Joe Throwback: The Promise
We’re going to try something new, starting this week — every Friday for the next 10 weeks, I’m going to pull out one of my 10 favorite essays that have appeared here over the last 15 years. Maybe you’ve read it. Maybe you haven’t. Either way, I hope it will be fun.*
*If you have any requests, please shout them out … I have the 10 pieces picked out in my mind, but if there’s a particular story you’d like to see here again, let me know.
I’m going to start with one of the most meaningful pieces I’ve ever written, “The Promise,” my ode to Bruce Springsteen and my father. What I remember about writing this one is that it began as something else entirely — I think it was just going to be an essay about the “Darkness on the Edge of Town” album because Springsteen had re-released it with some songs that had been left off, including “The Promise.”
I don’t remember how or why I decided to write about my father and that car ride. Sometimes writing is like that.
Johnny works in a factory. Billy works downtown.
Terry works in a rock and roll band looking for that million-dollar sound.
Got a job down in Darlington. Some nights I don’t go.
Some nights I go to the drive in. Some night I stay home.
— Bruce Springsteen. The Promise.
I remember the first time I heard “The Promise.” It was about a decade ago. The song had been around for a long time before I first heard it — Bruce Springsteen would say it was the first song he wrote after “Born To Run” made him a rock and roll star in 1975. It figures that this was the first. “Born to Run,” the whole album, was about longing, open highway, the amusement park rising bold and stark, the poets who write nothing at all, the ghosts in the eyes of all the boys Mary sent away. Born to Run is about that brilliant age when you know dreams don’t come true, but you still believe they might come true FOR YOU.
And “The Promise” is about the everyday numbing of those dreams. It is a follow-up to Thunder Road, that song about the guy who learned how to make his guitar talk, and the girl who ain’t a beauty (but hey, she’s all right), both of them, pulling out of that town full of losers, pulling out of there to win. Now, that guy’s got a job. It’s a night job. Some nights he don’t go. A friend told me, “You have to listen to this song. I can’t believe you haven’t heard this song.”
I listened to the version of “The Promise” on “18 Tracks.” It’s not the version Springsteen recorded more than 30 years ago. This version is stripped down to almost nothing, just Springsteen and a piano.
And the weirdest thing happened, something I can never remember happening before or since when I listened to a song. I felt myself crying.
I followed that dream just like those guys do way up on the screen.
Drove my Challenger down Route 9 through the dead ends and all the bad scenes.
When the promise was broken, I cashed in a few of my own dreams
If I had to pick a single memory, the memory that best summarizes my teenage years, the memory that best expresses the kind of man I hoped to become … well, it is 6 a.m., and my bed shakes. That’s how my father wakes me up. He mildly bumps the bed with his knee. It is summertime, but rain pours, so it is still dark, a harsh gray. My father walks out of the room without saying a word. There is nothing to say. It is time to get up.
I dress quickly. There are no morning showers. We have timed our morning to the minute so that we can get as much sleep as possible … or, more to the point, so I can get as much sleep as possible. Dad doesn’t sleep much except for the naps he gets in front of the television. I meet my father downstairs. He is already there — he is always there first, dressed, ready to go. He is always waiting on me. He wakes up long before 6 a.m. on his own. His lunch is packed in a brown paper sack. It is probably a salami sandwich. It is usually a salami sandwich.
We trudge out to the car, a declining Pontiac T-1000 that I hope to buy at the end of the summer. The rain hits our necks, but there’s no running. We ride in silence for a few minutes. Then we start to talk about small things. We stop at Popeyes for a breakfast biscuit. The morning gains light slowly, like an old television picture tube coming to life. The ride is 30 minutes or so. There is little traffic this early in the morning.
And then, we get out … and go into the factory. Alisa is the name of the place. It is a knitting factory. We make sweaters, I guess, though I never actually see any sweaters. Everything is yarn. It is hard to breathe because of the heat and the humidity and the dust and the cardboard boxes and because the yarn chokes the air. I feel sure that a sweater is being knitted in my lungs.
My father’s job is to make sure the knitting machines run. He unclogs jams, quiets the guttural sounds, tightens bolts that break free, loosens bolts that choke the machine. His hands are unnaturally strong; I have known this since I was a boy. Now I see that he uses his fingers to loosen bolts that are wedged tight. There is no time to find a wrench. Sometimes, when the machines run smoothly, I see him drawing Xs on graph paper as he works out a sweater color design. When kids in school used to ask me what my father did for a living, I would tell them he designs sweaters. It wasn’t because I was ashamed of what he did; quite the opposite. That was how I saw him.
