Song of the Week #199
by Neil Young
We began our 9/11 anniversary observances last week with a song and we conclude them with another song. Our special Song of the Week audio edition told the story of "God Bless America", Irving Berlin's great anthem introduced to the world on the eve of the Second World War. Finding a song explicitly addressing the post-9/11 world was a lot harder, and so this week's Song serves as a kind of recessional, for pop culture's retreat from any aspect of the subject, save for paranoia and equivalence. The short history of American popular music's contribution to national resolve can be told in two photographs of giant pop stars in military uniform: on the one hand, Glenn Miller, shot down over the English Channel while leading a US Army-Air Force Band, and, on the other, Madonna, who on her world tour a few years back cavorted on stage in a blue burqa and, when she disrobed, as she inevitably does, was revealed to be wearing army uniform underneath. This was in order to make the highly original point that the Taliban and the Bush Administration were both equally oppressive. Truly, the herd mentality of celebrity "dissent" is indestructible. Would it kill 'em once in a while to dissent from their dissent and try something other than the stultifying orthodoxy of celeb cardboard courage?
Andrew Klavan has a fine column on how post-9/11 the movies hit "rock bottom" - not a reference to Madonna's overly exercised posterior, I hasten to add, but a sound critical judgment. Mr Klavan is mostly concerned with films about military torture and rogue agents and inside jobs. But, when they're not being paranoid, the movies would rather talk about anything else other than Islamic terrorism. The Sean Penn thriller, The Interpreter, was originally about Muslim terrorists blowing up a bus in New York. So, naturally, Hollywood called rewrite, and the bus got blown up by African terrorists from the little-known republic of Matobo. "We didn't want to encumber the film in politics in any way," said Kevin Misher, the producer.
Yet being so perversely "non-political" is itself a political act. When every movie goes out of its way to avoid being "encumbered", it starts to look like a pathology. Whenever some hapless studio exec finds he's accidentally optioned a property that happens to have Islamic terrorists in it, the first thing he does is change the enemy. Thus, the baddies in Tom Clancy's The Sum Of All Fears were de-Islamicised and transformed into German neo-Nazis, a very pressing threat to America in 2005. Like it's 1942, you're at a Warner Bros script meeting about Casablanca, and Jack Warner says: "I like it. But do the bad guys have to be Germans? How about if we re-set it in Massachusetts and make them sinister British neo-Redcoats?"
As for popular music, as I wrote nine years ago, "Bruce Springsteen's blurry equivalist mope of a 9/11 album, The Rising, is a classic example of how even a supposed 'blue-collar' icon can't bring himself to want America to win."
But there was one striking exception to the stultifying conformity of cultural critique, one lonely example of an A-list star confronting a specific 9/11 event head-on and offering his voice in full-throated support of authentic American heroism. Even more impressively, it came from a "Canadian rock legend" at a time when Jean Chrétien's ministry was mostly engaged in petty sniping about alleged offenses to its amour propre. A few weeks after September 11th, Neil Young offered a new song that took its inspiration from what I called this weekend "the only good news of the day" - the turn of events on Flight 93, the fourth plane, the one supposedly headed for the White House or the Capitol or Camp David that Tuesday morning but whose passengers rose up and overpowered the hijackers. Flight 93 crashed in a Pennsylvania field, but its fallen heroes saved hundreds of lives, including perhaps the Vice-President's, and denied Osama bin Laden an even more iconic remaking of the Washington skyline and the symbolic (and potentially actual) decapitation of the Great Satan. Todd Beamer's last words, heard by a GTE operator to whom he'd been speaking, were, "Are you ready, guys? Let's roll!" It's hard to credit from the 9/11-was-an-inside-job fever swamps of just a couple of years later, but a leftie celebrity took Beamer's catchphrase, turned it into a song title, and sang it out for real - no playing for irony or ambivalence.
Neil Young's "Let's Roll" is a dark, driving anthem that begins with the sound of cellphones ringing. That was the most important weapon the passengers had. By all accounts, the hijackers of Flight 93 weren't exactly the cream of Osama's toxic crop. The flight was halfway across the continent before the boobs made their move and started meandering back east to their target. It was getting on for 9.30 on that Tuesday morning. By the time the passengers began calling home, their families were aware of what had happened at the World Trade Center. Unlike those on the earlier flights, the hostages on 93 knew they were not on a conventionally hijacked aircraft bound for Cuba or Libya, but were conscripts on an airborne missile intended to kill thousands of their fellow citizens. So, unlike the earlier passengers, they understand the FAA's cobwebbed 1970s hijack procedures would not save them. The terrorists took charge at 9.28am. The pushback started at 9.57. In those 29 minutes, ordinary American citizens decided that, if they had to die, they would die as warriors. Put yourself in their shoes, on those phones, in that time-frame. Neil Young does, and he captures the moment:
I know I said I love you,
I know you know it's true,
I got to put the phone down,
And do what we gotta do.
