Flags and warships – that’s what I remember most clearly. Flags flapping from every street corner and planted in every trimmed lawn, and slate-grey warships stacked in a holding pattern in the offing, that smudged state where the Pacific meets the skyline.
They were guarding the golden shorelines of California as I glided down the Interstate 5, a warm road that passes through the heart of inner-city Los Angeles before touching the coast somewhere south of those Orange County beach towns – Huntington, Newport, Laguna – that I knew only through their association with the hardcore punk bands I had grown up on.
It was 12 September 2001 and I was heading towards Encinitas, just north of San Diego, to seek refuge at the coastal home of the manager of Blink-182, and the tone on every media broadcast and in every petrol station was already turning from shocked to vengeful. As the US Navy mobilised its 50,000 military personnel into action from its nearby base, a third world war was not beyond the realm of responsibility. Imminent violent retribution was inevitable, and the soundtrack to the beginning of the end of the American empire was lightweight pop-punk.
This was never the plan. I should have been reclining in West Hollywood after a frothy pool-side chat with the three self-styled douchebags of Blink-182 as part of a week-long jaunt following the band and their younger support acts New Found Glory and Sum 41, writing two cover stories for a music magazine. Instead, I was incessantly smoking duty-free Camel Lights on the freeway in an attempt to stave off the panic that had been rising over the previous 24 hours.
But then again, perhaps Blink-182 were perfect. Perhaps their juvenile music represented everything that the country’s enemies perceived as wrong with Western imperialism. As the sun flickered silver on the ocean, I kept thinking about a quote I’d underlined in my copy of the 1959 novel The Slide Area by English writer Gavin Lambert: “In America, illusion and reality are still very often the same thing. The dream is the achievement, the achievement is the dream.” And now the US was waking to a nightmare.
Forty-eight hours before al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked four planes and crashed them into the towers of the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, killing nearly 3,000 people and injuring thousands more, I’d flown in to see Blink-182 play a show to 20,000 teenagers at the Shoreline Amphitheatre in San Francisco, then described as the happiest city to work in the US.
It was also one of the strangest gigs I’d been to, which I put down to a combination of severe jet lag, Google being right next door, and the crowd of MTV-reared spawn of dot-com workers that was the whitest and wealthiest I had witnessed. “All of them here to see a stupid punk band,” the band’s drummer Travis Barker had remarked in the lounge of his tour bus.
Blink-182 were the world’s biggest band that summer. Their fourth album Take Off Your Pants and Jacket – a title with a clear disregard for critical credibility or lasting creative value – had recently debuted at number one on the US Billboard 200 and sold 14 million copies. Any edge the trio of 20-somethings may have possessed during their 1990s punk dive beginnings had long been polished away to pop perfection. They were taking on the Backstreet Boys and Britney now – and winning.
Which is why the video for the album’s lead track “The Rock Show” had seen Blink-182 blow their $500,000 budget on trashing cars and televisions, throwing notes out of windows and giving a homeless black man a pimp-style makeover. Even back then it was a vulgar display of wasteful excess that spoke to something insidious and dead at the centre of America.
“People will say, ‘The Beatles? Yeah they were rad but Blink, oh my God, those guys spoke to a generation and really lead the youth,’” singer/guitarist Tom DeLonge told me backstage, not entirely seriously, yet perhaps more presciently than he realised.
“Or maybe we’ll be remembered as the band who sung about fucking dogs,” singer/bassist Mark Hoppus added.
The following day I joined the band on a video shoot for their new single about the divorce of DeLonge’s parents. The director had shot Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, and was filming the band playing in a suburban house as it was demolished around them. It was, they explained, meant to represent the crumbling of a family. Concrete columns collapsed, dust billowed and the next morning in New York, at 8.46am, the video took on a whole meaning. It was never broadcast, but the metaphors were coming at me thick and fast.
[See also: How the war on terror changed America]
Ground Zero was 3,000 miles away, yet the consensus in LA suggested that if al-Qaeda were going to strike again, then Hollywood would be next. This strange sprawling city built on artifice was placed on red alert and, having been told all flights out might be cancelled for six weeks, the streets appeared eerily empty as I, like thousands of others, fled.
9/11 – even the instant numerical branding of the tragedy seemed utterly corporate – was the JFK moment for those born post-1963. We all have our memories. Twenty years on, mine create a pungent collage of competing recollections: steaks sizzling on an Encinitas barbecue; Donald Rumsfeld’s clenched jaw and murderous eye; the late afternoon Californian light; the amped-up rhetoric that soured all media impartiality; the nasal harmonies of overgrown men sporting long shorts; another quote, from DH Lawrence this time, on California: “A queer place – in a way, it has turned its back on the world, and looks into the void Pacific”; the scent of jasmine and citrus; another stubbed-out Camel cigarette; newlyweds Chris Evans and Billie Piper sipping cocktails at the hotel; a solitary Sikh man being swamped by armed FBI at the airport; George Bush’s childlike smirk; rising panic; the flags and the warships.
Blink-182 finished their run of live dates, though after briefly holing up at their manager’s beachside house where I felt even more benumbed and anxious than usual in LA, I returned to West Hollywood to attempt to write up my features. Events took an even odder turn when I found myself passing many a woefully (for me) sober hour in the hotel bar alongside stranded blues rockers the Black Crowes, until Evans and Piper gallantly pulled a few strings to get several of us stranded Brits on to flights back home. In those surreal first days of destruction and death and terror and pop music, I sensed that the American dream, if it even existed, was over in ways we could not yet comprehend. The 21st century had begun.
“Male Tears” by Benjamin Myers is out now on Bloomsbury.