Facing an empty sky, filling it with song

Springsteen reacts to the emotions he felt after Sept. 11

Pop Music

July 21, 2002|By Robert Hilburn | Robert Hilburn,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

NEW YORK - From the bridge near his house in Monmouth County, N.J., Bruce Springsteen could see the twin towers of the World Trade Center on clear days. His sharpest memory now of Sept. 11 is driving across that bridge and seeing an empty sky.

"I must have seen those towers a thousand times from the bridge," Springsteen says, sitting in a Manhattan recording studio about a dozen subway stops from Ground Zero.

"I spent most of Sept. 11 in front of the television like everybody else, watching those pictures of the towers collapsing over and over, but it all didn't really hit home until I took a ride across the bridge and there was nothing where the towers used to be. The real world, I guess, is always more dramatic than something on television."

Almost immediately, Springsteen began writing a salute to the hundreds of rescue workers who rushed into the skyscrapers the morning of the terrorist attacks. He planned to sing the song, "Into the Fire," on the nationally televised Sept. 21 telethon, but he didn't finish it in time. He substituted "My City of Ruins," an older song about the life being sucked out of Asbury Park, N.J.

With its uplifting call to "rise up" from despair, "City" worked well in the solemn context of the telethon. Yet Springsteen remained so haunted by Sept. 11 that he not only finished "Into the Fire," but also began writing other songs, including "You're Missing" and "Empty Sky," that expressed the delicate emotions he felt in the days and weeks after the tragedy.

Those tunes form the heart of The Rising, which will be released July 30 by Columbia Records. It's Springsteen's first studio album with the E Street Band since 1984's Born in the U.S.A., and it will be followed this summer by an extensive U.S. and European tour with the band. The tour begins Aug. 7 in East Rutherford. N.J.

In both its length (73 minutes) and its variety of emotional tones, The Rising feels closest to The River among Springsteen's previous works. There are moments, however, as stark and disheartened as Nebraska, and others as rich and joyful as the song "Rosalita."

On a more contemporary scale, The Rising is reminiscent of U2's All That You Can't Leave Behind. Both albums are conscious steps by major artists to reconnect with their classic sounds.

After a series of albums with other musicians and ones that focused on Springsteen's transition to adulthood, The Rising looks at the outside world and tries to make sense of it all.

One of the most moving songs, "Empty Sky," conveys the heartache of losing a loved one. The imagery seems drawn from that post-Sept. 11 view from the bridge:

I woke up this morning

I could barely breathe

Just an empty impression

In the bed where you used to be.

I want a kiss from your lips

I want an eye for an eye

I woke up this morning to an empty sky.

"The atmosphere in the days after Sept. 11 felt like it must have during wartime - the uncertainty and the anxiety and the concern," Springsteen, 52, says. "I don't think anyone will ever forget it, particularly here in New Jersey. The local communities were hit pretty hard. There were 150-plus casualties from Monmouth County alone. You would drive by the church every day and there was another funeral."

Family found

For those who listened in the '70s and early '80s to Springsteen's dark, desperate tales of isolation and the search for a sense of family and comfort, it's touching to see him in the corner of the Manhattan studio with the oldest of his three children.

Springsteen, who was 14 when he began his rock 'n' roll journey, is describing recording equipment to Evan, 11, the same way a T-ball father might explain how to grip a baseball.

It's much different interviewing Springsteen now than in the '70s and '80s, when you wondered if he was ever going to find relief from the feelings of isolation and uncertainty that shadowed him.

I used to think he didn't talk about his personal life because he wanted it to be private. But it became clear that he had no personal life in the traditional sense. There were girlfriends at various points and certainly joy over the way his music was being received, but his sights were always set on the next song, the next concert, the next album. That's where he seemed to find self-affirmation and comfort.

It wasn't until marriage to his band member Patti Scialfa and the birth of their first son that he felt the love and generosity of spirit he had long sought.

Today, he's much more relaxed, talking about his family as well as his music. In the liner notes for the new album, Springsteen thanks Scialfa for "making it all possible."

Although he still has a house in Los Angeles, Springsteen now lives most of the year with his wife and their children (Evan, Jessica, 10, and Sam, 8) near his native Freehold, N.J.

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