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Jan Ian 911 - A Journal

photo by Peter Cunningham

911 - A Journal

Morning of the day before: Monday, September 10, 2001
We are arrived in San Diego after a half day’s drive. Not bad, we’ve only done 800+ car miles these past 3 gigs. I’m excited; tomorrow is a full day off! Rare on the road, a day without show or travel. Next night I’ll be joined by Judy Collins, Richie Havens, and Roger McGuinn for San Diego and the Anaheim Convention Center. We’ll do our San Francisco dates, then fly home for a day. Can’t believe it’s all gone so smoothly. I flew Tina and Nancy out as their “thank you” for another year of doing my merchandise and website. They’re getting their first taste of road life – “Day off? Oh boy - laundry!”

Day 1: Tuesday, September 11
Was awakened by Tina at 7:30, telling me to turn on CNN. At first I thought I was watching previews for a new action film; the graphics were great, sure, but I picked up the phone to read her out for waking me early on a full day off. Then I saw the text below. Are they bombing New York? Who? Why?

My little crew and I gather in my hotel room, wanting the company of friends. We are glued to the TV, imprinting those planes morphing through the World Trade Center. I keep flipping back to the first Kennedy assassination, the shock rolling through our sixth grade class. I worry for the crew, all substantially younger than I am. They’ve never been through a national crisis before.

I am having a visceral reaction of pure, primitive rage. This is my country. That is my city. We played the WTC not three weeks ago. Philip worries about the sound crew, who would have been packing up this morning. We’re all trying to call home, trying to call friends. I send a global email to everyone I know asking if they’re all right, and am promptly shut down by AOL for spamming.

I am the oldest, the grownup on duty, so I move into logistics. Is there a show tomorrow? Should there be? What kind of reaction is appropriate in this circumstance? I think it’s better for people to come together, but I’m suddenly leery of crowds. I’m trying to puzzle out my reaction, and realize it reminds me of the last earthquake I was in. For months after, I avoided overpasses and electrical lines.

Afternoon: Rumors fly; 50,000 people in the WTC on an average morning. No one got out. Everyone got out. The mysterious “they” are attacking California next; New York was just the beginning. So far no one I know was hit. I’m glad we’re nowhere near the naval base here.

Tina can’t stop crying, parked in front of the TV set. As though it will change if she watches long enough. Tried to get through to Richie and Leslie in Jersey but the phones are down. Stupid, I think, they’ll need the lines for emergencies. Instead I yell at AOL for disconnecting me during a crisis, and check my email. Smart Leslie; their phones are shutting on and off, so she’s doing everything with flash sessions. They’ve been watching the buildings collapse from their kitchen window.

Last night they’d called United to try and upgrade their flight this morning; they’d almost changed to an earlier flight, but had decided to sleep in.

Emails are coming into my website from all over the world, people concerned about other people who spend time on the site, people assuring us we’ll be okay, people anxious for news. An amazing outpouring.

I notice news reports are no longer saying “African-American” or “Hispanic-American”, but merely “American”. Yes.

Evening: What to do with my crew, everyone in a state of subdued hysteria? I invite them to dinner, where we talk about terrorism. Everyone in the restaurant wants to nuke Afghanistan. Also Pakistan, the Palestinians, Iran and Iraq. I keep thinking about the bomb drills we used to do in school. A siren would go off and we’d all duck under our desks, arms covering our heads, butts in the air. It was supposed to protect us in the event of a nuclear attack. I used to wonder what I’d be worth with my butt blown off. That was before I learned about fallout.

There’s a huge disparity in the reactions of people over 48 and the younger folk. Those of us in our 50’s lived through both Kennedy assassinations, and that of Martin Luther King. We were home watching when Lee Harvey Oswald was shot, live on national TV. We remember the riots. We remember the Viet Nam protests, and the Chicago police riot. We’ve experienced national emergencies before, we know life will continue somehow.

