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Bruce Springsteen: "I think I just wanted to be great" – Part 2

Bruce Springsteen: "I think I just wanted to be great" – Part 2

From Uncut's September 2002 issue: In one of the most revealing interviews of his career, Bruce Springsteen talks exclusively to Adam Sweeting about his new album, The Rising, much of which was written in the aftermath of September 11, and which reunites him with the E Street Band for their first studio album since Born In The USA.

Bruce Springsteen: “I think I just wanted to be great” – Part 1
Bruce Springsteen: “I think I just wanted to be great” – Part 3

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The Rising opens with the stormy rumble of "Lonesome Day", which Springsteen conceived as a curtain raiser and scene-setter for what follows. Right away, you can hear what he means about O'Brien's effect on the band's sound. Where there could sometimes be an end-of-the-pier quality about the E Streeters in the old days, this time the guitars bite like chainsaws chewing through a stack of pine logs, while the bass and drum bottom end is built like St.Paul's Cathedral. And no sign of that in-house favourite, the glockenspiel?

"Actually, there is a glockenspiel on the album," says Springsteen, triumphantly. "Brendan played it on 'Into The Fire' and 'Waitin' On A Sunny Day.' He was going, 'I'm doing a Springsteen record! Damn right I'm gonna play the glockenspiel.'"

For "Lonesome Day", however, the trusty glock was deemed surplus to requirements. "If you look at the first verse, it feels like it's a guy who's talking to his girl," the author points out. He sings the words quietly, fast-forwarding through them in his mind – "'Baby once I thought I knew everything I needed to know about you… it's gonna be okay if I can just get through this lonesome day.' Then bang, the second verse – 'Hell's brewin' dark sun's on the rise, this storm'll blow through by and by,' so I switched right out of this personal thing to this sort of overall emotional mood and the feelings that were in the air here in the States around that time. But it works, because one thing works with the other and the second verse can actually come in on what was said in the first verse. The secret of the songwriting was to get personal first, then you sort of shade in universal feelings. That's what balances the songs. All experience is personal so you have to start there, and then if you can connect in what's happening with everyone, the universality of an experience, then you're creating that alchemy where your audience is listening to it, they're hearing what they're feeling inside and they're also feeling 'I'm not alone,' you know? And that's what you're trying to do."

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Despite the turbulent context in which most of the songs were written, it's only intermittently that Springsteen allows specific references to come looming out of the fog of battle. "You're Missing" is a forlorn itemisation of loss, measured out in mundane household details ('Coffee cups on the counter, jackets on the chair/Papers on the doorstep, but you're not there"), while "Into The Fire" sounds as though Springsteen might have had the New York Fire Department in mind when he wrote it ("I need your kiss, but love and duty called you someplace higher/Somewhere up the stairs, into the fire"). "Further On (Up The Road)" and "The Fuse" are both steeped in dread and a sense of gathering threat, though there's no attempt to locate them in a particular time or place. "Got my dead man's suit, and my smilin' skull ring/My lucky graveyard boots, and a song to sing," runs the second verse of "Further On," evoking an image of The Boss as a kind of spectral balladeer stalking the margins of consciousness. In "The Fuse," as an ominous drumbeat tolls out the time, the singer restlessly shuffles images of death, religion and sex.

Binding many of the songs together, over and above any details of their subject matter, is a powerful sense of religious faith, with religious imagery cropping up in any number of them. "Paradise" deals with a life-after-death experience, and Allah even gets a name-check in "Worlds Apart". "The Rising" itself, probably the most unabashed lump-in-the-throat rock anthem he's written since "Born In The USA", amounts to Springsteen's own Easter hymn with its repetition of the phrase "a dream of life" and its closing invocation – "Come on up for the rising/Come on up, lay your hands in mine… Come on up for the rising tonight." I found an Italian translation of the lyrics on the Internet, and the Italians call it "la Resurrezione". Then there's "My City Of Ruins," not so much a song as a prayer – "I pray for your love, Lord, with these hands…"

"I've had 'My City Of Ruins' for a couple of years almost," Springsteen explains. "I was going to play it in Asbury Park for a Christmas show. Asbury, of course, has been struggling for a very long time, and the town's now on the verge of being redeveloped, so there was a moment when there was a lot of hope and excitement about it. It's a beautiful city, its basic design is really quite lovely, so there was an excitement about it. I was playing in Convention Hall in Asbury or doing something for some different organisations in the town, so that was when I wrote it. Then when I played it on the 9/11 telethon people made a connection with that event, but it was written quite a bit before. It felt appropriate to sing it that night, but it was written quite a bit previously.

