On Repeat: The Mobius Strip of Grief in Bruce Springsteen’s The Rising

Posted: July 31, 2007 in Literary Essay Chinese Litarature, Literary Magazine

by Gabriel Milner

As the coup d’ grace in Ronald Reagan’s 1984 reelection campaign, the incumbent President appropriated Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.”, perverting the chorus’ cynicism and vitriol into a chauvinist Republican rallying cry. In summarily ignoring the narrative of post-Vietnam, post-industrial malaise that belied the exuberant, synthesizer-addled song, the Gipper set off perhaps the most tragic irony of American popular culture in the 1980’s.[1] Unwillingly, Springsteen was reconceived as a puppet of the conservative jingoism he so palpably attacked throughout Born in the U.S.A.—marring his reputation for my own generation, which knew him neither as the New Dylan of Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ , nor the disheveled roué of Darkness On the Edge of Town, but as the tight ass in blue jeans on the album’s cover. The biting irony of this image, coupled as it was with a Stars-and-Stripes backdrop, was lost to me for some time. As a document of September 11th, The Rising (Columbia Records, 2002) retains similar potential.[2] Now, five years after the attacks on the Twin Towers, four years after the United States invaded Iraq, and six months after North Korea detonated a nuclear bomb, we must ask: Why no repeat of 1984? Why has the Boss, and his stirring album, not again fallen into the agenda of bellicose conservatives? And, will posterity finally give Springsteen his due, positing The Rising alongside the Gettysburg Address and Guernica as provocative, multifaceted reactions to destruction?

Increasingly, I perceive this album as a cynosure for the miasma of world events. In form and content, it is a work about confusion, paradox, and irresolution that undertakes a daunting task: It gives full range to the spectrum of human emotions without imposing answers. Summoning forth the events surrounding September 11th, it presents a Cubist landscape of multiple angles and endless repetitions. With 9/11 as the nexus, we confront a pastiche of voices: Spatial elements united by the fourth, temporal dimension of the Attacks. As befitting its title, images and sentiments rise up, as though from a collective memory bank. This is not about revenge or redemption. This is about the catharsis of contemplation.

The Rising marks the reunion of the E Street Band—from, among other careers, solo efforts (guitarist Patti Scialfa), Conan O’Brien’s house band (drummer Max Weinberg), and The Sopranos (guitarist Steve Van Zandt)—for the first time since 1984. Despite pushing middle age, they sound as invigorated as they did 23 years ago. Like the welter of personal narratives mixed in the album, the music recognizes no boundaries: Nashville fiddles, saxophone solos, doo-wop choruses, martial drumbeats, Azaans, hand-claps, hand drums, drum machines, accordions. If I don’t quite buy the Bossrs’ best impression of a Sephardic cantor on “Worlds Apart” (“lai-lai-lai-lai-lai-lai, lai-lai-lai-lai-lai-lai”), I appreciate the nod to multiculturalism. Strings herald some sort of victory march in album opener “Lonesome Day,” Springsteen whoops in the background, and Weinberg sets off a spark with a pop out of “Like a Rolling Stone.”[3] Yet belying this tried-and-true rock method—the whoop from “Born to Run,” the drum aping the greatest rock song of all time[4]–is a leitmotif that sets The Rising apart from more forthright reactions to the attacks. To wit, the first words:
Baby once I thought I knew Everything I needed to know about you. Your sweet whisper, Your tender touch. I didn’t really know that much. The joke’s on me. Yeah, I’m gonna pray. If I can just get through this lonesome day.

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band are about to enact a paradigm shift.

