“The New Mercury Rev Album Is Out”: How Music Helped Define 9/11

Jay-Z’s Blueprint, Dylan’s revival, The Coup loses its cover, Clear Channel hearts banning songs and other tales from that fateful day

The twin beams honoring the World Trade Center alight on the evening of September 11, 2021 (Photo: Ron Hart)

If you lived in the New York City Metro Area in September 2001, you have a story of what happened THAT day.

For a roommate new to the U.S. from South Korea who I had barely met and had just moved into my Jersey City apartment–one of those transient apartments where no one really remembers who rented it in the first place–it was going out to the courtyard unaware of what was going on and immediately seeing the giant building across the river fall, packing up, and returning to Korea for good once flights were back in the air.

Comedian Todd Barry, on his album Falling Off the Bone, told of his “favorite 9/11 story.” He quickly, if performatively, rephrases it to his “craziest 9/11 story.” It’s about an acquaintance who stumbles up to him amidst the smoke and sadness to tell him “the new Mercury Rev album is out.” 

 

When tragedy strikes, it is often perceived as callous or perverse to think about anything else. Sports announcers will dutifully say things like “today shows us what’s really important.” I’ve always found that sentiment appallingly flat. Of course someone hitting a ball or another person is unimportant and deep down most sports fans know this and to a degree it’s why they are so passionate about people they don’t know sharing the same uniform. We need to follow something essentially pointless with fire and fervor because a lot of what really matters can be dark and haunting and ultimately out of our control. 

If you are a music fanatic (and if you’re reading this, you almost certainly are), your thoughts went to your safest space. Indeed, Mercury Rev’s All is Dream did come out 9/11/2001. It was obviously not the first thing on most people’s minds. However, there were surely thousands of zombies confusingly shambling around the city trying to push the horror out of their minds by retreating into their zeal for music–whether calming themselves with their favorite concerto or pop tune or remembering mundane factoids about bands or music history.  

For me and for many, 9/11 will forever be linked to music. We have our imaginary soundtrack that plays through our mind and, even 20 years later, helps us process it. On anniversaries, I’ve often hunted down a New York dive bar jukebox–and one of those soulless electronic ones so there’s access to the annals of history–and throw on a motley mix of songs that I associate with the day for one reason or another. In some cases, they’re even songs I’m not particularly a fan of.

When I commuted from NJ to the West Village for work in 2001, my commute would take me through the WTC PATH station where an impossible mass of people would merge onto escalators on their way to either the subway or the Financial District. While it’s a bit on the nose, “Ants Marching” by Dave Matthews Band would Pavolvianly plop itself in my mind. It might not have even been the theme, but a scene from its Powaqqatsi-style video of speeded-up people on an escalator. In any case, even though the song in any other context irritates me, it soothes me on 9/11 with a memory of a humdrum activity against a landscape that no longer really exists anymore. 

In any case, here’s some musical connections to that worst of all days–albums that came out that day, artists who had to make changes after the attack, and a strange mythical list that was one radio company’s crass response.

 

Key 9/11 Releases

The albums of 9/11 (Collage: Ron Hart)

Jay-Z The Blueprint (Roc-A-Fella) It’s remarkable to think this landmark album came out on America’s darkest day. Its very name denotes its significance, not only in Hova’s mind, but in the Hip-Hop canon. Although it was his sixth album, this record firmed the Brooklyn MC as one of the most effortlessly tight rappers in the biz. Despite the chaotic times, the record sold nearly 500,000 its first week en route to roughly 3 million.  

 

Bob Dylan, Love and Theft (Columbia) Perhaps the greatest achievement from the legend’s post-Blood on the Tracks era, Dylan’s 31st album–released when the artist was 60–wowed the critics and wound up on pretty much every year-end list, even topping the Village Voice’s Pazz & Jop list. That publication’s Robert Christigau called it his “immortality” album. While the troubadour has not had the greatest year as he turned 80 as allegations of a 1965 assault surfaced, he’s still working hard and presumably preparing his 40th record.

 

Ben Folds, Rockin’ the Suburbs (Epic) The North Carolina native from the self-named band that purposely inflated the number of members from three to five dissolved that act in 1999 and his long-awaited solo release came out on September 11. Reviews were decent, but not overwhelming, and the title track grazed the Modern Rock Top 40, and Folds would release a few more solo albums before becoming enamored with a cappella music.

