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Springsteen's Epic Decade: Bruce on "The Rising" to "Working on a Dream"

"The band hit the road in this decade as the best E Street Band that's been out there"

December 22, 2009 12:02 PM ET

The Rolling Stone editors picked eight stars — from Bruce and Beyoncé to Radiohead and U2 — who not only made the best music but also led the way as Artists of the Decade in our new issue. Here's more of our conversation with Bruce Springsteen from our interview backstage in Buffalo, New York, on the final date of the E Street Band's two-year tour. For our full story, grab the issue now.

Look back at artifacts from Springsteen's career.

On Making The Rising:
My big question when I put the band back together was if we were going to have real work left to do. I wasn't interested in just going out and repeating what we done. I was interested in a renewal of the band — and that meant I would need to write the kind of music that would stand alongside our best records and feel connected to the sense of purpose that the band strove for since its inception. On the reunion tour with the band, I wrote a song called "Land of Hope and Dreams" and said, "Well, that's as good of a song as any of my other songs." It could've been the last song on Darkness on the Edge of Town. It could've been on The River. It had the power. We closed the show with it every night on that tour. Towards the end of the tour, I wrote "American Skin (41 Shots)." These two songs taken together are just as good as two songs about real issues that I've ever written. It gave me the confidence that I could continue to write for the band. The band had work to do to expand its influence, its power, whatever small bit of culture-shaping you can do with rock music. And so I pursued that.

We struggled to record a few songs after our "reunion tour." We went into the studio with our usual team and we couldn't come up with something that sounded fresh enough. Then [former Sony Music chairman] Donny Ienner turned me on to Brendan O'Brien, who worked with Pearl Jam and Rage Against the Machine. We got together, I think we did "Into the Fire," and he said, "Go home and write some more of those." And that's pretty much what I did.

The Rising came, obviously, directly out of 9/11. But it wasn't purely linked to the event, either, if you go back and listen to the way the music was written; it was broad enough to be political, personal, of the moment. We made the record in three weeks or four weeks, on and off, and it was a real statement of renewal and purpose for the E Street Band. It was an extension of the service we provided through the Seventies and Eighties. Once we got there, music just started coming.

On Magic and Working on a Dream:
Magic was obviously a response to Bush Administration and the terrible eight years of American history that left us in the shape we are in today. That was an angry record about how your country can disappear before your eyes, sort of very quietly in the night.

With Working on a Dream, I got to say, "OK, I did sort of the dirty work on Magic" and I was interested in making a rock record about mortality and love. In the past I was very often interested in making sure the music had a certain toughness. But I felt I could move away from that surface toughness and draw on some of the great music I loved in a way that I didn't allow myself to in the past. I felt I had the freedom to make, for instance, a big swinging, melodic ballad that uses the cosmos and stars as a metaphor for life and time and love. Overall, it was a little bit of a love record: "Surprise Surprise," "Kingdom of Days," "What Love Can Do." "Outlaw Pete," that was me throwing it back to the Wild and the Innocent and coming up with a little operetta that's an overview of an entire life of somebody — he struggles to connect and in the end doesn't quite get there. That's a story I've been involved in telling for a long time.

On Touring:
The band hit the road in this decade as, in my opinion, as the best E Street Band that's been out there: plays the best, knows the most. We lost Danny [Federici]. That was a big tragedy for us. One of the things I was proudest of was we were one of the few bands of our generations with all of its members intact and alive and well and happy to be onstage alongside one another.

We're playing for an audience that will outlive us. Literally young kids, middle-kids, teenagers — an enormous percentage of the audience have never seen the band except here tonight, had never seen the band in its earlier incarnation. I think the idea that we can carry the legacy of the band into these times was a great, great motivating factor.

On the Lessons of the Decade:
I think everybody in the band recognized, "OK, the guy standing next to me is more important than I may sometimes think he is." Where bands fall apart is when they lose that perspective. And that's easy to do, so you realize, "OK, we're performing as a unit." When people come in to see Clarence on stage. To see me standing next to him. To see Steve there, Nils, Patti. Those are very powerful totems, very powerful symbols of lifelong commitment. It suggests a possible "us" that can be held together and kept together through the most difficult times. It's one of the things that just the presence of the band onstage together evokes. So I think you learn the greater importance of working as a team.

I've learned how important my work is to me, but that's not a surprise. And I've learned about integrating family life into music. That's hard to do and Patti is an enormous force in allowing us to simply be on the road these past 10 years.

On the Next Decade:
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, and I certainly want us to go out and continue touring. As far as songwriting, I don't worry about that anymore for some reason when I hit my fifties a lot of the insecurities fell away. I no longer have to work so hard to carve out my initial identity. That's there now, so I can drift left and right and then come back to the center with the band if I want to. I think I'm going to be able to continue to write topically and hopefully powerfully about what's going on inside of me and what's going on outside in other peoples lives. The writing has become very enjoyable and joyful and not particularly difficult — and the record-making now happens within a month.

So now we want to take it out as far as we can go, have the guys stay happy, healthy. We play three hours any night and last night we played three and a half. I don't feel any different physically on stage than I felt in my late thirties, which is a good thing. I've got things going already. I have songs I'm writing and all different kinds of things — time off is always my struggle. I'm not great at sitting still, I have to practice doing that. But we do have some time off now where we can sink back into life.

More Bruce Springsteen:

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