Hobbled by legal wrangles, a frustrated Bruce Springsteen turned Born to Run’s optimism on its head – and Darkness on the Edge of Town was born.
Keith Cameron: The Guardian
The Promise, the Making of Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town.
It took a bit of help for Bruce Springsteen to become a star. He’d already released two admired but underachieving albums when, in September 1975, Columbia Records finally threw its weight behind the scruffily handsome 26-year-old and his third album, Born to Run. Wrapped in its distinctive sleeve image of the guitar-toting Springsteen leaning on the back of saxophonist Clarence Clemons, Born to Run became an instant sensation: the US record industry’s first designated platinum album, signifying sales of 1m copies. Springsteen appeared simultaneously on the covers of Time and Newsweek. In the sales parlance of the day, this boy was a hot property. But Born to Run’s success raised a problem: who owned the property?
On 27 July 1976, Springsteen filed a lawsuit against his manager and publisher Mike Appel, who had co-produced Born to Run, with Springsteen’s future manager, Jon Landau. Two days later, Appel countersued, seeking to prevent Springsteen working on his next album with Landau. The dispute had been brewing ever since Springsteen, recklessly naive about business matters, had been made aware that the contracts he had signed with Appel in 1972 meant he would never see the full benefits of his work. When New York supreme court judge Arnold Fein granted Appel his injunction, Springsteen in effect found himself banned from entering the studio with his preferred collaborator. The legal battle that ensued placed his recording career on hold for 12 months, at the very point he should have been capitalising on Born to Run, and the impact on Springsteen’s life would be profound. Although he emerged from the court case victorious, inasmuch as he regained control of his professional destiny, Springsteen’s innocence was gone. He entered the recording studio in June 1977 wary of success and the consequences.
When his next album did emerge, exactly a year later, it revealed a very different Bruce Springsteen to the one who had so enraptured America with Born to Run’s grandiloquent urban romance fantasies. Although flecked with uplifting motifs, the music’s predominant character was downtrodden. Born to Run’s sonic template had been a rock variant on Phil Spector’s star-spangled Wall of Sound, whereas this new record’s narrative felt dour and its instruments harsh. Idealised city glamour had been replaced by small-town social realism (“I’m riding down Kingsley/ Figuring I’ll get a drink/ Turn the radio up loud/ So I don’t have to think”). The album’s title, meanwhile, suggested the writer’s lovestruck characters had nowhere left to run, and now found themselves mired in an existential void: the Darkness on the Edge of Town.
The extent to which Springsteen himself was acquainted with this place would define his work from here on, as he has embarked on a journey that has seen him accrue riches beyond most people’s imagination, and his reputation for integrity survive all manner of turbulence.
“The whole force of Darkness … was a survival thing,” he says. “After Born to Run, I had a reaction to my good fortune. With success, it felt like a lot of people who’d come before me lost some essential part of themselves. My greatest fear was that success was going to change or diminish that part of myself.”
Springsteen is in Toronto, where The Promise, a documentary about the making of Darkness on the Edge of Town, is receiving its world premiere at the city’s film festival. Prior to the gala screening, Springsteen and his wife, E Street Band vocalist Patti Scialfa, walk the red carpet. If his easy manner is an affectation, then he’s a better actor than plenty of the professionals in town. The notion of “authenticity” will always attend Springsteen, owing to his espousal of the basic human values of community and civility in tandem with material wealth, a paradox that coalesced around Darkness on the Edge of Town. Consequently, The Promise offers a valuable insight to Springsteen’s motivation at a key moment in his life. In the mid-70s, before the industrialisation of the music business’s promotional machinery prolonged the lifespan of albums, a three-year gap between records was unthinkable even to a behemoth like Led Zeppelin, far less a one-hit wonder. But for Springsteen, still flinching from the accusations of hype that surrounded Born to Run, the personal stakes were high: during his exile from the recording studio he had kept his E Street Band at work, either on the road or in the rehearsal space at his house in Holmdel, New Jersey, and once the resolution of the lawsuit freed him to enter the studio he was in no mood to rush.
