Pop music is my constant companion. It has seen me through my happiest moments and my worst crises. I remember hearing the Psychedelic Furs as I lost my virginity, playing ABBA alongside Mozart at a friend's funeral in college, and being unable to get Cole Porter's "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye" out of my head the endless night I wandered in the Manhattan rain wishing I could die. But on Sept. 11, 2001, pop music failed me.
I lived eight years of my life in downtown New York. As I watched the World Trade Center crumble, all I could think of were my friends and colleagues who live and work in that area: Brian's new apartment was less than two blocks away from the WTC; Perry, Carrie, and Steve are based in an office just around the corner.
I was supposed to interview a British band via telephone that Tuesday. Thank Christ, it was cancelled. I can only imagine how that conversation might have gone: "So, you're at the apex of what will probably be a short-lived, eminently forgettable career. Are you grateful to be alive today? Swell! Now tell me about your new album. . . ."
After sitting, stunned, in front of CNN for four hours, I finally hauled my ass into the shower. Momentarily freed from the banter of the broadcasters, my brain started buzzing with Skeeter Davis' 1963 No. 2 smash "The End of the World." I shook my head vigorously to drive it out. It seemed profoundly disrespectful to have something as banal as a song about a broken heart occupying my thoughts in that dark hour. (I would have a similar reaction when "The Morning After" from The Poseidon Adventure visited me unexpectedly shortly after midnight.)
As the day dragged on, I tried to think of a song that might offer some slight solace or help me center my thoughts. I own thousands of records, and they all seemed inadequate. I began to doubt that pop music would ever seem meaningful again. But two occurrences showed me otherwise.
The first came Tuesday afternoon, when the members of Congress burst into Irving Berlin's "God Bless America" on the steps of the Capitol. After four years working for the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization, which manages Berlin's extensive catalog, I never wanted to hear that song again—or so I believed. Now it had me in tears. Izzy—as we affectionately referred to him around the office—had written the song for Kate Smith, who introduced it on Armistice Day (which later became Veterans Day) of 1938, when war loomed on the horizon, just as it does now. The simplicity of the song, which had made me dismissive of it before, now struck me as profoundly poignant. If the purpose of pop music, like any art form, is to bring us closer to God (however you define that concept), Izzy succeeded with this patriotic paean.
The second incident occurred the following day. I went for a run around Green Lake to try to relieve some stress. As I made my way past the Bathhouse Theater, I noticed that all along the edge of the paved path, someone had scribbled hundreds of quotes, proverbs, etc. in colored chalk. Sprinkled liberally throughout were plenty of inspirational song lyrics, mostly oldies staples: John Lennon, Aretha Franklin, the Youngbloods, Edwin Starr. The writing continued for three-quarters of a mile. Somebody with an encyclopedic knowledge and obvious love of pop had spent hours on their hands and knees to create this message of hope and goodwill.
I sent an e-mail to my friend Dan, who lives below 14th Street in New York City, the region currently closed to the public, telling him what I'd seen. "Yes, GOOD pop music, I continue to believe, is a magical thing," he responded. "Unfortunate that the music industry doesn't seem to be able to produce much of it in the last five years or so. 'Oops! I did it again' was, I trust, not scrawled anywhere."
Point taken. Yet pop music, however flimsy it seems, will play a role in the events of the coming weeks. Inevitably, some minor country song will be driven by radio listener call-ins to become this crisis' anthem, with profits going to the Red Cross. At this moment, Justin and Britney and Snoop Dogg may be huddled together in a studio with Michael Jackson, hammering out a "We Are the World"-style sing-along. Perhaps that's not what you or I need to hear. But pop music isn't the most important thing in the world; human life is. And if a few bars of the former, be it "God Bless America" or "Give Peace a Chance," helps someone appreciate the latter, who are we to criticize? Just be thankful it still works.