Last Tuesday, my grandfather died. He wasn’t sick for any length of time nor was he a sickly man by nature. He was in the hospital for just under two weeks when he passed away so it was certainly a shock to all of us. Such a sudden death is never easy for the family but, relatively speaking, it was certainly a blessing for Grandpa. As the dual waves of reality and sadness washed over me, I did what I always do in times of great mourning and pain. I sought solace in the comfort of family, friends, prayer, memories…and Bruce Springsteen’s 2002 album The Rising.
I acknowledge at the outset that this will be a tricky piece to write. Of all our experiences of art, perhaps none may be more personal, more intimate, than our connection to the music that moves us. So trying to accurately describe the nature of Springsteen’s emotional masterpiece The Rising is something of an impossible task. It seems even more impossible to try and put words to exactly how the album makes me feel. Thus this is both an unusual post for this site and trying to capture what I want to say may prove a fool’s errand. However, I haven’t been able to focus on any one topic long enough to write anything else since Grandpa died and I’ve always wanted to thank Bruce – in some way, shape, or form – for the great healing I’ve experienced from The Rising over the years. So I figured, if nothing else, this post can accomplish those ends (not that I presume Bruce Springsteen reads the site 🙂 but, hey, you never know what he peruses on Twitter right??).
On July 30, 2002 Bruce Springsteen would release The Rising. The album was his first full length studio record with the E Street Band since 1984’s Born In The USA and it served as both a narrative reflection on and emotional response to the terror attacks of September 11th. In an interview Springsteen gave to Rolling Stone in August of 2002 he said he began work on the album in the days following the attack. The piece explains, “Springsteen still remembers the moment he realized that he needed to make this album. It was a few days after September 11th, and he was leaving the beach. A man drove by, rolled his window down and yelled, ‘We need ya!’ Then he rolled his window up and kept going. ‘And I thought, “Well, I’ve probably been a part of this guy’s life for a while,” ‘ Springsteen says. ‘And people wanna see other people they know, they wanna be around things they’re familiar with. So he may need to see me right about now. That made me sense, like, “Oh, I have a job to do.” Our band, hopefully, we were built to be there when the chips are down. That was part of the idea of the band, to provide support.’ ”
What resulted was one of those magical experiences where an album can be both so very specific in its subject matter and universally applicable at the same time. It’s an album dealing directly with loss, grief, sadness, and pain. Yet despite the raw honesty of the emotions, it doesn’t leave me dwelling on mourning. Rather, it lifts me up to glimpse the reality of hope and rebirth that always wait just on the other side of sadness. When I play this album, sometimes for weeks on end after a particularly difficult death, I hear everything I’m feeling expressed in the album’s fifteen songs. It allows me to be sad. It honors my tears, my pain, and my struggles. But then, as time passes and I listen again and again, it begins to gently help lift me back up.
The Rising is an album that needs to be experienced as an album. I know we live in the iTunes Age. Sadly, people rarely buy physical albums anymore (something I’ll refuse to give up as long as physical music stores still exist!). We, as a culture, prefer the one or two songs we like. But I’ve always believed an album is an experience, designed by the artist. This is perhaps never more clear to me than when I turn to The Rising for help, hope, and healing. The songs are a journey, a story, a religious experience. I’m not using any of those terms hyperbolically. For me The Rising has been all of this and more.
The first time I personally realized the incredible power of this album was in 2009. Sure I’d been listening to it since it came out in 2002 and appreciated it as an incredible historical and emotional record of a tragic moment in our history. But in January of 2009 the eleven year old son of a dear friend of mine passed away after an eight year battle with cancer. I’ve never experienced a more difficult death before or since. I’m a storyteller by nature but these stories are too personal, too close to explore here. Suffice it to say it was a difficult time. In the homily at the funeral Mass the priest said something I’ll never forget. He said this boy’s death couldn’t have been part of God’s plan – that God doesn’t cause these tragedies. Rather God’s heart was the first to break when he died. This helped immensely. This was a God I could understand at the moment, a God who was hurting as much as we all were and a God who would help us rise up out of the darkness. It was that line and The Rising that got me through the loss.
I played that album for nearly a month, trying to process everything. As I’d listen, each time different songs would make me cry. Different songs would make me smile. Different songs would honor how sad and confused I was while different songs would help lift me back up. Eventually I was able to take the album out of the car. As is true of all losses, life could never be the same but it could finally begin to proceed again as it slowly defined the new normal. Bruce and the E Street Band held my hand and walked with me until I was able to get there.
The album would help me again when my Aunt Chris died in 2011. Her battle with cancer was very brief – not six full weeks from diagnosis to death. The cancer was found. Treatment began. Her body couldn’t take the chemo. And then it was only a matter of time. Again, these stories are too personal for this sort of platform. But again I turned to Bruce Springsteen and The Rising. To this day I still think of Aunt Chris as I listen to “The Rising” and Bruce sings, “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.” I see her, in heaven surrounded by the Divine light, watching all of us. I see the pictures of my youth with Aunt Chris and my cousins. I see our weekly Wednesdays at the beach when I was little. I see our Christmases, birthdays, etc. And I see her watching us now.
I’m beginning to find Grandpa in the lyrics as well. Listening to “Into The Fire” I think of his life and his example as Bruce sings, “May your strength gives us strength / May your faith give us faith / May your hope give us hope / May your love give us love.” All week I’ve naturally found myself thinking of Grandpa a lot. I think most often of his laugh, his smile. I think of how he’d take your hand and then pull you in for a hug. And I think of his enthusiasm about life and whatever we all happened to be working on at the moment.
These are but two small examples, both of lost loved ones I find in The Rising as well as moments in the album that make me think of them. Trust me when I say The Rising carries far more examples in both categories for me. Listening to the album is far from a static experience. Each listen is different and that’s part of the album’s beauty for me. Every loss is different. Every day is different. Everyone is different. My time spent with The Rising is like that too.
I’ve been fortunate enough to see Bruce Springsteen in concert four times. Each time he’s played “The Rising” live it honestly moves me to tears. They aren’t tears of sadness though. It’s always a joyous experience – tinged with feelings of the divine and the experience of those loved ones I’ve lost over the years. I close my eyes as the song begins, sing along, and feel the strongest emotions any concert experience has ever elicited. In the study of theology there is the term hierophany to describe an experience of the sacred. There’s also the term theophany to define a direct experience of the Divine. All theophanies are, by definition, hierophanies. But all hierophanies don’t have to be theophanies. Anyway, when Bruce and the band launch into “The Rising” on that stage it becomes a legitimate hierophany for me, in the fullest sense of the term.
As a result of all of this, The Rising has come to mean more to me than any other album I own. I love a lot of artists and I own a lot of albums. I also own all of Bruce’s works as well. But The Rising is something special. In my darkest emotional moments it reminds me that we’ll survive what we’re weathering. It assures me the light is coming. And it promises me everything, while it will never be the same, is always going to be alright. That’s such a beautiful gift and, for that and so much more, I say – thank you Bruce. I’m not sure I could’ve gotten through it all without you.