The Promise

So I’m giving a presentation in my graduate class tonight on Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town and to start off I’m going to be talking about this song. Springsteen wrote “The Promise” in 1976, the year after Born to Run was released, and while he recorded it in the studio and played it in concert a few dozen times, it didn’t actually come out until 1999 , when he cut a new solo version and snuck it out on a little-noticed compilation.

An amazing song, and a key to understanding the album, even in—or maybe especially because of—its absence, like (in a very different way) the exclusion of “Fire” and “Because the Night,” both of which were written for the album and both of which went on to become huge hits for other artists, but which he kept off Darkness, since they didn’t fit the album’s larger theme.

“The Promise” does, though, perfectly. Perhaps too much so, with its quotes from and allusions to earlier songs, especially the chorus, which hits a hardcore fan like a brick. It would have taken an album already surprising in its maturity—its darkness, one might say—and made it simply too grim, too pessimistic.

Amazing song, though.

The Promise
Johnny works in a factory and Billy works downtown
Terry works in a rock and roll band
Lookin’ for that million-dollar sound
I got a little job down in Darlington
But some nights I don’t go
Some nights I go to the drive-in, or some nights I stay home

I followed that dream just like those guys do up on the screen
I drove my Challenger down Route 9 through the dead ends and all the bad scenes
And when the promise was broken, I cashed in a few of my dreams

Well now I built that Challenger by myself
But I needed money and so I sold it
I lived a secret I should’a kept to myself
But I got drunk one night and I told it
All my life I fought that fight
That fight you can’t ever win
Every day it just gets harder to live
This dream I’m believing in

Thunder Road, oh baby you were so right
Thunder Road, there’s something dyin’ on the highway tonight

I won big once and I hit the coast
But somehow I paid the big cost
Inside I felt like I was carryin’ the broken spirits
Of all the other ones who lost
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 goes cold

I followed that dream through the southwestern flats
That dead ends in two-bit bars
And when the promise was broken I was far away from home
Sleepin’ in the back seat of a borrowed car

Thunder Road, for the lost lovers and all the fixed games
Thunder Road, for the tires rushing by in the rain
Thunder Road, remember Billy what we’d always say
Thunder Road, we were gonna take it all and throw it all away


About the other scott peterson

Writer of comics and books and stuff.
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3 Responses to The Promise

  1. I’m going to see Springsteen for the first time on Monday. That’s right, on St. Patty’s day.
    OK, I’m way late, but I was a metal head in high school and a punk in the eighties…. never had the right opportunity before.

  2. Meredith says:

    Hope it went well for you!

  3. scott says:

    I’m going to see Springsteen for the first time on Monday. That’s right, on St. Patty’s day.
    Well, sure and begorrah, I hope me fellow mick Bruce puts on a fine show. I suspect he will, since he always does. The very last song should be particularly appropriate this Monday.
    OK, I’m way late, but I was a metal head in high school and a punk in the eighties…. never had the right opportunity before.
    Bruce’s best early band was a proto-metal band, first as a power trio and later quartet. His guitar prowess is stunning to those who only know his later work—he sounds remarkably like Eric Clapton fronting, I dunno, Deep Purple, maybe. Only, you know, not as hideous as that combination might sound. 🙂
    And, you know, he loved the Clash, and was great friends with the Ramones—he actually wrote “Hungry Heart” for them, at Joey’s request. He’d already been around too long to be even remotely considered punk, but by his fourth album, he actually had an awful lot in common with ’em.
    Hope it went well for you!
    It went okay, thanks. Could have been better but could have been quite a bit worse. I wish I’d remembered to quote my sister-in-law who said, upon seeing the above video, “Wow. I’ve never seen anyone with clothes on seem so naked.”

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