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The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town


Oct 07, 2010 Bruce Springsteen Photography by Frank Stefanko/Sony Music Entertainment Bookmark and Share

Bruce Springsteen’s 1978 album Darkness on the Edge of Town didn’t put him on the covers of Time and Newsweek; 1975’s Born to Run did. Darkness didn’t give him his first Top 10 single; 1980’s The River did with “Hungry Heart.” Darkness didn’t inspire a tribute album, as 1982’s Nebraska did. And these days, indie artists are more apt to cover songs from Springsteen’s 1984 blockbuster Born in the U.S.A. than anything from Darkness. So why is an hour-and-a-half documentary on the making of Darkness on the Edge of Town premiering on HBO tonight?

Critically acclaimed upon initial release (NME Album of the Year, #6 Village Voice Pazz & Jop poll) and championed to this day by Springsteen diehards, Darkness on the Edge of Town is the album in which the New Jersey native established his identity as an artist and shed forever the “new Dylan” label that hounded him early in his career. With Darkness, Springsteen crafted a personal, defiant work composed of rousing anthems (“Badlands,” “The Promised Land”), beautifully stark ballads (“Something in the Night,” “Racing in the Street”), blood-boiling rockers (“Adam Raised a Cain,” “Candy’s Room”) and urgent declarations of purpose {"Prove It All Night," "Darkness on the Edge of Town"). As chronicled in The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town, the writing and the recording of the album took three years. Its making was protracted by a legal battle between Springsteen and his then-manager Mike Appelwho prohibited Springsteen from recording with a producer not of his choosingand then Springsteen's own inexhaustible productivity and obsessiveness in the studio after winning the lawsuit.

Directed and edited by frequent Springsteen collaborator Thom Zimny, The Promise will be included as a Blu-ray/DVD with the high-priced mega Darkness box set to be released in November. The six-disc set will include a double album of outtakes from the Darkness sessions, and best of all, a long-overdue Blu-ray/DVD of a complete live show from Springsteen and the E Street Band's legendary 1978 tour. Hardcore fans enticed by such material no doubt will find The Promise fascinating, particularly the black and white studio footage shot by Springsteen friend Barry Rebo during the Darkness recording sessions, and the color film segments of Springsteen and the band rehearsing songs at his New Jersey home in 1977. To casual Springsteen fans and music enthusiasts who fall into that category, the appeal of The Promise is less certain.

Aside from a short preface read by Springsteen, there is no written narration in the documentary. Zimny relies on interviews to tell the story of the album's creation. It's a wise choice aesthetically in that it curtails the temptation to pontificate on the greatness of Darkness, but it leaves gaps for those unfamiliar with the album or anyone not well versed in Springteen lore. HBO has been promoting The Promise over the last several weeks, so it's bound to attract a fair amount of curiosity seekers along with channel surfers. But when Appel refers to Time and Newsweek without any context, and when current manager Jon Landau mentions "Fire" in passing, who (outside of existing fans) will know that Springsteen simultaneously appeared on the covers of Time and Newsweek in October 1975, or that the The Pointer Sisters took the Springsteen-penned "Fire" to #2 on the Billboard charts? When E Street Band guitarist Steve Van Zandt claims (incorrectly, by the way) that Springsteen's first two LPs were essentially solo albums, how many viewers will know that Darkness was Springsteen's fourth album?

In that sense, The Promise plays like a sequel to Wings for Wheels: The Making of Born to Run, the film Zimny made for Born to Run's 30th anniversary reissue box. Zimny's approach was similar for the two films; conduct contemporary interviews with Springsteen, The E Street Band and other key players and mix them in with Rebo's striking '70s footage. But Wings for Wheels does a better job of introducing the songs on Born to Run and marking the album's place on the rock landscape in 1975. At times, The Promise paints Darkness as a commercially challenged work devoid of anything that would further propel Springsteen's stardom. In the film, Springsteen states: "I stripped the record down to its barest and most austere elements." When Landau, the album's co-producer with Springsteen, states, "We didn't want any sweetening. We wanted coffee black," the lovely piano and glockenspiel intro to "Something in the Night" incongruously plays against his words.

So, what was Darkness? A critics' album? A self-indulgent disappointment? A surprising success? The film doesn't say, but the album was well received by critics and embraced by fans despite its darker themes. The singles "Prove It All Night" and "Badlands" both failed to crack Top 30 on Billboard's Hot 100. However, the album remained on the Billboard 200 for nearly two years after peaking at #5, and Springsteen's 1978 tour with the E Street Band is regarded as one of the best, if not the best, in rock history.

