One of the risks of dropping a 4-CD archival box set of mostly unreleased material is the long gestation period for listeners. Four CDs and 66 songs is a lot, especially if you're inclined to listen critically. I've had Bruce Springsteen's Tracks box set since it was released and I'm still discovering songs.
One of the songs that introduced itself to me later was "Zero & Blind Terry." I like songs from every phase of Springsteen's career, but his romantic epics are hit-and-miss with me, some being a bit melodramatic for my taste. I thought that's how I felt about "Zero & Blind Terry," but I wasn't listening to it right.
The first few times I heard it, it felt a little like the adventures one might have with one's childhood imaginary friend. It felt like the musical equivalent of Stand By Me, albeit written before Stephen King wrote the novella and long before the film. There's nothing wrong with that, but for me there wasn't anything all that right with it.
All that changed a few weeks ago. I was listening through Tracks, bitching about how stupid Bruce was for not playing "Thundercrack" and "So Young and in Love" and any of the other songs I love from this set. As I was playing from one song to the next, "Zero & Blind Terry" started. The first thing I noticed was the Dylanesque yelp on the line "No, Dad, they're just plain heroes!" After I chuckled about that, I started to notice the music. There was the calliope organ and the unmistakable sound of Clarence Clemons' great saxophone. It all seemed like a lot of decoration for very little house, and then it happened.
The music begins to fade and the spotlight turns to Springsteen's vocal, and something magical happens. The silliness and wastefulness of youth and their tall tale adventures became something bigger. The first several verses of the song are the adventures and exploits of these two characters. That part is fun enough, but it's when the narrator fast forwards and looks back that Springsteen's vocal gives the story heart. There's a wistful sadness in his still very young voice. It's as if the young man knows one day he'll look back on all this and long for it, or at least a piece of it.