The last five years have been glorious for Bruce Springsteen fans. Since 2005’s Devils & Dust, we’ve had four albums, four tours, a couple of live DVDs, a box set honoring a classic album (Born to Run), and a killer Super Bowl halftime show, during which we were ordered to “step away from the guacamole dip.”
He’s never been this prolific in terms of his releases and activity, an astonishing feat for a man in his early 60s. Today, The Promise, a massive 3-CD, 3-DVD box set detailing the remarkable and complicated history behind the Darkness on the Edge of Town sessions, hits stores just in time for the holiday season. Bruce’s unreleased material has long been a treasure trove for his obsessive fans, and 1998’s Tracks merely hinted at the quality within.
So the question is: If Bruce had always been as open to release his material as he is now, what would those albums have looked like?
As Bruce fanatics, my Popdose colleague Matt Springer and I have taken it upon ourselves to imagine an alternate universe Boss, one whose philosophy on recording and releasing music changed significantly following the settlement of his lawsuit with former manager Mike Appel in 1977. The suit barred Springsteen from the recording studio for more than a year. He entered it again armed with a bushel of songs that would over the next year evolve into Darkness on the Edge of Town. We’ve heard many of these outtakes on Tracks and the available streams of The Promise; still others on bootleg releases.
But what if Bruce didn’t wait, and never really waited again? What if the end of a year-plus spent barred from recording sparked a decades-long drive to put out more material, more often? What if he continually took a more proactive approach to his career, one that never dulled his artistic vision but instead resulted in a more prolific, versatile output?
To answer this, we’ve decided to create an alternate universe in which Springsteen is less tight-assed about how to best present his music. Our inspiration for this series is Mark Feldman’s outstanding Fixing A Hole series here on Popdose about the solo Beatles albums and the conversations Matt and I have been having about Springsteen for over a decade (you can hear our tribute to the late E Street Band organist Danny Federici on my old podcast). In our world, he’s more like Prince: endlessly creative and hard-working, but more concerned about getting as much music into the hands of his fans than in making Grand Statements About America with each release. Yet still, those Grand Statements get made, because he’s Bruce Fucking Springsteen.
At the same time, we’re not saying, “Here are the best unreleased songs” without rhyme or reason to them. These are fully realized albums that we think Bruce, Jon Landau, and CBS would have put out while waiting for his next magnum opus. Just like the Springsteen in our universe, even a more aggressive release schedule will still leave many gems “in the vaults.” They will just be much smaller vaults, with less material within them.
1) Songs must belong to the sessions in which they were recorded, except in the case where we know Springsteen to have re-recorded them in a later era. We’re not cheating time in such a way that a 1982 Born in the USA outtake could pop up on a 1979 release. Conversely, our alternate universe Bruce will not revisit an earlier song if there’s no record of him doing so during a particular session.
2) There are many songs which were never completed or, at best, exist only with very rough mixes. We are taking the license to suggest that Bruce, having decided that these songs were good enough for release, would have finished them.
3) Any unreleased song that has a significant lyric or musical passage that later found its way into a released song is automatically excluded from consideration.
4) We have a bible of sorts, and it is the incredible On The Tracks section of Brucebase, an invaluable resource for Bruce Springsteen obsessives. They have taken the time and hard work to parse all the scattered info about Springsteen’s recording history into an easily digestible and endlessly readable format. The site will act as final arbiter on what was recorded when, and thus what is considered a candidate for inclusion on each fictional album.
5) Any and all rules can and probably will be disregarded at any point in the service of a particularly kick-ass track or sequencing idea.
Watch this space in just a few days for the first release from our alternate universe Boss’ discography, 1977’s Don’t Look Back.