I had only three weeks to teach poetry in December 2010, so I had to make the most of it. Each of my four sections of eighth-graders received a different packet of photocopied selections from all across the poetic range, but mostly the work of modern writers: Kim Addonizio, Dorianne Laux, Sarah Menefee, and the African American assemblage of Angelou, Giovanni, and Michael S. Harper. One of my sections, however, received a collection that included the joys and lamentations of shepherds, nursemaids, chimney sweeps, and mischievous children from William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, published in 1789 and 1794. My students’ cross-century encounter with poetic talk about work and play, vocation and duty started something I didn’t see coming. The class decided that songs of innocence should be defined as songs composed with words like “forever,” “always,” “never,” “whenever,” and “nothing ever.” Songs of experience, on the other hand, would know that none of these things are givens and most of them are phantoms. We said that in terms of time, a song of innocence is sung forward, projecting its vision of contentment into the future, and a song of experience is sung backwards, ruminating on a past once thought to be perfect.
The big surprise came when my students taught me that Justin Bieber’s “Baby” is somehow both a song of innocence and a song of experience. Bieber’s song starts with an innocent “we would never, ever, ever be apart,” which collapses into a devastating rap by Ludacris describing how a playground princess broke his heart. There you have the unfortunate circumstances of my students’ generation: sardonic songs of innocence and experience that come together in one three-minute upper/downer, truncating youth and hastening decay.
Meanwhile, my own wasted youth was singing itself forward and looking back. Bruce Springsteen’s 1978 masterpiece Darkness on the Edge of Town hit stores that same month in a reissue box the size of a fuelie head on a standard engine. The box contained three CDs and three DVDs presenting the remastered album, two complete concerts, a ninety-minute documentary on the album’s making, and twenty-one tracks abandoned from the original release.
I approach such things warily—and wearily. First, I have never been solvent enough for the financial outlay demanded of aging populists in repurchasing our past. I’ve still got the original LP that I bought with blood-plasma money on the streets of Berkeley the day it came out and a turntable to play it on. And second, I’m not always ready for the emotional upheaval that inevitably accompanies these returns. I felt put through the wringer by Springsteen’s reunion with the E Street Band at the dawning of this decade, completely memory’d and meaning’d-out by concert’s end. Then he hit me with the deluxe reissue of his 1975 breakthrough album Born to Run. That was nearly assaultive. Still, I figured the outtakes from Darkness on the Edge of Town could bring something new, while not demanding that I drive through every bad decision, lost love, dead friendship, and broken-up band that line Highway 78. Fortunately the massive reissue edition was accompanied by a much cheaper two-CD collection of the abandoned tracks, titled The Promise.
In fact, Darkness, Springsteen’s fourth album, should really have been his fifth. A lawsuit had prevented Springsteen and producer Landau from entering a recording studio together for a year after the release of Born to Run. Most of the songs that Springsteen wrote and accumulated during that time were songs of innocence that wore their hearts on their black leather sleeves. But a few, the ones that were just emerging, sang themselves backwards, from a place that took seriously the awareness of time, and of values, and—most importantly—of sin that makes for experience. In one of the great artistic decisions in American popular culture, something compelled Springsteen to hear the songs of experience that were wrapping themselves around these songs of innocence. Springsteen biographer Dave Marsh says that Springsteen “must have been torn between making the record he would have made in the previous year, and the one he was ready to do now.” Deciding he “wanted more than a set of listenable, craftsmanlike songs,” he chucked them all and began again. The characters who introduced themselves to him in his new work were not kids; they clung neither to romantic dreams of escape nor to childish beliefs in the redemption of pleasure. Bruce said of them, “There’s more of a sense of: if you wanna ride, you’re gonna pay. And you’d better keep riding.”
So they ride. The compassion that arises from the ten stark, detailed, sad, and determined songs that made up Darkness on the Edge of Town became the guiding element of Springsteen’s career. The race-track roar of that album set in motion the themes, points of view, situations, and attitudes that have fueled his art for the intervening thirty-plus years. Springsteen’s courage and good judgment are, in retrospect, breathtaking.
The songs on The Promise, even with their barely controlled fury and frustration, are still extensions of Born to Run’s central premise. Salvation is found in your baby’s arms, and that’s the only place it can be found with any constancy. All the words and phrases are there: “forever,” “someday,” “mine,” and, of course, “Tonight.” It’s always tonight. The word itself appears over fifteen times in The Promise’s lyrics, and the mood of the songs is very tonight: Everything is at stake, and yet there is nothing left to lose; your love, little girl, is the only thing that matters. If you have it, tonight will last forever, and if you lose it, tonight will be the moment that changes everything.
Rock ‘n roll has always raised the climax of seduction, those final seconds before she gives in, to the heights of transcendence. Springsteen’s lovers beg their girls for mercy, for sex, for respect, for salvation. There is everywhere a sense of having earned all of this. “I got a full week’s pay and baby I’ve been working hard each day.” These young men have no use for spirituality save for expropriation of its heaven and angels, both of which can be found right here—tonight.
What you get with The Promise is an opportunity to construct for yourself what that missing follow up to Born to Run might have been: load them all into your iTunes, limit yourself to ten tracks, and see what you come up with. You can even give it your own title. Mine is Where the Bands Are (my title track is borrowed from his 1998 release, Tracks).
I can’t help but hear these recordings as a tribute to the bands that took up singing songs of innocence after Bruce had seemingly abandoned them. It was called “power pop.” By 1980 when The River came out, there were already thousands of jangling, rocking, cars-‘n’-girls bands across the country, covering “Needles and Pins” and “Every Time You Walk in the Room” with ringing harmonies, singing about the little things their baby does in that Tonight that never becomes Tomorrow. Sincere as these bands had been since the mid-1970s, a strain of desperation—the sound of cynicism—had begun to taint their listenable, craftsmanlike songs of redemptive romance. Still, these bands, in their willful innocence, would have been terrified by that darkness on the edge of town that Springsteen became intent upon staring into—and staring down. And it was that darkness that rose up and enveloped rock music in the 1980s, leaving power pop singles strewn every which way in its tempest.
So for all the shut-down strangers and hot rod angels rumbling through this promised land, tonight I think about this, and I’m like, Baby, baby, baby….
All quotes are drawn from Dave Marsh’s Born to Run: the Bruce Springsteen Story (Dell Publishing, 1981 edition). Anyone wishing to share conceptions for the missing fourth album can send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.