Sunday, September 11, 2011

Springsteen's "The Rising" and 9/11 (Re-Post)

To commemorate the tenth anniversary of September 11th, I played Bruce Springsteen's "The Rising" for my high school classes. And as I listened to the song (three times), it struck me how under-appreciated it is, not just as a 9/11 tribute, but also as a song.

Sure, it won Bruce a Grammy for Best Rock Song for 2002. And yes, Bruce played it at President Obama's inauguration. But the song only peaked at #52 on the Billboards, and I don't think many people outside of Bruce's fans remember the song. (Certainly, my students didn't know it. Then again, and it pains me to say this, they only vaguely knew who Springsteen is. As one of them said, "Oh, sure. He sings that song 'Glory Road,' right?" Eh, they're seventeen; they'll learn soon enough.)

In any case, to do my own small part on this tenth anniversary of 9/11 and to help honor the heroes who died that day, I wanted to re-post my interpretation of "The Rising." Basically, I feel the song recounts two journeys, two "risings"-- that of a firefighter literally climbing up one of the Twin Towers and that of a soul moving from this life into the next. Hope you find it enlightening.

You may also want to check out VH1's excellent edition of Storytellers (now online), in which Bruce himself talks about the inspiration behind the song and the lyrics. Start the video around 7:23. (Unfortunately, you have to watch an annoying shampoo commercial with Eva Mendes first. Ugh...)

Anyway, here's the original post...


For my money, Bruce Springsteen's song "The Rising," off the 2002 album of the same name, is one of the most significant works of art about the September 11th tragedy. Unfortunately, not many people seem to know this.

For one thing, I'm not sure how many people outside of Bruce's core fans actually know the song. Although released as a single in the summer of 2002, the song never enjoyed mainstream, "Born in the U.S.A." kind of success. In fact, although it won Bruce a Grammy for Best Rock Song, "The Rising" peaked at #52 on the Billboard charts.

Even Bruce's die-hard fans seem split regarding what the song means. A quick review of fans' comments at suggests this lack of concensus: although all posters seem to agree the song is a response to 9/11, some feel it's a song about a specific firefighter, while others feel it's a song about living with loss and still others feel it's a song about America as a whole "rising" up after the tragedy.

Bruce himself doesn't help matters much. When discussing the song during his VH1 Storytellers performance (in 2005), he makes no direct reference to September 11th (although he makes several oblique or subtle ones).

With that said, what follows is my own analysis of Springsteen's "The Rising." I've used two sources for this analysis: a Time Magazine article, from the July 27, 2002 edition, called "Re-Born in the U.S.A." and the aforementioned Storytellers broadcast. The rest comes from my own noggin.

As with all literary analyses, this is not the answer, but an answer-- just the interpretation of one man trying ot make his way in the galaxy.

Can't see nothin' in front of me
Can't see nothin' coming up behind
I make my way through this darkness
I can't feel nothing but this chain that binds me

My interpretation proceeds from the idea that the "I" in the song is a firefighter climbing up one of the World Trade Center towers on the morning of September 11th. This premise is confirmed by the Time article which calls "The Rising" "one of two firefighter songs" on the album (the other being "Into the Fire.")

With that in mind, it seems reasonable to say that this initial verse describes a firefighter lost in the smoke-filled staircases of the doomed Twin Towers. This matches up with Bruce's description from the Storytellers performance, although Bruce gets a little more metaphoric, saying he begins the song in the "netherworld," a world that is "transformed" into an "unknown and unknowable place." That transformed "netherworld" could be the chaotic interior of the World Trade Center.

The "chain that binds me" could refer to the narrator's duty, his responsibility as a firefighter, what he calls later "the cross of my calling." The narrator undoubtedly knows he won't escape, that he's climbing to his death, but his duty compels him to keep climbing.

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

This verse contains the song's first direct reference to firefighting (well, as direct as we're going to get, anyway): "on my shoulder half a mile of line," which could refer to the hose he's carrying.

Likewise, some listeners seem to think the "sixty pound stone" on the narrator's back is an oxygen tank or some other piece of equipment, but to me, it's more of a metaphorical weight-- once again, the burden of this man's impossible and inescapable duty.

Bruce himself, in the Storytellers performance, refers to the "sixty pound stone" and the "half a mile of line" as, respectively, "what I must do" and the "tools I need to do it."

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

I have a few things to say about the chorus, but I'm going to hold off until the end.

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

Again, some more overt clues that the narrator is a firefighter: "wheels of fire" and "bells ringing." (Bruce, on Storytellers, says the bells could be sirens, while also noting other possible connotations, including "church bells" and "tolling bells"-- both of which could be appropriate in the context of the song.)

