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Songs of an empty sky

Springsteen and others have tried to capture a nation's mood, but relating the events in lyrics has proved difficult

Michael Corcoran

Originally published September 10, 2002.

It had been touted as the first great work of art based on the Sept. 11 tragedy, but the Bruce Springsteen fans who filled the Mercury nightclub in July to get an early listen to "The Rising" would've been there if their Boss had just made a concept album about the London subway system ("Tube of Life"?). With the lyrics scrolling on a screen as the music played, one song started, "The sky was falling and streaked with blood/ I heard you calling me, then you disappeared into dust/ Up the stairs, into the fire." Another one went "I want a kiss from your lips/ I want an eye for an eye/ I woke up this morning to an empty sky."

These were heartfelt songs about our nation's most tragic event and yet they seemed forced and obvious. With all the good intent in the world, Springsteen set out to illuminate our darkest day. But making music with a preconceived purpose can be a mistake. The best art is often accidental. Where would modern expressionism be today if Jackson Pollock wasn't clumsy? The fuzztone guitar sound wasn't the invention of a visionary, but rather the product of a defective tube in an amp. The genius was in embracing the mistakes.

A few days after the planes hit the towers -- and reality hit me -- I took solace in Springsteen's "Nebraska" album, the impromptu acoustic effort that began life in 1982 as demos on a cassette tape. These songs of desperate characters, bad decisions, deep sadness and unspeakable deeds were supposed to be backed by a full band. But in listening to the tape, recorded at home on a four-track deck, Springsteen and his manager decided to put it out as it was, and created a masterpiece with the strength to make depression a sacrament. The lyrics of the title track, based on the 1958 spree killings of Charles Starkweather, which shocked Americans and ushered in the mass murderer era, seemed to inform the ghastly images on the television in September 2001. "They wanted to know why I did what I did," Springsteen sings as the Starkweather character. "Well sir, I guess there's just a meanness in this world."

Making sense from chaos has always been the artist's higher calling, but the tragedy of Sept. 11, as ungraspable in retrospect as it was unfathomable in execution, has seemed too monumental to address in creative terms. It's the story of our lifetime, hopefully the biggest thing that will ever rock us, but perhaps it hit us too deep.

When four unarmed students were killed by the National Guard at Kent State University amid anti-war protests, Neil Young was able to pen an astute reflection of the event called "Ohio." Within days it was on the radio, underlining the anger that many felt at the misuse of power. "Tin soldiers and Nixon coming/ we're finally on our own." It was kinda catchy. "Four dead in Ohio, four dead in Ohio." Pump your fists.

But what happens when there are almost 3,000 innocent people dead and a nation watches as two of the world's tallest buildings come tumbling down? Where is the music that can make sense of that?

After the events of Sept. 11, Young tried to enliven the numbness with "Let's Roll," one of the most uninspired songs on his latest album. With its drudging riff and unpoetic lyrics, "Let's Roll" came off as more reactionary than reflective. It wasn't played on radios. It didn't ring out in the streets.

Country singer Alan Jackson had a No. 1 smash with "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)," recorded days after the tragedy. But rather than shine an insightful light, it merely characterized the mass befuddlement of those days, especially with the protagonist admitting he didn't know the difference between Iraq and Iran. The song merely mirrored the mood of numbing sadness and righteous rage chronicled in unison by columnists who couldn't seem to find the midpoint between the ordinary and the pretentious, where the best commentary resides. There was a blazing need to comment, but who, really, had something to say? It was not a time for cleverness, and poetry has never felt so inconsequential.

The best thing I read in the wake of Sept. 11 was not from a professional writer, but an e-mail sent by a friend in New York who said not seeing the World Trade Center towers the next day was like waking up and finding that your legs had been amputated. Here's someone who didn't set out for the definitive metaphor; it somehow just came to her. Brilliance comes pouring out when you least expect it. John Lennon passes a magazine shop, sees the headline "Happiness Is a Warm Gun" on a magazine for firearm enthusiasts, and by the time he's home he's started a song. A blackbird lands on Paul McCartney's window sill in India, and he goes on to write a lovely paean to the Civil Rights movement. But in the winter of 2001, McCartney wrote, "I will fight for the right to live in freedom" in the straight-forward song "Freedom," and no one heard him.

