The Rising explores the idea that holiness and light can (and do) exist within tragic and painful occurrences and broken hearts and is dedicated to the Israeli victims of last week’s brutal massacre and the victims of 9/11—the original subject of the song.
Hello all and welcome to episode 15 of The Secret Chord, featuring the one known as the Boss, Bruce Frederick Joseph Springsteen, who was born in my adopted state of New Jersey, on September 23rd, 1949, making him believe it or not, 70 years old. He is an American singer, songwriter, and musician who has performed and recorded as a solo artist as well as a leader of an outfit called the E Street Band in the early seventies.
His albums were critically acclaimed and he became world-famous upon the release of an album called Born to Run, (that was back in 1975). During his 50-year career now, Bruce has become known for his poetic and socially conscious lyrics and very long energetic stage performances. He has recorded both rock albums and folk-oriented albums, and he's considered the quintessential working man's rockstar. His lyrics often address the experiences and struggles of working-class Americans.
So I became first aware of him back in 1984 when I saw the videos off of his Born in the USA, album, which ended up selling 15 million copies in the us, 30 million copies worldwide, and became one of the bestselling albums of all time, which had seven singles hitting the top 10 billboard 100. You've probably heard of at least some of his tunes. He's best known for Born to Run, Thunder Road, Badlands Hungry Heart, Dancing in the Dark, Glory Days, Streets of Philadelphia, and more.
Overall, he sold more than 135 million records worldwide and more than 64 million records just in the United States, which makes him one of the world's bestselling musical artists. Besides that, he's earned numerous awards for his work, including 20 Grammys, two Golden Globes, an Academy Award, a Tony Award for the recently produced Springsteen on Broadway, and he was inducted into both the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame back in 1999. He also received the Kennedy Center Honors in 2009 and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016.
Like many of the people that I've been lucky to profile on this podcast thus far, he is another massively successful performer. The song I'd like to discuss with you today is called The Rising, and it's off an eponymous album, which was his 12th studio album released on July 30th, 2002 on Columbia Records.
In addition to being his first studio album in seven years, it was also the first one with the E Street Band in 18 years, the content was based in large part on Bruce's reflections during the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, and the album predominantly centers on the themes of relationship struggles, existential crisis, and social uplift. It won a Grammy award for the Best Rock Album in 2003, and though it was nominated for Album of the Year, it was beaten by Nora Jones, her debut album called Come Away With Me, which is also a great album.
Bruce has been called a rock and roll poet who radiates working-class authenticity. So I always knew that, but in absolute truth, I didn't really relate to it. I thought the songs were good, but they just didn't really move me in the way that other artists did, and I didn't find myself purchasing his records, although I did write a paper about him in seventh grade, and somehow this song of his The Rising was really the first one that won me over.
Looking back on his older work songs like Rosalita and Glory Days, they're cute, they're happy, but this one is raw, intense, and I feel goes right for the jugular. It captures the senselessness and despair of 9/11 without losing even a bit of hopefulness, which I think is an amazing thing to pull off. Let's listen to the song and as always we'll talk more about it afterwards. This is The Rising by the Great Bruce Springsteen:
So I don't know about you, but I find that to be an extremely powerful performance and an extremely impressive song. Bruce said once of his religiosity quote, “I don't participate in my religion, but I know somewhere deep inside, I'm still on the team.” I'd say, yeah, of course he is. First of all, that's why he plays music to begin with. In my estimation, anyone who plays music is on the team and is doing spirituality, slash religiosity.
I think the recognition for him that he's on this team came through the pressure and the confusion of an extreme event. In this case, 9/11. As it happens, I was part of a group of people who were conducting high holiday services in downtown Manhattan just six days after 9/11, and we didn't know what was going to happen if anyone would show up, or if people were just too depressed to participate. Lo and behold, 200 people showed up unexpectedly, and we had one of the great spiritually uplifting experiences in my life.
People were open at that time. So whereas I don't believe that there are no atheists in a foxhole as the saying goes, (I think you can maintain your atheism in a foxhole). I do think that there are less than there were before. So yeah, on the team, he certainly seems to be. Listen to his lyrics here. He says,
There's spirits above and behind me, faces gone black, eyes burning bright. May their precious blood bind me, Lord, as I stand before your fiery light.
