Bruce Springsteen Finds Darkness on the River: Shadows in Stereo

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“I finally got to the place where I realized life had paradoxes, a lot of them, and you’ve got to live with them.” – Bruce Springsteen, discussing The River in Dave Marsh’s Born to Run: The Bruce Springsteen Story (1981 edition)

For most music artists, releasing what turns out to be a career defining album is sometimes a mixed blessing, like the silver lining that hides the proverbial cloud. It’s not easy maintaining the interest of an often-fickle public who don’t like their heroes messed with, not even by the heroes themselves.

The only thing that might be more difficult to compete with than one’s own hit album is competing with a rumor of an album – that is to say, an album that never existed, or was never intended for release.

Rock history is full of examples. The Beach Boys’ Smiley Smile was just the pale sketch of what might have been before Brian Wilson scrapped the first version which was to have been named Smile. Who’s Next by the Who was the one LP edit of what had started out as Pete Townshend’s great Lifehouse project. The Beatles’ Let It Be resulted from Phil Spector’s mis-production of the original Get Back sessions. Jimi Hendrix’s posthumous Cry of Love vs. what he would have released had he lived. Dylan, Neil Young … the list is as long as you want it.

Because of the nature of his own particular process, Bruce Springsteen has always spent a lot of time getting just the right sequence of songs together to best express his artistic vision at any given point in time. Consequently, he has always been dogged by rumors of versions of albums that differed markedly from what became the commercial release. As well, because he has always had so much material not officially released but available as studio or live bootlegs, it’s tempting for fans and biographers to wonder what other alternate possibilities might have been brought into existence had he been thinking differently on any given day.

The making of 1978’s Darkness on the Edge of Town is a case in point. Depending on whether one is counting songs actually recorded or songs written, Bruce had somewhere between 50 to 70 songs from which to choose before he whittled them down to his final 10 selections. Because he wanted to focus particularly on the lives of American working class families, he left off such potential hits as “Because the Night” and “Fire.” These great songs were eventually given away to Patti Smith and the Pointer Sisters respectively, who released them as radio hits.

Probably because of is subject matter, Darkness on the Edge of Town went nowhere near as high up the sales charts as 1975’s breakthrough Born to Run. But the three year gap between these releases, complicated by a legal dispute with his former manager, might have actually contributed to the moderate commercial and great critical success of Darkness. The accompanying legendary tour helped, as well. In concert, material from the latest album took on new life when placed in tandem with old favorites, well-chosen covers and even those unreleased gems. (“Fire” literally became a show stopper.)

Come 1979, Bruce Springsteen found himself in the unenviable position of having to follow up not one but two well received yet quite distinct albums. As usual, he buried himself in studio work, so that by late 1979 he felt ready to release The Ties That Bind, a 10-song selection chosen from his current stockpile. He thought better of it and instead went back to the studio to record even more songs, eventually releasing a two LP set now called The River in late 1980.

Though its hit single “Hungry Heart” guaranteed brisk sales figures, in retrospect, The River often seems to fare less favorably compared to Darkness on the Edge of Town. In both cases, Springsteen wanted to make sure his music addressed mature themes. On the other hand, 1978’s Darkness tour reminded him that all those grown-up fans out there still listened to rock and roll as part of their lives.

Consequently, the massive 20-song set contained a lot of what seemed like throwaway rock fodder interspersed with the songs of heavier subject matter. And those heavier ideas had mostly been addressed on Darkness already. And what was up with the obsessive car imagery? As often happens with double albums, some critics began to wonder if The River might have been better off as a single platter.

And that’s how The Ties That Bind became Bruce Springsteen’s legendary ghost album, a specter that haunted The River for decades. And though the Boss spent a lot of time over the years explaining the basic premise that he tried to make an album which would address the fundamental dichotomy of his music, perhaps he was not entirely convincing: In any list of “Greatest Albums of All Time,” The River consistently places lower than to Darkness on the Edge of Town. And that’s a bit of a surprise, considering how downbeat Darkness is in its overall outlook.

Still, in Bruceworld, it’s never too late to tinker with an album, so 35 years later in 2015, Springsteen took one more shot at it by releasing The Ties That Bind: The River Collection, a staggering reissue of The River that included the original The Ties That Bind single LP and 22 outtakes from the sessions. This housecleaning was similar to his 2010 release The Promise, which consisted of 21 unreleased tracks from the Darkness-era recordings.

Taken all together, that’s a lot of songs written and recorded over that three year period from mid-1977 to mid-1980: almost 80 studio tracks that actually became releases, with plenty more that remain to this day tucked away in the vaults somewhere. Since it all seems to be of a piece, it’s tempting to ignore any shortfalls found in the official albums and just custom build one’s own compilation or playlist.

And why not? Just imagine a 20-song two LP set that contains the pop masterworks “Hungry Heart” and “Fire,” as well as the tougher, more thoughtful pieces like “Racing in the Street” or “The River.” Include some powerhouse numbers like “Roulette” and some rockabilly toss offs like “You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch),” and there you have it: an expansive, far reaching, yet focused album that addresses all of Bruce Springsteen’s best impulses and avoids any filler.

Maybe one day the Boss will release every stray thought of his that made it to studio tape in one way or another but, until then, his followers will have to be content with the studio ghosts he has so far made available. Taken all together, they certainly shed at least some light on what exactly makes up Bruce Springsteen’s spirit in the night.

JC Mosquito

JC Mosquito

JC Mosquito spends most of his day keeping the wolves from the door. When he's not occupied with this pastime, he's interested in all things rock and roll -- which may or may not have died back in the late 1950s, the late 1970s, or the early '90s, depending on who you believe. Contact Something Else! at [email protected]
JC Mosquito
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