America

01wtc

America (Simon and Garfunkel, 1968).
America (1-2-3, live, the Marquee Club, 1967).
America (Bowie, the Concert for New York City, 2001).
America (Bowie, Robin Hood Benefit, 2002).

Those towers were almost human for me. I was in love with them, and that’s why I married them with a tightrope.

Philippe Petit, 2014.

When the first tower was hit, there was a long rumbling. Take an oil drum, turn it on its side and play a tattoo on it with mallets, amplify this, give it heavy bass. Something like that. It was an extended sound—it went on for three, four seconds.

I was working in 195 Broadway, a block east from the Trade Center (it was an older, far more distinguished building; it likely considered the Towers parvenus). I went to the window to see if a truck had overturned on the Brooklyn Bridge, my first guess as to what had happened, but there was nothing but traffic.

Kevin came in. He was the sort of loud, overgrown boy who makes a good reporter on Wall Street. He wore blue nearly every day, great bright blues. “Plane hit the Trade Center,” he said.

“What kind of plane?” I said. “Some kind of Cessna?”

“Probably out of Teterboro or something.”

“How do you hit the Trade Center? How bad a pilot must you be?”

“Like JFK Jr. bad.”

He went back down to the street. I looked out at the Bridge again (still traffic), then crossed to the other side of the office, where a small window, a foot wide and two feet high, offered our only rear-facing view: a little rectangular frame of Church Street and the base of Trade Center 2. There was a grey and black plume of smoke in the air, with bits of paper raining down. “How big was the plane?” a woman behind me asked. “It was a real plane?”

A man came on the intercom and said that everything was under control. No need to leave. Kevin came back, his bluster drained out of him. People were starting to jump, he said. “It’s worse than you think.”

I sat at my desk, sipping coffee, constantly refreshing a news website that said nothing. It felt like I was sitting in a room with a corpse. I kept walking to the small window, watching the dark cloud grow darker, the papers whirl and scudder in the air. I could see they were memos, photocopies, manila envelopes, pieces of folders. I looked at the desk next to the window and saw the same, only neatly stacked.

When the second plane hit, there was a long, loop of fire and what looked like embers flung high into the air. The building shook; there were screams, murderous screams coming from the street. The man on the intercom, sounding unshaken, said that we should leave.

01menchi

In 1996, I’d worked in 2 World Trade, on the 18th floor. The towers were often empty-feeling buildings, as if they’d been built for some municipal folly (say, if NYC had hosted in the Olympics in 1968) and had been left to fend for themselves. The guards wore maroon jackets. There was so little light. Our office rationed it out to the bosses and editors, each of whom had an office with a tiny window view, leaving the rest of us clustered in semi-darkness. It could feel like working in a mineshaft.

On the ground floor there were a set of halls and small lobbies that linked the two towers with the lesser buildings of the Trade Center complex. At Christmas, they set up a shabby-looking electric train set. There were statues—Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck as stockbrokers, their feet up on their desks—in one shop window (I recall seeing Bugs covered in grey dust in a newscast post 9/11). A dyspeptic Indian man ran a narrow, almost vertical newsstand. There was a bagel stand whose manager would catch your eye and yell “Yes! what are you having today!” He was the brightest soul in the whole place. There was a Duane Reade outpost whose aisles, especially in the winter, were full of lunchtime coughers and snifflers. I still try to recall faces sometimes, of anyone whom I saw then. If I can, I wonder if they made it out.

Tourists came to the Towers but they just took the elevator up to the observation decks, snapped photos and left. No one who didn’t work there hung around the neighborhood, which was full of winding, scaffold-filled streets whose main businesses were small-time importers, rug dealers and people who seemed to cadge a living out of repairing toasters and radios. You could walk around at lunchtime and know that someone in 1924 saw much the same view as you. Except for the Towers.

So when the men playing “God Bless America” on boomboxes began selling souvenir atrocity postcards, and the busloads of people wearing American flag T-shirts began to show up to gawk at the ruins, it was hard not to be resentful, as petty as that may sound. This gritty little old neighborhood, visited by few, loved by fewer, had been burned and gouged, had been turned into a mass grave and now it was a theme park. What was once a real, and happily anonymous, place was bought by history.

01bravo

On Broadway that morning, there was broken glass everywhere—the windows of Au Bon Pain were shattered, as were those of a Mrs. Fields cookie shop (its owner hurriedly pulling down the grating). People were standing in the street and sidewalk, staring up at the towers. I stood with them for a few minutes. There was a sudden fluttering down along the length of Trade Center One: someone had just fallen. I couldn’t stand there and watch any more.

