“Where were you when the planes hit?” – that’s my generation’s JFK question. I remember it well. Unless you were directly involved in the day’s events, the answers are all strikingly similar.
I was working in my (then) company’s office in downtown Boston. Someone yelled across the room, “Go to cnn.com.” The image on the front page, with very little descriptive language, showed what was surely an accident. Perhaps a small plane, maybe the person flying was nuts, or drunk, or both. It was the only explanation that one could conjure. Then another hit. News sites were periodically unaccessible due to traffic volume. People in the office were calling people in New York, radios were being turned on. Out of nowhere, what had been a beautiful, clear, September morning had turned into something straight out of H.G. Wells’ imagination.
You know the rest. It all unfolded the same for most of us watching from afar. Many of us were allowed to leave work early. If you were in school, classes may have been cancelled. People scattered to be with their loved ones. Nobody knew if more attacks were on the way. It was a feeling that most Americans were fortunate enough to never have experienced before – an urgent, crushing sense of extreme vulnerability and uncertainty in a world where life had been relatively predictable and routine.
I took the T home. It was eerily quiet. Nobody spoke, nobody laughed. Where people usually read or lost themselves in their portable music, it seemed wrong to do anything — or maybe people were just too stunned and distracted to be engaged by anything so banal as a novel or a song.
My final destination was not Harvard Square, but as soon as the stop was announced, I exited the car and walked up the steps towards Newbury Comics. I remember the dialog in my head, the argument as to whether to go home or, selfishly, to go to the record store. Would they even be open? Would I be the only person so callous and uncaring as to go shopping at a time like this? Could there be anything as selfish as making an entertainment purchase within minutes of thousands of Americans losing their lives in an attack on our country?
My decision to buy music that day probably could be traced to several things. First, the utter denial and lack of understanding of the scale of what was happening. Maybe I was convincing myself that none of this was happening. I have been guilty of retail therapy, or emotional shopping — and the record store had always been a place of comfort, discovery, and reflection through my youth, and even into adulthood. Never a terribly religious person, music and literature have often been great sources of strength and solace. Music speaks to us. We experience beauty and pain through it, and its lyrics often provide us a perspective that we might not otherwise contemplate. Perhaps my decision to shop for music was nothing more than pure selfishness — a lack of respect and compassion — but I know in my heart this was not the case.
Bob Dylan’s ‘Love and Theft‘, among others, was released on 9/11/01. This fact has been discussed often, I’m sure, with folks finding meaning in the work that could never have been intentional. Regardless, Dylan is probably one of the few true poets in modern music, and his lyrics have resonated throughout the last 40 years and have meant a great deal to me in my own life. If anyone’s music could help me process what had just happened, Dylan was not a bad place to start.
I can’t listen to “Love and Theft” without thinking of the events of 9/11. The association is burned into my memory the same way that a certain smell might evoke a distinct time or place in our youth. There are obvious, and deliberate, allusions to the early 2000’s political landscape, and to the volatile state of the world, in some of Dylan’s “Love and Theft” lyrics. ‘Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum’ cannot be listened to without picturing a caricature of the bumbling Bush and Cheney duo.
Other lyrics are eerie in hindsight, although they are vague enough to be related to any struggle.
Every step of the way we walk the line
Your days are numbered, so are mine
Time is pilin’ up, we struggle and we scrape
We’re all boxed in, nowhere to escape
Well, today has been a sad ol’ lonesome day
Yeah, today has been a sad ol’ lonesome day
I’m just sittin’ here thinking
With my mind a million miles away
The song that never fails to destroy me when i hear it, however, is the beautiful album closer, “Sugar Baby“. The song, it’s clear, is about parting with a lover – not exactly the stuff of catastrophe. However, the haunting, lilting melody, and the sorrow of the lyrics seem to capture something darker and more menacing. I’m sure it’s simply projection on my part, but these lyrics reached out to me on that day and seemed, even as snippets from a larger work, to capture the dread and sorrow of the day:
I got my back to the sun ‘cause the light is too intense
I can see what everybody in the world is up against
You can’t turn back – you can’t come back, sometimes we push too far
One day you’ll open up your eyes and you’ll see where we are
Every moment of existence seems like some dirty trick
Happiness can come suddenly and leave just as quick
Any minute of the day the bubble could burst
Try to make things better for someone, sometimes,
you just end up making it a thousand times worse
Just as sure as we’re living, just as sure as you’re born
Look up, look up – seek your Maker – ‘fore Gabriel blows his horn
I bought a record on that horrible day. It’s embarrassing to admit. To this day, I can’t pinpoint exactly why. I could never have known that, just days later, George W. Bush would be urging us to go out and buy something – that to do otherwise would mean that the terrorists won. Whatever, George. But I did buy that Bob Dylan record that godawful day. I looked into the eye of a cashier and I handed her my money after she rang it up. We both knew what was going on in three different parts of the United States at that very moment, and we both knew that we both knew, even though nothing was said other than, “Thank you.”