[For this particular AmericanStudier, there’s no better way to think through another anniversary of September 11th, 2001 than to consider some of the many lessons we can learn from the best cultural work depicting that moment: Bruce Springsteen’s album The Rising (2002). So this week I’ll AmericanStudy pairs of songs from that vital work—please share your own responses, nominations for other vital 9/11 cultural works, and further thoughts for a crowd-sourced weekend post!]
On a pair of couplets that reflect two sides and stages of loss and grief.
This feels like a somewhat gross thing to write about, given the (apparently) entirely unfounded rumors about Springsteen having an affair with one of them (I’m not going to hyperlink to that story, but it’s out there if you’re interested in reading more, with the caveat that many of the links will be to the rumors rather than the debunking), but in the years after September 11th Bruce became an ally to and advocate for the community of folks who had lost their spouse (or another family member) in the attacks. As that hyperlink illustrates, that community has become active in various political and social efforts of the decades (most recently issuing a statement when the PGA Tour merged with the Saudi Arabian LIV tour earlier this year), but of course it started with a very particular and somber purpose: linking those who had lost a loved one in this sudden and unexpected way (ie, differently from those who have lost a loved one to a terminal illness, while fighting in a war, or in other circumstances for which there might be a bit more preparation, as much as there can be for tragic loss at least), and whose experiences of grief were thus a bit distinct from other variations of that emotion.
I’m not sure how much Springsteen had connected with that community prior to writing and recording The Rising, but in any case he certainly made sure to include songs that foreground the perspectives of those who had lost loved ones (that was also true of the firefighter’s spouse whom I discussed in Monday’s post, but here I mean more the surviving family members of people killed in the attacks themselves). And a pair of couplets from the two most overt such songs, located back to back on the album, powerfully capture two very distinct sides and stages of such loss and grief. The latter of the two, “You’re Missing,” is the album’s saddest song, and its final couplet, located after the last chorus, exemplifies how that sadness extends beyond even the speaker’s personal loss: “God’s drifting in heaven, devil’s in the mailbox/I got dust on my shoes, nothing but teardrops.” The second line connects directly to the spouse’s death in the attacks (and the speaker’s unsuccessful search for them among the dust of the aftermath), but the first line links that grief to parallel emotions of uncertainty and fear (ones felt by all Americans, but even more potently by those who had been personally affected by the 9/11 attacks), including those prompted by the ongoing threat of terrorist attacks illustrated by the post-9/11 anthrax mailings.
There’s not a sadder couplet on The Rising, and I would argue not a more important one either in achieving the album’s emotional and historical purposes. But perhaps Springsteen’s most overarching such purpose was to present multiple layers of this event and its contexts, and so right before “You’re Missing” he includes another, very different song from the perspective of a 9/11 widow: “Mary’s Place.” “Mary’s Place” is the album’s most overt party anthem, and became even more so during the Rising tour, when Springsteen would frequently introduce the band’s rollicking performance of it by saying “Let’s roadhouse!” But while the song is most definitely about a house party, it’s also and even more importantly about where and how we find optimism in dark times (a subject I’ve thought about a good bit over the years), and a beautiful couplet from the song’s final verse captures that tone with particular clarity and power: “I’ve got a picture of you in my locket, I keep it close to my heart/This light shining in my breast, leading me through the dark.” To quote one of the most beautiful lines ever written about loss and love, “What is grief, if not love persevering?”
Next RisingStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other 9/11 texts you’d highlight?