How Bruce Springsteen Got His Groove Back

By Brian Ives 

“Whatever Happened To Bruce?”

So read the June 5, 1992 cover of Entertainment Weekly. The then-2-year-old magazine’s feature focused on the disappointing sales of Bruce Springsteen‘s simultaneously released Human Touch and Lucky Town albums, which had debuted at No. 2 and No. 3 on the Billboard charts, respectively, and plummeted from there.

Keeping them out of the top slot? Def Leppard‘s Adrenalize, which came out the same day (March 31, 1992). A week later, Def Lep dropped from #1, but Bruce’s albums were again blocked, this time by Kris Kross, a hip-hop duo whose members weren’t yet born when Born To Run was released.

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Twenty-three years later, Bruce is widely regarded as a seminal influence on generations of younger rock and pop musicians; he is an example of someone who achieved an insane level of stardom while managing to never (or rarely) embarrass himself and his fans. A guy who can jam with Paul McCartney one night, and with a bar-band the next. An artist whose catalog is stocked with classic rock chestnuts, but who still gets our attention when he releases new music. A performer who could easily coast on his catalog at live shows, but instead challenges his band, crew and his audience every night, as if he still has something to prove.

But back in ’92, he was singing about living “Better Days,” and who would begrudge him that—didn’t he deserve to enjoy his new family, and the spoils of his millions of albums sold? His domestic happiness, though, came with a catch. After years of albums that were bona fide events for music fans, now Bruce’s records seemed more like the new releases from his middle-aged peers. At best, a collection of new songs to let you know that they’re still here; maybe one or two of those songs would hold up to the legacy, and would make it to the set lists. But by the ’90s, many albums by classic rockers were simply centerpieces to a marketing campaign that were more about the tour than about new music; the songs would signal “bathroom break” to audiences.

Less than a decade before EW‘s cover story, Springsteen stood, along with Michael Jackson, Madonna and Prince, as one of the biggest, most dominant, most relevant pop stars in the land. His 1984 album Born in the U.S.A. was a multi-format smash with multiple singles in high rotation on various radio formats, and several inescapable videos on MTV. Thirty (and thirty-one) summers ago, the album was unavoidable. On August 5, 1985, he kicked off his first stadium tour.

What had changed in the subsequent seven years? EW speculated that Bruce’s aging audience were more domesticated than they used to be, and their priorities probably no longer included going out to buy records on release day (or even release week). Or, fans may have been disenchanted by their hero firing the E Street Band and ditching New Jersey for Los Angeles (living in the same exclusive neighborhood as Ronald Reagan, of all people). Or maybe – just maybe – that, as he found domestic bliss as a husband and father, he’d lost his fire as an artist. But there was another issue: the world was changing. It was hard to see where Springsteen fit within the pop mainstream of the ’90s: “New voices have arrived to shape pop’s agenda — on the conservative side, country voices,” EW pointed out. This was, after all, the era of Garth, Wynonna, Reba and Clint. “And out on the edge, the younger, sharper, more insistently angry voices of militant rappers and rock bands like Nirvana and Metallica.”

In the summer of 1992, rock and roll was alive and well. It was just a very different rock and roll landscape than the one the Springsteen had conquered in the ’70s and ’80s. The Lollapalooza tour, in its second year, had the zeitgeist firmly in it’s newly tattooed hand: headlined by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, it also featured Ice Cube, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam; it would be hard to imagine Springsteen finding any common ground with the fans filling the furious, dusty, muddy moshpits that broke out when those artists performed. 1992’s biggest tour was by Springsteen superfans U2, but their Achtung Baby album and tour seemed to shed their Americana (and Springsteen) influences for much more European and industrial fare. In the ’80s, U2 often used roots rockers Lone Justice as an opening act . This time it was the Pixies, the Sugarcubes, Primus and Public Enemy. (Oddly enough, Shane Fontayne, formerly the guitarist in Lone Justice, was now in Springsteen’s touring band.)

Another huge tour that summer featured the union of hard rock and metal powerhouses Guns N Roses and Metallica, who were co-headlining stadiums. In fact, when that tour hit New Jersey for a two night stand at Giants Stadium, Springsteen’s tour was in the midst of an eleven night residency at the Brendan Byrne Arena, right across the highway. The arena had a huge “Welcome Home, Bruce” banner draped across its roof, which GNR/Metallica opener Faith No More‘s frontman Mike Patton mocked from the stage. Later on, Metallica’s James Hetfield chuckled from the stage, “Welcome home, Bruce,” to jeers. Springsteen was being mocked by a younger, angrier audience, right in his backyard.

