Bruce Springsteen tells a story about the making of The Rising. He told it to Mark Binelli in a 2002 Rolling Stone article:
Springsteen still remembers the moment he realized that he needed to make this album. It was a few days after September 11th, and he was leaving the beach. A man drove by, rolled his window down and yelled, “We need ya!” Then he rolled his window up and kept going. “And I thought, ‘Well, I’ve probably been a part of this guy’s life for a while,’ ” Springsteen says. “And people wanna see other people they know, they wanna be around things they’re familiar with. So he may need to see me right about now. That made me sense, like, ‘Oh, I have a job to do.’ Our band, hopefully, we were built to be there when the chips are down. That was part of the idea of the band, to provide support. The most fundamental thing I hear from fans, constantly, is, ‘Man, you got me through’ — whatever it might be. ‘My divorce. My graduation. My high school. This part of my life, that part.'”
Bruce made it his job to be there for us after 9/11, to provide support when we needed it, and damn, does he ever come through on this album. I got The Rising when it came out, and always enjoyed it, but I never really listened closely to it until Robby assigned it to me this week. (Well, this fortnight — in case it’s not obvious, we’ve shifted this game to a biweekly basis.)
Listening closely to this record is a revelation. These songs aren’t just songs. They’re medicine. They’re a balm, not just for a nation or its people suffering after an attack, but for anybody who has ever suffered a deep, fundamental loss. Because what becomes abundantly clear after listening to this album is that it is all about loss. That loss might be national, it might be personal — it really doesn’t matter to the one doing the grieving.
See, some of these songs are clearly about the towers falling, or the first responders, or the people lost in the fire. Some of them are about different sorts of losses — loss of a loved one, loss of a relationship, loss of innocence. But if you listen to the songs enough, you find that all those things are really not so different.
What Springsteen knows, and what he articulates so beautifully in these songs, is that 9/11 is powerful both as a real, historical event and as a symbol. Every single one of us, if we live long enough, will suffer our own personal 9/11 — a moment when something or someone we thought was a fixed, permanent fact of life is suddenly taken from us. In the space of moments, and utterly without warning, the belief collapses, or the deception is revealed, or the person leaves, or dies, leaving us bereft and bewildered. Staring at an empty sky. Most lives will have more than one of these moments.
Springsteen gives us two things for the pain. The first, very simply, is recognition. In healing from a wound, processing a loss, or recovering from a trauma, the presence of a witness can be an invaluable comfort — someone who knows what you’re going through, who sees you, simply sees you, as you are suffering, and acknowledges that the pain you feel is real, and valid.
Bruce witnesses that deep, excruciating grief in songs like “You’re Missing.” In the lyrics, he looks at his surroundings and lists what’s still around, what’s normal — “Coffee cups on the counter, / jackets on the chair / Papers on the doorstep” — and then returns, over and over, to the loss. “But you’re not there. Everything is everything, but you’re missing.” It reminds me of one of my favorite quotes about grief, from poet Graham Nelson:
“Much of the sense of unfairness in grieving comes from the appalling way that a sudden absence seems to affect nothing else: not the trees in the garden, not the books on their shelves, not the crockery to be washed up. We know that the world has been transformed, and yet the world does not.”
“You’re Missing” perfectly captures that essential experience of loss, resolving into a weeping keyboard solo at the end, washing over a mournful beat and repeated string figure.
Then there’s the devastating “Paradise”, the quietest and darkest song on the record. In it, the narrator radiates pain, a pain strongly suggestive of a dead child:
Where the river runs to black
I take the schoolbooks from your pack
Plastics, wire, and your kiss
The breath of eternity on your lips
He dreams, over and over, of the one he’s lost, and returns to one thought: “I wait for paradise”. He’s waiting for nothing but death, dreaming over and over of that reunion, of crossing that river to be with the child again. But then, at the end of his dream:
I see you on the other side
I search for the peace in your eyes
But they’re as empty as paradise
They’re as empty as paradise
Even the idea of death as succor is denied him. Wishing for death when you’re alive is no road to relief — the paradise at the end of it is even emptier than the life it leaves behind.
