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Real Life Rock Top Ten – Nov/Dec 2009

by Greil Marcus
Illustration by Charles Burns

Real Life Rock Top Ten – Nov/Dec 2009

Greil Marcus
19 Snaps

(1) Mike Seeger, 1933–2009. August was a wipeout in American music: the rockabilly original Billy Lee Riley, dead at seventy-five on the second; the punk flash Willy DeVille at fifty-eight on the sixth; the electric guitar pioneer Les Paul at ninety-four on the thirteenth; the Memphis termite Jim Dickinson, a.k.a. leader of Mudboy and the Neutrons, at sixty-seven on the fifteenth; Ellie Greenwich, cowriter of “Da Do Ron Ron,” “Be My Baby,” and “Leader of the Pack,” at sixty-eight on the twenty-sixth. But the cruelest note may have been struck with Mike Seeger, the folklorist, producer, filmmaker, and scholar-on-his-feet, dead at seventy-five on the seventh. He died beloved and respected, but also bitter—over the fact that as a singer and player in his own right, those whom Bob Dylan once called the folk police never accepted him as a peer of those he helped rescue from obscurity and bring into the light: Dock Boggs, Clarence Ashley, Roscoe Holcomb, and countless more—great artists who themselves had no trouble accepting him at all.

(2) Drones, Bell House (Brooklyn, September 9). Having flown in that day from Australia, complaining of jet lag and offering to share bronchitis with the sparse crowd, they threw out one ferocious song after another. “Sitting on the edge of the bed crying,” Gareth Liddiard sang over and over, with storms of noise whirling around his head, the words muttered, chanted, shouted, whispered, until the piece seemed less about a broken heart than the human condition. Guitarist Dan Luscombe said they’d be doing songs from their 2005 album …Wait Long by the River and the Bodies of Your Enemies Will Float By. It was a prosaic promise: the embattled us the band enacts against the empowered them waiting outside the club that was itself the shelter from the storm the Drones were dramatizing. But it didn’t come off that way. The music was so strong, so full of loose wires twisting through the air in a spastic dance, that you could imagine that yes, you were the “you” in “your enemies”—and that Liddiard, Luscombe, bassist Fiona Kitschin, and drummer Michael Noga were your enemies, and that as they floated by this was the song they sang.

(3) Mad Men, “My Old Kentucky Home” (AMC, August 30).  It’s the wedding reception for Roger Sterling of Sterling Cooper, the white-haired dandy who’s dumped his wife for a secretary, now offering the guests his rendition of “My Old Kentucky Home”— in blackface.  It’s 1963, the height of the Civil Rights movement; the refusal of the history that’s being made elsewhere in America magnifies the gruesomeness of the act.  It can stay in your mind like an overheard insult: the presumption that the subjects of the Sterling’s performance will be excluded from its audience, unless they’re maids or houseboys, in which case they’re invisible anyway.

(4) Thomas Pynchon, Infinite Jest (Penguin).  In the late ’60s and early ’70s people used to talk about the great hippie detective novel.  About a dope deal, of course, with an outsider, outlaw version of Philip Marlowe or Lew Archer—and Roger Simon’s Moses Wine, starting out in 1973 with The Big Fix and still on the case thirty years later, wasn’t it.  Hunter Thomson played the role well in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and then dissolved in his own hype.  Pynchon’s Doc Sportello somehow realizes the fantasy.

There’s lazy writing: the repeated use of the screenwriter’s “a beat” to signal a pause, neologisms (“at the end of the day” [247]) that weren’t there then, set pieces lifted from The Little Sister or The Chill (the visit to the big mansion, the hero doped up in the locked room)—but Pynchon’s affection for Sprotello’s time and place, Los Angeles in 1970 with the shadow of the Manson murders still hanging in the air, is overwhelming, and it’s this that powers the book. What’s new is Pynchon’s depiction of the economy of the hippie utopia as altogether heroin-driven; Sportello himself, a one-time skip tracer who’s graduated into the world of the licensed PI, beach bum division, who at 29 could be a former member of the Charlatans; and Sportello’s nemesis, the infinitely manipulative LAPD homicide detective Bigfoot Bjornsen.  “The whole field of homicide’s being stood on its ear,” he says, “—bye-bye, Black Dahlia, rest in peace Tom Ince, we’ve seen the last of those good old-time L. A. murder mysteries I’m afraid.  We’ve found the gateway to hell, and it’s asking far too much of your L.A civilian not want to go crowding through it, horny and giggling as always, looking for that latest thrill.  Lots of overtime for me and the boys I guess, but it brings us all that much closer to the end of the world”—and you can almost see Squeaky Fromme, not to mention generations of Los Angeles psychics and mystics, perched on his shoulder, smiling like the Mona Lisa. [209] There is a line that in any other hands would be ridiculous but here feels exactly right—a line that to get off the ground needs a whole book behind it, that hits the note the book itself needs to lift off into the air.  “He waited until he saw a dense patch of moving shadow, sighted it in, and fired, rolling away immediately, and the figure dropped like an acid tab in the mouth of Time.” [327]—a moment that fades into an ending nearly tragic in the gorgeousness of all that will soon pass away.  Doc Sportello would be about 70 now—there’s a whole series of stories behind him by or, for Pynchon, ahead of him.

