In the years after 9/11, I remember looking to writers and musicians to help me frame some understanding of the event. I wasn’t directly directly affected by the 9/11 attacks — I didn’t know anyone who was killed personally, but there have been ripples of impact over time: a brother-in-law who worked in the rebuilt wing of the Pentagon; two friends who have gone to war in Afghanistan and Iraq; another friend who used to work in the towers and was there during the first bombing attempt.
As I turned to the arts for help in framing some understanding, there wasn’t much there, in my opinion. Some pieces in The New Yorker were eloquent and moving and were perfectly suited to the days following, but where are all the novelists making sense or at least trying to make sense of the event? (The only book that, for me, has done so is Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. That moved me beyond measure, and I still think of Foer’s book from time to time.)
But when Bruce Springsteen came out with his The Rising album, and I sat down with it for the first time with headphones — just me and the music — I realized that Bruce had created what I was looking for at the time. It’s not a perfect album. An even more stripped-down production would have been more powerful. Yet, Bruce captures the feeling of loss and recovery of a catastrophic event on both small and large scales that it touched me as a listener in a way that only music can do.
This week, my friend Paul Hankins was writing about how he was using a song from the album in his school to remember 9/11 with students, and it reminded me how I had not listened to The Rising in so long. I had pushed it away, I guess. I dug The Rising out, and found myself back in that moment of remembering the power of the music again. The power of the songwriter to get at the heart of something bigger than it seems.
Three songs stand out for me because they are carved out of the empty spaces of people who are not coming back. The ghosts of memory haunt the music here. And Bruce sought to show the cycle of loss and recovery in the shadows of love and tragedy:
My City of Ruins
Peace (with music),