TAMPA — It was a wrong number. The woman called the hotel looking for her husband, but instead got his friend and bandmate Michael Timmons.
Turn on the television, she told him.
What Timmons saw, sitting in this unfamiliar room in downtown Tampa, was breaking news footage of the World Trade Center, engulfed in smoke and chaos.
"I don't know if, at that point, the towers had come down, or if they'd just been hit," said Timmons, guitarist and songwriter for the Cowboy Junkies. "The problem is you've seen all the images at this point, so it's hard to connect what you saw first, what you saw live and what you didn't see live."
Everything Michael Timmons remembers from 9/11, he experienced in Tampa. The Cowboy Junkies were in town for a concert that night at the State Theatre in St. Petersburg. But like everything else in America that was scheduled for Sept. 11, 2001, it was canceled. And so the cult Canadian folk band, best known for their dusty take on the Velvet Underground's Sweet Jane, spent the day in a strange Florida city, far from home, watching terror unfold on TV.
Timmons called his wife in Canada, back home with their two young children. He met up with his bandmates, including siblings Margo and Peter. He walked the streets downtown; the cops had some areas blocked off. He stared out his hotel window at the Tampa Tribune/WFLA building across the Hillsborough River, thinking about all the activity that must be going on inside.
"I remember the Spanish-speaking station down there, they were broadcasting a lot of the images that some of the network stations weren't broadcasting — close-ups of people jumping out of windows, tracing them down as they fell down the towers," he said. "That was pretty horrific."
Also staying at their hotel were workers from another tour in town that night: Janet Jackson at the Ice Palace. That show, too, was postponed. In one of the day's many unlikely convergences, crews and musicians for both an international pop superstar and an independent Canadian folk band watched 9/11 unfold together at an outdoor poolside bar.
"You sit around, you have to watch these images over and over and over again," Timmons said. "Not a lot was said. People were just kind of shaking their heads, not knowing what to do."
This much, he remembers clearly: The Junkies wanted to play. Canceling that night's concert in St. Petersburg was not their choice, and it left the band completely frustrated.
"If there's ever been a reason to play, it's right now," he remembers thinking. "As musicians, we have a real belief in the healing power of music, the way it can bring people together. Doing something that was so deeply personal, we knew we could connect with an audience in a theater. We knew it would be very healing for everybody involved. That's really what we wanted to do, was make that connection.
"We knew it would be a special show, because it was so necessary."
The band had the next day off, so they spent a second night in Tampa. On Sept. 13, they picked up their instruments in Gainesville.
"One of the worst shows we've ever experienced," Timmons said. "There was nobody in the club, and the club was a horrible place. It just felt like, this was wrong to be playing at this point. The country was still stunned."
On Sept. 14, they played to an edgy, nervous crowd in Birmingham, Ala. On Sept. 15, they played to a dark and silent house in New Orleans.
"And then we went to Houston," he said, "and we had the most amazing show — which I think we'll all remember — of our career. It was five days on now, and everybody had been sitting and watching the same images for five days. I think people finally felt, 'Okay, we gotta get out and somehow get on with our lives.' There was the most amazing feeling in the crowd and in the audience. It was … almost this weird celebration of moving on."
In 2005, the Junkies released Early 21st Century Blues, which included a few originals, such as December Skies:
Never again will you catch me admiring
Those vast September skies"
A couple of years ago, the Cowboy Junkies returned to Florida for the first time since September 2001. "We were very aware that we hadn't been back there since that time," Timmons said. "It did bring back memories."
They played Orlando. They played Stuart. "Man, I love that Florida sunshine," Timmons wrote in a tour diary entry from that leg.
But they didn't play Tampa Bay. They haven't been back since 9/11.