(5) The White Ribbon, directed by Michael Haneke (Telluride Film Festival, September 5).  In 1913, a series of disasters overtakes a small German village, and it comes most starkly to life in two linked shots in this black and white film.  A woman, a worker, has been killed in an accident.  Haneke places the camera to take in a rough, crumbling room where her naked body has been set on a bed.  The camera waits.  The woman’s husband, walks into the room.  He covers the body.  He leaves the room.  The camera eye remains in place; you wait.  Not long after, two children are about to be caned by their father, the town minister.  With the camera positioned to take in a carefully decorated hallway, the epitome of bourgeois propriety, they pass into the next room.  The door is closed; the camera remains focused on the hallway.  The camera waits; the viewer waits.

In both cases, with these long and stationary shots, the action, either on camera of off, ceases to matter.  It is the places that come to life, that witness, that hear, and that translate what has occurred for the viewer, which is to say lead the viewer to imagine what else these walls have seen—or, perhaps more particularly for Haneke, since the movie is a parable about the emergence of Nazism, what they will.  The dread and foreboding in these waiting images, with ambient sound, the sound of the rooms breathing—because of the way they are not only part of a greater drama, but visually its black holes—can load the same qualities into the seemingly more benign images from which they are so directly drawn: Walker Evans’s 1936 photos of tenant family shacks in Hale County, Alabama.

(6) Jean (Hans) Arp, Birds in an Aquarium, c. 1920 (Museum of Modern Art, New York).  In Richard Powers’s 2003 novel The Time of Our Singing, Deilia Daley, an African-American pianist from Philadelphia, and David Strom, a German-Jewish refugee physicist from New York, meet in the crowd at Marian Anderson’s 1939 performance from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.  “A bird and a fish can fall in love,” is the line that runs through the book, “but where can they make their nest?”  “The bird can make a nest on the water,” one can read on the last page.  “The fish can fly.”  With this small assemblage of wood cutouts—in beige and black, what could be a neolithic mother figure as a background; in grey, two schematic bird goddesses on its chest, a red heart in one, a black heart in the other; and at the base, or the belly, rolling waves in red, brown, and blue—Arp made the fable come true.

(7) Mekons, “The Old Trip to Jerusalem,” Great American Music Hall (San Francisco, July 28).  With his cadaverous sunken eyes, Lu Edmonds, who plays such ancient instruments as the saz, had the look of one of the 17th century heretics the song is about: the look of one of them as he might have been then, and as he might be today if he’d never died.  I thought I heard someone call out for “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground,” which in this context was “Free Bird.”

(8) Deer Tick, Born on Flag Day (Partisan) There’s great depth here, rooted in folk tunes many generations older than the musicians.  The way John McCauley can mock himelf and still convince you he means every words he says lifts lines out of the burgeoning Providence noise.  “Smith Hill” is a sardonic song about nihilism so moving I had to stop it, then play it again to hear McCauley sing “I could drink myself to death tonight, I could stand and give a toast.”  Perhaps best is “Friday XIII,” a duet with the Providence singer Liz Isenberg, whose readiness to find a laugh anywhere brings back Townes Van Zandt’s “Waiting Around to Die”—without any death.  “I can drink a lot better than I could in my teens,” the guy promises; “OOOOOO” goes the girl.  Hidden track: “Goodnight Irene”—party version.

(9) The Texas Sheiks (Tradition and Moderne) Even with shimmering cover art by Ed Ruscha, there’s something inherently hokey about old-time old-time music mavens—led by Geoff Muldaur, who came out of the Club 47 in Cambridge nearly 50 years ago—going back to the well one more time.  The bet is that the allure in tunes first recorded in the ’20s and ’30s—“The World Is Going Wrong,” “Poor Boy, Long Ways from Home,” “Traveling Riverside Blues”—remains a treasure to be found, no matter how many times you might have thought you touched it.  It pays off most improbably in Johnny Nicholas’s vocal for his revision of Skip James’s 1931 “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues.”  The imitation of James’s growl, his cadence, the weight of a tramp wearing all the clothes he owns on his back—it’s embarrassing, and then it’s a trance.  And then it’s a sting, as Nicholas shows his hand and explicitly tips a song composed in the trough of one depression onto the edge of another one.

(10) Richard Powers, Generosity: An Enhancement (Farrar Straus Giroux).  In this novel, a t-shirt: “DADA: IT’S NOT JUST FOR UMBRELLAS ANYMORE.”

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