Soon after the EW story, the more Bruce-friendly Rolling Stone did their cover story on him, in which he confessed, “I really enjoyed the success of Born in the U.S.A., but by the end of that whole thing, I just kind of felt ‘Bruced’ out.” It seemed that younger generations – and younger musicians – were “Bruced” out too.

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Chris Phillips spends as much time as anyone thinking about Springsteen: he’s the editor of Backstreets, the best Springsteen site on the web (he’s even interviewed the man himself on more than one occasion). He tells Radio.com, “When you have the global success that he had, being so overexposed, that tends to take a lot of ‘coolness’ away, no matter who you are. I think that happened to the Nth degree with Bruce. Also, the macho ‘Rah! Rah! U.S.A!’ imagery that was associated with Bruce—even though it was inaccurate—might have turned a lot of people off.”

Future Springsteen collaborator Tom Morello echoed that sentiment in this 2010 interview: “I was kind of off-put by the promotional blitz surrounding the Born in the U.S.A. record,” he said, noting that it would take a few years for him to realize that Springsteen had a lot in common with his favorite artist, Clash frontman Joe Strummer (who was, himself, a Springsteen fan). In the same roundtable interview, New Jersey singer/songwriter Pete Yorn (who has covered a number of Springsteen songs, including “Dancing in the Dark,” “Your Own Worst Enemy” and “NYC Serenade”) shared a similar experience: he said that, like Morello, he was a metal fan during the mid-’80s. “I was kind of turned off: he was so popular and he was so close to home, and I was just not interested for some reason.” Years later, in college, he became a fan.

Springsteen has said that Born in the U.S.A.‘s follow-up, Tunnel of Love, was an attempt to reintroduce himself in a “non-iconic” way. Which was fitting, as much of the album focused on the unravelling of his marriage; he’d soon divorce first wife Julianne Phillips. Human Touch and Lucky Town humanized him even more: “Local Hero” made fun of his iconic status; “57 Channels (and Nothin’ On)” showed that, hey, he watches TV too, just like us! And, in “Souls of the Departed,” he sang about his reaction to violence in Compton, not too far from his new mansion: “Tonight as I tuck my own son in bed/All I can think of is what if it would’ve been him instead/I want to build me a wall so high nothing can burn it down/Right here on my own piece of dirty ground.” By ’92, Bruce was living in the mansion on the hill that he’d sung about a few years earlier on Nebraska; in “Souls of the Departed,” he was just being honest to acknowledge that he was living far, far away from the mean streets of L.A. If he wanted to build a wall around his home, it could happen after just a few phone calls and a meeting with the zoning board.

The ’92 Rolling Stone interview posed the question to Springsteen: Do you think that a teenager who is into rap or heavy metal would be interested in your new albums? His response: “I don’t know… All I can do is put my music out there. I can’t contrive something that doesn’t feel honest. I don’t write demographically. I don’t write a song to reach these people or those people.” But he also admitted: “Of course, I’m interested in having a young audience. I’m interested in whoever’s interested in what I’m doing. And what I have to say is ‘This is how I’ve grown up. Maybe this will have some value. These are the places I’ve been, and these are the things I’ve learned.'”

But it seemed that, at that point in time, most young people weren’t interested in the places Springsteen had been, or in the things he learned. His tour with the so-called “Other Band” [whom he hired for his first post-E Street tour] did well in New Jersey, but he wasn’t selling as many tickets as he had on prior tours. The tour – and the “Other Band” itself – was history by mid-’93. At the end of the year, he surfaced with a new song, sporting a very new sound, based around drum loops, samples and synthesizers. “Streets of Philadelphia,” from the Tom Hanks/Denzel Washington film Philadelphia, reminded the world that Springsteen could still tackle big topics. Backstreets Phillips says that “Streets of Philadelphia” marked a turning point in Springsteen’s public perception: “He was identifying with the issues that mattered to young people. You could probably point to that as the beginning of the road back to Bruce’s status as cool elder statesman.”

