"I'm so reluctant for this tour to end," says Steven Van Zandt, checking in during a break in Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band's ongoing Working on a Dream juggernaut. When Springsteen released the album earlier this year, the E Street Band took to the road after a mere eight-month break. "We just hit the ground running," Van Zandt says. "Most big bands, you're in that three-, four-, five-year cycle. You literally don't see guys in the band for years sometimes." As part of the tour, the E Street Band will help celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame at Madison Square Garden on October 29th. That night, they'll share a bill with Crosby, Stills and Nash, Simon and Garfunkel, and Stevie Wonder. "It's always fun playing with other people," Van Zandt says. "And a lot of the fun is winning over crowds that are not necessarily there just for you." Will the star-studded lineup mean a shorter E Street Band set? "It's like these festivals we've played this summer," Van Zandt says. "They tell you, 'Your show absolutely must be over in two hours.' So we do about three hours and 10 minutes. I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for the curfew to be precisely obeyed. Pack a lunch that night!"
Bruce has been taking requests every night onstage for a while now. What's that been like?
It's so liberating to play a song in front of 50,000 people that you've never played before. Not something you played a long time ago and have forgotten: Never. Played. Before. There's something magical about it. I've known Bruce since '65. He's just gone on to some other level on this tour.
What accounts for that?
I think it was just going out on tour again with a new album so soon after the last one. Bruce has been the most comfortable I've ever seen him. He's in the crowd, taking requests and giving so much of the show over to the audience. When I say, "comfortable," by the way, please don't mistake that to mean . . .
It's never relaxed. We're not comfortable relaxing [laughs]. It's much more this full-on onslaught of energy.
Does it remind you of what it was like when you first started playing in bands?
I often talk about the extra energy that those of us who grew up at that time had — we had it, the Beatles, the Stones, the Who. We were all dance bands when we started. It's extremely important to realize that.
You have some E Street Band shows coming up where you're going to play the entire Born to Run album. Do you do anything special to prepare for a show like that?
We really don't. I guess we're different this way, but it's not a big deal for us to … play [laughs]. It's normal for us to play. Everything else in life is weird. I wish the rest of my life was as easy, orderly, satisfying and successful as when we play. That's our sanctuary. People are always asking me questions like "What do you do before a show?" Nothing. I put a shirt on and I walk onstage.
You are on the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee. Who should be in there that isn't?
Johnny Burnette and the Rock 'n Roll Trio, arguably the best of all the rockabilly bands, is one. There's dozens and dozens of early rock & roll groups that should be. I notice a bias toward the post-art-form rock critics' sensibility as opposed to the pre-art-form rock & roll sensibility. That's why I had so much difficulty getting the Rascals and the Dave Clark Five in. We'll probably never get Paul Revere and the Raiders in. Anybody who didn't eventually get into Important Personal Lyrics is not regarded seriously. It's very difficult for me to justify the Talking Heads being in the Hall of Fame before the Hollies, or Michael Jackson being in before Johnny Burnette.
You've talked about the E Street Band being so close now, but you quit the band back in the Eighties, and Bruce later broke the group up for 10 years. How do those two decisions look to you now?
There is no doubt that those two things were mistakes. I tell everybody, if you've got a band that works, it's a miracle. It's never going to be perfect, but if it works on some level, hold on to it with both hands and don't ever let it go. Bands should never break up. I had this conversation with Bruce. One of the reasons why we got back together is I really feel a moral obligation. You ask people to fall in love with you. To need you. To want you. To buy your records and come see you. You have an emotional contract with people. To break up is to violate that contract. That relationship has now been restored, and we are feeling it more than ever.
This story is from the October 1, 2009 issue of Rolling Stone.