Bruce Springsteen's American Gospel

Looking for the light in the darkness of September 11th, Springsteen takes to the rock & roll pulpit on 'The Rising'

Bruce Springsteen on the cover of RollingStone
Martin Schoeller
Bruce Springsteen on the cover of RollingStone
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There's a sign on the road leading to Bruce Springsteen's place that reads DISCHARGE OF FIREARMS PROHIBITED. Springsteen lives on a 400-acre farm in Monmouth County, New Jersey, about an hour outside Manhattan, with his wife, Patti Scialfa, who sings backup in the E Street Band, and their three children, Evan, 13, Jessica, 11, and Sam, 8. The farm's previous owner, a painter, cherished the lush landscape and kept developers at bay. Then, for a time, there was talk of turning the property into a golf course, before Springsteen purchased it, eight years ago. "We got lucky," he says, standing in a field and surveying his land. "I can't think of anywhere I'd rather be."

Springsteen walks with a slight limp — years of jumping around arena stages having taken their toll — but he wears it well, or at least his persona does, the cowboyish swagger bringing to mind a character out of one of the John Ford westerns he loves. Otherwise, at fifty-two, he looks remarkably fit. His arms, especially, bring a formidable heft. Today, he's sporting clothes that nudge slightly closer to the trendy — or at least trendy for someone normally photographed in denim and flannel. There are gray pants and a jacket, both by G-Star, scuffed black boots and an orange mesh tank top. He wears a silver wedding band and thin hoop earrings in both ears — three on the left — and a generous amount of stubble, slightly more mustache than beard. His face is tanned and ruddy; his hair is thinning, but only his sideburns hint at gray. A large cross hangs from a silver chain around his neck, three tiny silver hearts dangling from the cross's arms and base. Springsteen isn't sure about the tank top, only because he's going to be photographed later in the afternoon. "I've never been photographed in orange before," he says. "I'm so boring. I don't want to blow the sartorial boringness I've cultivated over the years."

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It's a beautiful day and Springsteen is in high spirits. Would we like to hear a joke? Of course. ("Why do most men name their private parts? Because they don't want a stranger making ninety percent of their decisions.") His favorite new rapper is Ludacris. He enjoys watching E Street Band guitarist Steve Van Zandt mug as wiseguy Silvio Dante on The Sopranos, though he misses Big Pussy (who, incidentally, once joined Springsteen onstage. Springsteen says he had a pretty good voice).

A loud, unpleasant mewling erupts nearby. "We've got peacocks," Springsteen says, nodding at a nearby hutch. "They're great watch animals. They'll sit on top of the house, and if anyone comes within fifty feet, they'll squawk." Springsteen also keeps horses; he recalls one of his first, which his family named He Who Is Afraid of Small Things because the horse would throw Springsteen whenever a squirrel or rabbit crossed his path.

In recent months, Springsteen's most time-consuming pastoral endeavor has involved making his farm organic. As he explains, it's a five-year process, during which inspectors regularly test the soil for chemicals. For now, Springsteen is growing nothing but a ground cover of reedy wildflowers, which will eventually be plowed back into the earth as part of the nonorganic purging.

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And so goes the life of Bruce Springsteen, five decades on. He keeps an eye on the homestead. Takes his kids down to the Jersey shore. Goes for rides in his vintage blue Corvette. Gets pissed off reading the paper — most recently over the stories of corporate malfeasance and the current administration's laissez-faire attitude.

Most important, Springsteen is making rock music again — and it has been a while. His last studio album, 1995's The Ghost of Tom Joad, won a Grammy for best contemporary folk album. The new album, The Rising, is not Springsteen as lone troubadour, but Springsteen reunited, finally and completely, with the E Street Band. The group had reformed pre-Tom Joad to record three new tracks for a 1995 greatest-hits album, and it embarked on a triumphant comeback tour four years later, but The Rising is its first full album since 1984's Born in the U.S.A.

Equally significant, The Rising is the first Springsteen album ever to be produced by an outsider. Springsteen's camp over the years has been one of the most tightly knit in the rock world. Beginning with his first album, 1973's Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J., Springsteen has had a hand in producing every one of his albums. His only production collaborators have been people very close to him, such as his manager, Jon Landau, Van Zandt and Chuck Plotkin. They are notorious perfectionists. The time it takes them to make an album can be epic, up to three years; just as epic are the conversations between Springsteen and Landau about the nuances of a single take. But for The Rising, Springsteen handed the reins to Atlanta producer Brendan O'Brien, whose credits include albums by Pearl Jam and Rage Against the Machine. The new record was finished in seven and a half weeks.

