I am a middle-aged professor of political philosophy with a decidedly traditionalist scholarly disposition, and I have a confession to make. I am convinced that the music of Bruce Springsteen represents a serious artistic achievement. I have not always held this conviction, mind you. Back in high school and college I thought Springsteen was fabulous, especially in live performance. But rock and roll is supposed to be one of those adolescent things that you leave behind when you become a man, and especially so when you are set to study classical political thought at the national university of the Roman Catholic church in the United States. So by the mid 1980s, rock music and all that it represented had been shown the door.
This all changed early last year. At that time I found myself having to make, for family reasons, about a half-dozen 1500 mile road trips up and down the front range of the Rockies. On one of these lonely drives I switched from audio books to satellite radio, and fell upon a station called “E Street Radio”: all Bruce Springsteen, all the time. The station brought back some nice memories, and it introduced me to a lot of music that I had missed over the years. They say long periods of isolation can do strange things to a man, even to the point of making him enjoy the creative output of a socialist songwriter.
But I continued to listen during more sane times later that summer, and to my surprise I found a large quantity of music that ought to be of interest to thoughtful people concerned with questions of limits, scale, and personal character (such as FPR readers). And most surprisingly, I thought it might even be of interest to conservatives. I began to sense that maybe Springsteen’s political reputation was not entirely deserved, or at least required some qualification. By the time his The Promise album and documentary were released in November, I was sure of it. One interview on the occasion of the documentary’s release confirmed what I had heard in the music over the previous six months, and convinced me that this was no ordinary rock musician:
….the good part about [Asbury Park, NJ] was you were very, very connected to place. And it was unique, the place where you lived and you grew up, and the people you grew up with were very singular…My desire [was] to…not get disconnected…[Music] was a way of honoring my parents’ experience and their history…a lot of the people I cared about, I said ‘well these things…they aren’t really being written about that much’… And those were the topics I decided to take on, not so much out of any social consciousness, but as a way of survival of my own inner life and soul…I was interested in a sense of place…I felt that my own identity was rooted in that sense of place and that there was a narrative there. And I was interested in having a narrative. In other words, I had a story and I wanted to tell it.
Since then I have been quite deep in the music, and in June started doing research and writing in earnest. The project has taken me recently to the 2002 album The Rising. The timing here was too interesting to pass up, because the songs on this record were written in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. I had to get something out, and FPR was the obvious place.
Legend has it that a stranger on a New Jersey street, shortly after the attack on the World Trade Center, shouted into Springsteen’s open car window: “we need you now.” No one who has followed Springsteen’s career over the years could have been surprised by the remark, or by Springsteen’s decision afterwards to record a new album. During times of crisis, we would expect an artist to attend to what matters most in life, and The Rising delivered. It was bound to be his best production since the mid 1980s, for the events which inspired it could not have been more firmly in his songwriting wheelhouse.
A principle theme in his music has always been the dissolution of community under the impact of industrialism and consumerism, and the effect of this dissolution upon individual lives. Nothing threatens local communities quite like a war. Moreover, a considerable number of Springsteen’s songs old and new are marked by their dark story lines and settings, complete with ruminative, tormented characters who, in various states of psychological confusion, agonize over matters of personal identity and existential redemption. They do so because of their alienation from people and place. There is nothing like a disastrous terrorist attack to bring out the best in a songwriter who embodies the urban/suburban gothic styles in American popular music, but one who also refuses nihilist despair. He believes that anguish can turn to hope in the presence of vibrant community life.
The Rising, like many of Springsteen’s albums, is an extended meditation on the kind of demands placed upon people as they face the tragic circumstances of their lives. The tragedy here is explicitly September 11, the “Lonesome Day” from the opening song on the album: “Hell’s brewin’ dark sun’s on the rise…House is on fire, Viper’s in the grass.” The musical response to this tragedy is surprisingly nonpolitical, especially given Springsteen’s reputation in recent years for left-wing activism. While I cannot speak for his personal views, whatever they are, it is clear that the music on this album seems far more interested in what is happening to concrete individual human beings than in any specific ideological program or explanation.
