Springsteen Backtracks - Columbia Box Surveys Music Off The Record

Billboard, 1998-11-07, by: Melinda Newman
"Bruce Springsteen: Tracks," a four-CD set coming from Columbia Nov. 10, offers listeners a road map to the artist's musical journey, albeit via an alternate route. The collection features 66 tunes, 56 of them previously unreleased, that were left off his albums not because they didn't meet his high standards but because, he says, they didn't fit in with the tone or themes he mined for each set. For Springsteen, "Tracks" is a way to let the listeners into his creative process, a chance to broaden their understanding of how each record was created.

The idea behind the set was not, as he says, to "put out the seventh or eighth outtake from 'Born In The U.S.A.' or 'Thunder Road' " but to deliver to his fans companions to the music they already knew so well. "I tried to just choose music that was as vital today as when we cut it," he says in an exclusive talk with Billboard, noting that the songs were culled from between 200 and 300 tunes. "It was like taking 25 years of music and making a new record with it. If you follow the trail of it, it traces alongside the path that my other records cut, but in a slightly different way. You get these all new and different songs that take you on a similar journey."

The primarily chronological project opens in 1972 with Springsteen's audition tapes for Columbia Records and also covers songs recorded during sessions for the albums "Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J." (1973), "The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle" (1973), "Born To Run (1975), and "Darkness On The Edge Of Town" (1978).

Disc two highlights sessions for "The River" (1980), "Nebraska" (1982), and "Born In The U.S.A." (1984). The next disc highlights additional music also recorded for "Born In The U.S.A.," as well as songs from the "Tunnel Of Love" sessions (1987). The final CD covers the '90s, including tracks recorded for "Human Touch" and "Lucky Town" (both 1992), as well as "The Ghost Of Tom Joad" (1995).

Speaking from his New Jersey home base and perhaps giving a tip of his hand to what's next for him musically, the voluble Springsteen says the upbeat nature of many of the tracks "made me think it's fun to make some noise again."

Q: How did this boxed set come about?

A few years earlier I'd asked my engineer, Toby Scott, to collect everything from the vault. For a week or so, I just listened to everything that I'd done that we hadn't put out. I made some very brief notes in a notebook, and then I just put it away. It was something that I could do at some point when I get to that place in a new project where I'm not sure how long it's going to take and it would be nice to sort of fill the gap so the fans wouldn't be so long without hearing any music from me.

Q: Did you have any guidelines for what went on the set?

The thing I stuck to on this particular boxed set was that everything I put on it relates back to a specific record. So if you liked "The Wild, The Innocent, & The E Street Shuffle," you could put on the first CD and there's four or five things that we cut at that time for that record and it sort of just punches out the edges of that record for you . . . We made three or four albums when we cut "The River." The second CD is almost the completely other album from "The River." If you liked songs that were written about relationships or men and women, go to the fourth CD and it's a deeper investigation, another angle, on those ideas.

Q: It's important that people know these aren't songs that you felt were inferior. They just weren't in line with the statement you were trying to make at that time.

What happens is I was forging my identity. That was really paramount in many of the decisions that I made, because, first of all, you're trying to let people know who you are, what you're about, and you're trying to work your way into their lives and start a relationship basically, which is based on knowing one another. So at that time many of the choices I made for my records were both musical and then also, what was I trying to say and how did I want to say it.

Q: Can you give me an example?

Take after "Born To Run." At that time, I said, "Well, this is a moment when people often go wrong or get lost after the first shot of some success." So [with] "Darkness On The Edge Of Town," I wanted to make a record that specifically sent a message to my audience that I wasn't going to be blocked in by the success I'd had in terms of what kind of music I created. So the editing on "Darkness" was based around creating a record that had a seriousness of tone. Meanwhile, there were all these bar band records that we had cut [like] "Give The Girl A Kiss" and "So Young And In Love." So I had all this music that I couldn't use at that time that just got put to the side.

Q: Tell me about the cover photo.

This was in the Main Point [nightclub] in Philadelphia in '74. I really remember this couch; it was in the back of the basement. The thing I remember the most is this was the room where I first saw my first actual record. Somebody brought down a copy of "Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J.," and pulled it out of the sleeve. It was on that red Columbia label, and to me, it was like an impossibility, because I pulled "Highway 61 [Revisited]" out of that sleeve with the red label on it. Seeing my name on that red label was quite miraculous.

Q: The set opens with you auditioning for legendary Columbia talent scout John Hammond. What do you remember about that day?

Big day, very big day. I think I remember just about everything. I was probably 22 years old. I'd played in John's office earlier in the week, and he [said], "You need to play for [then Columbia president] Clive Davis, and I want you to do a recorded audition." It would have been an unusual recording session by today's standards. The engineer had a shirt and a tie on; everybody was dressed in jackets and shirts. The first thing you hear on the CD is John's voice where he reads off the session number. And I just stood up and sang the best songs I had. I was incredibly excited. I felt very confident about what I was doing and being there, and nervous at the same time.

