November 2010 Archives

"The Promise": Springsteen's Lost Anthem for the Betrayed

    Three decades ago, I entered into an engrossing correspondence with a petite middle-aged librarian named Suzy Shaw, sister of a friend who had connected us because of our mutual love of Bruce Springsteen's music.

    At the time our mostly epistolary friendship began, Suzy was living downriver from me in Lacrosse, Wisconsin, where she worked at the university.  One brilliant fall afternoon my girlfriend (and future wife) Krista and I drove the scenic Mississippi River route to visit Suzy at her house near campus, where she amazed us with (these were pre-CD days) vinyl bootlegs of some unreleased Springsteen songs circulating among collectors.

    In the years to follow, in a fashion befitting the scholarly ardor with which she later distinguished herself in academia as an expert on comic book art in pop culture, Suzy sent me meticulously annotated cassette tapes of numerous Springsteen rarities, most (though not all) of which have since come to light as official archival releases.

    Among the tapes from Suzy, I have three different performances of a song called "The Promise."  Long the El Dorado of Springsteen connoisseurs, "The Promise" ranks among Springsteen's best songs, and fans have perennially puzzled over why he left it off his album Darkness on the Edge of Town, for which it was originally recorded.  Springsteen has said that, though the song was inspired by Greil Marcus's book on rock and roll, Mystery Train, he feared it would be construed as referring to a disastrous lawsuit by his former manager, which delayed a follow-up album to his break-out Born to Run for three years.  (In fact, some of Springsteen's recent remarks confirm that it was about the lawsuit.)

    Suzy would be thrilled at this fall's release of The Promise, a collection of "lost" recordings from that unsettled between-albums period, the very title of which indicates a belated admission by Springsteen of the stature of his towering song.

    I say "would be thrilled" because, sadly, Suzy passed away in 2007 only a year after retiring.  I sincerely hope she has some way of experiencing this new/old Springsteen music wherever she is, because The Promise represents the grand fulfillment of everything we listened for in those crackly vinyl bootlegs, the restoration of the lost in clear, powerful digital fidelity.

    As for the song itself, its official arrival on the American scene couldn't come at a more opportune moment.  After a bruisingly vicious election season, in which an angry, stressed electorate has voted to empower the party that got us into our present military, economic, and political quagmires, Springsteen's unheard classic once more cycles round as a portrait of America as we are now.  As my friend and fellow Springsteen fanatic Kevin Caldwell notes, like 1978's Darkness on the Edge of Town, The Promise arrives in the midst of a weakened Democratic presidency, in which the right wing is again pursuing full-throttle its familiar project of transferring wealth upward from the lower and middle classes to the rich.

    The narrator of "The Promise" is an ex-racer who drove a rebuilt Dodge Challenger -- the American dream of middle-class security? -- "but I needed money and so I sold it."  

     I lived a secret I should have kept to myself
     But I got drunk one night and I told it

He holds down a "little job" he doesn't care much about, and despairingly watches friends still in the game striving against the odds.  "Every day," he admits, "it just gets harder to live / This dream I'm believing in."  He could be the protagonist of Springsteen's "Racing in the Streets" from the same period, which this song strongly resembles in its dirge-like majesty, though even farther down the road of betrayed dreams and economic collapse, by this point sans girl and car.

    In one of her letters, Suzy originally pointed out to me the haunting, almost shamanic dimension of the climactic stanza:

     I won big once and I hit the Coast
     But somehow I paid the big cost
     Inside I felt like I was carrying the broken spirits
     Of all the other ones who lost

Fighting his way out of childhood poverty in New Jersey, Springsteen must at times have felt similarly toward his struggling and scuffling brother musicians who didn't even "win big once" as his protagonist in "The Promise" did.
    In Springsteen's spiritual and political universe, no one makes it unless everyone does.  As the late Senator Paul Wellstone liked to say, "We all do better when we all do better."  In the absence of an external social safety net for all, certain strong souls tend to carry a train of others along with them, and Springsteen's song is an acknowledgment of that obligation some few feel.  If we collectively allow our neighbors to suffer and fail, individuals of conscience have to assume a greater share of the pain as their moral, even religious duty. 

    But the world exerts a fatal pressure and drag on anyone who commits to that burden, and here, stripped of literal correspondences to its author's own situation, we come to the core meaning and crux of Springsteen's song:  no matter how spiritually compassionate his narrator is, he can humanly only carry so much before he begins to break under the weight.  Individual strength eventually gives out under the strain of a collapsing social contract.  Both as poetry and insight into the human heart, these lines stand with the finest in American popular song:

     When the promise is broken you go on living
     But it steals something from down in your soul
     Like when the truth is spoken and it don't make no difference
     Something in your heart goes cold

(The poet in me pauses here to praise the intricate rhyme/slant-rhyme sequence of BROKEN / LIVING / SOUL and SPOKEN / DIFFERENCE / COLD, which I admire immensely.)

    Poetics aside, this is a dead-on description of where we are now as a society, at a time when the right wing has grown increasingly emboldened in dismantling the safeguards against exploitation that made the American middle class dream possible.  After eight years of Bush/Cheney, we seem to no longer care about the truth, or even to believe in it.  So what if Vice President Cheney outed CIA operative Valerie Plame?  "It don't make no difference" because something in the American heart has "gone cold."  When the safety net is tattered-- "when the promise is broken" -- by strategic neglect and abuse, the community heart is damaged.  The horizon of hope and promise becomes a wasteland of failure and alienation.  Springsteen could already see this when he wrote "The Promise" in the late 1970s on the brink of the Reagan era.  No artist, I think, has stated with more eloquence and economy our nation's unfolding tragedy.

