A little more than a month after the terrorist attacks on 9/11, with the nation and world still reeling from that day, Madison Square Garden hosted The Concert for New York City. A benefit concert of the first order, it was also a thank you to the sacrifice of NYC’s fire and police departments, which had lost many members during that day. (The former had lost 343 firefighters.) But like a lot of things about that day twenty years later, it has sort of vanished down the cultural memory hole.
However, if you need reminding, the Who came out of retirement and delivered what some considered the set of the night. Tom Watson, writing in Forbes magazine, called it “The Night The Who Saved New York.”
The concert was free to any firefighter or policeman who came in uniform. Watson describes the vibe thus:
“To say that occupancy laws were stretched that night is to undersell the size of the place. Picture a Knicks game, then double the crowd. From the start, the building ran on a river of emotion and beer, which, if you wore a uniform — or your late loved one’s cap — was free. The thousands of cops in attendance studiously ignored thousands of other cops and firefighters lighting up a little reefer. Large bottles of high proof spirits were produced. The Garden was the biggest Irish wake in history.”
In a moment like this, a lot of the artists headed towards jingoism. It was understandable. Songs about America (David Bowie), songs about New York City (Billy Joel), songs about freedom (Paul McCartney), songs about heroes (also Bowie). But, what the crowd wanted that night was catharsis, and that’s what the Who brought.
The set is the Who at their most anthemic, but also the most representative of the classic rock radio these uniformed men and women and their families grew up with: “Who Are You,” “Baba O’Reilly,” “Behind Blue Eyes,” and ending with “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” However the line “meet the new boss, same as the old boss” is quietly deleted. Not this time, cynicism.
The concert was exactly what was needed for the grief of the community. And death hangs over the whole event, as camera cut to family members holding up photos of lost loved ones, while the World Trade Center rubble still smoldered.
And then there’s what nobody knew at the time: this would be bassist John Entwistle’s last gig before his fatal heart attack eight months later. So many of the remaining first responders would die from the toxic chemicals breathed in on 9/11, and still they fight for some recompense from the government that honored them at first. Mayor Giuliani…well, we know what happened to him. And that ass whoopin’ we promised the Middle East wound up kicking America’s economy in the butt instead.
Twenty years later the performance still holds up, a moment in time just before we all got fooled again.
Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the Notes from the Shed podcast and is the producer of KCRW’s Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.