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2009 Kennedy Center Honors Bruce Springsteen

With honors aplenty, is Springsteen ready to retire?

Adored by critics and revered by his fans, Bruce Springsteen adds another highlight to his career when he receives a Kennedy Center Honor Sunday night.

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By Joe Heim
Sunday, December 6, 2009

During his concert at Giants Stadium on Oct. 3, just a couple of weeks after he turned 60, Bruce Springsteen did something no one remembers him doing in many, many years.

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Early in the set, during the song "Hungry Heart," he made his way into the crowd about 25 yards from the stage, stood up on a four-foot-high riser and then fell backward into the audience.

Springsteen's trust in his fans was absolute -- and well-placed. Instinctively they raised their hands to catch him and then passed him overhead back to the stage as he sang. The crowd surf soon became a staple of almost every performance: Springsteen counting on his fans to keep him aloft and safe and return him to his rightful perch. The fans, in turn, counting on Springsteen to continue singing, lift their spirits and envelop them in his wake.

For Springsteen, rock-and-roll has always been about making contact with his audience. He describes his songwriting, his albums, his concerts, the entirety of his career as an "ongoing conversation" with his fans. It is as much about them -- their dreams, frustrations, failings and joys -- as it is about him. Fans see themselves, or people they know, in the vast cast of characters that inhabit his songs and give them life. It's a quintessentially American array: winners, losers, gamblers, hustlers, lovers, outcasts and desperadoes.

No matter their station, they are strivers for a human connection, searchers for dignity and believers that a world exists where they can have their say.

The Kennedy Center Honors he will receive Sunday, Springsteen says, are "a recognition that you've worked to be a part of the cultural life of your country which was something that was an ambition of mine from a very young age." The performer discussed the honors and his career during a backstage interview last month before a concert in Baltimore. "To have that recognized is exciting at this point. It's satisfying." With a chuckle, he also observed, "It's one of those things that makes you think . . . are we getting towards the end?"

But Springsteen -- wearing jeans the color of sand, a long-sleeve T-shirt with its sleeves pushed up and a necklace weighted with a clutch of religious medallions -- was quick to stress that the end is not yet in sight. He thinks that his long-running group, the E Street Band, is playing as well if not better than during the making of "Born to Run," the 1975 album that sprang him to superstardom. And though critical and fan response to his newer music has been mixed, Springsteen says the past decade has been the most fruitful of his life. With a career that spans five decades, Springsteen has proven staying power, a devoted following and a work ethic surpassed by no other rock-and-roll performer.

Still, 60 is tough to ignore, even for Springsteen, who is fit in a way that athletes, never mind singers, half his age would envy.

"The only thing I would say [about turning 60] is that a steaming train rolling down the track towards you clarifies the mind," he says, laughing. "It does excite the senses and is thrillingly inspiring in ways that you might not have imagined."

Before the fame

Bruce Frederick Joseph Springsteen was born in Long Branch, N.J., in 1949, and grew up in Freehold, the Irish Italian Catholic son of Douglas and Adele Springsteen, his bus driver father and legal secretary mother. He acquired his first guitar at 13; joined his first band, the Castiles, at 15; recorded his first album, "Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J.," at 23; and was hailed as rock-and-roll's future at 25. Along the way he earned the nickname the Boss, one he has never fully embraced, and almost from the beginning has been hailed by his fans with one long, loving, thunderous syllable:

Bruuuuuuuuuuuuuuce!

What has inspired such devotion? What, at its essence, defines a Bruce Springsteen song? It's a fool's game to try to boil his vision down to one truth, but from the scrappy freewheeling early albums to his more tamped-down recent efforts, from his biggest hits to forgotten B-sides, Springsteen says there is a thread that can be discerned.


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