Asked if he’s read anything this year that he’d like to recommend, Bruce Springsteen mentions Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation, by Joseph J. Ellis, a book that explores the conflicting notions about nationhood that gave birth to the American republic. He also mentions “The American Idol,” an Op-Ed piece in that day’s New York Times by Thomas L. Friedman. “He talks about how Europeans perceive American power and its influence around the world,” Springsteen says. It’s a subject fresh in his mind. The E Street Band has just returned from a two-week, six-country European tour, during which, he says, “the intensity of the audiences caught us a bit by surprise.”
This year, Springsteen released The Rising, one of the first works by a major artist to address the world as reshaped by the September 11th attacks. It was also the first album of new work since 1987 by the E Street Band, which launched a world tour to support it.
By all accounts, your European dates were explosive.
I love going to Europe. I feel really at home there. The band loves playing there, and there was something particularly powerful about those shows. When we came out in Paris the first night, the audience was just . . . it caught the whole band by surprise. Those audiences actually have a pretty complex view of the philosophical roots of the band. They hear us as a very specific voice of where we’re from, and at this point that voice is not easily blurred or made simplistic or jingoistic. They distinguish the voice of our band, say, from the current administration’s foreign policy.
What do they hear in your voice?
I think people are attracted to American energy and an optimism that’s tempered by criticism. Also, they have a sense that the basic values in our songs transcend national boundaries, and people relate to those values as the strengths of the States.
How did people there feel about the potential of war with Iraq?
There’s an enormous amount of concern about it; people overseas are very mistrustful of the current administration. But I feel it here, too. There’s enormous ambivalence about where we’re going. Personally, I think diplomacy should rule. I haven’t seen the specific rationale that justifies putting thousands and thousands of young American lives on the line.
You commented at many of your U.S. show’s about the danger that the war on terrorism presents to our freedoms.
In times of emergency, the first thing to take a whipping is our civil rights. There were thousands of people detained. Who are they? What happened to them? There was talk about military tribunals. These things are fundamentally against the grain of what’s made us who we are.
More personally, were you heartened by the response to “The Rising”?
You’re always trying to write something that’s talking to people in some fashion. That’s the root of the whole job. And it felt like people were hungry to hear it. That was the most satisfying thing.
Did the year have a particular high point for you?
It always comes back to the playing. It’s really that. And at this point, for me, it’s also about the band’s presence in my life and onstage. So I don’t know if I had any single high point, outside of bringing the music out onstage the first few times. The beginning of the tour was very powerful because we played New York, New Jersey and Washington. New York, in particular, felt very meaningful.
But it can happen on any night -that moment of physically bringing the music to an audience, to where they live. That’s your trial by fire. That’s what moves you to continue. That, and being able to do it with the guys who I’ve lived with most of my life.
Was there a low point?
Well, it was a year in which everybody was trying to make sense of everything that had happened. You’d be home and, as a parent, one of your jobs is to try and make your children feel as safe as they can possibly feel. It wasn’t such an easy year to do that. So maybe that was it.
What does 2003 look like to you?
For us, it’s a touring year, so there will be a lot of travel. The band will be very active, doing its job. And then there’s everything else that is going on out there. What’s going to happen in Iraq? What’s going to happen in the Middle East? What’s going to happen here? Those are things that everybody’s anxious about. Me, too.
This story is from the December 12th, 2002 issue of Rolling Stone.