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Springsteen opened the America: A Tribute to Heroes telethon with My City of Ruins, an unreleased song from a few years ago about Asbury Park, N.J., that proved eerily adaptable to 9/11. He also played a few local fund raisers, but mostly he grieved along with the rest of the nation. As he read the New York Times obituaries ("I found those to be very, very meaningful--incredibly powerful," he says), he couldn't help noticing how many times Thunder Road or Born in the U.S.A. was played at a memorial service or how many victims had a pile of old Springsteen concert-ticket stubs tucked away in their bedroom. Within days after the towers collapsed, Springsteen was writing songs.
"I have a room off my bedroom that I just go in," he says. "All my things are in there--books, CDs, guitars, boots, belts, anything I've collected along the way. It's quite a carnival." When he writes, Springsteen generally sits at the same table he has used for 20 years and, by inserting a few small narrative details, tries to create songs that will carry his listeners away. "The difference," he says, "was that on this record, you're writing about something that everyone saw and had some experience with, and obviously some people experienced it much more intimately."
To flesh out the intimacies of Sept. 11, Springsteen had to do some reporting. Stacey Farrelly's husband Joe was a fire fighter with Manhattan Engine Co. 4 and, as his obituaries noted, a lifelong Springsteen fan. Recalls his widow: "At the beginning of October, I was home alone and, uh, heavily medicated. I picked up the phone, and a voice said, 'May I please speak to Stacey? This is Bruce Springsteen.'" They talked for 40 minutes. "After I got off the phone with him, the world just felt a little smaller. I got through Joe's memorial and a good month and a half on that phone call."
Suzanne Berger's husband Jim was memorialized in the New York Times under the headline FAN OF THE BOSS. She too got a call. "He said, 'I want to respect your privacy, but I just want you to know that I was very touched, and I want to know more about your husband,'" she recalls. "He wanted to hear Jim's story, so I told him."
Springsteen freezes when the subject of the phone calls comes up. He doesn't want publicity for ordinary kindness, and he doesn't want to be seen as exploiting people whose suffering is well known. But for Springsteen, the experience of hearing Berger talk about how her husband hustled dozens of people out of the south tower before it collapsed around him or of listening to Farrelly recall some of her husband's copious daily love notes was obviously critical to the creation of The Rising.