Related: Not Fade Away: The ‘Philadelphia’ Soundtrack Helps Change the National Conversation

Springsteen was rewarded for his efforts with an Oscar and four GRAMMYs. Some artists would have taken the hint and delivered more of the same: indeed, Springsteen recorded an entire album of material based on samples and loops, but only “Missing” (from the 1995 film The Crossing Guard) has been released.

He adopted a less modern sound for 1995’s The Ghost of Tom Joad. He was returning to the tackling of “big ideas,” but minus the iconic imagery and anthems of the Born In The U.S.A. era. Springsteen may have been recalling an argument he’d had with ex-E Street Band guitarist and consigliere Steven Van Zandt years earlier, during the making of 1987’s Tunnel of Love. As Van Zandt told the New Yorkerafter hearing Bruce’s comical autobiographical song “Ain’t Got You,” “We had one of our biggest fights of our lives. I’m like, ‘This is bull***t. People don’t need you talking about your life. Nobody gives a s*** about your life. They need you for their lives. That’s your thing. Giving some logic and reason and sympathy and passion to this cold, fragmented, confusing world—that’s your gift. Explaining their lives to them. Their lives, not yours.’ And we fought and fought and fought and fought. He says ‘F*** you,’ I say ‘F*** you.’ I think something in what I said probably resonated.”

By 1995, he was again ready to address “their lives,” on what was the least commercial album of his career. Gone were the anthems of Born in the U.S.A. – he still wasn’t ready to return to that. But he was ready to return to tell the stories of the less fortunate, albeit in a more subtle, quieter way. As Mikal Gilmore said in his review of the album for Rolling Stone (giving it just three out of five stars), “Plaintive, bitter epiphanies like these are far removed from the sort of anthemic cries that once filled Springsteen’s music, but then, these are not times for anthems. These are times for lamentations, for measuring how much of the American promise has been broken or abandoned and how much of our future is transfigured into a vista of ruin. These are pitiless times.” And perhaps, therein lies a clue to Bruce Springsteen’s return to relevance.

Two years later, in 1997, Morello’s Rage Against The Machine – then one of the most popular and credible rock bands in America – recorded a surprising cover of “The Ghost of Tom Joad.” Where Bruce’s original was a sorrowful rumination on how things haven’t changed much since the Depression, Rage’s take was a call to arms to fight against a world that allows anyone to “sleep on a pillow of solid rock.” It was a reminder of how powerful Springsteen’s lyrics were, when set to rock music (albeit rock music radically different than any he’d ever composed). It also recast him as an artist with something to say to a younger generation.

Another thing happened in 1997 that isn’t as well remembered, but may have been significant. At the MTV Video Music Awards, Springsteen joined the Wallflowers – whose Bringing Down the Horse was one of the best selling albums of the year – for their hit “One Headlight.” It was the first time in a long time that a large audience saw Springsteen playing his iconic yellow Fender Telecaster, fronting a rock band and playing an anthem. Backstreets’ Phillips notes, “He looked great: I thought he blew Jakob Dylan off the stage. It was like, ‘Ah, that’s how it’s done. That’s a rock star.'”

Springsteen spent much of 1998 in the studio, but he wasn’t working on new music. Instead, he allowed himself a look back, as he and a team of engineers went through a trove of tapes – hundreds of songs worth. They gave the songs proper mixes and then he pared down a 66 song list for a four CD box set of rarities, Tracks. By year’s end, the box set was in stores. And the (unsurprising) news was out that Bruce would be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in ’99. And then he announced a reunion tour with the E Street Band.

When the induction came on March 15, 1999, it was Bono who had the task of doing the speech, and he didn’t disappoint. While U2’s latest album, Pop, didn’t show much Bruce influence (and its kitch factor lowered U2’s cultural cache quite a bit — they would later experience their own comeback in 2000) his speech reminded everyone why Springsteen was so beloved in the first place. “Bruce has played every bar in the USA, and every stadium,” he reminded the audience. “Credibility? You couldn’t have more, unless you were dead. But Bruce Springsteen, you always knew, was not gonna die stupid. He didn’t buy the mythology that screwed so many people. Instead, he created an alternate mythology – one where ordinary lives became extraordinary and heroic.” Back then, the induction ceremonies were held at the posh Waldorf Astoria in New York City. But as soon as the band kicked into the song that told the story of their legend – “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” the high-rolling jewelry-rattling seen-it-all crowd were on their feet.