Q: How do those songs hold up to you today?

I went through a period quite a while back where I felt like there were too many words in them and I'd written too much, but now I really like them because they were very free and very spontaneous. They were sort of written when no one was listening. And that has an effect on how you write and what you write. That's why I've ended up recording at home, because nobody is listening at home, really.

I think what I like about the songs now is they're actually quite original. At the time, they were sort of put under the new-Dylan category, but if you listen to them now, you realize they really weren't that at all. They were just something of their own. They come up out of my own experience and the place and the people that I grew up around. I took those things and I made my own folk music out of it.

Q: "Seaside Bar Song" on disc one is the first song on the set to feature saxophonist Clarence Clemons. You instantly hear how much he brought to the band.

Initially, Clarence was hard to find; that's why he's only on a couple of things on the first record. The way that he ended up on the record at all is I handed it in to Columbia and Clive Davis sent it back and said, "There are no singles on this record. I want you to write two more songs." And I said, "Well, OK," and I went home and wrote "Blinded By The Light" and "Spirit In The Night," and we took two not very good songs off. I was able to find Clarence at that time, and so he ended up coming in and playing on those two [added] cuts.

Q: "Thundercrack" is eight minutes of the band bursting wide open that allows the listener to really hear the band stretch out for the first time.

I used that song as a show ender at that time. It was the precursor to "Rosalita." At the end of the night, I needed something that would just knock people out, that's gonna go on and on and they're not going to know when it's going to stop. And so it was nice to get it on here, because an early, early fan would remember that this song was a big part of the early shows.

Q: Just as "Seaside Bar Song" features lyrics that found their way into "Born To Run," "Iceman" is the first to contain words from "Badlands"--"I wanna go out tonight. I wanna find out what I got." The ability to see what you nicked from your earlier material for future songs is part of what makes the set so compelling.

That line is what I was thinking about at that time. I hadn't recorded in a couple of years. I was stuck in that big lawsuit [with former manager Mike Appel] in the early part of my career, and there was a tremendous amount of "whatever happened to" articles at that time. That whole record was a record where I felt like I was going to have to test myself and that was what I wanted to know, so that line ended up in a few different songs.

Q: "Where The Bands Are" is a frothy tune. That's hardly something you're known for.

That's probably why it got left off the record at the time... It was a very pop song. I always loved those three-minute pop songs. They tended to be the ones that fell away from my own records because of something I was trying to do at that particular moment, but I made a lot of that kind of music, and I think when you go to that second CD, that's what you hear.

Q: However, not all the material on the second disc is lighthearted, especially "Wages Of Sin," a heart-stopping tale of the hopeless dynamics in a relationship.

That was a real find. I forgot I wrote it. It may have been one of those songs that cut too close to the bone at the time, so I put it to the side. [Laughs] It was actually cut for "Born In The U.S.A." What happens is very often you have your own personal sensitivities about a particular piece of music or you may be uncomfortable with the way you've sung or what the song is about and you steer away from that a little bit, and I think that's what happened on that one.

Q: This brings us to the version of "Born In The U.S.A." on here that's much slower, less anthemic than the hit version. It seems much truer to the spirit of the lyrics.

At the time that I cut it, I wasn't sure that it was finished, but I had that same feeling about a lot of songs on "Nebraska," which [was] demos I made in my bedroom. My memory of it, after not having heard it for 15 years, was that it was incomplete in some fashion. And when I listened to it again, I realized it was fine.

Q: But how did it go from what's here on the boxed set to what we heard on the "Born In The U.S.A." album?

Part of what happened is I had this song and then at the same time, because I was cutting both the "Nebraska" and "Born In The U.S.A." albums simultaneously, I went in and I cut the one with the band, and that came out so good, I forgot about this one.

At that time, there was a lot of discussion about what to do with the two records I was making. They were so different that it was very confusing. There was a moment when we talked about releasing them as a double album; one would have been the acoustic record and one would have been the electric record. I tried to cut the "Nebraska" material with the band. I could tell that it wasn't working, so there was a lot of different things that could have happened at that particular moment. [Ultimately,] "Nebraska" came out in '82 and "Born In The U.S.A." in 1984.

Q: "Johnny Bye Bye" clocks in at one minute, 49 seconds. Is that the shortest song you've ever recorded?

I like that sort of succinctness. I cut that for a record after "Nebraska." I enjoyed making "Nebraska" so much, I pursued it before I went back to making ["Born In The U.S.A."], and I did a series of songs with a small, little rhythm section, but they were still basically acoustic. "Johnny Bye Bye" and "Shut Out The Lights" both came from sessions that I did in my garage in California. There was almost a whole record that I ended up not putting out, and these are the best things from that.

Q: Let's talk about the hilarious "TV Movie," which reminds me of Buck Owens' "Act Naturally." It shows your sense of humor, which you don't let come across in your music very often.