My job is to stay in the warehouse and move boxes of yarn in and out, and, one day a week, Thursday, unload barrels of dye from a truck. I am doing this to raise enough money buy that old car, that Pontiac. I’m 18 years old and thoroughly without purpose except for that; I desperately want my own car. I am an accounting major at college though even the most basic accounting concepts baffle me. I can’t help but think of debits as good and credits as bad. The professors keep telling me that they are not good or bad, but I don’t believe them. I already know I won’t be an accountant but have not admitted it to myself. I don’t have any idea what I will do — or what I can do. Everything feels out of reach.
I work six days a week at Alisa, and the pay, if I remember correctly, is $4 an hour. The minimum wage at the time is $3.35 an hour, so this is the second-highest paying job of my young life. The highest paying job, at $4.50 an hour, involved calling people who were past due on their mortgage. My job there was to set up a payment schedule. I wasn’t good at this; I didn’t understand the fury and desperation of the voices on the end of dial tones. I was too young to know what it meant. I got threatened a lot. I don’t get threatened at the factory. Yelled at, yes. Threatened, no. There’s no point in threats, not here. It’s understood by everyone how easy I am to replace. I’m scrawny and weak and a non-prospect. I’m here as a favor to my father, the only guy who knows how to fix the machines if they break down.
Well now I built that challenger by myself.
But I needed money and so I sold it.
Lived a secret I should’a kept to myself.
But I got drunk one night and I told it.
Springsteen wrote The Promise for the “Darkness on the Edge of Town” album. People who follow the Springsteen story know that the time when he wrote “The Promise,” that time after “Born To Run” made him a star and before “Darkness” made him an adult, that time was strange for him. He was locked in a searing legal battle with his manager Mike Appel over creative freedom — the thing Springsteen called his musical soul — and he was struggling with what it meant to be a huge success for the first time in his life. He hated success and loved it and hated himself for loving it.
And the music poured out of him like sweat. He was 27 and hungry, still hungry, but he was not entirely sure for what. He was listening to punk music. He was listening to Hank Williams. The “Born to Run” sessions were legendary for Springsteen’s refusal to compromise, his 14-month insistence on making every song sound exactly like what he heard in his head. But at least with Born To Run, there was a clear vision everyone could understand. Springsteen simply wanted to make the greatest rock ‘n roll album that had ever been made. That was what 25-year-old musicians did. The kid had ambition.
But nobody quite knew what Springsteen was trying to do with Darkness, maybe not even Springsteen himself. The band learned song after song after song. Some of the songs sounded like hits, but Springsteen seemed uninterested in those. He would give away “Because The Night” to the punk star Patti Smith — her biggest hit. He gave “Fire” to The Pointer Sisters — their biggest hit. He gave “This Little Girl” to Gary U.S. Bonds … and it would become Bonds’ first hit in almost 20 years. He gave an older song, “The Fever,” and “Talk to Me” to Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes. He gave “Rendezvous” to Greg Kihn. In the documentary about Darkness, Springsteen’s guitarist and foil and alter-ego Stevie Van Zandt would say, seemingly without irony, “It’s a bit tragic in a way. Because he would have been one of the great pop songwriters of all time.”
The one thing Springsteen knew for sure is that he didn’t want to be a great pop songwriter. He did not want hits, not then. He did not want to repeat Born To Run. He wanted to say something, and he wanted to “leave no room to be misunderstood.” He didn’t want to try to make the greatest rock and roll album of all time, not this time. He wanted something else, something harder to describe. “I wanted to make an honest album,” he would say. The band rehearsed and recorded “The Promise” for three months, trying to get it just right.
All my life I fought that fight
The fight that you can’t win.
Every day it gets harder to live
the dream you’re believin’ in.
My job at Alisa is monotonous and soul draining. Oh, it has sitcom elements — I am still young and detached enough to see that. There is the vicious boss who loves to yell at me for no apparent reason except that I’m not good at moving boxes and he probably hates his life. Once he takes me and a couple of warehouse guys, puts us in a truck, drives us off somewhere without explaining where or why. We end up in a ritzy neighborhood. Turns out the owner of the factory needs his couch moved. And so we move his couch.
There is a humorless old man who works with us in the warehouse who constantly tells us that he has seen kids come and go but that he has survived for all these years (we sometimes attempt to guess what he’s making after all these years; we think $5 an hour). There is the preposterous nature of the actual work — my job is to move boxes of yarn here, no, over there, no, back here, no, leave it there until later. There are even young non-beauties-but-hey-they’re-all-right identical twins who look better and better the longer I work here (it is fitting, I suppose, that in time I come to like one of them, the prettier identical twin if that makes any sense, but it’s the other one who seems to like me).
