A Year to Remember

As I sit down to write a year's-end musical retrospective, I feel that the old column-writing joke between Stereophile editor John Atkinson and myself about first needing a subject and, second, needing it to make sense, will not be a problem this time out. For me, the music and almost everything else about 2001 have been dwarfed in importance by the mayhem wreaked on New York on September 11.

Why those buildings full of people were attacked by hijacked planes loaded with people, and whether or not America's past and present sins were the cause, are arguments for another day. I'll even save for later the revulsion I feel toward our homegrown religious extremists, who blamed gays, feminists, and pro-choice infidels.

As a resident of New York who witnessed more of the horrific events of that day than he wishes he had, what's foremost in my mind are: the firehouse near my home, which lost 12 of its crew of 30; the acrid smell of burning flesh and plastic that still pervades lower Manhattan; and being part of a candlelight vigil on the Brooklyn Heights Promenade with someone I've recently connected with, partially because we experienced the extraordinary events of the crisis together.

It seems like a dream, and it actually happened. Even before I was surrounded by all this literal death, the music world was abuzz with its own questions of mortality: Is rock'n'roll dead? Has the collapse of the classical music business become a stake through the heart of a music that was already fast becoming a museum piece? Will jazz ever recover the inspiration it now lacks?

I asked that last question again when I recently attended a concert headlined by alto saxophonist Charles McPherson and trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, in which it became squirmingly, painfully clear that Marsalis, the standard-bearer for his generation of jazz musicians if not for jazz as a whole, simply cannot play think-on-the-fly bebop.

Such intellectual and aesthetic hairballs now seem small and insignificant. And yet, as always in times of crisis, music still holds its ace card of balm, or at least escape, for the wounded soul. For me, music represents the best part of mankind's nature, and right now, I feel the need to focus on that—at least until I turn on CNN and hear about the next envelope being opened in Florida or the next mental patient bursting into a cockpit. The very real phenomenon of music as solace has perhaps never been more important, at least for the residents of the five boroughs, than it is now.

That was confirmed for me at a recent show by ex-Clash guitarist Joe Strummer. The man was on fire—with the new material he plays with his band The Mescaleros, with old Clash tunes like "Police and Thieves," and with a blazing cover of "Blitzkrieg Bop" dedicated to the late Joey Ramone.

There's ever-present death again, determined to make 2001 a year to remember. But Strummer's exuberance, accented by fits of his trademark leg whip, made "Blitzkrieg Bop" not a lament for Ramone but a celebration of him. The sparkle in the eyes of my partner from the Promenade when she was introduced to the star himself made me smile as I remembered when I, too, first felt the afterburners kick in, when just being near the music and musicians made me high.

Never higher, in fact, than the night I saw Kurt Cobain and Nirvana play to an audience of eight, four of them club employees. To this nearly empty room, a shy Cobain announced that the band was going to play a new song—something about "teen spirit." Suddenly it was as if all eight of us had been hit by lightning at the same moment. I remember lying in bed later that night, sure I'd witnessed something rare and important, a feeling confirmed this year when Nevermind, the album on which that landmark tune first appeared, reached its 10th birthday. Yes, Cobain was unhappy as hell and took his own life, but Nevermind lives on, the music glorious and surprisingly well-recorded. As I have with the questions about American foreign policy that surround the Trade Center catastrophe, I prefer to table, for now, debate about Cobain's suicide and focus on the music he left behind—perhaps the last great rock album.

But I'm happy to introduce a bit of doubt into that last honor. Several albums not reviewed in these pages in 2001 jut promisingly from an otherwise featureless musical landscape. The decade-long journey of Weezer found a destination in 2001 with the release of Weezer (Geffen), one of the most gleefully stoopid power-pop (accent on "power") albums in recent memory. Then there was the wild pitch of noisy but coherent alterno-garage rock rumblings on White Blood Cells (Sympathy for the Record Industry), by the duo The White Stripes. Finally, I'm jumping on The Strokes' bandwagon long enough to say that while they're probably not God's answer to Job (or the second coming of the 'Mats), their Television-like bar-band qualities and come-on of Velvet Underground artiness, amply displayed with a sneer and an almost too-pretty smile on their eponymous first album (RCA), have a certain attractive urgency. None of these records may quite be Nevermind, but all give hope for the future.

There were also flashes of promise in classical music, where the clutch of releases reviewed in this month's "Building a Library" (p.157) are encouraging signs. And in jazz, the presence of players like trumpeter Tom Harrell and the emergence of several youngish musicians, most notably tenor saxophonist Chris Potter (to be profiled in an upcoming issue of Stereophile), are heartening.

Hearts, particularly those that are healing, is what the end of 2001 is all about.