As I said before, at no time during the Storytellers telecast does Bruce make any explicit reference to 9/11. But when describing the "cross of my calling" line, Bruce talks about the narrator's "uniform." Speaking in the narrator's voice, Bruce says, "my uniform fills me with the power and strength of my responsibility... who I am and what I must do."

One last thing: the "left the house this morning" line is so simple that it might seem like a throw-away line. But to me, it's one of the most poignant lines in the song, as the narrator is leaving behind, for the last time, everything and everyone he knows and loves.

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

Not sure this gels at all with my interpretation, but for what it's worth: On Storytellers, Bruce says the "li, li, li"'s mean not only "sing with me" but also "stand along side of me." He later calls them reminiscent of a "prayer."

Spirits above and behind me
Faces gone, black eyes burnin' bright
May their precious blood forever bind me
Lord, as I stand before your fiery light

Li,li, li,li,li,li, li,li,li

Several times throughout the Storytellers discussion of "The Rising," Bruce uses the word "transformation," and I think this verse begins the transformation of this narrator. To me, the narrator is in a liminal or in-between space. He's moving into the next world, the world of "spirits." He's preparing to stand before the "fiery light" of heaven.

And yet, even though he's not part of our world anymore ("faces gone"), he's still linked to it. He knows what he's giving up: the flesh and "precious blood" that we all share, that make us human. On Storytellers, Bruce sums up what the narrator is going to give up this way: "Life, life, life... on the edge of something else."

(Incidentally: I originally thought the second line of this verse was punctuated this way: "Faces gone black, eyes burning bright." But, which seems pretty authoritative, puts the comma before "black." Personally, I like my way better: it suggests the faces have died, but something inside-- their spirits, their souls-- is still "burning bright.")

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 the line

This begins what I consider the most moving section of the song. To me, the narrator is still in this in-between place-- this surreal, light-filled "garden" (with all its Edenic associations). But, even as he keeps rising into the next life, he's still clinging to his old life and to everything he will be leaving behind.

On Storytellers, Bruce says Mary could be a "wife" or "lover," but he also recognizes the connotations of "Jesus' Mary." I gravitate toward idea that Mary is the narrator's wife, especially since he mentions "holy pictures of our children" two lines later. (Bruce does seem to like the name "Mary," doesn't he? He uses it in "Thunder Road," "The River," and "Mary's Place," to name only a few.)

In terms of the references to "your arms" and "your blood mixed with mine," I'll let Bruce himself describe what he means: "This is what I need; I need your arms; I need your blood. This is what I am going to miss: your physicality. Your flesh and blood. My own physical-ness."

In that sense, the "catfish dancing on the end of my line" is another example of what he's going to miss: the simple pleasures of life. (I've read comments from readers who dismiss that line as trite, but I think it's one of the most vivid, compelling images in the song.)

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

This powerful series of juxtapositions (love and tears, glory and sadness, mercy and fear) marks the culmination of the narrator's "transformation." His soul, his spirit has been rising up into this sky-- the sky which served as the backdrop of this terrible, terrible event. But he goes higher, above the painful emotions.

Throughout this journey, he's been "dreaming of life"-- that is, the physical life, the one he knows he's going to surrender. Finally, in that last line, his journey is complete. He leaves our physical world behind and moves completely into the next world-- the "sky of fullness, sky of blessed life."

Now, as for the chorus...

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

So, after all my hard-hitting analysis, I bet you can't wait to hear what I have to say about the chorus. And, I have to tell you... well... this is the part that stymies me a little, to be honest.

I see how "The Rising" can have two meanings: the firefighter climbing the stairs, and then the firefighter's soul ascending into heaven. And I can even see how the "lay your hands in mine" line could refer to another soul welcoming this man into heaven (or even this man welcoming another soul that comes after him).

But one word trips me up: "tonight." Why is it tonight, when the attacks happened in the morning?

All I can say is perhaps the point of view shifts in the chorus. Perhaps the chorus describes a group of people coming together at a memorial service, holding hands and remembering their loved ones. Does that work? (Any help out there?)

I hope some people find this analysis thought-provoking or even enlightening, although I know full well some will say I'm over-thinking things, that I'm taking "all the fun" out of listening to music. (I'm an English teacher, after all. You think that's the first time I've heard that?)

And so, I thought I would end this post with a brilliant line from Bruce himself, from the Storytellers session. Describing the creative process that went into "The Rising," Bruce says the following: "Did I think of any of this prior to writing the song? No. But I felt all of it when I was writing the song."