Springsteen's "Rising": How Bruce reclaimed his role as a vital voice for America

After 9/11, America needed Bruce Springsteen. 15 years ago today, he obliged with "The Rising"

By David Masciotra

Contributing Writer

Published July 30, 2017 11:00AM (EDT)

Bruce Springsteen   (AP/Markus Schreiber)
Bruce Springsteen (AP/Markus Schreiber)

The story fit for legend, as Bruce Springsteen himself tells it, is that mere days after the horror of September 11, 2001, Springsteen took his family to the beach on an unseasonably warm afternoon in New Jersey. In the parking lot, someone shouted from a moving vehicle, “We need you, Bruce!”

The anonymous declaration nestled itself into the spirit of Springsteen. The words continued to resound, like a guitar with maximum reverb, late in the evening and early in the morning. Springsteen had already written a tribute to the love and sacrifice of the firefighters and rescue workers who rushed into burning buildings, while everyone else struggled to escape. “Into the Fire” was what he intended to play at the 9/11 fundraising telethon on Sept. 21, but he failed to finish the song in time. As a substitute, and with the support of a small choir, he performed an anthem of redemption and resuscitation he wrote for his musical hometown of Asbury Park — “My City of Ruins.” The lyrical description of destruction, death and despair, along with the revival tent-style gospel chorus of renewal — “Come on, rise up!” — applied with such drama and mystery to the nation’s new time of mourning few could believe that it was already over one year old. With two beautiful new songs completed, an unrecorded song from the early 1990s about a survivor of the first World Trade Center bombing (“Nothing Man”), and an apocalyptic rock ‘n’ roll journeyman’s story through a storm of violence, “Further On Up the Road,” which made its live debut on the E Street Band Reunion tour in 2000, Springsteen laid a strong foundation on which he could build an album.

Thinking of the parking lot plea, and his own American and human need for comfort and security in a world suddenly full of threats and short on answers, he made the determination that it was best to record with the E Street Band. Springsteen had not made a full length record with the E Street Band since 1984’s instant classic, "Born in the USA."

“There was a longing for the familiar,” Springsteen had recalled when offering an explanation for returning to his most fruitful creative community. “The band has always given me confidence to tackle large themes,” Springsteen once wrote, “Something about the size and sound of the music we make, the depth of the relationships, brings this out in my writing.”

"The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle" and "Born to Run" capture the ecstasies and terrors of living on the sweltering sidewalks and in the neon reflection of the city — from streetside hedonism to back alley murder — all in a restless, and often reckless, search for freedom, romance and moments of transcendence conformational of one’s own promise. "Darkness on the Edge of Town" explores how dread can invade the soul, and how faith still might survive, when that search ends in loneliness, disappointment and heartbreak. What happens, and what wreckage is left, when Thunder Road is a dead end?

"Born in the USA" continues to explore the emotional geography of adulthood, but with a subtle interrogation of American reality and myth. “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true or is it something worse?” Springsteen sings, with chill-to-the-bone brooding, in "The River." "Born in the USA" takes that same question and uses it to inspect the biggest dream of all for those born under the red, white and blue banner — the American dream.

The ambition of the 2001 record could cast a shadow on all of those previous projects of musical artistry and investigation. Springsteen would have to write songs that not only addressed an aggrieved and grieving nation in the aftermath of the biggest attack on its own soil in its young history, but also achieved universal and timeless resonance — songs of loss, love in absence, and hope carved out of the burnt plywood of a torched house.

The world owes a debt of gratitude to the man in the parking lot. His statement, no matter how improvisational or casual, makes a profound argument about human need and the cultivation of culture. In the turbulence of national trauma, people need not only smart leadership, functional institutions and supportive communities -- they need art. A country needs its storytellers and songmakers to make sense of the incomprehensible in such a way that empowers people to find a meaning that, whether or not it is an illusion, brings some order out of chaos. Ralph Ellison wrote that black Americans developed such gifts and love for music, because at the height of social terror under Jim Crow, they faced a choice to “die with noise or live with music.” “We need you, Bruce!” was one sad, angry and afraid American’s way of asking for help in an effort to live with music. The explosions, screams and sirens of September 11 were enough noise to provide a fitting soundtrack for death. Those left to live needed new accompaniment.

Fifteen years after its original release date of July 30, 2002, "The Rising" remains a magnificent achievement in a storied career. It is one of Bruce Springsteen’s best collection of songs, and it enabled the E Street Band to tour with a regained sense of mission and purpose. It also led to the rediscovery of Springsteen’s own compositional and performative voice. He released only three records in the 1990s, and the album that preceded "The Rising" — "The Ghost of Tom Joad" — came out seven years prior. In the five years following "The Rising," Springsteen not only toured like a machine, he released three new records, including 2007’s "Magic," one of his most varied and underrated.

