Hey, He's Bruce
When Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, reunited to tour behind The Rising, came to Madison Square Garden on August 12, they juxtaposed "41 Shots," Springsteen's powerful song about Amadou Diallo's shooting by NYPD officers, with "Into the Fire," the new album's uplifting gospel tribute to the emergency workers who climbed into the burning Twin Towers never to emerge. Stripped to incantatory simplicity, the newer song's chorus--a litany, really--invokes the healing circle of community that on 9/11 magically materialized--as hordes of volunteers and photo-covered memorial walls that abruptly elevated the NYPD and NYFD and EMS to hero status: "May your strength give us strength/May your faith give us faith/May your hope give us hope/May your love give us love." The crowd, mostly middle-aged in suburban summer attire, stood in rather stony silence for the Diallo tune, which drew boos and threats from the NYPD when Springsteen unveiled it at the Garden in June 2000; for the second they eased into a reverential hush. Everyone around here knows, after all, that Springsteen's music, especially "Thunder Road" and "Born in the U.S.A.," resounded through countless post-9/11 memorial services for the many blue-collar victims.
Springsteen's set lists are typically narratives; a sort of rock cabaret, they build emotional tensions and releases to tell some larger story. So at the Garden, he donned his plaid shirt as High Priest of the secular religion rooted in his audience's belief that he is somehow one of them writ magically large, as were the Local Heroes who flocked toward danger that beautiful, deadly September day, transfigured by necessity, rising to the call. Here he stood, with the E Street Band, his own symbolic community, ready to transform this site not three miles from the fallen towers into a temple of expiation, release, remembrance, hope, loss, despair, acceptance, resolve, love--and, of course, a rock-and-roll party.
Like the strain of American populists he springs from, Springsteen has always seen this country as a dichotomy, the Promised Land that waits within the dream of This Hard Land. Originally inspired by what he has called "class-conscious pop records" like The Animals' 1960s hits "We Gotta Get Out of This Place" and "It's My Life" ("I'd listen...and I'd say to myself: 'That's my life, that's my life!' They said something to me about my own experience of exclusion"), during the 1970s he delved into Flannery O'Connor and John Steinbeck, William Carlos Williams and John Ford, country music ("a very class-conscious music") and Guthrie, Walker Percy and Robert Frank.
"I've made records," Springsteen told Percy's nephew Will several years ago,
that I knew would find a smaller audience than others I've made. I suppose the larger question is, 'How do you get that type of work to be heard--despite the noise of modern society?'... There's a lot of different ways to reach people, help them think about what's really important in this one-and-only life we live. There's pop culture--that's the shotgun approach, where you throw it out and it gets interpreted in different ways and some people pick up on it. And then there's the more intimate approach like I tried on Tom Joad.
For The Rising he grabbed the shotgun. For the first time ever, the E Street Band blasted through endless TV talk shows and promo spots and you-name-its to launch the record and tour. When the CD was released on July 30 it was ubiquitous, and the marketing campaign looked like an avalanche. The number of editorial pundits in places like the New York Times and The Economist who've felt they had to comment on what is, after all, a pop record, struck me as remarkable. No wonder, issues of artistic quality aside, the disc debuted at Number 1 and went gold in the first week--an unprecedented hit for The Boss.
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.
The reunion of Springsteen and the E Streeters reaffirms The Boss's basic mythic community; musically the album integrates the surprisingly varied styles the World's Greatest Garage Band has tackled over thirty-odd years. The album's title signals reassurance. The Boss has gathered us tonight in the Church of Rock and Roll, as he used to holler in those ferocious live gospel set pieces, to...gather us, to bear witness, to go on--to live. Because that, as clichéd as it is, is what we do, with a snatching of images, pangs of emotion and a gazing at the skies.
One musician I know called The Rising "comfort food--classy, well-done comfort food." He was right, but it didn't really matter. Over the years Springsteen has become part of the soundtrack for our lives, as The Animals were for his. The album's failures are part of its package, its blandness a necessary function of the affirmation, reconciliation, healing. Think of Springsteen as the plugged-in troubadour who shapes his artistry into what his audience wants and needs, not cynically but because he wants to bring them with him, and its structure becomes clearer.
