In 2000, Bruce Springsteen wrote “My City of Ruins” – a song with a stately gospel-hymn feel that bemoaned the hard times that had hit his adopted hometown of Asbury Park, and that was meant to inspire people to help in the city’s resurrection. “Come on, rise up!,” he sang, repeatedly. He performed it at Christmas benefit shows at Asbury Park’s Convention Hall on Dec. 17 and 18 of that year. (see video below)
After 9/11, he was asked to perform at the “America: A Tribute to Heroes” telethon on Sept. 21, 2001, and agreed. He had actually started working on some of the new, post-9/11 songs that would be released on The Rising, in 2002. But none was ready to be performed. And so he reached back to “My City of Ruins” (see video below), introducing it as “a prayer for our fallen brothers and sisters.”
He actually gave, I believe, one of the greatest performances of his life, with the whole world watching. And the song worked quite well in its new context. The verse about romantic loss, for instance, mentioning “tears on the pillow” and asking “how do I begin again?,” now seemed to be about someone who lost his or her partner on 9/11.
Springsteen only made one significant lyrical change, substituting “The boarded up windows, the empty streets” for “The boarded up windows, the hustlers and thieves.” He left in “young men on the corner like scattered leaves” — originally intended, presumably, as a reference to drug dealers.
And so “My City of Ruins” became forever associated with 9/11. And this was, of course, bolstered by its use, the next year, as the closing track of The Rising, whose title echoes that exhortation to “Rise up!”
The title track of The Rising is its centerpiece, but “My City of Ruins” provides its climax, with its unbearable sadness and then, somehow emerging from that, the hunger to join together and start over again.
Background facts: A studio version of “My City of Ruins” was included on Bruce Springsteen’s 2002 album, The Rising, though the live “America: A Tribute to Heroes” version was previously released on the CD of that name, in December 2001.
According to Brucebase, Springsteen performed “My City of Ruins” 286 times between 2000 and 2017.
(9/10/21 Update: It’s worth adding that the “scattered leaves” line is, consciously or unconsciously, borrowed from Woody Guthrie’s beautiful “Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos).” The song is about an actual plane crash that took place in 1948. The plane was carrying, back to Mexico, Mexicans who had come into the country illegally to work on California farms.
Springsteen has performed “Deportee” a handful of times over the years, starting in 1981.
The song concludes with the following lines:
“The sky plane caught fire over Los Gatos Canyon/A fireball of lightning, and shook all our hills/Who are all these friends, all scattered like dry leaves?/The radio says, ‘They are just deportees’/Is this the best way we can grow our big orchards?/Is this the best way we can grow our good fruit?/To fall like dry leaves to rot on my topsoil/And be called by no name except ‘deportees’?”
Below is a video of Springsteen performing the song in 2021.
On each of the 70 days leading up to Bruce Springsteen’s 70th birthday (on Sept. 23, 2019), NJArts.net will do a post on one of The Boss’ best songs of the last 30 years. We’re starting with No. 70 and working our way up. For more on the project, click here.
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