Three days later, Springsteen and the E Street Band returned to the Jersey Shore to get back to work, for two public warm up shows at the Asbury Park Convention Center. Springsteen announced that the show was a “rebirth” and a “re-dedication of our band, and the job that we do, and the commitment to serve.” And those weren’t idle words. What could have been a well-deserved victory lap and nostalgia trip – which they’d have had every right to do – it truly was a re-dedication, and a committed one. Largely avoiding the hits from Born in the U.S.A., they stuck with their ’70s material – hits and album tracks – but also E Street-ized some of the more challenging ’90s material, notably “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” “If I Should Fall Behind” and “Youngstown,” as well as “Streets of Philadelphia.” There were also the never-before-performed songs from Tracks – “My Love Will Not Let You Down” opened many of the shows – as well as new ones. One of those was “Land of Hope and Dreams,” a song which still makes the encores today. The other was “American Skin (41 Shots).”

The latter song, of course, may well have been Springsteen’s most controversial. Premiered on June 4, 2000 in Atlanta, he played it at all ten nights at his closing string of shows at New York’s Madison Square Garden. The song was written about the February 1999 death of 22 year old African immigrant Amadou Diallo, shot by four plainclothes police officers. The officers were looking for a rapist said to be wandering in the Bronx, and called to Diallo who was walking to the doorway of his apartment building. An immigrant who had not been in America for long, he reached for his ID in his wallet; that would be normal procedure in his home country of Guinea. One or more of the police mistook this action, thinking he was reaching for a gun and 41 shots were fired, 19 hitting him, wounding him mortally. However, the song’s lyrics were not completely a critique of the police: in fact, some of the lyrics, sung from the point of view of an officer, empathized with the impossible decisions that police need to make in a split second: “Is it a gun/is it a knife/is it a wallet/this is your life.” It’s one of the few songs – by any artist – that asks the listener to look through the eyes of a cop. Of course, many only saw insults in Springsteen’s song: New York’s State Fraternal Order of Police President, Bob Lucente, called Springsteen a “dirtbag” and a “floating fag.” Patrick Lynch, president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, wrote a letter to PBA members calling for a boycott of Springsteen’s shows, saying, “I consider it an outrage that [Springsteen] would be trying to fatten his wallet by reopening the wounds of this tragic case at a time when police officers and community members are in a healing period.”

Whatever side of that particular debate you may fall on, anyone would agree one thing: at that particular point in Bruce Springsteen’s career, he didn’t need to write such an overtly political song – one that addressed a highly emotional and polarizing story as it was still unfolding. And he certainly didn’t need to perform it, especially not at the world’s most famous arena, in the media center of the world. It certainly wasn’t “fattening his wallet” – all ten MSG shows had sold out far in advance, and he didn’t officially release the song for another year. Commercially, he would have been far better off playing one of the many hits that didn’t make the setlist on any given night. But just as he had told the story of blue collar workers in “Factory,” “The River,” and so many other songs; just as he told the story about a Vietnam vet in “Born in the U.S.A.,” in “American Skin (41 Shots),” he was telling the story of a police man and an immigrant trapped in a cycle of fear, racism and violence. Springsteen was indeed serious when he said that the band had been “reborn”: as the tour showed, the E Street Band could rock a party better than any other band in the land, but they could also tell the truths that are sometimes uncomfortable to hear.

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Craig Finn is the frontman of the Hold Steady, a band with a clear Springsteen influence (they’ve covered “Atlantic City”), and he told Radio.com that the tour had a big impact on him:  “When he came back with the E Street Band on the reunion tour… once you see him live you’re like, ‘S***!’ You know? There’s like all this stuff like Sonic Youth and Fugazi, that are great. But this is the best thing. This is literally the best thing. And I think just by showcasing that, he became undeniable.”

Finn also noticed that Springsteen wasn’t simply preaching to the converted, he was actually doing some converting: “My girlfriend is younger than me; she thought he was kind of lame, so I took her to a concert, and after the show she said, ‘I know I didn’t like him before walking in, but now he’s my favorite artist of all time.’ That’s the power of his live show.”

