The Rising, Bruce Springsteen’s 12th studio album and his first with the E Street Band since Born in the USA 18 years earlier, is best remembered as Bruce’s “9/11 album.” But the album, released 20 years ago this week, is especially fascinating for the place it takes up in Springsteen’s history.
Springsteen, it’s easy to forget today, essentially took the 1990s off as a major cultural figure. As quoted in one of Chuck Klosterman’s books, rock writer Rob Sheffield once “drunkenly argued” that the rise of Garth Brooks was a “social reaction” to Springsteen’s retreat, and that Brooks’ retirement from major performance in 2000 coincided with Bruce’s return.
After Bruce spent the bulk of the 1990s as a mostly hitless solo artist, he reunited with the E Street Band, first for some greatest hits album tracks in the mid-1990s, and then for a full-blown reunion tour, in 1999 and 2000. The reunion was a smashing success, including the Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band: Live In New York City HBO special in the spring of 2001.
Then the 9/11 attacks hit that September and the New Jersey-based band was a big part of the public mourning. Bruce performed “My City of Ruins” at the America: A Tribute to Heroes telethon ten days after the attacks:
That song has a multifaceted history, originally written about poor conditions in Asbury Park, and was later repurposed to be about 9/11. A few years later, Springsteen would famously play the song at the first New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival after Hurricane Katrina, with “cities” and “ruins” a way-too-common part of 21st century America.
“My City of Ruins” was also the closing track on The Rising, the album that Springsteen and the band released on July 30, 2002.
It’s not a concept album, per se, but all of the songs are about either the attacks themselves or their aftermath. “Into the Fire” is about the firemen going into the buildings. “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day” is about recovering from the aftermath; “Empty Sky”‘s meaning is somewhat obvious. And “My City of Ruins,” once again, wasn’t written about this tragedy specifically but the metaphor works anyway.
Possibly the biggest accomplishment is that all this is done, and it’s not corny, cheesy, or on the nose. Springsteen and the band had earned that cultural capital, especially in the New York/New Jersey area, and I suppose that famed “death of irony” in the post-9/11 era made it all work as well.
Springsteen and the band have remained on top of the world in the two decades since, with Bruce taking turns making solo albums and records with the band, which has weathered the deaths of Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici. The music in the years since hasn’t quite endured like The Rising, but it’s had its moments, especially the 2009 Super Bowl halftime show, and Springsteen’s Broadway one-man show, which had a super-watchable Netflix adaptation:
The band’s most recent album, Letter to You, was similarly accompanied by a beautifully photographed documentary on Apple TV+:
The band, 20 years after The Rising, is heading back on the road next year for their first post-pandemic tour, and while the hefty ticket prices have sparked a backlash, I expect every performance to be full. Springsteen, who was born the same week as my father, turns 73 in September but shows no signs of slowing down.
Two decades on, The Rising is at the very top of the list of the best art inspired by the 9/11 attacks, along with Spike Lee’s 25th Hour, the musical Come From Away, and the 2002 9/11 documentary.
CULTURE (counter, pop, and otherwise) and the people who shape it.