Pre-The Rising Springsteen was all quotidian ennui, bitterness, hope, and joy. Characters were connected either geographically (New Jersey’s factory towns and seedy boardwalks, or the Rattlesnake Speedway in the Utah Desert) or economically (the anomie and alienation, or the weekend bliss and nostalgia of blue-collar existence), or both. Here, though, individuals convene under circumstance. We are introduced to the self-abnegating firefighter in “Nothing Man”; the grieving spouse fielding consoling telephone calls in “You’re Missing”[5]; the contemplative suicide bomber in “Paradise”; and the barflies in “Mary’s Place,” who, on finding joy in listening to a turntable at midnight, are reminded of their grief. They ask, “How do you live broken-hearted?” We get the bad-ass of “Further On (Up the Road),” with his “dead-man’s suit and . . . smilin’ skull ring.” And the peacemaker of “Worlds Apart,” snarling, as if in some last-ditch effort, “Let the living let us in before the dead tear us apart.” In essence, these are the same folks who always populated Springsteen’s songscapes: The worker, the mourner, the embittered, the conflicted, the caught-up, the merry-maker. Only, here they are transmogrified by events. The everyday does not dissolve. Instead, it is now imbued with mythic proportions: Opportunities to be heroes, villains, and everything in between on an epic scale. And indeed, when, on “Let’s Be Friends (Skin to Skin),” he sings that the, “Time has come, let the past be history, if we just start talking,” he could be propositioning an ex or drawing out a peace accord.

In amassing this Babel, Springsteen and Co. paint a landscape of paradox through an unstable lexicon. And it is here that The Rising begins to acquire its more provocative elements. As it reiterates words and images, it recaptures, repositions, and replays experience. To this end, “sky” crystallizes the anxieties and anguishes of the survivors of, and the witnesses to, the tragedy. Literal observations describe emptiness vis-à-vis the Twin Towers’ conspicuous absence: “I woke up this morning to an empty sky” (“Empty Sky”). Destruction abounds furthermore in surrealistic dreamscapes, with a “sky . . . falling and streaked with blood” (“Into the Fire”). The sky proves the lodestar to disbelief, as when the firefighter in “Nothing Man” remarks unbelievingly, “The sky is still the same unbelievable blue.” And, just as Springsteen finds hope in sublime, limpid space—“Sky of fullness, sky of blessed life”—he also confronts a “Sky of blackness and sorrow” (“The Rising”).

As evinced in the use of “love,” the metaphysical is similarly fraught. At times, it evokes grief and nihilism: “Our love’s this dust beneath my feet” (“Countin’ On a Miracle”). At others, it memorializes: “May your love give us love” (“Into the Fire”). It is even a desperate plea to maintain peace and mental equilibrium: “We pray for love, Lord” (“My City of Ruins”).

This very confusion enables The Rising to function on variegated levels, its stories transcending their specificity. “You’re Missing,” an elegy of plinking, homey piano keys and moaning strings, vividly evokes this fluidity. Springsteen begins the song by rattling off a laundry list of ostensible domestic stability: “Shirt’s in the closet/ Shoes’ in the hall. / . . . Coffee cup’s on the counter. / Jacket’s on the chair. / Paper’s on the doorstep.” Then he laments, “Everything is everything, but you’re missing.” So who’s missing? It’s not the narrator’s wife. (He early on tells us that “Mama’s in the kitchen, baby and all.”) I don’t think it’s the narrator’s husband. (“Mama’s in the kitchen” would mean he’s referring to himself in the third-person, undercutting the song’s homespun flavor.) I don’t think it’s a friend or a child, because Springsteen speaks to a certain intimacy: “When I shut out the lights, you’re missing”; and later, “I got too much room in my bed.” When the narrator sings, “I got too many phone calls,” we must ask, Are friends consoling a personal loss, or are they out-of-towners, offering their support to a New Yorker? We might do well to ask not who is missing, but what? What paradigm shift was precipitated by September 11th? The sense of intangible loss creates uneasiness, then melancholy. This is the saddest song I’ve ever heard.

