20 Signs of Life in 2002

Number 15 - Bruce Springsteen - The Rising

Music Features Bruce Springsteen
Share Tweet Submit

Expanded Exclusively for the Web:

If the blues give you the strength to face another day but leave you to face it on your own, gospel promises, or at least holds out the possibility, that tomorrow may be different, better. With the help of the spirit and your people -- in the church or on the dance floor – you can get over, walk in Jerusalem, dance to the music. -- Craig Werner, A Change is Gonna Come: Music, Race and the Soul of America

Back in graduate school, I wrote my master's thesis about the ways the blues and gospel influenced rock ’n’ roll. Not an entirely original approach, but rather than focusing on the formal ways that Robert Johnson or gospel quartets helped shape the Rolling Stones or Dion, I took the notion of the blues and gospel as "impulses" -- ways of dealing with the world that reflected the writings of Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin as filtered through my good friend and mentor Craig Werner. Needless to say, I raised a few eyebrows with the fact that my thesis was subtitled "The Music of Bruce Springsteen and Guns 'n' Roses."

It seemed to me that both Axl Rose and Springsteen had a pretty good handle on the blues impulse, what Ellison called "an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one's aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism." You can hear that in any good blues song. You can also hear it in GnR's "Welcome to the Jungle" and "Mr. Brownstone," and in Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A." and "The River." The blues impulse is a lonely one, even if it finds its expression in clubs or arenas with dozens or thousands of people. It's kind of like Pete Townshend said about rock ’n’ roll: "It won't solve your problems, but it will let you dance all over them." In the end, though, they're still your problems, and they'll still be waiting for you when you wake up the next morning.

At its best, the gospel impulse helps people experience themselves in relation to rather than on their own. – Werner

The gospel impulse, on the other hand, is all about community, the realization that all our burdens are shared. That's where Axl fell off the train; from his early days in L.A. to his latest cancelled tour, Axl's all about Axl. That's interesting for a while, but it's ultimately a dead-end. Springsteen was different from just about any other white rock superstar in that he not only understood the blues impulse, but he also realized that the only way to really deal with the burden is to reach out to those around you, and to believe that the possibility of redemption exists not just through God or in some afterlife but here and now. And no matter what your spiritual beliefs are, this world is the only one you can change. Like Springsteen so often shouted during his tent-revival preacher stick on his 1999-2000 tour, when he spoke of the "ministry" of rock ’n’ roll: "I can't promise you life everlasting. But I can promise you life right now."

Springsteen's always had a handle on the gospel impulse, mainly because he's always had a deep love of the soul music that grew out of gospel in the 1950s and 1960s. His concerts in the 1970s were as likely to feature covers of Otis Redding or Sam Cooke as the were the Animals or Rolling Stones, and his entire performance ethos -- one predicated on building a relationship with his audience that went beyond superstar idolatry -- is based on the call-and-response so fundamental to both the gospel church and gospel music. But it wasn't until that 1999 tour that Springsteen really began to understand it in spiritual terms (it's no surprise that he read Werner's A Change is Gonna Comebefore the tour), and it wasn't until The Rising that he put out an album full of not just social and political energy but spiritual searching as well.

Most of what we know of Springsteen's own religious life comes from the Catholic school horror stories related in Dave Marsh's Born to Run biography. But you only had to pay attention to one line from Greetings from Asbury Park to realize that he was Catholic in name only: "Nuns run bald through Vatican halls, pregnant," he sang in "Lost in the Flood," "pleading Immaculate Conception." Springsteen's idea of the church, it seemed, was that it was a place of hypocrisy and abuse of power, not a place of redemption and healing. Just look at 1978's "Adam Raised a Cain": "In the bible, mama, Cain slew Abel/ And east of Eden he was cast/ You're born into this life paying/ For the sins of somebody else's past."

But that album also included "The Promised Land," a song on which he took a phrase from both the bible and the Civil Rights movement and applied it on the most personal level. And even his conflicted feelings toward his Catholicism seemed to soften a bit with 1987's Tunnel of Love and 1992's Lucky Town, which found him finding "a little bit of God's mercy" in the birth of his first son. And each night of that 1999-2000 tour found Springsteen taking on the personas of both spiritual seeker -- finding redemption in the community of his bandmates and his audience -- and preacher, proselytizing the power of that spirit to everyone in the arena. It was schtick, to a degree, but a schtick based on a sincere desire to connect with his audience in the way that the gospel impulse requires. "Nobody wins unless everybody wins," Springsteen used to say when he reflected on America's social inequities. Now, he was asking his audience to take not a political leap, but a spiritual one. Do you believe that what we are together is greater than what any of us can be alone? Do you believe that we can connect to something deeper and more meaningful than individual success if we take each others' hands?