I decided to walk to my girlfriend’s office in Chelsea, declining to take my chances with the subway. I took Church Street up. I tried to process what had happened—had there been a second plane? Had the first tower caused the other to catch fire? When I first had moved to New York, to help myself get the lay of neighborhoods, I’d come up with little mnemonics. The one for Church’s cross-streets came back into my head for some reason: Judge Murray Warren will see you in his Chambers. Thomas doubts the Worth of Leonard Franklin. A van pulled up sharply and out spilled six or seven FBI agents. I knew this as they were in windbreakers marked “FBI” in great yellow letters. One of them, a woman younger than me, seemed excited. She sported an FBI hat as well. Perhaps she had a desk job and suddenly here she was, pulling an X-Files. I couldn’t blame her for looking a bit eager.

In a parking lot at Canal and Greene St., I stopped to watch the towers again. They were now heavily aflame. Each had a large black wound spewing filthy clouds which the light wind was sending on to Brooklyn. These were the only clouds. Otherwise the sky was so clear and fine that you could see the sleeping moon.

I was in a small knot of people. “It’s going to burn for a long, long time,” an old man said, with shaky, if unquestioned authority. Two NYU kids were filming with handheld video cameras. “Check it out, dude,” one said to the other. He offered a view from his camera monitor as if he was sharing a flask.

Walking up Greene through Soho, I kept turning back to the towers. Felt like Lot’s wife. Two men in suits, roughly my age, fell into step with me. We heard something and turned to watch 2 World Trade fall into a pile of smoke. It made a low, bustling sound, like a train crossing somewhere in the distance. Now there was only one tower, ruling over a cloud. I looked at the shorter of the guys, said something like “can you believe this” and he gave me a why-are-you-fucking-talking-to-me face. “We have got to get out of here, it’s not safe here,” he told his friend. I crossed Houston, cut through the NYU dorms, past the Picasso sculpture no tourist has ever visited. There a woman was talking to a buildings-and-grounds man, explaining in detail what was happening, although he could see the burning tower directly over her head. In Washington Square Park, some 200 people were standing in rows near the arch, looking like they were at an outdoor concert.

Everywhere I walked, I saw people carrying children and dogs.

01ww

I went into the First Presbyterian Church on Fifth Avenue and sat in a back pew for a time. As I was coming out, the crowd in the street gasped as one. The other tower was crumbling now, again into a grey, atomic cloud, again with a soft rumble. What was there wasn’t now. How many deaths was I going to witness today? For all I knew 195 Broadway was gone as well, for all I knew I wouldn’t make it out of Manhattan. “Oh God, all of those people,” a woman said, not screaming, just giving each word a long, piercing note of sadness. The air went out of me and I sat on the street.

At my girlfriend’s office on Seventh Avenue, I found she wasn’t there (she’d never made it in to Manhattan from Queens). I drank some water, took in whatever speculations were circling (Camp David was bombed, Congress was bombed, the President was missing). I figured I’d have to walk home to Queens at some point, so why not start.

Walking towards Third Avenue, trying to avoid the larger streets, I saw people in lines everywhere: public phones, bars, pizza shops, ATM machines. Was there a bank run, too? Like 20th Century Miseries, Greatest Hits this morning, I thought. A grocery store had set up an easel with draft paper, on which you could write the name of anyone for whom you wanted a prayer said. A handful of names, including “Everyone.” A man was jogging down Third, headphones on, shirtless, a blank expression. I wanted him to collide with a telephone pole.

I reached the Queensboro Bridge around noon. “We’re representin’ Queens,” a man yelled on the gangway. “This is the real Million Man March!” Cheers. It was a carnival atmosphere by now, everyone sent home early from work. The sun had gone brutal. There were no police on the bridge, as far as I could see, and the mood was edgy: it felt as if it could turn dark in a moment. A few men drinking Budweiser were ogling women, calling for them to strip. They were jumping on and off the rear bumpers of barely-moving trucks.

It was as if we were in a retreating, quickly deteriorating army. Midway across the bridge I felt, no I knew, that a plane would come and shear straight through it, and thought about how it would feel to hang in the air for a moment before falling into the East River. Death seemed so present by now, so familiar.

In Queens Plaza the crowd broke in two, the greater half heading straight onto Queens Boulevard, the lesser up towards Astoria. I followed the latter stream for a time, forked off to Sunnyside, home to Locust St. My girlfriend had believed, for an hour or two before I managed to call her, that I’d possibly been killed. A few days later, during a minor argument about the dishes, she slapped me in the face and started crying. We got married a year later; it didn’t last.

I sat for an hour with my feet in a bucket of warm water. I had no idea how I would get through the rest of the day.

01kuz

Leonard Cohen:...the terrorist position is so seductive that everybody has embraced it. The governments have embraced it, the lovers have embraced it. The same politics of the bedroom and the living room and the legislative assemblies of the world…it is the terrorist position. Reduce everything to confrontation, to revenge.

Vin Scelsa: Do you think the media plays a big part in all that?

Cohen: It’s way beyond that. It’s all lost… Our culture, our civilization, all this beautiful stuff from Mozart to Bukowski, as exalted or as funky as it gets, it’s just nail polish on the claws and the nail polish has begun to crack and flake and the claws are showing through. And that’s what we’re living with—a world in which the claws have been exposed. And it’s only been a tiny brief moment when they were covered with nail polish, and now the nail polish is coming off.