Unlike Wings for Wheels, The Promise takes about 50 minutes for Springsteen to begin ruminating on individual songs. It's compelling stuff once we get there, and sometimes Zimny isolates audio tracks from Darkness and complements them visually with their corresponding lyrics, either in Springsteen's own handwriting or the courier font used for the Darkness album art. Such content might intrigue young musicians and developing songwriters the way prospective filmmakers gravitate to DVD audio commentary. But, likely because a remaster of Darkness will be packaged with The Promise in the box set, Zimny treats the album as a known entity and never really sells it to the viewer until this late section of the film. In Wings for Wheels, Springsteen performs brief samples of Born to Run songs on a piano, because he wrote a significant portion of the album on piano. In The Promise, he performs excerpts of songs from Darkness on acoustic guitar, even though no acoustic guitar is discernible on the album. As Springsteen modestly sings a snippet of "Darkness on the Edge of Town," he's barely changing chords on his acoustic, almost as if he's embarrassed to reveal the musicality of the recorded version.

Though Born to Run was a bigger seller than Darkness and is typically more celebrated when "All-time Greatest" lists surface, Springsteen has acknowledged it as a pastiche of sorts, an homage to the rock 'n' roll that reared him during his youth. He's said that, in his attempt to make a great rock record with Born to Run, he wanted to sing like Roy Orbison, play guitar like Duane Eddy, write lyrics like Dylan, and have the album sound like a Phil Spector recording. Springsteen explains in The Promise that he aimed for a leaner, angrier sound on Darkness. In his writing for the album, he would remain mindful of the class consciousness he found on pop radio in the songs of bands such as The Animals, but rather than relying on musical touchstones, he turned to imagery to inspire the sound he was seeking for Darkness. Film noir and the wandering anti-heroes of American auteur cinema (John Ford's The Searchers, Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver) informed the album's sense of loneliness, exemplified by the detached solitude of "Streets of Fire." Yet, no mention of "Streets of Fire" is made whatsoever in The Promise.

Instead of clarifying which 10 songs actually compose Darkness on the Edge of Town, the documentary often lingers on what kind of album Darkness wasn’t by featuring songs that didn’t make the cut, which, again, will confuse anyone but existing fans. The film even takes its title from an outtake. Springsteen had amassed 70 or so songs of various styles and tones for Darkness. Eventually, he weeded out any track that didn’t fit the story he was trying to tell, whether they were potential hit singles like “Because the Night” and “Fire” or more somber narratives such as the “The Promise.” According to the documentary, Springsteen worked on “The Promise” for three months but omitted it from Darkness because he felt too close to it to adequately assess its merit. “Independence Day,” “Ramrod” and “Sherry Darling,” songs that eventually appeared on The River, are featured in The Promise but are not identified as outtakes.

Still, Springsteen’s impromptu performance of “Sherry Darling” at the piano with Van Zandt is a fun highlight, as is their rehearsal of “Talk to Me,” another outtake. When a giddy Springsteen informs Van Zandt that they’re going to rehearse the song, Van Zandt asks him, “Are you crazy?” Springsteen, who’s excitedly miming and mouthing the song’s drum intro, quickly mutters, “No, I’m serious,” without missing a beat. With both palms facing upward, as if he were pleading, Van Zandt shouts at Springsteen, “What are you gonna throw out?!” Too consumed to acknowledge the gravity of the question, Springsteen responds, “I can’t think of something. But I’ll think of something.” Moments later, Springsteen tries to assure Van Zandt, “Remember, there’s always room to throw out.”

Springsteen’s obsessive nature and tireless perfectionism, already conveyed in Wings for Wheels, is on full display in The Promise. He admits in his interview for the film that he had no life at the time and adds, “I was a dangerous man to be around.” There are numerous shots of him in the studio looking weary and frustrated. Other moments capture him barking to his colleagues to “Roll the tape!” or shut up. With Springsteen’s desire for complete artistic control came a lack of in-studio guidance. One segment of the film recounts how he spent hours upon hours fixated on the sound of drummer Max Weinberg’s snare. Bassist Gary Tallent recounts: “They’re like 10 hours a day hitting a drum trying to make it sound like a drum. It was pretty sad, really.”

In depicting the grueling nature of the Darkness recording sessions, The Promise overlooks some of the album’s successes. If Springsteen obsessed over the sound of a snare, how long did it take to come up with Weinberg’s classic intros to “Badlands” and “Candy’s Room,” which go without mention in the film? By contrast, Wings for Wheels notes how “Born to Run” drummer Ernest “Boom” Carter gave the song a brief jazz flourish, which Weinberg confesses he can’t replicate live. Other topics not addressed in The Promise, that would have been welcome, include Springsteen’s more economical lyric writing for Darkness and the 1977 death of Elvis Presley. If legend is true, Springsteen wrote “Fire,” a Darkness outtake, to be recorded by Presley, his childhood hero. A discussion of “Fire” and Presley’s death, which occurred near the beginning of the Darkness recording sessions, would have fit nicely into the doc.

