The evening of Sept. 11, 2001, was shaping up to be a busy but not unusually auspicious one for New York City’s vibrant music scene. Boy band O-Town was scheduled to play at the Hammerstein Ballroom, the Charles Lloyd Quartet would be at the Blue Note, and the mask-clad British alternative quartet Clinic had a date at Maxwell’s in Hoboken. The next night, a quintet led by a little-known 22-year-old singer-pianist named Norah Jones had a free show at Makor on the Upper West Side; the evening before, Michael Jackson had staged the second and final date of his 30th Anniversary Celebration concert at Madison Square Garden.
The dance clubs were thriving, too, despite an aggressive anti-nightlife offensive from Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s administration: The weekly entertainment magazine Time Out New York listed some 19 events that night (a Tuesday, no less), with names ranging from Funk Funk and Rok Slut to Bliss and Blister.
Later that week, fast-rising homegrown rock quintet the Strokes — set to release their hotly anticipated debut album, “Is This It,” at the end of the month — were billed to play a low-key midnight show at Irving Plaza on Saturday; a new British band called Coldplay was scheduled to be at the Gramercy-area venue two nights later. Masked rapper MF Doom was slated to perform at NYU; there was an underground hip-hop extravaganza scheduled at B.B. King’s in Times Square with Mixmaster Mike and human beatbox Rahzel; and the Tribeca jam-band mecca Wetlands was closing its doors for good that weekend and planned a big finale: three nights with the Grateful Dead co-founder Bob Weir’s band Ratdog. CBGB was open every night, the great Les Paul had a Monday-night residency at Iridium, and the CMJ Music Marathon, an annual convention that drew hundreds of hopeful young artists, was starting on Thursday. For the conference, East Village watering hole Brownies had lined up a one-stop shop of young local indie-rock bands, with the “Up There, Downtown, New New York Underground” showcase featuring Interpol, the Rapture, the Walkmen and others on the bill.
It’s unclear how many of that week’s hundreds of scheduled shows actually took place, but most if not all of them didn’t: The 9/11 attacks transformed the city and most of the world with it. At the time, much of the New York music scene was centered around downtown, the lower portion of Manhattan south of 14th Street, which was almost immediately off-limits to standard vehicular traffic — and, initially, everyone except emergency workers and people who could show proof of a home address. As it was, the World Trade Center site continued to burn for weeks after the 9/11 attacks, with much of lower Manhattan swathed in a toxic haze; even months later, you could smell it the instant you left the subway. In the place where you used to be able to see the twin towers from the sidewalk in front of the Bowery Ballroom, there was only smoke.
The past 18 months of pandemic have dimmed just how cataclysmic the 9/11 attacks were, especially in New York, where everyone was looking skyward and nervously scanning the streets in the hours and days after the attack while trying to find something useful to do.
“I went to give blood on 9/11, but they already had enough donors so I went to a volunteer center,” remembers Paul Banks, frontman of Interpol. “[Emergency workers] asked for our T-shirts for tourniquets and trained us how we would use them in rescuing people from the wreckage, but after a few hours they sent us home. I think I ended up going to a bar that night, and I actually remember thinking, ‘Is it dreadfully inappropriate to be in a bar?’ and realizing quickly that it was actually very healthy to be out among other people. I think that’s kind of what kept the city going.”
One aftereffect of 9/11, and possibly trauma in general, is that everyone can remember where they were when it happened, but many can’t remember much about the daze after. “We were all in a weird fog for a while,” says Michael Swier, founder of longtime NYC venues the Mercury Lounge and Bowery Ballroom.
The issue of Time Out New York dated Sept. 11 featured Jay-Z on its cover, standing in front of the famous Wall Street bull sculpture — which was covered in wreckage by the time the magazine arrived on the few newsstands it was able to reach that week. And when the staff was finally allowed back into the magazine’s downtown office on Friday the 14th, it was briefly evacuated for a bomb scare.
