The Trouble with The Rising

by Michael Slate

Revolutionary Worker #1165, September 1, 2002, posted at

I never wrote "Bruce is god." I think I had a few friends who did. But, man, I loved Bruce Springsteen's music and the stories he told. His people were the people I grew up with. My brother, my sisters, my cousins, my friends--they got union cards on their 18th birthday, they married Mary. They had hungry hearts and screamed down streets at night chasing dreams and searching for a way out. They got jobs in the Vertol plant right out of high school and built airplane parts. They got drafted and went to war. The ones who came back went to work at the plant only to be thrown out on the streets when the plant was shut down. Hell, the video Bruce made for his song "My Hometown" was shot in my hometown.

So I was really looking forward to The Rising, Springsteen's new album and his first with the full E Street band since 1984. There had been all kinds of talk about how this album was all about September 11. I really wanted to hear what Bruce had to say. So I bought the album, listened to it a dozen times or more and I got to tell you, it's a hard work to hear.

Preparing for this album Bruce talked about how he was very moved by the obituaries of people killed in the World Trade Center that appeared in the New York Times . He literally called the families of anyone who was said to be a fan of his and talked to them in depth. He was profoundly moved by their stories and wanted his art to help. He lives in Monmouth County, which lost more people in the World Trade Center than any other part of New Jersey.

Springsteen sets up a boxing match between the blues and gospel--suffering and hope--to tell the stories on The Rising , sometimes within a song and other times between songs. It's anchored in intense sadness. His characters tell stories of painful tragedy, emptiness and longing, almost unbearable grief. The songs talk about love, the loss of loved ones and the physical and emotional holes pierced in your heart; the pain of reaching out in the night to embrace a lover turned to ash. They tell of self-sacrificing heroics and shattered lives.

And then there is hope, something Springsteen's characters find in returning to the normalcy of their lives, re-rooting themselves in the "nobility of work," friends, intimacy, kids, Saturday night parties and home. There is even a song--"Worlds Apart," a rare step into world beat featuring qawwali music (Islamic prayer music performed by Pakistani musicians)--that holds out the hope that people around the world can rise up above the things that drive them apart and find love and a shared humanity. There is a fierce determination that "we will get through this"--not a jingoistic call for America to "roll," but the idea that the people, the hardworking Janes and Joes, will find their way through the darkness and live on.

But there is something seriously missing in these stories, and there is some really disturbing talk of revenge. In "Empty Sky," the emotionally rawest song on the album, a lover stares at the empty space where the twin towers once stood, mourns the loss of their partner and nails grief to revenge by almost spitting out "I want a kiss from your lips/ I want an eye for an eye." And in "Lonesome Day," the song that opens up the album, Springsteen sings, "house is on fire/ viper's in the grass/ A little revenge and this too shall pass."

I wish this could be explained as Springsteen simply creating characters who tell their story and their views; confused, angry and hurt people confronting such a seemingly incomprehensible event. Artists do this all the time; it's one way of working things out within the art without getting all twisted up and didactic. And there's no doubt that Springsteen ran across this sentiment as he talked to people about 9/11, including many who lost loved ones in the World Trade Center.

But in recent interviews Springsteen has been pretty clear that this is also his view on 9/11 and the "war against terrorism." He recently told MTV's Kurt Loder, "Basically I felt that the initial response in Afghanistan was deliberative which was more than I expected. I didn't expect it to be as deliberative as it was." He seemed a little uncomfortable voicing this position, but rationalized it by saying, "I'm not sure exactly where to go from here, you know, I think that people are obviously concerned about just security and stability and safety of our own country."

Springsteen seems to be arguing for the so-called "surgical strikes" but cautioning against going too far: "Better ask questions before you shoot/ Deceit and betrayal's bitter fruit" ("Lonesome Day") And he is very concerned about the taking away of civil liberties inside the U.S. As he told Loder, "At the same time it is a very dangerous moment because in states of emergency the first thing that goes is civil rights. You've seen a rollback in civil rights by the executive branch of the government already -- you know, pretty intensely. I think that Americans have got to be very vigilant. It's a nation of laws. I think that's our greatest strength. Those civil rights need to be protected and people need to be very vigilant about that."

Ironically, Springsteen has said, "I've been at my best when I'm connected to what's going on in the world outside. I have a sense of what my service to my audience is going to be. It's the true nature of work in the sense that you're filling a place. And that place comes with its blessings and its responsibilities." But his comments about the war indicate a serious disconnect with what's really going on in the world. And this affects the art.

Nowhere on the album is there any sense of how the U.S. power structure is taking advantage of September 11 to advance their agenda for dominating and oppressing the planet. Can Springsteen really believe that the war in Afghanistan is a nice, neat and clean operation that is righteous and helpful to the people here or in Afghanistan? Doesn't he know about the Volkswagen-size bombs, the bombing of civilians, the murder of POWs by the U.S.-installed government or the kidnapping and torture of Afghanistan citizens by the U.S. army in the name of combating terrorism? And where will he stand on the impending war on Iraq?

Springsteen is correctly concerned about how civil liberties are being stripped away, but he misses the connection to the war. His belief--shared by many in the U.S.A.--that the war in Afghanistan has something to do with the safety of the people is mistaken. These wars won't make anyone safer -- the more U.S. imperialism runs roughshod over the world, the more people everywhere are going to figure out the ways to stand up and hit back at the U.S. Does he think it's right for Americans to trade their own safety at the expense of people all over the world?

Part of the problem is that Springsteen is running up against the limitations of his critique of U.S. society. Springsteen and the characters he has created are trying to deal with a huge social and political event through the prism of intimate and often individual human connections and emotions. Such stories in Springsteen's music work on different levels--as intimate tales and a deeper questioning of the society. But in The Rising , the reality of oppressed and oppressor is missing--including the fact that in the world today whole countries are brutally dominated by U.S. power.

Consequently, the characters in The Rising all remain in the dark when it comes to the bigger picture surrounding 9/11. And so does the audience. There is no insight into or questioning what the U.S. government's actions around the world have to do with the WTC attack-- "why do they hate us?" No hint of how the grief is being twisted to advance the interests of an oppressive system.

Believe me, I'm not arguing for some kind of didactic political commentary in these songs. But the storytelling on The Rising suffers from this lack of perspective. And rather than being liberated, the characters remain trapped.


Bruce tells a story about being at the beach shortly after September 11 when a man leaned out of his car and shouted, "We need you." This is something that Springsteen takes very seriously; it's a responsibility that has been a very big part of his career. But it's worth remembering a point that Chairman Avakian made almost 15 years ago when he wrote about the desire of artists like Springsteen and others to reach out to the people of the heartland -- it's not whether or not you should reach out to these people. The question is where your feet are planted when you do reach out to the millions. Do you stand with the people of world or with the system that kills them.

The guy on the beach was right, Bruce, the people need you, we need your art, and we need you to speak out against the war.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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