The younger ones have never faced a great crisis. The closest they came was the Oklahoma City bombing. And McVeigh was one of ours.

Day 2: Wednesday, September 12
I want to go home. It’s all I can think about. I want to be on famliar ground, back in Nashville where there are no huge buildings or bases. I want to see my family. We’re all still glued to the television, in between trying to find out if the show is on. I think not; the airports are closed. I’ve been complaining about their lousy security for years. It always worried me that if my cell phone was on my hip, they checked it – if it was in my purse, no one bothered. I can’t count the times I’ve walked through airport security without a ticket, carrying a Leatherman and a pocket knife. Not to mention the amount of baggage they allow people to bring on the plane. I felt safer in countries like Australia, where all you get is a purse or small shoulder bag. I wonder how many airport personnel were in on this, if I’ve met any in my travels. We’ve taken over 120 flights since January.

I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop. I’m a Jew, not particularly beloved by fundamentalist Islamics. Years ago, trying to understand why anyone would want to wipe my religion into the sea, I read up on Islam. So I’ve read the Koran, I’ve read the standard textbooks like Patai’s The Arab Mind. I know a bit about different cultures, at least enough to understand that a coalition of military and fundamentalists is not good news. My crew want to know why “they” hate “us”. I find myself explaining different mindsets, trying to get them to imagine growing up in a world where having a TV is a felony, where women are routinely given clitorectomies and forbidden to step outside the walls of their houses unless accompanied by a brother or husband. Where women are forbidden schooling, and men have to grow beards by law. Where most people can’t read anyway, and the only news comes directly from the State.

I have never been more grateful to my grandparents for emigrating here. Where I could grow up to be a songwriter, a performer.

Afternoon: The show is cancelled, and Anaheim’s closed the Convention Center down as well. Dealing with logistics at a time like this makes me feel guilty. I should be in New York, helping with the blood drives or something. I find myself curiously disconnected from everyone around me, and realize I’m observing, as a writer does. More guilt.

There is an apocryphal story about Charles Baudelaire, who had an enormous argument with his lover one night and began to weep. Suddenly he dashed from the room. She found him in the bathroom, staring at the mirror. “What are you doing?!” she demanded. “I am watching myself crying, in case I need to describe it one day.” I always thought that story perfectly illustrated the disconnection of the artist. We grow up as outsiders, looking through the plate glass that seems to separate us from the rest of the world. We watch through the window as everyone else gets to dance, while we’re left on the sidelines to portray the party. There may be no sidelines now, but I’m still observing. How humiliating.

Evening: My website bulletin board is full of first-hand accounts from people who survived. To think there were people there who listen to my work… to think that some of the survivors are using it for solace, even now. I’ve never considered myself very important in the scheme of things; the fact that my work might ease someone’s heart in this time of trouble is profoundly moving.

And unnerving. What can I do at my shows, to help?

Calls and emails requesting comments are coming in. I keep saying “No comment. Not qualified. I don’t know how I feel.” Yet I do know how I feel. I’m enraged. I came of age in New York City. I learned to write, to record, and perform there, in little clubs twenty blocks away from the attack. I wandered the streets with friends long past midnight, and never worried about anything more than muggers. I’ve always enjoyed what I called “the canyons of Wall Street”.

I remember a foreign friend of mine, from a small town in Portugal, who I’d taken on a tour of the WTC area. He’d never seen such tall buildings, and as he began looking up and up and up, he finally lost his balance and wound up flat on the ground, still staring at the tops. All gone now.

Pat is weeping. Tina is weeping. Everyone around me is weeping. What’s wrong with me, that I feel so calm? I wonder if I’ve lost my mind.

Why did they do this? everyone keeps asking. Well, why not? I find myself the local authority on Arabic relations, which is to say no authority at all. I’m over my head. I ask Pat, who reads three newspapers a day. Why? “Because he wants to show that he can”. That makes as much sense as anything else today.

