Wednesday, November 18, 2009

9/11: Songs That Got "Us" Through

Back when large CDs stores existed, there was a certain kind of “various artists” CD I’d always notice in the Jazz section. Who knows, maybe this held true when vinyl albums ruled, but I just never noticed (because I never bought any records that were even remotely associated with jazz). This type of music was related more to Big Band, which most stores recognized as a subset of Jazz.

But I’d notice, and eventually buy a few of, these CDs that were entitled something like Songs that Got Us Through World War II. Or World War I. Sometimes even The Korean War. The concept was to note Big Band songs that pertained specifically to the war: “White Cliffs of Dover,” “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square,” “G.I. Jive,” “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company C,” etc. And there would be songs that weren’t specifcally about the war, but had a connotation of linking the song to the experience: “I’ll Be Seeing You” and “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree” come to mind. Millions of people were away from home, thus a lot of songs got written about what that felt like, with the very real understanding that they may never come home again.

I noticed in the Pop/Rock section, the few CDs I saw about the Vietnam War weren’t positioned that way – the title would usually include reference to Vietnam, but no mention of “getting us through.” That war wasn’t viewed sentimentally. Glen Miller and The Andrew Sisters, or their 60s equivalents (were there any?) did not write songs specifically about the war experience. Songs that were specifically written about the war experience back then were generally by younger artists, who clearly were not feeling sentimental over friends and family sent overseas, but whose main message seemed to be: “Let’s get the fuck out of there.”

Now, most large stores have very small CD sections, and behemoths like Tower and HMV, where I’d find these CDs in their huge aisles, are long gone. I haven’t been in an indie CD store in eons either, although a handful still exist in NYC. But it got me thinking, forget about Vietnam, there were no Songs That Got Us Through 9/11 collections either.

And that was for a number of reasons. Personally, my biggest one was simple: no songs got me through 9/11. I was emotionally numb on 9/11 as I walked home over the 59th Street Bridge and watched hours of the horrible TV footage like the rest of the world did, even though I saw everything but the first plane go in from the 35th floor of an office building about six miles north of there that morning. Fucking numb. Followed shortly by enraged … a feeling that has surely let up since then, but that’s the one that still sticks with me the most.

No, a few days later, as I’d ride the subway with my MP3 player (pre-iPod, using the sturdy Creative Nomad 30 GB Zen Jukebox, I could feel certain songs cutting through the haze. You have to realize, it wasn’t a situation of everything snapping back to normal once we could all go back to work later that week. It took months for the lower part of Manhattan to open up again. The smell of what happened, burning debris of all sorts, hung over the city like a pall for weeks afterwards. People were constantly on edge, expecting a second wave of attacks at any time, particularly on the subway. Everywhere you walked in Manhattan, there were mimeographed and color-copied photos of the missing. Less than two months later, a plane crashed in the Far Rockaways, on its way to Puerto Rico, killing dozens, and I recall the sickly feeling of “here we go again” that morning. (That was determined an accident, but I still have my doubts.)

Once music started making sense to me again, probably by about 9/18 or so, it really helped me along. I’d like to note a few of those songs here now, and figure out why they worked. There are no “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” type songs here. There are no songs that were even remotely traditional hits of any sort. I was heavily into the indie scene at the time, thus was listening to that music the most, and that music was and is like a secret handshake. And I’ve never warmed up to the secret handshake method of music appreciation, i.e., I’m no hipster. I was raised with huge bands playing arenas and everyone knowing the hits. But there came a point in the late 80s into the 90s where the kind of music I liked was only happening with indie bands, and I was getting older, thus found myself truly repulsed by Top 40, which makes sense. I’ve listened to a lot of great indie music over the years, but it’s not the music of grand gestures. These people are not rock stars. They don’t shape generations. Which is good and bad. But most of the time, most people won’t know who in the hell I’m writing about! Nevertheless, these songs got me through that horrible time period when very little else could reach me.

(And for the record, at the time, I was extremely leery of any talk of “the new sincerity” and “how this has changed us” – leery to the point of derision. And I was right. Nothing changed after that, that much I can see clearly almost a decade later. If anything, New Yorkers tend to be even more vacuous, empty and insincere. It’s just the way a lot of people are here, which was true long before 9/11 and will be true long after. Skyrocketing real estate values since then, too, have done wonders in terms of injecting the city with new waves of greedy vampires totally lacking in any senses of soul or empathy. You need to live around people like this to understand how genuinely unappealing a lot of these folks are.)


“Under the Western Freeway” by Grandaddy. This was the first piece of music that got through to me after 9/11; in my mind, it sounded exactly like 9/11. Or at least touched on that feeling I had of that stark footage of the streets down there just after the second building collapse, where all was silence, save for the gentle beeping of firefighter’s emergency signal devices. That gray cloud of dust covering everything. Unnatural silence for a city– it only gets that quiet with snow falling late at night. In the song, you can hear a metallic grinding in the background. That’s pretty much how I felt for days afterwards.

“Protected from the Rain” by Grandaddy. Grandaddy made a lot of sense to me that fall. I had liked them before, but so much of the band’s feel was geared directly towards that feeling of mild suffering most people were going through. (I’ve since realized these sort of enormous cultural events are just that, unless you know/knew someone directly involved. Took it much harder at the time, but it was mild compared to my Dad passing on three years later.) Lyrics sound absolutely senseless, but again, that rolling, electronic sound these guys had was perfect, like a lullaby for adults.

