On this anniversary of 9/11—as on every previous anniversary—I listen to music. No television, no newspapers. Just music. Because songwriters create the melodies that reach places I can’t quite get to on my own, and the words I long to say. Their songs become my heart’s voice and companion.
Eleven years ago I couldn’t imagine what the world would be like today; I couldn’t even imagine what it would be like in 10 days. And I was at a loss as to how I was supposed to keep a magazine going or what place it had in the world anymore. And then miracles happened like the rainbows appearing in dust particles that day. Heroes appeared everywhere, communities were strengthened and songs were written to help in the healing.
What follows is an audio version of the editor’s letter I wrote for the special issue that the songwriting community jumped in to help create, and heartfelt thoughts shared by artists a few days after 9/11 as they made their way through their own fears and questions. Out of the 118 issues I published over 16 years, this one means the most to me. It’s the one that still moves me to tears and fills me with pride. It was the most honest and vulnerable, and was created by our community of songwriters and readers who took the time to share their stories.
As I spend this day immersed in music given to me by the songwriters who have filled my life thus far, I’m left with a feeling of gratitude for their gifts. And for the reminder, yet again, of all the goodness and strength and heroism in every single person just waiting for their moment to shine. And I imagine the cumulative effect of that beautiful, bright light.
You as a songwriter, whoever you are, have to align with the idea of “What is your purpose?” Some songwriters’ purpose is to make people laugh, and they’re magical at it. That is their gift. That’s not everybody’s gift. It’s a special one. It’s very tricky to do that. Some songwriters paint almost like sonic canvasses for people to step into, to escape the television set. Some artists tap into that place in the heart and can walk with sorrow, and walk with you in the trenches, and that’s their gift. And all of these gifts have their place now. Not only were the two towers split wide open, but we were, and our emotional self has been. So there is a need for any kind of emotion, whether it’s fear or anger or sadness or escape—all of it.
On September 11th, the first plane to hit the towers went directly over my head, where I was in a parent’s meeting at my daughter’s school in the West Village. We all heard it, and I still hear it, several times a day. I stood at the back door of her school and watched the towers burn and felt like a limb was being removed. Then followed a week of grief, disbelief, and anxiety, and I had to help my daughter, and myself, navigate some serious emotional waters.
During that week, I wanted very much to cancel two concerts I had booked for mid-October. I even called my manager and told him I just couldn’t do it. He said to give it time. Another week went by. I struggled with my own sense of self-preservation and the knowledge that it was a hard time for everyone.
Music is one of the greatest healing forces in the universe, and shouldn’t I show up for my own small part in that? Yes, I should. It’s almost a moral imperative. I’m afraid to fly, I’m taking my kids because the anxiety of leaving them is too great right now, but I’ll go, partly because I remember when I was healed by music. Through the unraveling of my first marriage, I listened obsessively to three records: Miles Davis’ Kind Of Blue and Sketches of Spain, and Peter Gabriel’s soundtrack for The Last Temptation Of Christ. I would have lost hope without those records. They were the perfect balm and medicine and the key that unlocked my future. I don’t imagine that I will do anything so profound for the folks in Pittsburgh and Dover, but I have to put it out there, just in case.
If I was a nurse, I would have been down at the World Trade Center tending the wounded. If I was a firefighter, I might have brought someone down the stairs or pulled someone from debris. But I’m a singer and a songwriter, so I’ll take myself to the stage, even though I’m cracked open right now, just like everyone else, and see if anyone needs anything I have. It’s the way I get to be a volunteer.
Songwriting is a therapy of sorts. I am not the first songwriter to make that claim, and in these autumn days of unspeakable sorrow and unfamiliar fear in this country, it would make sense for us to make our way to our desks, or our windowsills, or our journals—wherever it is that we write every day—for a little of that therapy. But for some reason, I don’t. I feel silent, boxed up, quiet, disconnected from the place inside that holds the words and music. It seems that an unrelenting sense of disbelief has muted everything.
All around me, in newspapers, on television, our leaders exhort us to “get back to our lives.” It seems to me that there really is a “before” and “after” to all of this. It’s the “before” that, no matter how many planes return to the sky, no matter how much money we pour into the economy, no matter what brave face we put on, we can’t get back. And so what I have been reflecting on, in these days of disconnection and quiet, is how I am going to conduct myself in the “after.” It’s a natural response, I suppose, to traumatic, horrific, soul-obliterating events. I don’t know when I’ll get the urge to write songs again, but I trust I will eventually. I don’t know when I’ll get on a plane again, but I trust I will eventually. I don’t know when I’ll feel open again, but I trust I will eventually. In the “after,” trust is the most important thing I know.
