Who's the Boss?

It's official: The Boss is dead. Not literally dead, like Elvis or FDR. Just conceptually dead, like the Christian Coalition or professional boxing.

No one will be more delighted by this development than Bruce Springsteen, who first tried to kill his Boss alter ego about ten years ago when he fired his band following 1987's Tunnel of Love tour. Tracks finishes the job. His second box set (the first is a live collection from 1986) is a four-disc compilation of B-sides, demos, and leftovers, precisely the kind of vault-cleaning that's usually reserved for musicians who've gone to rock-and-roll-heaven and have no new material in the offing.

In a way this is the case with Springsteen. For most of his career he's been the architect of two distinct musical personalities. First there's The Boss, the leader of an outrageously talented band, and the best white soul singer ever to be mistaken for a rock-and-roll hero; it was the persona that made anthemic rockers like "Born to Run" and "Dancing in the Dark," the persona that earned him White House invitations and magazine covers. And then there's plain old Bruce, the meditative storyteller. Both have enriched American culture, but their artistic achievements are different. The Boss may have outsold plain old Bruce about a million albums to one, but the Springsteen who first emerged on 1982's Nebraska, who came fully into his own on Tunnel of Love, and who has released three mostly gorgeous, mostly ignored (commercially, at least) albums in the years since, is the more complex, challenging, and compelling artist.

Tracks ostensibly covers both of Springsteen's personas through the years, from the first demo he ever recorded for Columbia in 1972 to a song recorded three years ago for 1995's Greatest Hits collection. But one look at the cover photo on the box set tells you all you need to know about what Columbia is really selling. The sepia-tone shot from the Seventies shows a young, wiry, scruffy-looking Springsteen folded up on a basement sofa, staring pensively into the middle distance. There's no telling whether he's pondering his future or just watching M*A*S*H, but he's definitely lean, mean, and hungry. Inside, the track selection focuses heavily on Springsteen's early work with the E Street Band, which essentially makes Tracks another pricey load of nostalgia for The Generation That Never Tires of Its Own Past. And it's a particularly creepy nostalgia, not only because the artist in question is still alive and still making music of exceptional quality, but also because much of Springsteen's work with the E Street Band was itself an exercise in nostalgia. (Can you be nostalgic for nostalgia? Can you actually miss Sha-Na-Na?)

Not that there aren't pleasures, both gross and sublime, to be found among the tracks of Tracks. It's a wonder how a song as touching and well-spoken as "Shut Out the Light," which Springsteen frequently features in concert, never made it to an album until now. (It first surfaced on the flip side to the "Born In the U.S.A." single back in 1984.) It's great to see "Pink Cadillac," once available only as the B-side to "Dancing in the Dark," get a proper release as well; it's the best car song this side of "Mustang Sally." Other minor gems abound: the 1982 soul raveup "Lion's Den," the appropriately thundering "Thundercrack," recorded in 1973, and an acoustic version of "Born in the U.S.A." recorded during the Nebraska sessions that could never be mistaken for a Republican Party anthem.

But Tracks' overall impression is hardly an impression at all. It neither adds to nor diminishes Springsteen's status. It merely hints at a vast reservoir of OK-not-great material that's the natural byproduct of a restless, hard-working artist. Most everything here is as good as Springsteen's second-tier songs like "Darlington County" or "I'm a Rocker," but there's no undiscovered "Thunder Road" or "Atlantic City" to be found. Granted, the homoerotic subtext of songs like "Zero and Blind Terry," "Frankie," "My Lover Man," and "Brothers Under the Bridge" could make a nice Atlantic Monthly piece. Beyond that the only other insight Tracks offers that could be called revelatory is how astute Springsteen has been at culling his best cuts from an enormous amount of so-so material. Tracks has a sloppiness to it that Springsteen -- or The Boss -- wouldn't abide on studio records.

But if Tracks signals the end of The Boss, he deserves a proper eulogy. The young Springsteen was a masterful assimilator. From Dylan he learned how to overstuff lines, creating dynamic tension by playing lyrics against melody. From Roy Orbison he learned to explore the operatic possibilities of pop songs. From Otis Redding he learned everything about soul. Even lesser luminaries such as Gary "U.S." Bonds and Eddie Cochran can be heard in the early Springsteen sound. Though driven by artistic vision, all of this assimilation had a commercial benefit for Springsteen as well: By appropriating Fifties and Sixties pop sounds and giving a masculine feel to Phil Spector's "Wall of Sound" production values, he was able to reach back and claim legions of fans among baby boomers slightly older than himself.

