" Reborn in the USA "
Saturday, Jul. 27, 2002
Reborn in the USA
BY JOSH TYRANGIEL
Bruce Springsteen has a songbook that reads like a union membership log. He has written about cops, fire fighters, soldiers, road builders, steelworkers, factory laborers and migrant workers. Springsteen himself has held exactly one real job. For a few weeks in 1968 when he was 18, he worked as a gardener. But his gift is not horticulture. His great gift—the one that makes him the best rock 'n' roll singer of his era—is empathy. Springsteen doesn't know what a 40-hour workweek feels like, but he knows how a 40-hour workweek makes you feel. "If you roll out of bed in the morning," he says, "even if you're the deepest pessimist or cynic, you just took a step into the next day. When I was growing up, we didn't have very much, but I saw by my mom's example that a step into the next day was very important. Hey, some good things might happen. You may even hold off some bad things that could happen."
On The Rising, his first album of new material in seven years, Springsteen is again writing about work, hope and American life as it is lived this very moment. The Rising is about Sept. 11, and it is the first significant piece of pop art to respond to the events of that day. Many of the songs are written from the perspectives of working people whose lives and fates intersected with those hijacked planes. The songs are sad, but the sadness is almost always matched with optimism, promises of redemption and calls to spiritual arms. There is more rising on The Rising than in a month of church.
The Rising also marks the return of the E Street Band. The band—seven hardworking Joes in their 50s and 60s, plus Springsteen's wife, backup singer and Jersey girl Patti Scialfa—has always been a proxy for the Springsteen audience. The E Streeters don't eat meat sandwiches out of metal lunch boxes, but it's easy to believe that they could. Their 15-year absence from Springsteen's recorded music opened a gulf between the Boss and his core fans, one that The Rising seems intent on closing.
When Springsteen cut the band loose in 1987, Bruce was a major American somebody who had made his name singing about nobodies. But money shines a lot brighter than empathy, and after Born in the U.S.A., Springsteen wasn't just rich; he was loaded, and everyone in America knew it. Rather than continue as the wealthy rock-poet of the American grunt and risk being labeled inauthentic, Springsteen set out for new territory. As he put it in Better Days, a 1992 song, "It's a sad funny ending to find yourself pretending/ A rich man in a poor man's shirt."
So, after a failed marriage to model-actress Julianne Phillips, Springsteen moved into a $14 million mansion in Beverly Hills, Calif. (the faithful jeered), wed Scialfa in 1991 (the faithful cheered) and sang about relationships, kids and his ennui (the faithful shrugged). Then in '95 he put out an album of folk songs, The Ghost of Tom Joad. It won a Grammy for best contemporary folk album, but it felt more like a Woody Guthrie tribute than a Springsteen record. The songs were stark and compelling, but the old optimism was gone. The characters of Tom Joad lived on the fringes of American life, and they died quickly and violently. "I just wasn't sure of my rock voice," says Springsteen. "I wasn't sure of what it sounded like or what it was going to be doing or what its purpose was at that moment. The band wasn't functioning together at the time, so I kind of went to where I thought I could be most useful."
One important fact about Springsteen: he thinks a lot about being Springsteen. After Tom Joad, he did some hard thinking—about himself, his family and the job of being Bruce—and decided to move back to New Jersey, where he now occupies a sprawling estate just a few minutes' drive from where he grew up. "Patti and I, we're both Irish-Italian," he says. "We have a lot of family here, and we wanted the kids"—they have three, ages 12, 10 and 8—"to have that experience of knowing people who do lots of different kinds of jobs. The guy who runs the dry-cleaning service or the guy who hunts and fishes and works on the farm." The homecoming also inspired Springsteen to climb tentatively back into rock 'n' roll. After an E Street reunion tour in 2000 (they played only a smattering of new songs), Springsteen started writing an album of rock tunes. Then the planes hit.
"I was having breakfast, and then I was in front of the television. A little while later," says Springsteen, "I drove across the local bridge. The Trade Center sits right in the middle of it when you look toward New York." Having been spared any personal tragedy, Springsteen tells his where-were-you-when story sheepishly. His greatest hardship was having to explain the day to his kids. "I think it's become placed in their lives in the same way that the nuclear bomb was when I was a kid. It's the really dark, scary thing, and they're not sure where it can touch them. Can it touch them at school? Can it touch them in the house? What are its limits? Does it have limits? It's mysterious, you know."
Springsteen's home county, Monmouth, lost 158 people in the towers, more than any other in New Jersey. After Sept. 11, Springsteen discovered that where he could be most useful was his own backyard. "This was one of those moments," he says, "when the years that I've put in and the relationships that I've developed and nurtured with my audience—this was one of those times when people want to see you."
