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."
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.