The Music That Got Me Through 9/11 and Its Aftermath
I was new in town — I moved to New York in the year 2000, looking for some breathing room after some sad times in Virginia. I found a cheap apartment in downtown Manhattan, right under the World Trade Center, on John Street. A weird place to live — nobody really lived in the financial zone, so it was totally deserted after sundown. At night, I’d sit under the twin towers by the fountain, listening to my Walkman, watching the glass monoliths sparkle in the dark.
Jonathan Richman got the vibe of the place exactly right in “Lonely Financial Zone,” a ballad I’d loved as a teenage boy. But I never really noticed until a few weeks after the neighborhood got blown up. That’s when I heard Jonathan Richman sing it live at the Bowery Ballroom, October 12th, 2001, to a dead fucking silent room. “I have walked by the buildings, I have walked by them all. I have walked by the skyscrapers, lonely and dark. In the lonely financial zone, by the sea, I have walked under moon and stars.”
For weeks after 9/11, I couldn’t get into my apartment. There were tanks rolling down my street. The smell of smoke and ashes and asbestos was thick in the air, so like everyone else, I wore a dust mask, crashing on friends’ couches, borrowing socks, trying hard all day to think of anything besides death. I had my Walkman and a stash of trusty tapes, but the songs reminded me of places that were rubble now. The smell of the dead was in the air and on my skin: blood on the tracks, dust in the wind. The lonely financial zone was a hole in the ground, and the music was the only proof that I’d lived there.
Bob Dylan’s eyes, man — they were everywhere. His new album Love and Theft came out on 9/11, and every wall in New York City was plastered with the same poster. Dylan’s eyes from the album cover, with a quote from my Rolling Stone review: “A stone cold Dylan classic!” When that poster started popping up all over town, I was one proud Dylan freak. But in the days after 9/11, in downtown Manhattan, his probing gaze was unnerving. It’s weird how much I associate those days with staring into Bob Dylan’s eyes, every corner I turned, with my words under his face. He wasn’t selling any alibis, as I stared into the vacuum of his eyes. He looked into me a little deeper than I was willing to see.
As you’ve probably heard before, September 11th, 2001 was a sunny summer day in New York, after a string of hundred-degree dog days. I spent much of the day outside St. Vincent’s Hospital in the West Village, hoping to donate blood. Thousands of other people were swarming around with the same idea — we assumed there would be survivors. I waited in the O-positive line. The nurses came out a couple of times to announce that no, they couldn’t take any blood donations. But we all lingered there — it was soothing to be surrounded by strangers.
I ran into a friend from Rolling Stone. She immediately told me she was worried about her flight to London that night — she was doing our cover story on Elton John. We gabbed nearly an hour about whether the airports might reopen tomorrow, or whether her Elton interview would have to get postponed. I still remember her confident nod as she said, “Well, you know tomorrow is going to be the safest day in history to fly.”
While we stood there, babbling like idiots about this Elton interview neither of us doubted would happen, a small plane buzzed across the sky. We stopped talking, all of us. The whole crowd stood in silence, staring up. This was the only plane we’d seen in the sky all day. The plane took forever to get across the absurdly clear blue sky and disappear. Nobody said a word until it was out of sight. That awful hush is what I remember.
That afternoon, drifting around in search of something helpful to do, I stopped into Chelsea Piers, a sports complex on the Hudson. They weren’t taking blood donations, but they were converting the space into a makeshift emergency room. So they picked out a group of 20 volunteers. (One of them was another Rolling Stone friend — he’d just left the media biz for stand-up comedy, a steadier gig.)
The nurse trained us to escort patients from the ambulance to the O.R., either the green room (serious injuries), the yellow room (critical injuries), or the red room (near death). She put masking tape on our chests that said “VOLLY.” We put on rubber gloves and unloaded a truck full of medical supplies. There were hundreds of surgeons waiting to operate on the survivors who came in. There was a grief-counseling table, staffed by social workers. We all sat on the floor, watched TV news, ate deli sandwiches donated by local bakeries, waited for the survivors. But there weren’t any survivors.
