The coronavirus pandemic has done what not even 9/11 or Hurricane Sandy did. It has brought the city that never sleeps to an absolute standstill for weeks that will almost certainly turn into months.
Many New Yorkers, like myself, were here in the city for both of those catastrophic tragedies. This is different.
Times Square, a place as vital to New York’s character as it is loathed by its residents, is desolate. The notoriously clogged Brooklyn Bridge has no traffic. So many lights have been turned off that we now almost have a night sky.
This semi-permanent sinking feeling reminded me of the days immediately after 9/11, when the flames at Ground Zero still burned, citizens were certain another attack was imminent, and the nation naively lurched toward a forever war.
A group of my friends joined together with a transistor radio and drank beers on the sidewalk. Some of us had lost friends and family, and even those who didn’t shared in some form of trauma. Music was a salvation for us. Decades-old songs took on new meaning.
And as one of my cohort ruefully remarked, “It’s like when you get dumped, every sad song is about you.”
One song that particularly affected me during those awful autumn 2001 days was Lou Reed’s “Halloween Parade” — a track which incidentally was off of his 1989 “New York” record.
The late Velvet Underground leader, New York’s unofficial poet laureate, wrote the song at the height of the AIDS epidemic about his lost LGBTQ friends, whose absence at the annual decadent and flamboyant West Village parade was palpable.
Hearing Reed warble, “In the back of my mind I was afraid it might be true/In the back of my mind I was afraid that they meant you,” took on a new and devastating context after 9/11.
It was still about the friends Reed mourned, but it was also about our people who didn’t make it out of the World Trade Center.
That’s what great art does, it outlives its own inspiration.
And it inspired me to do what I had been doing since high school, which was create an epic “mixtape” that would serve as a therapeutic time capsule.
Old Audio Cassette Tapes
Music as mental health medicine
While on a short drive to pick up quarantine supplies this week, I heard St. Vincent’s 2017 song “New York” on the radio.
The brilliantly strange indie electro-rocker also known as Annie Clark sang, “New York isn’t New York without you, love,” and later crooned, “Too few of our old crew left on Astor.”
Astor Place is vacant, just like everything else, which is awe-inspiring in a most terrible way.
New York can be a brutal place to live, to work, to raise kids. I do all those things here because the city is full of transcendent experience and discovery. There’s a reason why I — and so many others — pay the toll. Because it’s worth it.
Without people flooding the streets, parks, restaurants, bars, comedy clubs, arenas, pizza joints, museums, and concert halls, what is New York? It’s millions of people in mostly tiny boxes. It’s all the alienation of modern big city life with none of the passion of the “greatest city in the world.”
“New York isn’t New York without you, love.”
I realize this is akin to explaining a dream and hoping it achieves the same resonance, but the mournful tones of St. Vincent’s bruising ballad on lost companionship with the city itself reflexively produced a lump in my throat.
Fans and music writers have speculated that the lyrics refer to a breakup, but Clark insists it’s more just about loving the city and feeling strangely affected by the 2016 death of David Bowie — a “hero” and long-time New York resident she never personally knew.
All due respect to Clark’s artistry, but that’s not what the song is for me. It’s about now. And I too miss my old crew, and New York.
The best sad songs aren’t soppy and melodramatic. They’re cathartic and invite you to believe you’re not alone in this world.
I can hear “New York” and imagine that like a bad breakup, the pain of this moment will fade and eventually become a formative chapter in my life.
Though 9/11 turned out to be a single traumatic day, we didn’t know it at the time. There was a persistent fear that the next attack was right around the corner. Weeks after 9/11, I was stood outside the CBS Broadcast Center — where I worked at the time — after anthrax had been found in the mailroom. It felt like the nightmare would go on forever, but it didn’t.
With the coronavirus, we know the worst is yet to come.
We’re less than a month into a tragedy that further unfolds daily. The end is unforeseeable, and when it comes, it’s unlikely to be definitive. There will be no “V-Corona-Day.” We’ll likely just inch delicately back into something resembling what normal was a lifetime ago, in February.
In the meantime, we’re left with little choice but to maintain. And like most parents in the present moment, I have never had less free time.
But music can be played anytime, so I use it, all the time. It not only fills the air, it can be an active experience, even for a song I’ve heard dozens of times.
Not to get all Nick Hornby, but over the past two decades the art of the mixtape has been obliterated by the death of physical media and the rise of the streaming revolution. This is simply a fact, not a “get off my lawn” nostalgic lament.
The upside of the lost art of the mix is that almost all of the officially-released music of the past 100 years is available for about $10 a month.
So while I’m trapped inside working, homeschooling three kids, and trading household duties with my wife, I’ve begun building a playlist that captures my experience in this moment in time.
I’ve kicked it off with St. Vincent’s “New York,” but after that will have to avoid choosing any tracks with titles as on-the-nose as “New York.”
That’s just basic mixtape rules.