Scelsa: The future looks pretty grim.

Cohen: It is grim. It always has been grim.

“Vin Scelsa’s Idiot’s Delight,” NYC, 13 June 1993.

01horan

Bowie and Tony Visconti were upstate that morning. Visconti’s son and a friend were living down by the towers; they got out. Bowie and Iman’s place in Soho was close enough that she saw the second plane hit.

A month later, Bowie took part in the Concert for New York at Madison Square Garden. It’s hard to watch this concert now, with its exhausted, nervy sense of mourning, the open anger and blood lust, the boorish antics by the comedians. The Anglo-American theme of the night, emphasized by the Union Jack and Old Glory set against each other above the stage and with Paul McCartney writing an official theme song, was reassuring then; it just seems a sad premonition of a shared disaster now.

Bowie’s performance of “Heroes” was everything the audience needed to hear that night. Many of them had lost friends, and some of them likely would contract cancer and emphysema because of their work during those weeks. Bowie cast the song up in the air for everyone to grab onto it. It seems churlish to begrudge him, or the audience, for doing the expected; doing the expected felt like a luxury then.

But he had opened the show by himself. He sat at the edge of the stage, his legs tucked under him, looking as though he’d been recruited from the Beckenham Arts Lab and asked to warm up the crowd before the real acts started. He had a Omnichord keyboard, on which he set up a waltz pattern. It was another toy instrument, like the Stylophone and the Rosedale Electric Organ, that he’d elevated.

Bowie messes up. He misses his cue with the Omnichord and he spends the whole first verse off-kilter, the keyboard racing ahead of him, which makes him rush his phrasings and he can’t quite settle into the melody. He doesn’t show a lick of concern. With the second verse he catches up with the song, falls into a lilting pattern.

The lyric, like the Trade Center, was a relic from a lost Sixties. Even as a child, I’d thought Simon and Garfunkel’s “America” was about another, much older country, like the Hardy Boys novels with their jalopies and automats. Mrs. Wagner’s Pies; men wearing gabardine suits and bowties on the bus; young people hitch-hiking without fear of being kidnapped and killed (the latter was drummed into you as a kid in the Seventies). “America” was an exile’s song. Paul Simon had written some of it in England, using his English girlfriend Kathy Chitty as a supporting character; he was missing his home enough that he turned people stuck on the New Jersey Turnpike into pilgrims.

01wtc (2)

Why sing “America”? Well, the title was a good applause line. And he “was looking for something which really evoked feelings of bewilderment and uncertainty, because for me that’s how that particular period really felt. And I really thought that Paul Simon’s song in this new context really captured that,” Bowie said in a November 2001 web-chat.

It was also an old memory of his, as he’d been a fan of the Scottish band 1-2-3 (later Clouds), who had a residency at the Marquee Club in 1967. One of the songs in the 1-2-3’s set was by a composer that no one in Britain had heard of, some New York folkie who’d crashed in London in the mid-Sixties. Somehow 1-2-3 had gotten hold of one of Simon’s then-unreleased songs and turned “America” into a nearly ten-minute progressive track, full of time and key changes (Yes would all but steal the 1-2-3’s template for their cover a few years later).

The song felt as if it could be opened: each of its verses is a self-contained little world, each line could fork off somewhere else. Bowie takes his time with it, he gives each line enough room, he stresses the preposition “for” over the crowd-pleasing “America.” There’s a sense that he’s trying to recall a world that’s fading just as he’s singing. Michigan seems like a dream to me now. Saginaw’s in another country. A bus full of sleepers drives East, and the night inks in the fields and towns that it passes. What was it like, he asks on behalf of all the lost kids at the Marquee, to have lived in such a place? And what will be there when it’s gone?

The Chrysler Building was talking to the Empire State.
The Twin Towers were talking to each other,
Saying, “All is forgiven, I love you still”

Luna, “Going Home,” 1994.

There’s a story about Nabokov and his family, sailing to America in May 1940. They had fled the Soviets and Nazi Berlin and now they were leaving Nazi Paris. Here they were, Vladimir and Vera and Dmitri, washed up on a pier in mid-Manhattan. A small porter and two large customs men opened their traveling trunk; on top were two pairs of boxing gloves. The customs men slipped on the gloves and began sparring, whirling in a dance around Nabokov; another inspector examined Nabokov’s butterfly collection and offered, gratis, his newly-coined name for a species.

Where would that happen?” Nabokov would say when recounting that morning, delighted by the strange young country he’d come to live in. “Where would that happen?

Performed 20 October 2001, Madison Square Garden. Released (edited) 27 November 2001 on The Concert For New York City (Columbia C2K 86270). Bowie performed “America” again on 30 May 2002 for a charity show at the Javits Center.

