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November 5, 2010 10:41 pm
Bruce Springsteen zipped into London last week to promote a new film, The Promise, which chronicles the making of one of the singer-songwriter’s finest albums from the late 1970s, Darkness on the Edge of Town. Springsteen, tanned and muscular as always, has quite an effect on his fans. They flocked outside the British Film Institute to greet his arrival, grown men gurgling with excitement as they waited to shake his hand and their trademark rumble of “Bru-u-u-u-uce” put me in mind of an over-agitated football crowd.
Blue collar angst is what Springsteen is all about, of course, and Darkness features several examples, most explicitly in the haunting “Factory” and its drudging chorus (“It’s the working, the working, just the working life”). Springsteen’s songs seem to acquire an extra edge when his native country is in economic decline. The working life seemed rosy during the dotcom bubble and the technology-inspired boom of the past couple of decades. But there is an air of the 1970s around again, and it seems that one of that era’s most eloquent spokesmen could be ready to come back into vogue.
The Promise is a collection of unseen movie footage of Springsteen and the E Street Band wrestling in the studio to put the Darkness album together, stitched together with present-day reminiscences. The back story is compelling. Springsteen was forced into inaction in the years following the wildly successful Born to Run album because of a legal dispute with his manager. Denied access to the studio, he wrote more than 70 songs in preparation for the new album. When the dispute was finally resolved, and he was allowed back in front of the mixing desk, the results were explosive.
The new film captures the frustrations of a man who had been stopped from working in his prime. “Baby, we were born to run” he sang joyously in the middle of the decade but all he ran into was the quicksand of litigation. As a result, there is a tense and nervy feel to the Darkness sessions, brilliantly captured in the film. Springsteen is tetchy, admonishing his drummer because he sounds too much like he is hitting his drums with a stick, which is harsh: like criticising a singer for opening his mouth. The band looks weary of their leader’s perfectionism and bad moods.
Yet the film acts as a timely reminder that the evanescent quality of the finest popular music is rarely achieved without Herculean effort (remember Elvis and his 31 takes of “Hound Dog”). Springsteen says he was after the sound of the “never-ending NOW which is part of what pop and rock promised”. And it took never-ending recording sessions to get there. During one song, asked to describe the effect he was seeking, Springsteen told his mixer that he wanted it to sound as if a dead body had suddenly been found in the room.
Stylistically, too, the singer was all over the place. He had been listening to Hank Williams and to the nascent punk rock movement from the UK. He wanted to fuse earnestness and energy, emotional rapture with the rush of unblemished truth. He sought to harness the “pop formalism” of his producer Jon Landau with the garage instincts of his guitarist and friend, Steve Van Zandt. Meanwhile, the songs kept coming. He started giving them away: “Because the Night” to Patti Smith, “Fire” to the Pointer Sisters.
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The other striking aspect of Springsteen’s demeanour in the film is his concern with growing up. Born to Run had been an album of flight and freedom, reflected in Landau’s frantic production. In Darkness, Springsteen addressed more adult themes: the desirability of settling down, the difficulties of learning how to be a good son, a good partner, a good citizen. The sound of the album needed to signal this new-found maturity. He was, after all, all of 27 years old.
In “Factory”, Springsteen was writing with his father in mind. Douglas Frederick Springsteen worked in a plastics factory, before the days of health and safety regulation, and it made him deaf. Bruce went to visit him one day as a child and couldn’t understand why his father couldn’t hear him call out. “Factory” is partly socioeconomic critique but it is also an anthem of respect for the sacrifices made by the preceding generation. The working life allowed others to be born to run.
It is not a little ironic that the baby-boomers responsible for the conflagrations of the 1960s and 1970s should turn, rather early in their lives, to the themes of maturity. The fortitude of their parents evidently weighed heavily on them. I remember asking my own father, after a feckless gap year jaunt through Tuscany, if he had ever visited Florence. Thirty years previously, he said. He vaguely remembered staring down on a red dome from a hilltop for weeks on end, bogged down with his regiment as they made their way north from the brutal battle at Monte Cassino. Room with a view, it wasn’t.
Bruce Springsteen has plenty of time to reflect on maturity now, having entered his seventh decade. He seemed in a good place in a question-and-answer session after the film, frustrations cast aside and never far from a joke. He made fun of the bad moods and the “many thousands of dollars” he had spent on therapy during his life. But he was rather serious about the perfectionism. With Darkness, he said, he had wanted to create a record that was “essential”. It had to deliver, the way his musical antecedents had delivered to him. He was trying to put together the soundtrack of “rebellious adulthood”. He was in thrall to the working life even as he bemoaned its effects. That was the central paradox in his work. There was the darkness.
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