Sometimes an artist can set out to write an anthem and succeed. Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come," inspired in 1963 by the freedom marchers, springs to mind. And Bob Dylan has written a slew of classics on purpose. But usually the best ideas drop in, unexpectedly, like old friends.

Post-Sept. 11 commentary has been saddled with oversensitivity, and when George Michael released "Shoot the Dog," which satirized the U.S. retaliation in Afghanistan, angry fans and critics reacted as if he still had a career. Steve Earle also caused an uproar when he recorded "John Walker Blues," which humanized the vilified John Walker Lindh by exploring his motivations. Protests were tempered somewhat by Earle's history for taking unpopular stances, such as his anti-death penalty diatribes, but "John Walker Blues" was not a hit with country radio, which salivated all over Toby Keith's "whupass" anthem "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue."

Time is tragedy's greatest adversary. Eventually someone will be able, either through song or film or literature, to put Sept. 11 in a glowing light, or present a knowing darkness, where we can understand what happened a little clearer. Now seems too soon, and you have to wonder if "Nebraska" would be as moving a track if it had been released in 1959, while the nation was still in shock from Starkweather's coldblooded thrill killings.

When I first began hearing "Tears in Heaven" by Eric Clapton on the radio and learned it was inspired by the death of his 4-year-old son, who crawled out of a window on an upper floor of a Manhattan hotel, I had to change the station every time. I couldn't get the image of a free-falling toddler out of my mind, just as I can't forget the Sept. 11 footage of people, some holding hands, leaping to their deaths from more than 100 stories up.

After a few years, the Clapton song didn't horrify me as much as comfort me, with the example that eventually you can move on, even if the hole in your heart never heals. Eventually is a powerful adverb.

If survivors didn't finally emerge from the rubble, lessons did. "Keep your dreams alive" is one ideal that keeps coming back to me. The best way to honor the dead is to value your life to the extreme.

The funniest person I've ever met is a New York City fireman who is my cousin. Riffing off the top of his head, Kevin Corcoran will make you laugh so hard that you'll almost pass out. Everybody tells him he should get together a stand-up routine and hit the open mikes, but he just shoos the thought away, then does five hilarious minutes on his wife's new vacuum cleaner.

He wasn't in the World Trade Center that morning, thank God. He lost several friends and hasn't quite been his old jovial self since. But one day he'll be able to get over it like many of us already have.

And maybe he won't take his gift, his potential, so lightly. Maybe he'll get up there behind the microphone and ask if there's anyone out there from New Jersey.

Which brings us back to Bruce Springsteen. When you listen to "The Rising" over and over again -- without the words scrolling on a screen -- you realize what a great album it is. The level of insight becomes moot when wrapped up in those glorious melodies. The pounding of the drums and the uplifting guitar chords are all the purpose you need to believe that there is a power that can lift us out of the abyss.

When I first got it, I could only listen to "The Rising" on one level. I wanted it to make me feel better about what happened. Springsteen has, more than any songwriter, been able to reach me emotionally. But it wasn't clicking, and after a while I wondered if it wasn't the writing that was forced, but the listening.

Finally, the revelation came, not in lyrics that drilled into my soul, but in a simple, head-bobbing melody. "Waitin' on a sunny day," he sang, as the E Street Band provided the bounce to match. "Gonna chase the clouds away." Sometimes pop music cliches can enlighten, invigorate, soothe better than studied eloquence. I played it over and over again -- five, six, seven times -- and I felt as alive as I have since Sept. 11, 2001.

mcorcoran@statesman.com; 445-3652