Bruce Springsteen released his 12th studio album, The Rising, at the tail end of July 2002. With the U.S. still reeling from the 9/11/01 terrorist attacks and stories of fallen soldiers in the headlines, the Boss recorded a masterful reflection on loss, sorrow, love, hope, redemption and trying to find one’s way through the darkness. Each song stands up with his finest material from an extraordinary career that dates back to the 1973. Making the album more compelling was that Springsteen was recording with the fabled E Street Band for the first time since the 1982 sessions that resulted in Born in the USA. For Springsteen fans like me, this news was what we’d been waiting for since the triumphant 1999/2000 reunion tour that had announced to the world “the band was BACK!” I am not alone in believing that with his trusted bandmates behind him — in particular the Big Man, Clarence Clemons, and the trusted rhythm section of drummer Max Weinberg and bassist Gary Tallent — Springsteen is a more electric performer. Watching Bruce and his surrogate family perform together is like watching a well-tuned machine.
In July of 2002, my family was in its own state of emotional turmoil. A mere seven months after our son, Jacob, was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, we were coming to grips with our own feelings of hopelessness, sorrow, anger, love, hope and struggles with faith. Personally, I bottled up many of the fears and doubts that took up residency in my mind. I foolishly assumed that my wife, Julie, would not want to discuss my feelings because she was going through the same emotions. There were many times I wound up crying, secluded in my car, or quietly at night while my wife slept next to me.
One source of release was music. Two of albums that circulated through my CD player earlier that year were Rush’s Vapor Trails and Badly Drawn Boy’s wonderful soundtrack to the film About a Boy. However, with the release of The Rising, I became enthralled with a collection of songs that tapped into the well of feelings I was experiencing. Moreover, the music from this record found its way into my children’s hearts, creating a special bond between us. By early 2003, The Rising became more than just another Bruce Springsteen masterpiece in the Malchus household; it became a source of joy and inspiration for our family.
In January of ’03, around the time that Springsteen would go on to lose Album of the Year at the Grammys (to Norah Jones), CBS television aired an hourlong Springsteen concert special culled from footage shot in Barcelona in ’02. I freakishly set up the VCR to record the program on that Friday night. Sophie watched in fascination as her wild-eyed fanatical father pressed buttons and frantically searched for a blank VHS tape. The next morning, the kids, both curious about what sort of obsession would make me act so crazed, insisted on watching the concert special during Jacob’s breathers. You can only imagine my pride and joy as Sophie and Jacob (willing to forego the Wiggles for the Boss during his breathers) sat and watched the show with me. I was on cloud nine introducing my kids, a new generation, to the music of a man who had inspired since my senior year in high school, when I nursed a broken heart down in My parents’ basement with 1987’s Tunnel of Love.
A month or so later, Sophie requested her own compilation of Springsteen songs. I quickly made a cassette of The Rising songs from the concert special as well as some other classics I felt every child should know (like “Give the Girl a Kiss” and ‘Seaside Bar Song”). Through long road trips and short drives around town, Sophie and Jacob sang “Come on up to the rising” and “It’s alright, it’s alright, it’s alright, YEAH!” (from “Lonesome Day”). But their favorite song was “Mary’s Place.” During this rousing number, Sophie misheard the chorus, instead singing “Meet me at the wedding place;” I always felt this gave the song a touch of innocence. And during the last verse, as the music quiets and the back-up singers begin calling out, “turn it up,” Julie made it a tradition to literally turn up the music with each call out, then quickly back down again. This made the kids ecstatic each and every time; they would laugh and sing with all of their hearts. That tape stayed in our van for two years until it finally got tangled and snapped in half after being loved to death. By then I had caught up with technology and burned them a CD containing the same tunes.