Young distills the essence of those last, urgent conversations in a way few songwriters have either the courage or the inclination to do. Some of us know some of those stories. But, as the years go by, few of us know enough of them. They started with just the I-love-you part. "Jack, pick up sweetie, can you hear me?" said Lauren Grandcolas, pregnant with her husband's child. "Okay. I just want to tell you, there's a little problem with the plane. I'm fine. I'm totally fine. I just want to tell you how much I love you." That was 9.39, ten minutes into the hijacking. Five minutes later, the calls were advancing from "I love you" to "do what we gotta do". The flight attendant Sandy Bradshaw called her husband and said that she and her colleagues were boiling water to throw on the terrorists. "Everyone is running up to First Class," she told him. "I've got to go." Thomas Burnett, Mark Bingham and many more phoned their families and offered their own variations on Young's précis: "Don't worry, we're going to do something," Tom Burnett assured his wife. Denied even the solace of a last hurried call home, Todd Beamer couldn't get through to anyone except a telephone company operator, Lisa Jefferson. He explained three men were on board and one seemed to have a bomb tied around his waist. She told him about the planes that had smashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Mr Beamer said they had a plan to jump the guy with the bomb. As Young sings it:
One's standing in the aisleway,
Two more at the door,
We got to get inside there,
Before they kill some more.
Time is runnin' out,
Time is runnin' out,
Let's Roll ...
Beamer asked Lisa Jefferson if she would pray with him, so they did. The Lord's Prayer. Early reports suggested it had been the 23rd Psalm, which would not have been inapt:
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of Death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me…
I suspect Neil Young saw the same reports I did, because, with a lack of embarrassment rare among celebrity rockers, he doesn't duck the primal distinctions:
No one has the answers,
But one thing is true,
You got to turn on evil,
When it's comin' after you
You got to face it down,
And when it tries to hide,
You got to go in after it,
And never be denied...
Let's Roll for freedom,
Let's Roll for love,
Goin' after Satan,
On the wings of a dove ...
Then they rushed the hijackers. Mrs Jefferson kept the line open. A few minutes later, the plane crashed, not at Camp David or the White House, but in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Jeremy Glick knew that he would never see his three-month old daughter again, Todd Beamer that he would never know the baby his wife was expecting in January. But both men understood that they could play their part in preserving a world for their children to grow up in. By being willing to sacrifice themselves, the citizen-soldiers of Flight 93 saved thousands, perhaps including even the Vice-President and other senior officials. With the benefit of hindsight, Flight 93 is the decisive event of September 11th. As Jim Bennett of UPI wrote, "The Era of Osama lasted about an hour and half or so, from the time the first plane hit the tower to the moment the General Militia of Flight 93 reported for duty."
Just so. No one will ever again hijack an American airliner with box cutters, or, I'd wager, with anything else -- not because of idiotic federal regulations, but because of the example of Todd Beamer and his ad hoc platoon. Faced with a new and unprecedented form of terror, the latest American technology (cellphones) combined with the oldest American virtue (self-reliance) and stopped it in its tracks in just 90 minutes. When the Air France passengers jumped the Shoebomber and the Delta passengers the Pantybomber, they were acting in accordance not with FAA regulations but with Flight 93 rules.
I'm not a big Neil Young fan. If I never heard the fey, dopey "Harvest Moon" or "Heart Of Gold" ever again, it wouldn't be too soon. But "Let's Roll" may well be my favorite CanCon number since ... oh, let me see now ... hmm... gimme another minute... gosh, since Ruth Lowe of Toronto wrote "I'll Never Smile Again", our Song of the Week #11 and the first ever Billboard Number One hit, back in 1940 for Sinatra and the Tommy Dorsey band. "I'll Never Smile Again" is really the other end of those "Let's Roll" cellphone calls: Miss Lowe had just been widowed and her ballad of love and loss caught the mood of Americans in that interlude between the start of World War Two and their own entry into it. Lisa Beamer would understand Ruth Lowe's song: for all her pride in Todd's heroism, honored by Neil Young, President Bush and millions of his fellow citizens, it's poor consolation for a lost husband and father.
But as a visceral response to 9/11, to ordinary suburban businessmen who found themselves "goin' after Satan on the wings of a dove", Neil Young's song is hard to beat. There were other "Let's Roll" songs in the years ahead - from LA Guns, the Bellamy Brothers, dc Talk, Ray Stevens and another Canadian act, the Stills from Montreal: No Crosby and Nash but Stills and Young both rolled. The "Let's Roll" moment didn't last. A couple of years later, almost as if in penance for the earlier song, Neil Young had moved on to "Let's Impeach The President". It's a lot less controversial at cocktail parties.
But in November of 2001 Neil Young sang out at a time when few others would. And he addressed the heart of the matter with a moral clarity contemporary pop sensibility will tie itself in knots to avoid:
No one has the answers,
But one thing is true,
You got to turn on evil,
When it's comin' after you...
When I'm asked about writing, I often commend song structure because it's the most compressed form: You have 32 bars to say it in, and you have to make the syllables fit the limited number of notes available for them. But in this case Neil Young was dealing with an event that was itself horribly compressed into a single half-hour, from a routine flight to what seemed to be a Seventies style hijacking to the first phone calls to say "I love you" to the family members at home who knew the truth to the decision to "turn on evil/When it's comin' after you" - 30 minutes from start to heroic finish. In less urgent and dramatic ways, we still face the same choice that confronted the brave passengers of Flight 93 in their last half-hour on earth: Can we act, or are we content to be, in the words of Neil Young's fellow Canadian David Warren, "spectators in our own fate?"
No time for indecision,
We got to make a move ...
Time is runnin' out...