Room for the Occasion

Working Professionals Defeat Doom on Two Benefit Comps

Yet the standouts aren't covers—they're two original topical songs by people I'd never heard of. Chris Ligon's disingenuous ditty about a nice guy on death row feels like a one-off. Christa Meyer and Tim Kelley's grisly, understated, apocalyptic, klezmerish "Hangman's Song," however, has the mark of committed songwriting—when Meyer lilts "Oh, oh, woe is me/The state has put a date on me," it's hard to believe other singers won't follow. If "Hangman's Song" isn't "Turn It On, Turn It On, Turn It On," here it tops "Sing Me Back Home" and "25 Minutes to Go," and the occasion, first as inspiration and then as context, is why. Stuck between the wicked murder of "Tom Dooley" and the hopeless murder of "Pardon Me (I've Got Someone to Kill)," its categorical rejection of ultimate punishment signifies like Brecht-Weill.

None of the occasional songs on Wish You Were Here have that much aesthetic reach. In fact, having figured half the 18 tracks for direct responses to the disaster, I was surprised to learn that only two completely new songs made the cut: Joseph Arthur's "Build Back Up" and Loudon Wainwright III's "No Sure Way." Instead, people scrambled and recontextualized. On two of the strongest entries, Moe Tucker and Peter Stampfel set new lyrics to old tunes. Ari Upp changed the Cookies' "Don't Say Nothing Bad About My Baby" into "Don't Say Nothing Bad About NY," Afrikaa Bambaataa funked up Melanie's "Candles in the Rain," Uri Caine low-bridged Kander-Ebb's "New York, New York." And often artists just rummaged through their catalogs for something suitable: actual love songs to New York from outlanders the Mekons and Andrew W.K., a Romanes title from Ukrainian Americans Gogol Bordello that translates "Strong City," a Cornershop outtake fortuitously entitled "Returning From the Wreckage," Hakim mournful and Sheila Chandra mystical and Baaba Maal pleading for peace, and Matthew Shipp's 1998 recording of "Amazing Grace," along with Moby's "Memory Gospel" the only previous U.S. release. I'd replace the Chandra with the Roches' "song for the heroes," and although I love Slug I can't hear how the Atmosphere track fits even with Chuck Eddy whispering in my ear. But though you may suspect such a miscellany can only add up to a mess, the occasion, augmented by Chuck's knack for the segue, holds it together.

Chuck was an early fan of rock en español, which I've accused of "kitchen-sink stop-and-go," and that attraction to the disjunct helps him comprehend the incomprehensible event at hand. Mourning and rage, chauvinism and internationalism, sleepless fear and fierce determination—in this leftish workplace, as in much of the city, all coexisted in the wake of the attack, and Wish You Were Here proves that they're contradictions only on the surface. "Memory Gospel," which passed me by on Play: The B Sides, strikes the perfect note of pomo reverence before sliding into Cornershop's unbowed synth-rock, which sets up the faster rockers that follow—defiant, celebratory, and both. Bambaataa provides the link to an emotionally polyglot global grouping, and Caine leads off a quietly disquieted final section. My favorite touch is pure Chuck—one-upping "Amazing Grace," an obvious capper, with an industrial assault by local DJ Lenny Dee that had me holding my ears at our listening session. Called "Extreme Terror," it sticks sanctimony where the sun don't shine.

Sanctimony is in the ear of the behearer, and no doubt there are fools who will try to reduce the unmeasurablep man-hours and critical acumen that went into this red-white-and-blue cake to the corporate self-service it may or may not accomplish. I say that in all its noise and beauty, its conflicting emotions and culture clash, it represents the New York I've loved since the coming of Willie Mays. To quote English heiress, white Rasta, Johnny Rotten in-law, and NY immigrant Ari Upp: "Don't say nothing bad about my city." And right now, you'd better watch it when you talk about my paper, too.

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