2003 also marked the year of my first marathon/fundraiser for the CF Foundation. I began a long, hard road of training that led from our house in Saugus, California all the way to the white sandy beaches of Honolulu. Among the first songs I loaded into my original MP3 player (“old blue,” I liked to call it) were most of the songs from The Rising. During my early morning training runs I would reflect on the songs more deeply. “Empty Sky” is a mournful song written after Springsteen crossed a bridge into New York and noticed the conspicuous space in the skyline where the twin towers used to reach up into the air; “Worlds Apart” is a startling, hard-driving number that intertwines Middle Eastern instrumentation and the vocals of Asif Ali Khan and his group with the driving, garage-band rock that guitarist Steven Van Zandt champions; and the elegiac “Nothing Man” is a heartbreaking ballad sung from the perspective of a man who’s survived hell (the collapse of the World Trade Center, perhaps) and questions his own worth while the rest of the world carries on as if nothing has changed. With Nils Lofgren’s aching guitar, subtle keyboards by Roy Bittan, and Patti Scialfa’s angelic harmony vocals, “Nothing Man” is nothing short of perfection. Of all the characters on The Rising, I often associated most with this character. What was my worth as a man? How could I help my son and my family through this difficult period? What could I do to help in the battle against cystic fibrosis?
I could run to raise money and awareness. By punishing my body, I hoped to inspire people to donate and join me in trying to find a cure. That December, we flew to Hawaii for the Honolulu Marathon. Besides the race, it was one of our best vacations ever. For one week it was just Julie, Sophie, Jacob and I enjoying our lives together in a tranquil environment. It was as if our lives were on hold while we were in Hawaii; it was as if the troubles and fears that were a part of our daily routine had been left behind in California while we basked in the sun and splashed in the turquoise ocean waters. Late in the week, we bought Sophie and Jacob ukuleles as a memento of the trip. The size of the instruments made them perfect “guitars” for their little hands. One of the first things Jake wanted to do was listen to Bruce and prance around with his guitar in hand. I hope someday he picks up a real guitar and learns to play the same song. I would proudly back him up on my drums — that is, if Sophie isn’t already manning the drum stool.
Those vivid memories of Hawaii and the light in the eyes of my children continue to inspire me day to day. When I’m low, I think of them smiling; when I’m near tears, I conjure up the sound of their laughter in my head; and when I’m pissed off or feeling sorry for myself, their voices singing “Meeeeet me at the wedding place” put me in the right frame of mind.
Since 2002, Springsteen has been on a creative roll like no other in his career. After The Rising, he has released three studio albums (including last year’s stellar Magic), a concert DVD (the entire Barcelona concert) and a live CD. With so much material, it’s been easy to put away The Rising, which I’d listened to endlessly, to become acquainted with the new works. However, knowing that I was going to see Bruce and the band this coming Monday (someday soon, Sophie and Jacob will accompany me — I can’t wait) and that I wanted to reflect on this particular album, a couple of weeks ago I began to once again immerse myself in The Rising. I was pleased at how wonderful the songs still sound and saddened at how many of the lyrics still resonate in today’s world. One listen to “You’re Missing” and you will not only think of the families from 9/11, but also every military family who has lost a son or daughter, husband or wife overseas in Iraq or Afghanistan. With its plaintive piano, Soozie Tyrell’s haunting violin and Springsteen’s seemingly simple lyrics, “You’re Missing” is a song that should be played at EVERY political rally to help bring reason to our country’s leaders and end these wars. Anytime I listen to that song, I want to reach out and embrace my family.
Still, throughout The Rising there are moments of celebration, like “Mary’s Place” and “Let’s Be Friends (Skin to Skin).” And the album does end on an optimistic note, as Springsteen calls upon us to “rise up.” Using Danny Federici’s soulful organ as the backbone, “My City of Ruins,” Springsteen’s paean to the Jersey shores that took on new meaning after 9/11, compels us to join together so that we can become better people. They are inspired words for any man when he faces huge obstacles, and they are the type of words that can inspire millions to make this country — no, this world — a better place.