    So what's left for the Challenger's ex-operator, who would carry the broken spirits safely past "the dead ends and all the bad scenes" of America?  He is back on the "Thunder Road" of Springsteen's earlier song of that title, mourning the "lost lovers and all the fixed games," the lonely transience of "tires rushing by in the rain."

    Before his song dissolves into elegiac death-march, he grabs at a bit of loser's bravado, remembering an old friend and the vow they made:

    Billy and me, we'd always say. . .
    We were gonna take it all and throw it all away

Thus "The Promise" ends with the symbolic gesture of disdain for the world and its prizes we have often heard raised as a last defiant cry of those systematically dispossessed of everything but their pride.  It is also, disastrously, the cry of the electorate in the 2010 midterms who took the decades of important work done by loyal public servants such as Senator Russ Feingold in Wisconsin and Representative Jim Oberstar in Minnesota and in a day "threw it all away."

*     *     *

    As noted above, it was deeply horrifying to watch Wisconsinites recklessly discard a true and dedicated friend.  The nausea is more than doubled when we consider the unworthy opponent whose lucky punch took Feingold down, Ron Johnson, a plastics millionaire from Oshkosh with no governing experience.  I don't doubt that many who swung the vote for Johnson did not understand what they were doing. How could they, when Johnson refused to reveals his plans as a senator?  It was a classic case of voting, on the basis of emotion and disinformation, against the voters' own interests, for which we can predict buyer's remorse and increased economic hardship in the near future.  Maybe sooner than we reckon, the familiar howl will go up as low-information voters realize that the new bosses are worse than the old bosses, and that the GOP "wave" is not going to change things for the better.  The Tea Partiers too -- at least those not on Republican payrolls -- will come to recognize their betrayal.
    The protagonist of "The Promise" is a pure product of the system's betrayals of working people.  Robert Reich, in his incisive book, Aftershock:  The Next Economy and America's Future, writes of the "basic bargain" struck between business and labor, "giving workers a proportionate share of the fruits of economic growth."  Reich demolishes the oft-mouthed Republican dogma that tax breaks for the rich will somehow create jobs.  In fact, job creation is contingent on demand; when there is demand, jobs will appear to satisfy it.  But over the past three decades, demand has diminished because American workers' share of the fruits of their productivity has steadily decreased while business owners take a steadily increasing share.  In real wages (adjusted to cost of living), American workers are now making less than they did 30 years ago, while actually maintaining higher productivity.  Meanwhile, CEO's take home three to four hundred times what their employees earn.  Until both Democrats and Republicans are forced to deal with the widening income gap between the rich and everyone else, the American dream of middle-class security will continue to recede from our grasp, and the promise of "the basic bargain" broken again and again.

    Bruce Springsteen doesn't need me or Robert Reich to explain this to him.  A recognition of growing social inequality has informed his music -- initially on a visceral and later on a more explicitly political level -- from the first.  For the rest of us, Aftershock might be just the right antidote for the self-defeating nightmare of the 2010 midterms.  It's clear that without addressing the inequality of rich and poor, we'll remain confused, ineffectual, and betrayed no matter how furious a tantrum we throw in the voting booth.

    Meanwhile, The Promise comes to fortuitously address the moment and salve some of its wounds in the same way Born in the USA did during the Reagan years and The Rising after the trauma of September 11, 2001.  Springsteen's responses to current history have made him one of our more reliable soul-doctors, though obviously there's a limit to how far even the most heroic can carry those "broken spirits," now proliferating with frightening speed.  "The Promise" bears witness to the inability of individuals detached from community to prevail against those who have rigged the system against them, while holding out a dim but persistent hope -- borne out in Springsteen's subsequent work -- for a resurgence of community united against those oppressing forces.

(Discographical note:  The full-band version of the song "The Promise" on the new album The Promise is not one I've heard on Suzy's tapes.  Inexplicably, it leaves out lyrics that immediately follow those quoted above ending "something in your heart turns cold":

     I followed that dream through the southwestern flats
     The dead ends and two-bit bars
     And when the promise was broken, I was far away from home
     Sleeping in the back seat of a borrowed car

A vital piece of the story is lost in dropping these lines.  They are included in full on the more subdued version Springsteen recorded for 18 Tracks in the late 90s.  Luckily, bootleg alternate versions of this fascinating song are available on the collector's market.  Because of the plethora of recorded versions, it's almost impossible to nail down a definitive set of lyrics.  In this essay I've mainly followed the most complete official version on 18 Tracks, despite minor inconsistencies with the newly released 70s version.)

(This essay is dedicated to the memory of Suzy Shaw Covey.  In 1982 Suzy played organ on a one-off single hilariously and affectionately parodying 70s-era Springsteen under the name of "Bruce Springstone."  You can listen to the  "Bruce Springstone" version of "Meet the Flintstones" at  Suzy once met Springsteen during the early 80s when Bruce was still greeting fans who persevered in waiting to see him after his shows.  "My God, what did you say to him?" I asked.  Suzy replied, "I knew I'd have only a moment, so I told him I'd noticed a change in the lyrics of 'The Price You Pay.'  He smiled and said he appreciated my attention to his writing!"  Suzy, this weird, sad fall, I'm listening for us both.)