When the promise is broken, you go on living
But it steals something from down in your soul
There are only a handful of songs that have the power to make me cry when sober: All My Friends by LCD Soundsystem; Here by Pavement; Nightswimming by R.E.M.; Miami by Counting Crows. But even those songs only work their saline magic on me every so often — maybe one out of five listens.
But The Promise by Bruce Springsteen gets me every damn time.
The song was written in the late ’70s during the Darkness on the Edge of Town sessions, while Springsteen simultaneously battled depression and his former manager for legal rights to his music. It wasn’t released in any form until 1998, when Springsteen recorded a solo piano version to tack on to his rarities collection, Tracks. Now, the original version of the song, recorded in the ’70s with the E Street Band, has been released as part of a box set containing a remastered version of Darkness and two discs of unreleased songs.
Why does the Promise get to me so consistently? Springsteen certainly has an entire cadre of stark, depressing songs: Racing in the Street, Reason to Believe, The River, Stolen Car, You’re Missing, etc. But The Promise is something more — it’s a direct repudiation of the entire Born to Run album, which is a soaring, hopeful masterpiece of American youth. The Promise, written directly after Born to Run by a still-young Springsteen, tells us explicitly that the optimism and joy of that record is a myth, a lie.
The Promise tells us that the kids in Backstreets never see each other again. That the bounce and strut of 10th Avenue Freeze-Out is in vain. That Thunder Road is a dead end.
Springsteen spent years writing, recording and perfecting Born to Run. He intended it to be his masterpiece, his ultimate contribution to the American pop canon. Yet within months of the end of the tour behind that album, he had given up completely on its ideas. The Promise isn’t the sound of hope dying — it’s the sound of hope’s burial. Even more heartbreaking is that the song isn’t just saying that the characters on Born to Run ended up in a bad way, it’s claiming those characters never really existed in the first place. That there’s no use in fighting circumstance. That all the pretty girls and motorcycles and boardwalks in the world won’t help you when you get to a certain age.
The Promise tells me that every time I’ve ever felt hope in my life, I’ve been fooling myself.
A little background (aka my Bruce Springsteen origin story):
When I was in high school, Bruce Springsteen released Human Touch and Lucky Town, and made an appearance on MTV Unplugged to support the albums. Only when Springsteen went on the show, he brought out a full band and played electric guitar. So MTV marketed the episode with a big X over the “Un” in “Unplugged.” It was Bruce Springsteen Plugged!
Being in high school, being a fan of The Pixies and Jane’s Addiction, and being a dick, I mocked “Plugged” relentlessly. To me, it was a sign that Bruce Springsteen was a dinosaur. He was my dad’s music. He was part of the corporate rock oligarchy that bands like Nirvana would ultimately rail against and temporarily displace (my teenage self makes me a little ill sometimes).
A few years later, I was living in an apartment in Boston, and bored out of my mind because Boston is a terrible city. When Springsteen released his Greatest Hits album, I walked to a nearby record store and bought the CD. I had matured enough in those years that I could admit I loved Glory Days, and I had nothing better to do. I brought the CD home, put it on my stereo and sat down to listen.
I was fucking blown away. I realized how little of Springsteen’s work I had actually heard — I’d never heard Thunder Road, was barely familiar with Born to Run, and definitely knew nothing about Darkness on the Edge of Town or Nebraska. So beginning with Thunder Road, with each passing song, I kept thinking, “Holy shit, these songs are amazing. How could I never have known about this?” It was a fair question. That’s what years of studiously avoiding FM radio cause: gaping holes in your personal pop encyclopedia.
And honestly, could there be a better introduction to an artist than the beginning of Thunder Road? The screen door slams/Mary’s dress waves. In those two lines, my life changed.
I don’t want to overstate the importance of Bruce Springsteen in my life, but his music has been a massive influence on everything from how I experience art to the eccentricities of my personality. “Springsteen fan” is an indelible part of my identity, and that began at age 19 with the intro to Thunder Road. That first burst of love was centered around the songs on Born to Run, the world created on that album and the characters who inhabit that world.
I wanted to be in those songs. I wanted to hang out with Wendy, Terry and the Magic Rat. I wanted to live a life that would allow me to experience the emotions, both bad and good, expressed in those songs.
Ah, but there’s the problem. Springsteen songs are imbued with an impeccably specific sense of place and time. He once said that the sound of the screen door slamming at the beginning of Thunder Road was the sound of his songs leaving New Jersey; beginning with that song, his characters could be anywhere in the United States. Even if that’s true, and I think it’s disputable, Springsteen still wrote about only certain types of people in the mid-’70s. Young people. Blue-collar people. Most importantly, people I had never encountered.
I grew up in a wealthy, Indiana-Pacers-white Connecticut suburb. My family was never wealthy, but I was raised in a bubble of security and elitism. So while I relate to the broad themes in Springsteen’s work — rebellion, frustration, yearning for freedom — I always felt disconnected from the details. For me, Springsteen’s world was a beautiful myth in which I could never fully partake.
So when I first head The Promise, that myth blew up. The world I wanted to be part of, but never could reach, disintegrated. And that’s why the song shatters me. But there’s another mythical aspect to that song itself that helps explain why it’s burrowed into my soul, and why it has me sniffling like I did too much coke by the time the first verse is over.
The song itself is shrouded in myth and legend. It was always considered by the hardcore fans to be “the great lost Bruce Springsteen song.” Twenty years passed between the song’s creation and initial release, and another decade passed before we heard the original, full-band version (not counting crappy bootlegged recordings).
(Sidenote: is there anything more endlessly fascinating than hardcore fan cults? They seem to spring up at random, and form entire underground subcultures that we’re barely aware of. They deify everything from legitimately great rock artists to Joss Whedon to MST3K to the Insane Clown Posse. And the deeper, more intense the ardor for the artist/band/movie they worship, the more I’m intrigued. The crazier the message boards, the more likely it is I’m reading them.)
In that lag time, The Promise took on a life of its own. Why wasn’t it included on Darkness on the Edge of Town? Was it about the lawsuit with Mike Appel? Why was it being held back from us, the adoring fans who so deserved to hear it?
I can’t resist mythical lost songs, albums and movies with intriguing back stories. I yearned to hear Chinese Democracy. I wondered about Smile. I even wanted to watch Jerry Lewis’s infamous World War II clown movie. Each of these pieces, and many more, are insanely renowned among obsessive fans, but little-known among the culture at large. And of course, most of them inevitably disappoint if and when they finally see the light of day.
These “lost works” are appealing because of their mystery, and because that’s usually all there is to them, they let us down.
But when I head the Promise, it didn’t disappoint. It instantly became my favorite Springsteen song, and I love both officially released versions. So while this particular song destroyed one set of myths for me, it reinforced another set.
It validated the pop culture obsessive in me. It excused my digging deep into bootlegs of unreleased cuts, looking for unheard greatness. It justified the time I’ve spent reading artist biographies, learning what shaped their best work. The Promise was a touchstone in my development as a fan; it redefined the concept of fanhood for me. Also, it’s a pretty great fucking tune.
* For an another take on The Promise, read this post by Sports Illustrated’s Joe Posnanski. It’s worth your time even if you’re not a Springsteen fan. When I saw that Posnanski had written about this subject, I forced myself not to read it until I had finished the above post, because I didn’t want to be influenced by such a great writer.