Neil Young, ‘Let’s Roll': Lyrics Uncovered
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Neil Young packed away metaphor and hung up his poet’s pen when writing the lyrics to “Let’s Roll” in the fall of 2001. The song is as straight forward as the events that inspired it. It wasn’t the first tribute song written in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, and it probably wasn’t the best. However, Young did forever memorialize the morning’s first heroes.
United Airlines Flight 93 from Newark, N.J. to San Fransisco, Calif. was hijacked just before 9:30 that morning. Approximately 25 minutes later passenger Todd Beamer was on the phone with Airfone operator Lisa Jefferson – his attempt to place a call using a credit card failed – detailing the events and explaining he and some of the other 44 passengers and crew planned to overtake the hijackers. At 9:55AM he spoke those famous words, “Are you guys ready? OK, let’s roll.”
“I know I said I love you / I know you know it’s true / I got to put the phone down / And do what we gotta do / One’s standing in the aisleway / Two more at the door / We got to get inside there / Before they kill some more / Time is runnin’ out, let’s roll.”
Young said hearing Lisa Beamer tell her husband’s story inspired him, though he didn’t immediate begin work on the track. “She was talking about how he always used to say that (“let’s roll”) with the kids when they’d go out and do something, that it’s what he said a lot when he had a job to do,” Young told Pulse Magazine in 2002. “And it’s just so poignant, and there’s no more of a legendary, heroic act than what those people did. With no promise of martyrdom, no promise of any reward anywhere for this, other than just knowing that you did the right thing. And not even having a chance to think about it or plan it or do anything – just a gut reaction that was heroic and ultimately cost them all their lives. What more can you say? It was just so obvious that somebody had to write something or do something.”
“No time for indecision / We got to make a move / I hope that we’re forgiven / For what we gotta do / How this all got started / I’ll never understand / I hope someone can fly this thing / Get us back to land / Time is runnin’ out, let’s roll.”
In fact, for a while, no one wrote the song Young had in mind. He waited and waited, thinking surely some enterprising artist would make the most of this opportunity. “Because it’s just such a great image – the whole story about the heroism of the passengers on Flight 93. I think it’s a legendary story that’s gonna go down through the ages; it’ll never be forgotten. So, I was very surprised that I didn’t hear any songs. … So, I just wrote it. I couldn’t stop it anymore.”
He introduced the song to Booker T. Jones of Booker T. and the MG’s while they were in studio recording Young’s next album, 2002’s Are You Passionate? “It kind of changed the way the album was going,” Jones told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette of “Let’s Roll.”
The two men were concerned about the reaction to another Sept. 11 tribute song, that maybe some would accuse Young and Jones of using the tragedy to make a few dollars. This worry proved to be in vain as radio stations in Los Angeles and New York quickly added the song. Don Imus began using it as a bumper during his nationally syndicated radio show. There was no official promotional push by Young or his record label; he just quietly sent the song to radio stations in an email.
It’s not clear what happened onboard Flight 93 after Beamer hung up the phone. Eight minutes later, however, the plane crashed near Shanksville, Penn., after having turned back toward the East Coast. There’s little doubt that the hijackers were taking aim at another high profile target, perhaps the White House.
“No one has the answers / But one thing is true / You got to turn on evil / When it’s comin’ after you / You got to face it down / And when it tries to hide / You got to go in after it / And never be denied / Time is runnin’ out … let’s roll.”