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Dateline NBC
updated 4/22/2005 4:15:33 PM ET 2005-04-22T20:15:33

When "The Boss" releases a new CD, the entire music world listens up, and fans know exactly what they can expect: thought-provoking, soul-stirring songs about life in America. This time, they'll also get something they probably weren't expecting -- a warning label. But as Bruce Springsteen's career proves, change is good.

Bruce Springsteen is all alone on the stage, a troubadour with a guitar and harmonica. He playing music from his latest CD, a raw, stark collection called "Devils and Dust.” It’s a stark contrast to some the rousing  music that earned him the title, “The Boss” and made him a  rock and roll icon, legendary for  bringing the house down, with songs that are more than music to his fans.

They're anthems.

But now there's no E Street Band to back him up. Springsteen has stripped down to the basics. It's another fork in the long musical road that is his career.

Springsteen: “After I do something that's very external, like I do with the E Street band where everything is out and there's a lot of energy, I like to do something internal, basically. It helps me to express both things. I always say, the E Street, that's my Italian side, that's my mother and her family. And then when I go to Nebraska and Tom Joad and this record, you know, I think the Irish, the moody Irish side comes out.”

Springsteen is a songwriter at heart. Time Magazine called him a rock poet. He writes stories as much as songs and has been hailed as an authentic voice for the downtrodden. It's a theme he returns to with “Devils and Dust.”

Matt Lauer: “I think you said somewhere about a lot of the songs in this album, they're about people trying to handle the challenges in their life. And sometimes they do it well, and sometimes they do it tragically. And when it comes right down to it…”

Bruce Springsteen: “Yeah, just like all of us, you know.”

Lauer: “Most good songs have some element of that. And I guess most people who write those songs have some element of that also?”

Springsteen: “Well, you got it. You can't -- you're writing, you're never writing something that's totally outside of yourself you know. That's the essential element. It's how you sort of declare your solidarity with that character. And it's how you show your respect for his experiences is by drawing up the part of you that's him and vice versa. That's what makes the song real. That's what makes people sit on the edge of the seat when you're telling your story. That's why when it's over they feel like, that's me.”

The 55-year-old Springsteen wrote many of the songs a decade ago, when he did his very first solo acoustic tour after the release of "The Ghost of Tom Joad.”

Lauer: “So, you'd go home after doing a show on the road for ‘Tom Joad.’ You go to a hotel—“

Springsteen: “Yeah, yeah, what else is there to do, you know. I'm too old to do anything else. But I'd come home. And after the acoustics, so you still had your voice left. You didn't have to save some for the next night. So, and I'd have the guitar. And I think I was really inspired by doing the tour. It was the first time I'd played acoustically.”

Those songs sat on the shelf while Springsteen slipped back to being The Boss, reuniting with the E Street Band and selling out stadiums all over the world. And then came September 11. Springsteen, like most Americans, was deeply affected, and the songwriter put his feelings into his music. The result was the critically acclaimed "The Rising."

World events would inspire him once again two years ago, when America went to war in Iraq. He dusted off those old songs and then wrote a brand new one, the title track, "Devils and Dust.”

Springsteen: “’I got my finger on the trigger, but I don't know who to trust/ I look into your eyes, there's just devils and dust.’ I wrote it about being in placed in a situation where your choices are sort of untenable, so you have the power of life and death but you don't know who to trust.”

Lauer: “It seems to me it's also a little bit about war not being about politics and country. It boils right down to an individual, that kid on the battlefield.”

Springsteen: “Yeah, I mean, I think that's part of the idea of the song also, is I'm trying to put you in those shoes, where it's not abstract. You know, where you're the person that really-- you're doing the risking, you know both your flesh and your blood and your spirit, you know. So, trying to draw people in closer to what that must feel like, you know.”

Springsteen and his wife, E Street Band member Patti Scialfa have three children, and being a parent has made him deeply concerned about the world his kids will grow up in. That's why Springsteen decided this past November to take his political activism beyond the music -- and onto the campaign trail, to support presidential candidate John Kerry.

Lauer: “How disappointed were you in the outcome?”

Springsteen: “I was disappointed like everybody else, you know? Patty peeled me off the wall after a couple of weeks. I learned a lot. There was a lot of young hope and idealism. We had an afternoon in Madison where 80,000 people showed up. It was very inspirational and it was incredible.”

For now, he's concentrating on his music, with songs, he says, that take you inside the mind of the character he creates. He's a storyteller who will go as far as he needs to. One song, “Reno,” is so graphic, it got the boss a warning label.

Lauer: “When's the last time you had a label on the back of the CD that said, ‘This song contains some adult images’?”

Springsteen: “I don't know if I ever heard that one before.”

Lauer: “The song they’re referring to is about a man's time with a prostitute… want to go back to that whole-- writing these in hotel rooms after the ‘Tom Jode tour.’  I'm imagining this is fiction right?”

Springsteen: “Yes, absolutely.”

Lauer: “What's that song about?”

Springsteen: “Actually, it's a love song.”

Lauer: “It's a graphic love song.”

Springsteen: “It just comes at it from a different point of view.”

Lauer: “But why did it have to be so graphic. I mean, sexual intercourse images. You know, could you not have told the story without those things?”

Springsteen: “No.”

Lauer: “No? Just leave it off the album?”

Springsteen: “No, I don't think so. And the label is to say if you're going to hand it over to your 10-year-old kid. It sort of lets the parent know along the way this story comes up. It was just part of the story. It made the story real.”

We went back with Springsteen to his old stomping grounds in Asbury Park, where he's rehearsing for the “Devils and Dust” solo tour, launching Monday. It's a place he loves to visit, but Bruce Springsteen is well aware he's come a long way from his working class roots.  

Lauer: “The fabric of who you are, this-blue-collar-ness that's very much a part of who you are and a part of your art. And I was thinking about your kids, because they're being raised in a very different manner.  I mean, they live on the house on the hill.”

Springsteen: “Yes, they do.”

Lauer: “And I'm curious if you are ever troubled by that or if that concerns you at all that they don't share that same fabric that you come from?”

Springsteen: “I had this thought one night I was in the studio with a friend of mine. And I said, ‘Gee, you know, my kids are-- you know, they got the nice place.  And I'm always worried, hey they didn't have to struggle a little bit like I did. But at the same time, I mean, when I was a kid, I don't remember, hey, we were clothed. And we had food. And when I think of the struggles of my childhood, I probably think of more the emotional struggles. That happens in every house. The guy I was talking to said, ‘No, no, no you don't have to worry about that.’ He says, ‘You're the parents. You give them your best, whatever that may be. And then the world takes care of the rest later on.’ Because we all got to go out in that world and travel in some fashion, and the things that you'd like to protect your children from -- disillusionment, heartbreak -- you know, those things, they come everybody's way. “

But not everyone can turn disillusionment and heartbreak into art. Springsteen's been doing just that for some 40 years, and he says he still has a lot of music left to sing...

Springsteen: “I like doing what I like to do. And I’m lucky enough to be in a situation where I can do that. I make my music. I make the records I like. And when they're done at the end of the day I say, gee, this is a good record. I like to listen to it, you know. And those are the records I put out.”

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