The Rising is largely Springsteen's response to the tragedy of September 11th. And though it has its stark moments — the most devastating song on the album is, in fact, the solo Springsteen track "Paradise" — The Rising is as expansive and uplifting as Springsteen's best work with the E Street Band, accentuating in particular the band's gospel roots. Rather than whisper over an acoustic guitar, Springsteen takes us to the river and wonders if somebody can say amen. The title song, and first single, sums up the feel of many of the album's fourteen other tracks. It ostensibly unfolds from the point of view of a New York firefighter entering one of the burning towers. Yet, as on many songs on The Rising, Springsteen takes an unexpected turn, lyrically and musically, moving from a dark opening verse — "Can't see nothin' in front of me/Can't see nothin' coming up behind" — into a hand-clapping, sanctified chorus, as the literal image of a man rising up a smoke-filled stairwell merges into a religious image of ascension.

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Like the album as a whole, the song uses the events of September 11th as a metaphorical springboard. Images of rising — rising smoke, rising spirits, rising waters, even (yes) rising of a sexual sort — recur in several songs, serving as a formidable counterpoint to that other image, etched into our collective consciousness, replayed endlessly on every network, of falling, of collapse.

Springsteen acknowledges the album's gospel element, and as further evidence points to "Into the Fire," which happens to be the first song he wrote after September 11th — he began working on it a few days after the attack. It covers ground similar to the title track, and also features a chorus that doubles as a prayer: "May your strength give us strength/May your hope give us hope. . . ."

"When we got that song down," Springsteen says, "it brought the whole thing home immediately, because what you get on that song, the first verse is the blues." He begins to sing. His voice is soft and husky, with the same country twang he has on the recorded version: "The sky was falling and streaked with blood/I heard you calling me." He explains, "That's country blues. I'm doubling my voice around a twelve-string guitar, so when you hear the beginning of that thing, you hear a spirit out of the past. Mandolins. Appalachian fiddles." He sings again: "Then you disappeared into the dust, up the stairs. . . .

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"Then," Springsteen continues, "when the chorus hits, that's the gospel. The pump organ comes in. That's where the thing lifts and makes sense of the first verse and, hopefully, tries to make sense of the experience itself. And my best songs have done both of those things, blues and gospel. That's what my band, and my writing with the band, has always been about. On an album like Nebraska, you can hear the blues thing, but the band is more like Sunday church. We're gonna shout that thing to you, right into your face, and try to get you to stand up. And there were the essential elements of what I do with the band, in the first thirty seconds or so of recording this album. When the drums hit on 'Into the Fire,' it comes down, and the whole thing just grounds itself into the earth and starts fightin', you know? The gospel and the blues." Springsteen looses one of his hoarse, full-body laughs. "That's where the fight starts. And that's all we do, as a band. That's all that we're built for. That's the service we provide."

In 1982, in a house about ten minutes from his farm, Springsteen recorded his album Nebraska, an acoustic collection of murder ballads and conjured ghosts that, to this day, sounds haunted and somehow timeless — an album-length equivalent of Elvis' version of "Blue Moon" or Hank Williams' "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive." Springsteen, of course, followed up Nebraska with Born in the U.S.A., which changed everything. As anthemic and arena-friendly as its predecessor had been spooky and insular, the album sold more than 10 million copies, spawning seven hit singles and placing Springsteen atop the pantheon of Eighties pop stars, representing for the blue-collar rock fan alongside the likes of Michael Jackson and Madonna. "I was always unsatisfied with that album," Springsteen says today. "That was one I really struggled with and never felt like I got the whole thing right. But your own wrestling in that department doesn't really have anything to do with the way something is received, or the way your fans hear it."

