9/11: Talking World War III Blues


One of the only records I’ve been able to stomach since 9/11 hit was released that very day. Bob Dylan’s Love and Death—I mean Love and Theft—begins with the image of twins, Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, throwing knives into a tree, and continues, “Two big bags of dead men’s bones, they got their noses to the grindstone.” The album, at least the way I hear it this week, is riddled with images of hopelessness, futility, apocalypse, and revelation: splintered ships, a cornered drifter, the end of summer, and a long laundry list of other things “too terrible to be true.” —Richard Gehr

After squinting from my Park Slope rooftop as the smoke blew into Brooklyn last Tuesday, sneezing through the ashes dusting cars even that far south, staring choked-up and bleary-eyed at the atrocity exhibition on CNN for most of the afternoon and night, wondering if my family and friends back in the heartland would connect to all this more if it hadn’t happened in a city they mainly know from disaster movies, I found myself relieved again that the army no longer lists my onetime Signal Corps captainhood on their reserve rolls. In the 24 hours following the destruction, a line about mushroom clouds from the grief-ridden song “Shattered Within” by ambient Finnish metal band Amorphis kept repeating inside my head, and the only music that made any sense when I put it on was other desolate enveloping doomsday metal like Neurosis and My Dying Bride, funereally moaned and codeine-tempoed and devoid of shape or reason—just blank nuclear-winter mood, no personality to get in the way since there was too much to think about already. And I didn’t play it loud.

Wednesday morning, the eerily paper-strewn and sparsely populated Armageddon blocks between the Prince Street subway stop and Astor Place reminded me for the first time ever of Detroit, in the wee hours after Devil’s Night maybe. In my e-mailbox: a long letter from Iranian-born former Voice intern Sanaz Mozafarian, about her hearing that Arab Americans were already being harassed in public, about cars near Wall Street with “Revenge Is the Only Answer” scrawled into the soot on their hoods, about how trying to reach the financial district’s ground zero from her midtown morning dance class after Tuesday’s explosions had reminded Sanaz of braving Seattle’s “no protest zone” in December of 1999. Spinning in the background was a newly arrived Best of Randy Newman CD I put on just to drown out whatever, and the song that goes “They don’t respect us, so let’s surprise ’em, let’s drop the big one and pulverize ’em” gave me shivers.

Back in oddly sunny Brooklyn later that day, friends and I walked up to Methodist Hospital to offer blood donations, and on the way back stopped at a five-dollar rack, where we found a tanktop with the twin towers on the front, surrounded by fireworks and the word “Celebrate!” (On Saturday, I walked by the same store, and “We Are the World” was blaring through its doors.) Wednesday night I had a beer with Blender fact checker Gabe Soria, who said he’d turned to Al Green’s I’m Still in Love With You the night before to reassure himself there was still something good and beautiful and unassailable in the world. I wished I had a taste for spiritual redemption myself.

And though once in a while as the week wore on my internal soundtrack would reach for “Rivers of Babylon”—damn right we remember Zion—more often, especially while devouring the Times, I was hearing the Clash’s “Washington Bullets” (the only song I know featuring Afghan rebels), Breaking Circus’s “Knife in the Marathon” (the only song I know featuring Middle Eastern terrorists brandishing sharp objects), Baader Meinhof’s “Meet Me at the Airport” (“waste them without mercy”), Emily XYZ’s “Who Shot Sadat” (thanks to Osama bin Laden’s ties to the Egyptian Islamic Jihad), Brooks & Dunn’s “Only in America” (both the hardest-rocking and most blatantly flag-waving hit on any radio format this summer, now guaranteed to become a national anthem), the Butthole Surfers’ “Jet Fighter” (anti-war-against-Allah song of the year), the Cure’s sadly inevitable “Killing an Arab” (which maybe Ted Nugent will finally cover). None of them explained a thing. But you never ask questions when God’s on your side. —Chuck Eddy

After the first mention of our presumed enemy, Pet Shop Boys’ “It’s Alright” started haunting me. “Dictation being forced in Afghanistan,” goes the first line. It’s not one Neil Tennant would write. Like him, I was first a fan of the original version by Sterling Void. Of course, dictatorship is the proper word, not dictation, but dictatorship doesn’t flow with the song’s rhythm. Afghanistan actually does, though, which in itself is remarkable, particularly since “It’s Alright” was an early house record, the first with a political lyric.

