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Real Life Rock Top Ten – January 2011

by Greil Marcus
Illustration by Charles Burns

Real Life Rock Top Ten – January 2011

Greil Marcus
8 Snaps

(1) Scott Shepherd in Gatz, directed by John Collins, produced by Elevator Repair Service (Public Theater, New York, October 29, 2010). At the very end of this partly dramatized reading of The Great Gatsby—with various people working in and around a somewhat ratty 1980s office, here and there turning into Gatsby, Daisy, Tom Buchanan, and anyone else who appeared in Fitzgerald’s pages eighty-five years ago—Shepherd puts down the book he’s been reading from since he came across it in a desk compartment nearly eight hours before, and begins a drift all the way into the Nick Carraway he’s only intermittently portrayed, a drift into the canonized reverie of the final pages.

From “I see now that this has been a story of the West” to “ceaselessly into the past,” they comprise some of the most gorgeous American writing, words suspended in their own air—sentences that have been so relentlessly quoted, memorialized, worshiped, and declaimed that they are now clichés preserved in their own amber. It’s not easy to read these last paragraphs, but it’s far more difficult to say them out loud: to make it feel as if you haven’t heard them before, to bring the words down out of the clouds and into the mouth of someone who can convince you he’s talking to you when he’s saying them.

I can’t tell you exactly how Shepherd did it. He sat at a desk and moved, as if he were thinking with his arms and shoulders as well as his mind, his memory, as the thoughts he was relating came to him. It wasn’t a reverie. He did seem to be looking at the big houses as he spoke of them, to see the trees that weren’t there. He seemed almost on the verge of tears, and to change his demeanor, his manner of speaking, in order to protect the words from his own emotions—his, Nick Carraway’s, or his, Scott Shepherd’s? But as I listened in a small theater suddenly so still the quiet was its own kind of loudness, I noticed that I was tapping my foot.

If there’s a rhythm in that ending as Fitzgerald wrote it, it’s spectral and complex—something it might take an Ives or a Satie to find. In Shepherd’s hands it was a beat. Slow, measured, a ragtime ghost.

(2) John Legend and the Roots, Wake Up! (Columbia). When Legend first appeared, he seemed spontaneously generated by the Grammy Awards: as bland, contrived, and smarmy as his name. He’s never been so convincing, so flesh-and-blood, as on this recasting of 1970s political soul music as a manifesto for the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, and the Roots, who wear musical history like clothes they picked up that morning off the floor, have a lot to do with that. Guitarist Kirk Douglas cuts the bottom out of Bill Withers’s 1973 “I Can’t Write Left-Handed”—about Vietnam on Withers’s record, about Afghanistan on this one—leaving Legend to make his way through the moral wilderness of the song on his own, and he sounds as if he’s been waiting years for the chance.

(3)  . . . Next Stop Is Vietnam—The War on Record: 1961-2008 (Bear Family).  A daunting package—13 CDs of music and documentary inserts, one of song lyrics, and a more than 300-page illustrated hard-bound book—organized thematically: Disc 2, “Proud to Serve,” is mostly dead-soldier-serves-the-cause-of-freedom songs, mostly performed with a really bottomless insincerity.  The set reaches its apotheosis with Bob Braun’s appalling 1966 “Brave Men Not Afraid”: “Someone may die for me tonight,” he says happily, smugly, as if he’s on his third drink.  The most bizarre note is struck with Lee Hazelwood’s 1968 production of “The Warrior” by Honey Ltd.—a female quartet from Detroit, previously known, one learns, as Mama Cat, whose first single, “My Boy,” about a soldier on his way to Vietnam, was produced by Bob Seger.  “The Warrior” is presented here as “a terrifying anti-war song,” but we’ve just heard them introduced by Bob Hope, “on tour in Vietnam,” performing for our troops, presumably performing this weird Playboy fantasy, this complete eroticization of war and death: “”It’s good, it’s so good . . . We must kill more people . . . This body is precious, as it’s lowered to the grave . . . Oh God!  It’s so good!”  And the ending: “Da da da da da,” just hopping down the street.

