My cell phone vibrates on the nightstand next to me in our crappy motel room. You know the type: two stories, peeling paint, questionable stains in the bathroom, across the street from a seedy strip club.
Who the hell is calling me? Don’t they know I’m on tour and there’s no chance I’m answering at 7:30 am?
I miss the call. Shortly after, the voicemail comes in. I really want to keep sleeping, but curiosity gets the best of me and I pull my phone from its charger. The voicemail is from our friend Jason back in Santa Barbara. His voice is serious, “Hey man. Just turn on the TV.” And then he hung up.
What the? That’s weird. What the hell is going on?
Wipe the sleep from my eyes.
Reach for the remote.
Turn on the TV.
And then I see it.
“Holy shit,” I say out loud.
On September 11, 2001, I woke up in that motel room across the river from Portland as a twenty-three-year-old on the cusp of realizing my dreams. Dreams that my bandmates and I had been working up to for the better part of a year.
Two nights before that, on September 9th, we were watching the video for our first single Beat The World on MTV2. We were in a different crappy motel room, experiencing a much different “holy shit” moment.
We signed our major label record deal with Dreamworks on 11/22/00. I’ll never forget that date. Our future was paved out in front of us, and it felt like all we had to do was drive down the road.
The milestones along the path seemed so inevitable: record an album in a big fancy studio, film an expensive music video at Universal Studios, hit the road on tour including Ozzfest, release our music into the world, and then the accolades and album sales would follow.
All was going according to plan. Until it wasn’t.
Mark, one of the guitarists from my band Pressure 4-5 startles awake in the other bed. “What the fuck, man?” he says as he squints in my direction. He looks exactly like you’d think this early in the morning after our late show and too many drinks last night.
The scene on the TV looks like some sort of apocalyptic movie at first.
It’s one of the towers of the World Trade Center falling. But I don’t see the other tower next to it and I realize that the other one must’ve fallen too.
Mark sits up in his bed and now we’re both fixated on the news. We learn about the two hijacked planes that crashed into the towers. Then the south tower collapsed thirty minutes ago, and now the north tower has collapsed too. We learn about the flight that crashed into the side of the Pentagon and another that crashed in a field in Pennsylvania, but they’re not sure where that one was headed yet.
I’m not sure how to process it. It’s all so much. It feels surreal because I’m just watching it on this old TV in this crappy motel room, thousands of miles removed from the horror. Safe. At least I think I’m safe.
Like most Americans, I remember 9/11 vividly. It was the type of day—like Pearl Harbor or the Kennedy assassination or the moon landing—where you knew people would ask you where you were for the rest of your life.
A few hours after waking up that morning, I remember hastily packing my duffel bag—keeping one eye on the news as our check-out time fast approached. The sun smacked me in my sleep-deprived face as I opened the motel room door.
I drove us north on highway 101 in our silver fifteen-passenger Ford Econoline van toward our next gig that night in Seattle. The van was typically filled with boisterous energy. But that day, it was filled only with the constant buzz of the news on the radio, until our guitarist, Joe said, “Can we turn this off? I’m getting burned out on it.”
It was true, I could only take so much of the news back then too. It was already clear at that point that the events of the day were some of the most impactful and tragic to happen in our lives. Maybe the most impactful and tragic that would happen in our entire lives. I was unsure how to feel about the people who were going through the thick of it in New York City. I felt helpless. Yet in my youth, as I drove, I couldn’t help but think about what kind of effect the events would have on me and my band.
Our album doesn’t come out for three weeks. We’ll be okay, right? This will all be old news by then, right? The major label marketing machine hasn’t even really started yet anyway. Our single just barely hit radio too. We’ll be okay. Plus, it only really affected New York City, right? We’ll be okay. We’ll be okay.
About halfway to Seattle, I remember stopping at a gas station in Chehalis. I had to use the bathroom and I wanted to grab a drink and a snack with my per diem money.
Behind the counter, the clerk was facing away from me, staring at a small TV tuned to the news.
“Crazy day, huh?” I said.
“Yeah, man,” he replied without looking in my direction.
“So, uh, is there a key to the bathroom?”
“Umm, yeah, it’s right there.” Still not looking at me, he pointed to what looked like a huge spoon used for stirring pasta sauce. It had a hole punched on the end of the handle with a key ring attached to it. I wondered if the spoon was ever used for actual spoon things.
The exchange with the clerk felt off. It was my first encounter with someone else outside of my bandmates that day. He was glued to the TV, like most of us were that day. He was physically at a gas station in Chehalis but he wasn’t present—he was mentally in New York and preoccupied with the images on the screen.
