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Bruce Springsteen: 'My music is a music of identity'

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.

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.

"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.

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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