Counting Down Bruce Springsteen: #24, “Loose Ends”

The following is an excerpt from Counting Down Bruce Springsteen: His 100 Finest Songs, a new book available now from American Songwriter contributor Jim Beviglia. We’ll be offering a sampling of song entries — one out of each batch of 10 — over the next few weeks. Purchase the book here.

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Over and over during this countdown we’ve seen examples of excellent songs that were tossed to the side by Bruce Springsteen instead of being included on studio albums. In many cases, his decision-making process was understandable. It usually boiled down to these songs, excellent on their own, not quite matching up with the message Springsteen was trying to convey on a specific album.

In the case of “Loose Ends,” what was going on in Springsteen’s head when he decided to leave it on the cutting-room floor until its eventual release with the treasure trove of goodies on Tracks in 1998 has never quite been explained. The song was recorded in 1979, which would have put it in line for inclusion on The River. As it turns out, the song was briefly marked for inclusion on a Springsteen album around that point, but that album wasn’t The River.

According to Dave Marsh’s Two Hearts: The Definitive Bruce Springsteen Biography, Springsteen had originally intended a single album as a follow-up to 1978’s Darkness on the Edge of Town. “Loose Ends” was slated to be the closing song on the album, a pretty important spot, so it’s clear its creator had a high opinion of it. But Springsteen had second thoughts about the project and shelved it, eventually taking seven of the ten songs with him for The River but not “Loose Ends,” rendering its title a bit too literal.

The funny thing is that the song would have easily fit The River since the whole point of that project was to include a wide variety of songs and styles under one big umbrella of a double-album. As a matter of fact, “Loose Ends,” with its pristinely powerful music, would have made a killer single, something that the album could have used considering “Fade Away,” the follow-up to hit “Hungry Heart,” faltered at the charts.

This is what you would call an uptown problem, having so many available songs that a surefire classic like this one can fall by the wayside. The whys and wherefores are why God made message boards; anyway, we can all enjoy “Loose Ends” now whenever we want.

Considering when it was recorded, it’s interesting to think that “Loose Ends” could have been one of the first songs primarily about relationships on a Springsteen album. There are no tangential bigger themes at play; it’s simply a narrator speaking to his on-again, off-again paramour and trying to make sense of why they continually hurt each other.

Springsteen comes at it from a perspective that he uses to tackle much of his other subject matter. He contrasts the nostalgia for the good times of the past with the pain being suffered in the present. “How could something so bad, darling, come from something that was so good?” he asks, and the song doesn’t provide any easy answers.

Maybe the reluctance to put the song on an album comes from the fact that Springsteen is unsparing in his descriptions of how bad things have gotten between these two. In the first verse, he sings, “Then little by little we choked out all the life that our love could hold.” The refrains are similarly blunt: “It’s like we had a noose, and baby without check/ We pulled ’til it grew tighter around our necks.”

This is not docile stuff. These are violent metaphors that the narrator conjures, and the leap can easily be made that such harsh words are borne out of actual events between the two. Yet the two stick with each other simply because neither is willing to make the first move: “Each one waiting for the other, darlin’, to say when.”

Despite all of the negativity brewing between the two and the sad comparison between what was and what is in their relationship, the narrator’s ultimate impulse is to go back to her. “Well baby you can meet me tonight on the loose ends,” Springsteen sings, suggesting that these two are ready to continue their destructive cycle.

Another pop song might have backed off from such a downbeat denouement, preferring instead that the couple separate or promise not to hurt each other anymore. “Loose Ends” prefers realism to safety. For all the gleaming surfaces of the music, which practically begs to be heard on a radio at as loud a volume as possible, that’s a dark message at the core, and perhaps one that Springsteen wasn’t ready to embrace or promote. That would explain why it took so long for this pitch-perfect, pitch-black power bomb of a song to reach us.

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