Thunder Roadwork

Despite some glaring omissions, Tracks cuts an intriguing parallel path through Springsteen's career

You wonder whether Bruce Springsteen knew he was going to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this coming January when he put together Tracks, his new four-CD collection of outtakes, B-sides and demos. If he wasn't going to the Hall of Fame already, this boxed set certainly makes a case for inclusion. Not too many rockers have leftovers as tasty as these.

Of course, Springsteen turned a major corner toward racking up Hall of Fame credentials in 1984 when he put out Born in the U.S.A. Within months, his image dominated MTV and major national magazines. The barrage was far heavier than the lucky publicity hit of making the cover of Time and Newsweek the same week in 1975. It was so heavy, in fact, that Ronald Reagan, always a preeminent rock fan, quoted the lyrics to "Born in the U.S.A." while campaigning for reelection. When the president quotes your lyrics, even if he's too dumb to understand them, you've truly arrived.

The fact is that even Def Ronnie (or, more accurately, his speech writers) wouldn't have missed the point if the Jersey boy had released the version of "Born in the U.S.A." that's included on Tracks. This dark, blues-based rough draft of the song sounds like a leftover from the stark, despairing Nebraska album. (Actually, Springsteen was working on Nebraska and Born in the U.S.A. concurrently, but released them two years apart.)

Like Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen has been bootlegged relentlessly because he's been so prolific and because the songs he doesn't release are often as good as the ones he does. In a way, Tracks is Springsteen's Biograph, containing many songs that have been bootlegged and are familiar to fans. It gives Springsteen and Columbia Records a chance to make money off material that bootleggers have appropriated for years.

In some cases, it gives them a second chance to do so. Seven singles popped off the Born in the U.S.A. album. None of the B-sides was included on that album, but they certainly weren't left off because they were inferior. One of them, the driving rocker "Pink Cadillac," actually became one of Springsteen's most popular numbers from the '80s. All of the Born in the U.S.A. B-sides are included here, as are the B-sides to singles from the subsequent albums Tunnel of Love, Human Touch and Lucky Town.

However, even with all those non-album B-sides, Springsteen still had a large stockpile of material left over from sessions. For the most part, we're not talking alternate takes here, but full-fledged songs that didn't fit in with the concept of a particular album.

This, of course, drives cultists crazy. While Tracks goes some distance to putting Springsteen bootleggers out of business, the set is dogged by some strange omissions. For instance, the soulful ballad "The Fever" (later given away to Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes) was on the verge of becoming a radio hit in 1974 when Springsteen decided he hated the song and chose not to release it. Much prized among Springsteen fans, this tune seemed to be an obvious candidate for inclusion on Tracks, but it's nowhere to be found. Similarly, the much-hyped 1976 track "The Promise" (which Springsteen worshiper Dave Marsh would have you believe is the very story of rock 'n' roll condensed into a single song) is conspicuously absent. Also, what about studio takes of "Because the Night" or "Fire," both of which were left off Darkness on the Edge of Town?

If Springsteen's choices are occasionally puzzling, Tracks nonetheless makes it clear that his career grew the way it did because of his compulsive attention to details such as song selection. The exuberant "Pink Cadillac," for instance, doesn't have one shred of regret, nostalgia or darkness to it. Musically, it might have been used to relieve the downbeat mood of Born in the U.S.A., but Springsteen preferred to let rockers like "Bobby Jean," "Glory Days" and "I'm Goin' Down" raise the energy level. The difference is clear. The lyrics of each of those songs had some cold sweats attached to them. On Tracks, "Pink Cadillac" injects some sexual fever and muscle between the country-inflected message of "Man at the Top" and the gentle love tune "Two for the Road."

Similarly, it's difficult to imagine the soul of "Give the Girl a Kiss" fitting into the somber mood of Darkness. Musically, the song is a throwback to the bar-band R&B of Springsteen's first two albums, but lyrically it's much more concise, and actually presages the "Sherry Darling"-type tunes that kept The River from drowning in its own melancholy.

What Tracks shows most clearly is how much Springsteen narrows his focus when it comes to making albums. For all the exuberance that he exudes onstage, every one of his albums is downcast, even when the music throbs with energy. (In a way, this makes him the spiritual father of Metallica, doesn't it?) So the whole realm of incandescent, visceral hedonism and Top 40 pop romance was out of bounds as he crafted the "serious" statements of his albums. Tracks offers proof, such as "Where the Bands Are" and especially "TV Movie" (a tune that outlines a very likely scenario: "They're gonna make a TV movie out of me"), that Bruce did indeed lighten up in the studio sometimes.

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