By Elysa Gardner, USA TODAY
October 1, 2010
Glory days, circa 1978: The E Street Band was Roy Bittan, left, Clarence Clemons, Garry Tallent, Max Weinberg, Bruce Springsteen, Steve Van Zandt and Danny Federici.
Photo By Frank Stefanko
NEW YORK — Bruce Springsteen still writes songs the old-fashioned way. Which is to say The Boss keeps his initial creative process low-tech.
"I've got this big fat notebook," he says, holding his hands out for emphasis and flashing a distinctly self-deprecating grin. "It's the same kind I've always used, with everything written in longhand."
In the documentary The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town, which makes its debut Thursday on HBO (9 p.m. ET/PT), black-and-white footage shows a 27-year-old Springsteen leafing through such a notebook while working on Darkness on the Edge of Town, the 1978 album that cemented his reputation as a great American troubadour. A three-CD, three-DVD box set including the film, due Nov. 16, features an 80-page simulation, complete with facsimiles of his scribbled lyrics, song ideas and recording and personal notes from that era.
Its blue cover suggests an item favored by schoolchildren since long before the Information Age. "My new notebook looks just like that," he confirms. "Maybe the color's different, but that's all."
Perhaps that's fitting, given the 61-year-old rock icon's response to watching himself and his longtime collaborators in the E Street Band as young men in director Thom Zimny's film. It premiered to wide acclaim in September at the Toronto Film Festival.
"A lot has changed, and yet not very much has," Springsteen says, looking fit and relaxed in a plaid shirt and jeans as he chats in a Midtown hotel room. "We all know a lot more about what we're doing now, which is good, because we were truly amateurs at the time. But the same intensity remains about making music — the idea that it should matter, that it should be worth thinking hard about."
A turning point
Indeed, The Promise — which juggles footage of rehearsals, studio sessions and performances from 1976 to 1978 with new interviews with Springsteen, E Streeters and other colleagues — traces the recording of Darkness and the hard-won personal and artistic growth marked by the album, Springsteen's fourth.
Darkness was delayed by a lawsuit pitting Springsteen against then-manager Mike Appel, who had co-produced previous albums, including Born to Run, the 1975 epic that made the singer/songwriter a superstar. Appel appears in the documentary, in which he and Springsteen speak about each other without acrimony. Springsteen states that the suit was a bid not for money but for control of his career. (In 1977, freed from contracts with Appel, he hired current manager and Born to Run and Darkness co-producer Jon Landau, a major presence in the film.)
Darkness also was haunted and enriched by Springsteen's struggle to come to terms with his success and with a growing sense of social awareness. He wrote most of the songs while living on a farm in Holmdel, N.J., not far from the working-class neighborhood where he was raised.
"I became interested in the mystery of my family life, and in its larger social implications," he says. "Initially you're not very interested in your parents as people, but in my late 20s, I started to have enough distance to see their story, and I found it compelling and provocative."
The plaintive song "Factory", for instance, was inspired by Springsteen's father, who lost his hearing after working amid the noise in a plastics plant, as he recounts in the film. "I wanted to delve into the personal and try to connect it to the political, and to write about things that were permanent. Work, family, relationships — generation after generation, those things are the essence of our experience."
The resulting songs are leaner and grittier than the majestic soundscapes of Born to Run. Though Darkness has sold 3 million copies to date, about half as many as the previous album and only a fraction of the 15 million sold by his 1984 smash, Born in the U.S.A., critics consider it a pivotal work.
Reviewing the album in Rolling Stone, future Springsteen biographer Dave Marsh wrote: "Occasionally, a record appears that changes fundamentally the way we hear rock & roll. ... I have no doubt that (Darkness) will someday fit as naturally within that list as the Rolling Stones' 'Satisfaction' or Sly and the Family Stone's 'Dance to the Music'."
Time clearly hasn't diminished the pundits' enthusiasm. "It's the record where Bruce grew up," says Rolling Stone contributing editor Anthony DeCurtis. "Born to Run, tremendous as it was, was like a last wail of adolescence, of the romantic agony that you go through as a young person. On Darkness, he takes a hard look at what people's lives are really like, at who gets opportunities and who doesn't. There's no longer that sense that somehow rock 'n' roll is going to save everything."
Springsteen, too, sees Darkness, with its vivid depiction of everyday lives, dreams and disenchantment in now-classic tunes such as "Badlands" and "Racing in the Street", as a transition point. "Some of the big themes I started to write about here, you'll spot them intermittently on my first three records. But it was really on Darkness and then (1980's) The River and (1982's) Nebraska and Born in the U.S.A. that they came to the fore."
The band wasn't just trying to make a record, he says, "we were trying to make an essential record. So that if you were interested in rock music, interested in what was at stake in the late '70s culturally, then you had to deal with this particular piece of music. That became a blueprint for the way we continued to work, and I think that thoughtfulness has resonated over the long haul. The songs are still a vessel for the topics I want to discuss."
Since his youth, Springsteen has viewed popular music as a "natural freedom promoter. You listened to Elvis' records or Woody Guthrie's or Hank Williams' and suddenly you had more breathing room, more license to be who you wanted to be. I've always felt that there were enormous political implications to Elvis' career. As a very feminized man who crossed racial lines, he was a bit of a precursor to the sexual revolution and the civil rights era — without uttering a political or rhetorical word in any of his songs."
For Springsteen, the more politically conscious songs on Darkness "haven't become dated" in the 32 years since its release. "If anything, they're more relevant right now." He notes that the album was crafted "during the Carter recession." The country's mood has darkened, he acknowledges, since the 2008 presidential campaign, when he supported Barack Obama.
"It's tough, because when people are out of work, they're hurt and angry. But we've been living through economic troubles for years. One of the biggest issues right now is the disparity in wealth, and that's been growing through all the boom times. We've worked with a lot of food banks over the past 25 years. There are constantly people dropping out of the middle class."
Still scribbling notes
Of Obama's performance as president, Springsteen says: "I continue to have great faith in him. There's that quote that says you campaign in poetry and govern in prose — or you campaign as a visionary and govern as a legislator. Maybe that's something he suffers from, or something people are struggling with. But I think President Obama is very smart and very steady."
With The Promise, Springsteen hopes to flesh out his own image, particularly for younger fans who had not seen or heard his work with the E Street Band before the late '80s. "After I got the band back together again in 1998 or 1999, we did a few tours and made some good records, and I realized that there were a lot of kids coming to the shows. I thought it would be nice to put together a record of what we did at that earlier time."
For the old faithful, the coming box set The Promise: The Darkness on the Edge of Town Story will include 21 previously unreleased songs, also available on a two-CD set, The Promise. The tunes include Springsteen's recordings of "Because the Night" and "Fire", respectively hits for Patti Smith and the Pointer Sisters.
"All the tracks except one were recorded 30 years ago," Springsteen says, but didn't make the final cut. "I just decided that I wanted to say something else at the time. I wanted to wait until I felt I could have an essential conversation with my audience."
It hasn't yet been determined when that conversation will resume in the form of a new studio album. At the moment, Springsteen is focused on seeing his 16-year-old son, Sam — the youngest of his three children by wife and E Street member Patti Scialfa— through his junior year of high school. But he's still finding time to scribble in notebooks.
"I want to write some more good songs, play some more good shows," Springsteen says. "I want to come back and look again into all those wonderful faces that I've been looking into for the past 35 years. I just do what I do, you know?"
Concert Photos by Jym Wilson, USA TODAY
Taken at The Montreal Forum, 11/8/1978