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.
One of the real finds of the album, though, is "The Wish," one of Springsteen's reflections on his youth, recorded during the Tunnel of Love sessions. Unlike some of the other songs, the reason for excluding it from its intended album is a mystery. Musically and lyrically, it's completely of a piece with the other Tunnel of Love songs. Springsteen remembers the sounds of his mother getting ready for work, and dancing with her. Although it's primarily an upbeat sentiment, there's an underlying sadness that he tries to run away from by singing, "If you're looking for a sad song, well, I ain't going to play." Maybe it cut too close to the bone in 1987.
Tracks also gives fans the opportunity to see how Springsteen, who notoriously nicks lines and phrases from other people's songs, also cops lines from himself. More than even his official releases indicate, he's consistently revisited ideas, sometimes many years apart, as he does with "Brothers Under the Bridges" from 1983 and "Brothers Under the Bridge," from the sessions for the Woody Guthrie-like album The Ghost of Tom Joad. In the first song, the itinerants under the bridges drive cars that the narrator and his brother admire. They're romantic figures to young teenagers. In the latter song, the brothers are homeless veterans who just want to be left alone, and the narrator is one of them.
Or take the case of the fairly well-known River-era track "Be True," which is included here. It was recorded just two months after "Mary Lou," which seems good enough for release. However, it's just the blueprint for the edgier "Be True," with almost identical lyrics, but a completely different musical landscape.
On Tracks, it's more obvious than ever that the post-Born to Run Springsteen seeks to be so economical with words that he's willing to rework key phrases in different settings. Whereas the early verbose Springsteen invested so much ambition into each composition that songwriting became a burdensome process, the latter-day Bruce sweats more over the combinations of songs that will create a profound whole.
For all the outtakes found here, the most important gems on Tracks are demos of tunes that made it to Greetings From Asbury Park, Springsteen's patchy debut album.
For instance, the pretentious folk ballad "Mary, Queen of Arkansas" has always been the must-skip track on that album. That version is just a dirge, and Springsteen's vocals go beyond edgy to just plain laughable. However, on the demo for the song, which kicks off Tracks, Springsteen takes the tune at a relaxed pace that lets the words flow naturally rather than histrionically. Even if the words are ridiculous, the feel is not unlike what he later achieved on Nebraska and The Ghost of Tom Joad.
In fact, the subsequent demos--"It's Hard to Be a Saint in the City," "Growin' Up" and "Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street"--show how fully formed Springsteen was before he started recording. Sure, he had been too infatuated with extravagant word play, but nobody's ever seen that as a downside for Elvis Costello. Moreover, Springsteen with just a guitar on these humble demos already shows the total command of his material that anyone who's been to a Springsteen concert raves about.
On Greetings, The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle and even Born to Run, Springsteen's vocals were heavily affected, a caricature of the voice that sings these demos. The vocals on the demos have the same self-confidence that only began to emerge on record with Darkness on the Edge of Town. Did the ambition to present a wide-screen sound--part Dylan, part Detroit soul, part Roy Orbison--get in the way of just being all Bruce?
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Springsteen seems to recognize that here. He devotes just one of the CDs to representing his first four albums, while the second disc covers The River, Nebraska and Born in the U.S.A. The latter album also dominates the third disc, which is shared with the Tunnel of Love sessions. The fourth disc covers the subsequent three albums, Lucky Town, Human Touch and The Ghost of Tom Joad.
This sequencing also points up the way his album-making process evolved as his life changed. By the time Born to Run ran its sales course, Springsteen was a rock star, not just a scuffler. Still, like many people from blue-collar Jersey, he didn't want to forget his roots, to make people think he felt he was above them.
First of all, this would have been suicide. He connected with his fans precisely because he was like them and was able to articulate a hollow dissatisfaction with the tidy lawns and homogeneity of the suburban enclaves growing around them. Second, when a person comes from such roots and is raised with a dose of Catholic guilt, putting on airs is not an option. It's called being "poor in spirit." The only option is to work very hard, partly to show that you belong there and partly because you're not sure you do.
Few stars of Springsteen's magnitude have ever worked as hard as he did in the studio. The bigger he became, the harder he worked to justify his status. As Tracks proves, that hard work bore good fruit.