CK Retro Review: The Best of Tracks by Bruce SpringsteenPosted: June 5, 2014
Bob Dylan and The Beatles had opened the floodgates for releases of cutting-room floor material with The Bootleg Series and Anthology, respectively, and, since no one had a more overstuffed vault of unreleased material than Bruce Springsteen, it made sense that he would follow suit. Still, not even the most diehard bootleg collector could have expected the treasure trove of great stuff to be found on Tracks, Springsteen’s 1998 three-CD excavation of the songs that fell through the cracks. Here is a song-by-song review of my choices for the Top 20 from that collection.
20. “Two For The Road”- A lovely little solo recording from the Tunnel Of Love Period, this track even features some impromptu whistling from Bruce. It’s honest yet ultimately optimistic take on the commitment and dedication that love requires presages “If I Should Fall Behind.”
19. “Don’t Look Back”- One wonders if Springsteen learned this phrase from his knowledge of Satchel Paige or if he heard it watching the famous Dylan doc (something tells me the latter.) In any case, he utilizes it for this full-speed-ahead rocker with propulsive music that seems to be heeding the warning of the narrator in the lyrics about the need for forward motion at all times. Great drumming from Max Weinberg throughout this one.
18. “Iceman”- This moody cult item is in the same vein as “Racing In The Streets,” yet even darker somehow. The narrator has no misconceptions about the highway or dreams or any of the usual Springsteen lifelines. Instead, he was “born dead” and prefers riding “Hellbound in the dirt” to any glory roads, suggesting that lowering expectations is the only sane way to get through the dreary world.
17. “My Love Will Not Let You Down”- With Danny Federici’s glockenspiel doubling the opening guitar riff, it doesn’t take too long to figure we’re in Springsteen’s rocking wheelhouse. The lyrics aren’t anything he hasn’t said before, yet he puts them across with such desperate conviction that they sound brand new.
16. “Roulette”- One of the great things about Tracks is how it explores fascinating roads not taken. After opening with Weinberg’s “Wipeout” impression, the music, taut and tense, is as close as The E Street Band ever came to the American New Wave that was ruling the roost on rock radio circa 1979, which is when this song was recorded. Lyrically, Springsteen tells a tale of an unseen entity robbing a simple man of everything he has, until he decides that suicide is the only sane option. It may sound like science fiction, but images like stranded toys in a yard keep this thing realistically harrowing.
15. “Santa Ana”- Somehow this morphs from a dusty Western homage into a soulful rocker featuring crescendo after crescendo. Springsteen basically takes the same wild and woolly cast of romantic fools from Jersey and plops them down in the deserts of New Mexico to see what happens. It’s all a bit unkempt and disheveled, but lovably so.
14. “Pink Cadillac”- When Tracks was released, this was probably the most well-known song on it to the casual fans (probably still is) due to the fact that it transcended its B-side status to receive significant airplay at the height of Springsteenmania in the mid-80’s. Bruce basically cops the rhythm of the Peter Gunn theme and adds some Elvis flavor in the lyrics. Of course it’s a lark, but it’s an extremely well-executed lark. And you get Clarence Clemons adding the exclamation points with saxophone blasts, which is never a bad thing.
13. “Back In Your Arms”- Springsteen’s narrator begs for a second chance at love and happiness after kicking it away for so long. With The E Street Band in delicately fine form at his side and a moving chorus sung with unabashed emotion, he could probably get a third chance if he needed it.
12. “Johnny Bye Bye”- It’s only a postage stamp of a song, clocking in at under two minutes, but it’s intriguing nonetheless. Springsteen opines on the death of Elvis Presley, and if you read beyond the lyrics and the deadpan delivery, you can tell how much the senselessness of it haunts him.
11. “Wages Of Sin”- Another longtime audience favorite that sends people into convulsions whenever Bruce trots it out in concert, this track is a meditation on how it’s impossible to ever truly be given a clean slate. In this case, past mistakes haunt the frazzled narrator both in his relationship and in his life, as the stifling tension of the music closes all around him and never releases its grip.
10. “Mary Lou”- Based on other songs on Tracks, particularly “Be True,” Springsteen seemed to keep rewriting this song until finally packing it in. That’s too bad, because this is the E Street Band at their most colorful and affecting. The staccato keyboard blasts and Clarence’s long notes would be repurposed to great effect on “Bobby Jean,” but this tale of a movie-crazy soon-to-be spinster is pretty special on its own.
