-- THE GRAMMYS -- HIS 30-YEAR CAREER -- IRAQ & AMERICA -- THE MUSIC BIZ MESS -- and Eminem and 'American Idol'

By Ken Tucker
Updated February 28, 2003 at 05:00 AM EST

Driving to talk with Bruce Springsteen, one passes small businesses that might pop up in one of his songs: Two Men and a Truck: Movers Who Care, and the Cree Mee Freeze ice-cream stand. This is rural Monmouth County, N. J., where the Boss lives surrounded by vast cornfields cleared for the winter, and a short distance from his seminal Asbury Park. On a cold day in early February, the living room of his converted farmhouse is warmed by a glowing fireplace; three guitar cases and a keyboard sit in the hallway. Springsteen, dressed in Johnny Cash black (quilted jacket, shirt, pants, boots), has just come from his home recording studio, where his wife, Patti Scialfa, is completing her second solo album — a decade after her first. ”Yeah, a bit of a gap between, but” — Springsteen pauses — ”that’s the way we do things in this family!” he says, laughing.

Springsteen went seven years between his last two studio albums — 1995’s spare Ghost of Tom Joad and last year’s 9/11-themed The Rising — and 18 years between collaborations with a fully constituted E Street Band. He seems at peace with that pace. After 30 years of hard work and harder playing, he’s got a realistically skeptical view: While grateful for The Rising’s Grammy nominations, he scorns a music industry that seems focused solely on quick, hit-single careers; his kinship with the bedrock beliefs of his fans has grown, but he thinks the Bush administration is headed in the dead-wrong direction; and out of this troublesome world he’s done his best to carve a haven for his family — wife and E Street Band member Scialfa, and their three children, Evan, 12, Jessica, 11, and Sam, 9. With all the accolades, and sales of just under 2 million copies, The Rising has revived his career while maturing the man. As became clear during our interview, Springsteen has worked strenuously to find a strategy for survival, and almost welcomes the notion that even if he has peaked as a mass-culture phenomenon, he can still passionately connect to an audience with shared values and concerns.

Readying himself for his first in-depth interview since last August’s media blitz in support of The Rising, he plops into a rocking chair and vigorously musses his already-mussed hair. He’s eager to hear what Secretary of State Colin Powell has said earlier that morning to the U.N. about possible war with Iraq. Foreign travel, among much more pressing things, is on his mind. (A new album, in case you’re wondering, is not.) After the Feb. 28 airing of a CBS concert special taped recently in Barcelona, Springsteen will resume his ”barnstorming tour” — the first leg of which took him and the E Street Band across America through the fall and early winter — with U.S. dates in March. Then, at least through June, he and the band head overseas, to everywhere from Australia and New Zealand to Germany. Rocker, reader, and peace-seeking road warrior, Springsteen refuses to be pinned down. He holds within him all the surprises and contradictions of an artist not just born in the USA, but now set loose in the world.