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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.

So why stop now? Springsteen says writing comes more easily to him now than it did 30 years ago. In his youth he obsessed about every note, every production detail. Now he's more willing to roll the dice.

"In the old days it was, we might be wrong, and, man, this thing is over," he says. "Now, it's like we might be wrong, but there's room for some mistake."

He's more confident of his craftwork, and there is less second-guessing now.

"It doesn't mean you go at it with any less intensity," he says. "You go at it, if anything, with even more intensity. . . . You're still trying to take that mallet, hit that piece of wood and hear that bell ring."

His relaxed demeanor offstage -- a quietude that has been interpreted as everything from aloofness to shyness -- is deceptive: "I'm sort of an easygoing lunatic," he says, a wicked grin creeping across his face. "On the surface, I'm very easygoing and underneath, heh, I'm working on it."

It makes sense, then, that all the artists Springsteen says he's interested in -- he rattles off Bob Dylan, Merle Haggard, Steve Earle, Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly and Bonnie Raitt as examples -- are obsessed with something.

"They may not know what that thing is!" he says. "Most of my favorite artists probably don't know what that thing is. I'm not sure that I know what it is. But I know it's there. And occasionally you get your hands on it and you're able to shape it into beauty and hope and rage and anger that stimulates the life of your conversation with your fans. And that's what's essential."

Springsteen is an earnest and eloquent interviewee, but he can also be winningly self-effacing. After giving a serious and thoughtful evaluation of President Obama's first year in office (he says he's wary about Afghanistan, favors a public option in health care, supports the creation of a jobs program), he sits back and laughs.

"I mean, I have my own opinions about all these things, there's just nobody asking me for them," he says. "There's nobody saying, 'Call the guitar player from New Jerrrsey and see what he has to say about this.' "

When it comes to assessing his own work, however, he is refreshingly free of modesty. The old songs hold up. "Part of that is the intent and desire of the band, but part of it is that this stuff was just well-written," he says. "It has retained its power and its relevance partly because of its craft and because we're serious about it and put all of our soul into it."

If no one works harder than Springsteen to earn his fans' support, it's also true that no one works harder to support Springsteen than the E Street Band. Though its membership has changed slightly over the years since the early 1970s, its current incarnation includes longtime members Garry Tallent (bass), Clarence Clemons (sax), Max Weinberg (drums), Roy Bittan (keyboards), Steven Van Zandt and Nils Lofgren (guitars), and Scialfa (guitar and vocals). Organist Danny Federici died last year after a bout with cancer.

The group is the foundation of Springsteen's weightiest work and the backbone of his live marathon performances, many of which exceed three hours without interruption. The singer takes great pride in the band's longevity and recoils when asked if this recently concluded tour might be the last with the group.

"Are you kidding me? There's still fannies in the seats out there! People want to see this [bleep]. They want to go away and say, 'Wow, I don't believe what I just saw.' And that's something we still do."

He lets the last word hang as if to emphasize that he is speaking of the band in the present tense, not the past.

"We're musicians to the bone," Springsteen says. "It ain't easy to get us to go home. We're traveling musicians. Everybody in that van has got the same thing in their blood and in their bones. And there's many miles to go before we sleep."

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