Most illustrative is the song “You’re Missing,” in which we hear the heart-wrenching story of a surviving wife faced with the necessity of telling her children that their father is dead. There is no political statement attached, there is only the artistic expression of the encounter between human beings and the real force of evil in the world. Springsteen has no interest in abstract, hubristic ruminations about evil; he provides straightforward accounts of flesh and blood reactions to it. And these reactions always occur in a specific, concrete setting – in this case, the household as the most intimate of places. His descriptions are often peppered with textured mundane detail, as though to emphasize the importance of that place:
Pictures on the nightstand, TV’s on in the den
Your house is waiting, your house is waiting
For you to walk in, for you to walk in
But you’re missing, you’re missing
You’re missing when I shut out the lights
You’re missing when I close my eyes
You’re missing when I see the sun rise
Springsteen’s craft as an artist is centered on illuminating the core experiences of our humanity in the midst of extreme suffering. It is in this way that the influence of Flannery O’Connor can still be felt in Springsteen’s music, almost thirty years after his noir classic Nebraska (1982). At that time he identified O’Connor as part of “the really important reading” that he began during the late 1970s. In explaining the stark brutality and violence of her own fiction, O’Connor once said that “redemption is meaningless unless there a cause for it in the life we live.” Springsteen’s music is in complete agreement, and this is as evident on The Rising as it is on Nebraska. “There was something in those stories of hers,” he said,
that I felt captured a certain part of the American character that I was interested in writing about. They were a big, big revelation. She got to the heart of some part of meanness that she never spelled out, because if she spelled it out you wouldn’t be getting it. It was always at the core of every one of her stories – the way that she’d left that hole there, that hole that’s inside of everybody. There was some dark thing-a component of spirituality – that I sensed in her stories, and that set me off exploring characters of my own. She knew original sin – knew how to give it the flesh of a story.
It turns out, however, that Springsteen’s gothic can’t resist making an attempt to fill that hole, or to point us in the right direction at least so we can fill it ourselves. In this respect he is willing to gives us a bit more help than O’Connor is. In The Rising we run into characters that, in response to disastrous circumstances quite beyond their control, come out with a resolute determination to regain themselves somehow. They carry with them an abiding faith that redemption, a “rising,” is there for those willing to search for it. (They never come out of their suffering with political demands or grand programs of action).
The singer of “Lonesome Day” maintains his faith that “this storm’ll blow through by and by…this too shall pass, I’m gonna pray.” The chorus reminds us: “it’s alright, it’s alright, it’s alright.” There is a way out of the nihilistic depths revealed by the suicide bombers; the spiritually mature encounter the nihilism and pull back in the direction of life. The sudden appearance of evil forces us to reflect anew on how we relate to others, especially those closest to us: “Once I thought I knew/Everything I needed to know about you/But I didn’t really know that much.” It is only through the encounter with evil and death that a knowledge of what is most important is thrust upon us.
The same idea with richer lyrical content is found in “Into the Fire,” a song about the heroes of September 11 who gave their lives for others. Most importantly, the song is about an experience of the living: that from such sacrificial loss can emerge hope and meaning.
You gave your love to see in fields of red and autumn brown
You gave your love to me and lay your young body down
Up the stairs, into the fire
Up the stairs, into the fire
I need you near but love and duty called you someplace higher
Somewhere up the stairs into the fire
May your strength give us strength
May your faith give us faith
May your hope give us hope
May your love give us love
The chorus is the antiphon of this prayer-like song; it is repeated eight times. Like a liturgical antiphon, it gives the key to the meaning of the catalytic historical events of the Lonesome Day. This meaning centers on matters of personal virtue (especially self-sacrifice, courage, and honor) and the bond of community created by the exercise of these virtues. It has next to nothing to do with politics ordinarily understood.