What a lyric for a rock and roll song. Though I've never seen him perform this live, I have watched it on video, and if you haven't watched it on video, you really should. There was something in his band's performance, in his performance that was just so powerful and so engaging. Look at his face as he sings those words with guitarist Steven Van Zandt pressed up against him. It is stellar music and earned a great respect from me to him.
So from 9/11 to spiritual awareness seems strange, but this is how it goes. I would say that there seems to be what I would describe as a residue of holiness where death and tragedy have occurred. I've had the displeasure, I would say, but nonetheless, the significant experience of having stood inside a gas chamber at Auschwitz. I've stood over the sunken ships at Pearl Harbor and I've had to throw earth on top of the graves of people who I love. So yes, when he says that there are spirits and the fiery light of the Lord in bloody black places, that is true. In fact, these places often seem to accentuate this awareness. There's a quote from Psalm 34 that says that God is close to the brokenhearted and these events and these places create and have created broken hearts and paradoxically in that brokenness often comes the greatest light.
And I think that Bruce is recalling that the imagery of this song is someone walking through the wreckage, a fireman actually walking through the wreckage on 9/11, trying to climb, fighting the fire, the concept of rising. He's rising, trying to save, and seeing death all around him. There's what I would describe as an awful beauty that gets crystallized sometimes by pain, and through that pain comes art and also spiritual awareness, which to me are synonymous.
The end of the song describes the sky with various metaphors. I think it's just beautiful writing, unusual and profound writing that came from a very deep place. In it, he says,
Sky of blackness and sorrow, sky of love, sky of tears, sky of glory and sadness, sky of mercy, sky of fear, sky of memory and shadow. Your burnin’ and wind fills my arms tonight, sky of longing and emptiness, sky of fullness, sky of blessed life.
That's gorgeous. And from my vantage point of trying to fuse or at least uncover the spiritual within the musical world, and most recently within the rock and roll world where it might be less expected to be found, this is just a beautiful, beautiful example. This is exactly what I'm trying to highlight. So the sky is an ever-changing metaphor for day-to-day existence, sometimes dark and ominous, sometimes fluffy and bright, and that's the way life goes. Ups, downs, good days, bad days, dark, light.
There's a critically important verse in the book of Isaiah chapter 45, which says, “I am the one who forms light and creates darkness, who makes peace and creates evil. I am God. I do all of these.” The important thing to note is that the evil and the darkness are created. They're not inherent to creation. The light and the peace are, and therefore God has to, so to speak, create the evil and create the darkness, or better said to create the appearance of those things. It's not ultimately real.
So yes, oftentimes we experience life as a sky of longing and emptiness, but its ultimate root is the “sky of fullness” and of “blessed life.” Therefore, back to the title, the Rising. I love that title. Like it or not, we are all on a journey and a journey upwards like Deborah, the prophetess from the Book of Judges exhorting herself to “Rise, Deborah, Arise” or the Broadway version of To Kill a Mockingbird, which I saw recently urging all those present to “All rise” in the presence of the truth and justice that Atticus Finch represented, like the flame attached to a candle.
We all naturally and despite it all, seek continually to rise. This is a song about incredible pain and travail but listen to the sound. Listen to how hopeful it is despite all that, especially the chorus, you can feel within him, both sides of the coin, the recognition of the pain and challenge of day-to-day existence and the ever-changing sky.
Some days are good, some days crummy and nonetheless there’s an upbeat, pretty, meaningful, loving, tune, underlying the whole thing. There is no better expression for the reality of life itself, and as such, Bruce has done us all an amazing service for which I am personally grateful. I hope you agree. Thank you for joining me once again for considering a song and an insight for this week. This is the 15th episode, and subjectively, I am thoroughly enjoying this experience. I find it to be personally uplifting and I'm learning a lot through the process. I can only hope that you out there feel the same way. I sincerely thank you for joining me along this journey.
Who: Dr. Laleh Quinn
When: Thursday the 19th at 7:00 PM EST
Topic: Crazy Coincidences: Synchronicity and the Deeper Design of Reality