The View From Here
Bruce Springsteen - London BFI Southbank, October 29, 2010
Sitting on stage at London’s BFI Southbank, Bruce Springsteen is reflecting on events 33 years ago, when he and the E Street Band entered New York’s Record Plant studios to record the Darkness On The Edge Of Town album.
“It’s funny now,” he sighs. “We really didn’t know what we were doing. We really didn’t know how to make a record. We were adverse to professionalism.”
Springsteen is in London, along with manager Jon Landau and film maker Thom Zimny, to unveil a new documentary, The Promise: The Making Of Darkness On The Edge Of Town – part of the capacious 3 CD/3 DVD reissue box set that also includes The Promise, an album of 21 unreleased outtakes from the Darkness…sessions. That Springsteen has chosen to focus the launch of this extraordinary archival package around the film perhaps indicates how important it is as a document of the Darkness… period. He premiered the material first at the Toronto Film Festival in September, where he was interviewed onstage by Ed Norton, and after this London showing he’s taking it straight off to the Rome Film Festival.
Indeed, the film itself is tremendous. It’s a mixture of contemporary interviews with Springsteen, the E Street Band and others involved with the album, cut in with fascinating black and white archive footage from the studio, shot by a friend of Springsteen’s, Barry Rebo, on a hand-held video recorder.
“He shot this stuff then sat on it for 30 years,” says Springsteen at the BFI. “Once in a while, I’d go over to his apartment and we’d look at it and laugh and wonder what to do with it.”
Of course, Springsteen has done this kind of thing before – the 2005 reissue of Born To Run included a documentary, Wings For Wheels, assembled from footage of Rebo’s visits to those recording sessions. It caught the band at a pivotal period; they entered the studio lean and hungry, and came out with a major hit record. The Promise film, meanwhile, finds them in an equally critical period, but one characterised by much uncertainty.
“I was so filled with doubt, the only way I knew to get something done was to slog away at it for hours and hours,” admits Springsteen from the stage of the Southbank. “The sense of purpose was desperation.”
The cause of this seems to be two-fold. As Springsteen acknowledges in one of the contemporaneous interviews in Zimny’s film, “the success we had with Born To Run… brought me an audience, but it also frightened me.”
Another problem was the legal dispute between Springsteen and his then-manager Mike Appel (who appears in the film, resembling a lost Osmond brother). The lawsuit prohibited the band from entering the studio for a year, the very time when they should have been capitalising on the success of Born To Run. Instead, the band regrouped at Springsteen’s house at Holmdel, New Jersey, for endless rehearsals. “These guys were my soldiers,” Springsteen says. “I thought I’d failed them in some way.” The mood: “deep despair and resilience.”
But something quite profound happened to Springsteen during this period. As more than one person wryly comments in The Promise, Springsteen had only written nine songs for Born To Run, eight of which actually appeared on the record. Now, perhaps galvanised by the legal wrangles with Appel, he went into creative overdrive. When the band eventually made it to the Record Plant in New York to begin the Darkness… sessions, they recorded 70 songs.
As Springsteen explains in the film’s present day footage, he had “multiversions” of songs, “a big junkyard of stuff” that he’d cannibalise accordingly. “It’s like a car. You pull stuff out of one car and put it in another car to make that car work.”
In one of the film’s most telling archival clips, we see co-producer Jon Landau point at one of Springsteen’s notebooks in the studio and say, “Close that book, Bruce. The only thing that can come out of that book is more work.”
The volume of songs he eventually discarded was astonishing. “It took an enormous amount of disciple,” says Steve Van Zandt. Patti Smith pops up to tell a sweet story about the first time she heard one of those jettisoned songs, “Because The Night” – that she eventually recorded with great success – while waiting for a phone call from her future husband, Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith. In the film, Springsteen admits to creative tensions driven by conflicting musical influences: his love of the Brill Building aesthetic, a discovery of country music (in particular, Hank Williams), the nascent punk scene, and curious love/fear relationship with pop music. “I was 27 and the product of FM pop radio,” he says early on. Later, he talks enthusiastically about the thrill of pop’s “never-ending now” – only to can potential hits like “Fire” and “Because The Night”. As Van Zandt ruefully observes, “It’s a bit tragic, in a way. He would have been one of the great pop songwriters of all time.”
Springsteen eventually settled on a more thematic approach for Darkness…, inspired as he reveals on stage at the BFI by “James M Cain novels, Jim Thompson novels, and film noir. Gun Crazy, Out Of The Past, they were big pictures for me. Film noir was adult. It felt very close to my own psychology. I wanted my characters to have their own existential complexities.”
All of this bubbles away to make pretty compelling viewing in The Promise, but what makes is such a significant release is Rebo’s archive footage. It gives what could otherwise be a simple, if admittedly high-end, Making Of… doc texture and warmth. The E Street Band circa 1977 resembles undercover narcotics officers in an Al Pacino movie, all shabby Hawaiian shirts and outsized sunglasses. One of the film’s most striking moments finds Springsteen bashing out an early version of “Sherry Darling” on a piano, while Steve Van Zandt, in an Adidas top and bandana, drums away on a carpet that’s been stuffed on top of it improvising backing vocals.
It’s interesting to wonder how Springsteen views his own back catalogue, and indeed what future plans there are for similar such projects. In light of Dylan and Neil Young’s successful presentation of their own archives – will Springsteen follow, too? And if, so how? Springsteen admits at the BFI that there is no similar studio film from after The River sessions until he reconvened the E Street Band in 2002 for The Rising, which sadly means we’d be unlikely to see anything quite as puissant as Rebo’s archival materials beyond a possible River reissue.
But as it stands, The Promise film powerfully captures Springsteen at what Max Weinberg describes as “the defining moment of his young career.”
“We wanted to refine the narrative,” explains Springsteen simply, dressed in black jeans, a black leather jacket, boots and a grey T -shirt, from the stage of NFT1 at the Southbank. “We wanted to go back and fill in the story we’d been working on for most of our working life.”
The Promise: The Making Of Darkness On The Edge Of Town is available as part of The Promise box set, which is released on November 15. For our full review of the box set, check out the new issue on UNCUT, on sale now