September 11-Plus-One approaches. And so does remembrance and commemoration. Media envoys will visit with survivors and relatives of those murdered that awful day. Video footage will air, and towers and bodies will fall once more. President George W. Bush will, according to the White House, “talk to the country in a way that is serious” (and do so exclusively on 60 Minutes II with correspondent Scott Pelley). Firefighters, police officers, rescue workers will retell harrowing tales. Rudy Giuliani will shine once more. The traditional start of the off-year congressional campaigns will be overshadowed; politicians will steal what they can of this God-bless-America moment. Some might wonder–but not too many people will do so aloud–what happened to US efforts to capture or kill Osama bin Laden. Commentators will share their thoughts–wise and foolish, meaningful and Hallmarkian–on what the attack wrought, how the country has been altered, how the war on terrorism has fared and what lies ahead.
In the shock-ridden and depressing days following 9/11, there was talk that the horrific event would transform the country. That Americans might embrace a stronger sense of community. (Drivers did seem less aggressive for weeks.) That Americans might gain a newfound appreciation for union workers and public servants, after watching firefighters and police officers lose their lives in gallant service to others. Some left-of-center, politically-minded people hoped that out of the ashes and rubble would rise an environment friendly to progressive and populist politicians who pitch for-the-common-good government activism.
Evidence of such change, though, is not abundant. In fact, it is damn hard to find proof that American life–whatever that may be–is much different. Sure, Bush was reborn in the polls, and the political equation shifted. The military budget has become even more untouchable and bloated. In Washington, there are more concrete flowerpots, and the nervous jokes about living in a bull’s-eye city remain. But are people in Cincinnati still on-edge? There are indeed new laws, new regulations, new precautions. Several hundred non-citizens apprehended in post-attacks sweeps by federal officers saw their lives dramatically altered. As did Afghan civilians struck by errant US weapons; as did the relatives of US military and intelligence personnel killed overseas. But has 9/11 changed us? Snatched children, corporate scandals, Wall Street’s wild ride, rescued miners, Ted Williams’ frozen head–American life is, in most ways, what it would be without 9/11.
Which brings us to Bruce Springsteen. Six weeks before the first anniversary, Springsteen and his E Street Band have issued a new album, The Rising, an explicit response to 9/11. With this effort–launched with a multimedia blitz including a Time cover story and appearances on the Today Show, Nightline, and Letterman–Springsteen is getting a jump on the 9/11 recallathon to come. And he has chosen a quotidian route to challenge an impermeability that, with time, can conquer even an event such as 9/11. Song after song details the loss of that day. Springsteen focuses upon individuals who woke up on September 12–assuming they were able to sleep the previous night–and realized their love-partner was gone forever. Across most of the tracks, his protagonists crave one more kiss, one more touch, one more taste. And the dead wish for the same. With this series of songs–some gritty and gripping, a few sappy and sentimental–he has produced an epistle of yearning. In doing so, he reminds his listeners that 9/11 did spark desires among those not directly hit by the assaults–yearnings for family, for community, for safety, for connection, for time. As Bob Dylan once wrote, “Either I’m too sensitive, or else I’m gettin’ soft,” but for a while after the assaults, it was my belief (or was it a wish?) that a collective yearning of this sort did arise.
And Springsteen knows yearning. It has been the essence of his music–from his early, breakout days as a let’s-blow-this-town loner/greaser-with-a-Telecaster to his middle period as a rock-star chronicler of working-class challenges to his later gig as an overtly socially conscious musician penning anti-Gingrich tunes about immigrants and their travails. At the start, it was a first-person yearning for a way out of his own deathtrap town. Once that was accomplished–thank you, rock and roll–he sang about the yearning of others (hard-pressed workers, the out-of-luck unemployed, AIDS sufferers, stressed-out Vietnam vets, undocumented immigrants) who longed for escapes from their troubles and for havens of safety, joy, love, community, or dreams–ideally, all of the above.
Is there any spot where that collective post-9/11 yearning actually took root? Write me, if you can point to such a place and please send directions. In any event, that communal yearning is not on Springsteen’s map. He’s exploring the bedroom of the bereaved. A widow or widower sings about making it through a “lonesome day.” The spouse of a fallen firefighter says to the departed, “May your strength give us strength.” Another of his nameless characters notes, “I woke up this morning to an empty sky.” One fellow complains he is now but “half a party in a one dog town.” On the gospel-flavored title track, a dead-and-gone firefighter pines for his wife and asks her to “come on up for the rising.” The songs are as heartfelt as it gets–even if, on occasion, less-than-inspired melodies support the sad vignettes. Two of the more intriguing cuts look–poetically, not politically–at the clash of cultures marked by 9/11. On “Worlds Apart”–as Pakistani singer Asif Ali Khan wails–lovers from different backgrounds meet “in this dry and troubled country” (Afghanistan?) and try to surmount the external circumstances of their lives. (“Sometimes the truth just ain’t enough/ Or it’s too much in times like this/ Let’s throw the truth away.”) “Paradise,” a moody and somber track, juxtaposes a suicide bomber (“in the crowded marketplace/I drift from face to face”) with an individual who lost his or her partner at the Pentagon. Both are waiting for paradise–one to find Allah, one to regain love–and paradise, Springsteen notes, may well be empty.
Having assumed a large and possibly risky task–responding to 9/11 with pop music–Springsteen works small. He keeps his eye on the coffee cup on the counter left behind from a last breakfast. He offers no hope for the grieving–some death traps cannot be escaped–but he nobly recognizes the search for hope. The last song, “My City of Ruins,” ends with one of his lonely survivors asking, “Tell me, how do I begin again?” and praying for strength and faith.
No questions, no answers. No calls for understanding this or that. No politics. No jingoism. (This is the opposite of country singer Toby Keith singing, “And you’ll be sorry that you messed with the U.S. of A./ ‘Cause we’ll put a boot in your ass/ It’s the American way.”) Springsteen obsesses over the painful and passionate mourning that followed the attacks. It’s the latest–and deepest–yearning he has explored. Not every song succeeds–which won’t matter to the survivors. But if he does prompt others to recall the enhanced yearnings for love, family and community they experienced last year, he will have provided a public service, as preparations for September 11, 2002, proceed.