Related: Interview: Drive-By Truckers Tip Their Hats to Republican Liars, AC/DC and Old School Hip Hop

Patterson Hood leads the Drive-By Truckers, and is a longtime Springsteen fan (his band often covers “State Trooper”). He says that the reunion tour, and particularly the fact that Springsteen went out on a limb to play “American Skin (41 Shots)” at all ten New York shows, reminded him (and many others) that Springsteen was still a vital artist, willing to take risks. “I think he was probably surprised how much s*** he got for singing that. But he didn’t back down and I really applaud that. It had to be extremely unnerving for someone who has always played the role of the ‘good guy.’ That’s one of the things that sets him apart, he’s willing to do that. For someone like him, who speaks to millions and millions of people, to be willing to go there… we need more of that. We need more artists who have the balls to speak out about what they believe in.  He’s not just preaching to the converted: his audience cuts across all lines. I mean, God, Chris Christie’s a huge Springsteen fan! Even if he did fall asleep at a show, ha ha. There’s value in having a fan base that doesn’t all necessarily feel the same way that you do all the time.” Springsteen’s attitude has likely informed the Truckers’ career, as they are a proudly southern band with proudly progressive politics, and also have a large segment of their audience with whom they don’t see eye-to-eye, politically.

Springsteen’s gravitas was on display in the aftermath of another tragedy, a little over a year later. Ten days after 9/11, on September 21, 2001, over 30 networks aired America: A Tribute to Heroes, a telethon to raise money for families of victims of the 9/11 attacks. Bruce opened the show with a somber but uplifting song that few had heard: “My City of Ruins.” A song originally written about Asbury Park before September 11, it took on a new meaning post-9/11 and became an instant classic among Bruce’s fans.

That song would be recorded for Springsteen’s comeback album. The Rising served as his reunion album with the E Street Band and his rumination on the September 11 attacks. It paid tribute to the first responders (“Into the Fire”), attempted to console the families of the victims (“Lonesome Day,” “You’re Missing”), provided a rallying cry to move forward in the aftermath of horror (the title track) and even tried to understand what would lead someone to terrorism (“Paradise”). While some of the more immediate musical responses to 9/11 from his peers were a bit hamfisted (Paul McCartney’s “Freedom,” Neil Young’s “Let’s Roll,” Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Red, White and Blue”), The Rising had a sensitivity and nuance that most 9/11 songs lacked. It eschewed chest thumping for something a lot more difficult, and ultimately, more rewarding. (It’s interesting to note that Springsteen’s youngest child, Sam, graduated from firefighting academy last year.)

“He was the absolutely perfect artist to speak about that and to sing about that and to write about that,” Hood says. “As a society, we sort of needed what he does, right at that time. It seemed like the time for him to come out and be that guy again. We kind of needed somebody in our culture to speak to us about that.”

Backstreets’ Phillips adds, “It kind of spoke to the fact that art, at its best, can help us make sense of things that we struggle with, in a way that not much else can. There’s a lot of sort of difficult, dark stuff that Bruce touches on over the course of his career. The Rising was a real moment, doing something that very few people can do: making people feel better after a tragedy, and feel inspired.”

Where Bruce’s not being able to fit in with the pop mainstream in the ’90s was something of a hindrance to him, now it was an asset: what other musician could address what we had been through? NSYNC? P. Diddy? Britney? Avril? Tellingly, Bruce and the E Street Band opened the 2002 MTV Video Music Awards; elder statemen rarely get booked on that show, especially if it isn’t as part of a collaboration with a younger artist; but Bruce’s new songs were starting to resonate with a new audience. Time magazine put him on the cover; in contrast to the Entertainment Weekly story from ’92, this one, nearly a decade later, read “Reborn in the U.S.A.” His tour for the album was massively successful, and he played about eight songs from the new album per night, to amazing response. This is no small point: by the turn of the millennium, there was no easy outlet for artists from Bruce’s era to get their new music played. As a result, legacy acts had a harder time getting any reaction when they tried to play new music at their concerts. But fans of varying ages were listening to The Rising, and it was addressing their lives at that moment, as Born to Run and Born in the U.S.A. had in previous decades.