“Don’t Be Crushed” by Hawksley Workman. If there’s one theme that I can see with most of the songs that registered with me then, it was that quiet, healing quality. Which is odd, because I was about as angry as I’ve ever been in my life: a low, steady rage that I felt for months afterwards. I had to find a way to counter-balance that with something, so music seemed to be it. Beautiful song by Hawksley Workman. Lyrics get a bit disingenuous in places, and a little too close to home with the airplane imagery, but the message driven home in the title was something I could relate to at the time. Most older rock fans will point to a song like this as a reason for not liking indie music. The music is there – it sounds expansive, the work of a talented artist. But the lyrics are so idiosyncratic, and the singer not fitting into that traditional “rock star” voice, that they can’t help but reject it. They rightly recognize a song like this could never be a hit, despite having the potential to be one. And that’s probably why I like indie music. You lose that huge generational appeal kids were raised with in the 60s and 70s, but you still gain something worthwhile.

“I Fell in Love with a Dead Boy” by Antony & the Johnsons. Antony is one strange guy – looks like an alien, assume he’s gay, and wrapped in a cloak of gentility akin to Bryan Ferry’s bigger ballads. It’s a bit of a shtick, but it works because the guy is a genuinely talented singer and songwriter. “Dead Boy” is one of his better songs, and touched on that theme of constant death floating around the city at the time. I saw Antony perform at a local PS on the Lower East Side that December, and this song brought the house down, as he sang with these odd images on a large screen behind him that looked like a city in foggy ruins … which is exactly how NYC felt at the time. (My audience experience was greatly decreased by the gay couple openly making out in front of me. Audience was mostly gay, which was fine by me, but these guys were going at it like two virgins pulling their moves from an Idiots Guide to Gross Public Displays of Affection. Don’t think that scenario is an issue many places in the world! Besides, what kind of people would make out to a song like this ... vampires?)

“Cybercar” by East River Pipe. East River Pipe is really a one-man band named Fred Cornog who’s put out album after album of home-made recordings heavy on keyboards and synthesizers. As noted in an interview I did with him for in 1999, the guy had been through a lot and had found a way to make his life work through music. “Cybercar” had that sound of emptiness and hurt following 9/11. I’m noticing with all these songs, they’re not just simple rock ballads in that traditional Carpenters/Bread way, but close. In this case, there’s that flurry of electric guitar that works through the song. These are more like disjointed ballads where something has been knocked off its axis … again, this is how the world felt for a few months the fall and winter of 2001.

“Mellow (Part 1)” by Mellow. Mellow was (is?) a French pop band with a real yen for 60s style Britpop. I lost track of them after this album, save to note they did the soundtrack for the indie flick, CQ. I must have been coming out of the funk when this track hit me because it’s a fairly happy sounding song. I didn’t have much need for happy-sounding music in the immediate aftermath … wasn’t exactly walking on sunshine.

“Suffering” by Satchel. Painful to admit I was turned onto this song from the awful movie, Beautiful Girls, featuring a barely teenage Natalie Portman and a bunch of then twentysomething name actors stumbling through a bad script. I take it “Suffering” is about suffering, but really can’t tell from the lyrics, which sound mostly nonsensical. But what a melody and singer, like something from the Stones late 60s heyday. When you can put out a song that gets into the vibe of "You Can't Always Get What You Want," you're in a good place. It surely felt right in that dark time.

“Last Night on Earth” by The Mekons. One of my favorite bands, The Mekons, have always struck me as a bunch of well-meaning assholes. I recall Jon Langford, the band’s leader, making some truly stupid statements about the state of America as the Iraq War started. (He called it the worst time ever in American history … he wasn’t an American … has lived in the Chicago area for roughly a decade … and seemed to have no knowledge of little things like slavery, numerous plagues, a fucking Civil War, radical mistreatment and genocide of Indians, working conditions before unions and child labor laws, two World Wars that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans, centuries under British rule, but never mind all that.)

I forgave Langford because he has a great band, and “Last Night on Earth” was archetypal Mekons: “Life is a debt/That must someday be paid/Born when we were born/Left us helpless and self obsessed.” Amen to that. The song had nothing to do with 9/11 directly, but seemed to address that more real sense of people getting back to the less dramatic emptiness of their lives as compared to what had just passed. This was also a “life is getting better” song from that time, although better in that Mekons “world is fucked” sort of way. You have to love The Mekons for grasping humor from the darkness of life.

Seanchai – Gates of Hell. This was the only song specifically written about 9/11 that I can handle. I took a lot of heat at the time for noting in print what an awful song “Let’s Roll” by Neil Young was. It still is! His heart was in the right place … but, dear Lord, what an awful song. The small handful of those big-name artist songs related to 9/11 were. (“Into the Fire” by Springsteen does work, give him credit.) Seanchai was a NYC celtic band led by a former member of Black 47, and also, I gather, a former NYC policeman. Thus, he had insight to what was going on in the weeks after 9/11 in terms of endless funerals for cops and firemen featuring empty coffins, as there was often no body left to bury. I’d wager anyone living near a cemetery in the tristate area must have been hearing “Amazing Grace” on bagpipes a few times a week through early November. This song captures it all beautifully, particularly noting how many Americans of Irish lineage died that day, just by doing their jobs. If there’s one song you pull out of this piece, make it this one.

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