Springsteen opened the America: A Tribute to Heroes telethon with My City of Ruins, an unreleased song from a few years ago about Asbury Park, N.J., that proved eerily adaptable to 9/11. He also played a few local fund raisers, but mostly he grieved along with the rest of the nation. As he read the New York Times obituaries ("I found those to be very, very meaningful—incredibly powerful," he says), he couldn't help noticing how many times Thunder Road or Born in the U.S.A. was played at a memorial service or how many victims had a pile of old Springsteen concert-ticket stubs tucked away in their bedroom. Within days after the towers collapsed, Springsteen was writing songs.
"I have a room off my bedroom that I just go in," he says. "All my things are in there—books, CDs, guitars, boots, belts, anything I've collected along the way. It's quite a carnival." When he writes, Springsteen generally sits at the same table he has used for 20 years and, by inserting a few small narrative details, tries to create songs that will carry his listeners away. "The difference," he says, "was that on this record, you're writing about something that everyone saw and had some experience with, and obviously some people experienced it much more intimately."
To flesh out the intimacies of Sept. 11, Springsteen had to do some reporting. Stacey Farrelly's husband Joe was a fire fighter with Manhattan Engine Co. 4 and, as his obituaries noted, a lifelong Springsteen fan. Recalls his widow: "At the beginning of October, I was home alone and, uh, heavily medicated. I picked up the phone, and a voice said, 'May I please speak to Stacey? This is Bruce Springsteen.'" They talked for 40 minutes. "After I got off the phone with him, the world just felt a little smaller. I got through Joe's memorial and a good month and a half on that phone call."
Suzanne Berger's husband Jim was memorialized in the New York Times under the headline fan of the boss. She too got a call. "He said, 'I want to respect your privacy, but I just want you to know that I was very touched, and I want to know more about your husband,'" she recalls. "He wanted to hear Jim's story, so I told him."
Springsteen freezes when the subject of the phone calls comes up. He doesn't want publicity for ordinary kindness, and he doesn't want to be seen as exploiting people whose suffering is well known. But for Springsteen, the experience of hearing Berger talk about how her husband hustled dozens of people out of the south tower before it collapsed around him or of listening to Farrelly recall some of her husband's copious daily love notes was obviously critical to the creation of The Rising.
The success of Springsteen's reporting can be measured by the music. The Rising opens with Lonesome Day, one of the few songs told in Springsteen's own voice. "House is on fire, viper's in the grass," he sings. "A little revenge, and this too shall pass." Like most of The Rising, Lonesome Day gets you moving in spite of its topic. The fire-fighter songs, Into the Fire and the first single, The Rising, put the listener in the physical space of the crumbling towers, but they never get at the emotions behind the fire fighters' courage. The songs are rousing and redemptive—and a little shallow. But almost every other song on the album has an aha! moment when Springsteen touches his subject's secret heart. On Empty Sky, his protagonist looks at the space where the towers used to be and seethes, "I want a kiss from your lips/ I want an eye for an eye."
Loss is everywhere on The Rising, but the album's best track, You're Missing, penetrates the unique horror of having a loved one turned to ash. Lyrically the song is a catalog of absence: a coffee cup on the counter, a newspaper on a doorstep. But the song rises to greatness because Springsteen not only recognizes dramatic details but also knows what they mean. "Loss is about what you miss," he says. "You miss a person's physical being—their skin, their hair, the way they smell, the way they make you feel. You miss their body. When my father died, my children wanted to touch him, to touch his body. And the kids got something out of it. The people in this situation, you know, they aren't going to get that." That's why You're Missing is one song that does not end hopefully: "God's drifting in heaven, devil's in the mailbox/ Got dust on my shoes, nothing but teardrops."
Springsteen's liberal, humanist side comes out in the last two songs he wrote for The Rising. Worlds Apart is a new take on the classic story of lovers separated by a cultural divide, the lovers in this case being an American and a Middle Eastern Muslim. Springsteen sings, "We'll let love build a bridge, over mountains draped in stars/ I'll meet you on the ridge, between these worlds apart." Paradise opens from the perspective of a suicide bomber ("In the crowded marketplace, I drift from face to face") before transitioning to the mind of a woman who lost her husband in the Pentagon ("I brush your cheek with my fingertips/ I taste the void upon your lips)." The first verse was inspired by the newspapers, the second by a phone conversation Springsteen had with a Washington widow. The song ends with the realization that the afterlife is no solace to the living.