“Everything just stopped — all the clubs shut instantly,” says Mike Wolf, a DJ and former music editor at the magazine, which featured exhaustive listings of the city’s entertainment in an era that still relied heavily on print media. “Very few of them were answering the phone, let alone thought to say, ‘We’re closed.’ It was difficult to comprehend — New York is the busiest city most of us ever have lived in, and it was hard to imagine zero happening, even though there were [uniformed] army units on 14th Street.”
Legendary jazz saxophonist and New York City native Sonny Rollins, who had turned 71 four days before 9/11, was in his pied-a-terre on Greenwich Street just a few blocks north of the World Trade Center when “I heard a big pow — I didn’t know what it was, but of course I found out a few minutes later,” he recalls. “I was living on the top floor, I think it was the 39th, and I went downstairs and everyone was on the street watching it all, completely in shock. These things like snowflakes began raining down — it was some kind of toxic stuff coming from the buildings.
“When we were evacuated the next day, I had my horn with me,” he continues. “People were looking at me strangely, because with all the police and ambulances and trucks and the army, it was like a World War II movie — and here’s me, this guy in a beret with a saxophone.” (CNN broadcast footage of Rollins, horn in hand, and his neighbors waiting to be evacuated; ironically, the newscasters didn’t recognize him but some viewers did.)
Ultimately, much of downtown was cordoned off for just a few days and businesses reopened relatively quickly, albeit to a diminished number of patrons. That Friday night saw some early stirrings of the music scene’s return. “That was the first night people could move around a bit,” Wolf recalls. “So after work I went to Tonic [on the Lower East Side], where I had a Friday night DJ set, with a bunch of records. We just wanted to be open and play music and be with humans for whoever felt the same way. There weren’t a lot of people, but a couple dozen came in.”
Swier’s venues also reopened within days, and saw “robust business within a month or two,” he recalls. “I couldn’t believe how resilient and intrepid people were — it was like a patriotic New York thing, wanting to show your strength.”
One of those first shows was an ad-hoc concert of locals and several artists who were in town for gigs at the CMJ conference and found themselves stranded. The Bowery Ballroom cobbled together a bill with the Clean, Mac McCaughan of Superchunk, the Faint, Laura Cantrell and possibly others. McCaughan, a co-founder of the North Carolina-based Merge label, actually drove to New York for the show.
“We were at a wedding in North Carolina that some friends from New York came to, and after 9/11 the only way they could get home was to drive,” he recalls. “I wanted to try to salvage something from our Merge CMJ showcase, so I drove up with them on the 13th. That was crazy: We went past the Pentagon, which was still burning, and we had to go through checkpoints to get into New York.
“The show was obviously strange and emotional in a sort of ‘I don’t even know what I’m feeling’ kind of way,” he continues, “but everyone’s performances were amazing. After the show we ended up on somebody’s rooftop, and it looked so surreal, with all the lights and smoke from [the WTC site].”
Members of longtime New Zealand act the Clean had flown into New York on Sept. 10 — and awoke to the sound of a jet screaming over their Chinatown hotel. That plane crashed into the World Trade Center.
“I remember people walking toward our hotel all covered in dust [on 9/11], looking like zombies,” the Clean’s David Kilgour recalls, sadly. “That Bowery show was really special but really intense. It was a relief to do the shows psychologically: Music can be a healing thing. But I’ll admit I wanted to cancel our tour and run home. Our booking agent talked me out of it — ‘Now is the safest time in history to be on a plane!’ — so we kept on. There was a bomb scare at our show in Boston because the venue was called the Middle East.”
Rollins also had a show in Boston that week, on the 15th. “I told my wife, ‘I’m too messed up to make it,’ because along with everything else, I’d had to walk down 39 flights of stairs when we were evacuated,” he recalls. “But she said, ‘No, no — you must!’ And I’m glad she persuaded me, because there were other musicians from New York there, and the audience was very happy we did it. I think we sort of brought back a little sanity in the middle of all that madness.” Rollins and his band’s performance that night was issued in 2005 as the “Without a Song: The 9/11 Concert” album.