The Rising may have made amends with the audience that were off-put by “American Skin (41 Shots),” but during the tour, Springsteen reminded fans that he was becoming more and more politically progressive, and more comfortable talking about it. At sold-out stadium shows, he spoke to the audience each night, often around “My City of Ruins,” making a “public service message” (his term) to remind fans to keep an eye on what the government did in the name of “national security” (including the invasion of Iraq). This was an obvious criticism of President Bush, and was not always well-recieved. This writer attended no less than six stadium shows in the NY/NJ area in the summer and fall of 2003; for each “P.S.A.,” the stadium filled with a buzzing cacophony of cheers and boos that blended into an uncomfortable, nearly violent, roar. The following year, Springsteen took the E Street Band on a brief string of dates as part of “Vote for Change,” essentially an A-list tour that encouraged thousands of fans per night in swing states to vote for John Kerry. After the tour ended, he went on the campaign trail with Kerry, serving as the candidate’s opening act.

Phillips recalls, “That tour was when he put his flag in the sand and really pissed a lot of people off. When he spoke about Bush, a whole bunch of people were up in arms. That tour was the most vitriol I saw at his shows.”

But it didn’t turn everyone off: Hood says, “It made him more relevant to me. I was glad to see him talking about Bush. Of course I’m not gonna get mad about it, I couldn’t stand Bush. I still don’t like him!”

Springsteen’s next projects veered a bit from the mainstream – 2005’s Tom Joad-like Devils and Dust and acoustic big-band rave up of 2006’s We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions (the latter being a huge influence on one of the biggest rock bands of the past decade, Mumford & Sons, as they told Rolling Stone in 2013).

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2007’s Magic, however, saw him back with the E Street Band in order to bring his message to the masses; that message was that he wasn’t happy, at all, with the direction that the country was going in after nearly two terms of the Bush administration. Around this time, he also endorsed Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, which didn’t help him with his own conservative fanbase, but they knew to expect this by now. It also may have endeared him to younger fans, whose vote powered Obama’s victory.

When the E Street Band hit the road for the tour, Springsteen leaned heavily on Magic, and still offered a nightly politically progressive “public service announcement,” but not at the exclusion of giving the audience a good time. This was the tour where he began to take request signs from the audience. For young people experiencing their first Springsteen show, it would have been nothing like anything they’d seen, at least from an artist at that level of popularity. A frontman who puts his politics front and center, but also demands that everyone has a blast, no matter their political stripe, and to boot, leads a band who is seemingly had a limitless ability to play any song on command. It was also during this tour that Win Butler and Régine Chassagne of Arcade Fire joined Springsteen and the E Street Band on stage in Ottowa for his “State Trooper” (which they had been covering) and their own “Keep the Car Running.” (In this fan-shot video of the latter song, younger fans sound deliriously shocked that the E Street Band would take on the indie rock favorite.)

win butler bruce springsteen spin cover How Bruce Springsteen Got His Groove Back

Soon after, Springsteen and Butler shared the cover of an issue of Spin magazine, and sat for a joint interview; the writer Steve Kandell noted “A new generation of bands — of which Arcade Fire are certainly at the forefront — reveres him as much for his varied body of work as for the fact that he just seems to have done things the right way. Never embarrassed himself, never embarrassed those who look up to him.”

2009 saw Springsteen reach out to new audiences in a way that he hadn’t for a long time: the year began with his performance at “We Are One,” President Obama’s inauguration celebration. A few weeks later on February 1, the E Street Band performed at Super Bowl XLIII  (allegedly after turning it down for years). He even made the (rare) misstep of offering an exclusive “Greatest Hits” album to Wallmart, seemingly an olive branch to middle American fans who might be reaquainted with him after the Halftime show. That annoyed his politically progressive fans, due to the fact that Wallmart’s record with organized labor  ran counter to Springsteen’s politics (they don’t recognize unions). And even then, he handled his error well, admitting to The New York Times “We didn’t vet it the way we usually do. We just dropped the ball on it. Given its labor history, it was something that if we’d thought about it a little longer, we’d have done something different. It was a mistake.” He added, rightfully so, “Our batting average is usually very good, but we missed that one. Fans will call you on that stuff, as it should be.”

That year’s tour – for Working on a Dream – saw Springsteen reaching out to younger audiences via performances at large festivals, including Bonnaroo (where he jammed with Phish – a band with a decidedly different audience than his) and at England’s Hard Rock Calling (where he jammed with Gaslight Anthem, and Gaslight frontman Brian Fallon joined the E Street Band for their set).

