These aren’t the best of days for bootleggers. First, the Grateful Dead, one of rock’s few boot-friendly acts, disband. Then, this June, two New York record-store owners become the first manufacturers and sellers of illicit recordings to be convicted under a new amendment to the state’s penal code; each faces up to four years in prison. As this zealous pursuit of copyright pirates spreads, where can collectors go to buy bootlegs of their heroes’ unreleased studio scraps and concert recordings, or material the artists prefer not be issued? How about your neighborhood Virgin or Tower? In the last few months, a wave of unauthorized superstar discs have infiltrated the racks at major chains.
For the last few years, Bruce Springsteen’s management has been trying to squash the distribution of a collection of 1972 demos, originally recorded under the guidance of the Boss’ first manager, Mike Appel. Apparently, they haven’t been terribly successful: British-import copies of Springsteen Unearthed have begun popping up in the U.S.
Except for the disc’s misleading cover (a photo of the buffed, mid-’80s Bruce), Springsteen needn’t be embarrassed. The 16-track album serves as a blueprint for sounds and styles he would later so successfully explore: The organ-fueled Jersey-shore bounce of ”Hey Santa Ana” and ”Seaside Bar Song” is a clear precursor to ”Rosalita,” while the spare, Great Plains balladeering of Nebraska and The Ghost of Tom Joad are mapped out in the brooding folk music and narratives of ”Border Guard” and ”War Nurse.” Even when overwritten (”Evacuation of the West”) or unnecessarily maudlin (”The Lady and the Doctor”), the songs are vivid reminders of the vigor Springsteen brought to singer-songwriter land in the early ’70s.
Part of that energy, Unearthed reveals, stemmed from an underlying uneasiness and anger largely absent from Springsteen’s official 1973 debut album, Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. ”Jesse” takes to task a rock star who ”walks off the stage with a self-adoring haze.” Springsteen’s feelings about his parents and their relocation to California crop up in the conflicted ”Family Song,” and class consciousness rears its head in sketchy observational numbers like ”Hollywood Kids” and ”Song to the Orphans.” His indignation comes to a head in the mesmerizing ”Prodigal Son,” a state-of-the-Nixon-nation rant that finds a startlingly embittered young Bruce railing against low-rent presidents, ”defense-department crooks,” and drooling hotel maids. There’s a reason some of the unfinished or unexceptional material on Unearthed never made it onto later Springsteen albums, but ”Prodigal Son” alone is worth the price of the album’s unauthorized admission. B