Thursday, January 13, 2011

Bruce Springsteen's Period of Transition

Back in the ‘70s, any recording artist worth his or her salt was expected to release an album per year, every two years tops. If there were a lapse in this rote pattern, the record company would put out a “greatest hits,” or some type of “best of” compilation to appease hungry fans. Everybody thought Dylan was finished (or dead, due to a serious motorcycle accident) when there was no follow-up to Blonde on Blonde within twelve months of its mid-1966 release, and after an unheard of three-year lull in Van Morrison's recording career, Van the Man released an LP with the apparently explanatory title A Period of Transition in 1977.

I remember the seemingly endless barren stretch that followed Born to Run (was Springsteen not really “Rock and Roll Future” after all? my friends and I wondered aloud). It would be years before I found out Bruce had actually written and recorded several songs in the limbo between his 1975 epic and 1978's Darkness On the Edge of Town. Now, three decades later, this material is finally, officially, seeing the light of day.

The Promise is best appreciated not as a fully realized whole like Born to Run or Darkness, but as a transitional journey between the two, from the wide-eyed optimism of the former, when Bruce believed (and we did right along with him) that rock and roll was bigger than life, to the harder-edged latter, forged by the trials and stresses of an increasingly imposing real world. It makes for an engrossing, sometimes downright intoxicating mix, and serves as a welcome, long lost bridge between two masterpieces seemingly half a world apart. It’s also, to me, an invigorating reminder of why I became a Springsteen fan all those years ago. 

And it's a tribute to the Boss that he could produce such a vast storehouse of great songs--some of which (“Because the Night,” “Fire,” “Talk to Me,” et al.) provided success for other artists--and withhold them from release simply because they didn't fit the overall concept, the Big Picture, of the LP he was determined to make. Or, in some cases, as he recently mentioned on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, he didn't want to be perceived as a “revivalist” or to put out an album that “wore its influences on its sleeve.” This strict adherence to his forward-looking vision was our loss for several decades (save for the resulting Darkness album, of course), and has now, thankfully, been remedied.

There are some shimmeringly beautiful tracks here that hearken back to Born to Run, of which Sprinsteen has said he wanted to make “the greatest rock and roll record ever.” A number of these lush mini epics bring to mind a line from a review of Neil Young's Live Rust, written by Tom Carson some 30 years ago: “It's so massively stately that you get the feeling of huge mountains on the move.” And we get a feeling of just how important Springsteen's then-recent influences were to him, as well.

As for wearing them “on its sleeve,” well, perhaps there was the fear at the time that those influences were too recent and recognizable. Whatever the case, they have since aged gracefully, and to anyone born after, say, 1970, these songs’ inspirations are likely to be all but invisible.

Nevertheless, the giants on whose shoulders Bruce stood were among the tallest of the 1950s and ‘60s. There's the euphoric, Spectorian wall of sound of “The Little Things (My Baby Does)” and the glorious “Gotta Get That Feeling.” Mighty Max channels Jerry Allison in the Buddy Holly inspired “Outside Looking In.” “Someday (We'll Be Together)” conjures up the Four Seasons’ “Rag Doll.” “Breakaway” is steeped in Orbison-like majesty. The rhythmic rawness of Gary “U.S.” Bonds permeates “Ain't Good Enough For You.” The horn arrangements on “It's a Shame” hearken back to the Stax/Volt Memphis Horns. “One Way Street” brings to mind Percy Sledge's soul classic “True Love Travels On a Gravel Road,” which was covered by Elvis, for whom Bruce wrote “Fire.” Come to think of it, this is the music that made me fall in love with rock and roll in the first place, before Bruce even came on the scene.

On the more somber Darkness side of the coin is “Wrong Side of the Street,” a full band version of “The Promise,” an alternate take of “Racing In the Street,” “Come On (Let's Go Tonight),” which was the forerunner of both “Factory” and “Johnny Bye Bye,” and “Candy’s Boy,” which obviously morphed into “Candy's Room.”

It's all good, but two songs, to my ears, stand above the rest. “Rendezvous” actually gave me goose bumps upon hearing it for the first time--something that, at my age, hasn’t happened in quite awhile. It simply blows the live Tracks version out of the water. “Save My Love,” written in 1977 and recorded in 2010 according to the liner notes, brings it all back home. It's what rock and roll is all about.

Which brings up the issue of Bruce's tinkering with some of the original material for this package. “Where needed, I worked on them to bring them to fruition,” he says in the liner notes. I thought this would bother me, but it ended up not being the case. The end result is what counts, and these songs, some of which were in an unfinished, unreleasable state prior to Bruce's intervention, ultimately deliver.

© Jon Oye, 2010

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