Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin was playing on the radio as I drove in the car earlier this morning. It’s a piece of music that I rarely listen to but have always loved. A piece of music that provokes the imagination, attaches itself to memories.
Now, for a filmic fool such as I, it immediately brings to my mind Woody Allen’s Manhattan – both his classic movie and indeed the general idea of Manhattan that exists throughout all of his New York based films (the older, funnier ones or otherwise). There’s good for reason for this, of course, namely because it is the music that works as a backing track in Allen’s masterful love letter to the city, in particular the iconic opening scene – the black and white imagery of the skyline, the city, the streets; the music accompanying Allen’s voiceover of the writer, struggling comically to find the right words with which to open his New York themed story.
But Rhapsody’s influence on the mind certainly doesn’t begin and end with Woody Allen. The score itself is a soundtrack to New York – a composition that pays homage to the era and city in which it was born. Written and first performed in New York in 1924 Rhapsody In Blue is the anthem of New York’s golden age. This is the Manhattan of Wharton, of Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby; of high society and seedy speakeasies. From its warbling woodwind opening, the distinctive clarinet solo and brass accompaniment, Gershwin blends classic orchestral composition with a rattling jazz sound that’s emblematic of the ‘Jazz Era Roaring Twenties,’ of the grandiose and the opulence that heralded pre-Wall St Crash Manhattan and the rise of the great melting pot metropolis as a global city.
It’s a grand, sweeping score of rousing orchestral highs and gentle, seductive piano lows, the slow pace of a cold and hung-over morning, the sudden bursting to life of a bustling avenue. Music that rises and falls like the skyline, again to reflect this burgeoning age of the towering skyscrapers. Over more than fifteen minutes the score ebbs and flows, meanders and accelerates, every note, every change of pace or instrument reflecting the growing diversities of the city, the changing moods and varying sounds – from the rattle of the subway, the tumult of Times Square or the tiptoe through the quiet streets at night, moving between the shadows and rising steam of the manholes.
It’s all rather explicitly romanticised to be fair – reflective of a New York that exists through the softening lens of the film camera or, indeed a poetic imagination.
This is exactly why it retains such significance for me. I was an American Studies student in Liverpool in the 90s and Rhapsody brings me back to the lecture halls of those days – particularly the early days of the course, prior to me actually having the opportunity to visit New York, experience it with my own eyes, ears and, indeed nose. Before heading stateside myself I grew immersed in the history and literature of post-Civil War America – noting, as is true of Pre-Great War London, how the socio-politics of an age rub, often awkwardly, with the artistic output of the time and place.
I was growing interested in the changing times but more so of the writing of the era – of Wharton, Hemingway, Pound, Fitzgerald et al. The Lost Generation, decamped to Paris as their fictionalised accounts of ‘back home’ took on a form of reality. Listening to the opening solo of Gershwin’s masterpiece sends me, not only to this idealised, fantasy New York, but to a cold classroom at a Liverpool campus on a wet Tuesday morning sometime towards the end of 1993.
A scene, I suspect, that’s someway removed from the ‘musical kaleidoscope of America’ that Gershwin himself envisioned.
An ordinary Tuesday, my mind elsewhere.
Back in work after a long weekend away. Our first anniversary, we’d gone to Cheltenham, got in an argument with some pompous prick who was trying to let the whole restaurant know how important he was, spoiling the atmos, ruining the vibe, belittling waiter. I said something to him, can’t remember what, caused a scene, made his wife angry, got a free bottle of champagne from the waiter, felt kind of good.
Jo smiled, thought it was cool, a bit rock’n’roll from her boring husband of a year. We drank the free champagne, chased it with whiskey, went back to the room.
We went to Blenheim Palace, learned about Churchill, about old imperial glories, walked through the rose garden, held hands and thought of the future.
We drove home, the M4 to Cardiff. Jo felt ill, her stomach turned, really ill – we stopped twice. Got home, she went to bed, she felt worse. A doctor’s visit, an admission to hospital – a sudden, unexpected worry. Monday night they let her home, a few day’s rest she’d be fine.
An ordinary Tuesday, my mind elsewhere.
Jo at home I went to work, stayed local. A meeting in Newport, a coffee, a meeting with Initial, the women cleaning managers – a regular monthly meet. Talk of cleaning, of faulty floor polish, of dilution control. I wasn’t really there, my mind drifting to Jo, to Cheltenham, to familiar fantasies away from this life, this job. I smiled on the outside, ever the actor, promised to follow up on the action plans, couldn’t wait to leave.
I wanted a sandwich.
I sat in the car, ten to two – my mind elsewhere, not paying attention to Simon Mayo. Something about a plane crash, sounded serious, didn’t quite register. I pulled out onto Newport Road. He was talking about New York, my interest piqued. New York did that – a strange affinity with the place.
