This is the 71st post in a weekly series. Read about it here and see the list of previous songs here. A new post about a different song is posted each Monday. You can listen to the songs in a Spotify playlist.

While performing at the Convention Hall in Asbury Park in December 2000, Bruce Springsteen debuted a song he had written about his “adopted hometown, Asbury Park, who suffered so long.”

The song, “My City of Ruins,” never mentioned Asbury Park by name, but evoked the imagery of a city beset by hard times:

Now the sweet veils of mercy
Drift through the evening trees
Young men on the corner
Like scattered leaves
The boarded up windows
The hustlers and thieves
While my brother’s down on his knees

Nine months later, Springsteen performed “My City of Ruins” for “America: A Tribute to Heroes,” the benefit concert in the aftermath of the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Springsteen introduced the song as “a prayer for our fallen brothers and sisters.”

That performance introduced “My City of Ruins” to the rest of America, and the world. What had been a song about Asbury Park now had significance for New York City, and the rest of America. “Come on, rise up” had a whole new meaning to it.

The following year, Springsteen included the song on “The Rising,” which was not only Springsteen’s first album in seven years, but even more importantly, his first album with The E Street Band in 18 years.

Springsteen said that shortly after Sept. 11, he visited a beach in Asbury Park. A passenger in a nearby car recognized Springsteen, rolled down the window, and yelled, “We need you now.” “The Rising” was his response. Though it was not solely focused on Sept. 11, 2001, many songs on “The Rising,” including the title track, referenced the day. The album reached Number 1 in both the US and the UK.

In the 15 years since “The Rising” was released,” much has been written on the outsize role that Springsteen and the album played in American culture. Writing on the eve of the 10th anniversary of the attacks, Philadelphia Inquirer music critic Dan DeLuca wrote:

…listening now, it’s striking how well it has held up. The songs make contextual sense in the aftermath of 9/11, but the specific details that give them power are allusive. “Lonesome Day,” “You’re Missing,” and “My City of Ruins” are about the hollowing devastation of that day, but the language is universal, so the sentiments are by no means frozen in time.

Around that same time, Christopher Pramuk wrote an essay for America Magazine that specifically praised “My City of Ruins” as one of the most moving tracks on the album, saying:

He voices the prophet’s cry of lamentation on behalf of a people who have seen and felt the unspeakable shatter the landscape of their lives. “Come on, rise up!” he sings, urging a congregation to return to a ruined city, to a church, open but empty, save for the sound of the organ.

The printed word cannot do justice to the original recording, much less to Springsteen’s stark, even prayerful renderings in live performances. For me the song evokes something of the diffuse anxieties and social malaise of my college students, for whom Sept. 11 will forever reverberate as a kind of Pearl Harbor moment. But it also voices that deep, universal cry in the human spirit that refuses to let death or despair have the final word.

With the band joining in and lifting him up like a gospel choir, Springsteen’s anguished refrain of “Come on, rise up!” is a dual cry both of pain and possibility, desperation and resilience. Characteristically, Springsteen offers no cheap grace, no flag-waving jingoism. The invitation to rise up is limned in remorse, a sense of complicity for the “ruins” in which we find ourselves as a people. The song’s hope is a hope against hope, against the possibility that our sins are too many, that our realization of guilt comes too late, and that for too long we have cut ourselves loose from our most humane and sacred ideals.

But John Cook, writing for Gawker, declared that “‘The Rising’ is a terrible, bad, no-good record that cheapens us all”:

You can almost feel the weight of Springsteen’s duty on the record: these are his people, these firefighters. This is his backyard. A nation turned its weary eyes to the Boss, and he keenly felt the need to answer. But the answer was overwrought, grandiose, bombastic. He went big. We didn’t need any more big things.

Springsteen’s grandiosity and bombast worked magic when applied to the backstreet tragedies of high-school dropouts on the Jersey Shore. “The Wild, the Innocent, & the E Street Shuffle” and “Born to Run” recast the mundane travails of ordinary outcasts as Shakespearian epics, and Springsteen’s anguished lyrical stretches—”broken heroes on a last chance power drive”—served to underline his low-rent characters’ essential dignity rather than his own purple tendencies. He was living beyond his means as a songwriter, but it’s effective when you’re taking life-sized stories and elevating them to myth.

