Sunday, September 11, 2011

"My City of Ruins": September 11th, ten years later

"In September of 2001 I was a resident of Manhattan. On the morning of September 12, 2001 I reached a new understanding of my art and its relationship to the world. I sat down at the piano that morning at 10 AM to practice as was my daily routine; I did it by force of habit, without thinking about it. I lifted the cover on the keyboard, and opened my music, and put my hands on the keys and took my hands off the keys. And I sat there and thought, does this even matter? Isn't this completely irrelevant? Playing the piano right now, given what happened in this city yesterday, seems silly, absurd, irreverent, pointless. Why am I here? What place has a musician in this moment in time? Who needs a piano player right now? I was completely lost.

And then I, along with the rest of New York, went through the journey of getting through that week. I did not play the piano that day, and in fact I contemplated briefly whether I would ever want to play the piano again. And then I observed how we got through the day. 

At least in my neighborhood, we didn't shoot hoops or play Scrabble. We didn't play cards to pass the time, we didn't watch TV, we didn't shop, we most certainly did not go to the mall. The first organized activity that I saw in New York, on the very evening of September 11th, was singing. People sang. People sang around fire houses, people sang "We Shall Overcome". Lots of people sang America the Beautiful. The first organized public event that I remember was the Brahms Requiem, later that week, at Lincoln Center, with the New York Philharmonic. The first organized public expression of grief, our first communal response to that historic event, was a concert. That was the beginning of a sense that life might go on. The US Military secured the airspace, but recovery was led by the arts, and by music in particular, that very night.

From this experience, I have come to understand that music is not part of "arts and entertainment" as the newspaper section would have us believe. It's not a luxury, a lavish thing that we fund from leftovers of our budgets, not a plaything or an amusement or a pass time. Music is a basic need of human survival. Music is one of the ways we make sense of our lives, one of the ways in which we express feelings when we have no words, a way for us to understand things with our hearts when we can't with our minds."

-Dr. Karl Paulnack, Boston Conservatory, during his welcome address in 2004.

Few things have ever given me more assurance that I am in the right field than the above excerpt. When I tell people I'm studying music, I often get the incredibly frustrating question: "What are you going to do with that?" Well, I'm going to make music, I'm going to perform in any way that I can, and hopefully, I'll be able to reach at least one person in the way Karl Paulnack describes above. I do believe that would be worth it. Today, the above segment hits home the hardest. It's hard to believe that ten years have passed since that day, that day that is scorched into the memories of every person who was old enough to register what was going on. And ten years later, much like the citizens of New York City on that first night, I'm still searching for answers, for healing, and for refuge in music.

Legend has it that a few days after September 11th, 2001, a fan pulled up next to Bruce Springsteen on the street, rolled down his window and said: "We need you now." Springsteen hadn't been absent from music, but it could easily have been said that his glory days were behind him. He'd disbanded the E-Street band after their limited role on 1987's Tunnel of Love (and given them all rumored seven-figure severance checks) and had spent the next decade making relatively unremarkable records, ranging from his worst (Human Touch) to an unfairly maligned gem (Lucky Town) and an attempt to recreate Nebraska, with mixed results (The Ghost of Tom Joad). The 9/11 attacks gave Springsteen the inspiration for a comeback though: he reassembled the E-Street band, wrote a bunch of songs, and, almost exactly a year after the attacks, released The Rising

The Rising is both a heartbreaking farewell, and a resurrection. It's notable that the Boss opens his September 11th ruminations with an anthem: "Lonesome Day" is instantly everything that was missing from Bruce's music without the E-street band, and opens the album on an immensely hopeful note, ending the song with a refrain of the phrase "it's alright."  Throughout the rest of the album's 15 cuts, Springsteen and his characters wrestle through pain, confusion, anger, hopelessness and anxiety before they finally find their way back to hope and begin to move on. The final four songs undoubtedly hit the hardest, covering a plethora of emotions to close out the record. "You're Missing" describes, flawlessly, the unendurable pain of losing a loved one and feeling unable to move on in a world without them, in a world where everything feels wrong. The title track is a gorgeous mid-tempo rocker with a heavenly violin line which tells the story of a firefighter climbing through the smoke on 9/11 and, in the bridge, finding his way into heaven as the tower collapses around him. "Paradise" is a stark, hopeless song written from the point-of-view of a suicide bomber, a man who knows he only has limited time left, but seems unsure that what he is about to do will get him to heaven. The song hits hard and is one of Springsteen's most heartbreaking, entrancing and atmospheric compositions ever. Once again though, Bruce saves the best for last: "My City of Ruins" is a gospel-tinged ode that, I think, is the definitive 9/11 song. It doesn't matter at all that it was originally written about the decline of Asbury Park, Bruce's hometown. The song, despite being written before the attacks, took on a new meaning after them, and resonates here like few songs ever do. Everything about the song, from the backing choir, to Bruce's impassioned vocals, to the gorgeous piano line that backs it, is perfect. And somehow, after all the heartbreak and pain, Bruce manages to find hope in the final refrain, repeating the words, "Come on rise up!" amidst a series of prayers and images, and posing the question, "How do I begin again?"  By the time everything fades away, leaving only a mournful piano line to close out the album, it nearly brings me to tears.