I’m generally not one to have political lyrics stuck in my head. But like the Village People’s “Go West” that Pet Shop Boys would years later cover, “It’s Alright” is solace-seeking gospel. God isn’t depicted biblically—I wouldn’t have it in my head and the Pets wouldn’t be singing it if it were. Instead, God is something much closer to my home and theirs: “Generations will come and go/But there’s one thing for sure/Music is our life’s foundation/And shall succeed all the nations to come/I hope it’s gonna be alright/’Cos the music plays forever.”

Don’t get me wrong: I’m a lousy optimist. I’m not sure it’s gonna be alright, and it certainly isn’t alright now. I turn to music to experience the divine, but I also turn to it to escape, and although my heart’s fixed on the tragedies of my beloved former city, I know my soul wants to flee and find refuge in little things, like the soothing, soft, North England way Tennant sings Afghanistan. It’s so beautiful. —Barry Walters

Lisa and I were on our honeymoon, driving across America with a hundred or so cassettes—mix tapes, radio airchecks, truck-stop curiosities, everything. The afternoon of the 11th, we got back on the road, and we could only bear the simplest, bluntest distractions from news reports: The Story of ABBA and Highway to Hell. Reptile-brain music. Radio ABBA radio AC/DC radio ABBA radio. The announcers kept saying the same things again and again, and we played the same songs again and again, and the stores and restaurants by the side of the road kept repeating themselves in cycles. We’re still a couple of days away from New York, and we sing along to keep from thinking about it. S.O.S. We’re on the highway to hell. —Douglas Wolk

There’s an irritating streak I hear surfacing in the music I run into. I can’t bear another preacher on TV singing “Amazing Grace,” or the tinkle-tinkle hearts-and-flowers music the TV runs under the unscrolling of names of the dead. Last night I watched One False Move on Bravo; for the buildup to the climax, there’s this black farmer sitting in his yard playing blues harmonica, and I was absolutely convinced this was the worst music ever made (it had never bothered me before).

So I’ve been listening to the New Pornographers’ “Letter From an Occupant,” from Mass Romantic—I play it three or four times in a row as loud as it goes, then turn around and go back to whatever I was doing. It’s Neko Case rising out of a great noise like a water spout. It’s the most alive thing in the house. It’s complete. When it’s on, your thoughts can go anywhere. —Greil Marcus

U2’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind, Ray Barretto’s “Fuego y Pa’Lante,” OutKast’s “Bombs Over Baghdad” for the obvious reasons. But as much as I want to blast these sounds out my Inwood window to drown out the sounds of jet planes riding very low and loudly over my building, I don’t. Out of respect for the grieving mother of a young child who lives directly above my apartment, whose husband is still missing. —Raquel Cepeda

For the first time in my life, I have no desire to listen to any music. My head has been numb for days and all I want to hear is silence. Music would bring no pleasure now. It would only remind me of life before. —Scott Seward

Living outside Los Angeles, I spent the greater half of Tuesday as a television spectator. I was alone in the house and had to turn off the tube for a while but didn’t turn to the stereo. Instead, I buried myself in a more personal activity: the digital restoration of old out-of-print recordings. It may seem eccentric, but I derive a great deal of comfort from taking something obsolete and discarded and making it bright and full of merit again. Massaging algorithms on the computer to remove the sounds of dust and decay on old vinyl is fulfilling. It takes concentration and locks you away from the real world for a few hours until it’s done right. The record? A British white-boy blues band from 1974 called Nutz. Nothing special and not much remains of them in the pop-history books, although they meant something to me for a few months in high school. “Can’t Tell Her Why” was a wonderful heartbreaker on it; the Black Crowes sound a lot like it in their finest moments.

