But for one night, before an intimate New Jersey audience, the Boss delved into his 30-year back catalog to offer a brief window into his songwriting. The oft-reticent Springsteen opened up during a taping for VH1's "Storytellers," detailing influences both obvious and obscure.
There's Roy Orbison's dark romanticism ... and actor Robert Mitchum's blood-chilling preacher in "The Night of the Hunter." Smokey Robinson's soulful voice ... and director John Ford's classic Western "The Searchers." The born in the U.S.A. rock of John Fogerty ... and the pulp fiction of Jim Thompson.
Who knew that a line from "Blinded By the Light," off Springsteen's 1973 debut album, referred to his Little League team? Or that he considers a lyric from the brilliant "Thunder Road" to be "probably the hokiest ... I ever wrote"?
Springsteen spills all this and more during "Storytellers," airing at 10 p.m. EDT on Saturday. The show was recorded at the tiny Two River Theater near Springsteen's Garden State home, an intimate venue with just nine rows of seats.
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Springsteen brought along a loose-leaf binder filled with handwritten notes done at his kitchen table.
"I read 'em this morning, and I sounded kind of full of myself," Springsteen deadpanned. "I don't need notes for that."
Over the course of the evening, Springsteen was funny, glib, self-deprecating, chatty and occasionally revealing. His story of Spring-zophrenia — how the "holier-than-thou" Bruce, the blue-collar patron saint of the downtrodden, must co-exist with the guy who enjoys a few drinks in roadside strip joints — was worthy of an HBO comedy special.
The tale ended with Springsteen meeting a pair of horrified fans in the strip club parking lot. He quickly explained how the disparate Bruces co-exist, then informed the fans that they were addressing an apparition rather than the real Springsteen.
"Bruce does not even know I'm missing," he assured them. "He is at home right now, doing good deeds."
Springsteen also referenced his "Blinded By the Light" lyric about a "silicone sister with her manager's mister."
"Possibly the first mention of female breast enhancement in pop music," he said with mock pride. "So I was ahead of my time."
The stage patter gave way to some magnificent musical moments. Over the course of the show, the songs evolved and changed as Springsteen accompanied himself with just a guitar, a harmonica and a piano.
"The Rising," the Sept. 11-derived arena-rock anthem, becomes a gospel/folk song; Springsteen's impassioned version was done with his eyes closed tight as he leaned into the microphone during the chorus.
"Waiting on A Sunny Day," one of his more pop-oriented songs, took on a new patina in its stripped down presentation — exactly Springsteen's point in including it.
"I usually want to throw these right in the trash," he confessed of his pop efforts. But there was another confession to come: Springsteen sometimes imagines Smokey Robinson singing his more radio-friendly songs. And then he launched into an impression of Smokey singing "Waiting on a Sunny Day."
Springsteen clearly put much thought into the song selections, spanning the course of his career: "Nebraska" was included as an example of his narrative style, while "Brilliant Disguise" represented his songs about "issues of identity and love."
The solo Springsteen performance for television was a long time in coming. In 1992, he signed on for a taping of "MTV Unplugged," but did just a single song alone before bringing a band onstage for the rest of the show.
Before the taping began, Springsteen expressed reservations at delving into the secrets of songwriting.
"Talking about music is like talking about sex," he said. "Can you describe it? Are you supposed to?"