Structure and intention, however, can't save all the songs. They move effortlessly, though not always successfully, from one tempo and soundscape to another as they talk of heroism and transcendence, devils in the mailbox and dreams of the garden of a thousand sighs. There are no Big Statements; there are sketchy stories. The standard imagery of romantic love and loss is tilted into the post-9/11 world. Sometimes, as in "You're Missing," this leaves us with a catalogue of unsatisfying clichés against generic synth backgrounds. On the r&b-flavored "Countin' on a Miracle," which explodes after a gentle acoustic-guitar intro, it plays off Springsteen's longstanding hope-against-hope trope: "It's a fairytale so tragic/There's no prince to break the spell/I don't believe in magic/But for you I will." The familiar language tries to embrace the unimaginable; mostly, inevitably, it fails.
But when it doesn't it cuts deep. Among the album's speakers are the dead, the determined and fragile living, the suicidal and transfigured, and the living dead: "Nothing Man" is a breathy ballad about a working-class hero who makes his hometown paper, gets glad-handed and bought rounds, and mutters, "You want courage/I'll show you courage you can understand/The pearl and silver/Restin' on my night table/It's just me Lord, pray I'm able." The linguistic conceit gets tangled, stretched. The earnest "Worlds Apart," where star-crossed lovers meet to an Arab-music inflection and a Pakistani chorus, is camp-hilarious. "Sounds like Sting on a bad day," quipped one pal who hates Sting. Every three or four tunes is a party piece like "Skin to Skin," a throwaway emotional release.
Still, even the failures reflect Springsteen's vision of an unpredictable, hostile world where individuals overcome, evade, understand in defeat, or are simply crushed by the loaded dice of the Powers That Be, whether They are the fates, the rich, the government or the lonely crowd. He sees community as a necessary refuge: "Mary's Place," bubbling r&b, is about a survivor throwing a post-9/11 party while "from that black hole on the horizon/I hear your voice calling me." These songs don't lay out a political agenda. Who needs more of that in a world where endless voices politically spin What Happened every day? Catch the Rashomon-style perspective shifts in "Lonesome Day": "House is on fire, viper's in the grass/A little revenge and this too shall pass.../It's alright...It's alright...It's alright.../Better ask questions before you shoot/Deceit and betrayal's bitter fruit/It's hard to swallow, come time to pay/That taste on your tongue don't easily slip away."
This is the ineluctable lure of Springsteen's storytelling at its best--its suggestions of life's complexity. His voice, soaked in blues and gospel, sounds incredible, and its sheer allure, its phrasing and catches, its demands and pleas, carry many of the weaker songs. The singing's rich cracks and crannies evoke empathy and redemption, separation and defeat, wrapped in religious imagery that suggests, among other things, that the ways we were on 9/11 are more complicated than anyone can capture yet--how long, after all, did it take for Vietnam to yield Going After Cacciato and Dog Soldiers and "Born in the U.S.A."?
Which brings us back to the Garden, where the band pranced through nearly three hours, delivering note-perfect renditions--the blues-rock throb of "Into the Fire," the chug-a-lug suspensions and industrial-metal thrust of "The Fuse," the stark-yet-full acoustic colors of "Empty Sky," the skirling keyboards and snarling guitars that alternate sections of "The Rising"--that often flared but never quite built into the emotional peak that is their hallmark. The crowd leapt from their seats and sang the show's carefully salted oldies like "Prove It All Night," "Darkness on the Edge of Town" and "The Promised Land." They danced to "Mary's Place" and cheered the second half of the line from "Empty Sky" that runs, "I want a kiss from your lips/I want an eye for an eye." For the rest they mostly milled and sat and drank. The encores were all classics, from "Thunder Road" to "Born in the U.S.A."
Careful, scared, wondering if the glory days are past, sifting for omens. That's how the concert felt. Maybe that's who we are now. What kind of oracle did we expect?