 

Mercury Rev, All Is Dream (V2) While the Buffalo indie dream rockers release was not the first thing on most people’s minds that day, it would go down as one of the critical favorites of the year. It got 8.5 from Pitchfork, was on Q’s (not that Q) top 50 of 2001 and did decently well in the Village Voice’s Pass & Jop poll–so you can guess the sort of fan who loved it… the sort for whom it would be the first thing to say mid-tragedy to an alt-comedian.

 

The Moldy Peaches, The Moldy Peaches (Rough Trade) Remember this duo? For a short while the beyond-lo-fi pairing of Kimya Dawson and Adam Green were the hottest thing in the underground music scene, and by 2007 they would be big enough to be a central plot device of Diablo Cody’s debut, Juno. Green and Dawson have gone on to solid solo careers. 

 

Dream Theater Live Scenes From New York (Atlantic) This live collection from the Boston prog rockers might not even make this list if not for its cover. The graphic designer decided to take a metaphor to a place that probably seemed innocuous at the time, portraying the skyline of NYC with fire beneath it. Obviously, that was replaced after recall and the initial run, but that segues us to our next category.

 

Unfortunate Covers & Titles

 

The Ultimate Coup

 

The Coup Party Music, 75 Ark 2001

The hip-hop group that were mainly the duo of Boots Riley and Pam the Funkstress by that time were no stranger to controversy and in fact courted it. With a beyond liberal and veering into anarchist political style, The Coup, starting in the Bay Area in 1991, built a following with their emphatic beats and provocative lyrics. In May of 2001, the pair did a cover shoot for their fourth album, Party Music, depicting the duo, of all things, blowing up the World Trade Center to protest American capitalism using one of its greatest financial icons.

Far from apologetic, Riley lobbied to keep the cover at first. He told the Seattle Stranger that while he and his band clearly condemned the terrorists’ violent actions, he was disturbed by the media coverage and its crass attempts to commercialize the attack. Riley contended that as traumatic as the image might be for many, and that while it lost much of the intended humor, it would provoke discussion and would be a “way to have a platform to interrupt the stream of lies that are being told right now.”

Ultimately, The Coup would delay the late-September release of Party Music to November and replace the incendiary cover with the antiseptic image of a martini glass. They would go on to release just two more albums to date, but the title of that second one would be used by Riley in his new career as a filmmaker. 2018’s Sorry To Bother You would earn critical laurels for its surreal story of an African-American telemarketer with the voice of David Cross. Sadly, Pam died a year earlier at the age of 51.

 

The Symbol Dies, The Metaphor Remains…

 

AUDIO: I Am The World Trade Center Out of the Loop EP

Musicians Dan Geller and Amy Dykes met in Athens, Georgia, and began dating after the pair (along with Geller’s co-founder of Kindercore Records, Ryan Lewis) moved to NYC in 1997. Soon after, Geller asked Dykes to sing on a recording and they thought maybe they’d start a band. Gazing at the seemingly permanent structure at the south end of their chosen city in 1999, they decided to name their nascent synth-pop band I Am the World Trade Center.  It represented their relationship both as lovers and as a band as “two towers, equal and independent, together made up one entity and came to represent the relationship that Geller and Dykes forged professionally and personally.

After the towers fell, the pair briefly shortened the band name to I Am the World…, but ultimately stood firm in their name. While there were some rumblings from the press and Geller admitted it made it harder for the band to cross borders, the controversy subsided, likely in part because the act, while it had a cult following, were mostly invisible to anyone who might make a big deal about it. 

The romantic element of Geller and Dykes would only survive a few more years–and there’s no indication they ever officially got back together–however, although they have not released an album since a covers record in 2004, they are still active and occasionally perform, still with that same name.  

 

A Tale of Two Bands

 

VIDEO: Drowning Pool “Bodies”

On the last Billboard Modern Rock chart before 9/11, both Mesa, Arizona, indie rockers Jimmy Eat World and Dallas, Texas, alt metallers Drowning Pool were climbing the charts with their first hits–the former at 18 with their blistering observations on U.S. consumerism “Bleed American,” the latter with the anthemic fury of “Bodies.”

“Bodies,” with its repeated refrain of “let the bodies hit the floor” was understandably going to receive a dip in airplay over the next few weeks. While the “bodies” on the “floor” had nothing to do with death, and was merely an appeal to fans to mosh, it’s understandable that people listening to the radio or watching MTV would not really be in the mood to hear it. 

