When Bruce Springsteen enters a room, he fills it up - even when it's just a room in the guest house turned studio on his own New Jersey farm. His eyes shining and his face red from the fall air, he greets the people who work for him as if he hasn't seen them in months and makes visitors feel like long-lost family. A mountain of sandwiches, prepared to the specific instructions of Springsteen's wife, Patti Scialfa, sits on a tray in the middle of a long farm table. The sound of Scialfa's upcoming solo album, which is being mixed in the adjoining room, wafts into the kitchen.
Through the studio's many windows, you can see the bursting colors of the trees beyond the nearby fields – it's peak foliage season in southern New Jersey. The entire scene is almost Dickensian in its warmth, redolent of two of the most important elements of Springsteen's life; family and music.
Springsteen, who recently turned forty-nine, is in a good place. Most immediately, he's psyched about the Yankees' World Series triumph the night before – it was the sort of season that makes you "glad to be alive," he says – not to mention the imminent release of his sprawling four-CD box set, Tracks. He proudly talks up Scialfa's album. He and Scialfa have kept the palatial home they built in Southern California, but they and their three children (Evan, 8; Jessica, 6; and Sam, 4) now spend most of their time on this farm, which is in shouting distance – yet several tax brackets away – from the Jersey Shore haunts that Springsteen immortalized on such early albums as 1973's Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ and The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle, and 1975's Born to Run.
"We've had this place for five or six years," Springsteen says as he relaxes in a soft brown leather chair in a wood-lined sitting room. "We have a big family nearby – a sixty- to seventy-member family. I grew up like that. I grew up on a street, a little L-shaped block, where we had six houses – all relatives. It's great. It makes for a relatively normal life, and you get a lot of support from people. It helps the day make sense."
Over the past year or so, Springsteen has had plenty of opportunities to look back and consider how he's come to be where he is. The retrospective Tracks consists of fifty-six unreleased songs and ten B sides spanning his entire career. In addition, he's putting out a lavish coffee-table book called Songs, which includes the words to all the tunes on his studio albums; reproductions of his handwritten lyrics; a lush photo history; and his revealing comments on each of his records. Taken together, the box set and the book are an eloquent and thorough celebration of twenty-five years spent making music that has moved, inspired and lighted a fire under millions of people.
Without a doubt, this frenzy of memorializing is meant to set the stage for Springsteen's virtually certain election to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in November. But you won't get him to admit it. "Well, I am superstitious," he says, laughing. "Obviously it would be nice. But I'm a great believer in not counting your chickens. It remains to be seen."
Meanwhile, Springsteen describes Tracks as "sort of an alternate version of my life" – a kind of shadow career. Few artists have recorded as often and set so much finished work aside as has this notorious perfectionist. For that reason, Tracks was once an even more expansive project than it has turned out to be.
"There were about 100 songs initially, and I edited it down to things that were directly related to records I'd released," he explains. "If you liked Darkness on the Edge of Town or The River, if you liked Born in the U.S.A., Tunnel of Love or Nebraska, there's a reference point for where a lot of the music is coming from. These songs didn't feel like outtakes – they were just unreleased. They stand on their own and are as good in many ways as the stuff we put out. We left off a lot of things that were the most fun."
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