It’s been a year.
I’m not going to do a September 11 memorial piece here. As a contributing member of the 9/11 Media Onslaught of 2002, I’m just sick of thinking about it. I wrote my two stories on it already, and I’m heartsick and tired. Life as we know it is depressingly similar to the way it was on Sept. 10, with the added bonus of fewer freedoms, and the people that I know that were personally affected by the attacks want nothing more than to mourn in peace. They certainly don’t need my help, or the help of a media-led “period of national grief.”
So the answer is no. No soul-baring reflections or observations on the last 12 months, no agonizing examination of the state of our nation, none of that. Not from me. If you want a well-written and heartfelt piece on life post-9/11, e-mail Jeff Maxwell at email@example.com for a copy of this week’s edition of Twitch, his ongoing e-column.
But this column is about music, just like usual, and one reason I didn’t have any intention of sharing Sept. 11 thoughts this time is because I thought I wouldn’t have to. Surely, I prognosticated, the artistic community will come through, and within a year, our nation’s poets and artists will deliver strong, sublime statements that encapsulate the experience of living in a post-9/11 world. I predicted (in last year’s Top 10 List column, if you recall) that 2002 would be the year the art community would turn outward and craft responses to the worst act of terrorism America has ever seen.
And maybe these things take time, and 2003 will be the year 2002 should have been, but so far, the response has been lackluster at best. The most astonishing piece of post-9/11 work has so far been Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, an album that creates unbearable chaos in order to sift through its own wreckage for beauty. Considering that YHF was written and recorded long before 9/11, several references in its lyrics bear an eerie resemblance at times to the events of that day. Both lyrically and structurally, YHF captures the essence of the last 12 months.
Otherwise, there’s been little. The most prominent commentator has been Bruce Springsteen, who filled his new album The Rising with ground-level stories of a coping America. As the de facto spokesman for the working joe, it makes sense that Springsteen was first out of the gate, and that his lyrics have the gritty sense of the average American dealing heroically with tragedy beyond scope. Musically, The Rising is no great shakes, but lyrically, it’s a grimy and gritty portrait of the bloody but unbowed.
But it’s just so damn simple. Springsteen doesn’t really struggle to understand the attack, nor does he take any other viewpoint than the one he’s always taken – the working-class American. As such, The Rising is only one or two steps removed from Toby Kieth’s repulsive “Courtesy of the Red White and Blue,” or Lee Greenwood’s simplistic anthem “God Bless the U.S.A.”
I’m glad The Rising exists, of course, because Springsteen has long captured Joe America in song better than just about anyone else, but I can get Joe America by walking down the street and talking to people. I want more from my artists. I want a point of view that startles me, that rouses me from my own thoughts, shakes me awake and says, “Hey, look at this.” In this case, I want something that forces me to see this tragedy in a different light, not something that rehashes the evening news and the Concert for America.
The closest I’ve seen to an honest and powerful examination of post-9/11 life has come from perhaps an obvious source. I mean, we should have expected that Ani DiFranco would come up with something as poisonous and eloquent as “Self Evident,” the poem-song that is the centerpiece of her new double-disc live album So Much Shouting, So Much Laughter. Delivered in a volley of rhymes that carries you along in its momentum, “Self Evident” is a personal, political and emotional bullet train of anger and self-righteousness that, at the very least, deserves respect for sheer scope.
DiFranco has always mixed the personal and the political, and in that regard, “Self Evident” may be her masterpiece. She doesn’t shy away from the horror of the event, concluding that the “exodus uptown by foot and motorcar looked more like war than anything I’ve seen so far,” but remains staunchly opposed to the violent payback Toby Kieth seems to want so much. “You can keep the Pentagon,” she says, “keep the propaganda, keep each and every TV that’s been trying to convince me to participate in some prep school punk’s plan to perpetuate retribution…”
She doesn’t stop there. DiFranco is one of the modern dissidents who, like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger and Phil Ochs and Utah Philips before her, knows that it’s okay to love your country and hate the actions of its government. And in a clear voice, she dispels the notion that America stands united:
“‘Cause take away our Playstations
And we are a third world nation
Under the thumb of some blue blood royal son
Who stole the Oval Office in that phony election…”
And later, in the verse which gives the song its name:
“And we hold these truths to be self-evident:
#1. George W. Bush is not president
#2. America is not a true democracy
#3. The media is not fooling me…”
Whether or not you agree with DiFranco’s statements, the joyous reaction of the crowd at this point in the song speaks for itself. Behind the mask of national mourning, there is anger, and it’s festering, and it’s not aimed at “the evil ones from over there,” but at our own government, our own policies and policy makers. Some have said that now is not the time for political dissent. By defiantly releasing “Self Evident” on September 10, DiFranco is saying that there is no better time than now.
She concludes with this:
“3000 some poems disguised as people
On an almost too-perfect day
Should be more than pawns
In some asshole’s passion play
So now it’s your job and it’s my job
To make it that way
To make sure they didn’t die in vain…”
“Self Evident” isn’t exactly the kind of artistic response I’ve been looking for – it’s too politically motivated, for one, and less a response than a continuation of DiFranco’s own polemic discourse that she’s been carrying out for years. Still, it’s the best we’ve produced so far, and it feels honest and real. Rather than sweeping these feelings under the rug so as not to disturb the scheduled television event that is 9/11/02, we should be examining them, because people are responding to them. People are identifying with them.
As for the rest of So Much Shouting, So Much Laughter, well, it’s pretty obvious that this collection, released only five years after her last double live album, exists mainly to get “Self Evident” out there. The album shows off DiFranco’s sophisticated jazz leanings of the past few years, especially on material from her latest, Revelling/Reckoning, from which eight songs are included. The arrangements are tight and yet open, letting air in. She all but redefines older favorites like “32 Flavors” and “My IQ,” and does a nifty version of the rarely-played “Gratitude.” If you like Ani’s most recent output, you’ll like this.
But for me, the whole thing is about the nine minutes of “Self Evident,” which, incidentally, might not have been released intact on any other label but her own. “Yes, the lessons are all around us,” she sings, “and a change is waiting there, so it’s time to pick through the rubble, clean the streets and clear the air.” Here’s hoping artists of similar stature and artistry pick up that gauntlet, and respond not just to DiFranco, but to the entirety of post-9/11 life.<'p>
* * * * *
Next week is a big one, with reviews of Coldplay, Lifehouse, Doug Martsch and Spock’s Beard, at the very least. And then comes the deluge of September 24. Batten the hatches, it’s gonna be a storm…
One final note, and it’s more of a correction. I got a gracious e-mail from Michael Pritzl, guiding light behind The Violet Burning, who somehow stumbled upon my website and my review of his new project, The Gravity Show. I attributed the swirling guitar sound on Gravity’s album Fabulous Like You to longtime Violet Burning member Andy Prickett, but Pritzl says that just isn’t so. He writes:
“The Gravity Show has really nothing to do with Andy whatsoever. His involvement was basically saying, ‘Michael, you should play everything on this recording as it seems that many people tend to credit me where credit is due to you…you should just kick everyone’s asses from your apartment, on your own…'”
Which he did. My apologies to both Michael and Andy, and at the very least, this screw-up allows me another opportunity to plug the fine work both gentlemen have been doing for more than a decade. Besides collaborating on The Violet Burning, Pritzl and Prickett have both worked with Cush, a semi-anonymous supergroup. Prickett used to be in The Prayer Chain as well, one of the best bands of their time. And of course, there’s Pritzl’s terrific Gravity Show, which he did all by himself with no help from Prickett or anything. (Grin.)
See you in line Tuesday morning.