Sunday, March 20, 2022

Everything, everything

After a short while, I headed home to join Patti and pick up our children from school. As I drove over the gravel of the beach club parking lot, I hesitated before pulling into traffic on Ocean Boulevard. Just then a car careening off Rumson-Sea Bright Bridge shot past, its window down, and its driver, recognizing me, shouted, “Bruce, we need you.” I sort of knew what he meant, but...
I ignored The Rising for many years, for lots of reasons, a few of them silly. I’m in one of my Bruce Springsteen reassessment periods now, and recently gave the record the full listen and attention it deserves. I don’t find the album overlong as many do, and to my ears the upbeat and affirming songs blend well with the somber songs about loss and grief—which feels like the confounding mess that life is, especially in the surprising, careening ways we grieve. One of the reasons I did shy away from The Rising was because of its weighty place in history. Writing for an occasion can be tricky. 'Tis Spring! verse in modestly-circulated public library newsletters and Presidential Inauguration poems alike often sag under the weight of their own agenda, striving for Big Statements and time- and -date-stamp relevance, or at least for fresh metaphors for rebirth, at the expense of artfulness. (There have been exceptions, of course.) 

After the events of 9/11, many writers felt compelled to somehow respond. Along with millions of others I was at home, watching on television, 800-plus miles from the World Trade Center. In the weeks that followed, I tried again and again to scratch out something that got its hands around my feelings, and what I thought others might be thinking and feeling, but I always wrote toward a blind end. My experience of 9/11 wasn't an experience at all, it was a somber observation from a time zone away, utterly meaningless in the context of the suffering of those in New York City, western Pennsylvania, and northern Virginia. I recall laboring with a piece of writing having to do with being "west" of West Street in lower Manhattan, but I was appalled at my presumptuousness, and at my preciousness for believing that I could create something of value in response. What to do, then, with the impulse to respond artfully to humanitarian crises, a terrorist attack or the suffering of innocent Ukrainians, if you're hundreds of miles away, safe and secure? Work it out on your own terms, I guess, in private, or anyway modestly. Ask an important question: who are you doing this for?

When Springsteen pulled out of that parking lot, made contact with a random fan, and heard that he is needed—that is a different story entirely. That morning, Springsteen had been at home, again as millions of us were, eating cereal and watching the news. Then he felt compelled to drive closer to the horrors. For Springsteen, leaving the cocoon of his secluded, 400-acre farm in Colts Neck, New Jersey  and driving the ten or so miles to a public beach is not an idle drive of a suburbanite—it was the journey (I wince, but there's no other word, really) of a public artist with the burden of a vocation. "In the late afternoon, I drove to the Rumson-Sea Bright Bridge," he wrote in Born to Run. "There, usually, on a clear day the Twin Towers struck two tiny vertical lines on the horizon at the bridge’s apex."

Today, torrents of smoke lifted from the end of Manhattan Island, a mere fifteen miles away by boat. I stopped in at my local beach and walked to the water’s edge, looking north; a thin gray line of smoke, dust and ash spread out due east over the water line. It appeared like the smudged edge of a hard blue sheet folding and resting upon the autumn Atlantic.

Rumson-Sea Bright Bridge, looking north toward lower Manhattan, November 2021 (Google Maps)

Sea Bright Beach, looking north toward lower Manhattan, January 2021. Photo by Vitalli Beliaiev (Google Maps)


Naturally, Springsteen's response to the unfolding tragedy was to write songs. But his brilliance came in trusting his impulse to write at the edges of post-9/11 suffering, in the inevitable wakes moving from the wreckage of the World Trade Center back into the small towns that produced so many of the victims that day. The politics on The Rising are subdued, polemics nowhere to be seen; instead, Springsteen looks unblinking at the carnage, and then to the side where what smolders does so with a different yet no less destructive heat, and imagines into song the kind of characters he always has, those who live modest, unspectacular lives. When we listen to The Rising in the coming decades I don't believe that it will sound overly of-its-era (minus some production touches, perhaps) precisely because Springsteen recognizes that loss takes many shapes, from the absence next to you in bed and the photographs we grieve on the mantle to the unrecoverable at Ground Zero and a Tower-less blue sky.

Nearly half of the album's songs ("Waitin' On A Sunny Day," "Nothing Man," "Countin' On A Miracle," "Let's Be Friends (Skin To Skin)," "Further On (Up The Road)," "My City Of Ruins," and possibly "Lonesome Day" and "Mary's Place") were written before September 11, and this is revealing, in that Springsteen recognized not the specifics of 9/11 but its outline resonating through songs he'd already written, or begun. That's key to the album, I think, in that Springsteen likely felt liberated from having to compose an entire album's worth of songs in the burdening occasional mode. The songs that he did write after the attacks—"Into The Fire," "Empty Sky," "Worlds Apart," "The Fuse," "You're Missing," "Paradise," and of course "The Rising"—blend seamlessly with the earlier material, to my ears. I’m not sure that the reputation of the title track isn’t greater than the song itself—but then again I wasn’t listening to it in the dread echo of 9/11, when the song might’ve transformed for me.

In Born to Run, possibly in light defensive posture against those who felt that the album was too long, Springsteen justified The Rising's blend of the upbeat and the morose. The inclusion of “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day” feels wholly appropriate in retrospect, but others backed into the sequencing. "We recut 'Nothing Man,'" he wrote, "a song I'd had since ’94," adding that "It captured the awkwardness and isolation of survival." "Worlds Apart" and “"Let’s Be Friends" are described as "Beach music!" and "the band tearing down the house," respectively. If "Mary's Place," one of his great late-career uplifting rockers, was indeed written earlier, than Springsteen was shrewd to include it, a "house party" that the album "rises music with the blues hidden inside." He added that he wanted "some of the warmth and familiarity of The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle, a home place, the comfort music and friendship may bring in a crisis."

Finally we circle back around to “My City of Ruins," the soul gospel of my favorite sixties records, speaking not just of Asbury but hopefully of other places and other lands. That was my record.

"The dead have their own business to do, as do the living," he added (a line so good I'm surprised he didn't save it for a song). In the end, the lower-pitched songs on The Rising resonate the most for me, those moments between seemingly endless grieving and the yearning for transcendence, no matter how brief that redemption might be. “Nothing Man,” “The Fuse,” and the quietly devastating “You’re Missing”—each below—are among the strongest songs Springsteen has written, modest, respectful portraits of men and women navigating the long spaces between communion and desolation, and unity and brokenness. Eternal gestures, those, stretching back in history and forward into the future, released, always, from the lousy specifics of our own daily, though crucial, lives.


"Our band was built well, over many years, for difficult times." From Born to Run

When people wanted a dialogue, a conversation about events, internal and external, we developed a language that suited those moments. We were there. It was a language that I hoped would entertain, inspire, comfort and reveal. The professionalism, the showmanship, the hours of hard work are all very important, but I always believed that it was this dialogue, this language, that was at the heart of our resiliency with our audience. The Rising was a renewal of that conversation and the ideas that forged our band.
Brendan O'Brien's production is tasteful and unobtrusive, atmospheric studio touches rare and effective, and the E Street Band and the many side musicians play expressively. I don't love everything on The Rising—the breathy "heartland" talk-singing that Springsteen adopted sometime in the mid-90's quickly grows tiresome for me—yet now I see how in its sprawl, ambition, and generous spirit this album is indeed one of his and his band’s best. Pity that I couldn’t have been bothered to listen to it when it was released, when I might’ve responded to it in deeper ways.

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