Monday, June 13, 2011

Open Hearts, Lost and Found

I wrote this several months ago for a special issue of Rock & Rap Confidential that never saw the light. It's not about Clarence Clemons, directly, but since he's on my mind right now, and since it's actually about all of the soulful music that didn't make it onto Darkness on the Edge of Town, it does stand as an indirect tribute to what Clarence brings to the larger story. If only it were as beautiful as a single note of a single solo.

Yes, listening to the The Promise and flipping through the notebook and supplementary materials available in The Promise: The Darkness on the Edge of Town Story says a lot about the smart choices Bruce Springsteen made in 1978 to cut some space of his own with those drums and those guitars. Songs like “Outside Looking In” reveal their synthesis of Buddy Holly and the Animals whereas Darkness still sounds like nothing else, not even much of the Americana punk it helped inspire. And the comparisons show the possibilities carved away for the original album’s hard focus. Thematically, the “lost” material shows the universes that lie between, say, “Racing in the Street” and “Candy’s Room” on the first disc, and, on the second, the necessities and dangers involved in proving it all night.

But I came into this with a certain faith that this was more than outtakes for comparison; I believed that this was a 2010 album. That faith was forcefully rewarded the first time I reached the closing scenes—“Breakaway” with the gorgeous “sha la las,” swelling horns and piano lending dignity to one desperate reach and miss after another. And then “The Promise’s” organ and strings and those overdubbed vocals on the “Thunder Road” refrain, capturing just how and why, “every day it just gets harder to live this dream I’m believing in.” That line, like all the rest here, have an added poignancy today, all the promise of “pullin’ outa here to win” ending in questions of just what’s been risked and what’s been lost. The sweetening of these arrangements may well be, as Bruce’s liner notes insist, “what I would’ve done to them at the time and no more,” but he didn’t do it then, and he has done it now, purposefully, to my ears.

Virtually all of this music is opulent in its production in a way that may call to mind 1975’s Born to Run but sounds to me like the man who made 2009’s Working on a Dream. From the first time I heard it, “Someday (We’ll Be Together)” particularly insisted this perspective with its richly layered pop arrangement and female backing vocals. But, in a more particular way, the middle guitar solo, doubled by piano (perhaps glock) and dressed in strings brings to mind the soundtrack-like grandeur of a song like “Outlaw Pete”—Ennio Morricone meets Phil Spector. And I don’t care when those lyrics were written, “I awake from a dream…Tonight, we’re on our own” sounds like Darkness revisited after 30 years of promises kept, sure, but also promises broken.

That song begins with the sound of “your voice…calling through the mist” which is a line echoed in the one largely new lyric on the album, “Save My Love.” That song begins, “Now there’s something coming through the air/That softly reminds me” and later adds, “Over river and highway/Your voice comes clear and true.” Unlike the despairing late night drivers of “State Trooper,” “Open All Night” and “Radio Nowhere,” this character hears something so tenuous it tears him apart even as it gives him hope. He knows he has his own voice, too, and that’s part of an exchange, so while he listens he asks the listener to “dial me in close.”

Perhaps, as much as anything, what I hear is the 61-year-old Springsteen consulting with the 29-year-old rocker in the same way he consulted with Buddy Holly, Elvis and Hank Williams at the time most of these songs were originally written. “Save Your Love” has an unassuming brevity reminiscent of The River B-Side “Be True” (and more than a minor thematic connection), but it defines commitment in much more delicate and sophisticated terms, as a sense of not just integrity but direction and need, well aware of the perils and distances that come between tonight and tomorrow.

The case that Darkness On the Edge of Town speaks today as urgently as it did in 1978 doesn’t need to be made here, but the way “Save My Love” starts up on the song "Darkness’s" hill with that same guy, older and maybe wiser but still waiting to be easily found, resurrects the ideas of Darkness as ongoing work.

Thematically, the closest song to “The Promised Land” on these two new CDs is “Someday (We’ll Be Together)” and unlike the lonely determination of the original album, this deliverance clearly depends upon community. In fact, by revisiting all these love songs and those little things our babies do—magical, fumbling and cruel—Springsteen’s uncovered new layers of questions at the center of a great album. On the single, he pledges, “if we open up our hearts, love won’t forsake us,” but that’s clearly an approach not a formula. The open hearts on these 2 new CDs make mistakes, and they get recklessly used, confused, broken, and discarded. These appropriately-named “Lost Sessions,” then, focus on missing pieces to clarify the complexity of that terrain we still gotta live every day.