Hope Won Out

Los Angeles Times, 2002-07-14, by: Robert Hilburn
In a new album colored by 9/11, Bruce Springsteen powerfully fights the darkness of the soul
From the bridge near his house in Monmouth County, N.J., Bruce Springsteen could see the twin towers of the World Trade Center on clear days. His sharpest memory now of Sept. 11 is driving across that bridge and seeing an empty sky.

"I must have seen those towers a thousand times from the bridge," Springsteen says, sitting in a Manhattan recording studio about a dozen subway stops from ground zero.

"I spent most of Sept. 11 in front of the television like everybody else, watching those pictures of the towers collapsing over and over, but it all didn't really hit home until I took a ride across the bridge and there was nothing where the towers used to be. The real world, I guess, is always more dramatic than something on television."

Almost immediately, Springsteen began writing a salute to the hundreds of rescue workers who rushed into the skyscrapers the morning of the terrorist attacks. He planned to sing the song, "Into the Fire," on the nationally televised Sept. 21 telethon, but he didn't finish it in time. He substituted "My City of Ruins," an older song about the life being sucked out of Asbury Park, N.J.

With its uplifting call to "rise up" from despair, "City" worked well in the solemn context of the telethon. Yet Springsteen remained so haunted by Sept. 11 that he not only finished "Into the Fire," but also began writing other songs, including "You're Missing" and "Empty Sky," that expressed the delicate emotions he felt in the days and weeks after the tragedy.

Those tunes form the heart of "The Rising," which will be released July 30 by Columbia Records. It's Springsteen's first studio album with the E Street Band since 1984's "Born in the U.S.A.," and it will be followed this summer by an extensive U.S. and European tour with the band. The tour begins Aug. 7 in East Rutherford. N.J., and includes a stop Aug. 24 at the Forum in Inglewood.

In both its length (73 minutes) and its variety of emotional tones, "The Rising" feels closest to "The River" among Springsteen's previous works. There are moments, however, as stark and disheartened as "Nebraska," and others as rich and joyful as "Rosalita."

On a more contemporary scale, "The Rising" is reminiscent of U2's "All That You Can't Leave Behind." Both albums are conscious steps by major artists to reconnect with their classic sounds.

After a series of albums with other musicians and ones that focused on Springsteen's transition to adulthood, "The Rising" looks at the outside world and tries to make sense of it all.

One of the most moving songs, "Empty Sky," conveys the heartache of losing a loved one. The imagery seems drawn from that post-Sept. 11 view from the bridge:

I woke up this morning I could barely breathe Just an empty impression In the bed where you used to be. I want a kiss from your lips I want an eye for an eye I woke up this morning to an empty sky.

"The atmosphere in the days after Sept. 11 felt like it must have during wartime--the uncertainty and the anxiety and the concern," Springsteen says. "I don't think anyone will ever forget it, particularly here in New Jersey. The local communities were hit pretty hard. There were 150-plus casualties from Monmouth County alone. You would drive by the church every day and there was another funeral."

For those who listened in the '70s and early '80s to Springsteen's dark, desperate tales of isolation and the search for a sense of family and comfort, it's touching to see him in the corner of the Manhattan studio with the oldest of his three children.

Springsteen, who was 14 when he began his rock 'n' roll journey, is describing recording equipment to Evan, 11, the same way a T-ball father might explain how to grip a baseball.

"We have a recording setup at home, but it's not a 'studio' studio," Springsteen, 52, says, after introducing Evan and two cousins to a visitor. "It's movable equipment so one day it might be in the living room, then some other room.

"It's so familiar to the kids that it's just like another piece of furniture. It's a lot more exotic to them in a place like this that is built for recording."

It's much different interviewing Springsteen now than in the '70s and '80s, when you wondered if he was ever going to find relief from the feelings of isolation and uncertainty that shadowed him.

I used to think he didn't talk about his personal life because he wanted it to be private But it became clear that he had no personal life in the traditional sense. There were girlfriends at various points and certainly joy over the way his music was being received, but his sights were always set on the next song, the next concert, the next album. That's where he seemed to find self-affirmation and comfort. .

It wasn't until marriage to his band member Patti Scialfa and the birth of their first son that he felt the love and generosity of spirit he had long sought.

Today, he's much more relaxed, talking about his family as well as his music. In the liner notes for the new album, Springsteen thanks Scialfa for "making it all possible."

Although he still has a house in Los Angeles, Springsteen now lives most of the year with his wife and their children (Evan, Jessica, 10, and Sam, 8) near his native Freehold, N.J.

"I love California," he says, wearing a sweatshirt and jeans. "I loved writing about it. Some part of me still feels very connected to California, but we have a big family at home. I grew up around many, many aunts and cousins. We had a street where we had six houses on it, my family did.

"So I wanted my kids to have the same opportunity. I have a lot of great memories of having a big family and the different kinds of characters of who were in it, the different kinds of things we did. I have the luxury of being able to give that to my kids because my job is movable." He laughs.

Springsteen takes the role of local citizen seriously, frequently performing at benefit concerts in the area. Rather than join Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones and others in "The Concert for New York City" on Oct. 20 at Madison Square Garden, he joined some local musicians for two nights the same week at the 1,400-seat Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank, N.J. The shows raised $1 million for families of World Trade Center attack victims from Monmouth County.

This sense of family and community runs through much of "The Rising," whose overriding feeling is about rallying back after the loss of someone close to you.

Springsteen has touched on the theme before. In "Souls of the Departed" on 1992's "Lucky Town," he wrote about a 7- year-old boy who was killed in gang shootout. Reflecting a parent's protective fear, he sang, "I want to build a wall so high that nothing can burn it down."