Day 3: Thursday, September 13
We decide to drive on to Davis because it will be cheaper to sit there than here. In our secret hearts, we want to be away from big cities. This is why terrorism works; it disrupts everything we take for granted. Not just that we’ve called the rental car agency to say we’ll be driving back to Nashville. Or that we’ve cancelled all our flights. But everything else. Can we get our malfunctioning sound board repaired and shipped? What will we do with this extra merchandise? How do we keep from flinching every time a police helicopter flies overhead? Does Pat, a lawyer, have to appear in court this week, and will it be safe there? Do I go to New York or Prague for this project I’m working on?

I examine the possibility of being stuck in Prague if war is declared. My grandparents had friends who were stranded in Europe through World War II, who spent four years away from their homes and families. I think I will stay in Nashville instead. This is no time to be a hero.

Afternoon: But if this is no time to be a hero, when is?

Evening: A sigh of relief when we hit Davis. Small college town, a good used bookstore. I find myself desperately needing alone time, and realize that since it happened, I’ve been 24/7 with my crew. I take my responsibilities seriously. How will the girls get home to New Jersey in time to satisfy their bosses? How badly will they be affected, away from friends and family during this? What else can I do? Nothing. I have a quiet dinner alone and hide out in my room.

Except I can’t sleep.

I try to work on a song and realize I have absolutely nothing to say.

Day 4: Friday, September 14
An unexpected day off. I stay on line for most of it, trying to connect with other performers. Everyone seems to agree that it’s important for us all to continue doing what we do. I tell war stories about the Bob Hope tours. I marvel at Marlene Dietrich’s courage, playing for the front-line troops while knowing Hitler had a million-dollar dead-or-alive price on her head. Socrates drank the hemlock because to refuse would have been anarchy, and he believed in the State, with all its failures. I don’t think I have that kind of courage. It’s scary enough to think of driving home, when there are roadblocks everywhere we look and people are calling for blood. I would not want to be an Arabic child in school here right now.

I keep checking the lists of the dead, hoping no one I know was there. Selfish, to mourn more for those I know than strangers. A life is a life.

Day 5: Saturday, September 15
Someone suggested it was probably not a good idea to sing my “anti-government” songs right now. I asked if they were crazy. Yes, I was against Viet Nam. Yes, I don’t like the idea of war. But I’m second generation American. This country’s given me what I am. What are the chances of my becoming a singer-songwriter if I’d been born in the mid-East?

Our show was sold out, much to my surprise. I’ve been hearing from other performers that they’re playing to 20-30 people in venues where they normally do 350+. Let’s hope it holds; after two cancellations in a row, I can’t afford to take many more hits.

It was odd being on stage… that’s the only word I can think of for it. Odd. I’m so used to gauging the audience moment by moment, adjusting my set and timing to them, but I couldn’t read this one. Not at all. Worse than playing for a non-English speaking audience in Japan. They were subdued, sedated. Oh, they laughed and cried, but it was a completely different feel from anything I remember experiencing.

The singing is weird, too. Lines like
Went to see my brother on the 32nd floor
of a building down on Wall Street, you could hear the futures roar

choked in my throat. And when I sang “On the Other Side”, knowing that people are using it in their memorials for the firefighters, I could barely get the lyric out.
They say that you were with me when the building fell
Strange to have you near, after all these years
They say I couldn’t possibly have done it by myself.

My gratitude to the audience is overwhelming, for daring to come, for counting on me. A great honor. They’re here because they hope to feel better, amidst the guilt of surviving. Music is one of the first things we remember, the invisible art. What mother doesn’t croon to her infant, to succor and sooth? Who among us doesn’t remember childhood nursery rhymes, singsong lullabyes and rope-skipping verses we don’t recall learning but have mysteriously always known?

Our ability to see a piece of art and recognize it as an abstraction is one of the main things separating us from the beasts. When we gaze upon a painting of a lion hurtling toward us, we’re capable of seeing that lion as a representation of a dangerous animal, and to know that the picture represents no threat.

