Counting Down Bruce Springsteen Excerpt: #31 “The Promise

(Here is another excerpt from my new book Counting Down Bruce Springsteen: His 100 Finest Songs. Another to come on Monday.)

31. “The Promise” (from 18 Tracks, 1999)

The Great White Whale of all Bruce Springsteen unreleased tracks, “The
Promise” gained its massive reputation based on live performances of it
during the period after Born to Run and before Darkness on the Edge of
Town. It finally got the grand stage it deserved when it was used as the
title track to Springsteen’s collection of Darkness outtakes from 2010.

Yet the track information listed above shows the album 18 Tracks,
which was a 1999 single CD–sampler of the best songs from 1998’s
Tracks (along with four unreleased fan favorites). “The Promise” was
included in that relatively unheralded collection, and it is that recording
that earns the song this hallowed ranking in the Springsteen countdown.

Before we get to the reason for that, there is some important information
about the song’s history that will help to explain. Since it was written
around the time Springsteen first became embroiled in a lawsuit with
former manager and producer Mike Appel, most people assume that the
legal imbroglio was the impetus for the song. While he has never come
out and said that was exactly the case, Springsteen has hinted that the
personal nature of the song is what kept it from being deployed on Darkness.
Concerning the song, he told actor Edward Norton in a 2010 interview
to promote The Promise documentary at the Toronto Film Festival,
“I left [‘The Promise’] out because it felt too self-referential and I was
uncomfortable with it. Maybe it was too close to the story I was actually
living at the moment”.

That may have been the case, but it’s also clear from the evidence on
The Promise that the studio version done by the band in 1978 robbed the
song of some of its power. The slow tempo seemed plodding with the
backing of the full band, and the arrangement lacked any real distinguishing
characteristic to make it special.

That’s why, when it was time to put it on 18 Tracks, Springsteen went
into a studio to record the song anew in a solo piano version. That version
is bittersweet magic. Springsteen’s husky vocal fits the narrative better, since it better represents the passage of time that has separated the narrator
from his ideals, now in tatters. The simple piano chords also project an
achingly elegiac tone. Do yourself a favor and search out this take if all
you’ve heard is the full-band take and compare and contrast them yourself.

In any case, “The Promise” is fascinating for the way that Springsteen,
just a few years removed from the heights of Born to Run, negates the
irrepressible spirit of that album. When he invokes “Thunder Road” here,
that famed highway that once promised to take him out of a “town full of
losers” is now despoiled: “There’s something dyin’ down on the highway

It’s fascinating that Springsteen inhabits one of the working stiffs in
the song instead of the guy working in a “rock-and-roll band lookin’ for
that million-dollar sound.” Maybe that was the byproduct of a guy a bit
jaded about the rock establishment. Or perhaps Springsteen was acknowledging
how, but for the grace of his incredible talent and a little luck, he
could easily have been struggling in his own work life.

“The Promise” calls into question all of the archetypes on
which “Thunder Road” and many of the hopeful songs on Born to Run
were built. Not only is the highway cast in a shadowy light in this update,
but the cherry car, in this case a Challenger, goes from the narrator’s
pride and joy to just another piece of ephemera to be sold. And when this
guy does make it out of town and gets a chance to fulfill the hope expressed
at the end of “Thunder Road,” the end result hardly seems worth
the effort: “Well I won big once I hit the coast, hey but I paid the big

The self-awareness of this guy is a far cry from the beat-the-world
naiveté found on Born to Run, which is why it sounds better when the
more mature version of Springsteen sings the song. That voice evokes
every mile traveled and every deep wound suffered, especially in this
powerful, summarizing couplet: “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.”

Springsteen implies that this character represents everyone who has
ever become disenchanted with life as their innermost longings are proven
to be counterfeit. He ends up all alone and far from home, but in the
song’s final moments, he still exhibits a loving nostalgia for those old friends who lived and loved hard and flamed out even harder. Maybe
“The Promise” hit way too close to home for Springsteen at the time he
wrote it, but the betrayals and defeats it eloquently catalogs are universal
experiences in a world so hard on fragile dreams.

(E-mail me at or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. Counting Down Bruce Springsteen: His 100 Finest Songs is available now in the U.S. from all major online booksellers. In Europe, pre-orders are available for a scheduled October release date.)



One Comment on “Counting Down Bruce Springsteen Excerpt: #31 “The Promise”

  1. […] Counting Down Bruce Springsteen Excerpt: #31 "The Promise […]

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