Mercury Dime stages reunion performance Sept. 27 in Salisbury
By Katie Scarvey
Love lost, such a cost,
Give me things
that don’t get lost.
Like a coin that won’t get tossed
Rolling home to you.
– Neil Young, “Old Man”
If you were into the Chapel Hill music scene back in the 1990s, it’s a good bet you caught a popular band called Mercury Dime. Like its silver and copper alloy counterpart, the group became history, disbanding in 1998 when it seemed poised to hit the big time on the heels of a much-lauded second album.
It turns out that Mercury Dime didn’t get lost after all, and it’s in the process of rolling home – temporarily at least.
The band – Cliff Retallick, Darryl Jones, Eric Webster, Jim Martin and Alan Wyrick – hasn’t performed together in many years, but Thursday, Sept. 27, they’re getting back together to play in Salisbury at Looking Glass Artist Collective’s black box theatre. The following night, they’ll play at the Local 506 in Chapel Hill. The performances will celebrate the re-release of their album “Darkling,” which will soon be available digitally for the first time.
“We’re like the Phoenix that rises from the ashes,” says front man Retallick, the creative force behind the group, which plays original songs, mostly penned by Retallic. If you have to pigeon- hole the music, alternative country might best describe it.
Mercury Dime has its roots firmly in Rowan County. Retallick now lives in Los Angeles, and certainly his life in Hollywood is a far cry from his days in Faith, when he got together with friends Darryl Jones and Eric Webster to put together a fledgling band that played in Webster’s parents’ barn and play. Later, Jim Martin was added as drummer, and with him came Alan Wyrick on lead guitar.
Retallick took the band’s first demo cassette and placed it in the hands of a guy named Mouse, who booked acts for a Chapel Hill bar called the Cave. A few weeks later, Mercury Dime had its first Chapel Hill booking, followed by many more. Then came their first album, “Baffled Ghosts,” and then “Darkling.”
They were a fixture of the Chapel Hill music scene, also playing in Charlotte and Salisbury and other North Carolina towns. Later, as they gained momentum, they played in Atlanta, Chicago and New York and even opened for the group 10,000 Maniacs.
Then, it fell apart.
Although the reviews of “Darkling” – which had REM producer Mitch Easter attached to it – were fantastic, the center could not hold.
Retallick – the band’s primary songwriter, sole lyricist, lead singer and keyboardist – recalls sleeping on floors and doing the gritty things you have to do to be a touring band.
“Every band has their Spinal Tap history, their road story,” he said in a phone interview from Los Angeles, which often involves sleeping on floors, with “your face in the carpet and somebody’s cat licking you.”
It’s a young man’s game, for sure, and Retallick says that it was fun at the time, although “now none of us would put up with that stuff,” he says.
Retallick was also playing some solo gigs.
“I think that it spread us really thin,” said Retallick.
The challenges of five guys traveling and keeping it all together became too much. Finances were precarious.
When the band broke up, “I used to lose sleep over it,” Retallick said.
After Mercury Dime went out of circulation, back in an age when people were still buying CDs and before digital downloads, Retallick cut a spec record with Easter that didn’t find a home. He eventually went to film school at the North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem, earning a Master of Fine Arts degree in film composition in 2006. The rest of the guys moved on as well, to day jobs and other bands.
After film school, Retallick moved to Los Angeles and began working with film music and in 2008 began working for Ralph Sall’s Bulletproof Entertainment. He began putting into practice what he’d learned for his MFA, working on music for films such as “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past” starring Matthew McConaughey. He found himself working with the likes of Smokey Robinson, Barry Gibb and Garth Brooks, among many other famous names, and describes what sounds like a rather surreal experience: sitting at a keyboard with Cat Stevens (Yusef) and teaching him how to sing “The Long and Winding Road” for an upcoming project. He’s often hired to play live accompaniment for silent movies – which perhaps sounds as anachronistic as a Mercury dime, but is actually a pretty sweet niche for the keyboardist, whose mother was a piano teacher. He never knows who he’ll see in the audience at these screenings – Calista Flockhart, Elliott Gould, Zooey Deschanel are a few he’s played for.
The more he became immersed in the music industry, the more he realized what he’d had in Mercury Dime and how talented the members of the group were.
“I love the music Mercury Dime made,” Retallick said. “It’s very important to me artistically.”
He decided there was no reason he couldn’t come home a few times a year and perform with the group and even cut another record.
At this point in his life, he says, he’s in a position that could enable him to get Mercury Dime’s music into movies and television. This time around, they can all enjoy making music without having to “cobble together enough money to drive in a van of five guys.”
Fortunately for Retallick, the rest of Mercury Dime felt the way he did, he says, so when he broached the idea of a reunion early this year, the other guys were amenable to it.
“We all felt like we left the thing unfinished,” Retallick explains.
“I must say that I’m ecstatic that the old band is getting back together,” Jones said. “I’ve always felt that ‘Darkling’ was a masterpiece and would one day get its due, and with the release on Itunes it will at least be accessible.
“I think it’s a good time in everyone’s lives to start making music again. My children are getting a little older and I can step out occasionally to do my thing with the pedal steel. I’m looking forward to reuniting with the guys and doing what we love.”
“It will be great to get together with the band again and play some shows,” says Wyrick, who is part of Divided by Four and the Di Hoffman Band. “It’s been a while since I’ve listened to the songs but they seem just as good to me now as they did back then.”
“I think Mercury Dime sort of found us – back then – and now it seems to be knocking at the door again,” Wyrick added.
When asked about the reunion, Martin deemed it “inevitable” and quotes some Split Enz lyrics: “Something so strong could carry us away.”
Getting back together, Wyrick says, “feels more like whatever hand of fate brought us together the first time.”
Roll on, Mercury Dime.
Mercury Dime will perform at the Looking Glass Artist Collective’s black box theater, 405 N. Lee St., Thursday, Sept. 27.
Tripp Edwards will open with an acoustic set at 8 p.m.
Admission is $5.