Top to bottom: Jamie Squire, “New York City,” 5 September 2001; Julien Menichini, “NYC,” 5 September 2001; Monika Bravo, “View From the 92nd Floor, WTC 1, During a Storm,” 10 September 2001; David Officer, “View of NY Skyline from the Empire State Building,” 10 September 2001; Evan Kuz, “World Trade Center,” 10 September 2001; Mike Horan, “9-10-2001”; “Oberon Watchman,” 8:22 AM, 9/11/01.

40 Responses to America

  1. fantailfan says:

    Thank you.

  2. humanizingthevacuum says:

    Lovely.

    As Bowie never struck me as a Paul Simon (much less a S&G fan), the choice surprised me. He found the voice for it too.

    • twinkle-twinkle says:

      I think ‘Conversation Piece’ is influenced by Paul Simon. Bowie also noted that it was Paul who wrote the songs, but Art who made you cry.

      There is a story that, having stood in a cocaine haze for twenty minutes during a photo-call, (the famous ‘tuxedoed’ grouping of S & G, Bowie and John & Yoko), Bowie allegedly said to someone,”Oh, I believe Simon and Garfunkel are here, I wonder if I could meet them?” Psst, look to your right Mr Bowie.

  3. col1234 says:

    this entry was originally supposed to come out in July, but then my various delays kept pushing it back for weeks until I realized it pretty much was destined to come out today. So there you have it.

  4. david says:

    This post alone, justifies entirely why this is the best blog on the web. Thank you for that, I had a tear in my eye and chills throughout.

  5. Jaf says:

    Amazing. Thanks

  6. stuartgardner says:

    Thanks so much for this. I’ve never read or seen anything that so made me feel I was there.

  7. Vinnie says:

    (Saginaw? I grew up just a bit south in a small town called Otter Lake.)

    This entry is quite good. Many of this blog’s entries are written from your perspective, many others are in depth journalism. You mentioned working near the WTC previously; if there was ever a time to recite your story, it was here. Thank you.

  8. Momus says:

    1. I was in Chinatown, listening to Schubert with a Japanese girl. Heard the first plane, switched off the music, turned the TV (a set I’d bought in the mall right under the WTC) to NY1, who reported a plane crash, went up onto the roof in time to glimpse the second plane flitting all wrong between buildings.

    2. Somehow, for me, the thing unfolded quite peacefully, even when the penny dropped that this was an attack. I videoed from Division Street, the Chinese around gimlet-eyed, flinty and impassive as they watched. Later, Aya and I walked around, tenuguis across our mouths and noses. With Lower Manhattan closed to traffic, and the weather so beautiful, it felt oddly idyllic: the eye of the storm.

    3. That night the smoke changed direction, waking us when it began to waft into the apartment. And that was the beginning of a more nightmarish feeling. It began with the smoke, and continued with the anthrax, which killed someone at my eye hospital, then turned into fullblown paranoia about bubonic plague and botulism and poisoned bananas.

    4. There was also a visceral reaction to the flag-waving, the sense of mounting fascism, the “them-or-us” rhetoric, the knowledge that the revenge was going to be much more deadly than the crime. That’s what made me question my presence in the US, and soon enough leave New York. It was like watching a playful friend turn into a bully.

    5. Bowie had been a presence all through my life, a harbinger of change who was paradoxically a reassuring constant in all my transitions. We’d left the UK at about the same time, fleeing powercuts, the three-day week and IRA bombs. Bowie took the QE2, my family took the SS France, the first part of our emigration to Montréal.

    6. So my first view of Lower Manhattan was from the deck of a liner. It was 1973, and Tower 2 of the WTC had just been completed, in between (in my own way of calendaring these things) Aladdin Sane and Diamond Dogs.

    7. I really loved Bowie’s performance at the firemen’s benefit. The white suit, the long hair, the Buddhist Englishman manner. Not so much the “Heroes” performance (another step towards the de-ironisation of the title, “heroes” being a Bush buzzword at the time), but the bungled Simon song, which answered a question I’d sometimes asked myself: “What if Bowie were a lo-fi artist who used Casio rhythm patterns and tinny beatboxes? Would be still be great without the crunch of expensive production?”

    8. The answer was yes, he would be great and poignant. The song, in this reading and this context, was a whimsical, humble and humane response to something Wagnerian. Bowie dedicated it to his “local ladder — you know who you are!” I knew who they were, too, because they were almost my local ladder, those brave firemen on Lafayette Street.

    9. Of course, the eternal fourteen year-old in me wished he’d done Future Legend instead. It would have been in godawful taste, but appropriate: he, after all, had been the only rock seer grim enough to see this — or something like this — coming. He’d modelled it in clay on his hotel tabletop.

    10. But in the end, this humane and modest song really said something much nobler: life goes on, we love each other, we travel on Greyhounds down turnpikes, we marry our fortunes together, and paranoia is something funny to do with bow-ties that might be cameras. If only Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld’s response had been so small, so charming.

