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Real Life Rock Top Ten – November/December 2010

by Greil Marcus
Illustration by Charles Burns

Real Life Rock Top Ten – November/December 2010

Greil Marcus
19 Snaps

(1) Bryan Ferry, Olympia (Astralwerks). Want to hear a whole album of “Slave to Love”—or a whole album about hanging around in bars, pretending you’re younger than you are, an undercurrent of lounge-lizard ooze bringing everything to… life? Thanks in part to Roxy Music guitarist Phil Manzanera and saxophonist Andy Mackay, there’s not a false note—especially when a deliriously romantic, regretful, deep-soul embrace of Traffic’s it’s-too-late ballad “No Face, No Name, No Number” takes the singer out of Olympia’s incandescently sleazy paradise, stranding him within sight of a real-world home he’ll never reach.

(2) Biutiful, directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, at the Telluride Film Festival, September 5. Javier Bardem as a father dying of cancer, trying to raise two children while keeping his head above the sewage of the criminal underground economy in Barcelona—and as misery accumulates, in his body, in his family, on the streets, in the basement where illegal Chinese workers sleep, his panic increases, and he begins to slow down, because he can’t keep up. The movie captures the look and feel of Barcelona as a place where people live, not just as a theme park—imagine Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona in this cauldron, and it vaporizes in a second. At nearly two and a half hours, the picture, the story, is not a minute too long; like the lives it describes, it’s too short. It’s draining; when I walked out I felt as if I’d just given blood.

(3) Frazey Ford, Obadiah (Nettwerk). For Ford, the most distinctive voice in the Be Good Tanyas, “Bird of Paradise” is not an image, it’s a lilt. The words as she sings them are wings. It’s that “San Diego alley,” sneaking out the darkness of the song and returning to it almost before you can register it, that’s the image, and you can’t see to its end.

 

(4) Carlos, directed by Olivier Assayas, at the Telluride Film Festival, September 4.  At first, Assayas said in a conversation about his film on the terrorist Carlos, who from his murder of French police in Paris in 1975 to his capture in the Sudan nearly twenty years later was a one-man spectre haunting Europe, he thought of scoring it to classic orchestral movie music throughout.  “But the film did not want it.  The film laughed in my face.”  So from scene to scene—Carlos preening naked in a mirror, the takeover of the OPEC oil ministers’ conference in Vienna in late 1975, after that the shooting of a military policeman at a Swiss checkpoint, a weapons delivery, a breakdown in communications—the movie is less scored to than invaded by post-punk songs so romantic and tough they create empathy for situations even as the film withholds it from its characters.  New Order, the Feelies, the Dead Boys’ “Sonic Reducer,” most viscerally Wire’s “Dot Dash,” a song that seems to terrorize itself—not in any way keyed to the scenes in chronological, soundtrack-of-our-lives banality, they raise the question of whether the best and most adventurous music of the late 1970s early 1980s was as animated by international terrorism, by the spectre of a world where at times it could seem that only a few armed gnostics were in control of anything, as by anything else.

(5) David Thomson, Humphrey Bogart (Farar Strauss Giroux).  There are passages in each of Thompson’s recent short biographies—Bogart, Bette Davis, Gary Cooper, Ingrid Bergman—that frame a classic film in terms no one else would chose.  Here, on Bogart’s Roy Earle, in the 1941 High Sierra—“Earle was a killer, a thief, a loser—sure, he had a kinder side to him, and he got along in a strange tough way with Marie.  But he never stopped the film and said, look, folks, I’m a reformed character.  I’m a nice guy.  Honest, I am.  He never asked for anything.  Maybe that’s what Huston saw and maybe he guessed how it could fit into a new moment in American history when all of a sudden the real heroes didn’t have to wear labels but could be as mean, as hard-bitten and as unsentimental as . . . Sam Spade or Rick Blaine or Philip Marlowe (or Tom Joad)”—the difference is Thomson’s claiming a movie not for film history, which is what anyone else would have done, but for American history.

(6) Cyndi Lauper, video for “Money Changes Everything,” from The Body Acoustic (Sony, 2005).  Who knew Tom Gray’s 1980 “Money Changes Everything,” which three years later Lauper ripped up as a lament and stitched back together as vengeance, was all along looking for life as a fatalistic Appalachian stomp, something the grown-ups now singing it, playing it on fiddle and harmonium, swirling to it, absorbed as children like a lullaby or a slap?

(7) Robert Plant, Band of Joy (Rounder).  Much is made of Plant’s working with Nashville musicians under the name of the band he played in before he joined Led Zeppelin, back in the blimp age.  But against the free, unencumbered stroll through “Cindy I’ll Marry You Someday,” a commonplace song Plant learned from a recording by the great North Caolina folklorist Bascom Lamar Lunsford (1892-1973), everything else—new songs, covers of numbers by Townes Van Zandt, the Minnesota duo Low, Los Lobos, Richard Thompson, Barbara Lynn, even the gothic spiritual “Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down”—feels contrived.  “When I found Bascom Lamar Lunsford,” Plant said recently, “I was born again”; the true roots he’s getting back to are those he’s yet to find.

(8/9) Washington Square Park, New York City, 10 PM, August 30.  It was a hot night and the park was jammed; there were a lot of people with guitars out, under the arch, around the fountain, wherever there was an open space under the lights.  But sitting on the ground in the dark, yards away from any other person, was someone singing and playing Rod Stewart’s “Maggie May.”  He sang it very slowly, as if he were still working it out—as on The Rod Stewart Sessions 1971-1998, a box set released last year on Rhino, you can hear Stewart working it out in the studio, plugging in nonsense lines, trying to get a hold on the melody, as if the song was coming out of the air, as if it wasn’t simply his world-historic 1971 rewrite of the old Liverpool folk song about a prostitute and sailor.

It was odd, and, if you were in the mood, heart-stopping.  The man in the dark was in public, as if he had a need to make himself heard, to an audience as spectral as he had made himself.  As public performer he had withdrawn into himself, where only his sound drew any listener to the dim outline of his body.  So the element of loss and regret that’s one element in Stewart’ original was now the whole song, but staged as if it were a play.  The man was singing Stewart’s words, following his tune, all the way back to the docks, and, as the song played out, Rod Stewart might never have been born.

(10) Justin Sullivan and Friends, Tales of the Road (Attack Attack, 2004). Looking around the Internet for odd Tom Jones songs, I stumbled on a video from this album and was stunned by as unforgiving a performance of “Masters of War” as I’d ever seen. Here the front man for New Model Army, along with the drummer and guitarist from the London punk band—who with Jones rammed their way through “Gimmie Shelter” as if it were a collapsing building—begins a set recorded around Europe, mostly, it seems, in Germany, with the title song, apparently about the most tiresome subject in the annals of rock ’n’ roll.  But that’s not it.

As the with the music throughout the album, a dankness pervades everything, and with echoes of elements in rock ’n’ roll most resistant to borrowing, even homage—Bruce Springsteen’s harmonica in “Nebraska,” the reach of the Doors’ “The End,” the primitivism of the Mekons’ “The Building”—the very first minutes are the spookiest of all.  In the place called up with “Sitting in the all-night café in a curl of smoke, telling tales of the road,” you might glimpse not a few aging musicians in a Greek restaurant in Soho but anarchists from the late 19th century meeting up in a Whitechapel tavern to pass secrets, then disappearing in the night.  This isn’t sorry-babe-the-road-is-calling me.  If it’s a rock ’n’ roll road then it’s a different rock ’n’ roll.

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