It doesn’t work the other way. And that’s what “The Rising” is: Springsteen tried his Bard of the Jersey Turnpike routine on something that was epically large and unspeakably horrid, something that needed no mythologizing. The result is a mawkish assortment of cliches.

In his review of “The Rising,” Cook never singled out “My City of Ruins,” which is just as well, because as I have pointed out, the song predates the Sept. 11 attacks. But “My City of Ruins” has, through its inclusion in “America: A Tribute to Heroes” and “The Rising,” become closely associated with Sept. 11. And yet, of all the songs Springsteen included on the album, it might be the most versatile. Part of the versatility of “My City of Ruins” comes from the fact that it never mentions a city by name and uses vague imagery that could describe anywhere. Springsteen’s version might be firmly tied Sept. 11, but other artists, through their covers, have expanded the scope of the song.

In 2009, Springsteen was one of the honorees at the 32nd Annual Kennedy Center Honors in Washington, DC. Several artists payed homage to Springsteen, including Eddie Vedder, who delivered a bare rendition of “My City of Ruins.” Backed just by a choir and his guitar, made an already emotional song even more intimate.

The song was made available on iTunes in early 2010 to raise funds for Haiti earthquake disaster relief efforts. Vedder’s “My City of Ruins” reached Number 92 on the Billboard Hot 100.

The week of the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, New York-based singer-songwriter Robbie Gil performed “My City of Ruins” at Rockwood Music Hall in New York City. As the audience chimed in with “With these hands,” it was hard not see this this cathartic for what Gil and all of these other New Yorkers had experienced in the previous decade.

Folk/Americana band The Lumineers performed the song while visiting a radio station in Hamburg, Germany. The acoustic performance gains some its charm from the limited quality of the recording. When he sings “Come on, rise up,” he sounds like he’s not only singing to those around him, but to himself.

Springsteen was honored at The Recording Academy’s MusiCares Person of the Year ceremony in 2013, where several of his songs were performed by other artists. Together, Zac Brown and Mavis Staples performed “My City of Ruins.” That might seem like an odd combination on paper, but the two worked well together. Where Vedder and The Lumineers had stripped the song of most of its instrumentation, Brown and Staples were backed by a fuller band that gave the song a Church-y feel.

Belgian singer Jasper Steverlinck performed “My City of Ruins” live at Studio Brussel in Belgium in December 2015. Most of the artists who covered the song emphasized “come on, rise up,” but the part that Steverlinck belted out was the repeated line of “with these hands.”

In these cover songs, the performers were faithful to Springsteen’s version, and yet none of the versions sounded the same. Each performer brought a different vibe to the song. Mavis Staples had such a power to her delivery that it might be hard for me to listen to any any other version.

Songs have meaning because we subjectively assign that meaning to them. Songs that we’ve seen used memorably in movies or TV shows can become inseparable from the movies or TV shows that featured them. It’s why many of us associate “I Say A Little Prayer” with “My Best Friend’s Wedding” or “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” with “The Blues Brothers.” And we have personal memories to those movies or TV shows, those associations can be that much stronger.

But Springsteen’s album “The Rising” isn’t associated with some TV show or movie; it’s associated with a horrible real world event. For many of us, the album was a cathartic release of all the emotions that had built up over the previous year. But as I have shown in previous posts, even songs that have strong connections to specific events can be covered. No song is so sacred that it becomes immune from being performed with a new angle, or by someone else completely.

Springsteen has used the song in different contexts, too. In 2006, he dedicated the song to New Orleans when he played at the annual Jazz & Heritage Festival. What he had originally written about Asbury Park…

Like scattered leaves
The boarded up windows
The hustlers and thieves
While my brother’s down on his knees

…especially resonated with New Orleans residents who were still reeling from Hurricane Katrina. Those lyrics also resonated with the people of Christchurch, New Zealand, to whom Springsteen dedicated “My City of Ruins” at a concert in 2017, as an acknowledgement of the devastating earthquake the city suffered in 2011.

For his part, Springsteen seems OK with the path the song has taken, having once said, “I wrote this song for Asbury Park, but songs are good for whoever needs them.”

You can listen to these songs and previously discussed cover songs in a Spotify playlist.
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