What's missing on The Rising is politics. Springsteen says he has never considered himself a political person, but after Ronald Reagan tried to hijack Born in the U.S.A. for his 1984 re-election campaign, the singer developed a spare but effective political voice that he generally raises on behalf of liberal causes and the occasional liberal candidate. In 1991 he played a fund raiser for the Christic Institute, a radical think tank that has repeatedly accused the U.S. government of illegal covert action in Latin America. On the subject of America's current foreign policy, he is with the mass of public opinion. "I think the invasion in Afghanistan was handled very, very smoothly," he says.
The absence of politics doesn't mean The Rising is controversy free. For some Springsteen fans, it arrives too quickly on the heels of tragedy to leave its motives unexamined. Charles Cross, who for 16 years published and edited the authoritative Springsteen fanzine, Backstreets, heard The Rising at a listening party for diehards. "They're really marketing it as a Sept. 11 album," he says. "I think we want art that can deal with it, but it's still such an uncomfortable thing, and it's still pretty fresh. Frankly, the commercial element of it really scares me."
Springsteen suspected the exploitation charge might be leveled, and he takes his time responding to it. "When you're putting yourself into shoes you haven't worn," he says, "you have to be very ... just very thoughtful, is the way that I'd put it. Just thoughtful. You call on your craft, and you go searching for it, and hopefully what makes people listen is that over the years you've been serious and honest. That's where your creative authority comes from. That's how people know you're not just taking a ride."
Listen to Farrelly on the subject: "Let me tell you, I have more CDs that people have sent me, just random people that wrote songs or whatever. I won't listen to them. But I trust that Bruce is sincere, that he really believes in what he wrote. I know the firemen are going to have a hard time with some of it, but then you sing along, and you just feel a little better. I trust him with all my heart. The only thing that bothered me is when he married Julianne."
Springsteen claims he is a big believer in the old saw "Trust the art, not the artist." But Springsteen devotees love the songs and the singer equally, and by playing his fans' experiences back to them over stadium speakers, Springsteen has been an active partner in a pop syllogism: he sings about people like me; he looks and dresses like me; therefore he must be a person like me! Perhaps what Springsteen means, as some of his friends suggest, is that he feels less worthy than the people he sings about. Perhaps that's why touring, communing with those who adore him (and whom he adores) is such a critical part of Springsteen's life.
In mid-July, Springsteen and the E Street Band were holed up in a small theater on the Fort Monmouth Army base, cramming for a 46-city tour that starts Aug. 7. During a break backstage, the band members were playing their consummate blue-collar roles. Guitarist "Little" Steven Van Zandt says he has to move out of his Eighth Avenue apartment in Manhattan after 20 years. "The place is fallin' apart." Drummer Max Weinberg suggests Steve check out a place in the legendary Upper West Side apartment building the Dakota; Van Zandt looks as if he has just been told to eat his pizza with a knife and fork. "Yeah, for $7 million? Very funny," he responds.
Meanwhile, at 52 Springsteen still looks as if he just strolled off the cover of Born in the U.S.A. As E Street Band member No. 9 in a black sleeveless undershirt and tan work pants, he moves across the stage like a camp counselor, all energy and encouragement as the group struggles to get the new songs down: "I know this stuff is hard. Don't worry; we'll get it, and it's gonna be fabulous! Now what we're gonna do this time ..." During a break, Springsteen bounds out into the house seats. He thinks the pace of the band's learning curve is fine. He is happy to be playing with his old friends. But he is also not satisfied. "If I have a good trait, it's probably relentlessness," he says. "I'm a hound dog on the prowl. I can't be shook!"
When not near a guitar, Springsteen tends to be quiet, serious and very still. With a Fender in his hands, he's a horse that can't wait to run. He loves playing music for anyone, anywhere, anytime. "Ultimately," he says, "it's not anything near a selfless experience. It's very self-fulfilling and revitalizing. I'm up there trying to fire myself up. When the metal hits the pedal—bang!—I got a destination that I am moving toward, and I'm not gonna be satisfied till I get there. For me." Of course, Springsteen's pleasure is famously infectious. Springsteen feeds off the crowd, which feeds off him in an endless cycle of stadium euphoria.
When he is onstage, Springsteen says, he sometimes feels like a preacher, and on the last E Street Band tour, he did a mock monologue in a fire-and-brimstone voice about the power of music. "It was one of those things that was joking but serious at the same time," he says. Springsteen is a lapsed Catholic, but whether he is telling Scialfa that he wants her backup vocals to be "more gospel" or asking his listeners to "come on up for The Rising," he understands that spiritual revival is a necessity and that it has to be a communal experience. "I think that fits in with the concept of our band as a group of witnesses," he says. "That's one of our functions. We're here to testify to what we have seen." And to hear the testimony of others.
Bruce Springsteen & E Street Band
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The Rising 2002-2003 Tour
His Kind of Heroes
Reborn in the USA
Ghost of Bruce Springsteen