I’ve never been more sure about the importance of music to elevate, humor, strengthen, and even heal people as I do right now. Music brings community together and reminds us that our connection to one another is more powerful than fear. We celebrate the moment with irreverence and reverence, with wackiness, love, and beauty. We remember the importance of our internal, our spiritual experience of life, which no one can steal from us. As musicians, we get to be part of the big American soul massage, which is really needed right now.
I don’t think music has the power to heal
But I do think it has real value during times of great loss
It can be a comfort reminding you
That you may not be alone in your loss
That others may have felt the same way you feel now
It can be welcome company
Music can reach places
Words alone can never find
There are things that happen to people that they never get over
Things that get broken that can never be fixed
Though they may appear fine to strangers and even to close friends
They are not fine and will never be the same again
They are walking with invisible wounds and they will walk that way forever
About ten years ago my future wife’s father was fighting cancer
The cancer had spread and the outlook was grim
He asked me to make a tape of some songs that he wanted to hear
They were old favorites: Loch Lomond, Shenandoah, Danny Boy …
He played that cassette of old sad songs over and over, over and over
I don’t think those songs made him feel any better
But they seemed to match what was going on inside
And seemed to give him a kind of companionship
That the people who were around him and loved him couldn’t provide
And it was enough to get him through a rough spot in the night
Music can’t solve the world’s problems or fix what is broken
But it can make a difference
And sometimes that is enough
As I sit and write this, I am a couple days away from going on a month-long solo tour in Europe, and a couple of days past watching the horror on TV as the terrorists attacked NYC and Washington, D.C. As I write this, US airlines are flying half empty because people are afraid to fly, and there are memorial services being held for the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks.
I performed a small show at The Bluebird Café in Nashville last night, and it felt unlike any other show I have ever played. On stage, I kept thinking that the actual meaning of words had changed as a result of the terrorists attacks, and that the context in which I wrote my songs no longer exists. It was an extremely odd feeling to have in front of an audience …. I was experiencing the notion, on stage, that my songs are dated. There has been a paradigm shift unlike any I have ever experienced, and my songs don’t mean the same thing anymore. It’s as if the songs I wrote before Sept. 11th are my “old” songs. I kept thinking that I need to write new songs to reflect what’s going on now, because I’m different, and the world is different, and old words mean new things. Words like “community” and “friends” and “us” and “hero” and even “hijacking” mean something new to me now. It feels like the camera lens that I look through to see the world has been pulled way back, and I can see the bigger picture, not just the small frame. I have to find a way to describe what I see before it goes away.
It is clear to me now that this is what the real job of an artist is; it is how we contribute to society. Now that the world around us has been rearranged—our lives have been forever changed, and our sense of safety has been stolen from us—the work of artists and entertainers is all the more vital. Artists and entertainers will struggle to find new voices inside ourselves that can heal and challenge in this new world, and we will find a way to use our gifts to articulate a vision that connects us to the new reality—that connects our new fears and hopes to the work in front of us. Artists and entertainers will help the healing process along as we redefine for ourselves what’s important and share these new understandings with those who are drawn to our work. In other words, we will do what we’ve always done: look inside ourselves, look outside ourselves, and use the information gathered to make art. To make music. To entertain people. To make people laugh. To make people cry. To help people understand and find meaning.
The media and the politicians are saying, “It’s a different world now.” I agree with that, but it is too soon to really know what that means. But I do know that it’s the artists—the writers, the songwriters, the painters, the novelists, the poets, and the entertainers—who will find a way to describe this new world to everyone, and it’s through art that people’s hopes and dreams and fears will continue to be articulated. This is our job, and from where I sit right now it feels like a really important one, because people’s hopes and dreams have been affected by what happened Sept. 11. As I get on the plane tomorrow, I will begin to see for myself some of what this new world looks like. I hope I have what it takes to do this tour. I have to admit that I’m afraid of getting on the airplane and afraid of not knowing what to say about all that is going on around me. I hope I can figure out what people are needing right now and, if it’s in my power, find a way to give it to them.
The events of Sept. 11th have transformed us. The images of that day are seared in our collective memory forever. In the days that followed the attack, my emotions ran the gamut: fear, despair, anger, grief. A cloud of depression settled over me. As far as music was concerned, only the discordant, mournful snippets of music played between news segments on NPR made sense to me. My music was irrelevant—from another, more innocent time. The first piece I was able to listen to with any concentration was Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” performed by a solo pianist live on the radio. I don’t listen closely to classical music usually, but this piece was dark and brooding, physically demanding to perform, and it pulled me in. It was at times hard to listen to, but it ended with a powerful, almost triumphant close. It was like an anthem to me, rising out of all of the turbulent confusion. It drew me away from my jumbled mood, from my scattered emotions. The music had allowed me to leave my seared mind behind. It had taken me somewhere else and given me a sense of the beauty of the human spirit.
