My favorite part of The Promise, a documentary about the making of Bruce Springsteen's 1978 album Darkness on the Edge of Town that was on pay TV this month and will be available for sale next month, is when we learn that one of the many reasons recording took longer than it should have is that Springsteen felt he could hear the sound of Max Weinberg's stick hitting the drum. That ruined the sound of the song for him, and many hours were devoted to making the drum sound all drum and no stick. Springsteen sits in the control room, says, monotonously, "stick … stick … stick" as he hears the playback, and you can feel the whole recording operation grind to a stop.
There are two responses to this.
First, it's fascinating to watch an artist so dedicated to his work that he's willing to put everything on hold until a minor mistake, one few in his audience would ever suspect is there, is fixed.
Second, he's nuts.
How much attention to detail is too much? I've spent my career working with creative people and often the hardest part of such an exchange is knowing when you're done, when you've taken it as far as you should, when it's time to share it with other people. Different people have different ideas about when it's done. Sometimes, going obsessive gets you Proust's In Search of Lost Time, which seems like a fair trade. Sometimes, though, sculpting a work of art for way too long gets you Guns N Roses' Chinese Democracy, which didn't work out for anyone.
The Springsteen documentary leads to another question: How much of a good thing is too much? It's part of a six-disc boxed set coming out next month, which also includes a remastered version of the original Darkness on the Edge of Town, two CDs of outtakes from those sessions, two concert films, and some more video esoterica. I've written at length about Springsteen, so I won't bore you here with an extended analysis of Darkness (brief synopsis: breakthrough sound and songs, unified tone, overdramatic singing that he dropped live). There are people very excited about this, who can't get enough. There's nothing wrong with serving the most dedicated parts of your audience (hence this), but I wonder whether all these additions, however worthy, distract from the 10 taut performances at the core of this repackage, the record he decided was worth putting out in the first place. The dessert is now much bigger than the main course.
In the early days of CDs, a reissue of Richard and Linda Thompson's amazing Shoot Out the Lights came out with a bonus track tacked onto the end. It was an adequate song, but nowhere near the quality of the performances on the originally released record. It was meant to add to the original; instead, it subtracted. There was a reason it was left off the original release. When that reissue was reissued, as seems to happen every few years with many records, the extra track was gone. The last song on the record was still the last song. Everything was as it should be. And now the record is coming out again, in its fourth CD incarnation — as part of a boxed set.