Despite, or perhaps because of, the Born in the U.S.A. juggernaut, Springsteen had come to seem less and less mass-culturally relevant. With the ascendance of alternative rock and hip-hop, something about Springsteen felt decidedly Reagan-era. And he himself began to pull away from the spotlight. He broke up the E Street Band in 1990. The rock albums that followed (Lucky Town and Human Touch, released in 1992) didn't garner the notice, critical or commercial, of previous efforts. By 1995, Springsteen had grown a mustache and released Tom Joad, a solo album in the key of Nebraska that took up the causes of migrant workers and other dispossessed characters. It was as if, to atone for inadvertently providing the soundtrack to the Reagan revolution, Springsteen turned his back on rock radio and pulled a sort of reverse Dylan, unplugging his guitar and morphing into a folk-singer-slash-activist.

It was around this time, Springsteen admits, that he wasn't sure if he'd lost what he calls his "rock voice."

We're sitting in the living room of a rambling colonial house, where he writes and occasionally records. (Some people have a workroom, but if you are Bruce Springsteen, you have a whole house to work in. The family living quarters are elsewhere on the farm.) On the coffee table between us, there are a stack of books (Dorothea Lange's Ireland, a book of rock photos by Danny Clinch), a vase of freshly cut sunflowers and a ceramic grinning cowboy. Otherwise, the room is decorated with tasteful antique Americana. Springsteen sits in an uncomfortable-looking wooden chair — legs spread, heels together, arms in throne position. He laughs loudly and often, though when speaking he rarely makes eye contact, instead gazing off into near-distant space as his words form.

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Springsteen felt that he began to recover his rock voice during band rehearsals in Asbury Park, when he wrote a new song, "Land of Hope and Dreams." "It was our last few days there," he recalls, "and having the band around just felt right. I think differently when I'm with them; I write differently. We're a social unit that worked, you know? Imagine seven, eight, nine people you went to high school with; imagine, you know, you're fifty-two and that's the exact same group of people you're working with. That's very, very unusual. I never would have written a song like 'Land of Hope and Dreams' for the Tom Joad record. I never would have used that title. I would've thought it was too broad, that it was a cliché. But with the band, it — it is a big title, but what we're gonna do with that, I think we can fill that song up, with this group of people, in this circumstance."

"Land of Hope and Dreams" and another song, "American Skin (41 Shots)" — the latter inspired by the shooting of unarmed African immigrant Amadou Diallo by New York police officers — made it into the tour and the live album that followed. At that point, Springsteen knew he wanted to make an album with the band. But the context of the project changed again after September 11th. In the hours and days that followed the attacks, Springsteen, like many Americans, was glued to his television set. That first day, he took a drive over a nearby bridge where, dead center, there had been a perfect view of the Twin Towers. His kids wanted to know if a plane could crash into their school. He took his family to church, which he otherwise rarely attends. "We were in there with the rest of the wanna-be's, and it was jammed," he says. "But I found that to be very valuable. People just wanted to be with other people who were addressing issues of faith and hope and love."

Springsteen can't recall listening to much music in the aftermath — though, as is often the case in his life, he took refuge in his own. "Yeah, I picked up a guitar," he says. "That's my life preserver. I mean, when I go into a strange hotel room, to this day, I'll take the guitar out of the case first thing and I'll play for five or ten minutes. Then the place feels like mine. So, yeah. Right to the guitar."

The task at hand became more focused when Springsteen was asked to open a telethon held ten days later to raise money for the September 11th Fund. He quickly wrote two songs, "Into the Fire" and "You're Missing," but neither felt finished enough to perform — so instead, Jon Landau, Springsteen's longtime manager and one of his closest friends, suggested he do "My City of Ruins," a song he'd written a year earlier and performed at a Christmas concert. Springsteen calls it "a sort of prayer" for his adopted hometown of Asbury Park, which has gone through a long period of economic hardship. The opening lines go like this: "There's a blood-red circle on the cold, dark ground/And the rain is falling down/The church door's thrown open, I can hear the organ's song/But the congregation's gone."

"After that performance," Springsteen says, "when I sat down to write a song, whatever I wrote was in that emotional context. The music has to be physical, and there has to be a good deal of light to it. And I have to find that light truthfully. Which is through the darkness, you know?"

It came as a surprise, then, that one of Springsteen's guides through the darkness turned out to be an outsider, Brendan O'Brien. A few years earlier, he had expressed interest in working with Springsteen. By the time of The Rising, Springsteen felt restless and knew he needed a change. "The sounds of records change every five years or so," he says, "the technology, the amps they use. And my production ability, it just wasn't current enough."

