Stuck in a Moment: 9/11 and U2

(Above: U2 encourage America to “Walk On” in a live appearance broadcast less than two weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks.)

By Joel Francis

U2’s “All That You Can’t Leave Behind” had been out for nearly a year the morning two planes slammed into the World Trade Center, another collided with the Pentagon and a fourth flight was forced into the Pennsylvania farmland.

Following the trend of “The Joshua Tree” the first three songs were released to huge acclaim as singles. It was the fourth cut, though, that found the greatest resonance. By the time “Walk On” came out in November, 2001, the song had become an unofficial anthem of hope.

When the quartet performed the song live on the “America: A Tribute to Heroes” special just 10 days after the attacks it was prefaced with the first verse of “Peace On Earth.” Written about an Irish terrorism attack, the lyrics were poignant: “Heaven on Earth, we need it now.”

The words that didn’t make the broadcast, but ended most concerts on U2’s then-current tour were just as affecting. As pictures of missing loved ones were plastered on every available surface in New York City, and the names of the departed rolled up the video boards in arenas each night, Bono sang “They’re reading names out on the radio/All the folks the rest of us won’t get to know.”

I had only been to New York City briefly at that point. On our way to Cooperstown, N.Y., to watch my childhood hero George Brett get inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1999, my dad and I saw Kansas City,Mo.-native David Cone make his first start in Yankee Stadium after throwing a perfect game. He got shelled and after driving in that afternoon for the game we slept at a hotel in New Jersey.

At that time, I didn’t know Battery Park from Battery Island. But listening to Bono sing “New York,” I felt like an honorary citizen. Songs like “When I Look at the World” and “Grace” spoke to my feelings of grief and confusion. Several months later, when Bruce Springsteen released “The Rising” my soundtrack was expanded. That album ended with “My City of Ruins,” the most poignant performance on the “Tribute to Heroes” telecast. As the first anniversary of the attacks rolled around, “Into the Fire” and “You’re Missing” helped quell all the resurfaced sentiment.

If the Big Apple was largely unknown to me, the Middle East was a greater enigma. The only images I had of the region and its inhabitants were those pumped over the news. Surely that wasn’t right. Not all of these people were monsters. They were regular Joes and Janes like you and me, trying to do whatever it was they did to make ends meet and survive, right?

“Passion,” Peter Gabriel’s 1989 soundtrack to the uber-controversial film “The Last Temptation of Christ,” was filled with music from the Middle East and Africa meant to evoke the time of Christ. The instrumental album was my way of relating to the people of Afghanistan and the region that gave birth to al Qaeda and the Taliban.

These albums were my balms in 2001 and 2002. Starting the album when I backed out of the driveway, it took me exactly four cuts off “The Rising” to reach the first anniversary 9/11 memorial service in downtown Kansas City. For more than an hour, Christians, Jews and Muslims celebrated and mourned together. We weren’t three sects, we were one collective.

And then it all seemed to evaporate. The services and events of Sept. 11, 2003 weren’t quite as elaborate. Within a couple years it seemed the only experience available away from the crash sites was a prayer breakfast or moment of silence. In 2007, the day was marked by rapper 50 Cent’s boast that he would sell more copies of his new album than Kanye West. He didn’t.

I have no problem with an open marketplace on national holidays. Johnny Cash’s final album, “American V: A Hundred Highways,” came out on July 4, 2006. I can think of no artist better suited to that day, but his record was merely a window-dressing to the occasion. Heck, I made time on Sept. 11, 2001, to pick up Bob Dylan’s new release, “Love and Theft.”

I take issue, however, when ephemera overshadow history. No one cared about 50’s album. All of its singles had vanished from the charts by Thanksgiving, yet the competition he invented to sell more records eclipsed the anniversary. This year the other artist to release a masterpiece on Sept. 11, 2001, Jay-Z, was going to put out the third installment in his “Blueprint” series on Sept. 11. (Because the album leaked the date was pushed up to Sept. 8.)

