'Bruce, we need you'; Bruce Springsteen, 9/11 and 'The Rising' moment 20 years later
On the afternoon of Sept. 11, 2001, Bruce Springsteen was in Sea Bright. Smoke from the World Trade Center was visible in the distance when an unidentified driver yelled at him.
The Boss responded with “The Rising” in 2002, an album that articulated the country’s hopes, fears, anger, sorrow and confusion.
“It was a moment of healing,” said Robert Santelli, a Point Pleasant Beach native who’s collaborated on several books with Springsteen. “Bruce felt that pain personally and painfully, having lost friends in 9/11.”
“The Rising’ was artistically a return to greatness for Springsteen and the E Street Band, who had not recorded a full album together since 1984’s “Born in the U.S.A.” “The Rising” featured songs of love, faith and finding strength in loss, themes that Springsteen had explored throughout his career.
“Countin’ on a Miracle,” a song of trial and devotion, has a wonderfully robust chorus and unstoppable beat. “Worlds Apart,” which hints at an interfaith love, has a Middle Eastern-flavored intro and big guitar sound. The song “The Rising” is a stirring rocker that has the phrase “C’mon up” as its mantra. The imagery of “rising” has multiple interpretations.
There’s rising to a higher plane of existence, a rising to heaven, and then there’s the firefighters, rising up the stairwells of the World Trade Center to their fate on 9/11.
“One of the most powerful images of the 11th, that I’d read in the paper, some of the people coming down were talking about the emergency workers who were ascending,” said Springsteen on “Nightline” at the time of the album’s release in June 2002. “The idea of those guys going up the stairs, up the stairs, ascending, ascending. I mean you could be ascending a smoky staircase, you could be in the afterlife, moving on.”
The joyous rocker “Mary’s Place,” with a swelling organ, soaring build ups and a Clarence Clemons saxophone solo, is a nod to the early sonic magic that made Springsteen and the E Street Band legends. Strings and a chorus of strummed guitars make for a locomotive of noise on “Lonesome Day,” and there are similar big sounds on “Countin’ on a Miracle” and “Further On (Up The Road).”
The dirge-like "You're Missing" conveys the pain of the losses.
Some of the album’s best tracks hint at Springsteen’s influences. “Let’s Be Friends (Skin to Skin)” is a groovy and soulful interpretation of Tommy James’ “Crystal Blue Persuasion.” “My City of Ruins,” originally written about the Asbury Park of 20 years ago, recalls the gospel vibe of Van Morrison.
The track closes the album and it was performed by Springsteen in a darkened, quiet studio in New York City on the Sept. 21, 2001 "America: A Tribute to Heroes" broadcast.
He was backed by members of the E Street Band and others, including Layonne Holmes of Long Branch.
"The air was very charged," said Holmes of the performance, which began the show. "People were aware of the gravity of the whole situation and for us in particular because we were first to perform. I remember the set being dark and there were all these candles and the cameras and then we were on."
The performance set the tone for the broadcast.
"It was just being first and then leaving it to Bruce to set the tone for that whole night, that was a very palpable feeling," said Holmes, daughter of Dee Holmes who had backed Springsteen since the early 1970s. "That's something that sticks in my memory."
The nation was still stunned.
“Songs are good for whoever needs them,” said Springsteen during a post-9/11 benefit show at the Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank a month after the attacks.
Jon Bon Jovi, Joan Jett, the Smithereens, Felix Cavaliere, former members of Elvis Presley’s backing band, including D.J. Fontana and Jerry Scheff, and legendary rocker Sonny Burgess convened at the Basie for the benefit concert. The evening was originally going to be a Garry Tallent-led tribute to the Elvis players and Burgess, but after the attacks it became something quite different.
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“It was kind of breathtaking,” said Michelle Moore, who was also on stage with the Pilgrim Baptist Church Celestial Choir of Red Bank, which provided backup vocals for many of the acts. “I loved every minute of it. Music always makes everything a lot better, no matter what.
“It’s very good for the soul.”
Moore would later join the E Street Band for the “Wrecking Ball’ album and tour.
Springsteen and the E Street Band performed songs from “The Rising” on a broadcast of NBC’s “Today” in July 2002 from Convention Hall in Asbury Park. The album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and it garnered a Grammy for Best Rock Album. A tour sold out 10 shows at Giants Stadium later that summer.
In 2011, “My City of Ruins” became an anthem for Christchurch, New Zealand, following an earthquake. Springsteen dedicated the song to the city, which was battling fires at the time, at a 2017 concert there.
The song was poignantly performed in August 2016 at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford for the victims of the recent earthquake in central Italy, and it became a refrain at the 2020 Democratic National Convention.
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“The Rising” was given a new video at the convention.
“If you’ve ever been knocked down and you’ve got to build yourself up again, this song is for you,” said Springsteen of “My City of Ruins” from the stage at the 2016 MetLife show.
Twenty years later, songs are good for whoever needs them.
Portions of this story were previously published. Subscribe to app.com for the latest on the Jersey music scene.
Chris Jordan, a Jersey Shore native, covers entertainment and features for the USA Today Network New Jersey. Contact him at @chrisfhjordan; [email protected]