One year ago, New Yorkers were still walking around in a haze: unmoored internally, rocked by shock, anger, disbelief, and despair. The days were surreal but they were not silent – music helped see us through. And one album, more than any other, seemed to be the soundtrack of that time – U2’s “All That You Can’t Leave Behind.”
The album had been released in October 2000 but had fallen to 108th place on the Billboard chart by September 10th. Its earnest message about the search for what’s essential and an unfashionable emphasis on melody in a techno-inspired world left the biggest band on earth seeming vulnerable and, some whispered, irrelevant.
But in the single week after the attacks, “All That You Can’t Leave Behind” catapulted more than 25 spots on the billboard charts. It struck a deep chord and seemed eerily prescient, with lyrics that sounded like a eulogy for passengers on the hijacked airplanes: “You’re packing a suitcase for a place / That none of us has been / A place that has to be believed / To be seen.”
U2’s acoustic performance of “Walk On” – elevated by lead singer Bono’s desperate incantations of “Hallelujah” – at the televised 9/11 benefit “Tribute to America’s Heroes” was a highlight of the night and re-established U2 as a band whose stubborn seriousness of purpose and resurgent spirituality was right for the times. Within days, “Walk On” was released as a single with a video showing only images of New Yorkers – from an ash-covered Rudy Giuliani marching north on the day of the attack to the rescue workers and the crowds that gathered on the West Side Highway day and night to cheer them on.
“Walk On” ended their concerts with the same authority that the song “40” (named after the 40th Psalm) did more than a decade ago. A stadium full of people shouting lyrics like “All that you fashion / All that you make / All that you build / All that you break / All that you measure / All that you steal / All this you can leave behind” over a crescendoing drumbeat was unusual ground for a pop concert to cover. But there were examples of selflessness and transcendence going on all around us: there was real momentum behind the music. “Walk On” was eventually voted Song and Record of the Year for 2001.
I was working in the City’s Command Center at the time – 17-hour days with snipers stationed on the roof looking out for another round of attacks – and heard “All That You Can’t Leave Behind” played from small stereos or off people’s computers far more than any other album. There was spiritual nourishment to the music.
It offered the caffeinated dirge “New York,” which spoke of cops and city hall and then dropped this ripped-from-the-headlines bomb: “I hit an iceberg in my life / But here I am, still afloat / Lose your balance, lose your wife / In the queue for the life boats / You’ve got to put women and children first / But you’ve got an unquenchable thirst for New York.” I remember this song put loud on repeat more than once as the clock ticked past 1 a.m.
On the almost ambient ballad “Peace On Earth,” Bono expresses bitter frustration with both the pie-the-sky-idealists who keep talking about peace on earth and the fanatics who keep dragging us back toward war. In a lyric referring to the young victims of the Omagh bombing which nearly derailed peace talks in their native Ireland, Bono sang “Sean and Julia / Gareth, Ann and Brenda / Their lives are bigger than / Any big idea.”
This was the proper and needed perspective of the time – a pop song reinforcing the message which still comes across crystal clear when you listen to the four hours of names of the dead – the god-given dignity of every individual is the only measure that really matters. And pop music reaches more people than Karl Popper.
As our city struggled to come to terms with what had happened, “All That You Can’t Leave Behind” was there – playing in the background, out of passing car windows and sidewalk radios.
I have a memory of waiting in a taxicab at the intersection of Houston and Broadway and seeing a girl walking with her head down – it looked like she’d been crying behind her sunglasses. Another group of people were stranded on the median looking south. They seemed not only lost, but a bit overwhelmed. And from the carwash to the left of us came the reassuring sound of a slow Motown beat, cascading guitars, and this bit of advice: “And if night runs over / And if the day won’t pass / And if you way should falter / It’s just a moment / This time will pass.”
This song, “Stuck in a Moment That You Can’t Get Out Of,” was written as a response to a friend’s suicide. It had stalled as a single some months before – it did not fit in with the Britney Spears worldview – but now it was everywhere, offering solace in a time where nothing was needed more.
U2 barnstormed around the country like vindicated evangelists in the months after the attack; their concerts took on the tone of revival meetings for a secular society – not demanding conversions, but instead celebrating the resilience of what really matters: the heart and the soul. In the process, U2 saved rock ‘n’ roll from the plastic landscape it was inhabiting. “God is in the house now more than Elvis,” Bono said. “People are saying they are feeling shivers – well, the band is as well.”
When they played the Super Bowl Halftime Show beneath a banner that listed all the names of those we lost, it brought equal parts entertainment and catharsis to a nation of 250 million, managing to be both intimate and epic. In the months after 9/11, U2 proved that rock remained relevant – that it was not a selfish and vain art form, but ultimately generous, offering the possibility of a tough mind and a tender heart.