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(Soundbite of music)

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Even as presidential candidates deliver their messages across the nation, Bruce Springsteen is traveling the country delivering his.

Mr. BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN (Songwriter, musician): This is the song called "Living in the Future," but it's about what's happening now.

INSKEEP: Springsteen and his E Street Band just resumed the tour for an album called "Magic." Since they last performed a few months ago, the presidential field has gone from many candidates to a few.

Mr. SPRINGSTEEN: But I feel a new wind blowing through the Earth.

INSKEEP: The author of "Born in the U.S.A." and "The Rising" performed last week in Hartford, Connecticut. He also sat down to talk about mixing music and politics.

(Soundbite of song, "Living in the Future")

Mr. SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) A letter come blowin' in on an ill wind...

(Speaking) An election year is a year where people have a debate about the type of country they want to live in. And I kind of like the band being out there and being a small part of that debate.

INSKEEP: Which Springsteen was in 2004. He campaigned for Democrat John Kerry. Though Kerry lost, Springsteen's new album refers to a famous line from Kerry's youth. The Vietnam Veteran once said, How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?

(Soundbite of song, "Last to Die")

Mr. SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) Who'll be the last to die for a mistake? The last to die for a mistake. Whose blood will spill, whose heart will break? Who'll be the last to die, for a mistake?

INSKEEP: Bruce Springsteen is 58 years old. On stage, he still swings around the microphone stand like a gymnast on a saw horse. Back stage, he sits on the edge of a couch. He keeps his hands on the seat behind him. He doesn't always make eye contact, so he seems almost shy as he talks about politics.

Mr. SPRINGSTEEN: You can be marginally helpful, but you can also be marginally destructive if it's not handled well, and if it's not - if it's not authentic.

INSKEEP: When you're writing a song that has political content, do you find yourself saying, oh, it's too overt, it's gonna beat people over the head. You gotta shave the line a little bit?

Mr. SPRINGSTEEN: Yeah, I do it all the time. I mean it's a tricky business, because for me the song has to have a life both outside of its political context and at the same time contain your politics and I try...

INSKEEP: You mean it has to work as a song even if you don't follow the politics.

Mr. SPRINGSTEEN: I think for me, yeah. I mean it - otherwise you're sort of -you're stuck with a headline, you know? Or you're stuck on a soapbox and there's times for that. But for me, I wanted the music to have sort of a variety of lives, you know? And - so somebody could listen to "Lonesome Day" and sound like a breakup song, or it can sound like, well 2001.

(Soundbite of song, "Lonesome Day")

Mr. SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) That taste on your tongue don't easily slip away. Let kingdom come I'm gonna find my way. Through this lonesome day.

INSKEEP: In so many of those human stories that you tell, you create characters - whether it's a steel worker or a guy cooking methamphetamine, someone committing a crime, or a kid in the Bronx - characters who, even if they do something wrong or bad, are affected by circumstances beyond their control. What makes you focus on that kind of story?

Mr. SPRINGSTEEN: I guess it was just a story that I learned early on that I told well, you know? So I forget who said it, but somebody said that interesting musicians are always sort of the people that had something eating at them, constantly. So I was drawn to those specific questions I think probably because of the way that I grew up, because I could feel those forces. Later on I looked back at my childhood and the effect on - I always say the affect on my father's life, but my mother's live also. Those were the questions that arose, you know, how they came to live the kinds of lives that they lived and all that stuff.

INSKEEP: How were they affected by circumstances beyond their control as your parents?

Mr. SPRINGSTEEN: Well, let me see. My folks grew up, there was a little town. My father struggled very hard to sustain a job and to hold on to work, and they both barely scraped by. I always remember my mother - we had a finance company that was like 100 yards from our house, you know. And it was just very - it was just a part of our life, you know. My mother would go in March and she would borrow till the summer and then she would pay it off. And When she got it paid off, she would go and borrow again and it would get us through the next - it was this constant cycle of financial struggle, you know. And they had a pretty difficult life, you know. And amazingly enough, we were pretty protected from most - a lot of it, I think. You know, my mother was - and remains to me, quite, you know, quite noble. And - because she was the patriot of consistency, you know, she got up in the morning, got us off to school, went to work. And this went on day after day, after day, after day.

INSKEEP: When you were writing a song called "Long Walk Home," that - well it seems you're saying - it seems the character is saying that the country is not the way it's supposed to be.

(Soundbite of song, "Long Walk Home")

Mr. SPRINGSTEEN: "...that you know flag flying over the courthouse means certain things are set in stone, who we are, what we'll do, and what we won't."

INSKEEP: You describe what the flag is supposed to stand for.

Mr. SPRINGSTEEN: Mmm.

INSKEEP: That things are not turning out the way they're supposed to be. Was there a time that things were right in this country?

Mr. SPRINGSTEEN: I'm not sure that's exactly the way I look at it. I think that the song doesn't look back nostalgically, it looks more towards the future, I think, you know. And also - it also looks toward right now, the course we're on and to how well is the American promise kept for most American citizens. I mean if you look back through the past six years and you see what's happened - the (unintelligible) bleeds and spiels through the litany: there's no habeas corpus, the curtailing Civil Rights - you realize how easy it is for those ideals to be subverted.

So the idea was, that guy is trying to talk to his son and say, look there are - there is things that are supposed to be secret, and they make us who we are, and they direct us and guide us in what we do. Those things are important to remember, never more so than when the country's under stress and under, you know, when times are hard, you know. And that's where we are right now.

(Soundbite of song, "Long Walk Home")

Mr. SPRINGSTEEN: It's gonna be a long walk home. Hey pretty Darling, don't wait up for me. Gonna be a long walk home. A long walk home.

INSKEEP: Bruce Springsteen's latest album is called Magic. He also explained how politics grew into his music over the years, and there's an audio slide show on Springsteen's influences at npr.org/music.

(Soundbite of song, "Long Walk Home")

Mr. SPRINGSTEEN: In town I passed Sal's grocery, the barbershop on South Street, I looked into their faces, they were all rank strangers to me. The veterans' hall high up on the hill stood silent and alone, the diner was shuttered and boarded with a sign that just said "gone." It's gonna be a long walk home.

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