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Nashville Scene Bruuuuuuuuuuce!

Meet the new Boss. Same as the old boss?

By Noel Murray

OCTOBER 12, 1998:  Earlier this summer, rumors started circulating on the Internet that Bruce Springsteen had contracted with his record company, Sony Music, to compile a multi-CD, career-spanning box set of rare and unreleased recordings. Ever since, speculation has run rampant among fans as to what the box would, and should, entail. Fan-created Web sites have followed every twist in the story. They've dutifully reported that the set would be six CDs, then four; that it would contain no B-sides or live material; that it would contain all the B-sides plus an entire disc of early live stuff. All the while, fans have commented grimly on the personal quirks and corporate politics behind the shifting approach.

The guessing games have been fun to observe--but are any of them true? As with most Internet reporting, the identities of sources have not been forthcoming; it could be that this epic tale has been wholly invented. As for The Boss' bosses at Sony, the only indication they've given has been the mysterious printing of "Bruuuuuuuuce!" at the bottom of a press release announcing their fall slate.

Springsteen himself popped up at Sony's summer stockholders' meeting, played a tape of some previously unknown songs, and told the attendees that he would be touring next year and that they "would like his choice of bands." However, even this--along with reports that the former members of the E Street Band have been spending the summer in Jersey--could merely be an indication of a new album in the works. Oddly, the most useful info has come from Sony's offices in Germany and Great Britain, which have had a November release date for a four-CD box set on their schedule for months.

The wind behind these flying rumors is not just Springsteen's ample fan base. Ever since his face was plastered on the covers of Time and Newsweek, The Boss has had to deal with the crucible of public expectation, and his own legendary cautiousness and indecision have not made the scrutiny any easier to bear. Springsteen spends years between albums, fine-tuning the statements he wants to make and often scrapping whole records.

A prolonged legal battle after the release of Born to Run in 1975 meant that an album's worth of songs were recorded and dumped before Darkness on the Edge of Town came out in 1978. In 1979, Springsteen was prepared to put out an album called The Ties That Bind; he moved it back a year, excised a handful of songs, recorded a bunch more, then put it out as the double album The River. The demos that became 1982's Nebraska were recorded with the E Street Band before Springsteen decided that the full-band versions were unworkable. Nevertheless, quite a few of those fleshed-out versions later turned up on Born in the USA. And rumors persist that Springsteen recorded and canned a classic rock album between Tunnel of Love and the disappointing twin releases of Human Touch and Lucky Town. He's also said to have a sequel to 1996's acoustic The Ghost of Tom Joad ready to go if Sony approves.

All those painful choices have led a lot of fans to grumble that their hero is cheating them by leaving his best stuff in the studio wastebasket. There's a thriving trade in bootlegs of unreleased material, not to mention Springsteen's marathon live shows. A cursory sampling of this underground output reveals that the grumbling has a foundation. The Boss has been unnecessarily stingy with his music, and often his "official" releases are inferior to the songs in which he loses interest--I'd certainly rather hear the legendary "Zero and Blind Terry" than "Mary Queen of Arkansas."

That said, it's unlikely that this box set will assuage those fan complaints--unless Springsteen releases a 20-CD set of every outtake, B-side, and non-LP live track that has ever been put to tape. The sorest point among Springsteen fanatics is Bruce's 1985 box set of live recordings, which features edited-down versions of The Boss's most famous live epics. Fans already smell a repeat of that fiasco, after reports that lengthy bootleg faves like "Thundercrack" are being truncated in order to fit more songs onto four discs. The reason for the reduction from six discs to four has been equally controversial. Some blame the reduction on an intractable Sony deadline that allegedly precluded Springsteen from finishing the overdubs he'd planned; others claim that he was simply dissatisfied (as always) with the sound quality on his earliest tapes.

Whatever the true story, this collection can't help but be a treat to those non-connected Bruce fans who can neither find nor afford poorly recorded $50 bootlegs. If even half of the legendary "missing" songs are on there--cuts like "The Promise" or "Roulette" that have been described so tantalizingly in Dave Marsh's Springsteen biographies--then this will be the musical event of the fall. The official track listing is reportedly imminent. In the meantime, you can view a plausible list (and read much of the day-by-day unfolding of this tale) at the newsroom of "The Boots" Web site, accessible at http://home.theboots.net/ theboots/newsroom.

Any day now, Sony will issue a press release confirming the compilation's existence, its contents, and its release date. When it does, one of the most enjoyable guessing games of the summer will come to an end--and the disappointment and second-guessing can officially begin.

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