Over the course of 500 concerts, five studio albums, two presidential campaigns and one manic Super Bowl performance, Bruce Springsteen proved himself again and again this decade to be his generation's most vibrant, forward-looking artist: rock & roll hero to everyone from Barack Obama and Jon Stewart to Brandon Flowers and Win Butler; living symbol of an openhearted, egalitarian set of American ideals; showman who makes 60 look like the new 35. It's been a busy, sweaty 10 years for Springsteen and the E Street Band — and it's all about to end.
"Tonight is the culmination of a decade-long project of bringing the band back to its rightful place," Springsteen says in a softer version of his onstage preacher-man rasp, sitting in his dressing room in Buffalo, New York, just before his final show of the 2000s with the E Street Band. "If I had goals, if I dreamed of where I'd be at this age with these people, this is pretty close to a Hollywood ending, you know?"
After avoiding partisan politics for most of his career, Springsteen stepped forward as an explicit political advocate, spearheading Vote for Change in 2004 and playing rallies for Obama in 2008. The most memorable phrase from the Democratic side of the '04 campaign came not from John Kerry but from Springsteen's New York Times op-ed piece on the candidate's behalf: "The country we carry in our hearts is waiting."
"At some point, you have to throw your hat in." Springsteen says with a shrug. "Because the times demand that you just can't sit back. We built up some credibility over the years — as much as you can build up playing the guitar. So if somebody needs a song who's trying to get a job done, they can call on you." His most treasured moment from his months of political advocacy was performing "The Rising" and "This Land Is Your Land" to 80,000 people at a Cleveland rally just two days before the election. "I was playing for the audience that I always dreamed about: kids and old people and black people and white people. Working people. All of America was out in front of the stage that night, and I saw many faces who I knew were seeing me for the first time."
The decade was also about reconnecting with old fans and with his friends in the E Street Band, after spending most of the Nineties on his own. "By the late Eighties, I reached a spot where I wasn't sure what to do with the band," he acknowledges. "But there was a moment where I said, 'Well, I've studied, and I've worked my whole life to be one of the best in the world at doing this job. I better have a good reason for not doing it.' Your audience is something that's hard-won, and you can lose it. I felt I've had a long conversation with these people already, and I'd like to continue that conversation using the elements that seemed to communicate the deepest and broadest. That's why I work with the E Street Band.
"A lot of my other work deepens what I do," adds Springsteen, who also recorded a solo album and the rootsy The Seeger Sessions this decade. "It allows me to take a microscope and go in great detail and talk very clearly about the issues that I'm interested in, the stories I like to tell. But when it comes to laying it out, you know — it's hard to beat those people onstage on a night like tonight."
The key album for Springsteen and the reunited E Streeters was 2002's The Rising, an emotionally pitch-perfect response to 9/11 that also marked the beginning of a series of collaborations with producer Brendan O'Brien. "We made the record in three or four weeks," Springsteen recalls, "and it was a real statement of renewal and purpose. It showed what the E Street Band could do now for you. It was an extension of the service we provided through the Seventies and Eighties. And that was something that very few bands of our generation are usually able to do. It's hard to continue to write currently and with purpose and with an eye toward the future while retaining your continuity with your past. So once we got there, music just started coining."
It's not going to stop, either. "My life now is just all about the doing," he says. "I have all the tools I need — I could play by myself; I could play with the Sessions Band, which I'd like to do again. And the E Street Band is in full power. I want us to continue touring. We want to take it out as far as we can go — I don't feel any different physically onstage than I felt in my late 30s. I've got things going already. I have songs I'm writing. Time off is always my struggle. I'm not great at sitting still."
For Springsteen, his broader mission goes back to the moment that inspired The Rising: "On 9/11, I went to the beach, and from there I used to have a clear view of the World Trade Center. They were gone. There was a long line of smoke drifting south. So as I drove out of the parking lot, some kid rolled his window down and said, 'Hey, man. we need ya.'" Springsteen smiles. "I like that idea. The idea that I have an audience out there that needs me and a family at home that needs me. It's all just in the doing now — trying to continue with the same sort of intensity and excellence that hopefully we've made for our band over the past 40 years."
This story is from the December 24, 2009 issue of Rolling Stone.