The events of Sept. 11 demonstrated that no wall is high enough to guarantee safety. There is a sense we've all entered a different world--and there is a prayer-like, spiritual underpinning to several of the songs. In "Worlds Apart," Springsteen sings, "May the living let us in, before the dead tear us apart."

Ten months after the tragedy of Sept. 11, people still stand five and six deep along Liberty Street here to look through a fence at the remains of the World Trade Center. The most striking thing is the size of the gaping hole--so much larger than any TV screen could convey. You see reminders of Sept. 11 throughout the city. At the boarded-up fire station across the street from the tower site, hundreds of rescue workers from around the country have left uniform patches on a wall, in tribute and solidarity.

Given the trauma of Sept. 11, it's surprising how silent pop music has been on the subject. Maybe other musicians have been intimidated by the challenge. Shortly after Sept. 11, the Onion, the satirical publication, published a fictional story about President Bush urging singers to resist recording one of those mawkish charity ballads. "To America's recording artists," Bush pleads, "I just want to say, please, there has already been enough suffering."

Springsteen laughs when told about the Onion story. "I didn't set out to write a 9/11 album," he says. "I didn't want to write literally about what happened, but the emotions in the air. In the purest sense, that's what a songwriter does."

Reinvigorated after a 1999-2000 reunion tour with the E Streeters, the singer looked forward to making an album with the band. Wanting "fresh ears" in the studio after years of co-producing his albums with a team that included his manager, Jon Landau, and producer Chuck Plotkin, Springsteen hired Brendan O'Brien, a rock producer whose credits include albums by Pearl Jam.

Preparing for the album, Springsteen played O'Brien demo tapes of songs written in recent years with the E Street Band in mind--including "Nothing Man," which O'Brien particularly liked.

One of the most powerful tracks on "The Rising," it tells of a man so shaken by a life- threatening moment that he becomes nearly suicidal. He's troubled by being described in his local paper as a hero when he was just doing his job. In the chilling final lines, he's sitting on the bed, "the pearl and silver" gun resting on his night table.

It sounds like stories we've heard about some of the firefighters who came away from Sept. 11 feeling unworthy of the cheers, and perhaps a little guilty that they were still alive when some of their co-workers were killed while trying to rescue victims from the towers.

But Springsteen says the song, which was written shortly after "Streets of Philadelphia" in 1994, is about the self- doubts and confusion anyone, including a soldier, might feel after going through a cataclysmic event.

In addition to "My City of Ruins" and "Nothing Man," the upbeat, sing-along "Waitin' on a Sunny Day" and the spiritually tinged "Further on up the Road" were also written before Sept. 11.

Most of the album's 15 songs, however, were shaped in some form by the events of the day.

Like most albums that break the 50-minute barrier, from Bob Dylan's Grammy-winning "Time Out of Mind" to Eminem's "The Eminem Show," "The Rising" feels bloated in places. It would have been more consistent if a couple of the upbeat tracks, especially the generic soul exercise "Let's Be Friends (Skin to Skin)," had been omitted.

The heart of "The Rising," however, ranks with Springsteen's most moving work. The moods range from the somberness of "Nothing Man" and "Empty Sky" to the party-time zest of "Mary's Place."

The latter is a warm tribute to the therapeutic powers of rock 'n' roll, with Springsteen reverting to his youth in the lyrics as he talks about dropping a needle on a vinyl record rather than pushing the "play" button on a CD player. As if trying to exceed even the trademark energy of "Rosalita," one of his most enduring concert numbers, Springsteen and producer O'Brien supplement the seven-piece E Street Band with backup singers, cello, violin and a five-piece horn section. The result is a glorious avalanche of sound. "Into the Fire" and the album's title track are both inspirational looks at living up to one's responsibilities--even in the face of life- threatening danger.

Springsteen needs the resilience and optimism of such tunes as "Mary's Place," "Waitin' on a Sunny Day" and "The Rising" to offset some of the darkness in the album. The team also expands the E Street Band in other places, bringing in some R&B vocalists on "Let's Be Friends (Skin to Skin)" and Pakistani musicians led by Asif Ali Khan to accent musically the cultural differences outlined in "Worlds Apart."

The album's most compelling track, "Paradise," is a gripping personal testimony, and it's fitting that Springsteen returns to the solo, acoustic mode of "Nebraska."

In the song, Springsteen looks at life and death from various vantage points--from the suicide bombers in the opening verse to the wife of a terrorist's victim in the second. The final verse tells of someone so shattered by the death of a loved one that he looks forward to the comfort of drowning. In the final lines, however, he chooses life: "I break the waves / I feel the sun upon my face."

Just as U2 spoke of "All That You Can't Leave Behind" as a return to its core sound, Springsteen sees "The Rising" as a return to the "center of the dialogue" he has had with his fans in such landmark albums as "Born to Run," "Darkness on the Edge of Town," "The River" and "Born in the U.S.A."

In 1997's "Tunnel of Love," one of his best collections, Springsteen began moving in a different direction. He was talking about adulthood and the relationship between men and women. He addressed some of those themes in 1992's "Human Touch" and "Lucky Town."

"I think some fans were very interested in those themes and some probably weren't as interested," he says now. "I met a guy outside a restaurant after 'Tunnel of Love' and he said, 'Hey Bruce, I like the [old] songs about the cars and the girls.' I thought, 'Hey, if I'm listening to Chuck Berry, I like the songs about the cars and the girls too,' so I could understand what he was saying.

"But I think it's important to move around as an artist to stay alive creatively. You can't just sit in one spot for 30 years. There is a time when you want to get back to the center of what you do, however, and that's what we've done with this record. It's more about writing with a little more about the world outside in mind.

"This is a tough city and a tough country, and they'll both be all right. I felt a lot of anxiety in the air after 9/11, but I also felt a lot of optimism and faith and spirit. That's what I wanted to capture in the album."