Around 2 a.m., they told us to go home. Walking down a deserted West Side Highway, no pedestrians or cars in sight, I could see “Ground Zero,” as my neighborhood was now known — a column of smoke, glowing in the dark.
Street closures near Ground Zero, September 12, 2001
I went to the Rolling Stone offices over the next few weeks because I had nowhere else to go. It was a lifeline: a spare desk, a spare computer, friends, colleagues, work to distract the brain. The day after 9/11, I spent hours writing a column on the new Macy Gray album, already knowing I’d never feel like hearing it again. I pecked about a sentence an hour, trying to remember how ordinary musical pleasures felt. Turning on the radio, hearing some cheerful tidings in a pop singer’s voice — that’s how it used to work, right? I toiled all day, meaning every word of my praise, but even as I typed, I knew I wouldn’t be listening later.
My everyday quest for free air conditioning usually brought me to the corner of Jane and W. 4th Street, where I’d sit in the coffee shop for hours, until they closed up. My iced-coffee intake didn’t help the constant nausea and fear. Wi-Fi was not a thing yet, but nobody felt deprived by that — I already knew what my emails were asking, and I wasn’t sure how many “yes I’m okay” replies I was up to posting in a given hour. I usually listened to my Walkman radio. The oldies station, CBS-FM, spent the day after 9/11 playing songs with “smile” in the title: “Sara Smile,” “Smile a Little Smile For Me,” like that.
A radio hit that evokes that time and place for me: “Answer the Phone,” the latest from Sugar Ray. It’s not one of the more famous Sugar Ray hits — there’s no skank or funk, just straight-up pop-punk guitar. Mark McGrath calls his ex, gets her answering machine, begs her to come back. That’s how it worked in those days — you get the machine, you ask, “Are you there? Pick up, it’s me.” Sometimes you might make a tipsy speech, reveal too much, hang up in despair. That’s what the song is about. But it’s also a song about wanting to go back home, yearning to retreat to somewhere you belong, but knowing you’re not getting any closer.
“Answer the Phone” was the last great answering-machine song of the land-line era. It was a pre-Y2K song, really, stranded in a new era that made no sense, a song out of time. So that doubt and confusion really spoke to me in those bizarre days. I always sang along, especially that glorious moment at the end, when he remembers he’s Mark McGrath, so he decides to show off and ham it up. “I remember the way you curled your toes! On the side of the stage at all our shows! The glow on your face just because of one rose! Then I wake up in the morning and you’re WEARING MY CLOOOOTHES!”
That’s me on the corner outside that coffee shop. They’re closing up. The sun is still high. It’s still a hundred degrees. I’m wondering which friend to bug, after leaning too hard on their generosity already. My cellphone’s running down, because nobody carried chargers then. Answer the phone, I know that you’re home. It’s 9/14, 9/15, 9/16, how many more of these we doing?
Thursday morning, 9/13, I remember that one. I was walking up to Rolling Stone, on Sixth Avenue. Suddenly, everyone on the street began to run. A massive zero-to-60 panic stampede, all of us, thousands of people racing for our lives. I ran for two blocks, in a cold sweat. The stampede died down, as abruptly as it began. Everybody went back to walking. No eye contact, no questions, not even a “What the hell just happened?” I asked around — lots of pedestrians got swept up in this panic, so didn’t anyone notice it, or hear about it? I checked the papers the next day. But this wasn’t even a news story — this was now just a Thursday.