Still, at its core, there is little funny about the place or the job. Alisa is day after day after day after day after day of endless work that never gets completed. There is always another truck to unload, another tour of the floor (“Box ’em up!” the boss used to yell), another run to the dye part of the factory, which is poisonous and bleak and dangerous, like something out of a Dickens’ novel or the Batman movies. All the while, the machines whir and shriek and clank and buzz — the noise makes the boxes shake, but after a while I stop hearing the noise, at least while I’m in the factory. My ears ring for hours afterward, and sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night, and I still hear those machines.
I make it through the first couple of weeks on adrenaline and exuberance, and make it through the next two on the promise of owning my very first car. But at that point, one month in, I lose all inspiration. I go to work simply because my father kicks the bed every morning, and I know he’s waiting downstairs, and I do not know exactly how to quit. I work all day on automatic pilot — I become proficient with hand trucks, I surprise myself with how much strength I build up, I try to hide in the gaps between the boxes every now and again, I sweat off 20 pounds that, at the time, I did not have to lose. I go home exhausted and desperate for something … something hard to explain. And the next morning I wake up at the kick of the bed, into the blurry picture of my father dressed and ready, stumble into my jeans and into the Pontiac and go through it all again.
I believe that this will not be my life. I suppose this is what keeps me sane. This is not my life. This is only temporary. I tell myself this many times. But I’m not sure. Not really. I do not know what I can do. I have a hard time looking at my life realistically. I’m 18 years old, living in my parents apartment, failing accounting at a city college, and drifting through life without any marketable skills. All I have is youth, and youth tells me that this will not be my life, cannot be my life, that this is a summer job so I can buy my Dad’s car and drive off and that I really will do something bigger … all I have is youth telling me that someday summer will end.
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 runs cold
In the end, Bruce Springsteen stripped everything out of “Darkness on the Edge of Town” except for the hardest songs.
“Badlands,” I think, might be the quintessential Bruce Springsteen song, about defiance in the face of the bitter winds of daily life.
“Adam Raised A Cain” is about a son clashing against a father who “worked his whole life for nothing but the pain.”
“Something In The Night” is about two people trying to find escape in the night but getting caught at the state line.
“Candy’s Room” is a hard-bitten love story about a boy who loves a beautiful prostitute who cannot be shielded from her sadness.
“Racing In The Street” — probably my favorite song on the album — is about a man who has lost his dream (haven’t they all lost their dreams) and finds his last bit of wildness and hope racing his ’69 Chevy Chevelle with a 396 turbojet engine at night. There’s a love story in here too, a love story with a woman he won in a race against a Camaro and who now “stares off along into the night/with the eyes of one who hates for just being born.”
“The Promised Land” is another anthem, the flip side of “Badlands” — “I get up every morning and go to work each day/But your eyes go blind and your blood runs cold/Sometimes I feel so weak I just want to explode.”
“Factory” is … about Bruce Springsteen’s father going to work at the factory in the rain.
“Streets of Fire” is more about those lost nights — “I walk with angels that have no place.”
“Prove It All Night” — this was an entire album about endless nights leading into unchanging days, the same endless nights that inspired a million country songs, a million short stories, a million brilliant paintings and almost every sad thing Frank Sinatra ever sang.
“Darkness on the Edge of Town,” I think, is about the same guy from “Racing In The Street,” only now his woman has left him, and he tries to keep his secrets, and all he has are “things that can only be found/in the darkness on the edge of town.”
Anyway, this is what I hear when I listen to the songs. The album is dim and black and unrelenting, there is no escape. There is not one bar song on the album, not one beach song on the album, not one happy song on the album (even though right at this time Springsteen and Stevie Van Zandt messed around one day and wrote one of their happiest songs, “Sherry Darling” — they left it off the album). There is not even one hopeful song on the album. And yet, the album is not without hope. The music is the hope. The music soars and it swoops down, and it grinds, and it quiets to near silence. It is the music that insists on that notion, that notion deep inside, that it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive, the seminal lyrics from the album, I think, the thing that it’s all about in the end.
