Bruce Springsteen: Bringing It All Back Home

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In the living room at Thrill Hill, as the late-afternoon winter sunlight fades outside the windows, Springsteen quotes from the last verse of "The Last Carnival," his tribute to Federici at the end of Working on a Dream: "We'll be riding the train without you tonight/The train that keeps on movin'."

"That's just life, and it all goes on without you," he says. "The acknowledgment of time, its effects — on a good day, it's a sweetener. It makes every element of the day come to life a little more than it normally would. Because you realize it's finite — everything around you, the band, the family. In a not very long period of time, someone else will be living in this house, driving these roads. Somebody may go, 'Hey, Bruce Springsteen used to live there.' And in a little bit longer than that, they ain't gonna be saying that anymore. They're just going to be driving by.

"That's the way the cards is played. But in the meanwhile …" Springsteen raises his voice to the preacher-fever pitch with which he promises rock & roll salvation each night onstage. "Oh, there is fun to be had and work to do. The band, in truth, is at its very best. I don't believe there has been any other time in our career when we have played better than we did on the second half of that last tour. If you came to see us with your sign with your favorite song on it, something we hadn't played in 30 years, that night we might play it. The band was on fire. Just the acknowledgment of that finiteness made everybody double down on their commitment."

The physical cost of three-hour shows and year-long tours over four decades is high. "We were a MASH unit, with heating pads, ice packs, exercise equipment and masseuses all we needed to physically do it," Lofgren says of the 2008 shows, only part-kidding. The guitarist, 57, recently had both of his hips replaced. Clemons, at 67 the oldest E Street member, has had three hip replacements (one hip was done twice) and underwent knee-replacement surgery on both legs last year.

Another complication comes on June 1st, when Conan O'Brien and the Max Weinberg 7 take over The Tonight Show, which is produced in Los Angeles. Springsteen shrugs when asked if he is worried about booking E Street gigs around Weinberg's new cross-country commute and shooting schedule. "All I know is this — it's all gonna work out, one way or another," Springsteen says. "If people wanna come out and see the E Street Band, they'll be able to come out and see the E Street Band."

"It's a hell of a problem to have in this economy," Weinberg says cheerfully, then tells a story that illustrates how well his two bosses get along: About 10 years ago, a well-known actress on an NBC sitcom (Weinberg doesn't reveal her name) requested a sabbatical from the series to make a movie. NBC said no. Her agent pointed out that Weinberg was allowed to go off for six months at a time to play with Springsteen. "The NBC lawyer thought for a second, then said, 'The next time Bruce Springsteen asks your client to play drums with him, she can do that.'" Weinberg grins, noting that in the NBC legal department, "it is known as the Weinberg-Springsteen Rule."

Van Zandt takes credit for coining Springsteen's famous nickname. "In our neighborhood, I was the Boss," says Van Zandt, who played with Springsteen in many pre-E Street Jersey Shore bands and shared an apartment with him for a time. "But when I started calling him the Boss, people paid attention." From the start, Van Zandt says, Springsteen "had his eye on history. He was like, 'This ship is sailing. Are you on board or not?'"

Springsteen is not the same bandleader he was in clubs like the Student Prince in Asbury Park or even after he graduated to stadiums in the mid-Eighties. "He's become more masterful, if anything," Bittan claims. "Let's not forget he is singing, playing guitar, jumping around, working the audience, playing to the video cameras, conducting the band. That is a lot of balls in the air at one time — and to look natural doing it."

Based on the way E Street members describe his method of command, Springsteen is the least verbal no-nonsense bandleader in rock. "He doesn't sit down and say what he expects," clemons says. "He knows, as a musician, what he's gonna get from everybody. Then we live up to his expectations."

The most explicit direction Weinberg ever got was right when he joined the E Street Band. "Drummers have a thing — we call 'em high-hat barks," Weinberg explains, "that psst, psst sound. Bruce said, 'I like those.' So I threw them in a lot." But there was no instruction from Springsteen in the studio when Weinberg hit that titanic roll at the end of "Born in the U.S.A." "That was completely visceral. That's what I try to do — hook up with whatever Bruce is feeling and give him what he wants, the way I do it."

As a band boss, Springsteen is a lot like Neil Young, according to Lofgren, who has performed and recorded with Young periodically since the early Seventies. "They are very hands-off in terms of what you do, as long as it feels right," Lofgren says. "Neil likes to get loose, more reckless. But in general, the theme is, get lost in the music. Stay lost in it until you come up for air at the end of the show. But prepare enough so your instincts are true to the bandleader's vision."

For Springsteen, that now includes an urgency — do more faster — which, he admits, is very different from the tenacious perfectionism of his youth: "Patti said it — You are in a manic state, running like crazy from, let me think, death itself?'" Springsteen howls with glee. "It's a funny thing to say. But I've got a deadline! And that fire I feel in myself and the band — it's a very enjoyable thing. It carries an element of desperateness. It also carries an element of thankfulness.

"We are perched at a place where we want to continue on — with excellence," Springsteen says proudly. "That's our goal. All the rest of the stuff- we're gonna figure it out."

A few minutes later, he gets up and races home to get that Castiles tape.

This story is from the February 5, 2009 issue of Rolling Stone.

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