Bruce Springsteen's New Box Set Rocks

The best part of the rocker's box set is a compilation of tunes left off the Darkness album.

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I am not going to purchase the Bruce Springsteen $80 box set of the re-release of Darkness on the Edge of Town. It’s not that I don’t like the Darkness album. I’ve already bought it three times—LP, cassette and CD—and don’t feel the need to donate again to the Springsteen children’s college fund.

Enough. I’ve been a bigger sucker for Born to Run. I believe I have paid for that fine set of tunes five times, as Columbia Records and Springsteen found new formats with which to tap my wallet. There was the LP, and then an 8-track version, then the cassette, the CD, and the special 30th anniversary re-mastered CD.

But you children out there—who weren’t around when this guy from New Jersey and his band rescued rock and roll from the clutches of disco and resuscitated hope in those grim years after Vietnam and Watergate—may want to explore the Springsteen saga. Chock with artifacts, the box set is a fine way to do it.

The making-of-Darkness documentary sets the stage. Springsteen had soared to stardom with Born to Run, but then became trapped in an interminable court fight with his manager, which kept him from releasing a new record. Years went by, and the videos in the box set demonstrate how Springsteen and the E Street Band struggled to maintain their connection with his audience via passionate, marathon live concerts, as dozens of new Springsteen songs were recorded but not released.

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Ultimately, the legal battle was settled, and the new album appeared. If Born to Run was a joyful, raucous tribute to cars and girls and the passions of youth, Darkness was all about facing the disappointments and galling compromises of life.

Now I believe in the love, that you gave me/ I believe in the faith, that could save me/ I believe and I hope and I pray that someday it/ may raise me above these/ badlands.

If I had a buck for every time I sang that song out loud I could buy four or five of the new box sets myself.

Springsteen, like most great rock and rollers, is quite a magpie. With a phrase or bit of melody, he can tap the sounds of the folk, blues, and rock musicians that came before him. But in the glow of Born to Run, some critics had sneered at his music as derivative. Given his gloomy mood at the time, and wanting to strut his own stuff,  he struck all but the starkest, most personal songs from Darkness.

Some of the castoff songs were commercial gems, like “Fire” or “Because the Night,” and made fortunes for the artists who eventually recorded them. Other lovely tunes, like “Little Girl So Fine,” written with Miami Steve, got recorded (by Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, with a nod to and assist from the Drifters) but never made the charts.

And so the best part of the new box set is, perhaps, a two-disk compilation of music that was left off of Darkness, called The Promise. Its songs evoke Roy Orbison, the Byrds, Elvis Presley, and others, and show once again what a staggeringly good and versatile song writer Springsteen is. It is available by itself for longtime fans (Achtung, Santa) who don’t need the Darkness back story and who want a polished version of songs they have long traded around and listened to on bootlegs.

Springsteen’s last release of stuff-from-around-the-studio, Working on a Dream, was pretty lame. But, though you’ll agree with his decisions to leave some of these songs off of the Darkness album, on the whole, The Promise has been worth the wait.

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