From the first, a large part of Bruce Springsteen's reputation as a concert act was the sense of intimacy he evoked. Sure, his shows were energetic and enthusiastic, but what really sold the fans was the sense that, no matter where you were sitting, he was somehow speaking directly to you.
So why did it seem so strange to have him look down from the stage Tuesday afternoon and say, "Welcome to sound check"?
Maybe it was the emptiness of the Capital Centre, a building which seems cavernous even when full. Or maybe it was the fact that rock critics, as a rule, aren't used to friendly greetings from the stage. Whatever the case, it was obvious that none of the five of us -- four daily paper critics and a radio reporter, all waiting to chat with Springsteen at the end of sound check -- expected to be addressed from the stage.
But Springsteen, despite a history of doing few interviews, genuinely seemed to enjoy the prospect of meeting the press. Indeed, if his publicist hadn't intervened, he might well have kept talking clear to show time.
Nor did he shy away from questions other stars might have found difficult to deal with. Take, for example, all the "Bored in the U.S.A." articles that cropped up a few months ago, wondering whether the less-than-record-breaking sales for his current albums meant that Spring steen-mania was dead.
Was he resentful of such stories? Not at all. "I don't complain that much, because in general, my relationship with the press over the years has been really positive," he said. "I've gotten a tremendous amount of support from the press. That's something that, particularly when my career started, meant a lot to me.
"As you go on, it goes up and down. It's a roller coaster. Everybody's looking for an angle to write about."
Nor does the seeming dip in popularity bother him. "It's not real," he shrugged. "It's just music business stuff. It doesn't have any meaning. Any time you sell a whole lot of records -- like 'Born in the U.S.A.' sold millions and millions and millions of records -- people sort of go, 'Come on, man. Keep it up.'
"But if you look over the course of how my records have sold in general, [the new albums] have sold pretty much like a lot of my records did before 'Born in the U.S.A.' In the past, they've sold about 800,000 or a million. I've had a core audience of around rTC that many people who are interested in my work, and they go out and they buy the records as they come out. That's sort of what these records in the States have done.
"In Europe, amazingly, things have gotten better for me," he adds. "For some reason, these records seem to have done really, really well over there, even better than in the States.
"But it's neither here nor there. I don't pay that much attention to it, because you can't. If someone's complaining that you're selling 2 million records instead of 4 million records, what does that have to do with what you're doing in the music?"
Not much, obviously. But given how much Springsteen means to his core audience, it's not hard to see how there would be intense interestin his relative success. After all, even the normally hard-bit and cynical critics interviewing him that afternoon had a hard time concealing their enthusiasm and awe. (A couple even asked for autographs.)
Springsteen seems to appreciate this, too. But he's also smart enough to know that as a songwriter and performer, his responsibility only goes so far.
"As your life goes on, there's sort of a challenge that is put out to the fans that have sort of followed your music," he says. "You have your own life, and you make your own personal choices."
As such, he feels that the real value his music comes from the way it can help listeners with those choices -- to provide a "map" for their lives. "I've followed people whose music I've admired," he says. "I've followed other people's maps. And now I'm trying to make my own, and help people make theirs in their lives.
"That's the only service, really, that my music provides."