Following the tragic and horrific events of September 11th, 2001, New York City quickly galvanized in a way I had never witnessed. Everyone was searching for answers that would never be found, and we all realized that we had to return to our normal lives in one way or another. The grieving would have to stop, and, in lieu of that void, a celebration of life began.
I was lucky to witness New York Mets superstar Mike Piazza and his towering home run against the Atlanta Braves on September 21st in person. It seemed like the first moment of true celebration since the towers came down. My family went home that night and stayed up late watching the America: A Tribute To Heroes telethon, which was broadcast on all of the major networks. Musical performances were provided by Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Dave Matthews, Paul Simon, Willie Nelson and more to help raise $200 Million in aide and relief efforts. It was incredible, however this was just a warm-up for the outpouring of love and positivity that would come with the expertly executed Concert for New York City.
The Concert for New York City was, by all means, the night that we as a city (and as a country) howled into the night in jubilation and celebration. The show featured a ridiculous lineup of rock icons mixed in which speeches by major politicians, skits by comedians, and short-films by New York filmmakers. Paul McCartney organized the event, and made sure to bring a ton of his musical friends from the U.K. as a sign of solidarity. Mick Jagger & Keith Richards, The Who, and Elton John all performed at the event, as did reclusive New York transplant David Bowie. McCartney made sure to include a ton of American talent as well, with James Taylor, Jay-Z, Destiny’s Child, Melissa Ethridge, Goo Goo Dolls, and Backstreet Boys all featured alongside the British icons. It was a truly impressive effort, and I remember being in complete awe of the lineup when it was announced. America had been attacked for our way of life, and our response was to showcase the brightest and most talented artists of our time. The event was slated to take place on October 20th at the mecca of American entertainment, NYC’s Madison Square Garden.
While the show featured several standout performances, it was the night’s opener that immediately connected with the audience. David Bowie opened the night with a beautiful solo take on Simon and Garfunkel‘s “America”. Bowie followed up with a short speech: “Hi, friends. Hi, fellow New Yorkers. I’d particularly like to say hello to the folks from my local ladder, you know where you are. I must say, it’s an absolute privilege to play for you tonight.” Bowie then launched into a celebratory version of “Heroes”. It was at this point that the cameras showed the audience, filled with police officers, firefighters, first responders, and the families of those lost in the tragedy. An emotional reveal for sure, and a powerful moment for all in the room, as all of these heroes weren’t seen mourning; rather, they were smiling, cheering, and celebrating life with each other, waving American flags throughout the evening and going crazy for their favorite musicians.
Watch David Bowie perform Simon & Garfunkel’s “America” and his own “Heroes” at the Concert For New York City below:
The other set that sticks out is the powerful, earth-shattering performance by veteran rockers The Who. Actor John Cusack, clearly a huge fan of the band, went absolutely wild when introducing them as he was surrounded by a sea of equally excited first responders. The band kicked off their set with a super-charged “Who Are You”, with Pete Townshend showcasing his wild guitar windmills all the while. The next track, “Baba O’Riley”, saw the audience bursting with energy, drowning out Roger Daltrey‘s vocals as they screamed the song’s “teenage wasteland” refrain. “Behind Blue Eyes” provided an emotional moment, before “Won’t Get Fooled Again” brought the roars back to MSG. The crowd ate up The Who’s passionate performance, and it served as the night’s greatest highlight. “Won’t Get Fooled Again” served as a rallying cry that evening, and it became the theme of the night, as well as the theme of an entire generation of Americans.
Watch the entire powerful performance by The Who at the Concert for New York City, courtesy of Daily Motion’s IvorTheEngineDriver.
The night contained plenty of other standout performances, almost too many to count. Many of the entertainers had close ties to New York City in one way or another; Billy Crystal performed a comedy routine; New Jersey hero Bon Jovi performed hits like “Living on a Prayer” and “Wanted Dead Or Alive”; Brooklyn-boy Jay-Z performed “Izzo” (H.O.V.A.)”; Adam Sandler reprised his role as Operaman from Saturday Night Live for a raucous, Osama Bin Laden-themed comedy bit that had the crowd doubled over with laughter.
Billy Joel took the stage to a huge ovation, and he returned the energy in kind with energetic performances of “Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)” and a show-stopping version of “New York State of Mind”. Elton John delivered a standout version of “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters” before his brother in keys, Billy Joel, returned to the stage to perform an excellent duet performance of “Your Song”. And, of course, the evening’s organizer, Paul McCartney, performed the show’s finale. He delivered a six-song set that included emotional takes on “Yesterday” and “Let It Be”, as well as the debut of his song “Freedom”, which had been written as a response to the attacks. He encouraged the crowd to clap along with the song’s beat, providing a true moment of togetherness between the audience and quite possibly the world’s most legendary living musician. He performed the new number while surrounded by giddy first responders form the NYPD and NYFD.
The benefit concert, which was aired live on MTV sister network VH1, raised $35 Million over the course of its broadcast. The concert would go on to be considered one of the most important nights in modern musical history, and in the long and winding history of New York City. For one night, the entire city and country was aligned in celebration, in mourning, and in togetherness. It set the tone for all of us to finally move forward, with the entire city buying into the “won’t get fooled again” mantra that The Who had provided. It was an unbelievable night indeed, and all who witnessed it at MSG or on television at home saw something special, unique, and perfect.
The Concert for New York City is available for viewing on YouTube for a ridiculously low price of $3.99, which you can access by clicking here. The run-time is just under five hours, and contains all of the night’s performances and short-films. It may be fifteen years later, but the raw emotion and feelings of unity feel just as strong today as they did all those years ago. It made a huge impression on me as a teenager, the impact of which I can still feel to this day. Music provided the ultimate moment of peace, release, togetherness, and relief. It was a remarkable, inspirational night that showcased the awesome power of artistic expression.
Peace and love to everyone affected by the attacks on September 11th, 2001. Thanks to all of the first responders for their heroics, and thanks to my beloved New York City for turning such a tragedy into so much positivity and togetherness.
Listen to Paul McCartney’s 9/11-inspired anthem “Freedom”, performed live at the Concert for New York City, courtesy of YouTube user nowhereman113.