Around that time, a number of his fans paid tribute to him, via YouTube covers and testimonials, all of which were part of the “Hangin’ Out On E Street” series on Springsteen’s official YouTube channel: the Avett Brothers, Gaslight Anthem, Sara Bareilles, Ted Leo, Pete Yorn, Against Me!, Tegan and Sara, Mat Kearney and the Bouncing Souls were among those that who weighed in. A lineup quite so hip and current paying tribute to Springsteen would have been hard to imagine in the ’90s.

Later that year, Springsteen was one of the recipients at the Kennedy Center Honors ceremony: tellingly, the tributes came from not just his peers (John Mellencamp and Sting) but younger artists who cited him as an influence: Ben Harper, Melissa Etheridge, Jennifer Nettles of Sugarland and even ’90s icon Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam (who had covered, and jammed with, Springsteen over the years). Also tellingly: two of the songs performed were from The Rising: Sting did the title track, while Vedder sang “My City of Ruins.” Bruce’s recent music was still an important part of his story.

In 2013, the GRAMMYS feted Springsteen with their MusiCares Person of the Year Award (although they mostly snubbed his Wrecking Ball album at the GRAMMY Awards, giving him three nominations in the rock categories; he didn’t win any of them). Like the Kennedy Center, his peers were included, but the show also included younger artists, including some of the biggest hitmakers in country (Tim McGraw and Faith Hill performed together, Kenney Chesney and Zac Brown were also on the bill) and pop (John Legend, Mumford and Sons) as well as some edgier acts (Jim James of My Morning Jacket, Alabama Shakes and Ken Casey of punk rock legends Dropkick Murphys).

Related: Interview: Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell Looks Back on ‘Superunknown’

Chris Cornell is the frontman of Soundgarden, a band who seemed to have little in common with Springsteen during the height of their popularity in the ’90s. (He’s also a former bandmate of Morello’s in Audioslave.) On his solo acoustic tours, he’s been known to cover “Atlantic City” and “State Trooper.” He told Radio.com that Springsteen’s return to the zeitgeist is no surprise: “I think there’s a natural cycle, it happened with Bob Dylan, it happened with Neil Young. No matter how influential you were, no matter how successful you were, that will be followed by a period where everyone rejects you. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. Whatever everyone agreed on, it has to also be what everyone later agrees to reject, at least for a while. And then, everyone grows up, and suddenly you’re not self-conscious about saying that you like Bruce Springsteen.”

Related: Interview: Tori Amos: ‘I’m Not 30, and I’m Not Going to Pretend I Am’

Tori Amos, another iconic ’90s artist, agrees with Cornell (she’s covered “I’m On Fire” and “Streets of Philadelphia”). “There’s always a place for a bard; Bruce Springsteen is a master storyteller. When you have somebody who can tell a story about anything, younger people will realize what he can do and what he possesses. You can’t just buy that at Guitar Center. You can practice your instrument all day long and not be that. Good for those bands who can see it in him.”

Part of his appeal to a younger generation, though, is the fact that he still makes great albums, and that his shows raise the bar for all artists, regardless of age. Pete Yorn told Radio.com, “The guy’s just connected to some sort of freaking spirit. I try to strive for that myself. We all fight against the inertia of life and not wanting to go out and do stuff. And Bruce has this amazing energy. The fact that he’s still doing it on such an amazing level, while still putting out new music, is inspiring.”

Amos adds, “He is a guiding light, he truly is. For anybody who says that ‘As you get older, surely you can’t beat what you did at 30’… I don’t know if you beat what you did at 30, but what you do now can hold up equally. He’s an example of that.”

Phillips says, “From my standpoint, to watch artists feel like they can ‘come out’ and say it and claim him as an influence has been great, and he’s now at a place where he’s beyond cool or uncool. It’s the place where Dylan sits, or Johnny Cash sits – eternal cool. So when the reviews for a record aren’t glowing, it’s not the end of the world. I don’t think you’re ever gonna get another magazine cover asking ‘Whatever Happened to Bruce?'”

Oh yeah, about that: it took just about two decades, but Entertainment Weekly admitted the error of their ways. The August 10, 2012 issue included a brief feature called “We Were Wrong,” which listed a few of  examples “of our prognosticating skills gone horribly awry.” Among them: “The X-Files” (“This show’s a goner”), Jennifer Love Hewitt (”the odds-on favorite to become the next Molly Ringwald”), and yes, Springsteen. They recalled that they’d asked, ”Will he ever matter as much [again]?” Now we know the answer.

(Craig Finn interview by Shannon Carlin)

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