In the past few days everybody has been thinking and talking about where they were and what they were doing on 9/11. What about how we picked up the pieces on 9/12?
To be sure, there were many head-on musical responses to the events of September 11, 2001. But these direct reactions turned out decidedly mixed results. They almost can’t help it: the enormity of what had happened may have been too much to address in a forced anthem. And with the benefit of hindsight, when we view them on their own merits they can suffer the strains of no longer being in the moment — though Bruce Springsteen’s The Rising, which Gawker’s John Cook in a story last week called a “mawkish assortment of clichés” always seemed like sort of a bad idea.
But, as cable news talking heads are so fond of intoning, it was “The. Day. That. Changed. Everything.” And in its immediate aftermath one of the things it changed was the way we heard the music we were listening to at that moment in time.
By their obliqueness, songs that already existed before 9/11 that we ascribed meaning to and that took on new resonance in the aftermath of the tragedy are possibly more fitting and moving (and, let’s face it, less maudlin) inadvertant responses than any material intentionally addressing the event could be. Herewith, a few songs that sounded completely different then they had before in the new light of September 12.
“Jesus, Etc.,” Wilco
The tale of the label delays that nearly derailed the release of Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is well known. Recorded in early 2001 originally set to be released on September 11, 2001 (it was a Tuesday — new release day), the album didn’t get into record stores until 2002, but the band streamed it on its website that September and leaks made the rounds. The timing was eerie. Without meaning to, in one of the album’s tracks “Jesus. Etc.,” Wilco had recorded a gorgeous ode to the Twin Towers (it was, not incidentally, followed by “Ashes of American Flags” on the album). On the face of it, the lyrics of “Jesus, Etc.” are a reassurance to a loved one and the events depicted meant to be metaphorical. After 9/11 it became impossible to listen to the song and hear what you had heard before. And in an odd way, this made the song even more beautiful than it had been.
And it’s not just the coincidence of the line “Tall buildings shake” and reference to “skyscrapers scraping together” and “Turning your orbit around” (which described perfectly how many felt in those days), or even Tweedy’s plaintive “Don’t cry.” It might be the existential “You were right about the stars/ each one is a setting sun” that is simultaneously filled with sadness and hope that makes the song so much more than merely unintentionally evocative. The words of comfort and reassurance leapt from whatever situation was depicted in the confines of the song and extended to us all.
“Lady Pilot,” Neko Case
Neko Case is not one to shy away from a difficult situation. The alt-country crooner is one of the few modern women of whom you could accurately say, “She’s got pluck.” When Case took the stage of Maxwell’s, a tiny venue in Hoboken, on October 5, 2001, New Yorkers still struggled to get back into the rhythms of daily city life, and the attacks were very much top of mind. On stage, Case is very conversational, stopping to introduce most songs and making offhand comments, such as when she remarked, referring to the exaggerated pucker the artist had given her in the drawing on the poster promoting the show, “Even I want a blow job from me.” She stopped the show at one point to introduce a new song that she’d written for then-unreleased Blacklisted. She explained haltingly that she’d written the song long before the events of a few weeks earlier, and she had to think long and hard about whether or not to play it because it involves imagery of a plane crash. Ultimately, she said, the song was about being afraid to fly and looking down the aisle and seeing a lady pilot and then knowing everything would be okay. She then, of course, launched into “Lady Pilot.” The lines “Airplanes were never meant to fly,” and “We’ve got a lady pilot/ she’s not afraid to die” might have sent shivers down some spines, but everyone in the room also felt, collectively, that everything would be okay.
“New York, New York,” Ryan Adams
A decade ago people still listened to the radio. And nearly no matter what New York station you listened to in the fall of 2001, Ryan Adam’s “New York, New York,” the lead single off his second record Gold (which was released on September 28), was inescapable. It’s a simple enough song, with the refrain “Hell, I still love you New York” over a name-checking tour of Manhattan neighborhoods and streets. It was upbeat and athematic, like something a young Springsteen might have recorded on an off day, and even had enough twang for country fans (although it wasn’t Toby Keith fantasizing about strangling Muslims with American flags). Also in continuous play was the video for “New York, New York,” where the serendipity of the song really hit home. The clip featured Adams playing guitar on the water in Brooklyn with his back to lower Manhattan over the course of a day and night and was introduced by a note saying it was shot on Friday, September 7, 2001. Throughout the video, the Twin Towers are, of course, clearly and very prominently visible in the background.