Even though I didn’t personally know anyone affected by the attacks five years ago on September 11th, it was personal. I grieved that morning as I woke up early to a phone call and stared in disbelief at the TV, as if I knew each person killed or trapped, burning or jumping. I watched the first tower fall, then the second, and all I could think about was all the firefighters and police officers who had rushed in to save people they didn’t even know. As I watched the towers fall and the massive dust clouds rise, I felt like I was going to throw up in the face of such unabashed evil.
Ten days later all the major U.S. television networks aired the America: A Tribute To Heroes telethon to raise money for those left behind in the wake of the attacks. It had some stellar, simple, heartfelt musical performances that touched me, and today I wanted to share.
My City Of Ruins – Bruce Springsteen
This was the first song of the program, and for me it just cracked open wide all the emotions that many of us were feeling in the days following the event. As many times as I listen to this song, which Bruce penned in the year before 9/11 about the deterioration of Asbury Park, New Jersey but that fits unbelievably well in this context, it still gets me. There are few who can pen a lyric of loss like Springsteen. In addition to the haunting imagery of the words in the title of this post, there’s also this line, which comes after a wheezing, lonesome, wrenching harmonica solo: “Now there’s tears on the pillow, darlin’ where we slept. And you took my heart when you left . . . “ The simple chord progression there on the last six words is heartbreaking — how do I explain that? Just listen.
As Bruce performs this, he stares off into nothing as if seeing the images from the last week and a half play over in his mind. At times his lips curl in an angry defiance, a rebellion against the destruction. And I’ve always thought that the way he furiously sings “Come on, rise up” over and over almost seems as if he is willing the dead to come back, the towers to rise. It reminds me of the futility of the lyrics in the U2 song “Wake Up Dead Man.” As Bruce nears the end of the song, his determined pleas to rise up take on an air of resignation as he stares off into the blackness of the studio.
This song turned up the following year on Springsteen’s stunning disc The Rising, along with many other songs he penned about the losses on 9/11. Hands down the other track on there that is the most devastating is “You’re Missing,” about a house and a family waiting for someone to come home (who will never come home). Lyrics like, “Coffee cup’s on the counter, jacket’s on the chair, paper’s on the doorstep, but you’re not there” and this, the clincher: “Morning is morning, the evening falls, I have / too much room in my bed, too many phone calls . . .”
Peace On Earth/Walk On – U2 (VIDEO)
I was deeply touched by the show of solidarity and understanding from Irish boys U2 to their American friends with this song. The whole All That You Can’t Leave Behind album makes me think of the period following 9/11, probably due in part to this performance. I just watched it again tonight on DVD and my eyes well up when the gospel salvation of the “Halle-halle-lujah, halle-halle-lujah” addition kicks in, and then the tears tend to spill over when Bono starts shouting, “See you when I get home! I’ll see you when I get home, sister!” I also appreciated Bono’s confidence in delivering the lyrics about what they can’t steal from us.
There Will Come A Day – Faith Hill (VIDEO)
Whether you like country or not, you have to listen to this because it ain’t country, it’s some gooood gospel. I love this song as Hill performs it, with a full, enthusiastic backing gospel choir. The video always strikes me moreso than listening because it is hard to stay blue when you see the choir wiggling and shaking their arms in unison, jumping on their tiptoes in anticipation as the song nears it’s moment: “Song will ring out down those golden streets, the voices of earth with the angels will sing (pause) – HALLELUJAH!” Chill-inducing.
Imagine – Neil Young (VIDEO)
Young sits in front of the grand piano with his cowboy hat and sets into Lennon’s chords that somehow always evoke this sense of sadness and a weight of longing in me. Even though I’ve always found the utopian/socialistic lyrics of this landmark tune to honestly be a bit stupid (if there’s nothing that you feel is worth dying for, then what of value do you really have?), that melody always gets me, and Young turns in an impassioned and delicate performance here.
The Long Road – Eddie Vedder, Mike McCready & Neil Young (VIDEO)
This is such a simple song, and so lovely, really. From Pearl Jam’s Merkinball EP (1995), I love the different melodies and harmonies that Vedder rotates each time he approaches the refrain “I have wished for so long, how I wish for you today.” Neil only comes in vocally on the final refrain and response, “We all walk the long road.”
Finally, two songs that were not on the telethon but that could have been if I were programming it:
America The Beautiful – Ray Charles