The Rock Laureate

The New York Times, 2009-01-28, by: Jon Pareles
AT 9 o?clock on a recent morning Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band were already half an hour into a rehearsal at the rock club Terminal 5 in Manhattan. As N.F.L. executives and a television production team watched, they were tightening their miniset of four songs ? dropping verses, streamlining segues ? to fit their 12-minute slot as the halftime entertainment Sunday at Super Bowl XLIII, expected to reach tens of millions of viewers.

Bruce Springsteen performed with a gospel choir during the ?We Are One? concert, the opening event for President Obama?s inauguration.

?My take on the Super Bowl?? Mr. Springsteen said after rehearsal. ?Fundamentally it?s a 12-minute party.?

Few musicians anywhere consummate symbolic occasions and mass events better than Mr. Springsteen. He?s used to working on a stadium scale, and for decades his concerts have been nonstop singalongs that perfectly embody the yearning for community in his lyrics. In an era when pop hits can be as ephemeral as a deleted MP3 file, Mr. Springsteen has spent much of his career laboring to write durable songs about American dreams, from ?Born to Run? to ?Promised Land.?

While his latest seven-album contract with Columbia Records is worth a reported $110 million, he still comes across as a working-class guy from New Jersey, invoking a compassionate populism as he sings about jobs, families and everyday life and savors the company of his longtime buddies in the E Street Band. He has the gravitas to lead off an inaugural concert and the gusto to rock the Super Bowl. In between he released a new studio album, ?Working on a Dream.?

Mr. Springsteen still reaches for big, symbolic statements and gets called on to make them. ?Those moments are opportunities for a very heightened kind of communication,? he said.

Two weeks ago, in another nationwide telecast, he took up his longtime role as a voice of America at ?We Are One,? the all-star opening ceremony and concert for President Obama?s inauguration, before hundreds of thousands of people at the Lincoln Memorial and millions on television and online. Mr. Springsteen and a choir sang ?The Rising,? a song about sacrifice and redemption on Sept. 11.

At a New York City Obama fund-raiser in October that Mr. Springsteen attended, Mr. Obama said, ?The reason I?m running for president is because I can?t be Bruce Springsteen.? Mr. Springsteen played ?The Rising? at campaign events in battleground states, including a rally in Cleveland two days before the election.

?Once you start doing that kind of writing, it feeds off itself,? Mr. Springsteen said. ?You write ?The Rising? for this, it gets picked up and used for that, so you end up here. If someone had told me in 2001 that ?you?re going to sing this song at the inaugural concert for the first African-American president,? I?d have said, ?Huh?? ? He laughed.

?But eight years go by, and that?s where you find yourself. You?re in there, you?re swimming in the current of history and your music is doing the same thing.?

He continued: ?A lot of the core of our songs is the American idea: What is it? What does it mean? ?Promised Land,? ?Badlands,? I?ve seen people singing those songs back to me all over the world. I?d seen that country on a grass-roots level through the ?80s, since I was a teenager. And I met people who were always working toward the country being that kind of place. But on a national level it always seemed very far away.

?And so on election night it showed its face, for maybe, probably, one of the first times in my adult life,? he said. ?I sat there on the couch, and my jaw dropped, and I went, ?Oh my God, it exists.? Not just dreaming it. It exists, it?s there, and if this much of it is there, the rest of it?s there. Let?s go get that. Let?s go get it. Just that is enough to keep you going for the rest of your life. All the songs you wrote are a little truer today than they were a month or two ago.?

Charles Coplin, vice president for programming at N.F.L. Television, said Mr. Springsteen had been ?at the very top of our list? ever since the N.F.L. began programming its own halftime shows after the 2004 Janet Jackson brouhaha.

?Why were we so persistent?? he said. ?Because we felt that his music, and just as important his performance, was everything we were looking for. He has the ability to perform on a grand stage, to be improvisational, and he has a tremendous catalog of music that is appreciated by so many people.?

Party or not, Mr. Springsteen has thought through his Super Bowl set meticulously. ?It was very challenging to try and get that exact 12 minutes. I found that in a funny way it was very freeing. O.K., these are your boundaries, so put everything that you have into just this box,? he said. ?If you do it right, you should feel the tension of it wanting to spread beyond that time frame. But it can?t.?

The Super Bowl performance follows the release of ?Working on a Dream? on Tuesday, less than 14 months after ?Magic? in 2007. Mr. Springsteen hasn?t made studio albums so quickly since he released both of his first two albums during 1973.

Even more than ?Magic,? the new album represents a sea change in Mr. Springsteen?s music. After the elaborate, tortured production of ?Born to Run,? back in 1975, Mr. Springsteen went through a ?reactive? phase that lasted more than two decades, building his songs on the basics of country, blues and folk music, with utilitarian melodies and straightforward, near-live production. He and the producer Brendan O?Brien, who first produced Mr. Springsteen with ?The Rising? in 2002, brought some pop embellishments to ?Magic.? And ?Working on a Dream? follows through.

Encouraged by Mr. O?Brien, Mr. Springsteen wrote five new songs during the week before he did the final mixes of ?Magic,? he said. ?I realized, I do love those big sweeping melodies and the romanticism, and I haven?t allowed myself much of it in the past,? Mr. Springsteen said. ?When you have a little vein you haven?t touched, it?s full.?