Ed Sabol, the founder of NFL Films, advised his son, “You cannot soar like an eagle, and shit like a canary.” Ambition always carries with it the risk of humiliation. Springsteen’s Texas-sized hopes for "The Rising" could have brought with him terrible embarrassment, and resulted in a chorus of critics deriding him as “washed up,” while making ironic references to “Glory Days.” Instead Springsteen rose to a monumental challenge, and passed a tough test, once again earning his placement in stone on the Mount Rushmore of American songwriters. The accomplishment clearly energized and inspired him to continue to create in a later period of his career that, to this day, shows no signs of ending.

Uncut praised Springsteen for making “a brave and beautiful album of humanity, hurt and hope from the songwriter best qualified to speak to and for his country.”

"The Rising" certainly spoke to me. Unlike most of my high school peers, I was a Springsteen obsessive when nihilistic, God-crazed terrorists transformed airliners full of passengers into weapons and flew them into buildings. His music transcended generational difference, and communicated the essence of what I imagined for my life. Before I was old enough to drive, I could close my eyes and picture myself behind the wheel of a car, beautiful woman in the passenger seat, riding through mansions of glory in suicide machines, trying to find out if love is wild.

All of Springsteen’s songs, however, were old. When I rushed out to buy "The Rising" in the summer of 2002, still a high school student, I finally had the opportunity to listen to music Springsteen crafted out of and for one of my experiences. The attacks of September 11 changed my perception of the world, and Bruce Springsteen was going to gather all the poetry and power of his music to address it.

The experience of 9/11 belonged solely to those who were there, and those whose children, parents, spouses, or friends died there, but a national event, with some indefinable quality of community, feels as if it belongs to everyone in the nation. People all over the United States — from a guy on a beach of New Jersey to a teenager in his parents’ house in the Chicago suburbs — felt like they needed Bruce. As maudlin as it sounds, Bruce was there.

Suddenly, Bruce was everywhere. He and the E Street Band performed a 25-minute concert on "Today" from the Asbury Park Convention Hall — the beach filled body to body with music lovers (the highlight of his "Today" performance was one of Springsteen and company’s best versions of “Glory Days” — the only non-"Rising" song of the setlist). They made two consecutive appearances on David Letterman, and the typically reserved Springsteen gave interviews to any program that would have him, including, as unthinkable as it is now, on MTV. Instead of booking several-night stands in Springsteen-crazed cities, such as New York and Philadelphia, the band announced their plan to “barnstorm” the planet, playing one night in each city before moving onto the next. In 2002, the barnstorming tour took place in arenas. By 2003, Springsteen was selling out multiple shows in baseball and football stadiums of major cities, from London to Los Angeles. Springsteen, having earned a reputation for wildly changing his setlist from night to night, never stopped showcasing his new material. Even the final night of the tour, taking place 14 months after the record’s official release date, featured eight songs from "The Rising."

Springsteen’s resurgence in the mainstream of American culture, after years of musical ambivalence, and his bold acceptance of a cultural mandate to integrate himself into the national dialogue would have meant nothing without brilliant and beautiful songs. While the tour would eventually become highly political, with Springsteen often opening shows with the anti-war rocker from the 1990s, “Souls of the Departed,” and speaking of the need for “vigilance against Bush administration infringement on civil liberties” before singing scorching versions of “Born in the USA,” the songs of "The Rising" were wisely apolitical.

Instead of stamping the record with a time marker by writing topical material, Springsteen offered the particular horror of 9/11 as predicate to explore the universal hardship of loss.

“Counting On a Miracle,” “Empty Sky” and “You’re Missing” give artistic testimony to how the absence of a treasured husband, wife, or friend produces pain of soul-piercing power, and wonders how the bereaved can continue to live in an entirely new universe. Jacques Derrida called the “work of mourning” the act of assimilating into a new universe — a universe without the beloved. The death of one person makes little to no difference in the history of the world, but it destroys the entire world of the survivors. “I woke up this morning to an empty sky,” Springsteen sings, giving the image of a profound double meaning. The Twin Towers are gone, creating an eerie emptiness in the New York skyline, but the towers of a person’s soul collapse when a mother, son, daughter or father lies in a coffin.

The transformation of the universe the individual must navigate, while the actual world is relatively the same, creates an angry sense of disbelief. In “Nothing Man,” Springsteen’s character returns to the sky, unable to fathom how it is still “the same unbelievable blue.”

In his lyrics, Springsteen attempts to construct an architecture of human presence, allowing him to fully itemize what is lost when that architecture crumbles. The result animates the album with an eroticism of pure physicality. Nearly every song uses the word “kiss.” “Hand,” “touch,” “hair,” and “face” drop into lines of verses to make the songs immediate in their intimacy. “Let’s Be Friends,” a declaration of interracial love’s ability to conquer social barriers, ends its first verse with the words, “Time is now maybe we can get skin to skin.” “The Fuse,” a story of a grieving widow and widower finding solace in each others’ sexuality, paints a picture of an afternoon in bed; the man describing the woman’s “bittersweet taste on my tongue.”