And, as you know, as you can see, the song “The Promise” is not on “Darkness.” The band played it, and they knew it was great, knew that it might be the best song that Bruce Springsteen ever wrote. And it fit on the album, it was in many ways everything that Springsteen was trying to say on the album. Only Springsteen could not let go of it. The song was too close to him. He has never been able to explain it any better than that. Some think “The Promise” is really about his fight with Appel for control of his own music. Some think it is about his fear of losing himself in success, his fear of losing what he thought was the best part of himself. Some think it is about his friends who got left behind.
In the end, of course, it doesn’t matter what The Promise means to Bruce Springsteen — doesn’t matter beyond trivia. Like all great songs, all great art, it only matters what it means to the person who accepts it. Springsteen did not put “The Promise” on “Darkness,” though for a while he played it at clubs. Then he stopped doing that too. By the time he released it in 1999 on 18 Tracks — the first version I first heard — it was a different song, more wistful, less bitter, more sad, less rebellious, all piano. And now, more than 30 years later, Bruce Springsteen releases an album of those songs that he recorded and left by the side of the road while making “Darkness.” There is the bar song “Rendezvous” and his raw version of “Because The Night” and the upbeat (if disturbing) “Fire” and a remarkable rock version of “Racing In The Streets” that sounds like it belongs on “Born To Run” (In this version, the car is a Ford, with a 383 — probably a Mercury Marauder Engine from the late 1950s). Springsteen is 61 now and he writes now that these songs are like old friends.
And, of course, “The Promise” is on this re-release. On this version, the song seems to be more personal and less universal than his piano version, it is more about what Bruce Springsteen was going through at the time — the Challenger is almost certainly Bruce’s music, the secret is almost certainly the depth of feeling he had for his music, and he sold it, he told it, and this has brought him to doom. It’s a beautiful version of the song, but I’m glad it’s not the first version I heard. Because the version I heard isn’t about Bruce Springsteen and Mike Appel and a fight for art. The version I heard is about a car ride to the factory …
For the lost lovers and all the fixed games
For the tires rushing by in the rain.
My memory, the one that echoes in my mind, is not of my time in the factory, or the work, or the people (I cannot remember their names) or the death I’d feel at the end of the day, or even the fear I had that this is all I would become. No, the memory is of that rainy day in North Carolina, my father driving, me staring out the window, both of us sitting in what would become my first car. That Pontiac did not have a 396. It struggled to go uphill.
And I think, for the first time, I understood, really understood, what my father did. I knew of other fathers who brought home their frustrations, their fears, the discouragement, but that wasn’t my Dad. My father did not drink. He did not rage. He did not race cars in the street. He smoked two packs of Kents a day, and he bowled on Sundays, and he played chess with a club one night a week. He coached my Little League team, and he drove all of us around the neighborhood so we could see the fireworks on July 4th, and he always bought champagne and caviar for New Year’s Eve. He came home with oil on his pants, and salami on his breath. He fell asleep in front of the television.
I don’t remember what we talked about in the car. Sports, maybe. Television, maybe. Factory politics, maybe. I only remember the rain — the tires rushing by in the rain — and the way the wipers squeaked against the windshield. I only remember the way the realization hit me — that this was my father’s life. I still had years and the promise to shield me. My father was smarter than I was — still is smarter than I am. My father, like all men of his generation (it seemed to me), could fix anything, could solve anything, could lift anything — I had none of these skills. My father also could play chess with grandmasters. My father could hit any target with a rifle (though he hated guns; he had learned to shoot in the Army). My father could dribble a soccer ball forever, it seemed, and throw pop-ups high above my imagination, and quote lines word for word from any song of the 1950s. And this was his life, this morning drive to the factory, every morning, for another sunless day in the howl of sweater machines.
I had this weird experience a couple of weeks ago — I was on a plane, and I was watching the movie Invincible, you know, the one about Vince Papale, the Philadelphia bartender who tried out and made the Eagles in the 1970s. I had seen it before. I have no idea why the movie was even playing — it’s a few years old. But I was watching, and it’s entertaining enough, and then there was this scene when Vince’s father was telling him how Steve Van Buren’s touchdown, the one that gave the Eagles their championship over the Chicago Cardinals in 1948, how that touchdown was what kept him going through all the painful days.
It was just a corny line in a corny movie on a plane heading to the next city and the next assignment, and dammit, I felt tears in my eyes. The same tears from The Promise. What kept my Dad going? It isn’t the sort of thing you talk about except in movies and songs. In the car that day, I finally figured it out … finally figured out what kept Dad going through all those long, dull, painful, agonizing days at the factory. He didn’t say it. I didn’t say it either. The rain kept coming down, but gently, a gentle rain, and we stopped for our biscuits, and then we pulled up to the factory just as the gray darkness turned to light.