    • col1234 says:

      so much of the DB catalog would’ve been in godawful taste! “Five Years,” “Panic in Detroit” “Ashes to Ashes”. no wonder he went with a cover.

      funny to think our paths might’ve crossed that day.

      & yeah, the anthrax scare was awful. Had a full-on freakout when I saw what was most likely talcum powder on a seat on the 6 line

  9. mikaels says:

    Wow, a powerful piece, and on this day, no less.
    I am at a loss for words, I can still remember that day, sitting here in Stockholm, Sweden, wondering why my fax to the US wouldn’t go through, then noticing strange things on the internet, and then the whole horrible truth gradually made itself known.

    Thank you, I think I will go back to this entry every anniversary

  10. crayontocrayon says:

    This must go down as one of Bowie’s bravest performances – on stage alone playing an odd arrangement on an unusual instrument, this was Bowie offering himself and being vulnerable for the people who had given so much for the place he and his family called home. Fortunately for Bowie the worst that can happen is a mistimed verse. By the end its a beautiful and poignant recital of a great song.

    Thank you for sharing your memories and feelings of the day, Chris.

  11. roobin101 says:

    I’ve been wondering how this post would turn out. It’s wonderful. Thank you for writing it. The question I was saving up was does it feel like this is now part of history or is it still part of the present, if that makes sense?

    Observations – one of the reasons I think this event was so potent was it was an attack as much against symbols as people, not to mention a violent, wide-screen incursion of fantasy into reality. I don’t know if this makes it unique in terrorist attacks.

    The other thing that comes out clearly is the actual experience is always different from the legislated one. The part about the “carnival atmosphere” really hits home. It reminded me a little of the stories of how people all over Europe were jubilant at the outbreak of World War One.

    I could go on. I was about 300 yards away from where the bus bomb went off during the July 7th. I’m forever comparing the two events (and they seem very different) and trying to remember.

    • col1234 says:

      for me it’s very much history now—NYC isn’t the same place. NYC was always changing, sure, but there’s very much a BC/AD kind of divide w/r/t my experience with the city. (I left in 2005)

      & one reason I wanted to write this post was to get the memories down before they were gone or compromised. Helped that I kept a journal in ’01—I would have forgotten many of the details otherwise.

      for much of the world this was a TV event; it’s odd to have been on the “stage” side for once. Same would apply to anyone w/ bad luck to be caught up in something like this.

  12. Patrick says:

    I think, despite any of his personal connections, given the danger he had of falling into embarrassing mawkishness at the Freddie Mercury concert, i think the performance at New York pitched it pretty well perfectly. Not an obvious choice for the first track but expressing the sometimes overwhelming awe of a great city and country for the immigrant (and the native) and still maintained the ambiguity, ironic triumphalism and lyrical prescience for the second
    ” Heroes just for one day”
    “And we kissed,
    as though nothing could fall
    And the shame was on the other side”

    I remember , as a lifelong Londoner, as the early news reports came in at work of a “plane” hitting the WTC as most of us surely imagined a small light aircraft and an amateur pilot in some stunt. How wrong we were.
    I still find the clips of that day distressing and I was not there.

    Thanks for sharing.

  13. Jack Womack says:

    Remarkable piece, as I was sure it would be. Didn’t realize “Locust Street” referred to the one in Sunnyside, which unlike most of NYC kind of still remains itself, kind of.

    I worked for a midtown publisher on the day, the director’s TV was on. We watched as that tiny little plane came into view: flames. “Are they rerunning it again?” somebody asked. Within five minutes of the first tower coming down the office was empty, save for the editor & a fellow publicist who had to wait for an author with whom they were having lunch and who was not to be dissuaded. It goes without saying hers was a New Age book on, basically, predicting the future.

    Had been able to get ahold of my wife in far Brooklyn, she planned on staying over w/friends as the subways stopped running. I walked home, talked to a friend on the phone a long time, went to St. John the Divine for awhile, came back & the B subway had reopened, and she was able to get home after all.

    That week after was probably the strangest week I’ve ever known, in NYC. There was no traffic in midtown next day, save for police cars and military vehicles (were the tunnels still closed? Can’t remember). First time I ever saw State cops in Manhattan. The next day I walked downtown as far as I could — though 14th street was the nominal deadline I got by. At Houston Street there was a line of about fifty-seventy earth-graders & bulldozers. Couldn’t go south of Houston; looked down into the cloud, occasional glimpses of the Woolworth building Then the wind shifted and lungs started to burn.

    The wind carried the smell of downtown, uptown, for the next few nights.

    Walked through Times Square late Saturday afternoon on the way back from friends; emptier than I’ve seen it before or since.

    Can’t remember if the first concert afterward was the one w/Springsteen et. al., the extremely grim one with candles all over the place, or the Concert for NY. Save for the opening, the only other bits I now remember are the repeat views of (deservedly) drunken fire personnel, and the way the Who played about as well as they ever played, without Moon.