"It's a gospel song. It's like a lot of my things, like 'The Promised Land', or I had a song on the live album called 'Land Of Hope And Dreams'… they're all fundamentally gospel-rooted, or blues and gospel-rooted. It seemed like that element was going to be a significant element of the record in some fashion. I didn't sit down and set out to write this or that but just as it unfolded, as I say, the story you're telling asks for certain things, and it asks for help in discerning meaning from chaotic or cataclysmic events. I think people are asking themselves, 'Where do I fit into this? What happened? Where did my husband go? Where did my wife go? What's that about? What can I do about it? What do I do now? Where are they?' I think all those questions, if you go through any sort of real shattering loss, become a constant part of your life.

"I'm sure, for the rest of your life, those are questions that you're answering every day, and that never completely goes away. So the songwriters and the storytellers in general are people who attempt to assist people in contextualising some of that experience. And not explaining, really, because I don't know of an explanation, but sorting through things emotionally and locating ties that people have that continue to bind even in the face of the events of that day. I think I went in search of those things on many of the songs."

I wondered what it had been like in the Springsteen household on that Tuesday, as the news unfolded. "I'm sure it was the same every place, everybody tells the same story to some degree. Sitting around the television. We're about five minutes from a bridge that you cross over where these two rivers meet, and there's a bridge where the Twin Towers stand right in the centre of it, and it's only 10 or 15 miles by water from here so it's quite close. The whole horizon line goes red and hazy if the wind's blowing in this direction and the towers are always there, and on that particular day they were gone, y'know? I think what was unusual about living here at the time was… I think it was 150 people from Monmouth County [where he lives] or a little more who died. People knew people. In the surrounding communities there were quite a few people affected. You knew this woman and her husband, someone else's son, someone else's brother.

"In the following weeks if you were driving towards the beach or something, if you drove by the Catholic church there was a funeral every day. Then people got together and there were some shows done and benefits and candlelight vigils and a wide variety of ways that people were trying to sort through what happened. I don't know what it was like in the middle of the country or on the West Coast, but here it was very real."

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If ever there was a rock star who embodied the values of community, dependability and a continuing dialogue with his audience, it's Springsteen, so he and the band were happy to get stuck into some morale-boosting projects.

"Yeah, we did shows in Asbury and in Redbank (sic) near here, and a couple of places in the area. Garry Tallent [E Street bassist] put on a two-night show, it was fun – I played, Joan Jett, DJ Fontana came up with Sonny Burgess from Memphis and it was just a wide variety of people who came up and played and chipped in. It was a very interesting show. Then the last couple of years we've done Christmas concerts in Asbury where I front Max Weinberg's band [E Street drummer] and a lot of the E Street guys show up, and we get the horn section from Southside Johnny and some singers and we have a big 30-piece band onstage and we throw a big Christmas party basically. This year that was a part of it. Garland Jeffreys played, Elvis Costello came and sang a song, Bruce Hornsby – it was a lot of fun. I met many of the survivors and the wives, they'd come out and wanted to dance and have fun. They'd say, 'Thanks, we had a great time.'"

This instinct to band together and try to find something to be hopeful about was another dimension Springsteen wanted to build into the new album. Despite the sombre nature of much of the subject matter, he has managed to smuggle in a couple of tracks that are as poppy and commercial as anything he's ever written. "Waitin' On A Sunny Day" is an easy-going stroll back to the classic pop Springsteen soaked up in his youth, with "a little Phil Spector and a little Rockpile" in the mix. "Let's Be Friends" he describes as "a combination of Sly Stone and Virginia beach music. Yeah, that's a nice groove, it's like a kids' singalong. What really makes it work is the Alliance Choir who are singing on it along with Patti [Scialfa, aka Mrs Springsteen] and Soozie Tyrell. When the chorus hits, it's just a very classic sound."

