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Bjork performing at Radio City Music Hall in New York City on Oct. 4, 2001.
That simple sentence, with its multiple meanings, organizes my thoughts as I attempt to accurately describe reality — mine, anyway — right after Sept. 11, 2001. I lived in Brooklyn at the time, three miles away from Ground Zero. There, the changed landscape manifested as sound — a giant boom, did that just happen? — and then, a smell. Television flattened and filtered the incomprehensible. So close felt like so far.
And so we gathered: strength, information, our thoughts. We gathered each other into warm, confused bear hugs. We sought out the breath of those we loved, and of those we barely knew. What just happened? Read my lips.
That first day my husband and I walked down the street to the living room of our closest friends and just sat there, a half dozen or more of us crowded onto a couple of couches, for hours. A friend came in, holding her cell phone to her ear: her uncle, who worked in one of the towers, was okay. A wave of relief splashed through the room. What is happening now? Maybe it wasn't so bad.
The full story emerged over the next days and weeks as New York inched back toward functionality. We pushed ourselves out the door. Stood in line to give blood or buy socks for first responders. Ate in restaurants. Talked to people on the street — that wasn't new, New Yorkers are loudmouths. Still, it was important to turn what is going on into what is going on with you?
Those of us who crave music knew that things wouldn't begin to feel even close to right until we could stand in a crowd with amplified sound crashing into us, getting us to move, offering its own explanations. So we gathered in clubs and theaters as soon as we could.
In 2001 I was working for The New York Times, reviewing shows a couple of times a week. For the weekend of Sept. 15, I'd planned to attend the CMJ Music Marathon, an annual event that brought in artists from all over the world and packed all the big clubs in town. Instead I made it to the Bowery Ballroom to see a fragment of that event — a few acts who'd arrived before the catastrophe that had gathered to play a benefit for the New York Fire Department.
I'd come mostly to see the Clean, an indie cult favorite from New Zealand whose stateside appearances were as rare as those of the buff-breasted sandpiper. Once I stood at the Bowery Ballroom's balcony bar, however, embracing a steady stream of acquaintances, I realized I was really there for another reason. Here was my quotidian community: the other writers, music biz folks, club kids and superfans with whom I spent countless convivial nights without ever taking the next steps toward intimacy. These were the kind of friendships that defined life in the city: the circumstantial connections that we took for granted, and which suddenly seemed endangered. Confirming them was crucial.
"Gratefulness was palpable," I wrote of the mood that arose as the bands played that night. "Those who came to hear music wanted to feel the floorboards solid under their feet, yet vibrant with sound that testified to life still unfolding. A trip to the movies, the celluloid cave, offers escape; theater provides the ritual of repetition. But live music at its best absorbs the listener in every next step."
Many things have changed in the last decade, including our experience of disaster. The portable Internet makes it possible to keep track of our friends and family members even as bits of the world crash down around us. Earlier this year, I hunkered down in my basement and watched a tornado raze hundreds of buildings just a mile away. I could see from my Twitter feed that most folks close to me had come out fairly unscathed. Facebook provided a way to organize efforts to help those who had been hit. Physical connection remains crucial in times of crisis, but it always seems to be mediated — someone's snapping a photo and instantly posting it.
Maybe it's a strange form of nostalgia to say that after Sept. 11 we music lovers were able to dwell deeply in the moment, in ways that sometimes seem impossible now. I was curious to know whether other music writers had shared in evenings similar to the one I'd had at the Bowery Ballroom that Saturday.
I sent out a call to several friends and was soon inundated with stories.
Nate Chinen, who writes about jazz for the New York Times, ventured out to a much-beloved Greenwich Village club a few days after I'd headed to the Bowery. "My first post-9/11 show was Martial Solal, the great French pianist, at the Village Vanguard," he wrote me. "Somehow it was his first engagement there. He'd managed to get in from Paris despite all the restrictions, probably on one of the first flights. There had been a lot of good press in advance of the show, but the week's first set, on Sept. 18, was nearly empty. Maybe 20 people. Sitting there with a Scotch felt distinctly strange, like some kind of transgression.
"I must not have been the only one feeling that way, because Lorraine Gordon, the Vanguard's owner, walked onstage before the music began and, in tears, thanked the few souls in the audience for coming out. (If you know her, you know how unusual this is.) Then she said that we could all stay for the second set for no additional cover charge. (See previous parenthetical.) She seemed shaken and sincere.
"Solal was working in a trio with François Moutin on bass and Bill Stewart on drums. The music was excellent, though I remember struggling to focus on it. Afterward I walked up the stairwell and out onto Seventh Avenue. Across the street the halogen lights were still blazing outside St. Vincent's, where the candles and flowers and flyers still cluttered the sidewalk, as they would for weeks afterward.
"I waited a while before venturing out to my next show. And Solal waited almost two years before releasing the album he recorded at the Vanguard later that week. He called it NY1, after the news channel he watched from his hotel room that week, apparently for hours at a stretch. I listened to it when it came out, and haven't put it on since."
Will Hermes, author of the forthcoming book about New York music Love Goes To Buildings on Fire, felt the need to get close to Ground Zero. "My pal Jon Dolan and I took the subway down to bear witness at Ground Zero not long after the area was reopened," he wrote. "Afterward we went to the Knitting Factory, which at the time was located just blocks from the WTC site, to see the jazz trumpeter Roy Campbell Jr. He'd recently recorded a version of "The Star Spangled Banner" which unraveled the song much like Jimi Hendrix did at Woodstock. Needless to say, his interpretation meant something entirely different than it had a few weeks earlier.
