Hey, He's Bruce
Boss or not, Springsteen hasn't exactly been burning up the charts since the breakup of the E Street Band, except--predictably--for greatest-hits packages. But he has been looking for new entrance ramps onto the artistic freeway. In 1992 he made Human Touch and Lucky Town, essentially by himself, and got complaints that he'd lost the old power, that the songs had gotten clichéd, or repetitive, or superficial--all of which had some merit. He tried touring with a mostly black, largely female band, but the new band was loud and oddly bland. With The Ghost of Tom Joad he walked in the footsteps of Steinbeck and Guthrie and Ford, but for whatever reasons--the prosperity of the times? the alien heroes? the lack of Max Weinberg's bedrock backbeats and Clemons's predictable sax?--despite a terrific acoustic tour, most of his fans bought in only because the themes and approach interested him. They really wanted the Friday-night adrenaline rush of his earlier hits, their imaginary glory days represented to them in rocked-out concert form; but still they came, in reduced but dedicated numbers, to see Bruce because...hey, he's Bruce.
One PR edge about The Rising pushed Springsteen's calling victims and families, piecing together reportage for the album. There's a queasiness about this among longtime fans, including me, although Springsteen's genius has always shone in his talent for telling other people's stories. Which may be the main reason fans like me believe in Springsteen: this pop mega-star who describes what he does as a job and bikes around the country during his downtimes. Unlike Michael Jackson, Springsteen doesn't live in Neverland. He believes in his ability--his duty, the requisite for his gift of talent--to move us to more than adoration and sales. His human touch is the ghost in the pop industry's machinery.
"I'm more a product of pop culture: films and records, films and records, films and records," Springsteen told Percy. "I had some lofty ideas about using my own music to give people something to think about--to think about the world, and what's right and wrong. I'd been affected that way by records, and I wanted my own music and writing to extend themselves in that way."
My first reactions to The Rising were mixed. I don't know what I wanted to hear, but the marketing onslaught about 9/11 had shoved me into an emotional corner. Listening however expectantly, I felt my enthusiasm drain: A lot of these songs sounded like retreads whose earlier incarnations told fuller-bodied stories. Some of them, despite the hype, were barely if at all about 9/11. Shifting critical gears, I postulated problems--the limits of realism, the boundaries of Springsteen's talents and vision, the impossibly tangled American weave of commerce and culture, Reagan's attempt to appropriate "Born in the U.S.A." as a campaign tool, all kinds of intellectual reasons I wasn't blown away. I groused about the sketchy thinness of the tales, their flatness, their itchy transcendental yearnings, their failures. It didn't, I kept repeating to friends I played it to, really work.
A month later, I still think that whole chunks of The Rising don't work. I just don't care. Why, I keep asking myself, does the album's title track choke me up every time I hear it, its call-and-response gospel chorus with Bruce listing the sky's contradictory attributes ("Sky of mercy, sky of fear/Sky of memory and shadow") and the chorus answering, "A dream of life"? The story of a rescue worker who "left the house this morning/Bells ringing filled the air/Wearin' the cross of my calling/On wheels of fire I come rollin' down here," he inches through the dark to his death: "There's spirits above and behind me/Faces gone black, eyes burnin' bright/May their precious blood bind me/Lord, as I stand before your fiery light," and the chorus erupts into the wordless jigging chorus. This mini-epic opens with drawling guitar and spare backing gradually thickened by swirling keyboards and more guitars, grinds its gears into a blues-rock basher for the race to the disaster site and the climb, dissolves into kaleidoscopic textures as the hero dies dreaming of "holy pictures of our children/Dancin' in a sky filled with light"--a dream, he says, of life. It closes with gusts of contrapuntal voices that fade into the band's final unresolved chord.
The opening of "Into the Fire" is the last time the narrator sees his comrade, who climbs into the flames because "love and duty/called you someplace higher." Its incantatory chorus rides backed by an organ figure over a taps-derived beat. The instruments growl and skate with that understated amazing grace the E Street Band at its best can dazzle with. On "Empty Sky," Patti Scialfa's ghostly, quavering vocals frame Springsteen's tight-lipped narration in a stark rock ballad with doomed minor-major modulations and a foreground-shifting mix. "The Fuse" chuffs electrotech industrial sounds while a couple gropes for comfort in sex while funeral processions wind through town--carrying on, living, as time's beats tick into forever.
These are the songs I can't stop playing.