Sunday, September 11, 2011

I Remember 9-11: Oysterhead and Marillion

I was walking out of first period after a pretty good jazz band rehearsal when one of my students approached me and said “New York is on fire.”  Now, it’s not unusual to hear weird things like that in the halls of a 7-12 grade campus, so I was a little incredulous.  This kid was a senior who played lead trumpet in my jazz group, though, so I found it difficult to believe that he would spread exaggerated and unfounded rumors.

Judging from the buzz in second period, it was apparent that something was, indeed, going on.  In 2001, however, my campus was not equipped with a TV in every room, and certainly not in the band hall.  I had no way to confirm or refute what was happening.  I would glance in the library every period when I took the roll sheets to the office, but I couldn’t connect these brief glimpses of billowing smoke and chaotic streets into a cohesive narrative.

As teachers, we were instructed to continue with regular classes unless explicitly told otherwise.  As a result, I experienced 9-11 mostly through the students’ eyes as they struggled to make sense of the fractured images and soundbites of the day.  By 7th period, I certainly believed the gravity of the situation, but remained skeptical of the details.  I rushed home at 4:00 and, on my dial-up internet, I downloaded footage (and probably a few viruses) of the two towers going down using Kazaa.  Mortified, I repeated them endlessly.  I finally tore myself away and turned the TV to anything my antenna could pick up (I still don’t believe in cable, by the way) and remained glued to the set for the remainder of the evening.  While I struggled to comprehend the events and reactions on 9-11, I numbly began to work on a painting of Thelonius Monk that I never finished.

The Grand Pecking Order
While the American world was changing, I was coming to terms with another change that seemed important at the time, but receded in light of the events of the day. Primus, one of my favorite bands, announced a “permanent hiatus” earlier that year.  Although I was increasingly ambivalent about the band’s output, I certainly did not want to see them break up.  Later in the year, however, bassist Les Claypool formed the “supergroup” Oysterhead with Police drummer Stewart Copeland and Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio.  If any band were to be a home for Claypool outside of Primus, it would have been Oysterhead.

I was fascinated by the chemistry between these three very distinctive musicians as it played itself out on their singular release The Grand Pecking Order.  I thoroughly enjoyed seeing Copeland redeem himself on the drum throne after his stint with 90s yawn-rock outfit Animal Logic.  The material on the album was a little slapdash, but since the band billed itself as a “jam-band” outfit, the band’s fans considered it a loose frame of reference for Oysterhead’s mission statement. 

Connecting with the fans through newly emerging virtual conduits was becoming more common in 2001, and the other album that was rolling when the towers fell owed a lot to these new connections.  Marillion’s Anoraknophobia was funded entirely by fan donations through the band’s website, which was a pretty innovative approach for the time.  Distribution of the album was still patchy in the US, but, merely months before flying changed forever, I picked up a copy in a UK record store during a summer trip in Europe.

After original vocalist Fish left Marillion in the late 80s, the band’s track record had been spotty at best.  Singer Steve Hogarth took over in 1990, and since then they made a couple of great albums, a few bad ones, and very little in between.  In 2001, Anoraknophobia made a good impression on me, and even today I think that it is more poignant than cliché.  Still, it doesn’t represent the pinnacle of Marillion's work, especially with Hogarth at the helm.  It's pretty good, but not the best.

I once alluded to music’s capacity to provide a space away from the everyday, and I think that my memories of these albums are whitewashed with this escapist potential.  Both The Grand Pecking Order and Anoraknophobia seem to float oddly aloof from my emotional effort to come to grips with 9-11 and its aftermath, even though I remember listening to them.  They seem to remind me of the life I had surrounding 9-11 rather than the catastrophe itself.  The images of New York and my concern for the friends I had living there seem starkly silent in my mind as I look back today, ten years later. 

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