Written by Michael Bacon
Videos by American Songwriter
Let me take you back to the beginning of our song. Kevin [Bacon] and I were both at our apartments in Manhattan. His two kids were in school there, and my son was in his second day of college up-state. We hear lots of comments about “…didn’t hit me at first” or “…didn’t seem real.” But, it became real for me when returning to my apartment building on the Upper West Side a week after 9/11—there was a yellow ribbon on the front door. I knew it had to be for the young NYFD firefighter who lived in our building.
As the tragedy slowly unfolded in the coming weeks, with names starting to be attached to the anonymous death count, we found our band in an unusual situation. We had a tour booked for Fall 2001, and many of the shows were canceled. But some were not. If we regrouped and played the shows, would it seem disrespectful to the sacrifices of the New Yorkers, Pennsylvanians, and Pentagon heroes? We decided (or needed) to play, and with the help of [Bob] Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released,” the audiences and band members received temporary catharsis. Looking back, we feel this was the right decision.
But the reality was still unfolding. We were in the dressing room at The Birchmere in Alexandria, Virginia when I received an email from a member of my hockey team—subject: “Sad News.” We had lost three of our skaters. I cried, but the house was full. I see my light come shining from the West down to the East (Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released).
In the fall of 2002, Kevin wrote the song “Unhappy Birthday.” My old songwriter buddy, Bat McGrath from Rochester, New York, always contended that your best songs are not the ones you write just after a powerful experience, but the second wave after the rawness of the experience has attenuated. You’ve had time to reflect. You redirect the pain through the lens of communicating to your audience. I don’t know if Kevin wrote a post 9/11 song, but it was worth the one-year wait. We recorded “Unhappy” soon after in Dae Bennet’s Englewood New Jersey studio. It was born. Now we had our own anthem with lines like, From the Gates of Harlem I stood upon Great Hill, and I swear I can see those Sisters standing there still. So light a candle!
We sang it at every gig until it rotated out of the set, probably around 2008. For a video release in 2011, Kevin updated the lyric to, Light a candle, has it really been 10 years? My brother’s songs always contain a powerful visual element. I imagined a blood-red birthday cake with black candles melting into it. I bought the Red Velvet cake from Magnolia Bakery on Columbus Avenue, which became the video’s death motif.
Ten Years later when The Opry asked us to bring the band to the 9/11 Memorial in Downtown NYC, some of the same insecurities resurfaced. Is this an appropriate place to sing “Unhappy Birthday?” Thankfully, both the Museum and The Opry wanted the song, and about a minute later, as usual, Kevin had the 20th Anniversary lyrics completed.
Why do I call “Unhappy Birthday” by the Bacon Brothers a “little” song? In popular culture parlance, a “big” song sells millions of audio copies, the same for video plays. Our song’s multipliers are in the thousands. Though little, the song for us is mighty in stature, we fully expect “The Little Song That Wouldn’t Forget” to still be alive and well so my brother can write new lyrics and we can sing it for the 9/11 remembrance in 2031.
Photo by Charles Chessler.