I always envied writers who were able to incorporate that in their music. A lot of my favorite rock performers were clowns. When you see Little Richard or the Coasters or Jerry Lee [Lewis], there was some element of that in all of them. I loved the desire to make your audience laugh on some level. Onstage I had the physical ability to incorporate that in what I did, but I found it a lot more difficult to write into my music. If I did come up with it, very often when I was making the final cut, that's what I'd leave off.

Q: One of the most affecting songs on this disc is "The Wish," a clearly autobiographical song about a son whose mother buys him a guitar at a great sacrifice.

Oh yeah, that was my mother, that was my mother completely. That's probably why I didn't use it on the record; it's one of the most autobiographical things I ever really wrote. I wrote it for "Tunnel Of Love" and she just might have been more of presence in my life at that particular time. I got married, and I was reconnecting with my family in a way I hadn't for quite a while.

Standing outside that music store, the guitar was $ 60. That was an enormous, enormous amount of money at that time. It was simply money that we just really didn't have. My folks were always in debt to the finance company. It was right around the corner from our house, and all I remember is my mother going back and forth. They'd borrow for this and pay it off just in time for Easter and pay it off in time for the next thing.

So [buying the guitar] was a great, a very meaningful gesture of faith at that time from her. I told her I needed an electric guitar so I could play in a band so I might have a chance to make some money. And we stood outside of the music store in Freehold, N.J., and that's where the song opens up.

Q: It segues into some beautifully descriptive memories of your mother getting ready for work and your childhood.

I remember very particularly the sounds that came from the bathroom while she got ready for work, the sounds of the sink and the water running. The makeup case hitting the surface of the sink. And the place where she worked was filled with women, secretaries. When I came in, I was a little boy, probably 8 years old, 9, 10, and they all'd gather around you and make a big fuss over you. My mother's desk was all the way in the back, so I had to walk past all their desks, and everybody would come up and give you a pat on the head.

Q: Do you think you have a keener sense of observation than most people?

I don't know. I don't know if writers have a keener sense of observation or if you simply develop a language with which you can express what you see. I think a lot of writers and artists are people who, very naturally, their first response was to watch and see what was happening and then join in or not.

Q: That leads right into "Lucky Man." There's a romanticism about being a loner in a lot of your songs. What's your fascination with that?

The loner is an archetype and just a deep part of the American character. Who were all those people who took off out West? Who were all those guys who took off on their own? It's that sort of a character type that's at the core of a lot of my characters who struggle. It manifested itself in some fashion on almost every record I make.

Q: Disc four is just you, keyboardist Roy Bittan, and studio musicians. You can almost feel the freedom to experiment that you were afforded by that.

We recorded a lot of music for the "Human Touch" record, and it was just in search of what was I trying to say. I knew I wanted to develop the ideas I'd written about on "Tunnel Of Love." I felt that was where I had something of value to communicate.

Initially during that record, I thought about putting out a record that was basically a bass, a synthesizer, and rhythm, and it created a very austere context for [the] songs to come forth in. I think that happens on "Over The Rise," "When The Lights Go Out," "Loose Change," "Goin' Cali" . . . They were experimental pieces, and they were away from the rock music I was making at the time. Even though it's electric music, it has more to do with "Nebraska."

Q: The most recent recording on here is "Gave It A Name," a tale of a wife beater that you recorded this August.

What happened is I cut the original at the time I cut these other songs, but we couldn't find the master tape of it, and I really liked the song. So Roy came out, and we recut in August.

Q: Like so many of your songs, it has Biblical references. Have you ever formally studied the Bible?

No, I haven't really. I mean, I read through it from time to time, but those particular references are just a part of everyone's internal landscape at this point. Everyone knows those stories and understands what you're talking about when you use those references... I guess [the song] was sort of a study of what people do with the parts of themselves they don't like very much.

Q: What kind of stuff are you working on now?

I had some acoustic things and I had some electric things, and basically, at some point, I'll return to those things. But I don't have a set project at the moment that I'm committed to. I'm writing and seeing what comes out.

Q: Are you going to tour behind this boxed set?

It's sort of something that I'm thinking about, but I don't have any committed plans as of yet.

Q: Are you and the E Street Band getting back together?

Well, I don't know. It's been 10 years, and everybody's living in different places and doing different things. But I love all the guys, and we made music together that was very, very special. It was just a great, great, great time in my life playing with those guys. I know we have young fans who have never seen us, so it's always a subtext of our conversations and it's always there in the air somewhere, but at the moment we don't have any particular plans.

Q: In an interview several years ago, you were asked if, by moving to L.A. and buying a big house, you had let your fans down. You said, "No, I've kept my promise." Do you still feel like you have a promise to keep to your fans?

Oh, basically you just try to keep them to yourself, and then you hope it works out for everybody else. You think who you want to be, and there's days when you're that person and there's days when you're not. Everybody struggles with that part of themselves, and my work maps out that struggle.

I've got my own life to live and I sort those issues out for myself, and in turn, hopefully when I go into my work, there are things that help my fans sort through their own struggles and their own issues. You know, that's just what I've always tried to do, and that's what I still try to do.