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Musician Bruce Springsteen speaks on stage at "The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town" premiere during the 5th International Rome Film Festival at the Auditorium Parco Della Musica on November 1, 2010 in Rome, Italy.
Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images Europe
The near-simultaneous rereleases of deluxe versions of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' Damn The Torpedoes (which came out last Tuesday) and Bruce Springsteen's Darkness On The Edge Of Town (out today) is one of those odd confluences in record release schedules that pops up from time to time. The same thing, for instance, happened last year when Foo Fighters' Greatest Hits and Nirvana's Live At Reading showed up a week apart.
While that could arguably have been seen as one album drafting off the other for the free publicity, the Petty/Springsteen simultaneity (which sounds like a Big Bang Theory episode title) seems more accidental. But it's also more telling, because the albums getting the royal treatment represent much the same record at the same point in each performer's respective career. A side-by-side comparison of the reissues pretty much nails the difference between the two artists.
Petty: It's a CD. A double CD, to be sure. (About which see below.) But a cardboard-sleeve CD that you wouldn't glance at twice nonetheless.
Springsteen: Holy cow. The Darkness package is a substantial beast, a spiral-bound book encased in one of those boxy slipcover dealies that I'm sure have an actual name in publishing circles, but I don't know what it is, so let's stick with "boxy slipcover dealies." There's a distinct heft. When you're holding it in your hands, you'll know it.
Petty: Well, the lyric sheet includes an excellent essay by David Fricke that's informative and economical, making it a solid fit with Torpedoes. That might not sound like much, but it offers an outside perspective on the contentious legal wrangling providing background of the album, which is just about the only thing missing from the Springsteen set.
Springsteen: The aforementioned book is designed as a recreation of Springsteen's working notebooks, with multiple drafts of lyrics, prospective track running orders and what appear to be some brainstorms over the album title (alongside photos attached scrapbook-style). It would probably be Springsteen-fan catnip as a coffee table book even without the discs that are its actual raison d'être: a remastered version of Darkness, two CDs of unreleased material and three DVDs covering live and behind-the-scenes footage. To access any of them, you have to remove the discs from five independent layers of protection: slipcover, sleeve, notebook page, notebook, boxy slipcover dealie. In a couple of ways, you really have to want this thing.
The contentious legal wrangling
Petty: Was fighting MCA Records for the right not to be on MCA Records, partly because he'd never signed with MCA in the first place. (His original label, Shelter, had been absorbed into the major.) Petty spent up to eight hours a day in court and declared bankruptcy to avoid going hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. Oh, and he was recording Torpedoes at the same time, which, once he won his freedom (while remaining on an MCA imprint), turned out to be the popular breakthrough that he needed in order to have the clout to fight his label in the first place. And it was the last time Petty ever had a beef with his label, right up until his next album.
Springsteen: Was fighting former manager Mike Appel for the right to make albums without Mike Appel as his manager. It was protracted enough to make the delay between albums a then-agonizing three years, during which Springsteen recorded Darkness without knowing whether it would ever see the light of day. Spoiler alert: it did.
Petty: Casual. While Springsteen always believed in the redemptive and transformative power of rock and roll, Petty just wanted to play it. There's a difference. Note how the theme-defining lyric that follows the title of “Even The Losers” ("...get lucky sometimes") just kinda popped out of his mouth while he was recording his vocal. Can't get more casual than that.
Springsteen: Obsessive. As the numerous iterations of lyrics and track listings can attest, it's a picture of an album being slowly chipped into shape. Concerned that Born To Run made him a one-hit wonder, Springsteen aimed to follow it up with another Big Statement.
Petty: Not much. The bonus disc includes a half-hour of music, nine songs, of which four are simply different versions of cuts found elsewhere on the set. Don't get me wrong: the live "Shadow Of A Doubt (A Complex Kid)" smokes. But not only does it suggest that Petty wasn't blessed/cursed with Springsteen's prolificacy, it raises the uncomfortable question of why somebody who once sued his record label to keep the list price of his records down is putting out a two-CD reissue that could easily fit on a single disc. For shame!
Springsteen: Holy (another) cow. Lending credence to the claim that Springsteen had over 70 songs that he whittled down to the 10-song Darkness, the two discs of the rarities collection The Promise total over an hour and a half of unreleased music. The small handful of cuts that duplicate Darkness material differ from the final recordings in substantial ways.
"Racing In The Street ('78)," for example, has a more muscular arrangement and alternate lyrics; the album version would zero in on the story told in the last verse, expand it and jettison the rest. Shrewdly, even the Boss's rarities come hooked with hits of a sort, as The Promise includes the first official studio release of his takes on two songs he'd hand off to other performers: the Pointer Sisters' "Fire" and Patti Smith's "Because The Night." Your wallet, however, would like to remind you that The Promise is the only thing included that's available on its own, independent of the box.
Petty: None. But for those willing to do a little legwork on their own, there's Classic Albums: Damn The Torpedoes, the DVD release of the VH1 Classic special that came out this past August in maybe one of those less-coincidental release-schedule quirks we were talking about earlier. While it's not as concerned about mythmaking in the same way as the Springsteen documentary, it does an engagingly straightforward job of explaining how a damn good album got made.
The story of Jim Keltner's invaluable contribution to "Refugee" is one of those "Wait, there was a cowbell in 'Don't Fear The Reaper'?!" moments, and Mike Campbell's discussion of the guitar on the album's cover makes you wonder if there's enough regret in the world for the guy who sold it to him. Heck, buy the DVD and the Torpedoes rerelease and you've still spent less than half of what the Darkness collection will run you.
Springsteen: Holy (one more) cow. The feature-length The Promise: The Making Of Darkness On The Edge Of Town takes care of the almost complete lack of background info in the book. Taken in conjunction with the rehearsal footage on the second disc, it also shows that for somebody operating in the days before home video cameras were a cheap and common consumer commodity, Springsteen was almost obsessively thorough in documenting what was going on in the studio. (For legal reasons? Who cares?)
There's also an audience-less live runthrough of the entirety of Darkness filmed in 2009 with the E Street Band stripped back to its 1978 lineup (with current organist Charles Giordano standing in for the late Danny Federici). The final disc is a complete three-hour 1978 concert that suffers from Max Weinberg's drums sounding like damp cardboard, and... Nope, that's all I can think of. It's fantastic.
The album itself
Petty: Torpedoes was already remastered in 2001, albeit without the bonus tracks. Which, honestly, is fair enough, considering that it's Petty's masterpiece, the one absolutely definitive (non-hits) album you need in order to understand him.
Springsteen: This is the first reissue of Darkness since its original CD release. It's also notable that it's only the second Springsteen album to get a sonic scrub, after 2005's similarly-accoutered (but smaller-scaled) Born To Run box set. And it's all in the service of a transitional work, albeit a five-star one of a type and intensity that nobody could pull off but Springsteen.
Songs that mention the album's engineer by name
Petty: "What Re You Doin' In My Life?" ends on a repeated chant of "Shelly Shelly, Shelly Yakus" that's nearly indecipherable without a lyric sheet. It's unclear who would be responsible for burying this in the mix, rather than putting it front and center. What do you call the guy whose job that is?
Springsteen: In The Promise's spirited "Ain't Good Enough For You," Springsteen sings, "Babe, I tried to make the latest scene/Hittin' cool, just like Jimmy Iovine." Not long after manning the boards for Darkness, Iovine would go on to produce... Damn The Torpedoes.
Okay, maybe the two reissues aren't a coincidence after all.