"I lived a secret I should'a kept to myself
But I got drunk one night and I told it"
- The Promise, The Promise
A secret or a past transgression is a common theme in Bruce’s songs (see our recent post on “Unsatisfied Heart”). In “The Promise” the reveal of a secret is the inciting incident that the leads the song’s narrator to reflect on his life in this painful tale of regret.
There’s a quality to this song, most specifically in the lyrics highlighted above, which makes me think the narrator is talking about his closeted homosexuality. While there isn’t conclusive evidence for this and the familiar iconography of the Challenger driving down Route 9 invokes blue collar Middle America, lost potential, and “Racing in the Streets,” there are a few lyrics that give room for speculation in regard to sexuality.
It could be in reference to a number of things, but the phrase “living a secret” directly describes a profound difference between the private and public self. There’s also the character of Billy, who bookends the song with his reference in the opening lyric and his return in the conclusion:
Thunder Road, Billy and me we'd always say /
Thunder Road, we were gonna take it all and throw it all away
Bruce has told many a tale of intense male friendship that may or may not be romantic, “Backstreets” being an often cited example. In the book, “Runaway dream: Born to run and Bruce Springsteen's American vision,” Louis P. Masur debunks the homosexual reading of “Backstreets” by citing live performances where Bruce’s storytelling reveals Terry to be a girl. Similarly, most analyses of “The Promise” lump it with “Racing in the Streets” and tales of lost youth and inability to escape a dead-end existence.
But I think there is room for interpretation here and the sorrow in “The Promise” doesn’t need to be confined to the inability to escape the small town. In the opening lyric, we learn that Billy works downtown – and in a sense – has already escaped. While the final lyrics might be lamenting the narrator’s inability to join Billy in his success, there’s also a sense that in his dreams, the two of them were going to start a life together.
Regardless of the nature of the narrator’s secret, Bruce captures the pain of living with something you feel must be kept to yourself and yet, just how easy it is to let it slip.