Last true romantic of rock'n'roll

Bruce Springsteen is back, once more carrying the promise of greatness. By Richard Williams
The last track on Bruce Springsteen's new record is called "The Promise". It's 20 years old, and some people think it may be the best song he ever wrote. Muted and mournful, it describes a bunch of young men and their world of rusting hot rods and deserted drive-ins. Other Springsteen songs may have more intricacy, more hooks, more punch. None has more of the author's essence, a focus on the lives of ordinary people trapped in an existence that offers a glimpse of ecstasy but the prospect of oblivion.

For some reason or other, Springsteen chose not to release "The Promise" at the time he wrote it, while preparing the material that became Darkness On The Edge Of Town in 1978. Perhaps he felt it was too much of a synthesis of the themes, textual and musical, that he was exploring in detail in other songs (it repeats the title of one, "Thunder Road", as its chorus, and recycles the riff from the Crystals' "Then He Kissed Me" which he had already used, slowed down and transferred to piano, as the basis of "Racing In The Street"). Perhaps he just never got around to pulling off a studio performance that he was happy with (the version on the new CD was cut at the beginning of this year, at his home studio, with just his sombre voice and a piano).

At any rate, its belated appearance is a reminder that promises were Springsteen's special subject. Promises and faith and trust and the ties that bind, and the way that most of them were broken or betrayed. Once we got to know him, that sense of trust seemed to spill out of the songs and inhabit the singer himself. He was the man who kept the promise of rock'n'roll, a promise unspoken but implicit throughout its early history. He was the one who could redeem the music of Elvis Presley and Bo Diddley and Mitch Ryder and Sam the Sham and all their fellow pioneers from the compromises and evasions into which commerce or exhaustion had forced it.

Inevitably, that promise too was eventually broken - although there will be arguments about exactly when the betrayal became real. Maybe it was when he broke his solemn word that he would never play stadiums. Maybe it was when he went global, with the aid of a marketing campaign as ruthless as any rock'n'roll has seen. Maybe it was when he allowed the lean flexibility of his early music to solidify into a monolithic parody of itself. Maybe it was when he allowed his people to put out a greatest hits album containing unreleased cuts, an old and dismal trick, and then followed it with a flabby 4-CD set of mostly rejected material. Some people would say it was when he sacked the E Street Band, his buddies who had formed the supporting cast as he rose to fame, although that view shows little understanding of human nature, which might reasonably be expected to rebel after being cooped up with the same half-dozen people for 15 years or more.

Springsteen returns to Britain this week, reunited with the E Street Band, in what looks very much like an attempt to regain the state of grace he had attained when he made his first visit, almost a quarter of a century ago, for two shows at the Hammersmith Odeon, and in which he remained until the tour coinciding with the release of Born In The USA, his breakthrough album, nine years later.

The legendary Hammersmith shows, a week apart, were different in type, conditioned by Springsteen's distaste for an overhyped publicity campaign staged by his record company. The first concert was edgy and defiant, the second comparatively relaxed. Both, however, contained music of magnificent wit, directness and spontaneity, and were equally memorable in terms of showing what Springsteen had to offer, although it is almost impossible to explain now how fresh and original his vision then seemed.

His first album, Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ, had arrived in 1973, confronting a world in love with the California soft rock of James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt, the heavy metal of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, the progressive rock of King Crimson and Yes, and the glam-decadence of Bowie, Reed and Ferry. Whereas all these movements were turning away, in their various directions, from the origins of rock'n'roll, Springsteen seemed intent on forging himself in its purest flame, a decision widely misunderstood.

Initial attempts to pigeonhole him as the new Bob Dylan were based on little more than his early affiliation with John Hammond, the distinguished talent scout who signed both men to the same record label, and perhaps to something as innocent as the use of the word "diplomat" in the first line of the first track of his first album, inevitably and damagingly evocative of a similar usage in "Like A Rolling Stone". Of his contemporaries, Springsteen seemed then to have a genuine affinity only with Van Morrison - the Van Morrison, that is, of tight, rousing three-minute rock-and-soul songs like "Brown-Eyed Girl" and "Domino", not the crabby solipsist he was becoming.

The tone of Springsteen's songs arose from an unabashed and romantic love of all the music he had grown up adoring, but it was a matter of the spirit rather than the style. And as the word spread about the sort of shows he and his band gave, it became apparent that he was also redefining the experience of the rock concert, finally erasing its origins in the low- budget package shows of the Fifties while vaulting over the self-indulgence of the Woodstock era. He and his musicians took hold of mainstream rock'n'roll, turned it upside down, shook out all the trash, and gave it a new sense of possibility.

By the time he returned in 1981, playing the wonderfully varied material from The River, he was in full bloom. Tens of thousands gathered to see him perform the miracle of making a concrete barn feel like a small club on the New Jersey shore. In Manchester, he jumped into the audience and they carried him on their shoulders. At Wembley Arena, he opened the first of five shows with an eyes-shut blast through "Born To Run" aimed at exorcising the demons of the past.

This was a time when he was still able to wander along the Brighton sea front in the hours after a show, talking with insight and optimism about his aspirations. The last song on The River, a restrained, resonant country- style ballad called "Wreck On The Highway", seemed to offer a path to maturity. A year later, the solo album titled Nebraska pursued the intimacy while coarsening the texture. But in 1984, with the release of Born In The USA, he made a much firmer move in the opposite direction, beefing up the music, polishing the surface and simplifying the content in order to capture a mass audience.

Thereafter his shows became increasingly predictable, while his writing gradually lost its freshness. Although it was no surprise when he jettisoned the band at the end of the 1980s, his use of journeymen in their place made the 1992 tour as drab an experience as the albums, Human Touch and Lucky Town, from which the bulk of their material was drawn. Long criticised for concentrating on a narrow range of subjects, finally he found that his obsessions had worn bare.

Springsteen knew what was going wrong. A year later he released a single called "Streets Of Philadelphia", which represented a radical development of the stripped-down style of "Wreck On The Highway". The theme song for the film Philadelphia, it became one of his biggest hits. As if encouraged by its reception, in 1995 he released The Ghost Of Tom Joad, an acoustic album full of quietly angry songs inhabiting the worlds of John Steinbeck and Woody Guthrie.

A cynical old fan might look back at Springsteen's career and identify this as yet another astute move engineered, in all probability, by his manager, Jon Landau, a former rock journalist who understands the perverse workings of the critical mind. Such a view would have difficulty surviving an encounter with "Youngstown", the album's highlight, a song that does for the steelworkers of Ohio what Dylan did for the people of the Minnesota iron range in "North Country Blues" 30 years earlier.

And so he returns, with "The Promise" and a promise. By realigning himself with the E Street Band, he encourages the expectation of the sort of unconfined joy experienced by those who attended the shows of 1975 and 1981. But it can't be that simple any more, however hard we might wish it to be so, and the true measure of Springsteen will be found in the success with which he manages to evoke the remembered pleasures of the past while dealing the reality of the present and the hope of the future.

He has always res- erved the right to change without warning or permission. Some years ago, just as he was entering his artistic decline, I wrote in this paper about how he had first appeared to us in the guise of the young Al Pacino, small and quick and funny, before slowly metamorphosing into Sylvester Stallone, growing muscles where his brains had been. Intriguingly, and for whatever it may be worth, the latest pictures make him look like Robert De Niro.

Bruce Springsteen plays Manchester Evening News Arena (0161 930 8000), 1, 2 May; Birmingham NEC (0121 780 4133), 16 May; and Earl's Court SW5 (0171 373 8141), 18, 19, 21, 23 May.