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"Maybe that is the step forward on this record, to be able to have the freedom to have humour sitting alongside songs that are deadly earnest, and the two actually balance out each other."

-- Edge, on All That You Can't Leave Behind

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Like a Song: October

@U2, December 13, 2010
By: Lisa Zeitlinger


Like A Song

[Ed. note: This is the 51st in a series of personal essays by the @U2 staff about songs and/or albums that have had great meaning or impact in our lives.]

The members of U2 and I are about the same age, so I guess you could say we grew up together. I'll never forget the very first time I was introduced to the band. I saw them onstage at a small club in New York City called The Ritz where I soon realized that something about them caused an immediate attraction. Their music was different from what I had been hearing at the time. I couldn't put my finger on it, but it felt right. I recall that they played "I Will Follow" and from that point on, I did.

When I bought and listened to the vinyl copy of Boy with Peter Rowen on the cover, my attraction grew even stronger. As much as I was completely captivated with them, it was when I heard their second album, October, that I knew I had made a very meaningful connection with this band. Nowadays, October often comes in at the bottom of fan polls of favorite U2 albums. I don't understand this. Are the pure and raw sounds of four young men revealing their doubts and fears to all of us not enough to grab the attention of fans today? This was an extremely important album in the career of U2.

Though I confess this wasn't what I had expected from their second album, the lyrics are remarkable. I can hear the confusion in the shouts of "Gloria." I can feel the pain and emotion Bono was feeling from the loss of his mother, especially on the beautiful song "Tomorrow." When I hear songs like "Scarlet" and "Rejoice," I feel the peace I often do after prayer.

What I also heard were four young men struggling with their Christian faith in a world of rock 'n' roll that often worshipped other things. This was a pivotal time for the band. Could they stay in a rock band and be true to their faith? Could Adam Clayton stay without sharing the beliefs of his fellow band mates? There was so much going on in these songs. Many of the topics Bono sang about were things that I was questioning in my life as well. This album spoke directly to my soul.

As we know, the band weathered this crisis and more that were to follow. It is a bit frightening to consider that there may not have been a U2 after this album. Thank goodness for us, they did go on. 

This brings me to the beautiful title song, "October." Bono's heartfelt lyrics consist of just 28 words as our guitar hero, The Edge, unplugs to play a gorgeous piano solo with the notes and chords strongly suggestive of the season that is the subject of the song. It is powerful in its simplicity. As a girl, it haunted me. As a woman, it means the world to me. I am not sure what U2's interpretation of this song is as there were more lyrics that got lost, but this song has always been about the cycle of life and death and the passage of time to me. It is about how the human spirit somehow manages to endure even after the most unthinkable things. Bono's loss of his mother and the loss of my own child are personal examples. 

September 11, 2001 is currently written in history books as the day that the worst act of terrorism on American soil occurred. I was a resident of New York City, so this wasn't just news I heard from far away. I saw the events of this day with my own eyes. It was deeply personal. As I recall, it was the most beautiful day you could ever imagine in New York City. The blue sky glistened in the golden rays of the sun that reflected in the shiny windows of the skyscrapers. The city sparkled.

I took my eldest son, who was then 3, to his first day of preschool. After starting the day with a few tears, he came out of the building an hour later with a smile on his face. I knew he was going to be happy there. When we arrived home, my mother had called to tell me to turn on the television. She told me that two airplanes had hit the twin towers of the World Trade Center and that it did not look like it was an accident. At that point, panic set in. No one really knew what was going on. When the Pentagon was hit by another plane, we felt that we were under attack and feared the worst. I went with my father to an area where we had a clear view of the towers from across the river. Many of us had gathered in horror there, but the worst was yet to come.

Shortly thereafter, we watched in disbelief when the World Trade Center crumbled in a cloud of dust before our very eyes. Heavy, dark smoke completely covered the blue sky. Fade to black. In an instant, the mighty towers that took years to build crumbled and vanished from the New York skyline and our lives were changed forever. All local airspace was closed down and we were buried in an eerie silence. A few minutes later, we saw and heard the Army fighter planes over the skyline. 