In Soho, the long-running world music and hip-hop club SOB’s on Varick Street was, like Boston’s Middle East, on xenophobia alert. Founder Larry Gold recalls, “It was about a month before we could reopen, and the first show was Basement Bhangra,” a night based around contemporary dance music from the India-Pakistan region — which neighbors Afghanistan. “Some people were worried about a backlash, but it was a huge success: The South Asian community really turned out and were not intimidated. After all, this is New York.”
But the venue, which celebrates its 40th anniversary in 2022, faced challenges in the following months due to the large number of international acts it hosts. “There was a pause in travel, and in the months after 9/11, work visas became an issue and were taking much longer than before,” Gold recalls. “It took about a year to get fully back on our feet. People were initially scared, and even when they did come back, they weren’t sure whether it was really OK to party and have a good time — the same as now, in some ways.”
Wetlands, located just below Canal Street, was in the midst of its final round of shows: Its Sept. 10 concert, which featured Warren Haynes from the Allman Brothers, Mike Gordon from Phish, jazz guitarist Stanley Jordan and DJ Logic, went on until nearly 5 a.m. on Sept. 11. Brooklyn Bowl founder Peter Shapiro, who owned Wetlands at the time, recalls, “We actually got notes from two people who had worked at the World Trade Center saying, ‘That show ran so late that I called in sick the next day — thank God.'” While Wetlands’ finale of Bob Weir shows was canceled, the venue opened one last time at the end of the month for a thematically appropriate closer, a solo performance from longtime Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter.
However, the venue most affected by 9/11 may have been the Knitting Factory on Leonard Street, 10 blocks north of the World Trade Center. Founder Michael Dorf lived nearby with his wife and toddler-age twins.
“For the first 36 hours, no one was allowed in or out of the area without presenting an ID with an address,” he recalls. “I had an open bar for firemen and first responders, but not many of them were in the mood to be out drinking. After four days, we just had to get out: The air quality was bad, and there were heavy vehicles going up and down the streets all day and night.”
The area did not reopen to general pedestrian and vehicular traffic until mid-October. Even when it did, “there was a huge number of giant trucks removing debris and leaving big clouds of dust behind them,” he recalls, “and a lot of the people were coming into the neighborhood to see the [WTC] site, not a show.”
Like SOB’s, the Knitting Factory received federal relief funding. When it officially reopened, “it was almost a year before we were drawing crowds at the level we had before,” Dorf says. “We put on a lot of jazz acts, and those audiences are very tourist-driven, and obviously tourism had flatlined.”
But many of the city’s more prominent musicians did not see their schedules drastically affected. Rollins doesn’t recall having any concerts called off, and Interpol’s Banks says, “We probably had a couple of shows cancel, but there wasn’t any huge delay, and I don’t think there was any added sentiment of being worried about playing gigs after 9/11.” However, the venue closures obviously affected working musicians with regular gigs in the city. The long-running Arts for Art jazz nonprofit responded by holding concerts in an East Village building that for years had been tied up in a legal dispute.
“We cleaned out an old community center called CUANDO on Second Avenue and put on daily concerts,” recalls AFA’s Patricia Nicholson Parker. “On the night of 9/11, we gathered in the space and played music in the dark — there was no electricity. Later, we got a generator and also borrowed electricity from a neighboring apartment. We invited [avant-jazz musician] John Zorn and [venues] Roulette and Dixon Place to curate events there as well — we held concerts until the city locked up the building in January.”