Some of the music that came to define the post-9/11 world (indeed, some of the most notable contributions) were written and released well before the disastrous events of that day, but came to mean so much more in the aftermath. "My City of Ruins" is one example of that, as is U2's All That You Can't Leave Behind, another return to form from artists who had spent the better part of the 90's experimenting with their sound and wandering further and further from what had made them spectacular in the first place. For those reasons and for many more, All That You Can't Leave Behind is a companion album to The Rising. Many people sought refuge and looked for answers in these songs, and it's not hard to see why: songs like "Walk On" and "Stuck in a Moment" expressed perfectly the stifling confusion that had been left in the wake of tragedy, but gave hope that life could somehow return to normal when the dust finally cleared. "Peace on Earth" hit even harder, as Bono made a plea for a world without violence, even as the United States suffered one of the harshest blows in history. And "Kite," "When I Look At The World" and "In A Little While" found U2 writing some of their best material since Achtung Baby and before. "Beautiful Day" was their opener when they played the Super Bowl halftime show the following winter, and when Bono took the stage for that song, there was immense anticipation all over the country and all over the world. The U.S. was still reeling from the attacks, and many expected Bono and company to make a statement. As Bono sang the pensive "MLK," a banner with the names of every 9/11 victim rose behind him until finally, the song gave way to the Edge's massive opening guitar riff to "Where The Streets Have No Name." Bono ran a lap around the stage, belted his heart out, and formed a heart with his hands before revealing the American flag he had sewn into the inside of his jacket as the song ended. It was somewhat typical U2: a grand statement that had the potential to come off as a bit cheesy or heavy-handed, but I think it hit just right, thanks mostly to the power their three song set brought to what is usually an extremely light-hearted and forgettable show between halves. Despite the fact that the decade since then has brought numerous greats to that stage, including the Boss himself, I think that halftime show will always remain the greatest ever.

Those two records are my go-to playlist for every 9/11, but there are countless other examples of music that was written in response to the attacks, or became something more in their wake. There's Ryan Adams' record Gold, who's opening track "New York, New York" and it's refrain of "Hell, I still love you New York" became something of a rallying cry in the weeks following the attacks. The video for "New York" was filmed just four days before and contains some of the last footage of the World Trade Center towers before their fall. Athlete's heart-shattering track "Best Not To Think About It," off their 2007 release Beyond the Neighborhood tells the story of a pair of people who were high up in the towers when they were attacked, and chose to jump out the tower windows rather than go down with them. Jimmy Eat World changed the name of their album Bleed American to self-titled following the attacks, and the album's centerpiece, the acoustic eulogy that is "Hear You Me," became even more resonant in the months that followed. These were just a few of the countless number of musical responses or rebirths, the kind that Karl Paulnack spoke of in his speech. I myself didn't seek refuge in music then: even at 10 years old, I think I was still too young to grasp the gravity of the situation, and my music listening was limited to radio airplay and whatever was coming out of my brother's stereo, but in the years since, these songs and these albums have come to mean something to me in relation to that day. It's one of the true beauties of music that it can both convey emotions that words can never quite find themselves and that it can come to mean something different to every person, depending on the events going on in their lives. On that Tuesday in September of 2001 (and in the months afterward), that transformative, symbolic power came to the forefront, providing healing to people who couldn't find it anywhere else. Some will ask for a moment of silence today to honor those who lost their lives ten years ago. I ask instead for a moment of music and a moment of thought. After all, the bars of a song are more powerful than silence could ever be: that's how I would want to be remembered.

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