Within this cosmology of grief, tradition and expectation are subverted. Ancient imagery is appropriated and metamorphosed to explain something so palpably outside our ken. This is heady stuff for the Springsteen set. Raised a Catholic, the Boss has always been inclined toward religious iconography, populating his songs with prodigal sons, Mary Magdalenes, and Jobs. And The Rising is rife with its own biblical milieu: martyrs in “Into the Fire,” sanctuary in “Mary’s Place,” and sacrilege in “My City of Ruins.”[6] But something odd emerges in these narratives, as well—a desperate attempt to comprehend life when traditional tropes are rendered insufficient.[7] At one point, this is manifested as recourse to alternative spirituality. Hence, the “seven pictures of Buddha” in “Mary’s Place”, or the opening scene of “Empty Sky”: “On the plains of Jordan, I cut my bow from the wood. This tree of evil, this tree of good.” More provocatively, it also expresses a truly physical inversion. Namely, the Orpheus-like journey of “Into the Fire,” wherein our firefighter hero goes not down to Hell, but “up the stairs into the fire.” Sometimes, it’s just puzzling. “God’s drifting in Heaven,” he sings in “You’re Missing. “Devil’s in the mailbox.” In the album, 9/11 both reverses and confuses. The Rising, therefore, throws us for a loop, positing a welter of post-modern spirituality to express a globalized world bereft of both borders and answers. Sometimes, all we are left with is the comfort of meditation. Here is Springsteen’s Om:
Further on up the road. Further on up the road.
(“Further On [Up the Road]”)

Empty sky. Empty sky. I woke up this morning to an empty sky.
(“Empty Sky”).[8]

Tumult, though, ultimately proves The Rising’s most salient element. In one sense it is the fractured vision of any second-rate Cubist—the desperate attempt to evoke, through art, a sense of metaphysical chaos. Roland Barthes posited the concept of narrative braiding—the breakdown of temporality and the perpetual revision of memory—to define the metanarrative inherent in personal historiography. Akira Kurosawa explored the fallacy of subjectivity in Rashoman, which recounts a rape from different perspectives, thereby belying the concept of an objective truth. And Lawrence Durrell wrote in his author’s note to Balthazar, one-fourth of his epic Alexandria Quartet, “Modern literature offers us no Unities, so I have turned to science and am trying to complete a four-decker novel whose form is based on the proposition. . . . Three sides of space and one of time constitute the soup-mix recipe for a continuum.” The stakes are higher in Springsteen’s album, where simply giving a voice to a terrorist is anathema to the methods of the Department of Homeland Security. As events transmogrify with the storyteller, we reconsider the nature of truth and, potentially, the Manichean extremes propounded by Bush’s Axis of Evil.

Yet The Rising is not merely driven by desperation. Sonically and lyrically, it demands we confront the cultural collisions of September 11th and to discern the conspicuous absence of resolution. Indeed, its varied inconsistencies prove its ultimate strength. In this sense, it contorts the Five Steps of Grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance) to create a Mobius strip of associations and paradoxes. What we face is unending experience—a phenomenon endemic of the attacks on the Twin Towers. Captured on the news and in the papers, in photographs and novels, the attacks were, if nothing else, well documented.[9] In our mind and on our computers we can summon forth these events at any time, recapture and reexperience them. We can shift our perspectives from—as in my own case—passive observer to camcorder-equipped eyewitness. We can break time down. Or we can reverse it. We are, ultimately, preoccupied with it. And, as the folks in “Mary’s Place” show us, as much as we might like to relegate it to a time and place, it’s under our skin, waiting break out just as we think we might be shaking it. We can’t help but summon forth all of our resources, letting the full spectrum of human emotions reign.

If The Rising attempts to position 9/11 as an element to be incorporated into everyday experience, then the album’s closer, “My City of Ruins,” is testament to the fluidity of memory. Ostensibly a song about Ground Zero, it describes destruction, loss, and rebirth. The narrator opens with his vision of “A blood red circle on the cold dark ground.” He is guided by the ghosts of the past: “The church door’s thrown open, I can hear the organ’s song. But the congregation’s gone.” He looks around his “city of ruins” and sees “The boarded-up windows, the empty streets, all my brothers down on their knees.” Someone’s gone, someone who “took my heart when [he or she] left.” The narrator wonders, “How can I begin again?” At 1:57 we literally hear “the organ’s song” in a Garth Hudsonesque solo. We are seamlessly transported to someone else’s perspective, which now becomes our own. The collective conscious solidifies. Yet it is important to know that this song was actually written before September 11th, about Springsteen’s old haunts in Asbury Park, New Jersey. Memory is thus reconfigured. As the album closes with a chorus of “Rise up,” we are left provoked, though not quite sated. “Rise up”? Against what? In the face of what? How? This is Bruce Springsteen’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” where the answer is a paradox: Simultaneously at hand and elusive.