I represent no threat, and it makes me feel impotent tonight… I’m going to touch base with a few other performers and see if they’re experiencing the same thing.

These are times that test a writer’s sense of truth. And I have no truth to offer.

Day 6: Sunday, September 16
We played to around 40 people tonight, when we should have done 400. I feel like a complete failure – not because of the small house, but because of my show. Somehow I’m not reading them right. Somehow I can’t find the right words. To accomplish what? I can’t make it okay. All I can do is give them room to mourn, and I’m not doing that to my satisfaction. I got a standing ovation, but I am not deceived.

Art is one of the few things that brings people together during times of turmoil. Often it’s the artist who stands between civilization and chaos. Why am I so scared?

I toured in Ireland during the time of the troubles, mindful of threats, surrounded by security people. I dealt with three barbed-wire checkpoints at my hotel every day, and the evacuation of concert halls because a car had been reported parked too long in one spot. I went when others cancelled, because I believed it was important that artists stand aside from political affiliations, and bring what peace and forgetfulness they could tender.

I went to Israel during the bombings for the same reasons. I shared a suite with a bodyguard whose most recent assignment had been to safeguard Ben Gurion. I waited outside the door of my room while he checked the closets and under the bed, feeling foolish but grateful for his throughness.

I didn’t go to be a hero – there is nothing heroic about dying under a terrorist’s bomb, or being kidnapped for use as leverage. I went because I knew that every artist who cancelled deprived their audience of the opportunity for rest and rejuvenation. Because being on stage in Belfast, looking out over an audience of Catholics and Protestants brought together in peace through music, was one of the best moments of my life. Watching blacks and whites sit next to one another in Durban, singing together on the choruses, smiling as they harmonized together, is an experience I will not forget.

I did not deceive myself. The troubles were all around us, the fomenters in my concert halls as surely as they were in the streets. My show would make no difference to the Molotov cocktail hurled the next morning


But I have to believe that the concerts made some small difference in the lives of the people attending. Not because I’m such a fantastic musician or songwriter, but because it gave them the opportunity to be together in a safe environment. I like to believe, perhaps naively, that the chlildren they brought will grow up with a memory of standing side by side with “the enemy”, enjoying the same music, singing the same songs. I have to trust that those memories go in somewhere, and ameliorate the blind hatred and mistrust they see all around them. I have to hope for that, because without that hope, I’ve failed in my job as an artist. I’ve fallen short of my duty, which is in large part to help raise up those who have been beaten down by life and its consequences. To ennoble, and dignify, the people whose lives I so casually lay across my page in song.

It’s midnight now, and we’re driving straight through to Nashville. Around 40 hours, in shifts, past the checkpoints.

Day 7: Monday, September 17
The paranoia of being near a naval base was nothing compared to the paranoia of being on the open road, driving through areas where cell phone coverage is non-existent and there’s no radio coming through. We’re all edge, particularly after 15 hour’s drive-time. We’ve been stopping to grab hot dogs and trash food, checking the headlines and hoping nothing else has happened.

I’m having an absurd reaction to what I consider two bad shows in a row. Nothing I can put my finger on; I sang my songs, told my stories, acknowledged the events of the past week – but I can’t stop feeling like there’s some basic clue I’m missing. Something that will allow my audience to grieve, feel hope, and bond with one another. Funny, two weeks ago I’d have laughed at anyone talking about the audience “bonding” during my show. “It ain’t brain surgery” I’d remind them. Now I’m not so sure.

Why do people come to see me in the first place? It’s not like I’ve had a hit record in this country during the past two decades. I’m certainly not flavor-of-the-month, so why do they keep coming? There must be something I give them that they can’t get anywhere else, but what?

How absurd, that with thousands dead in New York, I’m worried about my performance. I’m not worried about low audience numbers; hell, if I was home I wouldn’t be going out to see a show right now!

