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Making 'Tracks'

[whitespace] Bruce Springsteen
Dan Pulcrano

Talking Fast Cars and Spare Parts: Twenty years ago at the Winterland, Bruce Springsteen brought a new kind of personal passion to rock & roll.

When Bruce Springsteen donned the garb of a working-class hero, his music slid from poetic to pious

By Gina Arnold

TWENTY YEARS AGO come December, Bruce Springsteen played two nights at the Winterland in San Francisco, and I was privileged enough to attend both shows with my best friend, Meg. Yeah, we were young--not to mention wild and innocent--but the tickets only cost $7, and we took the 38 Geary bus to get there.

I now have only brief snatches of memory: of Bruce spread-eagled atop a speaker stack, then leaping to his feet to sing "Spirit in the Night," of his amazing rendition of "She's the One," of us holding our breath during "Racing in the Street"--of "Rosalita" and "Candy's Room" and "Thunder Road." It felt like we'd been to church.

Afterward, Meg and I waited outside by the stage door to get Springsteen's autograph, the one and only time I have ever done that. You know how when you were a kid, the ocean didn't feel so cold? I think that night--Dec. 15, 1978--must have been the very last night of my childhood, because we waited for him for over an hour in 40-degree weather, and we never even noticed the chill. Afterward, I took off the stockings I was wearing and hung them on my wall, and there they stayed, all the way through college.

THIS SEASON, as you read the many reviews of his new boxed set, you will probably notice that when discussing Bruce Springsteen, critics tend to write about him the way he writes his songs--that is, in a reminiscent mode.

They fill up their first-person articles with anecdotal details like the names of their friends--Terry, Julie, Mary, Meg--and the bus line they took there, as if by so doing they can convey the passion they felt at the time.

It was a passion that, in my case at least, set the standard for my subsequent career as a critic, but I think that people who came to rock just a few years later--during the punk era or during the '80s--simply cannot conceive of its intensity. This is partly because Bruce was always so outside all trends and movements, and partly because of what he later became: a seriously midtempo, banally produced adult contemporary artist. Before that, however, he was a hero, neither more nor less.

Happily, Springsteen's new holiday offering, a four-CD boxed set simply titled Tracks (Sony), actually captures the Springsteen of old, the one whose magical music and immense charm ensnared me and so many others.

Many of the obscure and/or unreleased songs here--"Rendezvous," "Zero and Blind Terry," "Linda Let Me Be the One," etc.--contain the qualities that seduced us in the first place, that is, the Phil Spector-like pop melodies and ultraromantic lyrics, rather than the big dumb saxophone and hard-rock thunkiness of later years.

But it's hard to say whether these songs will teach Springsteen neophytes or unbelievers to love him--or if that love has to be there already, ready to be reignited. For one thing, the record--remastered by Springsteen and Chuck Plotkin--has a strange recovered-memory quality that doesn't quite ring true. Springsteen always was a sound-geek, spending years in the studio on LPs in order to perfect them. But in an irony he himself never appreciated, Nebraska, recorded on a 16-track at his home in two days, is by far his best record.

Meanwhile, these old "found" tracks have all been cleaned up with modern studio techniques, so that they sound like they were recorded yesterday, and frankly, I wonder if they weren't. It sure feels weird to hear old songs--many of those on the first CD are age 25--that sound like they were recorded on DAT.

Moreover, I have several live versions of "Thundercrack" that rip this version to shreds. Admittedly, my versions are live, but it's typical of Springsteen not to distinguished a good version from a bad one--and to focus on its clarity rather than its emotion.

"Thundercrack" is an interesting case, because it is so completely redolent of everything good about Springsteen: the goofyness, the sexiness, the musical in-jokes, the sheer exuberance of the artist's early years. I always wondered why it never showed up on an album, and the same goes for "Roulette," "Dollhouse," "Be True," "Linda Let Me Be the One," "Leavin' Train" and "Give the Girl a Kiss."

Tracks does, however, suffer the same chronological diminution that Springsteen's career has, so that the first two CDs are the most interesting and the third is almost unlistenable. The fourth isn't as bad as the third, but it's still proof that Springsteen was a classic artist whose younger years were his most exciting and fertile. In fact, the four-plus hours of Tracks really only make about one brilliant 90-minute car tape, and at $64.98 list, the box comes out to almost exactly a dollar a track. Think of it as a treasure trove larded with some paste jewelry.