The Strokes faced a different kind of challenge. The red-hot band, so definitively NYC that it was practically a youthful amalgamation of great Gotham groups that came before, had its debut album scheduled for U.S. release exactly two weeks after terrorists devastated the band members’ hometown. The initial version, which had already been issued overseas, included a song called “New York City Cops” that bore the lyric, “They ain’t too smart” — a problematic sentiment considering the enormous number of police, emergency workers and first responders who died and sacrificed during those weeks. In 2001, CDs were still by far the most common and important format for music, and the band’s label had already manufactured many thousands of them.
Canvasback Music founder Steve Ralbovsky, the group’s A&R executive at RCA Records at the time, recalls, “A young guy who worked at the distributor, a fan of the band, wrote an email to senior management saying that in light of everything and all the work the police are doing, it just seems like a bad move to put out a record with a song saying that. There was some debate about supporting artistic point of view, because as I understand it, the song isn’t a general condemnation of the NYPD; it’s more anecdotal, from a New York Post story that [Strokes singer-songwriter Julian Casablancas] read about cops fumbling an investigation and the culprit getting away. Anyway, ultimately the band agreed to take the song off and replace it with a different one and the CD’s release was delayed two weeks, although the vinyl had actually been released on 9/11.”
That album, powered by a feverish media buzz and extensive touring, made the Strokes one of the hottest bands in the world within a year, and the NYC rock scene boomed. Nervous or not, music executives descended on the city’s reopened clubs. Over the next couple of years, sudden local luminaries like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Interpol, LCD Soundsystem, TV on the Radio, the National, Liars and the Rapture released albums on major labels or big indies. Several became globally successful and remained relevant and/or commercially successful for the better part of a decade. Some are still at it, including the Strokes, who ramble on in their deadpan cool fashion, reuniting every few years for a new album and big festival dates. They won their first Grammy Award earlier this year. (The group declined to be interviewed for this story.)
In many ways, the Strokes’ first headlining show at a major New York venue — Halloween night 2001 at the 2,200-person-capacity Hammerstein Ballroom — ushered in the scene’s return. (The photograph at the top of this article captures the band rehearsing at the venue for that show.) It took place during a wild World Series that the New York Yankees ultimately lost in the final moments of Game 7, but galvanized the shell-shocked city.
“That Hammerstein Ballroom show was a wonderful, magical night,” Ralbovsky recalls. “With everything that was going on, in the middle of that dramatic World Series — the Yankees won Game 4 in extra innings, right after midnight — you had New York’s greatest band playing on Halloween night.”
The event motivated many artists in more grimly life-changing ways as well. “After 9/11 we basically decided there’s no reason for being here besides to make the things we like to make,” TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe said in “Meet Me in the Bathroom,” Lizzy Goodman’s sprawling oral history of the scene. “You were convinced that any second, at the door, there’s going to be some bad guys. So we just said, ‘Since the world might end, we should just stay inside and work.’”
It led Dorf to open a different kind of music venue. “9/11 affected me deeply, and that entire year was very, very difficult,” he says. “At the end of 2002, I got a call from a development company that had gotten federal funding and was inviting people to make proposals, and I proposed a ‘Downtown Carnegie Hall’ with a great wine list. That was the beginning of City Winery, and I left the Knitting Factory.” Since it opened in Tribeca in 2008, City Winery has launched locations across eight cities and is gearing up to announce four more.
Likewise, SOB’s, the Mercury Lounge, Bowery Ballroom, Iridium, the Blue Note, Irving Plaza and the Brooklyn incarnation of the Knitting Factory have continued to nurture the city’s music scene for years — and thus far have survived our most recent cataclysmic event — although much of its vitality migrated across the East River long ago.
And while that music scene had been tepid for several years before 9/11, the people and elements who shaped what came next were indisputably already in place and moving fast. But equally indisputably, “you weren’t hearing that much about New York bands before then,” says SiriusXM on-air personality Jenny Eliscu, who covered the scene extensively while at Rolling Stone.
“The sympathy and empathy for New York at the time,” she adds, “definitely accelerated global attention.”