Springsteen's empty sky

August 10, 2002

THE BOSS is back, his grizzled face pensively staring back at you from the cover of Time, 27 years after his Jersey mug first appeared there. He's back and having to explain himself in a way that Bruce Springsteen, bard of the blue-collar guy, has never had to do before. The reason is his new album, The Rising, arises from the ruin of Sept. 11.

A view from a bridge changed utterly. An empty sky like an empty bed, like the thousands of beds emptied. A city in ruins, the missing lost in the dust, a rock musician scribbling in a notebook, trying to imagine the unimaginable, searching for feelings he never had to feel.

The television-averse Springsteen has appeared on the Today show and Nightline and spent two late nights beside David Letterman in recent months.

So what's the fuss? Never mind that he's turned out his first rock album in a decade and the first with his pumping E Street Band since Born in the USA hit the charts 18 years ago. The Boss isn't the first artist to mine the seared landscape of the terrorist attacks.

New York journalism professor Anne Nelson's efforts to help a fire captain find the words to eulogize his lost comrades evolved into The Guys, a play that debuted off-Broadway in December 2001 and is slated to be a motion picture. Country-western singer Alan Jackson scored a No. 1 hit earlier this year with his "Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning)," a song he attributes to "divine intervention." This year's Sundance Film Festival showcased several documentaries produced in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. An anthology of poems, essays and memoirs on the day has already been published.

So the 52-year-old Springsteen is not the first to traverse the tricky emotional ground of a tragedy that some artists have shunned for fear they would have nothing meaningful to say -- or worse, that they would be accused of exploiting a nation's grief to make a buck. But his compilation of songs presents a narrative of love and loss, responsibility and revenge, hope and redemption in a classic American form -- rock music -- and in his singular style.

A fan from Boston, an urban economist responding to a critic's review of the Boss' new album, captured the reason why his rendition of events matters today. Wrote Denise DiPasquale: "Like most of Springsteen's catalog, these songs have universal themes about ordinary people focusing on our struggles, aspirations and challenges. For me and many baby boomers, Springsteen wrote the soundtrack of our lives. That soundtrack must include our reactions to Sept. 11."

Bruce Springsteen's response is ours and his: the view of Manhattan from a bridge near his home signaled a crushing void. The county where he lives with his wife and three children lost the greatest number of New Jersey residents in the collapse of the World Trade Center, 158. Every day, there was another funeral.

In a decade, in five, how will Sept. 11 be remembered? Often, the most memorable art develops over years, not months, of reflection or unconscious musings. And the first anniversary of Sept. 11 hasn't yet dawned.

Simply to bear witness, that is what Bruce Springsteen tried to do:

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.

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