'Rising' back to Atlanta

Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 2002-12-02, by: Sonia Murray
Springsteen songs recorded here this year
will rock local crowd Monday night
Most of the musical toolbox that producer Brendan O'Brien used to craft Bruce Springsteen's "The Rising" is still scattered about a northeast Atlanta recording studio.

As soon as you walk into the band space, to the right, there's the B-3 Hammond organ bought years ago from a Memphis studio where Elvis Presley recorded.

Tucked away in a nearby closet on the left is the hurdy-gurdy, an exotic string instrument used in Springsteen's current singles "Into the Fire" and "Empty Sky."

And lining sections of two of the walls are rows of electric and acoustic guitars -- numerous, but just a shadow of what one employee called the "battle-of-guitar arrays" that took place early this year in this studio, Southern Tracks.

Starting last January, Springsteen spent a total of nine weeks in Atlanta -- right up to a month before the record's release -- crafting the downbeat but redemptive songs that eventually came to fruition in "The Rising," hailed as pop music's best response to the disastrous attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Tonight, with a performance at Philips Arena, he completes the circle that started in Atlanta.

Studio to the stars

It will be a homecoming of sorts for the most famous offspring of Asbury Park, N.J., and one of rock's most beloved musicians and empathetic, everyman songwriters.

Calmly sipping coffee as he remembers the pop titan's visit, Southern Tracks co-owner Mike Clark still can't conceal the proud smile behind his beige mug.

Springsteen was hardly the first major artist to find his way to the unassuming, single-room facility, as the gold and platinum plaques that line the lobby attest.

Aretha Franklin, Aerosmith, Limp Bizkit, the Indigo Girls, Third Day and OutKast have sent framed thank-yous for their half-million to multimillion-selling albums recorded here.

But Clark struggles to recall a time in 19 years when the same 20 to 30 people, night after night, parked in the studio's driveway with cameras at the ready to glimpse one of his customers. (One gaggle came from as far away as Italy.)

Fans got glimpse

After one of the many Springsteen fan sites, www.backstreets.com, alerted its viewers that he was in Atlanta, traffic on the Southern Tracks Web site (www.southerntracks.com) began soaring.

"The hits on our Web site jumped from like 100 a week to 27,000 a day," Clark says.

Why did Springsteen come to Atlanta? Two words: Brendan O'Brien. The $2,000-a-day studio has been the producer's "office" for years.

And the Boss was convinced he had to work with O'Brien, who made his name creating tough sonic environments for top-level acts such as Pearl Jam, Neil Young and Rage Against the Machine.

It was the "powerful rock sound' of his '90s work that caught Springsteen's ear, he told Uncut magazine. (Neither Springsteen nor the notoriously press-shy producer were available for interviews.)

When O'Brien agreed to collaborate with Springsteen on his first studio album with the E Street Band since his 1984 anthemic best-seller, "Born in the U.S.A.," the rocker said, "Let's work where you work and when you're comfortable," he explained to Uncut. "So we went down South to Georgia and went into the studio."

In the countless interviews he did around the time of the July 30 release of "The Rising," Springsteen has said he was inspired by the obituaries in the New York Times after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Many of the victims' obituaries contained poignant mentions that a Springsteen song ("Thunder Road," "Born in the U.S.A.") was played at a memorial service or that a victim had a collection of Springsteen ticket stubs.

Monmouth County, where Springsteen lives in New Jersey, was hit especially hard by the attacks, with 150 killed. He told the Los Angeles Times, "You would drive by the church every day and there was another funeral."

Still, Springsteen was wary at first of penning songs about the tragedy. On "Nightline," he told Ted Koppel: "I wasn't thinking about writing about it. It was impossible to think about writing. It just seemed wrong, you know."

Obviously, he changed his mind. "I wanted to address your family. I wanted to address your country. I wanted to address your Saturday night in the bar when you're dancing and having a good time, your relationships with the person that you love and the people that you love."

No fooling around

Those who observed and were involved in the recording process recall that Springsteen and O'Brien laid out a very clear plan of attack.

"Brendan and Bruce found a trust quickly that allowed them to confidently analyze things quickly," said Nils Lofgren, an E Street Band guitarist and longtime solo talent. ("Breakaway Angel" is his newest solo release.) He made several four- or five-day trips to Atlanta.

"When I came down there," Lofgren recalls, "they would point me in a direction and I would go."

Springsteen's workday usually started at 10 a.m. and often would last until about midnight.

"A lot of times, you look around here and think, 'Is anybody working? Is anybody doing anything?' " says Jeff Calder, who is a member of Atlanta's Swimming Pool Q's and served as "acting night manager" during the Springsteen sessions. (One of his assignments: hunting down chimes at 10 p.m.)

"But with Bruce, the minute they walked in the door, they were working."

The soy nuts and Total cereal in the upstairs lounge weren't enough to power such marathons. Springsteen kept a chef on site all day, cooking Mexican meals and other things for varying tastes. When the musicians ordered out, it usually was for lattes from Starbucks or Caribou.

Famed New York photographer Danny Clinch ("Discovery Inn" is the acclaimed collection of his rock 'n' roll work) flew down twice to record the process. During one trip, his super-8 and digital cameras caught outtakes of the recording of "Countin' on a Miracle," which will roll tonight once the lights go up on the stage. On the second trip, Clinch snapped the publicity photos, including the "Rising" cover shot, taken atop Ponce Condominium, a building catty-corner from the Fox Theatre.

