Come On Up For the Rising: the Defiant Hopefulness of Bruce Springsteen
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, September 22, 2002
I promise that I will declare a “Springsteen free zone” as far as our worship services are concerned, for the rest of the year (maybe). I know that some of you may be scratching your heads as to why I have treated you to extensive excerpts from the work of Bruce Springsteen for the past two Sundays. “Enough is enough,” you may be saying, and perhaps I can’t blame you. I promise: This morning will be the last of our excursions into the work of the Boss—at least for a while. (Of course, there will be the evening Springteen discussion I’m offering as part of our “Free Market of Ideas” on October 17, but that’s optional-- you can choose to go to that or not, so it doesn’t count.)
But this is the hour of Bruce Springsteen in many ways. It is his birthday tomorrow, after all. For other reasons, too I feel almost duty bound to share something of his new work, The Rising, with you—both as part of our September 11th remembrance service last Sunday, and today, as a sort of follow-up to that service. Thanks to awesome sales for The Rising (more than 500,000 copies in the first week after its release), Springsteen is now enjoying more wide-scale popularity than he has in many, many years. (This is, as you can imagine, deeply gratifying for someone like me, who has been—as many of you know so well by now—an unwavering Springsteen fan [some might say “fanatic”] since the mid-1970s. “Bruce is Back,” the headlines in various magazines and newspaper boom. “Bruce is back,” they say. “He never left,” I reply. “He never left.” Perhaps he was just waiting for the rest of the world to grow up with him.)
The Rising may be phenomenally popular, but popularity alone means very little. We are not, after all, discussing the significance of the Backstreet Boys or Brittany Spears here this morning. The Rising is not just one more example of our shallow, self-indulgent popular culture. In an era where so much of our culture in general, and so much of contemporary music in particular deal with trivialities, Springsteen continues to write about things that matter. As Renee Graham wrote recently in the Boston Globe: “While most contemporary musicians are preoccupied with myopic visions of the world—their jewelry, their lousy childhood, their sexual prowess—Springsteen has never wavered to sing the sing of the disenfranchised and disregarded.”
The catalyst for Springsteen’s latest work—which many consider among his finest, after all these years—were the horrendous events of last September 11th. In many ways, The Rising has emerged as an almost epic reflection of those sad events, and the stories, emotions, reflections, and impressions of September 11th seem to breathe from just about every song.
He first song is titled “Lonesome Day”, and it is as though Springsteen is taking us all by the hand again—not “riding out tonight to case the promised land” as in some of his more carefree earlier works-- but to have us remember and relive that sad day last fall:
Throughout Springsteen’s work, September 11th is seen primarily as an awesome personal tragedy, and the details of the particular lives of its victims create the record’s most poignant moments. But Springsteen never neglects the undeniable aspect of 9/11 as a profound national, public tragedy as well—an event which has scarred all of us, even those of us not directly involved. We all now have this emptiness—this “lonesome day” in our souls that needs healing.
The next song on The Rising represents Springsteen’s most immediate and most direct response to this great tragedy. “Into the Fire” was written only a few days after September 11th, for the national telethon aired on all major networks to assist the victims. (When the song wasn’t ready on time, he substituted the elegiac “My City of Ruins”, written originally for the destitution of his adopted hometown, Asbury Park, New Jersey, instead.) In “Into the Fire”, Springsteen writes:
then the sad blues of Springsteen’s verses exploded into the living gospel of lives well-lived and the shining example of sacrifice:
Through “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day” and “Countin’ in a Miracle”, an easy optimism that “everything’s gonna be okay” gives way to air of realism and despair—and then, through the miracle of healing, to a deeper, more mature, even defiant hopefulness. In “Countin’ on a Miracle”, Springsteen writes:
Then, he concludes:
The survivor here is not waiting for an easy miracle and a restoration of all that has been taken. He knows now that that’s impossible; that there will be no “happily ever after” ending to his tale—because such is, very often, not the way life is. His love has been reduced to dust, quite literally in the awful aftermath of the September 11th attacks. But out of the dust, the blessed strands of memory arise—the face, the ideals, the hopes, the dreams, the love we have known—and from these strands, the one who is left behind is able to weave a pattern of life strong enough to allow him to go on. There are no illusions here that life will ever be the same, or that life will be easy, or that loss is anything less than loss, and pain anything less than pain. But life goes on. And we have been blessed by the loves we have known; indeed, they form a heavenlike place in our hearts. We know because of this gift of love that we have a debt to the future to keep the channels of love and life flowing.