I contemplated McDonalds – maybe not.
Mayo continued talking – I liked Mayo, he kept me company on lonely afternoons in the car – book reviews, film reviews, interviews. I used to listen to him years before, on the way to school – he was at Radio 1 then, having fun with listeners confessions, bigging up John Kettley (he’s a weatherman). All pretty trite, pretty trivial, just a bit of fun. Now he was talking about a plane crash – cutting across Pauline McColl’s business news.
The World Trade Centre was on fire, he told me.
Like a scene from the Towering Inferno, he told me.
Sounded bad, I thought.
I had an affinity with New York. Most people who’ve spent some time there do.I’d been to New York more than once. Been to the World Trade Centre. I liked them, simple giant blocks, towering over all others, squared up against the pointy, art deco behemoths of Empire State and Chrysler.
Fire billowing out of floors near the top, he said.
That sounded bad. The top was a long way up.
I liked Simon Mayo – liked that he’d made the leap from trivial DJ; liked that tone, the one that said life throws up issues but really, is it all that serious at the end of the day. I drove along Newport Road, opted against McDonalds, a wise choice. My phone rang, my boss. I ignored it. How could a plane crash into there? What a tragic, silly accident.
A year ago today I’d been in Mauritius, on a honeymoon that kept me away from a fuel strike that brought Britain to a close. That was good; good to be away, oblivious. I drove down by Roath Park; two o’clock – time for the news. A plane had crashed into the World Trade Centre in New York. Mayo cut in – reports now say that 2 planes have crashed into the World Trade Centre.
This was not an ordinary Tuesday, my mind tuned in.
I parked the car – listened to the reports. It was a warm but slightly overcast day in Cardiff. Roath Park was busy, dog walkers and pensioners, mums and toddlers. Two planes? What was that all about? Both towers were on fire, both hit by planes. How could that be, I thought, my mind already aware of the answer. I listened to the reports – vivid pictures in my head. I’d been there, often, back in the nineties. I knew that part of the world. It was familiar, iconic, romantic.
History unfolds unknowingly – it doesn’t realise it’s history.
I remained, seated in my car listening. Descriptions that tumbled from the speakers with dramatic impact, reports with hollers and sirens as its soundtrack, grave tomes from BBC stalwarts called up, dragged on air, nobody knowing the scale or scenario. I thought of New York, my times there. Thanksgiving ’94, a freezing sunny afternoon on the Empire State Building, looking south at the towers, a bitter wind stinging my face as I smiled into a camera lens. A bar on Bleaker Street, The Smiths playing as we sipped Budweisers and Guinness. The Staten Island Ferry, huddled on deck snapping the skyline and the statue of Liberty. Fire now billowing from windows, tiny shapes of panicked workers waving white flags, as stationary drifted on the warm air of a late summer morning – a terrible ticker tape parody.
Work didn’t matter – history unfolding.
I needed to be home. This was the day we’d talk about. The ‘where were you when day’ that every generation gets. Surreal doesn’t quite describe it. Arriving home, seeing the pictures across the news channels, making a cup of tea, surfing the Sky control for variations of coverage. Seeing the towers ablaze, towers I’d visited, a location I related to in some odd way. People, tiny black figures in tiny glinting windows, arms shaking as though waving hello to the world, in reality desperate pleas for an impossible escape. Sitting at home, morbid, compulsive spectator. I watched, listened – different theories, different culprits. Inaccurate data, chaotic reports.
The news that another plane hit the Pentagon – dramatic undertones.
Comparisons to Pearl Harbour. Other planes hijacked – fallen off the radar. Most reports false. Most, but not all. United 93 lost. Went down. Shot down? More tragedy.A rumble and a collapsing tower. No warning – no listing left or right. Just a sudden, rushing concertina. Floor upon floor collapsing on each other in a rushing, churning, rapid descent – lost in grey cloud that spewed up and then out, gathering and enveloping the city. The second tower followed later.
[row][column size=”1/3″]I watched all day and then all night – unable to tear myself from the television. This giant spectacle of terror, captured on a thousand cameras from a multitude of angles. The terrible repercussions this would surely bring. Seeing Bush, hearing rhetoric; frightening vows of blind vengeance. An event, known forevermore as a date of infamy.
I still listen to Simon Mayo – he’s returned to his DJ roots these days. Radio 2’s easy to listen to drivetime show and his Wittertainment film fun with Mark Kermode. It’s fun, trivial stuff that never fails to bring a smile. The decade that proceeded 11/09/01 was, in many ways shaped by the events of that day in New York, Washington and a non-descript field in Pennsylvania.
But then again, as I head home from work with a Mayo no-request Friday on the stereo, ignoring the economy, the riots, the uprisings and the Libyans, I think maybe, perhaps, nothing has changed at all.