    But Bowie. That was the perfect opening, and the right montage pre-song; and do you know that to this day I’d never really paid attention to the bobble at the start. I remembered when the original came out, and the very different power it contained in 1968, and how it played so perfectly in 2001, when DB let emotion take enough of the day to do the best cover version of anything he’s ever done, I think; certainly the one 9/11 moment I return to, every year.

    (I must admit I thought initially that the instrument was a little harmonium, and so Nico always pops into the memory, as well).

    Again, well worth waiting for this one.

  14. timspeaker says:

    Just beautiful Chris.

    I was born and raised in Saginaw. So strange I found it to hear the name of my city sung from the mouth of DB. So poignant.

    Thanks for this, and so many other magnificent entries.

    Tim

  15. s.t. says:

    Great post Chris. My friend was working right across the street from the WTC at this time, and he witnessed some ghastly sights. It was a surreal unfolding of events even from a few cities away.

    And yes, as Momus noted, this attack ushered in a long period when I was more often than not compelled to play “I’m Afraid of Americans.” Or Bauhaus’ “In Fear of Fear.”

    Speaking of which, am I the only one who found Paul McCartney’s song for the Concert for New York to be in poor taste? “Freedom” sounds like something Bruce Springsteen would have made in the 80’s, but without any bitter irony. Rumsfeld must have loved it.

    • Rebel Yell says:

      Great post. I was in Saudi Arabia when 9/11 happened, weird. During the cleanup of the WTC site following the collapse of the towers on September 11, 2001, numerous Rheingold beer cans were found in the rubble, having been hidden in the beams of the building decades earlier by construction workers who had drunk the beers on the job.
      “Humming Rheingold
      We scavenge up our cans”

  16. Ian W. Hill says:

    Thanks Chris, Momus, Jack, et al. I’ve spent the entirety of the coverage of HEATHEN wondering when or if to jump in and mention that album’s calming (yet appropriately wary) presence in the months after 9/11 for this NYC resident — though it wasn’t released until 9 months later, my memory has moved it back and closer; I wasn’t aware until looking at the dates how long we were living in that post-event haze in NYC, how much I still needed that album in the back half of 2002. Before that, I guess I was still living mostly with Dylan’s “LOVE & THEFT,” released on 9/11 itself, an album like a transmission from some other time but completely aware of our own (akin to the scratchy tachyon transmissions in John Carpenter’s PRINCE OF DARKNESS) – with “High Water (for Charley Patton)” a prophecy of all we feared might come in the wake of that day (and did) – a recording saying over and over “This has all happened before, you are special; this has never happened before, you are not special.”

    I’ve done all I can in the years since to avoid featuring my hurt from that day in social media; there has been more than enough of it to go around, and yes, much of it beautifully written, but what is needed of one more witness among so many? I was standing in a group with at least a hundred people on a lawn in the LES where I worked when we all saw the second plane hit. Thousands of others saw it with their own eyes, too. I was not alone, not special (so pardon me here). My commentary on and about this day, for years now, has been limited to posting songs from HEATHEN to Facebook, then FB and Twitter, and now, today, only Twitter, and only two songs, as the connection of album to day grows fainter and fainter, and the slight glimmer of hope that “Heathen (The Rays)” always seemed to promise could shine from such scorched ground has been more and more blotted out (and everyone in NYC stopped saying “Hi” again a few years ago). It seems appropriate that if I have anything to say about that day, it’s on a Bowie blog.

    For much of 2002, I would come back to my home in very south Brooklyn from my job, about a mile from The Site, where the smell still enveloped us, to find my girlfriend (now wife) listening to the Bowie, and then we’d play it again. And I would pass through the day again – seeing the little old ladies beside me (some of them Holocaust survivors, others wives and widows of old Red or Union activists or former activists themselves) watch the plane hit, then shrug like they’d seen it all before, return to their apartments, then come back to the street with buckets of water and washcloths for the eyes of people stumbling from the disaster; the usually-horrible supermarket across the street wheeling out every bottle of water in the store to the sidewalk and handing them to the shell-shocked and dust-covered people wandering north; seeing the frozen face of my gruff, unflappable boss telling me, “It’s gone. They’re both gone;” wandering through SoHo myself, let out early from work, to the home of a wealthy friend who was supposed to have a birthday party, the guests now watching coverage and endless replays projected on a two-story square wall; making it to Houston, not knowing if the F train would take me home, surprised and almost offended that it did, just like normal, how could it be normal; trying to get across to my partner, who had slept through it all, how huge and terrible it all was, that I wasn’t just being dramatic; wondering if the Ionesco plays I had directed that were going up in the East Village would keep running, and how I would deal with the fact that a fireman’s death was played for laughs in one of them. And I’d relive this all with HEATHEN for a year or so. And then REALITY came out and we moved on. A new mood, a new future. I won’t look at that scar.

