Rather than irritate you with a playlist of songs about 9/11 that includes Paul McCartney’s “Freedom,” we thought the best way to remember September 11th, 2001 was to reprint David Fricke’s essay about the music that got him through the immediate aftermath. Fricke was in New York City for the attacks, and wrote this for Rolling Stone‘s first post-9/11 issue; “Shelter from the Storm” won an ASCAP Deems-Taylor Award for music writing in 2002.
Shelter From the Storm
By David Fricke
Shortly after 8 p.m. on September 14th, I sang “God Bless America” for the first time in more than twenty years. It was at a memorial vigil near my home on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where residents had gathered with candles and wounded voices to mourn and pray — for the victims of the September 11th attacks; the rescue workers, deep in rubble and sorrow; and ourselves, appointed by fate to remember and rebuild. We also sang “America the Beautiful,” “Amazing Grace” and Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” a verse of each because that was all anyone seemed to know.
It felt good, right and strange. I last sang “God Bless America” at hockey games in my hometown, Philadelphia, where the Flyers played Kate Smith’s recording each night before going out to high-stick the hell out of the visiting team. It was also an era of national shame. In the 1970s, Vietnam and Richard Nixon’s presidency had gutted Irving Berlin’s hymn of the composer’s original love and pride. “God Bless America” only made sense as kitsch, a local sports gag.
I hear the song — and every other song around me — differently now. A week after the devastation, U2’s “Beautiful Day” and “Elevation” burst through the radio with even more contagious hope than Bono and the band had put into them at Madison Square Garden just three months earlier. When the DJ also played Journey’s 1981 hit “Don’t Stop Believin’,” I was surprised to find myself carried away, near to tears, by its totally-Eighties swagger and reassuring buzz. There was also the purgative shock, that day, of hearing Nirvana’s “Rape Me” on a local modern-rock station. No song, in the first few seconds, seemed more obnoxious. Then the big hurt of Kurt Cobain’s guitar and shredded voice kicked in, a consuming rain of helplessness and violation. When it was over, I felt at least partly cleansed, as if all of that distortion had scrubbed away a top layer of rage and anguish.
And there was my walk up Broadway two days after that candlelight vigil. As I passed the photos and fliers pasted to lampposts and shop windows by people pleading for information on missing loved ones, Bob Dylan popped into my head, singing “Shelter From the Storm” from 1975’s Blood on the Tracks. It is a song about betrayal, from an album about divorce. But I found medicine in there: “I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form/’Come in,’ she said/’I’ll give you shelter from the storm.’ ” At that moment, stuck in suffocating darkness, I thought it was the most patriotic song in the world.
In music, as in any art, context is everything. The who, how and when of reception are as critical as the who, how and why of creation. There may be no better example, right now, than Dylan’s new album, Love and Theft, which was released with unconscious, pinpoint irony on September 11th. A month before, listening to an advance copy, I was delighted by the wicked humor in Dylan’s lyrics. What cuts through now is the sharp ring of apocalypse, like these lines in “Floater (Too Much to Ask)”: “They say times are hard/If you don’t believe it/You can follow your nose.” That was literally true in Manhattan. When the wind shifted in those first few nights, the acrid smell of ash, scorched metal and electrical fire passed through my windows uptown like a parade of ghosts.
Dramatic circumstance has made a lot of big records feel small-minded. I will find it hard, for a while, to give half a damn about Eminem’s gangsta angst or the thundering self-obsession of the new metal. But how we define the healing and unifying properties of music — any music, from national anthems to death metal – in the wake of September — 11th will in no small part determine our future as a democracy. In our political system, the majority rules. But in anger, fear and sorrow, we each have to negotiate a separate peace.
Free speech is an absolute: You either have it or you don’t. Amid the war drums beating in the White House and our massing of men and armaments in the Persian Gulf, Dylan’s “Masters of War,” Metallica’s “Harvester of Sorrow,” Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” and Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name” are not blasphemy. They remind us of the blood we too have spilled in blindness and arrogance, amongst ourselves and abroad, and of the price we will pay for vengeance without wisdom.
Even the songs that bind us come with private tensions and mixed messages. Francis Scott Key wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner” not in bloodlust but lonesome relief, while being held prisoner by the British as they bombarded Fort McHenry in the War of 1812. In 1972, Ray Charles closed his album A Message From the People with a reading of “America the Beautiful” that transformed the song with black-church and soul-shack celebration. But Charles also sang it as a declaration of inclusion, a refusal to accept anything less than the song’s full promise of universal bounty. The fight in his voice was as deep as the allegiance.
I understand the need in others right now for the epic lift and warm sugar of a knockout power ballad. I’ve had to look elsewhere. It took me three days, well into September 13th, before I could bear to listen to a single note of music. But when I did, it was the melancholy poise of the horns in John Coltrane’s 1957 beauty “Blue Train” and the blue-sky joy of a live Grateful Dead set, One From the Vault, recorded in San Francisco in August 1975. The sound of Jerry Garcia’s wobbly, paternal voice, singing Robert Hunter’s lyrics in “Franklin’s Tower,” was the decisive kick-start: “If you get confused/Just let the music play.” So I did. These are some of the things that pulled me out of the silence: the live version of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” on the Songs of Freedom box, recorded at his final concert in 1980; a long, howling “Rockin’ in the Free World” by Neil Young and Crazy Horse on their 1991 concert set, Weld; the locomotive, resurrection psychedelia of Vision Creation Newsun by the Japanese band, the Boredoms; The Music of Arab-Americans on Rounder Records, a wonderful collection of 78s recorded in the first half of the last century and a potent memento of that community’s long, vital history here.
In my lowest moments, though, I keep turning to something without words: Jimi Hendrix’s performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock in 1969, a fireball of confusion, distress, bloodied optimism and questions, played early one morning over a field of debris for a raggedy band of survivors walking, exhausted, into a new, uncertain world. I play it, soak in it. Then I get up and just keep walking.