"I was really having trouble finding something for the cover," Clinch says. "But honestly, I don't know if I could tell another person what exactly I was looking for."

He asked Calder just to keep an eye out for him. For something. And after taking Clinch to spots in Virginia-Highland and Little Five Points, Calder swung by the rooftop where he and his fellow Swimming Pool Q's shot their first promotional photo in 1978.

"It's funny because when I took Bruce to this one location, he was like, 'Oh yeah, this is a good spot for an album cover!'

"I was like, 'You really think so?'And he playfully said, 'Noooo!' "

But over the course of two days, in between mixing "The Rising," they got what Clinch believes will become his most famous image -- the blurred black-and-white shot that became the distinctive cover of the album.

"Most of his cover shots have been a lot of portraits or just really still," Clinch says. "So I wanted to try something different. And when I told Bruce, he was right there on the same page. That location lent itself to that image: the shadows, the details, the textures and so much motion."

Fourteen-hour sessions at Southern Tracks didn't stop Springsteen from making himself at home in Atlanta.

The ever-sociable star talked to fans and even signed autographs during his early-morning workouts in the gym of the Four Seasons hotel, where he and his wife, Patti Scialfa, stayed.

The couple also took in the cuisine of executive chef Kevin Hickey at the hotel's Park 75 restaurant. One fan, spotting the singer there, extended an invitation to drop by the swanky chef's table in the kitchen. To offer thanks, Springsteen popped his head in to greet the guests.

After recording one evening in May, Springsteen was hanging out in the hotel bar. A local radio host was tipped off that his idol was just across town from him.

Steak Shapiro of the Zone/790 AM jumped in his car and raced to the hotel, where he not only had a chance to see Springsteen but ended up chatting at length with him about the New York Yankees.

Album's mixed reviews

Practice, perhaps, for the plethora of interviews Springsteen did with the release of "The Rising."

With the post-9/11 news angle in tow, the media embraced Springsteen's return. Time magazine plastered his face on its cover. NBC's "Today" show, in an unprecedented publicity stunt, moved from Rockefeller Center to Asbury Park for a day, broadcasting a driving tour of the city and a concert with Springsteen.

Reviews of "The Rising," however, were not so unanimous in their applause.

Rolling Stone gave it its highest mark, five stars, citing "bold thematic concentration and penetrating emotional focus [as] a singular triumph."

But David Segal of the Washington Post wrote, "By penning songs about a particular loss from a particular day, Springsteen has created something that is both intensely rousing and stamped with a 'sell by' date." Riding on the publicity, "The Rising" debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard chart, moving a solid 526,976 copies.

Springsteen's longtime label, Columbia Records, had work to do to turn the album into a genuine success. The easiest way was to generate hit singles. ("Born in the U.S.A." landed an amazing seven songs in the Top 10 in 1984-85.) But with the exception of 1994's "Streets of Philadelphia," Springsteen hadn't generated a major radio hit in almost 15 years. Unlike Santana, he didn't team up with current artists like Rob Thomas or Michelle Branch to introduce his sound to today's youth.

DId O'Brien's production pay off? Springsteen's first single, the spiritually uplifting, midtempo anthem "The Rising," didn't fit in with Ashanti or Avril Lavigne. It received most of its support from adult alternative stations, which are modest in number and cater to 25- to 49-year-olds who like the Dave Matthews Band and Coldplay. On that chart, "The Rising" briefly touched the Top 10. But most rock and top 40 stations gave the song a pass.

In Atlanta, no station gave "The Rising" much play. Both 96 Rock and rock-leaning top 40 station Star 94 spun the tune once or twice a day in the late summer, but it never gained traction with listeners.

"Within top 40 for the 12- to 24-year-old, there's no relevance to Springsteen at all," says Jim Richards, an Atlanta-based radio consultant. "Even stations like Star, which cater to 25- to 44-year-old females, there's not a lot of relevance. And with that song, musically and lyrically, he wasn't as relatable as he has been in the past."

The second single, "Lonesome Day," is faring about the same. While there was no video for "The Rising" beyond an MTV awards appearance, the label released one for "Lonesome Day," which is getting moderate play on VH1.

Kid Kelly, adult contemporary editor at the Radio & Records trade magazine, says Springsteen isn't driven by blockbuster singles. "His whole thing is to put albums out for his long-term fans, not create massive radio hits," Kelly says. "All the publicity he did was to tell his core fans his new album was out. Any new fans he gets is gravy."

Guy Zapoleon, a radio consultant who tests potential singles for record labels, disagrees. "Without exposure to a new generation, you're dead," he says. "Bruce obviously wants more appeal than the generation that loves him."

After four months, the album has sold a more-than-respectable 2 million copies and sits at No. 98 on the Billboard chart. Springsteen's current tour has been well attended but hasn't been selling out like other blue-chip baby boomer acts, including Paul McCartney and the Rolling Stones.

Springsteen has been playing an aggressive eight to 10 cuts from his new album. He also rocked to a sold-out Philips Arena crowd just two years ago, when the E Street Band reunited for the first time in 15 years, generating demand.

In this context, Atlanta is just an appreciative stop for this ever-chugging rock train. But the city is also the spot where "The Rising" and a renewed interest in his music was kick-started.