He really started to find a purposeful working life with his fourth record, 1978's "Darkness on the Edge of Town," the subject of a documentary that had its world premiere Tuesday night at the Toronto International Film Festival.
After the enormous success of "Born to Run" three years earlier, Springsteen had been kept out of the studio because of a legal dispute with his former manager. When he finally began recording again with the E Street Band, a deluge of songs poured out, stories of anguish and doubt in an America mired in hard times and disillusioned after the Vietnam War.
On a personal front, Springsteen was struggling to preserve a connection with his working-class New Jersey roots amid his own good fortune.
"I decided that the key to that was maintaining a sense of myself, understanding that a part of my life had been mutated by my success," Springsteen said in a conversation with actor Edward Norton in front of a festival audience a few hours before "The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town" premiered. "There was a thrust of self-preservation more than anything else, more than a political conscience or a social conscience."
Directed by Thom Zimny, who made a similar making-of documentary about "Born to Run," "The Promise" blends new interviews with Springsteen and his band mates with archival footage of the rehearsal and recording sessions for "Darkness on the Edge of Town."
The documentary airs Oct. 7 on HBO, then will be included in a CD and DVD boxed set release of "Darkness on the Edge of Town" due in stores Nov. 16.
The set will include live shows on DVD from the "Darkness" era and two CDs of songs Springsteen recorded but left off the finished album, which includes such tunes as "Badlands," "Racing in the Street," "The Promised Land" and "Streets of Fire."
Band mates say in the documentary that Springsteen wrote about 70 songs that were considered for the album. During a year of recording, the band worked obsessively to hone them, only to have Springsteen set them aside and move on to something else.
"I'd work the band for three days on a piece of music, throw it out," then repeat the process, Springsteen said in the session with Norton, who became friends with the rocker after they met at a concert 11 years ago.
The album was meticulously carved out of a "big chunk of stone," reduced to a final lineup of songs that fit the brooding tone he had aimed for, Springsteen said.
"It was an angry record. I took the 10 toughest songs I had," Springsteen said.
At the start of their chat, Norton told Springsteen that fans had so embraced his songs that "I don't even know if they're yours anymore. People own them, and they've become part of the tapestry of their lives."
During their conversation, Springsteen talked about earlier musical innovators, from Elvis Presley to James Brown to Bob Dylan. He described how, as "creatures of the radio," he and the band had been steeped entirely in music, but that his influences widened in the mid-1970s to include authors such as James M. Cain, Jim Thompson and Flannery O'Connor, and filmmakers such as John Ford, Martin Scorsese and many film noir directors.
Springsteen said he and the band put themselves through hell making "Darkness on the Edge of Town," working around-the-clock and forgoing any life outside the music.
"The way we did it was so hard that it often felt like we were doing it wrong," Springsteen said. But "we weren't doing it wrong. We were just doing it the only way we knew how."