    I did not hear Bowie’s “America” for many years after the performance. I read in the newspapers at the time that he sang it, and “Heroes.” I had no cable or antenna on my TV (I had to jam a coathanger into the back of my set on 9/11 itself to desperately try to get information that night, the internet not being enough then). Reading about it then without hearing, it sounded hideous, a sop to the jingoism that was already gathering speed. By the time I eventually heard it, the madness had come, been, and moved onto the couch for the indefinite future, an unwanted and unacceptable but unavoidable and somewhat understood guest, so I was finally able to hear in Simon’s words and Bowie’s voice what Chris and Momus (and DB, I would assume) found and find there. I’ve never been able to watch more than a minute of the “Heroes” performance, and only now realize how little I’ve listened to that song in the last 13 years compared to the 20 before it. There were real heroes that day, many more than I thought I’d ever be that close to, and the word has enough meaning to me now that the permutations and distortions it has been put through since that day make it hard to stomach in any context but the most honest and true.

    When I was a child, I spent most of my weekends playing in Lower Manhattan, near my dad’s loft on Fulton Street. He and I would play catch, or Frisbee, or fly kites, or skateboard in the vast empty plazas of the huge financial institutions there. Plazas that were deliberately designed to be unfriendly and inhuman, but included because zoning allowed the buildings next to them to build higher if they provided “social space.” But a child can make any place a beautiful playground, and the plaza of the WTC was one of mine, barren most weekends in the 70s. Then the eventual regoodment made the South Street Seaport a tourist destination, and now people come to town and ask for directions on how to get to “The 9/11.” Bowie’s “America” can almost bring back to me, for a moment, how a child felt playing with his father in a beautiful gleaming place full of possibilities, before all those possibilities became commodified.

    Off to Twitter now to do that second post of the day. Thank you so much for this post and this blog, Chris.

    • MC says:

      Being in the safe vantage point of Toronto when the 9/11 attacks happened, I still regard that day as one of the most harrowing of my life. I can’t imagine what being there must have been like. What extraordinary writing, Chris. Definitely ranks with the finest-ever entries on this blog. Just staggering…

      Ian, I would second your opinion on Heathen. For me, it is the 9/11 album, and this version of America the most moving artistic statement anyone made in the immediate wake of the tragedy(ies). It’s definitely the performance at the Concert For NYC that’s aged the best.

  17. Champiness says:

    It’s bits like this that make me so surprised when you said the autobiographical stuff didn’t have a place in the books. One of my favorite things about this blog is how great it is at showing how music can make people’s lives intersect – how following its progress throughout the years is also to look at all the people and events that it’s served as connective tissue for. Watching the memorial performances on YouTube, all the old guard of rock extending their thanks to an audience that mouths along in awe, is giving me a lot of appreciation for that at the moment.

  18. Maj says:

    Great entry, Chris! I’d like to say that thankfully, as a Czech person I wasn’t really affected but I’d be lying. The world wasn’t great before but it’s been definitely worse after. The one memorable consequence of 9/11 (or you know, flippin 11/9) for us Prague people was that the area around Radio Free Europe at the top of the Wenceslas sq. was barricaded for many years afterwards. It’s not anymore. The radio has moved away and nowadays the building belongs to the National museum. Never been inside, but I really should.

    As for America the song, it sure was a good choice for the event. How does Bowie’s version measure up to the original? Well, it doesn’t, but that’s not the point.

    • ric says:

      in a way maybe it is the point; he had a band who could’ve knocked out a spot-on version. It’s a choice.

      Stunning entry, another of many, but more affecting than all. Thank you, Chris.

  19. SoooTrypticon says:

    This is really a fantastic entry. I agree with many of the posts above, that in hindsight, Heathen is an album for this moment.

    This particular performance, coupled with your own reflections, describe a time full of uncertainty. Not only the emotional highs and lows that so many experienced, but also the unreal nature of those surrounding moments.

    I remember seeing footage on television that morning in Baltimore. I was in art school at the time, and a group of people were huddled around the television watching the footage play over and over again… Possibly on CNN. The news had not yet spread across the campus. I had no idea what was happening. My first thought was, “is this some kind of dumb art project?”

    I want to place emphasis on “dumb,” because I approached the imagery I was seeing with an incredible level of cynicism. Even when a person turned to me and said “one of the World Trade Centers just fell on New York,” I couldn’t even process what that meant. It was such a strange idea.

    So yes that moment was baffling, terrifying, and awful in so many ways. Thank you for taking your time to share your experiences with us, and placing this project that you so tirelessly work on in yet another surprising context.

  20. Ramzi says:

    Thanks for sharing your experience, and doing so in such a way.

  21. Mr Tagomi says:

    A brilliant choice of song in the circumstances. And beautifully performed too. The mistimed first verse works for me. An inspired accident.

  22. Anonymous says:

    Well, I was going to comment on what a beautiful, moving (and entirely free of cant) entry this is – but you’ve all gotten there before me. So I just wanted to ask: Has anyone else noticed the difference between those seriously thought-out and researched blogs and the countless legions where people just offer up their ‘opinion’ for our, um, edification?