“People thought we were gone. Finished,” Springsteen says. “They just thought Born to Run had been a record company creation. We had to reprove our viability on a nightly basis, by playing, and it took many years. You had to be very committed. One thing we did well after Born to Run was, I said: ‘Woah.’ I got on Time and Newsweek because I decided to be. But I was very frightened at the train and how fast it was going when we got on. In a funny way, the lawsuit was not such a bad thing. Everything stopped and we had to build it up again in a different place.”
One result of his enforced absence from the studio was that by the time Springsteen did begin recording his next album, he had amassed a huge reservoir of material. For Born to Run, Springsteen had eight songs and recorded them. His maniacal perfectionism resulted in the process taking longer than most bands might have considered tolerable, but otherwise it was a relatively conventional exercise. Now, however, finally ensconced at the Record Plant in New York, the band began the process of working through the songs they had rehearsed during the previous year, to which Springsteen would then add yet more as he formed his vision for the new album. Estimates vary as to exactly how many songs were taped, but E Street Band drummer Max Weinberg puts the figure at 40 or 50.
“We were recording typically from three in the afternoon to three in the morning, five days a week,” Weinberg tells me. “There was this stream of material – and lots of takes. There were moments of frustration for everybody, individually and collectively, but you wanted to do so well, for Bruce. There was a crucible aspect to it: under the pressure we grew, both as young men and a band.”
One of the documentary’s most revealing pieces of archive footage has Weinberg repeatedly hitting a snare drum and Springsteen mechanically intoning “Stick! Stick!” Indicating the relative inexperience of all concerned when it came to the technicalities of recording, weeks were spent attempting to eliminate the sound of the stick hitting the drum.
“It was a learning process for all of us,” Weinberg says. “Both frustrating and funny at the same time. We were trying to make a great record. Every time we played we were trying to make something that was meaningful and would last. We were trying so many different things. Bruce would rehearse us for several days on a song and then throw the song out. He had a plan – sometimes it wasn’t as obvious to the rest of us.”
As work proceeded throughout the second half of 1977 and into 1978, Springsteen’s conception for the new album hardened. He had become influenced by the film versions of John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden, and John Ford westerns such as The Searchers, whose themes of essentially decent men assailed by external forces resonated on a personal and increasingly political level with this shy product of working-class New Jersey. He began posing himself Big Questions: “How do you make a way through the day and still sleep at night?” “How do you carry your sins?” Since Born to Run, Springsteen had also met Martin Scorsese and Robert de Niro, the vanguards of a new American cinema. In the wake of Taxi Driver, Springsteen felt his next statement demanded the whiff of real sweat and blood, as opposed to the impressionistic street dazzle his records had hitherto dealt.
“The record was of its time,” he says. “We had the late-70s recession, punk music had just come out, times were tough for a lot of the people I knew. And so I veered away from great bar band music or great singles music and veered towards music that I felt would speak of people’s life experiences.”
Thus Springsteen jettisoned many compositions – love ballads, soul stompers and beery sing alongs – simply because they didn’t fit his ascetic vision. The material’s quality can be gauged by the songs recorded for Darkness but donated to other artists: with the addition of some of her own lyrics, Because the Night gave Patti Smith her only hit single; Fire became a US No 2 for R&B trio the Pointer Sisters. Then there are the songs that have never made it beyond live bootlegs or fevered discussion by Springsteen obsessives. Twenty-one of those Darkness outtakes will soon be released as a two-CD set, also titled The Promise, after a song widely regarded as one of Springsteen’s greatest, taped at the Darkness sessions and slated for inclusion until it was dropped at the last minute. Evoking the starry-eyed protagonists of Born to Run’s Thunder Road watching their dreams turn toxic, Springsteen now concedes The Promise would have fitted the record’s mood perfectly, but that he felt uncomfortable with the self-referential tone. “It’s about fighting and not winning … the disappointments of the time,” he says in the film.
“It is an incredible song,” Weinberg says. “The material he leaves off – there are whole other albums.”
