TAMPA — When Bruce Springsteen and his venerable E Street Band were announced as the halftime spectacle for Super Bowl XLIII, die-hard fans of the Blue-Collar Bard kvetched and razzed. Too corporate! Sellout! Bamboozled in the U.S.A.!
But for all the frumping and frowning, for all the harrumphing and howling, it turns out the real reason the Boss & Co. took their first Super Bowl gig is ultimately, bittersweetly human.
They will play because they still can. Simple as that.
Born to run, live to rock.
"We stayed together," Springsteen, 59, said during a packed 30-minute news conference Thursday in the Super Bowl media center. "We stayed alive. That's hard for people to do in our business."
Springsteen said that for years, playing the Big Game seemed like "a novelty. It didn't feel quite right. … You're playing in the middle of a football field."
But after talking to a young musician who urged him to take the job, he started to come around. Sure, he allowed, part of the reason was because "we have a new album out." The Boss called Working on a Dream, released Tuesday, one of "three really great records in a row" the group has released.
But still, as New Jersey's native son sat on the podium and looked to his right, then his left, smiling like a proud patriarch at drummer Max Weinberg (57) and wee guitarist Nils Lofgren (57), the Big Man, Clarence Clemons (67), and Little Steven (58), you could see weary pride in his eyes.
There's a new president in the White House, a man Springsteen admires, a man he stumped for and celebrated on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during a concert Sunday before the inauguration. "That was a good warmup for this," he said. "We'll have a lot of crazy football fans around us, but we won't have Lincoln looking over our shoulder, so that takes the pressure off."
But Sunday, the message won't be a solemn salute to patriotism. It definitely won't be about football, either. "If there are going to be a lot of questions about football," Springsteen joked to the journalistic throng, "this is going to be the shortest press conference ever."
Instead, the halftime show will be about immortality, playing as hard as you can to keep The End at bay. He wouldn't reveal his set list. But in typical Springsteen style, he said:
"The idea of the show is, you're going to the Meadowlands, and you get lost along the way. You stop in a bar to get directions. The bar gets held up when you're in there."
By the time you finally get to the show, he continued, you missed the first "two hours and 48 minutes. So that's what you're going to see: the last 12 minutes."
In other words, the good part. The grand finale. A throwdown.
Just because they can.
Also on the bill: John Legend and Faith Hill talked to the media before Springsteen. Legend, who's doing a pregame show, was asked who he was rooting for. "Given the choice between Pittsburgh and Arizona, I lean toward Pittsburgh, but growing up in Ohio, you're not supposed to be a Pittsburgh fan. We have the Buckeyes. That's our saving grace."
Hill, the first performer to do the Super Bowl national anthem (XXXIV in 2000) and, on Sunday, America the Beautiful, said she grew up watching football. "My mom was a huge New Orleans Saints fan." Hill is normally a Titans fan but said she'll root for Arizona on Sunday.