I’m worried because I want to help, and I can’t figure out how.

Day 8: Tuesday, September 18
Home glorious home. Who'd believe the sight of 3 scruffy dogs would be so welcome? Pat’s taking tomorrow off; we’ll spend the day on the porch, and I’ll try to make sense of all this.

Day 9: Wednesday, September 19
I can’t make sense of it.
I can’t make sense of anything that’s going on right now.

Day 10: Thursday, September 20
I despair, I despair.

We played The Handlebar in Greenville SC tonight. Great house, great venue, but I’m not doing my job, and it’s driving me crazy. I pay so much lip service to The Artist As Chronicler Of The Times, and here I am chronicling nothing but my own miserable life. Who cares?

Half a dozen therapists, fresh from working in the rubble of New York, came to the show in order to (as one put it) “let ourselves be healed, as we’ve tried to heal others.” Two of them collapsed in my arms afterward, weeping ferociously. I’m used to people tearing up at the meet-and-greet table, but not like this.

Other performers have been calling and emailing, asking for advice. Everyone’s going through the same thing; no one feels good about their work. Audiences are coming to us for help, and we’re useless.

I’m shocked at how deeply my failure is affecting me. It would make sense if I was despondent over what’s happened, but that’s not it. My failure, in my own eyes, to communicate is what’s eating at me.

I don’t remember ever being in this position; it’s awful. Tomorrow I’ll going to call Polly Bergen; she’s in her 70’s, she’ll remember performing during wars and crises. Maybe she’ll have something to offer. And add Jesse to my set, plus some other old material. If people need to cry right now, I’ll give them the opportunity. Perhaps it will bring back thoughts of better times.

Day 11: Friday, September 21
Woke at 4 am out of a restless sleep with lyrics, melody, guitar part running in my head.

I was walking down the street when I heard CNN
through the window of a bar and I thought ‘Here we go again’
so I stood in the crowd & I watched the world go by
while everyone around me kept on glancing at the sky
It made me nervous.

Tried to go back to sleep, but apparently my subconscious is determined to work something out, so I stayed up until 5:30 working on it.

I’m nervous for the president & for the FBI
I’m nervous for the government & I don’t want to fly
I’m nervous for the Arabs when I look up at the sky
and I think I’m being hijacked when you look me in the eye.
I’m nervous.

Not exactly deathly prose, but it’s nice to admit feeling scared.

I called Polly and said “Pretty Pol, what do I do? I feel like an utter failure. These people look at me with hope in their eyes and I have nothing to offer. You played through the Kennedy assassinations, through time of war. Help me!” She was great, that throaty voice of her offering hard-earned advice.

“Well, the first thing you need to tell them is that we will survive.” How stupidly obvious; so obvious that I’d discounted it.

“Next, acknowledge that it was hard for you to get up there tonight, just as it was hard for them to come.” Yep. Ordinarily I don’t like to do anything that might be construed as making excuses – saying I have a cold etc – but these are not ordinary times.

“And last, tell them you’re glad they trusted you enough to come, and now you’re going to do what you do best– your show.”

Felt better when I hung up, like there was a plan, so I lay down to take a nap and make up for some of that missed sleep. Except the damned song started running in my head again. So I got up and finished it, wrote it out on three big sheets, and taped it around my microphone. We’ll see how it plays. It’s not a great song, but it says how I’m feeling. More important, it says what I need to hear right now. I’m going to open with it, unrehearsed, untried, and see what happens. What the heck

It’ll be all right it’ll be okay
We will all survive to face another day.

What is it they say? Cliches are cliches because they’re true.

Day 12: Saturday, September 22
Something unprecedented in my life as a performer happened last night. I got a full standing ovation after the first song. Even better, the audience relaxed.

I thanked them, told them how hard it was for any of us to come to the theater tonight. Said we’d covered 5,000 road miles this month, and they were worth every second of it.