I played it once before I went to bed. If anyone wants a copy, I’ll make them one. —George Smith



At the I Love Music chat room, I found that someone had linked to a promo site for the Coup’s forthcoming record. When I saw the cover, I immediately went back to the mix tape I’d been listening to and hit play, because the Coup’s “Me and Jesus the Pimp in a ’79 Granada Last Night” was the next song on it. Sad, eerily beautiful sound, the words about how a kid becomes emotionally dependent on the pimp who killed his mother. Tremendous song, morally complicated, no posturing; I hope this guy’s career doesn’t get derailed by one stupid gaffe. What I’m referring to is that the album cover, which was made a couple months ago, is a picture of the World Trade Center exploding. People discovered it last Wednesday and began circulating it on the Web, and the news media got onto it. Obviously, the group will change the cover before they release the LP. Their record company released this statement: “The Coup are deeply saddened by this horrible tragedy. The Coup advocates change, but change through peaceful means, never through violence.” —Frank Kogan

In the past, I’ve found the rebellious anger of many rock and rap songs to be energizing and uplifting; but now this romanticized view of street fighting men and women seems inappropriate—self-righteous anger is just too deadly to take lightly anymore. —Todd Kristel

On Saturday I woke—alone in a ordered, still flat—to a bright, early autumn morning, with these words in my mind: “It’s dark, dark in the daytime . . . ” A line from “Cities” by Talking Heads. I’ve played Fear of Music since, nonstop. Why a song written from within a terrorist’s head, or anyway an arty boho’s possibly glib guesswork at same? It’s about emotional lockdown, I think—the song is, the LP is, my need for it is. I’ve played it little for years, but in my early twenties it was my way favorite record, body-armored as I was to distrust everything: sex, love, fun, punk, all just tricks to disarm and ensnare and distract. We lived in unreal time; a terrible day would dawn. I liked that, then. And if the LP’s disenchanted chilliness was bogus, or parodic, a put-on song after song, all the better: “I got it figured out!” This last week, twisting away from real emotion—and from two decades’ hard-won trust that not everything turns out bad, that all shared knowledge is not false—this trebly relentlessness came back to calm me. Music to deep-freeze your nerves to. And solace in the sheer familiarity of a long-forgotten mindset. —Mark Sinker

I’ve read in Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror that the orderly, elegantly structured cathedrals, paintings, and music of the 14th century were a survival response to the chaos of the bubonic plague. Similarly, Bach’s The Art of Fugue filled my apartment with visceral evidence of civilization, elegance, and order. I wonder, if our way of life fails to return to its former stability, whether we’ll see a resurgence in orderly, calm, highly structured styles of music. —Kyle Gann

In some useless critical peacock-strut, I’d say Swedish piano-based jazz trio E.S.T. are the sound of Ahmad Jamal crashing Radiohead in a European dance hall. None of this really matters. What matters is “The Face of Love” makes me want to cry—the way it breaks through the mood of catastrophe hanging like the black cloud above Brooklyn, and helps me process the constant threats of racist violence a half-mile away where the muezzins call each morning, the bomb threats at the subway station down the street, even right here on my corner, a block from my son’s school. It’s a cover of a song by the late Muslim qawwali artist Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. E.S.T. couldn’t have known the meanings this song would gather. But they have reminded me why I, and maybe you, need music so. —Jeff Chang

I live on Broadway below Canal. Tuesday morning, I take my four-year-old, Sam, to school. I park on Sixth near Bleecker and wait for a space to become valid at nine. When we see people pointing downtown, we get out to see what they’re pointing at. Gray and white smoke pours from the top of the WTC. Huge smoke, silent but closer than you’d think. We can see a black hole outlined in flame. I am holding Sam up so he can see and thinking he shouldn’t be seeing this, but the mood is still somewhat even. People have their car doors open, to share their radio broadcasts. There is instant community, instant suspension of traffic rules. As we watch the smoke, a second plane appears from the right and then a huge fireball replaces the top of the second tower. Sam starts to cry and says, “I don’t like this,” and I feel like the world’s worst parent.

After a hundred other events, I am taking Sam home from school and he is terrified, because he can see quite clearly that we are walking toward the smoke. I assure him that there won’t be smoke near our house. I have to argue with a policeman to get into my house, and Sam starts to cry again. At home, the TV is on and Sam sees more than he should before it goes off. At dinner, I remember music exists and put on Duke Ellington, mostly out of habit and nerves. It is too before-the-flood, too hopeful. I turn it off.

Thursday morning we pop in the only videocassette Sam ever watches, just to give him continuity, and I hear the theme song I’ve heard 4000 times, but it’s not the same now: “Bob the builder! Can we fix it? Bob the builder! Yes we can!”

That night, the thunder and lightning wake everybody at 4 a.m. and I realize thunder will never be just that. I lay awake listening to the rain, the best sound I’ve heard in days. Then I start thinking about how much water weighs. —Sasha Frere-Jones