Prior to my return to performing on Sept. 27th, I sat down with my song list and wondered how to begin. Some of the songs were wholly inappropriate: self absorbed, cynical, needlessly dark. But a handful of the songs made me cry to sing them. The lyrics applied to my present feelings of despair. I was constantly reinterpreting the lyrics—hearing them in light of recent events—and I realized that this is what we do as listeners. We make the song personal. We take a phrase or a line and apply it to our lives. We find meaning and come away all the better for having listened. One of my songs in particular spoke to me: We are swaying like a willow that is weeping over the view/ We could wave goodbye and fly into the hills and into the blue/ Coming up for air/ Rising to a very new somewhere/ Coming up for air/ On the last breath around.
I began each show by thanking the audience for leaving their homes that night. Theirs was an act of faith. I told them that I needed to sing for them. It was more than getting back to work. I needed to see them because they have become my community. In the next two hours, I’d like to believe that we all went somewhere else, a place that left us feeling better and more connected to each other. I’d like to think that we left the hall having moved one step closer to each other, one step closer to healing.
Contemporary art and music, by their very nature, epitomize our right to free speech in a free society. I think there can be no greater sense of healing than knowing that when the smoke and terror of recent and possible future events fades, these things will continue to shine all the brighter, as an example of our determination to resist tyranny and oppression.
Once again I’m grateful for the presence of music in my life. It’s my only way of staying sane in the midst of insanity. It’s what we musicians do. We pick up the instrument without realizing it and play something familiar. With me, it might be “Pastures Of Plenty” or “Shenandoah” or who knows what? Anything that springs to mind and fingers. After a while I begin to realize that I’m going to have to try to write something. I’m very, very reluctant to take it on. It feels much too enormous for a simple song. I feel it would be an act of hubris to think I could make anything meaningful of it, and so on into the night, so to speak. And then I think of those firemen in the towers. I’ve thought of them over and over, thinking “They must have known what could happen, and still they went in and up the stairs. How could they find the courage to do that?” And so they become the song and the climbing of the stairs becomes the center of the song. Does writing the song help? Yes, a little. It comes from the heart and says, “Thanks” and “You’re our heroes.”
My mom left me a panicked message the other day: “Did you know that the Taliban is destroying the traditional folk songs of Afghanistan, they are against music, it’s terrible. There’s something wrong with people who don’t like music.” So I made a list for myself: music-banned, art-banned, women—no reading, writing, or arithmetic, arranged marriages, compulsory Burqua, sports—banned. They hang people off the goal post, shoot them in the stadiums, no religious tolerance, no homosexuality. If ever there was a proper enemy, the Taliban is it. I try to understand where the Taliban could possibly be coming from, but the old insecurity and fear excuse just seems to fall short in this situation. As my mom says, “There is something wrong with people who don’t like music.” I have a fantasy that one day a Taliban official gets caught in the privacy of his own room blasting the stereo, being saved by a song.
War and music—destruction and creation—two forces that bind us to other cultures. Music preceded war, it makes itself known in the song of a bird, the very breath from which the world was made. The revolutionary force of music inspires awe, even in the Taliban. In the mind of the oppressor, to keep people from singing is to keep them from rising up, but any effort to mute the muse is completely futile. You can’t destroy music; you can destroy the people that sing it and while specific songs can be buried for a time, new ones will always arise.
I’m Brooklyn born and recently had been reconnecting with my roots, as I’d written a song called “Walkin’ in NY,” inspired by many memorable walks in New York City. Just weeks before the attack, I had filmed a video for “Walkin’ in NY” in Brooklyn and performed a concert in front of City Hall in Manhattan, in the financial district. I had returned to New York from Los Angeles two days before the attack and was stranded there for a week. In the midst of the horror, a friend said to me, “There’s no one fat in New York today, no one black, nor white, gay or straight, tall or short … just Americans.” This is the spirit we must build our future on.
A friend of mine recently sent me the story of St. Francis of Assisi, who was asked as he worked in his garden what he would do if told the world would end at noon. His reply was, “I would finish hoeing this row.” We all have to go on and “finish our rows,” whatever they are.
It seems so easy for everything to go to hell in a handcart during troubled times. To stop doing the things that make us strong, to seek comfort and become weak, unable to send out light where it might be needed. Exactly what the forces of darkness want. Thank you to my friend for the story about “hoeing the row.” Such simple words, such quiet power.
I think that the role of music is the same that it always was, but when times get tough, music gets good. During times like this, people need to have music that is about real issues. Songs that you can take back into your life and that allow you to do something with them. For performers who aren’t afraid to really go right to it and meet people in their fear and in their uncertaintly and in their anger, it’s really rewarding.
The day of the attacks, I went inside and wrote a song called “September 12.” And for me, the process of going so deeply inside that song was a way to get through the things I was feeling. By doing that I wound up already through the emotions that others were just starting to feel. The process of our craft has always been more than trying to get a song. It’s been my teacher. It’s been my guide.
From Performing Songwriter Issue 57, November 2001