Springsteen does more than witness for us, though. The second part of his medicine is to bring air, light, tenderness, music, hope, and life into that darkness. Not to overwhelm it, not to deny it or block it out — just enough to tinge the experience with a possibility of grace. Even “Paradise” ends with, “I break above the waves / I feel the sun on my face.”
Thesis statements for this approach bookend the album. The first song, “Lonesome Day”, is clearly about a personal loss — “Baby once I thought I knew / Everything I needed to know about you / Your sweet whisper, your tender touch / But I didn’t really know that much.” The singer is newly, unexpectedly alone, but also still grounded, knowing that “it’s gonna be okay / If I can just get through this lonesome day.” Even in the midst of personal destruction, he repeats, “It’s alright / It’s alright / It’s alright”… or it will be. And until then, all he needs to do is get through the day.
The album ends with a broader scope. “My City Of Ruins” was actually written before 9/11, about the economic wreckage of Asbury Park, but after that day, the phrase “my city’s in ruins” couldn’t help but evoke the searing images of Ground Zero, shown over and over on every American television set. Bruce takes us through those ruins, and asks, “Tell me how do I begin again?” Then he answers: “With these hands.” That phrase, repeated over and over. With these hands, I pray. With these hands, I pick myself up. With these hands, I rebuild. And finally he is shouting a new chorus: “Come on, rise up! Come on, rise up!”
That’s how hope returns. With simple survival — get through the day. With simple tasks, the work of hands, of faith, of small pieces, built up slowly into the bigger pieces that can once again let us rise up.
Other strands of vitality make their way through the album, including a strong motif of eroticism. Sensual images echo around the collection. “Let’s Be Friends (Skin To Skin)” juxtaposes two concepts within its title — friends who get “skin to skin” are surely friends with benefits, at the least. The song describes a relationship with someone who is very different from you, but who might be able to join you after all, an erotic joining urged and justified with “don’t know when this chance might come again / Good times got a way of slippin’ away.”
That theme repeats much more strongly in “Worlds Apart”, along with the image: “In your skin upon my skin, in the beating of our hearts / May the living let us in before the dead tear us apart.” Over Middle Eastern instrumentation and chanting, Springsteeen sings of lovers (and perhaps hemispheres) separated by a huge cultural gulf, but hoping that they can “let blood build a bridge over mountains draped in stars.” There’s no question that sexuality is part of this connection — the song contains one of his sexiest and most startling lines ever: “I taste the seed upon your lips, lay my tongue upon your scars.”
The tongue makes another appearance in “The Fuse”. Against the backdrop of a funeral, and an ominous sense of impending doom, a husband and wife meet: “Quiet afternoon in the empty house / On the edge of the bed you slip off your blouse / The room is burning with the noon sun / Your bittersweet taste on my tongue.” That last line is sung a capella, the only such moment on the album. It’s a musical choice which puts enormous force behind the lyric, placing eroticism front and center as a means to cope with the inevitable loss and destruction at the other end of the titular fuse. Making love, when it’s loving, is the opposite of death — life-affirming, life-creating. It’s a beautiful antidote to the pain that pervades so many of the album’s songs, including this one.
Another antidote Bruce prescribes: music. It manifests exquisitely in “Mary’s Place.” That song has another typically bereaved narrator, carrying a locket with the picture of his lost loved one, hearing her voice on the horizon, dreaming of her in his arms, wanting to know how he can live broken-hearted. Then he puts her favorite record on the turntable, and drops the needle. Over music that slowly gathers force, Springsteen describes a song slowly gathering force: “Band’s countin’ out midnight… Floor’s rumblin’ loud… Singer’s callin’ up daylight… And waitin’ for that shout from the crowd…” The lyrics imbue the music with an almost magical power, and when the song explodes with “Turn it up! Turn it up! Turn it up!”, it’s an explosion of joy, and relief. For that moment, everything’s alright. Better than alright.
It’s a perfect reflexive moment: a musical balm about music as balm. “Let it rain, let it rain, let it rain,” the song urges, and what rains down is healing and comfort. That’s The Rising. Thanks, Boss, for being there when we needed ya.