(4) Prints: Now in 3-D! at the Minnesota Center for Book Arts (Minneapolis, Sept. 9-Oct. 31).  A show of objects and print works, including a ravishing red/pink prom dress and pumps, a set of clothes to be presented at an ER for a rape kit, and Jonathan Stewart’s Let’s-Go series—a set of boxes with boxy, Leggo-like cartoon characters acting out Stewart’s theme: “I am primarily concerned with how history, experiences, and emotions are packaged for consumption.  My boxes point toward a market place where these characteristics are bought and sold.”  So there are five bright boxes that look like they ought to contain Animal Crackers, red and blue, pink and yellow: Leaving with the Kids (walking out on the husband,” 4 inches x 6 inches), Nowhere Else to Go (homelessness, 7 x 5), Panhandling for Change (6 x 4), the hard to read Pregnancy Test (3 x 4), and, most striking, the tiny (1 1/2 x 2 1/2) Rejection Letter, just about big enough for one small cookie inside, or a small piece of rolled up paper.  On front: man holding a letter by his thigh.  On the back, you read it over his shoulder as he reads it, as any rejection letter reads to whoever gets it: “To whom it may concern—We regret to inform you that you are not the best at what you do.  We have decided to go with somebody else.  They are much better than you in every way.”

(5) Joe Posnanski, “# 23: Tom Cheek on Joe Carter’s game-winning World Series homer in 1993,” from “Thirty-two Great Calls” (SI.com, October 14, 2010).  Posnanski: “I see Joe Carter every now and then. He lives in Kansas City and every so often we will be at the same event and we’ll make some small talk. I’ve never asked him — making me one of four people in American who has not — but I do wonder what it does for the rest of your life to hit a home run that wins the World Series. How often do you think about it when no one is around? How does it make you feel to talk about it every single day?* At some point does it feel like someone else hit it, someone you aren’t anymore?

“Anyway, Tom Cheek’s call was memorable.

“‘Touch ’em all Joe, you’ll never hit a bigger home run in your life!’

“*I think about this with musicians. You write a song, and you work on the words (‘Wait, what else rhymes with heaven?’) until it’s exactly what you want it to sound like. You bring it to the band, and maybe they collaborate, add a guitar thing here, a drum thing there. You record it, then record it again, and again, and maybe again. And when you finally get it down, through production, you really like it. You think it might become a hit.

“Does it occur to you while you are doing it that it really might become a hit? And if it does, yes, of course, it will make you a lot of money. But you might have to play this song FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE?  Does it occur to you that you may end up traveling city to city, for years and years, and every time you start this song people will go crazy and they will sing along, and after a while the song may become used up for you, but it will NEVER become used up for them? They will never get tired of it, not ever. When you are old and retired, and you show up somewhere, they may STILL want you to sing that song. In fact, for them this song actually IS you.

“Every time Bruce Springsteen pours his heart into ‘Born To Run,’ my admiration for him doubles.”

(6-8) Sam Amidon, I See the Sign (Bedroom Community, 2010), All Is Well (Bedroom Community (2007), “The Only Tune” on Nico Muhly, Mothertongue (Bedroom Community, 2008). A twenty-nine-year-old folk singer, Amidon is wispy, indistinct, insinuating, at his best suggestive of something he can’t quite get across.  He has his own style, his own approach, but he seems most of all to be listening to himself, and even on All Is Well, dedicated to Dock Boggs, his hero and mine, it wasn’t enough to keep me listening.  But across nearly the last fourteen minutes of Nico Muhly’s Mothertongue, otherwise operatic translations of English heresies, there is more than a glimpse of why Amidon may someday turn his voice into a language.

