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So, after a failed marriage to model-actress Julianne Phillips, Springsteen moved into a $14 million mansion in Beverly Hills, Calif. (the faithful jeered), wed Scialfa in 1991 (the faithful cheered) and sang about relationships, kids and his ennui (the faithful shrugged). Then in '95 he put out an album of folk songs, The Ghost of Tom Joad. It won a Grammy for best contemporary folk album, but it felt more like a Woody Guthrie tribute than a Springsteen record. The songs were stark and compelling, but the old optimism was gone. The characters of Tom Joad lived on the fringes of American life, and they died quickly and violently. "I just wasn't sure of my rock voice," says Springsteen. "I wasn't sure of what it sounded like or what it was going to be doing or what its purpose was at that moment. The band wasn't functioning together at the time, so I kind of went to where I thought I could be most useful."
One important fact about Springsteen: he thinks a lot about being Springsteen. After Tom Joad, he did some hard thinking--about himself, his family and the job of being Bruce--and decided to move back to New Jersey, where he now occupies a sprawling estate just a few minutes' drive from where he grew up. "Patti and I, we're both Irish-Italian," he says. "We have a lot of family here, and we wanted the kids"--they have three, ages 12, 10 and 8--"to have that experience of knowing people who do lots of different kinds of jobs. The guy who runs the dry-cleaning service or the guy who hunts and fishes and works on the farm." The homecoming also inspired Springsteen to climb tentatively back into rock 'n' roll. After an E Street reunion tour in 2000 (they played only a smattering of new songs), Springsteen started writing an album of rock tunes. Then the planes hit.
"I was having breakfast, and then I was in front of the television. A little while later," says Springsteen, "I drove across the local bridge. The Trade Center sits right in the middle of it when you look toward New York." Having been spared any personal tragedy, Springsteen tells his where-were-you-when story sheepishly. His greatest hardship was having to explain the day to his kids. "I think it's become placed in their lives in the same way that the nuclear bomb was when I was a kid. It's the really dark, scary thing, and they're not sure where it can touch them. Can it touch them at school? Can it touch them in the house? What are its limits? Does it have limits? It's mysterious, you know."
Springsteen's home county, Monmouth, lost 158 people in the towers, more than any other in New Jersey. After Sept. 11, Springsteen discovered that where he could be most useful was his own backyard. "This was one of those moments," he says, "when the years that I've put in and the relationships that I've developed and nurtured with my audience--this was one of those times when people want to see you."