Talking about music, he stresses, isn't the same as hearing it. "I think listening to me sort of propound my ideas of what went into the songs is not the same, may I mention, as the listening experience!" he argues, amid laughter. "The band is playing hard, loud and with intensity, and the music itself is very bright for the most part. For the first time I made a record with the E Street Band in 18 years I wanted a record that was gonna be fun for people to listen to, and exciting, that people used the way people use rock records, which is either to clean your house to or to change your life if you want to, y'know? That was an essential element. Without that, the lyrics as they stand would not work. They work because they're embedded in music that is very life-affirming. That balance has been something I think I've struck in all my best songs, like my verses are always the blues and my choruses are gospel. You go to 'The Promised Land' or 'Badlands', they're based on the idea that your feet are grounded in the everyday, in the real world, but your spirit is reaching high."

The idea was the album wouldn't duck "all the hard questions", but it needed to stir listeners physically, too. "That's something the band and I do well and that had to be a part of it," he reasons. "The record needed to be filled with a certain sort of hopeful energy but the hope had to be earned, y'know? It couldn't just be platitudes or 'Everything's gonna be all right' or 'Things are gonna be better'. So if you look at a song like 'Mary's Place' – ‘we're gonna have a party.' Then you go back to the verses and see all the other stuff is in the verses, somebody trying to sort through what happened, and 'What's my place and where do I go tonight and how do I deal with this minute by minute and day by day?'"

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"Mary's Place" is where the bar-band spirit of the E Street squad emerges most vividly on the album, but it acknowledges that decades have passed since the rowdier, less self-examining days of "Where The Bands Are" or "Out In The Street". It sounds like a celebration, but it isn't very far away from being a wake, either.

"I think that's what you saw at the time, people were making that effort to celebrate and it was helpful," says Springsteen. "The idea of the song was to capture that thing. I wanted it to really feel like home. It's a throwback to 'Rosalita' almost, and I wanted the band to feel the way people remembered that it felt at a certain time and I was singing a certain way. It comes up about three-quarters of the way through the record, right after 'The Fuse', which is really sonically different for us, and all of a sudden people would feel like, hey, that's your own pals putting their arms around you and you've got a place to go and somebody to talk to and be with. That's kind of what our band has been for people and what we've wanted to be for people over the years. The song comes up at a particular place on the record, it's that open-arms-of-home feeling."

Forensically minded listeners may find it interesting to consider the piece as another of Springsteen's "Mary" songs. Since "Mary Queen Of Arkansas" on his debut album, Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J., Marys – or is it just Mary? – have cropped up consistently down the years. In "Thunder Road", it's Mary who "dances across the porch as the radio plays", while the narrator "got Mary pregnant" in "The River." She's back again in "Straight Time" from The Ghost Of Tom Joad – "Mary's smiling but she's watching me out of the corner of her eye." Time for a doctoral thesis on "The Name Mary In The Works Of Bruce Springsteen", perhaps?

So who is she this time, Bruce? Mary from "Thunder Road"? The Virgin Mary?

"Yeah, I've used that name a lot of times," he grins. "I'm sure it's the Catholic coming out in me, y'know? That was always the most beautiful name. I used it in 'Thunder Road', I used it on Tom Joad, and what happens is if you kind of set up a continuing… it's not necessarily the same person, and there's a little continuum that occurs for the people who are watching or listening. The name drifts through your body of work and leaves a trail of its own about where you've been and where you're going. It comes up in 'Mary's Place' and really, you're right, it's like, 'Well, where's the party actually being held?' It could be here or there, and who is actually saying meet me at Mary's place? That was part of it, too. Whose voice is that?

"It comes up again at the end of 'The Rising', 'I see you Mary in the garden of a thousand sighs.' Once again, that's like someone's wife, or it could be a religious vision. I think that the songs call for a blurring of those ideas. They had to meld in a certain way, the religious with the everyday, because that's one of the only emotional responses to that experience, I think. So it floats through the record in a lot of ways."

These are daunting issues to address on a rock album, and Springsteen set himself his sternest examination on the title track. Above the roaring blowtorch blast of the new O'Brien-ised E Street Band sound, they lyrics are part mantra, part prayer, part mystical contemplation and part horrified onlooker.

"I think it's a natural image of sacrifice," he reflects. "Once again moving towards religious imagery to explain some of the day's experiences. It's unavoidable to some degree because of the nature and the type of sacrifice that occurred. I got down towards the end of the record and I think I was searching for the voice of someone who died, and I wanted to have a voice that addresses the living. So I just sort of imagined the main character basically… I dunno, speaking to his wife. Who would you want to speak to? Your wife, and you'd think of your children. And then just those left at large, I think. The different verses move slowly towards that kind of crossing-over point. 'The Rising' – that was it, that was the moment when the souls rise."

