Re-Born in the USA

Two years ago, I borrowed my mom’s car to pick up my little brother from junior high. I derive much pleasure in embarrassing my brother, so I thought up a little plan. As I pulled into the school’s parking lot, a horseshoe driveway lined with an army of greasy, pre-adolescent mutants leaning into the road for a glimpse of their parents’ cars, I removed my shirt and donned a pair of totally boss, Fonzie-ish sunglasses. I proceeded to roll down the windows and blast over the stereo that glorious anthem of sunny days and open highways: “Born to Run,” by Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band.

Pumping my fist and shouting along with the Boss like a man possessed, I rounded the horseshoe and surveyed the gaping expressions of teachers and students alike, who were no doubt thinking they were in the presence of some variety of hipster pederast. My brother, his face a shiny apple red and, no doubt contemplating fratricide, stepped off the curb and towards the car. “Come on! We gotta get out of here,” I screamed, “We were born to run! Let’s go!” He got in, and we sped away into the distance.

Mom never let me pick him up again.

This story proves something. I think. Not only about my mental health, but also about the icon that is Mr. Springsteen. He occupies such a unique place in the American landscape; he is admired by nearly everyone. He’s the official songwriter of the blue-collar common man, the guardian of rock ’n roll and a respected political voice.

This reputation is largely a result of his early music, which captures perfectly the longing and despair of life in America. Everyone can identify with Springsteen’s protagonists, the hard-luck dreamers of “Incident on 57th Street” and “The River.” Such songs tap into a powerful American iconography.

For instance, when I listen to “Thunder Road” or “Badlands,” I feel like jumping into a convertible with my best girl and getting out of this godforsaken town and hot-rodding down on the strip with the boys in my leather jacket, thensee, I can’t even write about these songs without wanting to live out some bizarre American malt shop fantasy. I don’t even have a leather jacket. That’s the power of Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band, and I wish I could put my finger on why their music is so intoxicating to so many.

In any event, Springsteen’s reputation as the quintessential American songwriter and poet has not only survived since his glory days of the late ’70s and early ’80s – it has gotten stronger. This is a blessing and a curse, as Springsteen, a very intelligent man, is fully aware of his god-like status in the U.S., and he is unwilling to do anything to jeopardize this position.

As such, his most recent (and least effective) works are marked by a socially conscious effort to reach out to the American blue-collar everyman and a self-conscious refusal to experiment musically and compositionally.

Which brings us, dear friends, to Springsteen’s latest offering: The Rising, a collection of songs tied together by the themes of loss and memory. This is not new territory for Springsteen, yet these songs were inspired by the events of Sept. 11 – which gives this album a grave immediacy that most rock albums never even come close to. It’s almost as if Springsteen realized that it’s his duty as THE American Songwriter to respond to the subject.

See, no one else would have the privilege of making an album like this. Imagine if David Lee Roth released a passionate, poignant collection of songs about Sept. 11. Even though he is just as entitled to express himself as Springsteen, the press would have had him tarred and feathered (in red, white, and blue colored tar). So I was initially skeptical about The Rising, especially due to the heavy publicity push which made the album into a centerpiece for the Sept. 11 anniversary media circus. It is my pleasure to report that Springsteen’s songs steer clear of that whole abomination and get straight to the emotional heart of the matter: the loss of human lives and the humans that feel this loss.

That being said, the songs seem to fall under the weight of Springsteen’s heavy, touching lyrics. The E-Street band – my pick for greatest backing band of all time – are on board, and per usual, they just smoke.

The real problem lies in Springsteen’s awfully generic songwriting. Too many songs just plod along with only the simplest of melodies, and they all start to sound the same by the middle of the disc. “Mary’s Place,” for instance, has a great lyrical idea about a woman partying with friends to drown out the pain of losing her lover, but Bruce just couldn’t build a decent tune around the story. However, the E-Street Band performs their job admirably by creating textural variety in songs that do little else to distinguish themselves. Brendan O’ Brien’s sparkling production helps, but the cheesy synth and string arrangements just make the album sound more like run-of-the-mill adult contemporary rock.

Still, the high points on The Rising are outstanding. The opener “Lonesome Day” is a driving anthem in the vein of “Born in the USA” with the defiant refrain of “It’s all right / It’s all right / It’s all right, yeah!” Other great lyrics: “Hell’s brewin’ / dark sun’s on the rise / This storm’ll blow through by and by / House is on fire, viper’s in the grass / A little revenge and this too shall pass.”

Far and away the best song on the disc is “Into the Fire,” which features one of the most moving verses in Mr. Springsteen’s catalogue: “The sky was falling and streaked with blood / I heard you calling me, then you disappeared into the dustI need your kiss, but love and duty called you someplace higher / Somewhere up the stairs, into the fire.” This is the tragic story of a woman who lost her firefighter husband to the WTC fires, yet the chorus gives an ultimate message of hope: “May your strength give us strength / May your faith give us faith / May your hope give us hope / May your love give us love.” It’s really a beautiful moment in a great song – perhaps the only song on The Rising that can stand on its own next to Bruce’s back catalogue.

“Empty Sky,” “Worlds Apart” and “My City in Ruins” – the latter actually about Springsteen’s hometown of Asbury Park, NJ – are other fine songs with similarly moving images. However, they just can’t make up for the mid-tempo, hook-less rock lite that dominates the album.

Maybe he should have spent more than six weeks writing the songs. Maybe The Rising should have been a lot shorter – 74 minutes is an awful lot of music. Maybe. But I have to give Bruce Springsteen and the gods that make up the E Street Band credit for creating a product that not only ignores the media’s flag-waving caricature of what Sept. 11 “should mean to us,” but for finally revealing the humanity behind the tragedy. It’s a significant achievement, even if it only lasts for a couple songs.