In 1998 Bruce Springsteen released Tracks, a four-disc set that you'd have thought had cleared his archive of the best unreleased studio material. But that barely scratched the surface -- here, the best of the rest
Has any artist outside of Bob Dylan kept bootleggers busier than Bruce Springsteen has? In his heyday, the Boss would record literally dozens of songs for every album -- and not just demos and sketches, either, but proper finished songs, as well. Much of this stuff has seen official release over the past decade or so, through the four-disc outtakes compilation Tracks and a rarities disc on The Essential Bruce Springsteen, but there’s still an astonishing amount still out there -- the 66 tracks on Tracks were reportedly pulled from two to three hundred contenders. (The outtakes especially piled up in the mid- to late '70s, partly due to a long and drawn-out lawsuit with his former manager that prevented Springsteen from releasing a follow-up to Born to Run.)
In any case, the sheer volume and variety mean that for any concise playlist that purports to distill the best of the still-lost Springsteen tracks, the word overview is impossibly optimistic. With that in mind, here’s a somewhat arbitrary and idiosyncratic single disc’s worth of great stuff, mainly drawn from the '70s through the mid-'80s, and including a couple of live tracks. (Seek them out in the usual gray market record stores and subterranean corners of the Internet if you must; and for an exhaustive guide to Springsteen’s studio sessions throughout the years, go here.) This selection is offered with the caveat that somebody else could easily come up with a different list entirely, and that one would undoubtedly be worth seeking out, too.
You Mean So Much to Me
Springsteen gave this one to his hometown pals Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes (along with several other songs over the years, e.g., "Hearts of Stone" and "The Fever"), and their take is a fairly conventional soul-tinged chugger. But Springsteen’s own version -- at least, the one captured in a 1973 radio session at WGOE in Richmond, Virginia -- is a slow, satisfying hymn to romance. Springsteen takes his time and relishes every syllable, every flutter of his guitar, every saxophone glimmer.
Lovers in the Cold
One of the fascinating things about Springsteen’s creative process is the way he compulsively reinvents his songs -- and sometimes strips them for parts. Countless outtakes throw up ghostly glimpses of lyrics or chord changes or vocal melodies that turned up on record in entirely different contexts. “Lovers in the Cold” is one of many early versions of “Thunder Road” from Born to Run -- sort of. The lyrics are completely different, the piano-based intro is gone, and the performance is lighter, nimbler, with less drama or bombast. Which is strangely refreshing in its own right.
Taxi Cab (a.k.a. City at Night)
Considering that Springsteen’s ballads tend toward the mournful and his rockers have a desperate quality, the lovely Darkness on the Edge of Town outtake “Taxi Cab” captures a rare vibe: sleepy, contented ease. The fat bass notes and the light cymbal tapping evoke a hissing late-night cab ride as much as the words do, and Springsteen’s vocals wink with a slyness that, for better or worse, was on the way out in his work.
Prove It All Night (live 1978)
On record, “Prove It All Night” is light, slight, and poppy. But onstage during the Darkness tour, it became an epic, with Roy Bittan’s stately piano intro heralding storms of guitar, and the band piling on for a mad free-for-all -- guitars, piano, organ all fighting to be heard -- for the finish. How Springsteen could compile a five-record official live album and still not find room for this one is a mystery.
Crazy Rocker (a.k.a. It’s Alright)
The title is clearly provisional and a bit of a misnomer to boot, since Springsteen has recorded crazier rockers: several on The River, for example, or “Break Out” and “I’m Goin’ Back” on this very list. Few have the sustained rollick of this Darkness outtake, though. It’s a loose, goofy workout -- with an underlying riff recalling the Beatles’ “Day Tripper” -- and Springsteen is clearly having fun with the stripped-down band (no keyboards, no sax). No surprise that this didn’t turn up on any proper album: Its shambolic charm would be hard to reproduce for a “proper” take, but would also be a shame to lose.
I’m Goin’ Back
The Preacher’s Daughter
Just like “She’s the One” from Born to Run, both of these are built on the famous Bo Diddley beat – the first one fast, the second slow. “I’m Goin’ Back” shows off angry harmonica work and even allows saxman Clarence Clemons a little skronking here and there. And the sparse “The Preacher’s Daughter” has some sonic textures that are unusual for Springsteen; it’s built on an ambient, pulsing drone, a tambourine shake, and echoey vocals.
Another frenetic Darkness outtake, probably made obsolete by “Badlands,” which makes similar points and rocks out plenty itself. (The lyric “for the ones who once had a notion that it was good to be alive” would mutate its way into “Badlands” too.) But notably, “Break Out” features unassuming star turns from a couple E Streeters – Garry Tallent shoots out giddy but precise bass runs, while Danny Federici’s organ keeps up a constant shimmer.
Outside Lookin’ In
I’m Gonna Treat You Right (a.k.a. Wild Kisses)
It’s easy to see why “Outside Lookin’ In” never made Darkness. A straightforward Buddy Holly/British Invasion homage with a chiming chorus, it was ill-matched to Springsteen’s heavy thematic ambitions. But it’s far too catchy and engaging to remain lost altogether. Same goes for the sock-hop bopper “I’m Gonna Treat You Right,” which was recorded for the looser, more eclectic The River but didn’t make the final cut either. Either song seems like something most pop artists of the day would have built entire albums around, which is a measure of the bench strength in Springsteen’s repertoire.
Springsteen wrote “Protection” for Donna Summer and played guitar on her version, which was released in 1982. But he also recorded a full-band take himself during the Born in the U.S.A. sessions, playing his own urgent vocals off some moody guitar work. The real kick, though, is hearing the E Street Band, who were probably never accused of being funky except perhaps in the olfactory sense, working up a disco groove.
Several Born in the U.S.A. songs got the solo-demo treatment when Springsteen was working on Nebraska. The sped-up “Downbound Train” lacks the album version’s eerie sense of doom, but it has a rhythmic urgency that would have greatly helped out Nebraska. “Child Bride” marries the lyrics to “Working on the Highway” to country-ballad music and reflective vocals. If the Born in the U.S.A. version is a screwball comedy, this one is a somber melodrama and a reminder of how thin the line between those two can be.
In early 1983, Springsteen taped several songs -- including these two -- at his California house, overdubbing multiple instruments himself. Both are quiet mid-tempo numbers, with drum backings and synth washes that suggest a preparation for the switch from solo acoustic mode to full-band arrangements. Thematically, “The Klansman” points back to Nebraska -- as the title makes plain, it’s a tale about the dark side of old-timey Americana. “Unsatisfied Heart,” meanwhile, now sounds like nothing so much as a great lost Tunnel of Love track.
Atlantic City (live 1984)
The Holy Grail for Springsteen bootleggers would be an electric version of Nebraska. Legend has it that Springsteen re-recorded most or all of the Nebraska tracks with the full E Street Band before deciding to go back to the original demo tapes. Those sessions have yet to surface and perhaps never will, but a decent taste of what they may have sounded like is the version of “Atlantic City” from the 1984-85 tour, all pounding drums and power chords. Though to be fair, it must be noted that it’s still not quite as chilling or powerful as the Nebraska version.
Waiting on the End of the World
Recorded with the E Street Band in early 1995 (and also with other players the year before) and still unreleased, though it stands up well to just about anything Springsteen’s done since. With lyrics full of disease imagery, it’s not hard to imagine the song as having been written with the Philadelphia film in mind. In any case, it manages the trick of capturing a brooding mood without sacrificing momentum -- which can’t always be said of Springsteen’s later work -- and it has some catch-your-breath chord changes to boot.
Derek Weiler writes about music at www.burymenot.com.