How I Wrote Songs Without a Guitar After 9/11
Exclusive song downloads, pages from Miller's notebook, and the story of how he composed music after leaving his guitar behind
I turned 31 on September 6, 2001. At the time, my girlfriend, Erica, and I shared a studio apartment in New York City, three blocks south of the World Trade Center. We spent my birthday on the West Coast, a beautiful day in Los Angeles. A couple of days later, I went to KFK Jewelers on West Third. The jewelers agreed to custom-design an engagement ring and mail it to me in NYC. Erica and I were headed there the next day.
Which was September 10, 2001. Sometime on the following day, I started keeping a journal.
88 Greenwich Street, NY, NY
Went to bed at three last night after writing a song, “Lovebird,” and making love with Erica. About 9 a.m., heard two loud explosions. Didn’t fully awaken us. Phones started ringing. Mom on my cell (I missed it) and a college friend of Erica’s on the landline. It’s all very confused at first. It’s not unusual to hear construction in the morning, and I think I muttered a sleepy complaint about the loud noise.
Me to Erica: Babe, I think a plane just crashed into the World Trade. I’m going to go up to the terrace and check it out.
She says: You’re getting up? Can’t I keep sleeping?
Me: I think this is a big deal.
Terrace is locked. A girl getting on the elevator says we can go stand in the stairwell. There’s an opening with a view. A half-dozen people already there. Australian couple. He has a video camera. Good view. Girl in red-checked shirt on cell with her mom: I’m fine, I’m looking at it right now.
Video: Rhett Miller performs a song he was in the midst of writing when the World Trade Center fell.
Flames shoot out either side of both towers. Flames shoot out of the building that houses the Amish Market, where we grocery shop. Bodies drop from a hundred floors up. One lands on the median, right in our line of sight. Firefighters and paramedics surround it, roll it on a stretcher, and carry it off.
I feel the beginning of something that’s hard to put into words. A mechanism that I developed during my adolescence, surviving in a broken home. I am distancing myself. I know it’s real. And I know it’s bad. But I’m not going to think, right now, about what it means.
I call my mom. She suggests we leave town immediately. I tell her she’s overreacting. For some stupid reason, I am thinking about our favorite local deli, Café World. How all the hubbub is going to make them sell out of sandwiches.
We go back to the apartment and turn on the TV. I’m on autopilot. I make a bowl of cereal and set it down on the table. A brown cloud full of debris engulfs our building. Our 14th-floor windows shake. The floor shakes. The brown cloud moves from the outside of the window in. The TV tells us that the south tower has collapsed. Our windows face south, away from the WT towers. My heart freezes. My asshole tightens. Erica starts screaming: We’ve got to get out of here.
We run to the door. The middle-aged couple across the hall is standing in their doorway.
E’s screaming at the woman: What do we do?
The woman’s screaming: I don’t know.
I check for my wallet and my keys before I realize that the only thing that matters is getting the hell out of there. We run out of the apartment. Erica wears little khaki shorts and a black Cancún T-shirt. I wear jeans and a white T. We are both wearing Birkenstocks. Bad running shoes. We make it down to the lobby, which is sardine-packed. Bloody, soot-covered people stream in. We go up to the second floor, where the smoke and soot are a little less thick.
I ask the assembled crowd: What’s the downside to going back up to our apartment? A guy sitting coolly with his back to the wall says: I wouldn’t want to be trapped up there if the building catches on fire. He’s got a point. A British guy says: Let’s go down to the gym in the basement. He takes off. Comes back a minute later and says there’s one stairway available to us and that it empties out onto the street 10 feet from an entrance to the basement. We gather our resolve and take off. The door opens out onto Rector. Normally, we’d be able to see the WTC from here. The air is thick and brown, rubbish and wreckage are all we see. It’s tricky terrain to navigate. Twisted metal, broken glass, scraps of burnt paper. We round the corner, pause at the basement door, look at each other and make a silent decision: Let’s just get the fuck out of here.
There’s no one else on the street.
I try twice to look back at the tower that still stands, but the cloud is too thick. We run. In our stupid Birks. Down to where the street dead-ends. South. Other people running. Now more in earnest. I wonder why. As I pass a cop (he’s wearing a face mask), he yells: The second tower just collapsed, get the hell out of here!
It occurs to me that if I had opened the outside door at the bottom of the stairwell two minutes later, we probably wouldn’t have survived.
We keep running until we get to the water. Smoking fragments of glass and metal rain down on our heads. E and I hold hands while we run. I pull her across the street and we use the FDR as cover, running beneath it so debris doesn’t land in our hair. I sneak two looks back. The smoke, the faces, the bloody people running and screaming.