His voice has been growing steadily quieter as he takes the measure of his subject. The weight of it is starting to bear down on the entire room, even on this pristine summer afternoon. He pauses to drink some water. Sometimes he'll rephrase his sentences two or three times, as he searches for the exact nuance of meaning.

"In the beginning, the first verse is kind of disorientation and 'Where am I?' It starts, 'Can't see nothing in front of me, can't see nothing coming up behind… All I can feel is the chain that binds me' – the links with whatever you might wanna call it – duty, love, comradeship, the fear – that keep people going. The song moves on. The second verse is just where the person came from, 'Left the house this morning… wearin' the cross of my calling.' Well, that's just 'this is your job,' y'know? It's the same one you've worn every day and today these are its responsibilities and this is what it's asking. The bridge of the song is a moment when I think the singer realises that his mortality is at hand, and then in the last verse I imagine him speaking to his wife or a religious vision of some sort, 'See Mary in the garden…' It seemed to me that's one of the things you'd be thinking about, and the desire for a return to a physical intimacy – 'Feel your arms around me' – the physical self. The fear of losing that physical self. 'May I feel your blood mix with mine,' the desire to sustain the physical intimacy.

"Then, 'A dream of life comes to me like a catfish dancin' on the end of my line.' That was a funny line – the catfish line popped out of my head, 'cos I fish out here once in a while and there's that moment when bing!, y'know, you're suspended between life and death, incredible life and a moment of death, and really I think the rest of the song turns into this mantra, 'Sky of blackness and sorrow, sky of love.' It's sort of the yin-yang of just what is. 'Sky of mercy, sky of fear, sky of memory, sky of emptiness, sky of fullness.' I think it's the awareness of what is about to be lost. 'A dream of life, dream of life, dream of life' – repeat that over and over again. Just the magnitude of what you're leaving behind, what you're giving up, and a last chance to speak to people that matter to you. So that came up towards the end of the record. It was kind of a curtain on the whole thing. I think a lot of the other songs were moving towards that direction."

The bearded, frizzy-haired Springsteen who would hang around Madam Marie the fortune-teller's on the Asbury Park boardwalk probably never dreamt he'd end up writing his own version of the St Matthew Passion, but the roots of his new songs can be clearly discerned in his past songwriting. His willingness to engage with the spiritual and the metaphysical will probably be what strikes listeners most forcefully about The Rising, but it isn't a development which has sprung unexpectedly out of nowhere.

Ten years ago, the Lucky Town album concluded with "Souls Of The Departed" and "My Beautiful Reward," two songs distinctly preoccupied with the afterlife. "Well this is a prayer for the souls of the departed/Those who've gone and left their babies brokenhearted," he sang in the former. The nuns who taught the young Bruce Frederick Springsteen at the St Rose Of Lima School in Freehold might consider they did a pretty good job of instilling Holy dread and the mysteries of Catholic ritual into the boy.

You can also trace a clear line between "My Beautiful Reward" and the new song, "Paradise." "Yeah, they share some of the same issues. That transition point between life and death. When I wrote 'Paradise', I was looking for something kind of really quiet, and I think it was the week there'd been the teenage girl suicide bombers. It was devastating, and so the first verse came out of thinking about that, the loss of life and the false paradise. Then I'd met a woman who had lost her husband at the Pentagon, and she came to Asbury one night, and they were just long time fans I guess. I think I was thinking of that woman when I wrote the song, which is why it switches from Virginia because I wanted something that was outside the United States, the larger feeling of the effect of what's going on in the world outside the States. Again I thought, 'What do you miss?' You miss the physicalness and the ability to touch somebody.

"I've had people close to me who died. I remember when I was young, that aching to touch the person again was very, very strong and it was very painful to realise that it just couldn't happen. And the last verse is a survivor's verse, where I think your desire to join the people you've lost is very strong. You have the situation where the person goes to that river, it's the river of transition between life and death and they wade into it and they take themselves underneath.

"Somewhere in that nether world they see the person and it kinda comes up with that last line – they're searching for the peacefulness that people feel comes with death and passing on, or with an imagined version of paradise that you'll attain, and they get close enough and they just see emptiness. There's a lot of different ways people could interpret it. I always felt it was, 'Hey, life is here. It's all you have and it's here and now.'

"In the last couple of lines the person swims to the surface and feels the sun. That was my last song of the record."

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