The erotic energy of the record even imbues Springsteen’s tribute to the heroic sacrifice of firefighters, rescue workers and United 93 passengers with carnal undertones. They did not simply give their lives. Springsteen, in the voice of a widow, sings to her late husband, “You gave your love to me / Lay your young body down.”

While songs like “You’re Missing” and “Empty Sky” catalogue the harvest of death, much of the record celebrates signs of life. “Mary’s Place” asks “how do you live brokenhearted?” and describes a house party full of dancing couples in the living room. The narrator looks for comfort in religious symbols of Buddhism and Christianity, but can gain the strength to pray only when he plays the favorite record of his departed wife. “I drop the needle and pray,” Springsteen sings in what could encompass not only the ambition of "The Rising," but the mission of his entire career — the intensity and inspiration of vitality offered as ritual and empowerment in rock ‘n’ roll music.

“Mary’s Place,” with its soulful sound and lyrical focus owing a debt to Sam Cooke’s “Meet Me at Mary’s Place,” sounds like the Asbury Park rhythm and blues of Springsteen’s early 1970s work. There are shades of Springsteen’s nuts-and-bolts rock of "The River" and "Born in the USA," and there are songs, especially “Nothing Man” and “Paradise,” that would remind listeners of the stripped-down adult contemporary of “Streets of Philadelphia” and “Secret Garden,” but with "The Rising" Springsteen managed to pull off an extraordinary feat.

He gave listeners music that sounded familiar, just as he promised, but not derivative or repetitive. "The Rising" has a fresh quality that makes it unique in Springsteen’s corpus. In some ways it sounds like every Springsteen record, and in other ways it sounds like no other Springsteen record.

To awaken his style for a modern era, Springsteen enlisted the services of producer Brendan O’Brien, and he made violinist Soozie Tyrell a permanent member of The E Street Band. He also made his only mistake in the creation of "The Rising." He stopped shouting. The only flaw of "The Rising" is that Springsteen’s vocals are oddly understated. As anyone would guess, he corrected the error during live performances, often screaming in key, like his vocal heroes Wilson Pickett and Sam Moore, as if his life depended on it.

The experimental songs shine. Using a hip hop beat and guitar distortion unlike any other Springsteen song, the aforementioned “The Fuse” is a highlight, but not nearly as bright as “Worlds Apart.” For the multicultural anthem, telling a story of romance between an American traveler and a Muslim woman in the Arab world, Springsteen combines an Islamic choir, hip hop beat, and blazing electric guitar solo to electrifying effect.

"The Rising" demonstrated that Springsteen, already an uncontested legend, and his band, already one of the best in rock history, were not merely a classic rock expression of nostalgia. They could adapt to a rapidly changing world and musical landscape, even in the worst of circumstances and with the most brutal of muses, and provide music that sounded and felt built for the present.

Springsteen has often explained that he aspires to write songs with “blues verses and gospel choruses.” "The Rising" maximized that formula. “Lonesome Day” — one of Springsteen’s best songs — rocks with abandon, even while integrating country elements into its introduction and musical break, to describe a scene of devastation. “House is one fire / Viper’s in the grass . . . ” Springsteen sings. The chorus offers a secular prayer of revivification: “It’s alright, it’s alright, it’s alright, yeah!”

The simplicity of Springsteen’s faith claim that somehow, even if it is hard to imagine, everything will turn out alright is another force allowing the record to transcend its historical inspiration. “The Rising,” an anthem of life, death and love giving an awe-filled depiction of how firefighters moved through what Springsteen calls “secular stations of the cross,” soon became the campaign theme for Barack Obama’s campaign. “My City of Ruins,” making great use of music similar to Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready,” describes communal destruction and individual despair before a chorus of “Come on, rise up!” Its message of social uplift caused it to resonate in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and Christchurch, New Zealand, after the city suffered an earthquake in 2011.

Before playing “My City of Ruins” at a benefit for 9/11 survivors and family members in Red Bank, New Jersey, Springsteen said, “This is a song I originally wrote for Asbury Park. You write songs, and you hope that they end up where people need them. So, this is a gift from Asbury Park to New York City.”

The man in the parking lot was right. It seems that people will always need the songs of "The Rising." When a friend takes her last breath, when a spouse slips away, when a natural disaster leaves a city in ruins, or when the victory of an unqualified, bigoted demagogue turns a national election into a lonesome day, Springsteen’s exploration of human tragedy and triumph — from the funeral of a lover to the house party of a friend — will inspire those in need to drop the needle and pray.

After Springsteen sings “I drop the needle and pray,” near the end of “Mary’s Place,” the Alliance Singers, a New Jersey gospel choir formed in the wake of 9/11 and personally recruited by Springsteen for "The Rising," shout with church fervor and ecstasy, “Turn it up!”

That’s as good advice as any.

By David Masciotra

David Masciotra is the author of six books, including "Exurbia Now: The Battleground of American Democracy" and "I Am Somebody: Why Jesse Jackson Matters." He has written for the New Republic, Washington Monthly, CrimeReads, No Depression and many other publications about politics, music and literature.

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