He takes up an old folk song, or simply an old folk phrase, the sort of thing that has migrated from tune to tune for hundreds of years: “The cruel wind and the rain.”  He begins with an odd hesitation, as if in a recital he can’t push through a mirror, the words coming out one at a time: “There, there, there were, there were, there were two, there were two, there were two sis, there were two sis, there were two sisters . . .”  And then a murder.

It’s incalculably spooky, the way the action comes out of nowhere, the way Amidon has prepared you to expect nothing. His light voice is weightless here, which is not the same thing; retelling this fable, he sounds as if he heard it only once removed from the actual event.  Now he’s lying in his bed late at night, wondering how much of the story he believes, turning it over and over in his mind, trying to make it hold still, trying to decide if he wants to believe it or not.

Then his voice changes—it’s bent, deeper, insistently unmusical, unpleasant.  Now he’s trying to enter the story, almost as a character, and the ululations in the background bring forth a whole chorus of cemetery spirits.  They’ll let Amidon into the story, but not out of it (“I do not believe the rage the dead experience can be contained by the grave,” says Detective Dave Robicheaux in James Lee Burke’s The Glass Rainbow); Amidon is right at the doorstep of the song.  His voice stretches, you hear objects fall in the background, a piano tinkles atonally, and he seems to walk away.

Then he’s floating through the verses again, back in the story: “He made fiddle pegs from her long finger bones.”  You can hear her breathing in the background, as if she’s not dead, as if she can feel herself being cut up, like Uma Thurmond buried alive in Kill Bill.  The tone never changes.  Does the singer believe any of it, now?  Is he just playing with the story, which he heard just yesterday?  The woman behind him believes it.

The production is very formally avant-garde, yet somehow implied by the song itself—a version of the song the song itself wanted to hear.  And that is true folk music if anything is.

(9) Gang of Four, Content (Yep Roc).  Just as The King’s Speech is an action-packed thriller about speech therapy, the Gang of Four’s 1979 debut album Entertainment! was an action-packed thriller about false consciousness and commodity fetishism.  There was resistance—a strangled no inside almost every moment of panic.   The feeling on Content, the first album of new songs in sixteen years by singer Jon King and guitarist Andy Gill, with bassist Thomas McNeice and drummer Mark Heaney as new members, is that of a kind of frantic longing.  It’s the metallic sound of people caught in the trap of modern capitalism—wanting what they can’t have and, worse, what they don’t even want, people consumed by a sense of a loss every time an ad appears or a purchase goes into the computer.  It’s a music of confusion, until the tone shifts with “A Fruitfly in the Beehive,” where the person running through his own nightmares wakes up, the dream still in front of his eyes, and begins to think, and the result is a reverie surrounded by a sense of jeopardy.  Gill counts off the rhythm circling each line, each idea.

(10) U.S. Senator Russ Feingold, Democrat of Wisconsin, Concession Speech (November 2, 2010).  Feingold came into the Senate in 1992 with Elvis at his back—to counter negative ads against him in the Democratic primary, he ran a don’t-believe-everything-you-read spot with the banner headline “ELVIS ENDORSES FEINGOLD”; the next day everyone in the state knew who he was, and that he had a sense of humor.  He went out with the same flair.  “So—so—so, to all of you,” he said finally.  “In the words of, who else, Bob Dylan: ‘But my heart, is not weary.  It’s light, and free.  I’ve got nothing but affection, for those who have sailed with me.’”  He read as if the words were old and familiar, from Wordsworth, maybe; it was all in the lift, the barest hint of surprise, he gave to “not weary”—something Dylan, for all the times he recorded the song (for Time Out of Mind in 1997, for “Love and Theft” in 2001), never found.  “So,” Feingold said finally, “it’s on to the next fight.  It’s on to the next battle.  It’s on to 2012!  And—and!—it is on to our next adventure.  Forward!

Thanks to Ken Tucker and Be DeMott.

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