A proud New Yorker, Jay-Z appeared at the Concert for New York benefit in October, 2001, and is donating all profits from his Sept. 11, 2009, concert at Madison Square Garden to the New York Police and Fire Widows’ and Children’s Benefit Fund. If anyone gets Sept. 11, it’s Jay-Z, yet on his new album, he reduced the events to a crude metaphor for his prowess:

“I was gonna 9/11 them but they didn’t need the help
and they did a good job, them boys is talented as hell,
so not only did they brick but they put a building up as well
then ran a plane into that building and when that building fell
ran to the crash site with no mask and inhaled, toxins deep inside they lungs”

A friend recently reminded me that American culture doesn’t handle history very well. It can market the hell out of nostalgia, but history is another matter. Dec. 7, 1941, the Day of Infamy, has been reduced to a scratchy FDR soundbite. Memorial Day is for mattress sales. On top of that, the events of Sept. 11 are awkwardly unresolved. Victory has been declared, but not achieved. Were it to happen, no one in America or the Middle East has any idea what it would look like. There are no holidays, my friend said, marking the Tet Offensive or the charge at San Juan Hill. Additionally, Sept. 11 has become so politicized any organized event tied to the day is instantly and cynically scrutinized.

If record sales and a proposed day of community service aren’t the answers, perhaps the best solution is subtle one that’s somehow gone underground and survived: prayer. After all the speechifying, 8:46 and 9:03 a.m., EST, are always observed with a moment of silence. Each Sept. 11, take a moment to converse with whatever Supreme Being you believe in. Spill your guts, pause and listen for twice as long as you spoke. It might not change the world, but it could change your day.

2 thoughts on “Stuck in a Moment: 9/11 and U2

  1. Nice piece Joel. Here’s a story/random thoughts:

    I was studying abroad in Spain on the 1st anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. I’ll never forget congregating with my fellow American classmates in a small, uncrowded pub (we were the only ones there, actually) to watch a CNN special on the attacks. By the end, we were all bawling our eyes out.

    To be so far away from our homes in America on that day left us all with a feeling that, well, can’t be described. After searching for some meaning through several bottles of Spanish red wine, we walked through the winding, weaving, stone streets of our small town in Spain (Ronda), belting out the national anthem. It might have been a disturbance, but nobody (meaning the Spaniards that were around) seemed bothered.

    Regardless, we were all emotionally torn by our sheer geographical distance from our loved ones back in the U.S. And though we hardly even knew each other, we were still able to take comfort in each other through the bonds of university, wine, music and memories.

    On the U2 note – there was another pub that we hung out in frequently that same semester, run by the friendliest and flashiest bartender I’ve ever met, a half-British-half-Spanish guy named Will. That U2 disc was one of about six CDs owned by the bar and was in constant rotation.

    While I may not be the biggest U2 fan, and I certainly acknowledge they’ve made better albums than “All That You Can’t Leave Behind,” that one certainly has a special place in my memory, as it was the partial soundtrack to six months abroad, living as a 20-year old stranger in a strange land.

  2. while the initial sting of 9/11 has definitely faded, at the time, shock was the predominant feeling. just dumb shock. here? in america? immediately, we all sensed that everything had changed. this was my generation’s JFK assassination or walk on the moon. articles sprung up announcing the ‘death of irony’. commercial ads went instantly from tongue-in-cheek wackiness to straight ahead, our-prices-are-low-and-gosh-darn-it-our-products-are-good salesmanship. patriotism was hip. american flags were in vogue. somber was the honorable persona. but slowly, the waters were tested and soon we were back to full fledged wacky-wacky, because, frankly, we didn’t know how to deal with it.

    today, despite those tragic events, when september 11 rolls around every year, it’s been reduced to ‘oh yeah. that day.’ and it’s because there’s been no recourse. no sense of closure. there’s still too many questions. and a ‘war’ that’s been going on for 8 years offers nothing because there’s no clear enemy in ‘terrorism’ – no ‘charlie’, no ‘hitler’, no ‘hun’. bin laden is most likely dead but can’t be ‘confirmed’ and, honestly, he seems only a scapegoat, a fabricated figurehead for a group of radical, mountain-dwelling extremists who only want to see america dead for reasons none of us care about. we’re just regular joes trying to pay our bills, find purpose, find meaning. in the meantime, all our government can do is play whack-a-mole with the various and sundry attacks that come in the form of shoe bombs and ‘jihad networks’.

    but there’s a reason our troops are still in the middle east today and are still launching new offensives. there’s a reason obama had a ‘deer in the headlights’ look on his face for the first 6 weeks of his presidency: we’re still in a lot of danger. even though we have no idea how to deal with it, the wake of 9/11 is far from over.

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