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Eloquent Songs Etched With Post-Attack Sentiments

Pop Beat

Musicians at first recoiled at writing about Sept. 11, but with perspective and emotion, the words just started to flow.

January 19, 2002|RANDY LEWIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For country singer-songwriter Alan Jackson, Sept. 11 provoked a song with a flood of questions and no easy answers. Rocker Neil Young looks at the attacks through the eyes of one of the United Airlines Flight 93 passengers who tried to try to wrest control of the plane from the hijackers.

Singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III describes a sobering subway ride from his home in Brooklyn Heights to Manhattan, John Hiatt sees a city wounded but not defeated and Richard Thompson denounces religious extremists who pervert the message of Islam with acts of violence.

In the first days and weeks after Sept. 11, a nationwide outburst of patriotism was mirrored in the pop music world by reissues of Whitney Houston's 1991 recording of "The Star Spangled Banner" and Lee Greenwood's 1984 hit "God Bless the U.S.A."

Now that the initial shock of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon has subsided, musicians have started responding to the tragedy itself. The results, as varied as individual responses to any event so monumental might be, display the eloquence and reflection many predicted the pop music world would embrace following Sept. 11.

"As is often the case, when anything happens, particularly something big, I thought, 'Will I write a song about this?'" says Wainwright, who has written dozens of songs about topical issues during his 32-year recording career. "And my first thought was, 'No. I wouldn't touch it. It's just too big.'"

Several days after Sept. 11, however, he was on a train heading home to New York from a trip to Washington, D.C., and quickly wrote "No Sure Way," a haunting ballad with which he's been closing most of his concerts since October.

Similarly, Jackson was simply too stunned initially to consider trying to write a song. But one night he had a bout of insomnia that left him awake at 3 a.m. and thinking about Sept. 11. He says "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)" "just came flowing out."

Did you lay down at night and think of tomorrow?

Go out and buy you a gun?

Did you turn off that violent old movie you're watchin'

And turn on "I Love Lucy" reruns?

"I find I generally don't like songs where people express their political views," the soft-spoken Georgia native says. "And this one isn't political. It's still pretty simple. I felt like I was just reporting, asking the kinds of questions anybody might ask."

That universality is reflected in the public's response to the song, which has logged five weeks atop Billboard's country singles chart through radio play alone. The song hasn't been released as a commercial single, but is on Jackson's album "Drive," which came out earlier this week.

Wainwright also found himself "reporting more than editorializing, though the chorus has a kind of a heaven and hell thing going on. But other than that, it's just a description of the journey.... A lot of my songs are descriptions, so as unusual and horrible as this event was, the actual writing didn't feel different."

His references to four Manhattan subway stops gives his song added resonance to New Yorkers:

Chamber Street--a closed ghost station

Passing through we seemed to glide

Like prisoners inside compartments

On some house of horrors ride

"The horror--that was the emotion I was trying to get," says Wainwright. "The scariness of it. That was unusual for me. Rarely have I dealt with a topical issue that's been this much of a personal issue."

Hiatt, too, focuses on the mood in and around Manhattan in "New York Had Her Heart Broke," which he's been singing at the end of his concerts lately.

And the daylight felt dark

F-16s over Central Park

When N.Y. had her heart broke

Ah but she will rise ... again

Most of the post-Sept. 11 songs have a serious tone, but writers have found a multitude of angles from which to approach it.

British singer-songwriter Thompson relies on his perspective as a Muslim convert in "The Outside of the Inside," his response to the Taliban's efforts to justify its actions in the name of Islam.

I'm familiar with the cover

I don't need to read the book

I police the world of action

Inside's where I never look

Taliban officials, Thompson told Billboard recently, are "people who are more interested in worshiping religion than worshiping God. And so far as I'm concerned, it's inconceivable to practice a religion and supposedly listen to one's inner voice and yet do the disgusting things that the Taliban do to other people."

Like his peers, Thompson avoided the subject altogether for a time after Sept. 11, fearing that "whatever I produced would seem rather trivial."

Young won't even talk about "Let's Roll," saying through a spokesman he'd rather let the song speak for itself.

Young's label, Reprise Records, made copies for radio stations to play, but hasn't issued it commercially. It's scheduled to be on Young's new album, due in March.

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