It's a question he also asked in "Land of Hope and Dreams," the one new song that he played every night of that tour. Summoning up the imagery of Curtis Mayfield, Woody Guthrie and countless spirituals, he envisioned a train that carried "saints and sinners" and "losers and winners" to a land where "dreams will not be thwarted' and "faith will be rewarded." The song's beauty came from in its simple profession of faith in the power of community; but its power came from the gospel-drenched vocals of Springsteen and the band. It was the power of the voice to convey more than mere words can capture, the power that gospel great Marian Williams sang of in "The Moan," and the power that Springsteen himself drew on in everything from "Something in the Night" to the wordess falsetto he used on live versions of "Across the Border" in 1995 and "The River" in 1999.

What are words, however sacred and powerful, in the presence of the grim facts of the daily struggle to survive?-- Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited

On The Rising, Springsteen tackles tackles questions of faith head-on. No surprise, given that it's an album inspired, in part, by the deaths of thousands of people in the attacks of September 11, 2001. In fact, it seems to me that he called it The Rising mainly because he couldn't very well sing "Come on up for the resurrection," even if that's what he's really talking about on the stunning title track. The story of a firefighter caught in the World Trade Center, torn between life here and in the afterworld, the tune blurs the lines between heaven and earth and ends with a beautiful vision of "Mary in the garden of a thousand sighs." Maybe it's the same "Mary" Springsteen's sung about a dozen times before, maybe it's the Virgin Mary. In the end, it doesn't matter, because at that moment, he holds the love of the Madonna and the love of a wife equally dear.

That doesn't mean Springsteen has resigned himself to a passive belief that all will be better in the afterlife. Or if he has, he's smart enough to realize it's not that easy for everybody. On "You're Missing," he sings of a God "drifting in heaven," while on "Paradise," he envisions a heaven that's empty. The mother of a suicide bomber and the wife of a man killed at the Pentagon go looking for their loved ones in dreams, to find only a void.

But the dead are everywhere on The Rising, and that seems to be a key to Springsteen's spirituality. They don't simply float around us as angels, but we're able to call on them and they're able to be with us if we make that leap of faith he sings about in "Into the Fire," one of several songs specifically about those who died in the World Trade Center towers. "May your strength give us strength/ May your faith give us faith/ May your hope give us hope/ May your love bring us love," he sings, but in the context of the rest of the album, it's much more than simply invoking the spirits of those gone by. Indeed, it's in the album's final track that we get Springsteen's gospel vision at its clearest. "My City of Ruins" sounds more than a little like Mayfield's "People Get Ready," with piano, organ and chorus that would sound as at home in a church as on a concert stage. Originally written and first performed as an call to rebuild his adopted hometown of Asbury Park, the song may as well have been written about the aftermath of 9/11. Springsteen paints pictures of boarded-up windows and empty streets, of an empty church and a "brother down on his knees." With tears on the pillow, the widow or widower who serves as the song's narrator asks simply, "how do I begin again?" For Springsteen, the answer is not just to pray, but to pray for the strength, faith and love to rebuild what's been destroyed, to rise up to meet the challenge not only of meeting tomorrow but making it better. Without getting your hands dirty with the hard work of improving life here on earth, he seems to be saying, all the prayer in the world won't make a difference.

No one makes it alone. If we're going to bear up under the weight of the cross, find the strength to renounce the Devil, if we're going to survive to bear witness and move on up, we're going to have to connect. The music shows us how. – Werner

As always with Springsteen's work, it's in concert that these songs really reach their full potential. With a setlist that's 50% material off of The Rising, Springsteen asked the fans on the first leg of his world tour (which continues in 2003) to work with him. He wasn't going to be giving them the "greatest hits" they saw on the 1999-2000 tour, but in the context of the new material, songs like "The Promised Land" and "Badlands" took on a new resonance; the badlands were spiritual wastelands to be traversed, not just social and economic ones. Even a new song like "Mary's Place," based loosely on Sam Cooke's "Meet Me At Mary's Place," became something more than the house party it is on disc; by injecting sweetly sung cries of "I miss you" in the song's bridge, Springsteen made it clear that he was singing not just of a party, but of a wake, and one where rock and soul music can help us find the strength to start healing ourselves and our world. He begins each night with "The Rising," a call to his version of a rock ’n’ roll mass, and he ends with "Land of Hope and Dreams," a reminder that the train to the promised land won't get there unless it's carrying everyone

And that, in the end, is the overall message of the album (which, by the way, reunites the full E Street Band, both nimbler and harder rocking than ever, on record for the first time since Born in the U.S.A.): that it's not the paradise or hell that awaits us we should worry about; it's the world on earth, here and now, that we can change. It's about reaching out and listening to others, including the departed, not shutting ourselves off. It's about having faith in ourselves and in each other, not just praying that a higher power will take care of us. It's about resurrecting our better selves to "rise up" (as he sings in the gospel-drenched closer "My City of Ruins") not by putting our faith in heaven but by getting our hands dirty and getting to work.

See the rest of our 20 Signs of Life in 2002.

Also in Music