O'Brien came to New Jersey, where Springsteen played him a dozen or so new songs. They spent the rest of the afternoon crafting a demo of "You're Missing," a ballad built around a melody Springsteen worked up one night while messing around on the piano with Patti and the kids.

"At one point," Springsteen recalls, "Brendan said, 'Well, I think we should find another chord for this spot.' I said, 'Find another chord?! Wait a minute, now! Hold on, hold on!' " He laughs. " 'Those are the chords!' But then I'm thinking that my job now as the producee, is to say yes. So I said OK, we changed it, and it sounded good. Once I got comfortable with that, it was like, 'Go, man, go.' By the end of the day, we had a real nice demo."

"The biggest difference with making this record," Steve Van Zandt says, "is that it's the first time that Bruce wrote a collection of songs, we went in and recorded them, and he put them out."

Normally, Van Zandt says, Springsteen would "write a bunch of songs, we'd record them, then, you know, hang out for a bit. He'd write another bunch of songs, we'd record them. What would happen is, we'd always do two or three or four records before one finally came out. I produced fifteen songs or so for Born in the U.S.A. during the first three weeks. Then I left, and they kept working for two years! Then they ended up using twelve of the original fifteen, I think. So I don't ever remember a case where everything was done so quickly, and I think that's why this record, conceptually, thematically, is so coherent."

"I remember when we first went down to Georgia to record, the first song we did was 'Into the Fire,' " Springsteen says. "We practiced it maybe three times, and then Brendan said, 'OK, come on in, let's do it.' And when he played us back that song, I heard something I hadn't heard before: I heard the way we sound right now. Today. And I said, 'Well, that's what we need to do.' If somebody has all our other records, I want to make sure they don't have this one. You can't replace this one with some of the other ones. And I think for guys that have made records for a long time, that's important."

Although springsteen lived in Los Angeles for several years in the late Eighties and early Nineties, he has always seemed most comfortable on his native soil. Aside from farming, his ongoing local project has been the resurgence of Asbury Park, the coastal town where he lived in the early 1970s. He played some of his first shows at the now-legendary Stone Pony, and he's been involved in the slow economic revival of the city, playing benefit concerts and remaining an active presence on the scene. "He is the Number One cheerleader and supporter of Asbury Park," says Domenic Santana, who resurrected the Stone Pony. Springsteen to this day plays unannounced shows at the club: Santana says Bruce has the combination to the backyard lock and a standing invitation to walk in off the street and take the stage whenever he wants. "He's always been this city's insurance," Santana says. "That's how I persuaded my parents and grandparents to cash in all their 401(k)s, when the banks wouldn't touch Asbury Park. I'll never forget, my dad said to me, 'What the hell are you smoking?' when I first brought him here to Beirut-by-the-Shore. I said, 'You don't understand, there are so many rock & roll memories here.' As we were speaking, a bus of Japanese tourists pulled up and started taking pictures of the Stone Pony. This abandoned building. My father turned to me and said, 'How much did you pay them?' "

Still, on a recent tuesday afternoon, it's clear that Asbury Park needs considerable tending to. A half-mile swath of beach hosts — and this is a generous estimate — about thirty sunbathers. The closest, a homeless woman, absently fills the back of her shorts with sand. Shuttered motels line the main drag, along with a shuttered club called Moving Violations, and there's a billboard on the edge of town proclaiming GOD'S LIGHT OF LOVE IS STILL DESTROYING THE DARKNESS. Below, a smaller italic addendum reads, EVEN IN ASBURY PARK!

And yet, there's a sort of magical feel to the place, thanks, perhaps, to the sheer amount of abandoned history. The boardwalk — its wood weathered gray — is bookended by grand old art-deco palaces. To the south, the long-empty casino sits like a dried-out bee's nest, with its shattered window facade and gutted interior. On the opposite end, the gorgeous Asbury Park Convention Hall remains dilapidated but functional. One of its functions in recent years has been as a rehearsal space for Springsteen and the E Street Band. This afternoon, the parking area houses the E Street fleet: a half-dozen SUVs, a couple of BMWs and Springsteen's Corvette.