Unfortunately, The Rising too often he relies upon cliché as its main vehicle of expression. When he launches into “It’s a fairy tale so tragic, there’s no prince to break the spell” (“Countin’ On a Miracle”), I have to stop myself from reaching for the skip button. In terms of landscapes, I’ve always preferred the doomed characters of Darkness on the Edge of Town. The factory worker whose job both “takes his hearing” and “gives him life,” the ingénue smitten with the town whore in “Candy’s Room,” the drag racers of “Racin’ In the Streets,” and the poets of the ominous outskirts all evoke a mythology all their own and all more subtle. I prefer the tongue-in-cheek rockabilly of The River. And I especially enjoy the sprawling, orchestral turns of The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle. This is not the point of The Rising. In this album, we find a chronicle of events, a call for contemplation and catharsis a full year-and-a-half before the United States opted for the opposite. There was nothing like it at the time. And for sheer ambition and scope, there is still nothing like it. To this day, The Rising stops me in my tracks.

[1] See CNN.com – Analysis: The age of Reagan – Jun 16, 2004

[2] The best story I’ve heard is that shortly after the attacks on the Twin Towers, Springsteen was riding around New Jersey in his pick-up. He heard a pedestrian shout, “Bruce, we need you.” And the album’s seed was planted.

[3] When Springsteen inducted Bob Dylan into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989, he remarked, “The first time I heard Bob Dylan, I was in the car with my mother listening to WMCA, and on came the snare shot that sounded like somebody’d kicked open the door to your mind.” Quoted in Greil Marcus, Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads (New York, Public Affairs, 2005), 94.

[4] See Rolling Stone: The RS 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

[5] This is just one sense evoked by the song. “You’re Missing” will be discussed in detail later.

[6] More on this later.

[7] This theme proved lodestar in the 9/11 Commission’s Report, which found a lack of imagination to be the main reason the events were not foreseen.

[8] For the 2001 “A Tribute to Heroes” benefit, he introduced an acoustic version of “My City of Ruins” as a “prayer for our fallen brothers.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1djqEnh4cbQ

[9] Sometimes, this documentation raises more questions than it answers: See Frank Rich Is Wrong About That 9/11 Photograph. – By David Ploz – Slate Magazine

Works Cited

Durrell, Lawrence. “Note” (1957). In Balthazar (1958). New York: Penguin Books, 1986.

Kurosawa, Akira. Rashomon. Daeie Studios. 1950.

Leopold, Todd. “Analysis: The Age of Reagan.” Cnn.com, 16 June, 2004.


Marcus, Greil. Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads. New York, Public Affairs, 2005.

Plotz, David. “Frank Rich Is Wrong About that 9/11 Photograph: Those New Yorkers Weren’t Relaxing!” Slate, 13 September, 2006. http://www.slate.com/id/2149508/?nav/tap3/; accessed 20 December, 2006.

Seed, Patricia. “‘Failing to Marvel’: Atahualpa’s Encounter with the Word.” In Latin

American Research Review 26:1 (1991). 7-32.

Springsteen, Bruce. Born In the U.S.A. Columbia Records. 1984.

———. Born to Run. Columbia Records. 1975.

———. Darkness On the Edge of Town. Columbia Records. 1978.

———. Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ. Columbia Records. 1973.

———. “My City of Ruins” (live, acoustic version). “A Tribute to Heroes.”

Broadcast 15 October, 2001. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1djqEnh4cbQ; accessed 20 December, 2006.

———. The Rising. Columbia Records, 2002.

———. The River. Columbia Records. 1980.

———. The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle. Columbia Records. 1973.

“The RS 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.” Rolling Stone. 9 December, 2004.

http://www.rollingstone.com/news/coverstory/500songs; accessed 17 December, 2006.

Bruce Springsteen Official Sony Site. http://www.brucespringsteen.net; accessed 10 December, 2006.

This artcle is officially published in The Red China Literary Magazine, visit the website http://www.redchinamagazine.com/home.htm


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