Bleed American was a more complex conundrum as its lyrics, while fueled by righteous anger at American hypocrisy, were oblique… and do we really want to ban commentary, even more so after an attack that was allegedly about our “freedoms.” In any case, the band took pre-emptive action and changed the song’s title to the first three words of the chorus–“Salt Sweat Sugar”–and their third album featuring the same title became simply the name of the band. 

Jimmy Eat World Bleed American, DreamWorks 2001

What’s striking is the starkly opposite directions the two bands took. Whether it was due to the controversy or not, Drowning Pool would never really follow-up their hit, scoring two more low-charting Modern Rock singles before falling prey to their own tragedy. Within a year, their singer, Dave “Stage” Williams, would be found dead in the tour van, no foul play, no drugs, at age 30 of a heart disorder. While they would never become huge, they did carry on with a parade of lead singers and have become regulars on the Billboard Rock Charts.

Jimmy Eat World, however, would hit gold with their very next single, the peppy “The Middle” which soared into the top five on the pop charts and slowly ascended to the top of the Modern Rock charts. Since then, they have been one of alternative’s most successful acts with six more hit albums and a flurry of hits including “Pain,” “Big Casino” and “My Best Theory.”

 

That Damned Clear Channel List 

It started a few days after the attack as a murmur which rose to a rumor and eventually became something of a meme in the music industry before we had such a word as “meme” to call it. Passed in emails like the hoax tourist supposedly on the observation deck that day, was a list of songs supposedly banned from radio until further notice. Drowning Pool’s “Bodies” was on there. “Bleed American,” although frequently cited as on the list is never on the actual physical copy.

And that’s as good a place as any to deal with one of the main problems with the list. While a generous soul could argue that they were being selective and not censoring songs, the fact that they blanket banned all Rage Against the Machine songs in one fell swoop kind of puts the kibosh on that mode of thinking. There was definitely an air of quashing protest throughout the list and its mythical status–the fact that no one really knew if this were an actual mandate or the figment of someone’s fancy trying to stir up drama on the then still young (just 7 years old) internet just added to the shadiness. 

As it turns out, it has since been confirmed to be absolutely true and while some of the intent may have come from a sinister, authoritarian place, it was ultimately much more of an absurd and harmless action than it first seemed. First off, the suggestions were just that, suggestions. This was more of a running list of titles that someone at corporate thought might be songs to avoid at a tender time while people were mourning.

Most of all, however, the list was just silly because of how random and haphazard it was. Upon a deeper look at the list, it looks less like the cold hand of authority taking advantage of a tragedy to stifle “dangerous” ideas and more like music execs playing some sort of weird and macabre game of Outburst!–shouting out the names of songs about flight or falling or fire or New York or America in general (now put “Leaving on a Jet Plane”… what about The Cult’s “Fire Woman”?)

The first song on the list alphabetically was 311’s “Down” which even if they’d used the definition of the word as a direction or a mood instead of as a manner of being ready for anything would still be an incredible stretch to suspect anyone would be triggered by it due to the events of 9/11. Who would look at Brooklyn Bridge’s majestic 1969 hit “Worst That Could Happen” about sadness over an ex’s impending wedding and think of 9/11. Even if it’s the band name, Brooklyn had nothing to do with it and the bridge was not a target. Was anyone even still playing “Say Hello 2 Heaven” by Temple of the Dog in 2001? I could go on and on.

Ultimately, the list was forgotten pretty quickly, as, sadly, was the war that raged on for 20 years before coming to a crash a month ago. And as we as a nation feel the aftereffects of that while feeling the PTSD-style pain the milestone of that Tuesday from 20 years ago brings, it’s almost comforting to look at that list as a ridiculous and scattershot playlist. Music is there for us when we need it, driving passions for our causes, echoing the melody and words of our sadness, celebrating our high points, stirring the pot of our emotions. And if Mr. Barry’s friend needed to obtusely talk about a new album by a band he loved as a means to soothe his soul as the world crumbled around him, while it’s fodder for a very funny joke, it’s also quite beautiful to a music fan. Twenty years ago today, the new Mercury Rev came out. 

 

 

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Jason Thurston

Jason Thurston is an NYC-area based writer and editor who has contributed to All Music Guide, the late GetGlue, TV Guide, various Virgin entities, Muze, CMJ, Artvoice, DJ'd for Invisible Radio and co-operates his own pop-up TV site called Screen Scholars.Follow him @jasethurst44.

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