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.