Looking back on the album that helped heal a nation after 9/11
Twenty years ago this summer, Bruce Springsteen released The Rising.
It was a rare case of a “classic rock” era artist making a very significant addition to his catalog. Of course, it wasn’t just any “comeback” album; it wasn’t just a reunion album (although it was the first real E Street Band album since Born in the U.S.A.). For so many of us, it was part of the healing from 9/11. For many of us, it helped to process that awful day and the aftermath.
It’s insane how divisive Bruce Springsteen has somehow become in the years since. Don’t believe me? Check the comments on any radio’s station’s Facebook page if they dare to post a story about Springsteen. It’s wild.
This resentment started in 2000 when he started performing “American Skin (41 Shots)” towards the end of the E Street Band’s reunion tour. You probably remember it: some very sensitive (and very loud) folks viewed “American Skin (41 Shots)” as an anti-police song, because it was inspired, in part, by the killing of Amadou Diallo. The song’s chorus actually comes from the point of view of a police officer: “Is it a gun? Is it a knife? Is it a wallet? This is your life.” Of course, those people complaining probably thought “Born in the U.S.A.” was a patriotic song – they don’t always listen to the lyrics. And, apparently, they don’t listen to all of the lyrics. But not everyone was offended by the song: Bruce was honored by the NAACP for “American Skin.”
VIDEO: Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band “American Skin (41 Shots)”
A few years later, though, The Rising seemed to bring people together, and it was a moving thing to behold. It’s not quite a perfect album. Not every song worked: “Waitin’ On A Sunny Day” didn’t, but at his shows, he treated it as if it was one of his greatest hits. (Years later, it did provide a sweet moment at his concerts when he’d invite an audience member’s child on stage to sing the easy-to-learn chorus: “Waiting on a sunny day/Gonna chase the clouds away”).
“Mary’s Place” didn’t work for me for years… until I really listened to it (sometimes we’re all guilty of not listening to all the lyrics, I guess). Yeah, part of it sounds like a generic ‘60s rock party song. But, given the context of the album and the era, the lyrics “I got a picture of you in my locket, I keep it close to my heart…Your favorite record’s on the turntable, I drop the needle and pray” are profoundly moving. In some ways, it hits as hard as any other song on the album: imagine being a party, thinking of the person you would have attended with if they were still here.
VIDEO: Bruce Springsteen “Lonesome Day”
“Into The Fire,” “Empty Sky,” “Worlds Apart,” “The Rising” and “Lonesome Day” are among his most powerful and healing. “You’re Missing” is just devastating. Those lines stop me in my tracks, every time. “Your house is waiting, your house is waiting/For you to walk in, for you to walk in/But you’re missing, you’re missing/You’re missing when I shut out the lights/You’re missing when I close my eyes/You’re missing when I see the sun rise.”
“My City Of Ruins,” which he originally wrote about Asbury Park, turned into a post-9/11 anthem of healing. I remember in the days before 9/11, VH1 News did a story about Bruce showing up unannounced at some event in the then-on-the-comeback Asbury Park and playing that song to a stunned crowd. In the years since, that song has only grown in power — as anyone knows, if they saw the Wrecking Ball tour. The “If you’re here, and we’re here, THEY’RE HERE” moment was heavy, sad, beautiful and uplifting.
By 2003, during the stadium tour for The Rising, Bruce was calling out President Bush, once again alienating right-leaning fans who felt that any criticism of Bush was somehow unpatriotic. Without stereotyping anyone, we can guess that many of them weren’t as upset when, say, Clint Eastwood did his bizarre chair speech at the 2012 Republican National Convention. From where I sit, the rage of those people is selective and lacks nuance. And what’s crazier, is that they’re depriving themselves of one of the great artists of the past 50 years, because he has said stuff that they disagree with. (I’ve heard country fans say that they would “never” listen to Dolly Parton or Chris Stapleton because they supported the idea of Black Lives Mattering. Imagine depriving yourself of Dolly Parton because she doesn’t conform to your racist point of view!). Bruce still shows up for veterans and for the less fortunate, playing an annual benefit for Stand Up For Heroes and promoting local food banks.
No one has tried to reach across the aisle more than Bruce: exhibit A is the Super Bowl LV commercial that he did for Jeep, called “The Middle.” Frankly, it was a bit much for me: coming just weeks after the 1/6 domestic terrorist attack on the Capitol, I was not feeling like meeting the other side of the political aisle in “the middle.”
VIDEO: Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band “The Rising” (Live In Barcelona)
But in 2002, when The Rising was released, it felt like a moment that we could meet in the middle. The 9/11 terrorists attacked us all, regardless of who we voted for, what religion we followed (or even if we didn’t follow any), or how wealthy we were (or weren’t). I don’t know if there’s going to be a moment in America’s future where we can have some semblance of unity, ever again. It’s frankly hard to imagine at this point. I hope if there is such a moment, it won’t be caused by an unimaginable tragedy. Even in these dark days, I try to be a “glass half full” kind of guy. I’ve been revisiting The Rising for the past few days, and hoping that it’s a beacon for how things can be, instead of just a reminder of a less toxic past.
And it seems that since then, he’s been a bit of a divisive figure, which was unthinkable in the ’80s, and also in the aftermath of this album. Anyway, listening to this album 20 years later, I’m still knocked out by how great it is. I’m still moved by it.
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