'Promise' plus

The Boss lights up fans' lives with his new "Darkness" boxed set, sharing late-'70s wonders from his "magical notebook."

Posted: November 16, 2010

Bruce Springsteen calls his 1978 album Darkness on the Edge of Town his "samurai" record.

The idea was to follow up Born to Run, the heroic 1975 breakthrough that made him a household name, with a tightly focused effort marked by "power, directness, and austerity."

Those artistic goals were emphatically met on the 10- song salvo whose gritty, grown-up statements of fist-clenched, against-the-odds determination included "Badlands," "Promised Land," and "Prove It All Night." "Stripped to the frame and ready to rumble," Springsteen wrote in 1998, Darkness was the album on which "I found my adult voice."

But as The Promise: The Darkness on the Edge of Town Story (Columbia ****), the three-CD, three-DVD boxed set, makes clear, the Darkness that Springsteen released accounted for only a fraction of his prolific output at the time.

The Promise box includes a remastered version of the original album, freshly alive and still packing existential punch. But the meat of the project is a 22-song double- CD set of unreleased songs that presents a brighter, more varied alternative to Darkness. (The full-scale deluxe Promise lists for $119.98, while a two-disc set with just the unreleased music goes for $18.98.)

In Thom Zimny's documentary The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town, which is included in the boxed set, E Street Band pianist Roy Bittan remembers a "magical notebook" that had "an endless stream of songs coming out if it."

Steve Van Zandt, Springsteen's guitarist, says that just when he thought marathon recording sessions had come to an end, "Bruce would say, 'Let's go to the book. I've got more songs.' . . . He'd open up this book of ideas, and he'd have like 25 ideas in there."

Lots of those ideas never made it onto Darkness - whose cover shot of a greasy-haired Springsteen was shot by Frank Stefanko in Haddonfield - because they didn't fit into the always analytical Springsteen's concept.

"I had a big junkyard of stuff," Springsteen says in Zimny's film. With plenty of time to write, thanks to a legal ruling that prevented him from recording until a lawsuit filed by former manager Mike Appel was settled, he accumulated more than 70 songs. "The ideas I was concentrating on would have been diluted if I had made a miscellaneous grab bag of an album. No matter how entertaining."

The most startling video segments on The Promise come from footage shot at the Record Plant in New York in 1977 by Barry Rebo. The clip finds Springsteen and Van Zandt at the piano in creative camaraderie, joyfully banging out songs - frat-rock sing-along "Sherry Darling," soul rumbler "Talk to Me" - that wouldn't make it to Darkness. "Sherry" ended up on 1980's The River. "Talk to Me" was recorded by Southside Johnny.

Another amusing interlude finds Jon Landau, Springsteen's producer and manager, complaining: "The only thing that can come out of this book is more work!" (The six discs in The Promise box are cleverly packaged in a facsimile of Springsteen's blue six-pocket "magical notebook.")

"Talk to Me" isn't the only song on The Promise that Springsteen gave away. "Rendezvous" went to rocker Greg Kihn. The smoldering "Fire" was a 1979 hit for the Pointer Sisters. And the majestic "Because the Night" got passed on to Patti Smith in an act of munificence from one Jersey kid to another.

The real finds, however, are rarely if ever bootlegged cuts like the Orbisonesque "The Brokenhearted," soul stomp "It's a Shame," and playful "Ain't Good Enough for You," which pokes fun at Darkness recording engineer (and music industry heavy hitter-to-be) Jimmy Iovine.

Not everything on The Promise is up to Springsteen's highest standards. The title cut, which makes coded reference to the lawsuit with Appel, has a reputation as a lost masterpiece it doesn't deserve. And there are a few alt versions - "Racing in the Street ('78)," "Candy's Boy" "Come On (Let's Go Tonight") - that are inferior if fascinating workshop versions of songs that were officially released. (The latter combines "Factory" with "Johnny Bye Bye," a B-side about Elvis Presley's death.)

Still, The Promise is an impressive outpouring, often exploring pop and soul genre exercises that he wouldn't get around to much until recent swooners like "Girls in Their Summer Clothes," from 2007's Magic. And it may be more than coincidence that The Promise - which peaks with the obsessive love song "The Way," an unnamed bonus track - bears resemblance to Springsteen's recent work.

Ever the perfectionist (or control freak), the Boss tinkered with some tracks this year, though in the album notes he claims only to "do what I would have done to them at the time and no more."

It's not just the unearthed audio that will make The Promise hard to resist for hard-core Springsteen fans and those who buy gifts for them. The video is, if anything, even more stellar. There's a complete show from Houston in 1978 that captures the E Streeters stretching out over three boundlessly energetic hours. I'd say it couldn't be topped, except that the five songs from a show in Phoenix in 1978 are even more delirious.

Finally, The Promise includes a performance of Darkness in its entirety filmed by Zimny at an empty Paramount Theater in Asbury Park last year. It's a bit odd and stylized, avoiding the frenzy of a concert performance and opting for something more deliberate and theatrical.

Darkness is delivered with determined force, and the camera starkly shows the ravages of time on the faces of the musicians. It means something different, after all, to shout "It ain't no sin to be glad you're alive," in "Badlands," at age 61 than it did at 29. But in either case, and throughout The Promise, Springsteen sings out with the confidence that he's making music that will stand the test of time.

Contact music critic Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628 or ddeluca@phillynews.com.

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