In the days and weeks following the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, many Americans turned to music to soothe, pacify, heal, rouse and distract. It was a time when people were faced with unprecedented surges of emotion and looked, in part, to songwriters to help make sense of the changing landscape. Two landmark events — The Concert for New York City and America: A Tribute to Heroes — were organized after the attacks, spurring artists to write inspired new material and re-appropriate classic rock tracks to fit the current milieu.
Compared to more concrete measures, the role of music in the aftermath of 9/11 may seem trite, but these two benefits helped rally a city and a country to put aside differences — temporarily, at least — and focus on rebuilding something as important as any physical structure: the national psyche. Here are 10 unforgettable moments from those two programs.
AMERICA: A TRIBUTE TO HEROES
Bruce Springsteen — “My City of Ruins”
“This is a prayer for our fallen brothers and sisters,” Bruce Springsteen said before delivering a wrenching rendition of “My City of Ruins” from his then-upcoming album The Rising. Backed by only a guitar, harmonica and some E Street Band backup singers, Springsteen originally wrote the track in 2000 for an Asbury Park, New Jersey benefit show, but its lyrics of hope and rebirth later became a rallying cry after the attacks.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers — “I Won’t Back Down”
In the wake of the attacks, Tom Petty’s first single from 1989’s Full Moon Fever re-emerged as an American radio staple and mantra for many Americans. Ironically, then-candidate George W. Bush used the song at campaign rallies in 2000 until Petty forced the candidate to discontinue its usage.
Willie Nelson — “America the Beautiful”
Willie Nelson closed out the telethon with an ensemble version of the traditional patriotic song. Tom Petty, Tom Cruise, Neil Young and Sylvester Stallone, among many others involved in the concert, sang backup.
Neil Young — “Imagine”Veteran singer-songwriter Neil Young performed John Lennon‘s ode to peace for the first time at the concert, performing an emotional rendition of the song that maintained Lennon’s hopeful optimism. Backed by a string orchestra, Young’s version was straightforward, yet essential; a call to peace to a populace focused on revenge.
THE CONCERT FOR NEW YORK CITY
David Bowie — “Heroes”While David Bowie’s rendition of Simon & Garfunkel‘s “America” was well received, it was a rousing version of his 1977 hit “Heroes” that understandably earned one of the strongest ovations of the night. It helps that the song crescendos toward a booming finale, but with numerous NYPD and NYFD in attendance, the song’s lyrics made it an obvious choice.
Billy Joel — “Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)”“New York State of Mind,” the other track performed by the Long Island singer/songwriter that night, is ostensibly the more appropriate choice, but this 1976 apocalyptic tale took on new meaning after the attacks. “They say a handful still survive/To tell the world about/The way the lights went out/And keep the memory alive,” Joel sang. “I wrote that song 25 years ago,” the singer said after the performance. “I thought it was going to be a science fiction song. I never thought it would really happen. But unlike the end of that song, we ain’t going anywhere.”
The Who Medley — “Who Are You”, “Baba O’Riley”, “Behind Blue Eyes” “Won’t Get Fooled Again” It feels tragically quaint now, but for many Americans who had never heard of Al-Qaeda or Osama bin Laden before 9/11, the classic Who song “Who Are You” felt appropriately prescient. “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” delivered more as a patriotic cry than youth chant during the concert, was set to close Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 until Who guitarist Pete Townshend disallowed the song’s use. Townshend claimed the film to be inaccurate and Moore went with Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World.”
John Mellencamp and Kid Rock — “Pink Houses”Given the fierce American pride of John Mellencamp and Kid Rock, a duet seemed inevitable. After performing the majority of “Pink Houses” with his band, Mellencamp welcomed Rock, who appeared on stage wearing a Port Authority t-shirt and American flag shirt. The song’s hook, “Ain’t that America/somethin’ to see, baby/Ain’t that America/home of the free,” deeply resonated with the crowd.
Paul McCartney — “Freedom”McCartney performed six songs to close out The Concert for New York City, including “Yesterday,” “Let It Be” and this new song written a day after 9/11. “That’s one thing these people don’t understand that’s worth fighting for,” McCartney said.