Springsteen explains in the film that two clouds hung over the writing and recording of Darkness. One was the lawsuit with Appel. The other was the success that Born to Run brought him and the band. He reasons that the distractions that accompanied the Born to Run notoriety threatened to detach him from the things in life he was trying to connect to through his music. In interviews throughout his career, when Springsteen has alluded to artists who had lost some of their essence because of fame, it’s always seemed as if he was including Presley in that discussion. In Springsteen’s attempt to thwart this kind of disconnect, his writing on Darkness turned more self-reflective and focused on working-class, small-town living, the kind depicted in Peter Bogdanovich’s 1971 film of the Larry McMurtry novel The Last Picture Show. Springsteen wrote about his father on Darkness tracks “Adam Raised a Cain” and “Factory,” which the documentary suggests was inspired by his discovery of country music.

A film like The Promise would not work without Springsteen’s clarity in the interview portions, which were conducted by Zimny (along with Libby Geist). Darkness was released on the heels of the punk explosion of 1977, and while Springsteen acknowledges in the documentary that he identified with punk’s spirit, he was, at 27 years old, ready to confront more mature questions about the compromises in life. “I was trying to write music that both felt angry and rebellious yet also felt adult,” he says. And unlike the typical songwriter with fans that cling to his words, Springsteen is not cagey about his lyric writing. In one scene, he explains that “Badlands” began with just that one lyric, and Zimny lets us hear an early recording of the song with Springsteen mumbling nonsense through the verses. “Badlands” begins with one of the greatest opening lines ever on an album: Lights out tonight/ Trouble in the heartland. And during the interview, Springsteen leafs through his old notebook to reveal that it took pages of drafts and ideas before he paired the latter four words with the first three. In another scene, Springsteen likens songwriting to working with interchangeable auto parts, and Zimny fuses the album track “Factory” with “Come On (Let’s Go Tonight),” an outtake with the same backing music but different lyrics. In moments like these, Zimny’s film is enthralling.

Despite the occasional lapses that will leave Springsteen novices out of the loop, The Promise is an authoritative, illuminating document, and the breadth of the interviews is impressive. In a coup for Zimny, Patti Smith discusses her recording of “Because the Night,” which was a #13 Billboard Hot 100 hit for her in 1978 (and Top 5 in the UK). There’s a facepalm moment when Springsteen’s wife Patti Scialfa is identified only as an E Street Band member (she joined in 1984), but it’s hilarious to hear Darkness engineer (and later Interscope records founder) Jimmy Iovine recall Springsteen’s incessant complaining about Weinberg’s sticks as if it were yesterday. It’s also heartwarming to see E Street Band organist Danny Federici in the interview segments. Federici, an integral part of Darkness‘s lonesome sound, died in April 2008, a clue to how long Zimny’s film has been in the making.

With The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town, Zimny knew he didn’t have to preach. He was making a film for the choir, and the result should have them singing.

The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town premieres tonight, Oct. 7 (9:00-10:30 p.m. ET/PT), exclusively on HBO.

Subsequent HBO playdates: Oct. 12 (3:30 p.m., 12:30 a.m.), 16 (11:30 p.m.), 21 (10:30 a.m., 1:55 a.m.), 24 (5:00 p.m.) and 30 (2:00 p.m.)

HBO2 playdates: Oct. 8 (8:00 p.m.), 10 (3:30 p.m., 12:20 a.m.), 13 (4:55 a.m.) and 18 (9:30 p.m.)

Author rating: 8/10

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Average reader rating: 4/10


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October 8th 2010

With the much-anticipated release of the commemorative box set for Darkness on the Edge of Town slated for this November, Bruce Springsteen’s classic record is getting renewed attention in the music world. Fans are surely hungry for all the historic material they can get from the 1978 recording sessions and subsequent tour. For our own preview of what’s to come, we contacted Dick Wingate, who was intimately involved in the launch and marketing of the album and tour. He offers an insider’s view of what the Darkness era meant to Bruce and the band, while painting an often-humorous behind-the-scenes account of some of the tour’s highlights.

Enjoy, and check out the book The Light in Darkness, which one fan said, “… would make a great companion piece to the commemorative Darkness box set…”

James bacci
October 10th 2010

Great review, really enjoyed it.  Miami is correct, tho, not incorrect as Tinkham asserts, that Bruce’s first 2 albums were essentially solo albums.

May 14th 2011

Recently I was driving with my sons and I allowed my oldest to choose the CD we would listen to. He chose “Darkness on the Edge of Town” by Bruce Springsteen. After a song or two I asked him if he was depressed, because that CD is particularly dark (although much of Springsteen is similar).vw oem parts

May 16th 2011

The texture of darkness I can say is the opportunity life offers everyone to in reality, take control of any circumstance. Many people do not understand that darkness is a coward and that it can be tamed to our good!vw oem parts