And kingdoms rise
And kingdoms fall

It was these very lyrics that stuck in my mind for a very long time after that day. Believe it or not, it wasn't the actual event that affected me the most. Like everyone else, I was numb and in a state of shock. The events that had transpired had not yet sunk in.

When the dust began to settle, more facts were revealed about the terrorists and their motives. That was important news to the rest of the world, but that is not what I remember most about that time. It was the scenes in Lower Manhattan that brought things into focus for me and that haunted my thoughts. I was no longer numb. I began to feel again and what I felt was unbearable grief.

Photos of missing loved ones were posted everywhere. People wandered the streets showing anyone who would pass by the photos of the missing hoping that, just maybe, someone had information on them. They held on to the hope that a miracle would occur and they would be found. Legions of rescue workers dug through the mounds of destruction trying desperately to save anyone under it. No sounds of life were heard. Doctors and nurses sat in empty emergency rooms with no one to treat. More than 3,000 people including over 300 firefighters were gone. A few days later, we had a heavy rainstorm. I will never forget that. I felt like the tears of each one of us were being released all at once. Our hearts were heavy. 

And the trees are stripped bare
Of all they wear       

It was during this time that the song meant the most to me. The month of October was really when it all started to become a reality; the deaths and the complete collapse of not just famous buildings, but all of Lower Manhattan, once a neighborhood so full of life. The spirit of New York's people seemed to have died along with those autumn leaves, but somehow, they continued to clean up the wreckage as people from across the country and world united to help feed and comfort the rescue workers. Each week, some families got word of finding their loved one's remains while others waited with no news.

My cousin who worked in the towers saw the unthinkable -- people jumping to their deaths. As September turned into October, he began to experience post-traumatic stress disorder as so many others did. The green leaves of spring and summer had turned into a collage of gold, red and brown. The colors of autumn that are traditionally vibrant seemed instead to be lifeless in a world that suddenly was seen in black and white.

How do you get back to a normal life after this?

But you go on and on.

The winter months were especially harsh that year. Life slowly started to get back to what I called the "new normal." That meant living in a police state with armed soldiers stationed everywhere. The curious would come downtown to see "Ground Zero." It got to a point where it had to be covered up so the workers could continue their awful task without a constant audience. It was the final resting place for so many and their families felt they deserved some respect.

As winter gave way to spring, something started to happen.

The resilient people of  New York worked together and did what they had to. They got on with it. It was a rebirth; a new beginning. A glimmer of hope seemed to be coming back. The trees in downtown Manhattan began to put on their best spring outfits full of shades of white, pink and green. It happens every year, but this year it was significant.

The first-year anniversary memorial was extremely difficult, but we held each other's hands and got through it. As the years have passed, those we have lost are not forgotten. I believe we honor them by going on.

And kingdoms rise

Lower Manhattan is thriving today. Businesses have opened up and families have made their home in that neighborhood once again. A memorial to honor those lost will be located in the exact spot where the Twin Towers once stood. The new Freedom Tower is rising from the hole in the ground next to that very spot. Babies are being born. Children are laughing in the playgrounds. Others are graduating and going on to college. Yes, life has returned.

My cousin is even getting back to who he used to be after some years of therapy. We will never forget those we lost: husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters and children. We honor them by living our lives to the fullest.

And the trees are stripped bare
Of all they wear
What do I care?

And kingdoms rise
And kingdoms fall
But you go on and on .......  

As I write this essay, I have just come from the funeral of a beloved aunt of mine. The funeral procession rode past her home -- the house I grew up in -- for the last time. As I passed by, I had flashbacks of all the fun my cousins and I had on that front porch as children. Today, we were gathered together as adults with children of our own to say goodbye. Ironically, it is just a few blocks from a beautiful view of the Lower Manhattan skyline where I saw the World Trade Center every day. As I looked at the empty spot where it used to be, I looked at my cousin who was there on 9/11 and just took his hand. It was then I saw the cycle of life going around once again.

We certainly did find a way to go on.

This is dedicated in loving memory to all who perished on Sept. 11, 2001, and to those who helped in the rescue and cleanup efforts in the difficult months that followed. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for going on. You are not forgotten.

© @U2/Zeitlinger, 2010.

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