?Working on a Dream? often plays like a 1960s anthology: Creedence Clearwater Revival in the title song, the Beach Boys in ?This Life,? the Byrds in ?Life Itself,? Ben E. King in ?Queen of the Supermarket,? psychedelic blues-rock in ?Good Eye? and spaghetti-western soundtracks in the eight-minute ?Outlaw Pete.? As lush as the music gets, few of the lyrics are fluff; Mr. Springsteen is pondering love and death. The celebratory affection of ?My Lucky Day? gives way to songs that recognize the inexorable passage of time. In ?Kingdom of Days,? he sings:

With you I don?t hear the minutes ticking by
I don?t feel the hours as they fly
I don?t feel the summer as it wanes
Just a subtle change of light upon your face.

?Pop always brings with it the intimations of forever and immortality,? he said. ?There was something so in tune with the universe in their math, and in the way that math was imbued with someone?s hopes, dreams, love, despair, immortal feelings, feelings of death coming around the corner, and then you try to put it all in three minutes. It was very exciting for me, being in this place of my life, to go back to those forms which are filled with that sense of forever and put finiteness in it.?

At 59 Mr. Springsteen is indefatigable. His next American tour starts in April, followed by a summer of European dates. He still regularly plays vigorous three-hour sets. ?Onstage I can?t noticeably say I feel any different than I did in 1985,? he said.

The album ends with ?The Wrestler,? the somber title track for the Mickey Rourke movie. It won a Golden Globe award for best song but, surprisingly, was not nominated for an Academy Award. The album also includes ?The Last Carnival,? an elegy to the founding E Street Band keyboardist, Danny Federici, that Mr. Springsteen wrote for his funeral; Jason Federici plays his father?s accordion. ?We?ll be riding the train without you tonight/The train that keeps on moving,? Mr. Springsteen sings.

Yet most of the album strives for the elation of pop. ?I wanted hooks, hooks, hooks ? things for people to sing, and sound that was going to lift you up,? he said. ?I wanted to capture the intensity and the immediacy of passionate love, and then its resonance in and beyond your life. And I wanted it to sound, like, classic: verse, huge chorus, sky-opening-up strings.?

Steve Van Zandt, an E Street Band guitarist, said he was thrilled Mr. Springsteen?s newer songs evoke 1960s pop. ?In the past he just ignored that part of his talent, and he?s the most talented pop songwriter,? he said. ?In a different era he would have been in the Brill Building.?

With a new album on the way Mr. Springsteen finally accepted the Super Bowl offer. ?It was sort of, well, if we don?t do it now, what are we waiting for?? he said. ?I want to do it while I?m alive.?

There were other pragmatic considerations. ?At my age it is tough to get word of your music out,? Mr. Springsteen said. He has the strange choice, he says, of performing at gigantic events like the Super Bowl or none. ?If we weren?t doing these big things, there?s no middle things,? he said. Not that he?s doing too badly; even in a tottering recording business, ?Magic? has sold a million copies, while his 2008 world tour grossed $204 million.

He made another promotional deal he now bluntly calls a mistake. On Jan. 13 a $10 collection of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band?s ?Greatest Hits? ? 11 songs from a 1995 hits anthology, as well as ?Radio Nowhere? from ?Magic? ? went on sale exclusively at Wal-Mart. Since Wal-Mart has been accused of anti-union practices by Human Rights Watch, among others, and has paid large fines for violating labor laws, the announcement prompted online criticisms like the one from asroma on the fan site ?Bruce is doing biz with Wal-Mart? Kind of goes against everything he stands for.?

In an interview with Billboard, Mr. Springsteen?s manager, Jon Landau, defended the release, saying Mr. Springsteen?s albums were already in Wal-Mart, which accounts for 15 percent of his sales. He also said: ?We?re not doing any advertising for Wal-Mart. We haven?t endorsed Wal-Mart or anybody else. We?re letting Sony do its job.?

But Mr. Springsteen said the decision was made too hastily. ?We were in the middle of doing a lot of things, it kind of came down and, really, we didn?t vet it the way we usually do,? he said. ?We just dropped the ball on it.? Instead of offering the exclusive collection to Wal-Mart, ?given its labor history, it was something that if we?d thought about it a little longer, we?d have done something different.? He added, ?It was a mistake. Our batting average is usually very good, but we missed that one. Fans will call you on that stuff, as it should be.?

After more than three decades of shaping American archetypes, Mr. Springsteen sees his career as its own community in the making, shared and constructed with his listeners. ?It?s not just my creation at this point, and it hasn?t been really for a long time,? he said. ?I wanted it to be our creation. Once you set that in motion, it?s a large community of people gathered around a core set of values.

?Within that there?s a wide range of beliefs, but still you do gather in one tent at a particular moment to have some common experience, and that?s why I go there too.?

At rehearsal he strutted across the stage: testing banter, brandishing his guitar, belting lyrics and jiving with Mr. Van Zandt. As the band finished a run-through, someone holding a timer called out the length of the set. ?We?ve got one-sixteenth of a second left,? Mr. Springsteen exulted. ?And we plan to use it.?