Sunday, September 11, 2011

“It was a strange year that year and it is a strange year this year. The blue of the sky looks rather black to the eye.”

In a friend's water closet reading stack sits a book by William Cooper. I don't believe I have seen that name since 1991, the year that punk rock broke, when I religiously read Flipside Magazine. That newsprint rag not only told me about folks like Beck, Unwound, Fitz of Depression releasing seven inches, but --if memory serves-- it used to run Cooper's missives as well as those of someone named Jolly Roger. The latter's monthly columns went beyond the joys of The Anarchist's Cookbook (which was always behind the counter at the bookstore, next to Madonna's Sex) explained how to create new identities for yourself, how to make your marijuana seeds sprout, as well as how to make homemade napalm (it involved dissolving styrofoam peanuts in gasoline). I may have made half-assed attempts at all three in high school.

Cooper's most famous book (or at least, the one that would one day wind up as toilet reading) is Behold a Pale Horse, a hodge-podge of UFO sightings, government cover-up memos, and secret society cabals running the world and installing a New World Order. Thumbing it some two decades after its publication date, I was struck by a line that went: "The numbers 3, 7, 9, 11, 13, 39 have special meaning to the Illuminati." For a book published in 1991, it's easy to have a few of those numbers stick now. Wondering just what such a figure might make of this "post-9/11" world we now inhabit, I instead learned that Cooper was shot dead by sheriffs in November of 2001. Squirting some homemade napalm on the fire, Cooper purportedly hinted in a radio show from June 2001 that an attack on the US would be blamed on some disgraced Saudi prince.

I wonder why it feels relevant to even mention this here. Perhaps its that underground thoughts go hand in hand with underground music. Perhaps paranoia and punk were always entwined for me, like The Anarchist's Cookbook and Madonna on that same shelf. Perhaps it's because I'm with this book hundreds of miles from Ground Zero (along with New York's 9/11 double issue) and for the first time in ten years, I won't be in New York City on this day. And I won't call it by those two numerals. It's always September to me.

And so I am trying to re-remember what it was like, newly arrived to New York, to wake up in the city on that September day, to climb up on my roof and watch the two towers burning, smoke billowing into that immaculate blue sky. Trying to remember who I was then, when I woke up extremely hungover, when my roommate knocked on my bedroom door and told me to wake up "to witness history," it was hard to fathom the events of that day. I remember that September 10th was an extremely late night for me and my friends, one where we stayed out until the wee hours of morning, inhaling and imbibing the substances necessary to remain up until that darkest hour of morning. Sleep that night was tumultuous and fraught. I was restless in a way I had never been in my life. I thrashed through the sheets and just barely fell to sleep before that knock came.

A few things remain in my mind upon waking up: First was a news item from the week previous was about an ultralight plane had been flown towards the Statue of Liberty. So when I thought of a plane striking the Tower, a harmless little fly of a craft is what came to mind. The other is that just a few weeks prior, the city had detonated the two water towers that loomed over the Williamsburg skyline, erasing them from the sky in a matter of seconds. So I stood on my rooftop and saw those two buildings, their concrete pluming into the sky up above.

Technically, I never went inside the World Trade Center in my first months of living in New York City. But I did go into its basement. A temp agency scheduled an interview for me at WTC 1 and so I went downtown one July morning, where I was soon ushered into the basement of that building. I had been without work for three months and my funds were depleted. I needed a job desperately. I was fucking broke. And yet...

Before I left Texas, I worked in a government building, one which also housed federal judges. They constantly received credible death threats. One had to go through metal detectors to even enter the building. The windows were so darkly tinted that I never knew the sun was shining until I left at the end of the workday. Being in Austin, but a few hundred miles from where the Oklahoma City bombings had taken place, that pall remained over the place. How could it not? I wasn't just working a job out of college (so as to save up for a move to NYC), I was working at a place that was a target. And I swore to myself when I moved that I would never work in a target again.

So sitting in the basement of the World Trade Center, hungry and broke, I threw the interview. Walking down the hallway after, my guide not only pointed out where the bathroom was but also where the bombs had detonated back in 1993, pointing out both in a casual way that was nauseating. How could you carry on with your work knowing that someone had tried to destroy the place? I left as quick as I could and never returned their phone calls. I remained willfully unemployed. My family and my roommates thought I was crazy to not take that job.

It would be another month before I had a real job and years before my present occupation, writing about music. In reading some of the remembrances of that day, like those by Hua and Mark, I wonder what I might have listened to on that day. Such sounds escape me now. Instead, I recall carrying out mundane tasks like doing my laundry and buying an extra can of Goya beans and two gallons of drinking water, all under two strips of black smoke. 

Somewhere on the web, I recently found a list of my top albums of 2001. I wonder at who that person was who listed and listened to such albums. Of greatest relevance for that time was of course the unreleased Wilco album, with its lyrics about tall buildings shaking and voices escaping, not to mention the paranoia-inducing samples from the "number" stations. I wonder what Bill Cooper would have had to say about The Conet Project

But the only sound I still remember came at night. It was not music. We all convened, friends and strangers and neighbors, on the Williamsburg waterfront to commiserate and hug one another, to down whisky straight from the bottle and stare at the sirens silent and shining across the black water of the East River. Ambulances were in a line like an unclasped ruby necklace, flaring their incandescent red lights and snaking up and down the FDR in a long procession, both north and south. I don't recall their wails reaching me. Instead, I remember the heartbeat of hand drums all around me, somehow giving meter to the black night.

Ten years later, a quote I affixed to that record list remains the most resonant, more than any of those albums. It came from a Gertrude Stein book I was reading at the time and it worked as well at that moment in time as it does now, ten years and a lifetime ago: 

"It was a strange year that year and it is a strange year this year. The blue of the sky looks rather black to the eye."