9. “Hearts Of Stone”- The purists might have a problem with the fact that Springsteen beefed this one up for Tracks by adding some after-the-fact horns, but life’s too short to worry about that. The bottom line is that the finished product is a melancholy beauty, with Clarence in heart-rending top form and Steven Van Zandt doing some soul testifying with Bruce. John Cafferty, Billy Vera, and others had big hits doing fine homages to Bruce balladry, but the original is hard to beat.
8. “A Good Man Is Hard To Find (Pittsburgh)”- Sometimes the best issue songs are ones where the issues are never mentioned. Short of a passing reference to the rain in Saigon, Springsteen keeps any mentions of Vietnam out of this song, concentrating instead on the day-to-day life of a war widow. The country flavorings of the music make this one a ringer for an early Eagles track, while the lyrics beautifully detail how hard it is for this woman to move on when everything reminds her of her loss.
7. “The Wish”- The fact that Springsteen kept this wonderful ode to his Mom off any studio album makes it seem like a personal gift (something the lyrics also claim.) And yet it transcends all the winning details about Bruce’s life as a boy with heartfelt lines about the tenderness of a mother-son relationship to which a lot of folks can relate. Maybe more than any Springsteen songs, it gives you the urge to say “Awwww” when you hear it.
6. “Linda Will You Let Me Be The One”- One of the few outtakes from Born To Run, this track is good enough to have fit well on that album, which is seriously high praise. A doomed romance told amidst the backdrop of a classic 60’s pop-soul sound (right down to the “Be My Baby” drumbeat and rhythm), “Linda Will You Let Me Be The One” is Springsteen doing his street poet thing in the verses and singing the stuffing out of the refrains. Impossible to resist.
5. “Happy”- Much of Springsteen’s early 90’s material was specific in its reference to Bruce’s own personal journey. That’s not necessarily a bad thing if the song is just right, but “Happy” avoids that trap. It seems autobiographical and yet contains trappings that anybody who has traveled a rocky path to a benevolent fate can recognize. Moreover, the yearning music suggests that happiness comes only when you’ve got sacrifice and anguish in the rear-view.
4. “Ricky Wants A Man Of Her Own”- One of the great fallacies about pop and rock music is that a song needs to have serious subject matter to be great. It takes just as much craft to construct a slice of roller-rink heaven like this track as it does to create the weighty stuff. Danny Federici’s organ chirps gloriously throughout as Bruce tells the tale of a little sister who, contrary to Elvis’ famous song, doesn’t know the meaning of the word “don’t.”
3. “Shut Out The Light”- “Born In The U.S.A.” gets all the accolades among Springsteen’s Vietnam-based narratives, and rightfully so. Yet this one is haunting in its own way for how it delves into the psychological prison within which the war ensnared even those who survived it. With excellent violin work by Soozie Tyrell accompanying Bruce’s harmonica work, it’s a small recording that packs a big emotional wallop, especially when you consider the image of Johnson Leneir petrified in his bed, begging to be spared the darkness.
2. “Zero And Blind Terry”- Springsteen’s tales of gangs fighting deep into the city night always had an almost supernatural ring to them. “Zero And Blind Terry” takes that subtext and brings it closer to the surface in this dreamlike tale told in retrospect by a veteran of the scene. This was pre-Born To Run, a time when Bruce’s lyrics were so ambitiously ornate that they could occasionally spin off the rails, but here they plant the landing even with the high degree of difficulty. The music never settles into verse-chorus stuff, alternately ambling and soaring to mimic the exploits of the hero and heroine. In their heart of hearts, every Springsteen fan wants to see Bruce try something like this again.
1. “Loose Ends”- One of the absolute mysteries of Springsteen’s career is how this absolute sure shot was left off his studio albums, thereby robbing it of the widespread popularity it deserves. You’d be hard-pressed to find a Bruce song with more hooks, and it scales to fist-pumping heights with stunning ease. Not to mention the lyrics that yield a tough and searingly honest depiction of relationship angst in a minimum of words. Someday, if I get the chance to talk to Bruce, I promise you, dear readers, that one of the first questions out of my mouth will be why this song had to wait until Tracks for its time in the spotlight.
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. My new book, Counting Down Bruce Springsteen: His 100 Finest Songs, arrives on June 16, but you can pre-order now at all major online booksellers.)