Springsteen’s fastidiousness extended even to the last details of his photograph on the sleeve, chosen only after a series of glossier set-ups were rejected. Bleary-eyed and pallid, he leans on flock wallpaper next to a shuttered window reflecting what one imagines is a bare lightbulb. Here, we are clearly invited to suppose, is the physical manifestation of the album title. In fact, the location was the living room of then unknown New Jersey photographer Frank Stefanko, to whom Springsteen had been introduced by Patti Smith.
“He was a guy who’d worked in a meat-packing plant in south Jersey,” Springsteen says. “He got the 13-year-old kid from next door to hold a light. He borrowed a camera. I don’t know if he even had a camera! But when I saw the picture I said, ‘That’s the guy in the songs.’ I wanted the part of me that’s still that guy to be on the cover. Frank stripped away all your celebrity and left you with your essence. That’s what that record was about.”
While the hardcore fan community will devour the newly released songs, the original Darkness album remains the bedrock of both the Bruce Springsteen legend and the ethical code by which he, now 61, continues to abide. The scope of his career confirms him as a man of many parts, but in order to resolve life’s eternal dilemmas requires a journey to the heart of Darkness on the Edge of Town.
“I was never a visionary like Dylan, I wasn’t a revolutionary, but I had the idea of a long arc: where you could take the job that I did and create this long emotional arc that found its own kind of richness,” Springsteen says. “Thirty five years staying connected to that idea. That’s why I think the band continues to improve. You can’t be afraid of getting old. Old is good, if you’re gathering in life. Our band is good at understanding that equation.”
A Promise kept: How the making of Darkness was caught on film
Thom Zimny is astute enough to know the main reason The Promise, his documentary on the making of Darkness on the Edge of Town, is such a startling piece of work has little to do with him, despite his Grammy and Emmy awards. Instead, it has much to do with a piece of Super 8 film, shot by a man named Barry Rebo, that sat on a shelf, unwatched for 30 years. It comprises footage from 1977 of Bruce Springsteen and the members of the E Street Band in New York’s Record Plant, arguing over the direction of a particular mix until Springsteen yells “Shut the fuck up!” We see Springsteen leafing through an exercise book full of lyrics and ideas for more songs, then hear the protests of his bandmates and producer/manager Jon Landau, wearied by Springsteen’s relentless pursuit of excellence. “What are your looking in this book for?” demands Landau. “The only thing that can come out of this book is more work! Close the book and there’s no more work!” Later, the band members are seen holding a sweepstake on how long the next take will be. “I got 4.45!” hoots guitarist Steve Van Zandt.
We are also witness to earlier footage of the band rehearsing at Springsteen’s house while he was exiled from the studio due to his legal battle with manager Mike Appel. Apparently in a trance, the Boss strums at his guitar and hums a melody while Van Zandt taps out a groove on congas. Springsteen is bare-chested and sporting an afro; the latter is without his trademark bandana. As insightful as any of the musical revelations, such tonsular candour exemplifies Rebo’s achievement. The lack of premeditation is remarkable: not once do any of the protagonists look at the camera.
“We were like, ‘Nobody’s ever gonna see this crap,’” Springsteen says. “Nobody was self-conscious. It was like he wasn’t there. He was a pal, the only guy in the neighbourhood that we knew with a camera.”
Zimny restored the footage to the best standards allowed by modern technology and then shot contemporary interviews with Springsteen, his band members – including Danny Federici, the E Street Band organist who died in 2008 – and key associates. The format repeats the success of Wings for Wheels, Zimny’s equivalent making-of documentary which accompanied the 30th anniversary reissue of Born to Run, but The Promise goes deeper, probing both the subtext of Darkness on the Edge of Town and the protagonists’ personal chemistry. In particular, the bonds between Springsteen and Van Zandt, his musical consigliere, are illustrated time and again, most amusingly in a scene where the pair hammer out a prototype version of Sherry Darling – a song destined for Springsteen’s next album, The River – featuring Springsteen on piano and Van Zandt drumming on a cushion. For Zimny’s film to have actually intensified the mythic qualities of one of rock’s most celebrated buddy acts is testimony to its cutting edge.
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