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Columns > Jesse Jarnow - Brain Tuba

Published: 2001/09/19
by Jesse Jarnow

BRAIN TUBA: What’s So Funny ‘bout Peace, Love, and Understanding?

I wasn’t listening to any music when the World Trade Center went down. I was
on the roof. I can’t rightly say what I was listening to before that – The
Beta Band, maybe – and, at this point, I can’t really remember what I put on
after that. I spent the bulk of the day in silence, I think. Later, I put on
"Metal Machine Music" by Lou Reed. That’s my next memory of recorded sound.
That night, along with my roommate, I ventured into Manhattan, to a deserted
Times Square, to try and find an open record shop where I could get the new
Bob Dylan album. I didn’t get it until the next day.
The first day after the tragedy was spent trying to deal with the sheer
reality of the attacks themselves, separate from the country’s reaction.
Wandering south through midtown, towards the 14th Street borderline, I sang
to myself, making sense of the brutality in terms of the local geography of
the Velvet Underground, Soul Coughing, Talking Heads and other New York
bands, trying to place myself onto some imagined grid that would align me
with something safe and true. "New York City’s like a graveyard," I sang
dumbly, as I had the night before, imitating the Moldy Peaches’ song in a
bland pantomime.
By the end of the day on Wednesday, things began to change. The news itself
had shifted as the coverage morphed from the simple facts of the brutal
wreckage to the worldwide reaction to what was happening. The gesture of
flying two planes into the World Trade Center, symbolically, is as simple as
its cause complex. It was a perverted critique of capitalism. It wasn’t
about freedom and it wasn’t about democracy. If it was, the semiotics would
have been all different. The targets would have been the Statue of Liberty
and the Capitol dome instead of the Twin Towers and the Pentagon.
As such, using music as a tool in a panicked search for sanity might be a
futile task. The results of what happened, the still smoldering remains of
the World Trade Center, are easy to explain because they can be observed in
the receding tides of pulverized cement tsunamis. The reaction – the
blood-thirsty, flag-waving cry for retaliation – is a bit more ineffable in
its sheer atavistic yawps. The aftermath is dangerous and perhaps even
harder to deal with than the grief that followed the attacks, if only
because of the potential to convert the potential energy of raw anger into a
devastating force of kinetic destruction.
Like before, I’ve found myself sinking into music in the hopes of
discovering that the outside world hasn’t, actually, gone completely fucking
insane. The question of whether or not this approach is mature or just sheer
escapism has crossed my mind. Assuming one is willing to take pop music
seriously to begin with, the answer, I suspect, is neither. Songs create
signposts and metaphors: music filtered through memories (and vice-versa) to
create some kind of emotional sensation. These sensations are like small
bursts of color in the consciousness that help bridge the gap between the
abstract and the tangible.
Ultimately, though, one is on his own. A burst of color isn’t the same thing
as a fully articulated self-derived image. How far can music bring one? That
measure, I think, is related to the fact that the simplest songs are often
the most comforting: lullabies and ballads. In this case, it is often
Dylan’s early polemic numbers and John Lennon’s reductionistic messages of
peace that have the most impact. The message of Bob Marley is perfect in its
form. These songs provide one with straight-up emotions. As grief can be
exploited to patriotic fervor through propaganda, songs provide a stepping
stone – a point of mediation and meditation – between emotion and action.
Music is a way of organizing time through rhythm. Simply listening to it
places a frame in time and allows one a period of thought. Through a steady
pulse, one can think calmly and rationally. And, yes, it also allows one a
chance to escape, in a way. But escapism doesn’t so much work as an aversion
to society as it works in concert with reality.
Tuesday afternoon, for example, I was bombarded with constant images of the
collapsing buildings, of people running, of politicians opining. I learned
very little. When I turned the television off, a calm swept over me, as the
media-enforced neuroticism momentarily seeped out of my bones. Turning the
television off is not an escape from reality, simply because television is
not reality. It is easy to get worked up into a tizzy if one is constantly
pressed with the same images over and over again. A short change – be it the
duration of a four-minute pop song or any other cultural form you choose – does the mind good.
The situation in the Middle East is not so simple as Give Peace A
Chance, though it sure would be nice. It’s not so simple as any of that.
It is confusing and terrible and horrible. The attacks were not unprovoked,
they were not cowardly, and they certainly are not a reason for a holy war
fought in the name of Allah nor the righteous and mighty Christian lord that
so many seem to be evoking. Retaliation will likely not accomplish anything
besides a redressing of our sinful American pride.
"We see this empty cage now corrode," Dylan sang in Visions of
Johanna, cinematic images flickering in the Manhattan darkness, mere
months after the November 1965 blackout. No songs will save the lives lost
in the tragedy, but neither will bombs. Perhaps we should look to the
songs for our solutions. The destruction of the World Trade Center was
brutally poetic. Can’t we get some artists on this one and fight the
terrorists verse for verse?
Jesse Jarnow is trying to make some
girl say "baby baby baby baby baby baby baby baby baby baby baby baby baby
baby baby baby baby baby baby baby baby baby baby baby baby baby baby baby
baby baby baby baby baby baby baby baby baby baby baby baby baby baby
baby baby baby baby baby baby baby baby baby baby baby baby…"

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