The Rising

I am sure that if you were to scroll through your Facebook feed on the day I am posting this essay, which is the fifteenth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks, you’ll see a lot of images of eagles and flags and people posting their own memories of the day (despite their relevance to the events themselves).  I don’t tend to participate in these displays of patriotism, keeping whatever thoughts I have to myself or to the occasional blog post like this.  I also have particular pieces that I read every year, some that I incorporated into lesson plans back in my journalism teaching days.   But I do post one thing to Facebook on an annual basis, which is this:

If you aren’t familiar with this song or this performance, this is the performance that Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band gave of their song “The Rising” to open the 2002 MTV Video Music Awards.  The song, which was released on June 24 of that year, was the title track to the album of the same name and won two Grammy Awards (Best Male Rock Performance and Best Rock Song), and even though it didn’t do very well on the Billboard Hot 100, is well known because of its lyrics, which are from the point of view of a firefighter in the World Trade Center on September 11:

Can’t see nothin’ in front of me
Can’t see nothin’ coming up behind
Make my way through this darkness
I can’t feel nothing but this chain that binds me
Lost track of how far I’ve gone
How far I’ve gone, how high I’ve climbed
On my back’s a sixty pound stone
On my shoulder a half mile of line

Come on up for the rising
Come on up, lay your hands in mine
Come on up for the rising
Come on up for the rising tonight

Left the house this morning
Bells ringing filled the air
I was wearin’ the cross of my calling
On wheels of fire I come rollin’ down here

Come on up for the rising
Come on up, lay your hands in mine
Come on up for the rising
Come on up for the rising tonight

Li,li, li,li,li,li, li,li,li – li,li, li,li,li,li, li,li,li – li,li, li,li,li,li, li,li,li

There’s spirits above and behind me
Faces gone black, eyes burnin’ bright
May their precious blood bind me
Lord, as I stand before your fiery light

Li,li, li,li,li,li, li,li,li – li,li, li,li,li,li, li,li,li – li,li, li,li,li,li, li,li,li

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
Like a catfish dancin’ on the end of my line

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

Come on up for the rising
Come on up, lay your hands in mine
Come on up for the rising
Come on up for the rising tonight

Li,li, li,li,li,li, li,li,li – li,li, li,li,li,li, li,li,li – li,li, li,li,li,li, li,li,li…

I first heard this song when it was released in the summer of 2002 and eventually bought the album when it came out, which would have surprised nobody at the time because I’m a fan of The Boss and this was the first album he had recorded with the E Street Band since Tunnel of Love in 1987.  I knew going in that the album was about the September 11 attacks, and so I knew it was going to probably be somewhat different, but that also intrigued me because I had not been very receptive to the songs that were being played in response to the attack, most notably Alan Jackson’s “Where Were You When The World Stopped Turning?,” which I found cloying.  Springsteen had already performed “My City of Ruins,” a song he wrote about Asbury Park, New Jersey, at a telethon on September 21, but many of the songs on the album were written in late 2001 and early 2002, and the entire thing is packaged as both a statement of and contemplation of the events.

springsteen_rising_8x8_site-500x500Maybe it was the fact that it was The Boss that made me consider “The Rising” more than anything else I’d seen or heard about September 11.  The song is not subtle–Springsteen rarely is–but it doesn’t feel as blunt or saccharine as a “tribute song” would.  Instead, Springsteen uses a character to tell us about the events of that day, and he does this through several other songs on the album.  As I mentioned, this one is about a firefighter, but there are others that are from the point of view of other victims, their families, and the average citizen, a presentation that effectively tries to give them a voice while trying to interpret what happened for its audience.

“The Rising” is one of the album’s best pieces, both musically and lyrically.  Springsteen mixes the persona of a firefighter with religious imagery (“I was wearing the cross of my calling,” being a reference to the Cross of St. Florian) and while it does stumble a bit with his “catfish dancing” simile, the song transcends any of its minor lyrical faults through its music, especially the bridge, which is where Springsteen has the fireman seeing visions in “the garden of a thousand sighs” and then describes the sky while a bass line kicks in and the music begins lifting and lifting and lifting until it explodes into the song’s final chorus, personifying “The Rising” in the title.

This is one of my favorite parts to a song ever and this is one of my favorite songs ever because there is something about how Springsteen finds and expresses hope in the face of such a monumental disaster that is more genuine than manipulative saccharine pop or as tawdry as disaster porn.  He is finding humanity in all of this, which is something that often gets lost in memorial after memorial.  Yes, we remember that people died on September 11, but as the years go by, September 11 becomes more and more of an abstract idea and the individuals and the true human toll gets lost.  And it’s sad when this gets lost because that makes it harder and harder to teach to younger generations, because to the students I am teaching right now, September 11, 2001 is about as abstract a concept as the Kennedy assassination or Watergate were to me.  It’s something they’ve heard about, and something–depending on their family’s political leaning–they may have heard about incorrectly.

When I taught September 11 in journalism and later in English class, I focused on the reporting of the day in newspapers, the mis-reporting of the day in history textbooks, and then primary sources and interpretations.  I stopped teaching the unit after a couple of years of students not doing the reading and having nothing to say about it, figuring that they obviously weren’t finding it engaging.  But “The Rising” was always something I finished the unit with because it was about interpretation and finding meaning.

And you do have to wonder to yourself if September 11, 2001 is the type of thing that is open to interpretation.  Now, of course it is because anything is certainly open to interpretation.  But for years there has been a prescribed meaning or interpretation that our culture has been using.  What I have always loved about “The Rising” is that it doesn’t subscribe to that unless you want it to.  Springsteen wants us to take what we’re feeling and go along with this person, then release whatever that is, hopefully healing along the way.

 

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One comment

  1. Beautiful post – I adore this album. I’ve a long history with it, personally, and it’s become my all-time favorite album for the emotional connection I’ve formed with it. This was a wonderful post to read; thanks!

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