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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.

"I guess the way I put it is my music is a music of identity," he says. "Identity questions."

"Who am I? Where did I come from? How did I end up here? Who are my parents? Where did they come from? What were the forces that affected their lives? What are the forces affecting the lives of my friends right now? Where is the country headed? What does that have to do with me? What is my responsibility?"

The questions spill out of Springsteen as if they have both tormented and guided him throughout his artistic journey. He enunciates each one forcefully, each question a compact jab at meanings not yet discovered, hoping that with enough asking, some truth will be revealed. He has clearly contemplated these questions and many more in depth and with great determination. He confirms as much in the next breath.

"I'm a hound dog on the trail of trying to sort what some of those things are out."

While such questions of identity are universal, there is an undeniable Americanness to the themes and characters he has crafted: from the romantic New Jersey gearheads to the struggling Ohio steelworkers to the condemned outlaws of Louisiana and Nebraska and even the migrant workers newly arrived from Mexico.

In his songs, Springsteen creates tableaus that are instantly familiar. His characters slam screen doors, comb their hair till it is just right, do their best to live the right way, throw back drinks remembering glory days, and believe, perhaps more than anything, that it ain't no sin to be glad you're alive.

Whether they are songs of his own experience or the product of his skillful observation, Springsteen sings about the people and the land he knows.

Bono, the lead singer of U2 and the man who gave Springsteen's induction speech at the 1999 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony, says Springsteen's role as an interpreter and communicator of the American identity cannot be overemphasized.

"Bruce began my obsession with America," the singer said in a phone interview last month from his home in Ireland. "I'm trying to think of anyone else in the period that his work has thrived who believed in America more; in movies, music, poetry. At times believing in his country must have felt like either naivete or just plain old preposterous. But through all of his criticism of the country where he was born and raised, you get the sense that he was the greatest ambassador for the idea that is America."

Bono recalls meeting Springsteen once in London at his hotel during the tour for the multi-platinum-selling "Born in the U.S.A." Springsteen was returning to his room carrying clothes that he had just washed at the laundromat.

"Had it been another artist, you would think it was a photo call," Bono says, laughing. "But he really has the informality that is America, the dignity of labor side of America and the belief that with ordinary men and women there lies a magnificence. That seems to me a sort of core of Americanness, and he embodies that."

Maybe, he was born to run

Springsteen could be forgiven if he decided to slow down. He and his wife, the singer (and E Street Band member) Patti Scialfa, could simply retire on the sprawling New Jersey farm where they have raised their three children: Evan, 19, Jessica, 17, and Sam, 15. He has sold more than 120 million albums; scored Top 10 hits with such songs as "Dancing in the Dark," "Tunnel of Love" and "I'm on Fire"; won 19 Grammys; received an Academy Award for Best Original Song for "Streets of Philadelphia"; and earned accolades aplenty. He has laurels enough for untroubled rest.


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