Saturday, August 13, 2011

Who’s the Boss? Bruce Springsteen’s Promise

When I was younger I thought with blistering sincerity that Bruce Springsteen was just too American. While I was only ever familiar with his hit song “Dancing in the Dark,” from his 1984 record Born in the USA, that iconic album cover of his denim-clad posterior presented him prominently before a star-spangled backdrop. Ignorantly, I wrote him off as flag-waving, gun-toting American without much to offer outside of trail-blazing patriotism, something of little use to an adolescent Canadian boy growing up in the suburbs. As with anything else I've learned growing up, I was at least partially wrong in my earlier years. (So was Ronald Reagan, as you may recall, but for a different purpose.) Bruce Springsteen is without a doubt a patriotic American, but in a way I never would have suspected. The performer known as “The Boss” made himself the voice of the disinherited in America.

His popular label “The Boss” always seemed peculiar to me. I never understood why my dad referred to Springsteen with the label he also used to describe the man he was working for. But I was naïve. My dad was planting the seeds of an uprising in my unwilling ears. In The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town (2010), we can see perfectly why Springsteen is known as “The Boss.” The documentary, which explores the trials and tribulations behind that career-defining album, opens a window into how The Boss shrugged off guaranteed rock stardom and fought valiantly, passionately and perhaps insanely for what he believed in. The Promise captures a moment in time over thirty years ago when a fresh-faced musician did the unthinkable: He became his own boss.

Constant fights with his manager Mike Appel over creative control on the follow-up to Springsteen’s breakthrough record, Born to Run (1975) led The Boss to take the reins. Springsteen stood his ground and fired Appel in the process. The follow-up album that Springsteen struggled to achieve, on his own terms, was one that completely renounced what made him famous. Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978) came to us completely stripped of the anthemic qualities present on his previous record. Darkness was pared down and became thematic instead. Contractual obligations and a burning desire to create left The Boss with notebooks full of songs and an inability to record them for the first 18 months. There were so many tunes scribbled in these notebooks that they acted as a thirty-year-old time capsule. What’s really impressive about the amount of output and motivation on display in the documentary is that the songs that didn’t make the cut weren’t just duds. 

The Promise (a CD of unreleased tracks from the Darkness on the Edge of Town sessions) has a number of significant tracks that Springsteen left off the record because they didn’t fit in with what he wanted Darkness to say. His surprising amount of discipline, focus and drive there was not only admirable, but the resulting payoff became sweeter for it, and vaguely explains how he became “a boss” but not The Boss. On Darkness are songs with narrators desperately attempting to overcome the daunting feeling of being trapped. You can hear him struggling with both the hope and the despair in many of the songs, such as the original version of “Racing in the Street.” In it, Springsteen appears to be internalizing his own fears and frustrations concerning success into a seven-minute ballad that builds from a delicate piano line, one that moves in waves with the narrator as he sings, “Tonight my baby and me we're gonna ride to the sea and wash these sins off our hands.” 

It’s easy to hear Springsteen trying to find himself among all these beautifully orchestrated rock songs. “Factory” is a heartbreaker written for his father about essentially killing yourself for the sake of making a living and putting food on the table. The song elevated him beyond the status of being a beautiful dreamer and made me understand why he’s viewed as a working-class hero. This fragile tune doesn’t have any truly anthemic qualities like “Racing in the Street,” or the opener “Badlands” about trying to overcome your surroundings but to me, but "Factory" is where “The Boss” found himself. You can hear the pain in his voice as he heeds a warning from his father about the dangers of factory life without ever denouncing his father’s career. Darkness on the Edge of Town is where Bruce Springsteen decided to be his own boss and it’s also the one where he took a stand.

“More than rich, more than famous, more than happy – I wanted to be great,” Springsteen says with youthful candor in the making-of documentary. A few years ago, a statement like that would have left me dumbfounded, but now it makes total sense. As an artist, he wanted to push himself as far as he possibly could as he constructed what is arguably one of the best rock albums of all time. But he did it by tearing down  the constructs of fame and fighting for his own voice. 

It is easy for an artist to get inspired by such a story. More importantly to me though is what I think this means to my dad. I believe that people like my father refer to this rock giant as our "boss" because Springsteen reminds us that we all have mouths to feed and loved ones who sacrifice so much for us. Bruce Springsteen is a reminder to me about what my mother and father have striven to achieve throughout my whole life. Besides pushing me creatively, they made sure I didn't starve. 

 - Andrew Dupuis is a devoted cinephile and graduate of Brock University's Film Studies program with an extensive background in Canadian and popular cinema. He is currently working on his first book.

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