"I saw my first big concert here," notes Springsteen, who shows up for practice in jeans and a black T-shirt. A backpack stuffed with sheet music is slung over his shoulder. "It was the Who, Herman's Hermits and the Blues Magoos. The Blues Magoos opened, then it was the Who, and Herman's Hermits headlined! This was before people here really knew about the Who. Nobody knew they were going to smash their instruments. I must've been fifteen. I saw Janis Joplin here, and the Doors, too, their first time around. I sat right over there." He nods at a bank of empty seats, house left, before joining the band onstage. As he chats with Van Zandt, Patti Scialfa strolls up the ramp and tickles the back of his neck, then grabs her guitar.

And then one of the tightest, most tireless bands of the past twenty-five years begins to work through a set. They start with "The Rising." Live, the new songs sound huge and untethered. You immediately notice the amount of control on the record, and also, as the songs begin to accumulate, the number of recurring images. There is, of course, smoke, fire, darkness, all of which possess certain mythic qualities. But other words recur as well. Touch. Skin. Hugs. Kisses. The best gospel songs are often only a word or two away from being great love songs — many times quite dirty love songs — all you have to do is replace the word Lord with my baby. Likewise, Springsteen's songs on The Rising are suggestive. The opening track, "Lonesome Day," works perfectly well, for instance, as a breakup song.

The setting couldn't be more unfrilled: The house lights are up, with the rope ladders and ribbed underbelly of the stage clearly visible. The house itself remains empty except for a handful of techs, a camera crew and someone's Dalmatian, which has been padding around the main floor. Still, the band tears into the songs with a thrilled abandon. During the audience-participation section of "Waitin' on a Sunny Day," Springsteen stops singing and holds his microphone out to the empty house, while saxophonist Clarence Clemons coaxes invisible audience members to stand. "How ya doin' out there?" Springsteen asks with a smirk, then points his mike again. Later, during "Tenth Avenue Freeze Out," a classic song about an overweening desire to make it, he grins broadly and shimmies across the stage.

After two hours, the band retires to a backroom for dinner. Drummer Max Weinberg, on hiatus from his day job as Conan O'Brien's bandleader, is sitting at the end of a long table with a red-and-white checkered cloth, talking up a tension-relieving pillow he's just ordered from the Sharper Image catalog. Springsteen ambles over with a bowl of salad and grilled fish, shaking his head as he overhears this last bit. "These are the topics of conversation backstage now," he says with a sigh. "Swedish pillows."

"They're great pillows," Weinberg insists. "I'll turn you on to them."

Scialfa, a willowy redhead who is wearing a black tank top and pants and is working on a bowl of mussels, mentions that she, too, saw the Doors in this very building, at the same show as her husband, though they didn't know each other then. "I just wanted to be Jim Morrison," she says.

"I saw Jefferson Airplane here," Weinberg says. "Procul Harum."

"I saw that show!" Springsteen exclaims happily.

"I was there, too," Scialfa says.

"I remember a Hullabaloo Club concert here," Springsteen says. "It was the first black light I'd ever seen. I walked in and couldn't figure out what happened to my shirt!" A few minutes later, he continues, without much of a segue, "You know, my kids used to burst into tears when they saw Steve Van Zandt."

Scialfa snorts out a laugh. "You couldn't wait to introduce that!" she says. "They were babies." She shrugs. "And he looked like a pirate." Springsteen and Scialfa have never been on the road without their kids. "This tour," she says, "they begged, wept, 'Please don't make us go!' It is isolating. Plus, who wants to watch their parents?"

Soon, it is time to return to the stage. The most powerful moment comes a few songs in, when Springsteen sits at the piano to perform "My City of Ruins," while the band looks on silently. He sings, "Now there's tears on the pillow, darlin', where we slept/And you took my heart when you left/Without your sweet kiss, my soul is lost, my friend/Tell me, how do I begin again?"

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. The most fundamental thing I hear from fans, constantly, is, 'Man, you got me through' — whatever it might be. 'My divorce. My graduation. My high school. This part of my life, that part.' " Bruce Springsteen chuckles once more. "And I usually wanna say back, 'Well, you know, you guys got me through quite a bit yourselves!' " Then he laughs again, this time much louder.

This story is from the August 22nd, 2002 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 903: August 22, 2002
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