September 11th was most poignantly, of course, a profound human tragedy, with so many thousands of lives shattered. Two songs on The Rising, “Nothing Man” and “You’re Missing”, provide precious, intimate portraits of this loss. We spoke in some detail about the song “You’re Missing” last Sunday, and those of you who were here were able to listen to that song, which I believe is among the most moving Springsteen has ever written. He provides countless minute but significant details on one of these stolen, shattered lives:
Likewise, “Nothing Man” can be read, I think, as a sad lament of one who survived physically, but feels a lingering, living death as a result of what he has been through:
We all lived through the horror of September 11th. There are always the September 12ths of our lives, too—the mornings after tragedies, or great changes, or disruption in our well-manicured fields of life. These are the times when we awaken to a changed landscape, to a different skyline. In “Empty Sky”, Springsteen sings:
We face an entirely altered future, and we decide which direction we will head in now: toward good or toward evil; down the road of love or the road of revenge? There’s little doubt about where Springsteen’s loyalties lie. “There’s a lot of walls need tearin’ down,” he sings in “Let’s Be Friends. “Together we could take them down one by one.” In the boldly experimental song, “Worlds Apart”, heavily influenced by the music of the Sufis, he sings about a love affair between a Muslim and a Westerner—and sees in this particular story broader lessons for our whole world at this dangerous time:
Likewise, in the song “Paradise” (perhaps the most controversial song on the album in some ways), Springsteen speaks of the choices we all make between life and death, good and evil, embracing life or strangling it instead.
“Paradise” begins in the most harrowing manner—with the words of a suicide bomber:
But paradise doesn’t come through the plots of evil, of course. There is no heaven awaiting the one who takes innocent lives:
“Friend, do not wait for death to find heaven,” said the Sufi mystic Kabir. “If you do not untie the knots that bind you now, do you expect the ghosts to do it after you die?” And “Why wait for death?” wrote William Blake, “thou art immortal now.” In the end, however, the narrator of “Paradise” chooses life, and grasps that whatever paradise we will find comes to us through living every sacred, holy, breathing moment we have before us:
The blessed moment of being alive is what is truly holy.
So, too, does Springsteen choose life. In spite of material that is sometimes downtrodden and tragic and oftentimes quite heavy, there is a hopefulness and an optimism that always comes through.
The most upbeat song on the record, “Mary’s Place”, is the one that I also find the most explicitly religious. (Though I must warn you that you are being treated to my particular, idiosyncratic interpretation here.) “Mary’s Place” is, I think, addressed to the Virgin Mary herself—to the Mary, and not the Mary of “Thunder Road” and some of Springsteen’s earlier works. It is, I believe, an ode to Springsteen’s lapsed Catholicism and the need we all have a community of faith to get us through the hard times of life.
Like so many people, Springsteen found himself bringing his family to church in the days right after September 11th. I think the sensibility of the power of the religious community permeates “Mary’s Place,” which is too often heard as merely another “let’s have a good time and party” song.
But, rest assured, this will be no traditional religious anthem. The song begins:
Then, there is the call of faith:
“This thing” to Springsteen—and it’s not a new theme in his work-- is a true spiritual revival which will transform the face of the world in an image of love and justice. “Mary’s Place” talks about the place of communal celebration—and in particular religious worship—as the catalyst for ushering in this “revolution in the sphere of human consciousness”:
Then, he answers his question:
“How do we get this thing started?” Springsteen then asks again. How do we overcome the tragedy of our times? By turning up the volumes of our religious imaginations and spiritual sensibilities; not retreating into our pain, but by joining with men and women of goodwill, in community, to remake the skylines of our world. “Mary’s Place” is a song of spiritual celebration.
Likewise, the “li, li, li”’s of the chorus of Springsteen’s song “The Rising”, after which the album is titled, are, I believe, abbreviated “alleluias”—a song of life in the midst of death. “The Rising” is truly an easterlike anthem in the darkness and despair of September 11th (a national Good Friday experience if there ever was one).
But “The Rising”, too, is certainly not an easy-going “everything is beautiful” love ditty. The song is vividly narrated from the viewpoint of a New York City fireman, racing into the flaming inferno of the World Trade Center:
This will be no easy journey, certainly, and Springsteen’s words bring us right to the heart of the terror of the inferno:
The “li,li,li”’s that follow are the alleluias of a funeral mass, our prayers for the souls of our dearly departed brothers and sisters. Then comes the vision—transcendence—resurrection:
[If ever there was such a thing as “holy pictures” it was portraits of the missing victims of the September 11th attack, posted all around New York City—“holy pictures of our children”—who are now… ]
No principality or power—no forces seen or unseen—no terror mad souls or devilish plots—can ever separate us from the love of God—can ever stop the heart of love from beating—or the sun of love from shining.
So, we emerge from our experience chastened and wounded—yet alive—and in the breath of life, we sense the joy of hope—the joy of human community upon this good Earth:
Come on up for the Rising, right here, right now, in this blessed moment we share together.