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Stirring Controversy: Steve Earle's upcoming album includes a song from the perspective of John Walker Lindh.

After the Fall

Post-Sept. 11 music fails to inspire

By Greg Cahill

Last fall in the Bohemian, in an article titled "Mixed Messages" (Oct. 18, 2001), I pondered the frustrating nature of the post-Sept. 11 world and marveled at the sudden appropriateness of the Talking Heads 1979 hit "Life during Wartime," their prescient depiction of foreign terrorists operating in clandestine suburban American cells.

"At a time when folks are reaching for songs with meaning . . . 'Life during Wartime' is a funky cautionary tale that feels custom-made for these dangerous times," I wrote. "It reminds us that America needs artists to step forward to express our fears, doubts, and sorrows or just to help make sense of current events in a manner that doesn't kowtow to jingoism and knee-jerk patriotism."

In pop music, jingoism and knee-jerk patriotism are popular menu items. Country artist Alan Jackson scored first with his clunky "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)," which asked, "Did you feel guilty 'cause you're a survivor? / In a crowded room did you feel alone? / Did you call up your mother and tell her you loved her? / Did you dust off that Bible at home?"

On the other hand, Toby Keith's "Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American)" bristled with redneck angst and contained the memorable line, "This big dog will fight when you rattle his cage / And you'll be sorry that you messed with the U.S. of A / 'cause we'll put a boot in your ass."

The Sept. 11 response had clearly fallen short of spectacular. "How much slack should we cut mediocre music just because it's well-meaning?" Los Angeles Times music critic Robert Hilburn asked last week in an article that examined the Sept. 11 songs. "Is there anyone in America who didn't roll his or her eyes when Paul McCartney performed his new song 'Freedom' during an otherwise touching performance at last October's Concert for New York at Madison Square Garden? Or is there anyone who didn't yawn when Neil Young came along last year with 'Let's Roll,' his tribute to the passengers on the hijacked United Airlines flight that crashed in Pennsylvania to thwart that leg of the terrorist attacks . . . ?

"Even the normally reliable Bruce Springsteen occasionally stumbled in his album The Rising, trying so hard to offer comfort to the nation that he ended up padding the 73-minute collection with some generic, feel-good exercises."

So why did these artists--all of whom have a track record for penning highly personal and meaningful songs--fail to live up to expectations? "The biggest mistake is trying to write an anthem that addresses the topic head-on rather than with a poetic distance," Hilburn wrote.

Such is the case with Springsteen's songs "Into the Fire" and "The Rising." Which isn't to say that Springsteen's ambitious Sept. 11 tribute misses the mark completely. "The most moving songs on his album are the ones that look at the lingering emotional wounds of the day, including 'Empty Sky,' 'You're Missing,' and 'Paradise,'" Hilburn opines.

Still, Hilburn puts his greatest expectations on country renegade Steve Earle, whose album Jerusalem (set for an Oct. 8 release) will include a song that is sure to spark controversy. "John Walker's Blues" puts the listener into the shoes of the Marin native turned Taliban soldier while exploring the idealism that led Walker to Afghanistan and ultimately a U.S. prison. In the end, it may be the best the pop world has to offer.

Meanwhile, classical musicians have numerous Sept. 11 tributes planned. The Rolling Requiem will feature symphonies and choirs performing Mozart's Requiem, beginning on the international dateline at 8:46am (marking the moment the first hijacked plane struck the Twin Towers) and continuing around the world at that same time. In New York on Sept. 11, composer and conductor John Adams will premiere his new work On the Transmigration of Souls (which uses texts drawn from missing-persons signs, cell-phone conversations, personal memorials, and victims' names) commissioned by the New York Philharmonic.

In San Francisco, violin virtuoso Josh Bell and the San Francisco Symphony will give a free outdoor concert at Yerba Buena Gardens on that day. And in dozens of other cities, chamber musicians will perform reflective works in public spaces. Neither the Santa Rosa nor Marin symphonies returned phone calls inquiring about their Sept. 11 plans.

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From the September 5-11, 2002 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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