There are driving songs, then there are driving songs.
I am roaring down the I-87 motorway in New York state through the Adirondacks, still bony and unsnowed, with The Promise in the CD deck of my Hyundai Elantra - a set of wheels hardly worthy of the music. While there is much to be said for Mötorhead or The Clash, for Robert Johnson or Tom Waits or Sam Cooke or the Supremes as you blast through the mountainous area between Montreal and Manhattan, Bruce Springsteen is the great romantic mythmaker of the road - of car and highway as escape, as dreammaker/breaker.
As much as he fused Elvis and Dylan, he synthesised the great American rock'n'roll progenitors of the highway anthem, of the hot-rodding penitent, fugitive and seeker, the lost souls, sinners and saints of the interstate. The car and the highway had been present in rock'n'roll since its (arguably) very first song, Rocket 88, and had been used to great metaphorical effect by Chuck Berry. But Springsteen was writing with more than cars and girls in mind. He was aiming for blacktop Jersey Tolstoy.
In 1975, Born To Run was a fireworks display, the joyous escape, the "opera on the turnpike", bookended by Darkness on the Edge of Town, which met punk/new wave with a sinew-lean, coiled and angry sound shot through with the consequences of that flight to freedom: promised lands, wedding bands, the quicksand between youthful flight and adult recrimination.
Filling the gap between them comes The Promise, a double CD, offering a revealingly 360 degree look at three lost years and what he left out of that story. Featuring 21 of the 60 songs recorded between 1976 and 1978 (the deluxe box is a six-disc set including live DVDs), the package is not just a reappraisal of the definitive Darkness, with alternative versions and unreleased songs, but a missing link in the American R'n'R journey.
Start with this: The Promise is no boxed set of Z-sides and unrecordable castoffs. Neither is it idle memory lane meandering or a cash-in - despite the price of that mega-box. The Promise would have stood up as a formal release, the equal of neither Born nor Darkness to be sure, but a legitimate transition between them. So what kind of perfectionist (as Springsteen notoriously is) kills off dozens of viable songs in the adrenal flush of a young career?
Well, a great postmodern novel should house a vein of irony. While Bruce was writing all these highway paens and laments, he was himself stalled - gridlocked in a legal dispute with villainous former manager and friend, Mike Appel, who wanted to hold Springsteen to an onerous contract (he signed his first one on the hood of a car) and prevented him from entering a studio for three years. Holed up in a Jersey farmhouse with various members of his band and a suite of lawyers on speeddial, unable to … motor, he wrote and jammed and recorded, and refined a vision and persona that would make him both rock star and auteur.
Think about how much money Bruce has made for other people. Bunkered in the farmhouse, he sold songs, both to circumvent Appel's royalties clawback and because he was writing them at the pace of a dying Keats. Patti Smith had the only chart presence of her career with her (admittedly irreplaceable) version of Because the Night. The Pointer Sisters did okay with Fire. Southside Johnny, Gary US Bonds, Joan Jett, all had hits with Springsteen songs - Manfred Mann had a number one hit with Blinded by the Light.
He could afford to sell them. He housed the engine.
And there is enough on The Promise to reveal his fascination of the road as a metaphor. In One Way Street, Rendezvous, Wrong Side of the Street, Breakaway, the motorway weaves through as the setting, the siren and the sunderer of the dream and the star-crossed love affair.
Fuelie heads and a Hurst on the floor; there's a lot to be said for it, no? At the risk of violating the enviro-consensus, there is much to be said for an America of open highways, muscular engines and everybody on the run. They still exist, between or west or south of the major cities. But these days, there will be no word-drunk Dylanesque rock'n'roller showing up with these songs in the age of the Green ZeroFuel Minicar. "I got a 2010 Prius with a battery cell / carbon-neutral and a hydrogen soul … ." No, it doesn't quite ring with asphalt ambition and confidence.
Of course, all this fleeing, hiding, failing, the drag-racing and two-lane duelling - Bruce wasn't doing any of that. He's a writer. The unconfirmed rumour held that, back then, he couldn't even drive stick. He sat in his room with a Telecaster, looked out at the neon reflecting from deserted rain-slicked streets in Freehold, New Jersey, as the streetlights swayed in the stormwinds, and rhapsodised. He ordered it into meaning beyond simple existence.
And liking his metaphors V8 and marquee-sized, he unveiled in American rock'n'roll a language that had always lived inside its unsculpted stone. No one would deny that Springsteen hasn't just hyper-romanticised the road: he's written and rocked it to the point where he is himself a sywmbol for the will to life. And there's no hyperbole, Mary, in being glad you're alive.
Now, drive it like you stole it.