This afternoon, Bruce Springsteeen has a lot on his mind. There is the matter of band rehearsals and the thirty-seven-date world tour that he will soon start. There is the new album he has made, Magic, his third release in the past eighteen months. There is also the subject matter of that album, weighty stuff like the direction of our democracy and party stuff that recalls the days when sparks first flew on E Street more than three decades ago. And there is something else as well: His oldest son's soccer game starts at 4:30.
Springsteen's life at fifty-eight revolves around family and music. It was not always tin is way. For a long time, there was only the music. And then, for a while, only the family. The balance he's achieved – and the creative roll he's been on, four albums in the past five years – is relatively, recent. "I spent about ten years where I had no destination, exactly," he says, referring to the time during which he moved to Los Angeles, settled into his second marriage and began a family. He and wife Patti Scialfa have three children, Evan, 17, Jessica, 16, and Sam, 13.
The ten years Springsteen mentions roughly line up with the period during which the E Street Band was idle, from 1988 to 1999. During that time, Springsteen redefined his career and his music more radically than any major artist save Bob Dylan, the eternal trickster. Having reached the level of mass success that his music and ambition always demanded, Springsteen pulled back. His subject matter went first inward and then outward. The most personal albums he ever made – Lucky Town and Human Touch – were, as he's pointed out, his happiest and least successful. In 1995, The Ghost of Tom Joad, a literary album with a political bent – Raymond Carver meets Woody Guthrie – followed the birth of his youngest child. He had gone, in seven years, from stadiums to arenas to theaters, a man alone with an acoustic guitar.
In 1999, a few months shy of his fiftieth birthday, Springsteen went on tour with the E Street Band for the first time in more than a decade. As it always had, the band put flesh and muscle behind the words, reconnecting Springsteen to the rock and soul that had first been the wellspring of his music. This is clear when I watch the band rehearse for its current tour at Convention Hall in Asbury Park, New Jersey – an arena band gathering in a room the size of a high school gymnasium to stretch out before a long run. In that familiar voice full of gravel, Springsteen traces Sam Cooke-style melodic runs in the air.
Magic returns to the spirit of Asbury Park with a big sound Springsteen hasn't pursued since Born to Run. "Lately, I've had a little romance with my oldest stuff," he says. "There was a lot of freeness in it. When you start and when you finish – that's when the pressure is off. In the beginning, you're too unknown, you're not really competing with people. And at this point, I'm not competing with 50 Cent or trying to get on MTV. I'm playing for myself and my band and my audience."
As he explains when we sit down to talk backstage at Convention Hall, Magic uses the boardwalk sounds of the past to put across the feeling of the present: "the uneasiness of these very uneasy times." Often when he speaks, Springsteen laughs midsentence, as if he's embarrassed to be taking himself this seriously. But not when he talks about the course the country has taken under George W. Bush or the war in Iraq. Then the laughter stops.
The record starts with "Radio Nowhere," a song about a guy out on the road looking for a connection.
It's an end-of-the-world scenario – he's seeing the apocalypse. All communications are down: "Trying to find my way home/All I heard was a drone bouncing – trying to connect to you. It comes down to trying to make people happy, feel less lonely, but also being a conduit for a dialogue about the events of the day, the issues that impact people's lives, personal and social and political and religious. That's how I always saw the job of our band. That was my service. At this point, I'm in the middle of a very long conversation with my audience.
And what are you hearing from their side of the conversation?
A lot of different things. "I like the old Bruce better.…" [Laughs] It's an ongoing dialogue about what living means. It's not like a one-on-one dialogue. It's more what you feel back from them. You create a space together. You are involved in an act of the imagination together, imagining the life you want to live, the kind of country you want to live in, the kind of place you want to leave to your children. What are the things that bring you ecstasy and bliss, what are the things that bring on the darkness, and what can we do together to combat those things? That's the dialogue I have in my imagination when I'm writing. I have it in front of me when I'm performing.
It's an organic, living thing. There's something subtly different being said on a nightly basis. But you're attempting to define and have impact upon the world and the life you're living. I can't do it by myself. I need my audience. It'll be a lifelong journey by the time that I'm done.
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