No More Tears

September 11 stokes artistic fires -- and misfires.

Skyscrapers are in Jason Byers's blood. Almost literally. A glance at the wrists of the Disengage frontman reveals a collection of tattoos of famous buildings ranging up and down his forearms -- a constant, indelible reminder of his love of skylines. Byers is so into architecture, in fact, that the singer, who doubles as a freelance artist and works for the Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art, began to think about curating a show on skyscrapers around this time last year. Then came September 11, and things changed.

But Byers didn't. He still wanted to put on a show celebrating skyscrapers, only now it would be tailored to the World Trade Center. But rather than assemble a teary remembrance of the twin towers or contribute yet another heartrending memorial to the fallen buildings, Byers wanted to keep things celebratory. The result is Towering, an exhibit at the 1300 Gallery that's intended as a break from the emotional overkill that hangs over many of the ceremonies commemorating September 11.

"There's going to be so many depressing things at the same time that I want to counteract that," Byers says of the show, which opens September 6. "I want people to go to the show knowing that they're not going to be depressed. We're not going to have a candlelight vigil. There's no explosions, no airplanes."

In short, it's the antithesis of the 9-11 scab-picking that's beginning to overwhelm America. With the first anniversary nearing, another wave of poorly conceived tribute albums is starting to drop, and dunderheaded stars are riding the patriot angle for all it's worth. (Toby Keith, for one, has scored a No. 1 hit with his threat to put a "boot in the ass" of our foes.) Even if their intentions are noble, there's something inherently off-putting about rock stars attaching themselves to tragedy. No one needs to see Fred Durst waxing poetic about terrorism. Not that all art should be bubblegum and butterflies; we could just use a break from the melodrama.

"The idea was for the artists to stay away from September 11, stay away from the political side of it," Byers says. "No American flags or anything like that. Just [artists] concentrating on their first memories of being in New York City, what they first thought of when they saw [the World Trade Center]. I invited 50 artists. A lot of them thought I was crazy. My old adviser told me that doing a show like this was like doing a show on the Holocaust a year after it happened."

Rudy Santarelli can relate, though in his case, the criticism may be more apt. As the guy behind the Lorain rock outfit American Taliband, a one-man rock band that recently issued its inflammatory debut, Grudge, Santarelli shares with Byers a longing to broach the subject of 9-11 in a somewhat different light. Actually, a klieg light.

"Some folks said that maybe it wasn't a good idea," Santarelli understates. "But it was just me getting something off my chest."

That something is a mountain of frustration and anger, clumsily articulated in a knee-jerk display of rage. Conceptually and lyrically over the top, with a whole lotta Arab-bashing and a cover that depicts Osama bin Laden with a target over his face, the album raises an obvious question: Is Santarelli helping to ameliorate a tragedy or simply profiting from it?

"That's why I pulled it off the shelves," he says. Rather than peddling Grudge, he's opted to make it available for free (you can get a copy by writing to Santarelli, care of his own Nuke 'Em Records label, at 2538 West Erie Avenue, Lorain, Ohio 44053). "I had enough to fill up the Record Exchanges and stuff, but that got to me, too. It's not for sale."

Brisk sales of Grudge weren't likely, anyway. But for Santarelli, the album has already served its purpose.

"It made me feel better," he says. "I would hope someone might want to listen to it for an escape, if they're pissed off at things that are going on."

You know, like folks who speak before they think.

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