement that “the work of art is the album… That is the highest-developed thing in rock.” Landau was talking about two sides of vinyl intended to take the listener on a carefully sequenced journey. Today, in an era dominated by downloaded singles and a fractured marketplace, the unity Springsteen and Landau sought, in both the music and their mass audience, has all but vanished.
The Promise even has a secret hero: engineer Chuck Plotkin, who was brought in to mix the album and provide fresh ears and problem-solving to achieve the atmosphere Springsteen wanted to have hanging over Darkness. Plotkin’s descriptions of how the voice should emerge from the guitars, the balance he wanted to create, is enthralling.
In the context of those times, Springsteen was extricating himself from a lawsuit that pitted him against his former manager Mike Appel (with whom Springsteen had signed contracts that, as Bruce delicately puts it, “rather than evil were naive”). Finally he was liberated to work with his close collaborator, manager, and co-producer Jon Landau. (Appel is also interviewed separately, and while both he and Springsteen speak with a practiced civility about each other, in a separate interview, drummer Max Weinberg cuts to the chase: As far as he and Bruce saw it, Weinberg says bluntly, this was “someone trying to take [Springsteen’s] career away.”)
Thus freed, Springsteen crafted his magisterially downbeat saga of what he now calls “deep despair and resilience and determination.” He made good on the promise that is revealed on The Promise.