Tracks also contains alternate versions of better-known songs like "Pink Cadillac" and "Born in the U.S.A." and "Stolen Car," but its real use is as a back catalog of unreleased material--albeit a back catalog whose booklet contains almost no information about the origin of the songs. There is no doubt that it is a far superior document to Springsteen's two previous packages--the 1995 greatest hits set and the double LP 1977-1985 Live--but in a way, Tracks is almost too rich.

Even without any notation, the choice of songs--or rather, the revelation of the choices Springsteen didn't make--causes one to wonder just how calculatingly he's made himself into an icon. I mean, how weird is it that the most archetypal Springsteen lyric ever written--"Talking fast cars and spare parts/empty rooms and broken hearts/distant worlds and strange girls/and kneeling with Linda in the dark" (from "Linda Let Me Be the One")--never made it to a record before now?

LISTENED TO from beginning to end--a feat that takes more than half a day's work or a drive to San Luis Obispo--Tracks really emphasizes the fact that when Springsteen started to couch himself in heroic terms he began to go downhill.

In the beginning, Springsteen wrote long songs about American life not as it happened but as he imagined it took place: in buses and on porches and amusement parks; under the Exxon sign; out by greasy lake and down in Jungleland--and it was all a big fat hoot. On records like Born in the U.S.A., Lucky Town and The Ghost of Tom Joad, however, he still wrote songs about American life as he imagined it, only now the landscape was a portrait of the miseries of the American underclass.

Why? According to Fred Goodman, author of the anti-Springsteen tome Mansion on the Hill, Springsteen's whole post-River career was a concerted public relations effort that posited him--erroneously--as the ultimate example of "unparalleled artistic and moral achievement."

That's an exaggeration and implies an amount of deliberation I simply can't believe, but certainly it's true that after 1982 his work became a portentous series of ultracommercial songs about blue-collar dissatisfaction. Prior to that, it had the more appealing, more universal text of the search for true love and satisfaction. And judging from Tracks, he could have gone either way.

The truth is, to really be effective, rock--and blues and folk and gospel--must comment on its own experience, not on that of other people. And that Winterland concert I attended was already the beginning of the end, because "Darkness on the Edge of Town," which had come out some six months before, was not about New Jersey but about Society, and "Adam Raised a Cain" wasn't about boys like Bruce and their dads, but about Boys. And Dads. And the Bible--God forbid.

By the time he put out The River in 1980, he had the temerity to use the clinical word "pregnant" in a song. (On Joad, he uses an even worse one, "hydrociotic acid.") But I actually remember the exact moment when Springsteen began to loosen his grip on my mind. It was a cold fall afternoon at Harmon pool at UC-Berkeley, and I was standing, as usual, under the outdoor shower by the diving boards. Across the aquamarine vista, the men's swim team, a body of tall, blond scary Aryans, had just completed some vicious set, and they started singing "Thunder Road."

It was 1982. Reagan had been president for two years, and the Cal campus--particularly the men's swim team--was as conservative as it had ever been before or has been since. Hearing the guys sing Bruce shattered me, and it wasn't just possessiveness that got to me as much as a kind of dismay that flowered and ripened in the years to come.

For one thing, I could no longer integrate my other loves--the Clash, the Ramones, R.E.M., Elvis Costello--with Springsteen. For another, The River was entirely lacking the verbosity and detail of his previous albums--instead it was full of simplistic thunky two-chord rockers called idiotic things like "I'm a Rocker" and "Pink Cadillac."

But worse was yet to come. It only took one note of "Born in the U.S.A."--the first one, ringing out like sheer sanctimony made audible--for me to go, "I'm outta here." After all, if a decade's worth of Sting records has taught the world one thing, it's that rock & roll is the wrong medium for politics. Somehow the combination of rock-star glamour and serious statesmanship invariably comes out cheesy, even when the rock star is Bruce Springsteen and the causes he champions are just.

It's funny. Bruce's most successful years spanned the Republican years of Reagan and Bush. And during that time, he bravely, deeply, loudly spoke out against the economic injustices, cruelty and selfishness of that era. And yet something could not have been right, because as popular as he was--and by 1986 or thereabouts, he was revered on a level rarely seen--he had no influence whatsover on his constituents or on events. And what does it say about Springsteen's constituency that, since he has retreated into pious folkery, most of his fans have happily made do with Garth Brooks' insidious imitation of the old him--or with, worse, Billy Joel's.

In the end, this is the key conundrum about the career of Bruce Springsteen: that is, how did such a mighty rock presence become so spiritually and culturally ineffectual? Tracks goes a long way toward revealing why, and the answer--that music made with a great burst of spontaneous love is much more powerful than Statement Rock--is not really all that surprising.

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From the November 25-December 2, 1998 issue of Metro.

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