Day 13: Sunday, September 23
I feel back on track. If there’s a war, there’ll be a war. If there’s a recession, that’ll happen too. Nothing much I can do to affect either. The one thing I can affect is peoples’ hearts.

The promoter thanked me over and over again, saying the audience mood shift from when they entered to when they exited was amazing. That for the first time since it happened, he heard true laughter. That there was a sense of community in those 400 people, a feeling that there would be a future. Saying I’d eased their hearts.

I did my job.

Day 14: Monday, September 24
I came home and read the papers. John P. McNeill, who used to head the FBI’s East Coast Terrorist Task Force, died in the attack. He’d left the FBI a month before to head up security at the WTC, probably because that seemed safer.

It feels very strange; I didn’t know him well, but I liked him a lot. When god & the fbi came out, he and his wife came to one of my shows. They stood in line for autographs after, and as I was signing she laughed and said “You won’t believe what he does for a living!” I chuckled, expecting something ludicrous like Impregnating Elephants With Frozen Sperm. Instead, he handed me his card. I laughed even harder. We emailed back and forth for a while, and I liked him. I had the FBI sweatshirt he gave me packed in my road bad last run.

Now he’s dead, and there’s a face on the tragedy.

In Conclusion:
We artists are alchemists of the soul.

We transform the lead of sadness and despair into the gold of hope and joy. We search out peoples’ dreams, and pluck them from the empty air to transmute them into fine metal. We are there when times get hard, to show our audiences that hope survives. And when times get so hard that people forget they ever had dreams in the first place, we are there, to hold out our hands and simply say “Here are your dreams back. I’ve kept them safe for you.”

For those of us who get to do that night after night, it is an immense privilege.

Artists deal in the big dreams. Freedom. Faith. Hope. Safety. Whether hidden in the day-to-day language of the common man, placed in situations beyond his control or desire, or couched in the elevated language of poetry, we are first and foremost dealing with the peoples’ lives and aspirations. We are the truest journalists our times have known, standing above bribery and deceit. We cannot be induced to lie in our songs with the promise of money or power. We are not willing to compromise what we see as truth in order to gain popularity. Even the basest singer is loathe to utter lyrics that go against their firm beliefs, no matter what the record company or radio may wish. Even the lowliest songwriter, working two day jobs to make ends meet and living on the dream of their first cut, will not write a lyric that completely compromises their integrity.

As artists, we are the culture’s first line of defense. This is not to discount the politicians or the military. The infrastructure of any country moblizes during times of chaos to protect us. Without that infrastructure, we would live in a state of siege. But as we’ve learned to our bitter regret, most politicians are not to be trusted. One has only to watch the grandstanding going on right now to remember that. And the military is unpredictable, often feared and loathed by the very people it’s sworn to protect.

We are the first line of defense because, unlike the politicians and the military, we are trusted. Our audiences count on us to speak the truth as we see it, and to pull no punches.

What does it require, to take this sort of stand?

It demands an examination of our own beliefs. Not to spout simplistic jargon that rallies the animal in us with slogans like America first or Nuke the Arabs, but to clarify for ourselves where we stand. As every artist must examine their private lives in order to be better creators, so must we examine our public lives, and those of the public around us. And once examined, we must give it voice and name through our work.

That which has no name does not exist for us. By naming our fears, our hopes, our triumphs, we return their dreams to the people who most need them.

I believe that art saves, because it allows us solace in the depths of despair. I believe that art saves souls, because it brings us to our knees and humbles us, while in the same moment raising us above the animals and our baser instincts. I believe that art ennobles humankind, for it crosses and transcends the barriers of gender, economics, nationalities and religions that we so blithely erect to protect our sensibilities and our resources.

I believe in alchemy. I believe in magic. And if ever this world needed us, it is now.

An earlier version of this article was originally published in Performing Songwriter Magazine issue #58, October 2001

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