The title track draws on the same theme. “The Rising” is a powerful song that is not about rising up for revenge, or any such political notion. It is rather an honorary tribute to the virtuous, a requiem for those who gave their lives for others on September 11. It is also a call to virtue directed at the listener. We the living are exhorted by the lost heroes to “rise up” to the possibility of our own redemption in the face of evil. Like “Into the Fire,” the song draws on religious imagery as the fallen send forth their call from the next life:
I see you Mary in the garden
In the garden of a thousand sighs
There’s holy pictures of our children
Dancin’ in a sky filled with light
May I feel your arms around me
May I feel your blood mix with mine
A dream of life comes to me…
Sky of blackness and sorrow (a dream of life)
Sky of love, sky of tears (a dream of life)
Sky of glory and sadness (a dream of life)
Sky of mercy, sky of fear (a dream of life)
Sky of memory and shadow (a dream of life)
Your burnin’ wind fills my arms tonight
Sky of longing and emptiness (a dream of life)
Sky of fullness, sky of blessed life (a dream of life)
Springsteen’s musical heroes are not political actors, and they are not warriors. They are those who “act locally,” those who do their duty to those closest to them and find deliverance in the process. Remarkably, the Springsteen of The Rising takes no interest in academic “root causes,” or demands for this or that political action. Rather, he takes a very measured response that is centered on the exercise of virtue on the part of individuals, and little more.
Tied to this response is his recognition that our individual quest for meaning in the midst of chaos is not done in a social vacuum. It is inextricably bound up with the order of the local places we inhabit. The virtues are practically meaningless in the absence of a community, even if it is constituted by just one other person. The virtues are most immediately and concretely exercised in the intimacy of family, and extend ultimately to other small-scale group associations (friends, neighbors, town, and state – never to nation or empire). Springsteen knows that these associations are the arena in which the most meaningful human experiences are always played out.
“Lonesome Day,” for instance, opens with the singer professing, in the wake of the chaos and uncertainty, a renewed interest in the most elementary form of community: husband and wife. in the life of an individual: a spouse or lover. The importance of family is unmistakable in most of the songs on this album. “Your Missing” is a meaningless song without the intimacy of husband, wife, and children; “The Fuse” contains a marriage proposal during a funeral procession in a small town; and “Empty Sky” and “Paradise” are mournful laments over the deaths of loved ones.
Many of these songs take us down dark and serious paths, but often turn around and remind us that sometimes the best response to the evil of this world is to create and maintain close ties with other people. The result, to our relief on this otherwise somber and reflective album, is sometimes joyous. The best example is “Mary’s Place.” This song is a rousing invitation to join a local gathering of friends and neighbors one evening. It is triumphant and celebratory in its musical mood. The narrative, however, is born of tragedy (Springsteen always has trouble letting go of his gothic sensibilities). One reviewer likened the song to an Irish wake. While in a festive frame of mind, the singer remembers with joy and fondness his beloved, a victim of September 11:
I got a picture of you in my locket
I keep it close to my heart
A light shining in my breast
Leading me through the dark
Seven days, seven candles
In my window light your way
The chorus’s accompanying refrain can indeed be “Let it Rain,” because the evil and suffering of that lonesome day have been met with the redemptive possibility of love. That possibility is expanded here to include friends and neighbors in a specific and meaningful place, Mary’s Place. That place, properly ordered in virtue, is capable of making the loss of a husband, wife, or child bearable. The song is full of religious imagery that is centered on the possibility of redemption through community:
My heart’s dark but it’s risin’
I’m pullin’ all the faith I can see
From that black hole on the horizon
I hear your voice calling me
Familiar faces around me
Laughter fills the air
Your loving grace surrounds me
Furniture’s out on the front porch
Music’s up loud
I dream of you in my arms
After this verse there is a line that is inserted in the middle of the next chorus. Springsteen has the line follow a familiar refrain, and occupy half the number of beats per measure as the chorus. The result is that our attention is forced on a line which is emblematic of the entire album: “Tell me how do you live broken-hearted?” The answer to this question turns into the accompanying refrain for the last chorus, and is also emblematic if taken with its full range of symbolic meaning: “Meet me at Mary’s Place.” Springsteen’s music does indeed return to the things that are most important in an hour of crisis. But contrary to popular impressions, these things turn out to have very little to do with politics. They have everything to do with the humane values of tradition: love of family, friends, neighbors, and place.
Gregory Butler is Associate Professor of Government at New Mexico State University.