  23. Roman says:

    In the days before this performance, BowieNet ran a competition to see if anyone could guess what his opening number would be. (someone actually won.)

    There was then an incident in the chat rooms on BowieNet that was unintentionally very funny (to people like me) and unintentionally very embarrassing for Bowie.

    Basically someone online said, ‘I hope he doesn’t play bloody Heroes again. That would be so boring.’
    Then Bowie himself (Sailor) replied in a fury, saying – actually ranting – that he’ll play what he wants to play and Heroes is expected and why be so negative and critical; what do you expect me to play? etc.” Before signing off in a huff.

    I wonder if there’s still a transcript around – it was reposted a lot on all the Bowie sites at the time.

    But basically it was very poor judgement on Bowie’s behalf, as his mystique was obliterated in one foul keyboard swoop as he appeared petty, egotistical and very-precious. But most of all, it was almost unbelievable that he could give a remote damn about what some anonymous fan from-god-knows-where thought of his potential song selection. One was left with the impression that Bowie had nothing else to do all day but sit alone in his penthouse, scanning his own message boards, worried that someone would be saying something he didn’t like.

    • Vinnie says:

      This rules! Thanks for sharing.

      [I]t was almost unbelievable that he could give a remote damn about what some anonymous fan from-god-knows-where thought of his potential song selection

      I hope a transcript exists. Web 1.0 – god love it.

      Bowie cares what everyone is thinking, all the time! I think that’s why he’s hiding out of view from the public these days. I’m sure Bowie hasn’t joined Twitter (that we know of), just to avoid these types of encounters. “Piss off and go dye your hair orange and make some more jungle old man” – the insults would be daily, anonymous, and horrid.

      Speaking of song selection – I like to imagine the Futurama “What If Machine” if Bowie had performed other, non-“Heroes” “Heroes” tracks at the Concert for New York City. How cool would it be if he played “The Secret Life of Arabia”? Probably not very at the time, but in the “What If Machine” alternate universe – totally awesome.

      • Patrick says:

        Well “O Superman” would have been a powerful statement, covered by DB a few years previously, and performed by Laurie Anderson a few days after 9/11. See previous entry on this blog.

    • Anonymous says:

      First time I ever heard that caring about what fans think was a bad thing…as long as what your fans thought didn’t change or modify what you originally planned to do, which it didn’t in this case and pretty much all others.

      I can’t fault him for being on an internet kick for a few years, the internet was a way to meet his fans in a way he hadn’t been able to before…..and I certainly can’t fault him for leaving it and not looking back shortly thereafter either. I wasn’t around the Bowienet days but what I’ve seen leaves much to be desired.

  24. Sky-Possessing Spider says:

    Not much I can add to this except to say that it was a very sad day for the world indeed, and the problems that raised their ugly head that day don’t look like going away anytime soon.

  25. dcadillac says:

    I’ll join the chorus of acclaim – wonderful account.
    I would add that it’s quite easy in hindsight to point out “jingoistic” elements from the benefit concert, or culture in general, from that time. As the wonderful post details, the overriding atmosphere of 9/11 was confusion and bewilderment. And that will inevitably create some outbursts that can be later judged as rash.
    I would give virtually everyone a pass when it comes to individual and collective expressions of culture, rather than retrospectively placing them in the Cheney-Bush-Rumsfeld camp.

    The very thought of even having large public gatherings of any kind in NY in the aftermath of 9/11 required a level of courage, really. If that spilled over into possibly garish nationalism, well, I think we ought to excuse that.

    Given the atmosphere, Bowie’s song choices and performances that evening were absolute class.

  26. RockChickNYC says:

    A magnificent piece of writing and a soul well expressed. Thank you, Chris. I watched from my East Village rooftop and fell to the tar as the shock waves hit like the Death Star blitzing Alderaan. I always felt that the so-called “bobble” or “miscue” at the beginning of “America” was Bowie being hit just like that right there, with a wave of emotion that made him pause and take a deep breath and re-collect himself. You can see it on his face. That moment is worth all the stupid jingoism and saber-rattling in the world. Thank you, David.

  27. Re the Link to 1-2-3 America on YouTube, there was a problem with the video copyright; this is the new link to the amended track

  28. PS In relation to Bowie’s choice of “America”, listen to the quiet middle section of the 1-2-3 version and note the comparison in mood and content. Bowie and Billy Ritchie (the 1-2-3 arranger/keyboardist) were big friends at the time of the Marquee recording.

  29. Lux says:

    Since you tweeted about this today, I’ll share that my best friend who lives in Sunnyside called me from the 7 train that morning. She described something hitting one of the towers and we speculated we’d be looking at an ugly hole in that building for a long time until they repaired it. She couldn’t talk more because the train was going underground. She promptly turned around and came home once it was obvious what was going on, before they closed the subway. It was always a bit of a shock at how the large the Twin Towers looked from Greenpoint Avenue in Sunnyside.

    Thanks for another great entry. You’re always worth rereading, Chris.

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