But The Boss's contributions to American music go beyond particular albums or singles. His work ethic, humility, and sense of humor, especially in concert, destroyed the Sixties conception of singer/songwriters as stuckup, drug-addled misanthropes. Springsteen not only respected his audiences, he openly adored them, which made it quite impossible to take mopes like Gordon Lightfoot seriously. In the process he helped redefine masculinity for a jaded post-Vietnam, post-hippie America. He looked for all the world like an auto mechanic, and not a very good one at that. The point was simple but effective: You don't have to be an asshole to be a man. It was the old-fashioned manliness The Boss represented, more than the song itself, that Reagan (mis)appropriated when he used "Born in the U.S.A." in his 1984 re-election campaign. Liberals and lyric readers laughed, but Reagan won.

What The Boss never was, and to his credit never claimed to be, was a working-class hero. That was a bit of myth-making perpetuated by upper-middle-class rock critics, but the working class never bought it. True, his songs were populated with people struggling to get by on the fringes of society, but The Boss presented himself as a rock-and-roll singer first and foremost. What Springsteen practiced was not class advocacy a la Woody Guthrie, but rather a stylized form of journalism. There was a reportorial detachment even to first-person narratives like "The River" or "My Hometown." The effect was like watching the nightly news: The depressing regularity of events tends to blur distinctions between characters.

This is particularly true on Tracks, where the machinery behind Springsteen's art is more visible than on his fully realized albums. Every guy is named Johnny or Frankie and every girl is a Janey or a Mary. They all work down at the factory or the car wash. They all dream of gettin' out. But, alas, they get laid off, or pregnant, or shipped off to Vietnam. This extremely narrow subset of working-class culture might have eventually taken over Springsteen as a writer after "Born in the U.S.A." raised the stakes to a phenomenal level. But then a miracle happened. The Boss fell in love.

Tunnel of Love may not be the best album of the Eighties, but it is perhaps the most admirable. After Born in the U.S.A., Springsteen was one of the biggest pop stars in the world. Die-hard fans might have been disappointed had he come back with Born Again in the U.S.A., but Columbia Records executives wouldn't have minded. As it happened, Springsteen released an album that managed to let just about everybody down.

Tunnel of Love was downbeat and depressing. It wasn't Born in the U.S.A. or even Nebraska, his anti-commercial, one-finger salute to the star-makers who saw The Boss as a walking, talking ATM. Instead of rebellion, Tunnel of Love's chief emotions were suspicion, confusion, and resignation, feelings that sprang from a time when the tabloids were atwitter with breakup rumors about Springsteen's first marriage. But it was also the moment at which Springsteen the journalist became Springsteen the poet. The flash point was "Cautious Man," which introduces another patented antihero in Bill Horton, a fellow not very different from the Billy in "Seaside Bar Song" or the Billy in "Rockaway the Days," both from Tracks. Singing in a mournful, indefinably Southern accent, Springsteen relates that "Bill Horton was a cautious man of the road/He walked looking over his shoulder and remained faithful to its code."

Billy meets and marries a young girl, then builds her a house by the river. In her arms he lets his cautiousness slip away, and for The Boss, this would be the moment where the song's bridge starts and the ATF busts down the door, or the draft notice comes. But that isn't what happens: "One night Billy awoke from a terrible dream callin' his wife's name/She lay breathing beside him in a peaceful sleep, a thousand miles away/He got dressed in the moonlight and down to the highway he strode/When he got there he didn't find nothing but road." Before, the open road had always held the promise of redemption, or at least freedom. Now it was a metaphor for a terrible inner emptiness. The Boss was finished right then.

Almost twelve years later, the ring of truth of "Cautious Man" resounds more powerfully in this quiet little song than in any Max Weinberg drum assault. The same power shoots through the rest of Tunnel of Love and animates so many songs on 1992's Lucky Town and The Ghost of Tom Joad, released in 1996 to almost complete commercial indifference. (Only Human Touch, released in tandem with Lucky Town, fails to measure up.) These albums deserve another chance, a fair hearing in the marketplace away from the distractions of Bossmania.

The stock market winnings necessary to purchase Tracks are better spent on Lucky Town, The Ghost of Tom Joad, and Tunnel of Love, the first album in which Springsteen turned away from merely chronicling conditions around him and sought instead to chart the wild terrain of his own heart. Since then, he's never looked back. Nobody else should, either.

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