November 17, 2010


The Promise (Joe Psnanski, 11/16/10)

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, move boxes of yarn in and out, and, one day a week, Thursday, unloaded 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 yet. 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 with those people. I wasn't good at this; I didn't understand the fury and desperation of the voices on the end of dial tones. 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 viewed as a non-prospect. I'm only 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 was a strange time 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 also 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 single song sound exactly like what he was hearing in his head no matter how many different ways he had to stretch the songs. But at least with Born To Run, there was a clear vision everyone could understand. Springsteen simply wanted to make the greatest rock and roll album that had ever been made. That's was 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. This was the time when he would give "Because The Night" to the punk star Patti Smith -- her biggest hit. This was the time when 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.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at November 17, 2010 5:52 AM
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