The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 probably inspired more music than any event since the crucifixion of Jesus. Ten days after the attacks, there was a multi-network telethon to raise money for the victims (who at that time may still have numbered in the tens of thousands, as far as we knew), called America: A Tribute to Heroes. It was almost entirely music. The opener was a song called “My City of Ruin,” performed live by Bruce Springsteen. Of all the songs the events of 9/11 have inspired over the past five years, that song, and that specific performance, is still my favorite.
“There’s a blood red circle on the cold dark ground, and the rain is fallin’ down,” he begins. It’s an unplugged performance, acoustic guitar and harmonica. The song is bare and sad; there is no anger or thirst for revenge, just a survey of the devastation. “The church door’s thrown open, I can hear the organ’s song / but the congregation’s gone / My city of ruin, my city of ruin . . .”
The tour of the wreckage continues: “Now the sweet bells of mercy drift through the evening trees, young men on the corner like scattered leaves / The boarded-up windows, the empty streets, and my brother’s down on his knees.” In the days following the unthinkable, Springsteen has already found the artistic focus that will carry him through his coming great album, The Rising, as well as lead Alan Jackson through his maudlin but heartrending song “Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning?”; speak not of the enemy, but the victims.
He does not turn away from hopelessness: “There’s tears on the pillow, darling, where we slept, and you took my heart when you left / Without your sweet kiss, my soul is lost, my friend, tell me how do I begin again?” But there is a chorus, coupled with a prayer, that delivers hope: “I pray, Lord / I pray for the strength, Lord / I pray for the faith, Lord / I pray for the strength, Lord / We pray for your love, Lord / We pray for this world, Lord / We pray for the lost, Lord / We pray for the strength, Lord / We pray for the strength, Lord / Come on, rise up . . .” Those are the final words, “Rise up,” delivered in a weary, trailing voice as the song winds down. No calls for military reprisal against our enemies, no superficial patriotism, just a hymn for the dead. Five years later, and when I hear it I’m right back there again. It ensures I will never forget.
I don’t mean to suggest that this song is the final word on September 11, that no other artists need be considered. Many great artists created a wide variety of work all across the emotional spectrum, including the aforementioned Alan Jackson, Neil Young, Wilco, and even Eminem. The useless and outrageous bellowings of Toby Keith and Darryl Worley got most of the attention, but there is a great deal of worthwhile music inspired by 9/11 that floats just under the radar. What makes Springsteen’s music, specifically that first performance of “My City of Ruin,” (which he re-recorded with the E Street Band for his album The Rising) special is the depth and the maturity of his response to the events. He’s not interested in the politics, he’s interested in the people and the emotions and the horrifying question so many of us were asking ourselves that day: What next?