"A few days later, I went to Radio City Music Hall to see Bjork, in the midst of a U.S. tour I was impressed she didn't cancel," Hermes continued. "She sang 'Hyperballad,' a song I adore, about feeling safe with a lover even when your mind drifts towards dark, terrifying thoughts. I was with my wife, who was eight months pregnant. Our daughter Gia was born the following month. She'll be 10 this November."
Anthony DeCurtis, a longtime contributing editor at Rolling Stone who's now a professor at Penn, recalled the intensity of a U2 show at Madison Square Garden that included a video scroll of the names of the World Trade Center dead. But his most treasured memory is of an interview with Paul McCartney that demonstrated that most celebrated rock star's sense of civic duty. "This isn't exactly on topic, but I did a Paul McCartney interview that October, as he was making plans for the 9/11 Madison Square Garden concert he organized," he wrote. "He suggested that we walk four blocks along 6th Avenue to a restaurant in midtown rather than take a car. It was a gorgeous afternoon, and people were thrilled to see him walking the streets of Manhattan. There were many reports (now disputed, of course) of celebrities avoiding the city, and I think Paul consciously wanted to send a message that he was here and living his life. It was the best of him: 'Take a sad song, and make it better.'"
Some music fans needed more than to just stand in an audience; they needed to sing. Craig Marks, editor-in-chief of Popdust and the co-author of the forthcoming book, I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution, found solace in karaoke.
"My birthday falls on September 14th, and that night we were scheduled to throw a karaoke party to celebrate my turning 40," he wrote. "The party was canceled of course, but we decided to reschedule for a week later, because we all desperately needed a break from our misery. That evening we drank, we cried, we drank some more and we sang dopey songs from our teenage youth with such rapturous abandon that our faces ached from smiling. I don't know if a group-sing of 'Livin' on a Prayer' could be considered therapeutic, but it separated us from our awful feelings for a little while when nothing else could. And then my friend Rebecca karaoked Nena's anti-war song '99 Luftballons,' and we cried again."
The writing of Alex Ross in The New Yorker and elsewhere reminds us that classical music can shake the soul as much as popular music can; two concerts in the wake of Sept. 11 stood out for him.
"Both of them, oddly or not, involved 19th-century German music," he wrote. "One was a now-legendary performance of Brahms' German Requiem by the New York Philharmonic. It was beautifully sung and played, and the essential humility of Brahms' act of mourning came through powerfully. When it was over, the elderly Kurt Masur simply stood to one side with the orchestra, not bowing, immobile like an honor guard. That was very moving.
"The other moment I remember was a concert by the Berlin Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall," he continued. "There had been some uncertainty about whether the orchestra would make the trip — security concerns, personal worries, etc. They did come, and played several concerts of mostly Beethoven, with uncommon energy and engagement. What I really remember, though, was one of the encores: Wagner's Prelude and Liebestod. It's about 17 or 18 minutes of music, much longer than the usual encore. And the playing had a frenzied, desperate intensity that you seldom hear from professional orchestras these days. There was nothing said about 9/11 and nothing implicit in the choice of music. Instead, it seemed a simple act of generosity to the audience: we will give you more than you paid for because we sympathize with what you've been through. It was totally overwhelming."
Critics Jody Rosen and Amy Linden were both in the crowd when Jay-Z played the Hammerstein Ballroom in October 2001.
"Everyone was wondering if he'd address 9/11," wrote Rosen. "He did it right away: came onstage and launched into his '9/11 Freestyle,' a capella.
Bootleggers, bombin', Bin Laden
I'm still crackin'
I will not lose
I simply refuse
I dropped the same day as the Twin Towers
I show power
Still, I show compassion for others
Send money and flowers
"It wasn't the best freestyle ever. But it was reassuring: the first time I'd heard anyone discuss the attacks so cavalierly. Bootleggers sharing top billing on the enemies list with Bin Laden! The collapse of the World Trade Center, fodder for a tasteless play on words. Life — or at least hip-hop — goes on. So much for the end of irony.
"Later, he did 'Hard Knock Life,' and *that* felt like a 9/11 song — a NYC resistance anthem, a 'Why We Fight' song."
What happened onstage impressed Linden too, but she was more moved, as I'd been at my rock show, by the feeling in the crowd.
"What I also remember was the interaction between the concertgoers and the police and fire department after the show," she wrote. "We were on 34th Street outside of Hammerstein, and you could see the trucks taking God knows what from Ground Zero up the West Side Highway. When the police drove past 34th street the crowd starting clapping and shouting, 'USA!'" Linden noted that this show of solidarity between a mostly young, mostly male, mostly African-American crowd and the NYPD was one of those miracles of the moment.
"Jay had also asked for a moment of silence for the victims," Linden concluded, "And the entire audience actually stayed quiet. As good as Jay was I remember all of the crowd interactions more. But like most of us, I was still fairly numb."
Numb, but waking up. In moments like these, the music we shared helped us to remember what it means to be alive and able to feel, and to let that feeling lead us toward each other. No lyric could say what rhythm and melody themselves said: We can listen. We can dance. We can sing. What had happened, happened, and we were still ourselves.