The set opens with the voice of legendary producer John Hammond announcing an audition by Springsteen in May 1972. Springsteen performed riveting, Dylan-esque versions of "Mary Queen of Arkansas," "It's Hard to Be a Saint in the City" and "Growin' Up," accompanied only by his acoustic guitar. "That's a taste of the record John Hammond would have liked us to make at the time," Springsteen says. "It was very austere. That was a powerful evening for me. I came up on the bus, and I had a guitar with no case. I carried it around the city that whole day – I was kind of embarrassed. And I'll never forget stepping up to that microphone – I guess it was Studio E [at Columbia Records]. Everybody was dressed in a jacket, and the engineer wore a shirt and tie. I sang those songs and I had everything on the line. It was tremendously exhilarating."
While Tracks includes material recorded as recently as 1995 – during the sessions for The Ghost of Tom Joad – and even one subsequent track, "Gave It a Name," recorded in August, Springsteen took particular delight in re-encountering his early material with the E Street Band, songs he now characterizes as "these really long, strange stories, these kind of funky epics – I don't know what they were!
"I had the most fun with the stuff from The Wild and the Innocent," he says. "I enjoyed hearing the eccentricities of the band and myself at the time. That song 'Thundercrack' – that was my show stopper. We'd play it at the end of the night, and it was this big, long production. We did it once in the studio, and I listened to it and said, 'This is too much work.'" He laughs. "But I pulled it out for this record. We didn't have the vocal parts, so I called up [drummer Vini "Mad Dog" Lopez] and said, 'Vini, it's twenty-five years later, but I got some singing for you to do.' So he comes in and, of course, he remembers his part exactly. He steps up, sings all those high notes, says, 'Hey, thanks, that was fun,' and walks out."
Then there are tracks like "Give the Girl a Kiss," a crazily exuberant outtake that comes, unbelievably, from the sessions for the ruthlessly stark Darkness on the Edge of Town. "I love that," Springsteen says unabashedly about the song. "I don't even remember writing it or recording it. It was like, 'When did I do that?' People were sending in their suggestions [for Tracks]. I got a note from some fans about this song 'Iceman,' which I didn't even know existed. I had no recollection of it."
All this strolling down the winding lanes of yesteryear has, inevitably, excited rumors about the possibility of a tour next year by Springsteen and a reunited E Street Band. "It takes a lot more planning now than it did ten years ago," Springsteen says, citing his desire to be with his family and the commitments of the other band members. "It's something I've thought about, though. It's always the subtext, whenever we're around one another – 'Hey, whaddya think?' But I don't have any plans at the moment."
He also has, as usual, two partially completed albums – one acoustic, one electric – that he would like to finish. The blue highways mapped by Tracks and the glory days rendered in Songs aside, how does he see himself – the living symbol of heartfelt, muscular rock & roll –fitting into the contemporary scene? "I've created a body of work that expresses fundamentally who I am," he says in clear, no-nonsense tones. "And I am interested in presenting what I do to anybody who's interested. That's the only way I know how to do it. The way I approach that now isn't any different from when I started, when I didn't particularly feel that I fit into the mid-Seventies music business. Today I have less access to the mainstream. I'm not going to be on MTV, and there are probably a lot of radio stations I can't get on. So I go out and perform when I can.
"None of that alters anything I do at this point," he adds emphatically. "That would be foolish. Hey, you have faith in what you do. And then you do it."
This story is from the December 10, 1998 issue of Rolling Stone.
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