Ellen Gray: Springsteen, a true son of N.J., reflects on his career

Bruce Springsteen (right) is the subject of a new HBO documentary.
Bruce Springsteen (right) is the subject of a new HBO documentary.
Posted: October 07, 2010

THE PROMISE: THE MAKING OF

'DARKNESS ON THE EDGE OF TOWN.'

9 tonight, HBO.

NEARLY EVERY week brings some fresh insult to the state of New Jersey, host to an ever increasing number of shows that suggest what's grown in the Garden State is fertilized with a noxious mix of mascara, alcohol and hair spray.

So it's a relief to be reminded there are people and memories not even Snooki or the so-called "Real Housewives" can sully.

HBO tonight offers just that as it presents Thom Zimny's Bruce Springsteen documentary, "The Promise: The Making of 'Darkness on the Edge of Town,' " a thoughtful portrait of the Jersey artist as a young man at a turning point in his career.

In 1977, Springsteen was living on a farm in Holmdel, N.J., writing the songs for the E Street Band that would eventually make up "Darkness on the Edge of Town," his fourth album and the follow-up to 1975's hugely successful "Born to Run."

Released in 1978, nearly three years after "Born to Run" - at a time when such gaps were far less common - "Darkness" represented a shift in Springsteen's driving style just as he was wresting control of the wheel.

"I had a reaction to my own good fortune," Springsteen says. "The success [of 'Born to Run'] brought me an audience. It also separated me from all the things I'd been trying to make connections to my whole life. And it frightened me because I understood that what I had of value was at my core, and that core was rooted into the place I'd grown up, the people I'd known, the experiences I'd had. If I move away from those things into a sphere of just treat 'em as pure license, to go about your life as you desire, without connection, that's where a lot of the people I admired drifted away from the essential things that made them great.

"And more than rich, and more than famous and more than happy," he says, with a laugh, "I wanted to be great."

It's the laugh that does it.

Because one of the things that distinguishes "The Promise" isn't the footage from the studio and the house in Holmdel, or the interviews, with Roy Bittan, Max Weinberg, Garry Tallent, Danny Federici, Stevie Van Zandt, Clarence Clemons, Jon Landau, Nils Lofgren, Patti Scialfa and even Mike Appel, the former manager whose legal battle with Springsteen kept the band out of the recording studio for nearly a year.

It's the coming together of the sometimes angry young man and the older one who can look back and own his past while forgiving others their trespasses.

"It wasn't a lawsuit about money, it was a lawsuit about control, who was going to be in control of my work and my work life. Early on, I decided that was going to be me," Springsteen says.

But "the initial contracts, rather than evil, were naive," he says. "You wouldn't put that kind of stress and tension on a relationship. It was bound to be destructive," and though he won, "the loss of Mike's friendship was a terrible loss."

More than three decades later, neither side appears to be nursing a grudge, at least not for the camera, and there's a kind of relief in that, given how much face time people with Jersey accents and far less serious grievances get these days.

Ultimately, of course, it's the artistry that impresses.

In "Darkness," "I'm beginning to tell the story that I tell for . . . most of the rest of my work life," Springsteen says.

Of the change in sound, stripped and simplified from the "wall of sound" he'd worked to achieve in "Born to Run," he says, "I wanted the record to have a very relentless feeling."

Zimny manages to capture both the chaos and brilliance of the process, which produced more songs than might have fit on five albums - Patti Smith talks about the hit she got from one of the discards and we eventually find out why the film is called "The Promise" - while providing glimpses of some special moments, including the story behind the album's iconic cover, shot in an upstairs bedroom of photographer Frank Stefanko's old house in Haddonfield that was wallpapered in cabbage roses.

Of the chaos that preceded that quiet picture, Landau, Springsteen's longtime producer, says: "It's starting to seem funny now. At the time, there was no humor there at all."

You're the boss?

And now for something completely different: "ControlTV," a "Truman Show"-like project from Philly-born actor/producer Seth Green in which a 25-year-old named Tristan Couvares supposedly lets viewers decide "everything from what he wears and eats, to where he works and who he dates," went online yesterday morning at www.controltv.com.

The site was already experiencing "high traffic" and wasn't working when I tried to visit a few hours later. Just as well: I can barely manage those decisions for myself. *

Send e-mail to graye@phillynews.com.

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