Seattle always feels farther away than it should when you’re coming from the south. When you pass Sea-Tac airport it feels like you’ve made it to Seattle, but it’s still about twenty minutes south of downtown with no traffic, and it seems like there’s always traffic. That day was different, though—unprecedented, historic.
Downtown was a complete ghost town, arrestingly desolate, like a scene from a dystopian movie after the human race is all but annihilated. We barely saw a soul walking or driving. Normal life, it seemed, was at a standstill.
Shortly after we arrived at our much nicer hotel, our tour manager called the club and learned that our show was canceled. No surprise there, really. We headed up the elevator to our rooms and turned on the news to hear the latest.
I remember watching the images and videos coming out of New York. People jumping to their deaths from windows at unimaginable heights. The smoldering metal of the collapsed towers. The first responders sifting through the rubble for survivors. It was unbelievable and mesmerizing, and it still didn’t feel real.
We heard about the calls people made to loved ones on United Flight 93 before crashing into a field, saving who knows how many lives. We heard about the terrorists that took over the planes in a coordinated act of terrorism.
As a kid who grew up with a dad who was a Vietnam war hero and a proud American, I felt the cracks in my idealistic view of America widening that day. For most of my life, my country had felt like an impenetrable global superpower. The Gulf War and Operation Desert Storm occurred when I was only fourteen. It gave me the misguided perception that the U.S. military was capable of quickly and decidedly winning a war if there was sufficient political will. Why would anyone want to mess with us?
Trust me, the irony of living with a Vietnam veteran and not realizing our country was fallible is not lost on me now.
But in 2001, I was too wrapped up in my own world to think too deeply about it.
After an hour or so in our rooms, we reconvened in the lobby and walked down the street to the only restaurant we could find that was open—besides fast food.
From our white-linen table with more forks and spoons than I knew what to do with, I could see the day’s light fading away through the huge floor-to-ceiling windows. The place was way too nice for us. But we didn’t care. And the restaurant staff didn’t seem to care either.
Interactions with strangers had been stilted and distant-feeling all day. Everyone seemed distracted by the news from the east coast. There was a vast geographical distance from the epicenter of the events that morning, yet it was clear every American’s life had been impacted forever. Still, hardly anybody talked about it. Instead, we shared a knowing nod, and then we carried on as if the most important thing was figuring out what to drink before ordering our food.
It was probably the quietest dinner we ever had together. But I’m sure we were all having similar thoughts:
What does this mean for our country? What does this mean for our band? What does this mean for our budding careers as musicians? This is all so insane and surreal.
“Should we see what’s going on in New York?” Mark asks when we get back to our hotel room.
“Nah, I can’t watch anymore right now,” I say.
I’m not watching the news, yet my mind is reeling thinking about all the victims of the attack. Oh, fuck, their families too. I didn’t even think about that at first. I was so focused on the people who were there at Ground Zero—that’s what the news is calling it now.
Could you imagine it? Getting up in the morning, having breakfast with your family, kissing your partner goodbye as they head into Manhattan for work. And then the confusion as you learn about what happened and frantically try to get a hold of them. What floor do they work on again? Were they able to get out in time before it collapsed? And that’s probably the best-case scenario. What if your partner left after you had an argument? What if your last words to them were about something dumb like, “I wish you’d remember to take the damn trash out for once.”
It all makes me feel sick to my stomach.
Why did the terrorists do it? What was the point? The fucking bastards.
I hope we’ll be okay. Should we push the album release back? I should call our managers tomorrow and ask them. I hope we’ll be okay. This fucking sucks. Ugh. I need to turn my brain off and get some sleep.
We’ll be okay. We’ll be okay.
Will we be okay?
Thank you to Allie Crawford, Steven Ovadia, and Frederik Gieschen from Foster, and Shivani Shah and Yashmi Adani from Wayfinder for their generous help with this piece.
A few times per year, I’ll search my old band name on YouTube to see if something new has been uploaded. It’s amazing to me that new videos are still added after all these years.
I did a search while working on this piece and it did not disappoint. This kid does a spot-on drum cover for our song Melt Me Down:
So fucking cool!
Thanks for spending time with my words. It means a lot to me.
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Well that's interesting... I had that video of yours listed on my music video database! Didn't know you were in that band. Very cool.
9/11 affected pretty much the entire planet. In France, it also sent shock waves throughout the nation.
I remember very well that day. I was headed to buy a CD that had just been released when I heard the news. I was in the middle of editing a novel and it just froze me. I couldn't write or edit for like a week.