David Zess is a one-man Bruce Springsteen jukebox.
A 52-year-old Boston resident, Zess can play every officially released Bruce Springsteen song. If you doubt him, check out springsteentributebydavidzess.weebly.compage, where you’ll find 372 links to YouTube videos with his versions of Springsteen-written songs, songs Springsteen has covered, and more. They’re listed alphabetically, starting with the 1992 B-side “30 Days Out” and ending with “Zero and Blind Terry,” an outtake from The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle that was later included on the Tracks boxed set.
There is also an 11½-minute video there, with excerpts from various songs, that I have embedded at the bottom of this post as well.
Zess recently finished and posted the songs, and hopes to do shows at which whoever hires him can make up their own setlist. His email address and phone number are on his web page (see previous paragraph).
I talked to him about the project, and his career, in the following interview.
Q: I assume you do your own music, too?
Q: In bands or as a solo artist?
A: I seem to gravitate more to the solo thing. That seems to work better for me that way. I don’t know why, but I think it’s easier to keep myself together than a whole band. (laughs)
Q: Have you played basically in Boston, or have you gotten beyond that?
A: I lived in Nashville, and I lived in Los Angeles for a little bit, and I played a little bit out there, but not enough to really speak of. I’ve been doing this wonderful street performing gig in Rockport, which is up near Gloucester, Mass., kind of on the North Shore. And it’s been really fun. It’s something I never thought I would want to do, but there are a ton of tourists up in that area. People come up and I kind of just stand there and set out a little jar. It’s actually really interesting, because you get tourists, and they just seem to really like it. I’m basically in the ocean. I’m standing on this little jetty, playing.
What gave me the idea to do this Bruce thing is that people would walk by, sometimes, with Bruce T-shirts, and I’d play “Dancing in the Dark” or “Hungry Heart” or something like that, and then I started learning a lot more. Then this couple came by one day and he had a Bruce shirt, and I said, “Hey, you want a few Bruce songs?” They were like, “Sure.” I did, like, 10 songs that they wouldn’t have expected. And that just kind of started the idea rolling.
Q: So when was that? When did that happen?
A: Probably a couple of years ago. Then, as you can imagine, it took a while to come up with something that I felt was different. There are a bunch of tribute bands, and I knew I couldn’t do that, or want to do that, because it’s kind of enough: They do a good job at it. But I thought, “What could be a little different?” And I said, since I do a solo thing, what if I learned every single song that Bruce released, and did an all-request thing, where you could request any song that Bruce released. So I decided one day to do that. I think it took me about eight months to learn every song. I would take a little break, and then the River boxed set would come out, so that was 22 new songs. And then it would be like, “Wait, I forgot ‘Vigilante Man.’ ”
I think, as of today, I’ve learned every released original (Springsteen song). It’s 318, if I’m right. And then I had to add in, like, “Santa Claus (Is Comin’ to Town),” “Vigilante Man,” even “Chicken Lips (and Lizard Hips)” (a children’s song that Springsteen covered for the 1990 For Our Children charity album). I’m like, “Oh gosh, what if somebody just randomly requests that? Okay, I’ll learn it.” So at that point, I was up to 350, and I started throwing in stuff like “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher” or a Southside (Johnny) song, and then I just kind of stopped. I thought, “I’ve got enough. I’ve got every release. I’ve accomplished that goal. So I better stop recording these.”
Q: Did you in some cases do studio outtakes that were never officially released?
A: It’s funny you say that, because … I’m sure you and I have our stacks of bootlegs (laughs). And I did that: I started going through some of them, like “Song for Orphans.” I put that on there. And I started saying, “Well, gosh, this is never-ending.” And then I didn’t know if I was able to legally do songs like that. “Can I do ‘Song for Orphans’ if it’s technically not released? Even though Bruce has done it live?” Is Landau Management going to call me and say, “How did you get this?”
So, I’ve included a few of the outtakes, but I kind of left that at maybe 1 percent of them, for now.
Q: In the process of doing this, did you learn anything about Bruce? Do you feel you have a deeper understanding of him than you did at the start?
A: Oh, definitely. My songwriting was always kind of coming from that wavelength. I, luckily, got into rock at an early age, so classic-rock, Elton (John), Bruce, Aerosmith, and I was a big Kiss fan. And I started learning (Springsteen songs), and yeah … it definitely made me appreciate it, just listening to it more than I would have ever done before. Having to get the chords and dissecting them.
I try not to compare (my songs to his), because then I start getting jealous. … But I sound very John Mellencamp-ish, very Bruce-ish, very Bon Jovi-ish. I guess it’s in my blood. It just kind of comes out. If I listened to Metallica all the time, I guess I’d sound more like Metallica.
Q: So if someone hires you to do an all-Bruce show, how would that work? How many songs, first of all?
A: I figure I can at least do 30 songs that they choose.
Q: How long would it take you to prepare?
A: I’m ready. If you called me up today and said come to your house tomorrow, I could play any 30 songs you choose.
Q: Even if I picked the 30 most obscure songs?
A: Yeah, I spent a good year practicing these things. Maybe, let’s say I didn’t practice “Silver Palomino” a lot, because maybe I don’t want to do that one every night. But I could do it. I know it in my head. I’ve listened to it enough that I could make you happy with “Silver Palomino.” (laughs)
Q: Will you use lyric sheets, or something like that?
A: I’ve got a music stand, with the sheet music all in alphabetical order. If someone hired me for tomorrow night, I would just go to Staples in the morning and print up those 30 songs, so those are right in the order that they wanted them. And then if I got through the 30 songs, and I wanted to do five or six more, I’d say “Okay, shout them out,” and I’d just open my book.
Q: How many Springsteen shows do you think you’ve been to, just as a fan?
A: My brother’s five years older than me, and he and his friends … at the time, I was about 12 and they were 17 or 18 … they would only take me to, like, half of the shows they’d go to, and then the other half, I’d be home, crying. So I remember in ’78, he played The (Boston) Garden, and they wouldn’t take me. And then in 1980, they took me to both Boston Garden River shows. And ever since then, I’ve never missed a tour.
He should have learned how to hold a camera and record a video correctly.
I hate to be critical of this guy because he’s obviously done a whole lot of work to set himself out as something different. And I love it that he digs Bruce this much to sit down and learn 350 songs – that’s crazy! But first of all, he turned up the reverb ib his video track to Maximum overdrive, and it’s very distracting, and unprofessional sounding. I suspect he may be self-conscious about his own singing abilities, and wants to cover them up with heavy effects. There were several incorrect guitar chords that I heard. Also, he has the vocal range to hit the notes of say, the tune “Backstreets,” but he hits the note weakly, like that of an inexperienced teenager just starting out in the business. How do I know? Because I’ve spent my entire adult life (44 years and counting) singing Bruce’s songs with my guts like it matters. I only do 50 Bruce songs as opposed to this guy’s 350, but at least my versions have a little feeling and soul in them, like they were meant to be by the master who wrote and performed them.