The story behind “When”, written 9-10-2001 by Alex Call and Jon Keller
(Please excuse the third person treatment of this piece. I have written it to be edited for a shorter story for the press)
Alex Call was visiting Los Angeles on a songwriting trip from Nashville the first part of September, 2001. He had rented a convertible and was planning on taking a drive up the California coast with his girlfriend the following week. His last songwriting appointment of the trip was with Los Angeles writer Jon Keller. Both were accomplished songwriters who hoped to create something that would make them some money while at the same time be great musically.
They sat down and talked and played guitars and keyboards in Jon’s studio space. Finding a song isn’t always the easiest thing; inspiration has to strike. Alex was looking to fall into something unique musically, to find some new melodies and chord progressions. Songwriters like to talk as a method of exploring. Often an idea will come from something that that has arisen from conversation: a turn of phrase, an idea. Jon and Alex had met at songwriter’s retreat but weren’t old friends.
Alex had a title idea, “When”. The lyrics and music soon came. The song wasn’t the kind of thing they were planning on. It was a ballad, not an up-tempo dance hit. But it was strong musically and lyrically. They wrote and finished the song within a few hours.
The song done, the two songwriters retired to the pool area of the Sportsmen’s Lodge in North Hollywood and had a beer. They fell into a lefty political discussion about George W. Bush and FOX News, and about the blonde, right-wing news spokeswomen who were becoming so popular. They singled out Barbara Olson as an especially odious example.
After a spirited discussion and another beer or two they sat back and said to each other, “why in the world did we write that sad song, anyway?”
“When” was about someone going out the door in the morning and never returning. It was about unending sadness. It asked the question ‘when will I be free of my life- changing sorrow for you’. One line seemed to jump out in the chorus:
“When…all the tears I cry…finally heal the sky
my heart will live again…when”
Not the “positive, let’s dance” type of fare a songwriter wants to rush to his publisher. Not that they cared that much. Songs show up the way they’re supposed to, and there’s always another song tomorrow. Or so it seemed.
Tomorrow came with a vengeance. Alex was woken up by the sound of his hotel room phone ringing at seven in the morning Pacific Time. It was his girlfriend calling. “Turn on the TV! A plane has crashed into the World Trade Center!”
Alex jumped up and clicked the TV on. The smoking North Tower was there, its ominous black and gray plume erupting across the brilliant September New York sky. He knew instantly what had happened. Then he saw the streak of another plane and the second tower exploded in a ball of flame. Moments later the frantic news coverage was of the Pentagon burning from the impact of another plane.
Alex’s mind raced to the thought of his twenty-two year old son James, who worked for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey in a building adjacent to the Twin Towers. James’ subway most likely ran right under them. James had no cell phone, neither did Alex. Alex frantically called his ex-wife in San Francisco.
“We can’t find him, “she said tensely . “He’s not answering at home.”
Nothing more really needed to be said. The nation was under attack by terrorists. James could be under those burning buildings right then, or close by. Alex watched a few more moments as the South Tower collapsed downwards in fiery cataclysm.
Alex didn’t need to think much about what to do next. He threw his clothes into his suitcase and grabbed his guitar and hustled them to the rental car. He called his girlfriend back to tell her what he going to do. Then he ran into the lobby and threw his key across the reception desk. He got in his car and headed east, driving the two thousand long miles towards Nashville.
At eight AM, the freeways of LA were jammed with people coming in to work, but there was hardly a car going away from the city. Alex drove as fast as he could out beyond the mountains that ring Los Angeles and across the searing Mojave desert, stopping at dusty payphones every hour to see if his ex -wife had any news about James. He didn’t want to think about the possibility that his son had been trapped under those millions of tons of rubble, but the fear was inescapable. He kept the radio tuned to the news. There was nothing but news on, anyway. 9-11 was not a day for music on the radio. Barstow, Needles, the road was getting long and the sunlight fading into dusk. Kingman, Arizona. Alex was exhausted from the day of worry. He pulled into a motel in Flagstaff and made another call.
“He’s ok , “ said his ex-wife, “He overslept and missed his train. He only got as far as midtown on the subway before they stopped the trains. He walked back to Queens. He’s fine, Thank God. “
Alex decided to call his driving day quits and fell into his motel bed.
In the morning he got up early and again headed east on I-40. He noticed some of the same cars and even rental trucks he’d seen yesterday. That would be the case all the way across the country. People were driving towards New York from California, seeking loved ones most likely.
The enormity of what had happened was overwhelming for everyone. It was all anyone was talking about at gas stations, restaurants, motels. The TV news was non-stop. Posters going up of the missing; people in tears begging for news of someone they had lost. Thousands dead, years of wars and fear to come, anger and talk of revenge, but mostly sadness and shock in the first days. Alex made it back to Nashville. The car rental company didn’t even charge him for the car. There was a spirit of unity in those first days, now long gone, it seems.
At some point Alex called Jon Keller. They both felt bad for having said negative things about Barbara Olson, who had been on the plane that hit the Pentagon.
Jon said, “I guess now we know why we wrote “When”.
Alex and Jon dedicate “When” to all those who have suffered terrible loss, and especially at this time for all those who have suffered as a result of 9-11,2001, the horrible day after the song was written.
here’s the link for “When” on youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=is668lGyVUY