It took weeks to get back into the apartment, just a perfunctory visit to grab underwear, toothpaste, etc. I stopped at the military checkpoints along the East Side — that was the smart way to slip downtown, since the soldiers were more lax letting people pass through Chinatown. My driver’s license confirmed my address, so after a couple of tries, the soldiers waved me through. I was granted 30 minutes in my apartment, but stayed for less than half of that — I smelled the smoke, saw my windows coated in debris, grabbed a few cassettes and split. The tape with the Strokes’ Is This It? on one side and the White Stripes’ White Blood Cells on the other — the soundtrack to everything that year.
When live music came back, every band that came to town did a NYC tribute song. Belle and Sebastian did Blondie’s “I’m Always Touched By Your Presence Dear.” Stephen Malkmus, at the Roxy, did the best one: “Satellite of Love,” adding profoundly sad falsetto. He even tried making a speech, a very un-Malk thing to do. “The West Side, it’s the side of broken dreams. All those unwritten dissertations at Columbia.” He mumbled for a bit, unsure what tone to adopt, then said, “Ah, well — that’s as Bono as I’m gonna get tonight.”
One World Financial Center, September 13th, 2001.
Chris Hondros/Getty Images
You could always see it in the band’s faces — nobody warned them about the smell. They got to NYC, loaded in, soundchecked, but got traumatized at the constant smell of smoke. We were used to that smoke, breathing it in all day, so we forgot it was there. A couple friends from Virginia drove up for a rock show in October, but as soon as they got out of the car and took a breath, their faces blanched. They lasted about 20 minutes, then got back into their car and drove home. They couldn’t deal with the smell — really, what they couldn’t deal with was the idea of smelling it and not noticing. It was a shock to realize I had turned into someone who could breathe charred death all day and forget to feel horrified.
I went to music for refuge, but it all sounded different. One evening I slipped the Velvet Underground into my Walkman — Lou Reed making up new words to “Pale Blue Eyes,” live in Cleveland, October 1968, from the classic bootleg And So On. Sing it, Lou: “The angels went to heaven and the devil went to hell, and I seen him coming down from the ceiling in my room. He looked like the mad monk who came here from Afghanistan. You should have seeeeen the mother when he came down on his broom! I certainly couldn’t get out of there too soon.”
Dylan’s eyes kept following me around town, like a bad F. Scott Fitzgerald parody. I listened to the Dylan album like crazy — our new wartime consigliere. Love and Theft sounded like he saw this hard rain coming a mile away. In fact, his album made such a perfect 9/11 soundtrack/prophecy, it made some folks suspicious. As Greg Tate memorably asked in the Village Voice, “What did Dylan know and when did he know it?”
Dylan came to play New York in November 2001. (Backstage, he greeted a few Rolling Stone editors, then asked, “Where’s Rob Sheffield?” I’m just glad this happened in front of witnesses.) Onstage, he played one of the most passionate music displays I’ve ever witnessed, especially that “Don’t Think Twice.” A row behind me, Edie Falco sang every word of “Just Like a Woman.” When he struck up “Tom Thumb’s Blues,” there was a tangible shock in the room. This one? Really? He’s going there? He’s taking us with him? But the joke was on us, because there was nobody even there to bluff, and at the end, Dylan was just one of the 18,000 voices shouting, “I”m going back to New York City, I do believe I’ve had enooouuugh!”
One afternoon that fall, I was eating in a West Village diner, reading the paper, listening to the oldies on CBS-FM. “Born To Be Wild” came on — a song I’ve adored all my life, like any sane person. This time, when it got to the line, “Fire all of your guns at once and explode into space,” I got dizzy and staggered out to the sidewalk, where I crumpled over and gulped for oxygen, until I felt my blood start to circulate again. Then I went back in and sat down like everything was normal. Never happened again, not with “Born To Be Wild,” not with any song. Never told a soul. Everyone I knew must have experienced their own secret moments like this. But none of us said a word. For some of us, these moments eventually ended, and that made us the lucky ones.
In honor of the 20th anniversary of 9/11, Rolling Stone is looking back at how the terrorist attacks changed America at the time — and for the next two decades.
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