The Promise

Today is the release date for Bruce Springsteen’s “new” CD/DVD set, The Promise.  The songs on the two-CD set mostly were recorded during sessions after 1975’s Born to Run and before 1978’s Darkness on the Edge of Town, but ultimately they were left off the latter album.  It’s interesting that the DVD documentary and the album are named after the song “The Promise,” a song never given a proper release and long one of my favorite songs.

There are many songs about broken hearts, but there are not many great songs that are about broken dreams like “The Promise.”  A testament to the power of this song is the fact that in the new documentary, Springsteen said that he did not release the song in 1978 because he was “too close” to it.  There has been speculation about what it specifically means to him, tying it to his situation of being embroiled in a lawsuit at the time with his former manager Mike Appel over control and ownership of his songs.    But like most songs that come out of a strong personal meaning for the songwriter, this one has universal themes that touches people unconnected to its origins.

In 1998, Springsteen released Tracks, a 4-CD set of unreleased songs from throughout his career.  He miscalculated how much his fans had grown to love “The Promise” through years of bootlegging, and fans complained that the song was left off the set.  He remedied the situation by adding the song to a single CD Best of Tracks collection, making fans happy for the song but not happy to have to buy the Best of CD for a couple of bonus songs when they had already purchased the 4-CD set.  At the time, he said he did not release “The Promise” on Tracks because he was not satisfied with the versions in the vaults, so recorded a new version with him alone at a piano for the Best of CD.

I loved the piano version of “The Promise” that he released on Tracks, and with the Internet now I’ve heard several versions of the song.  I first heard the song as a bootleg on a record album in the early 1980’s and it immediately became one of my favorite songs.  In that version, it featured the full band, so I have a fondness for the full band versions of the song, like the version I’m posting below.

The song is about people with dreams — and in particular a person who travels to participate in car races in his car, “Challenger” — and what happens after the dreams are broken.  I like the line about how even when you win, you still feel like you carry something from those you defeated.

I won big once and I hit the coast
But somehow I paid the big cost
Inside I felt like I was carryin’ the broken spirits
Of all the other ones who lost
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 song has several references to “Thunder Road,” which certainly had various meanings for Springsteen after a song by that name appeared on his previous album and had created such high expectations and pressure for the upcoming album.  In the different versions of “The Promise” I’ve heard, Springsteen sometimes places different emphasis on the final lines about the narrator and Billy saying they were going to “take it all and throw it all away.”  Sometimes he sings with resignation and despair, sometimes he sings with hopeless defiance.  But that’s one of the signs of a great song and a great singer, that they can convey different meanings and emotions with the same material.  I’m glad that this song never got thrown away.

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    3 thoughts on “The Promise”

    1. I received the big fat edition of this for the holidays, and the packaging alone is worth the price. I’m not huge into the Springsteen’s bootleg scene, but I was very pleased that the version of “The Promise” here was not one that I already had. All the tracks are great, and it was a thrill for me to hear clean and complete studio versions of “Fire” and “Because the Night.”

      As has already been noted by the reviewers, as long ago as with the release of Tracks, Bruce’s throwaways (like Bob’s, like Neil’s) would be a lesser artist’s Born to be Blood on the Beach. Springsteen was very productive between Nebraska and Born in the USA, and I hope that material gets the treatment this did and that it deserves.

    2. I too was pleasantly surprised by the packaging of the Darkness on the Edge of Town deluxe set. I can think of few CD packages that can even compare to the notebook and the packaging of this set (i.e., Anthology of American Folk Music). Yes, let’s hope for something similar for the great unreleased songs in the vault from the Nebraska-Born in the USA era.

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