(1) Robert Johnson, The Centennial Collection (Columbia Legacy). Johnson’s 1936 and 1937 recordings—to quote the late Wilfrid Mellers in his unsurpassed study Music in a New Found Land, “the ultimate, and scarifying disintegration of the country blues… The expression of loneliness—the singer speaking with and through his guitar—could be carried no further”—have been reissued in countless formats since they were first collected, in 1961. They have been remastered, reengineered, rebalanced, all but reamed to bring out the sound you can’t hear but should. But never like this. For this celebration of the hundredth anniversary of Johnson’s birth, on May 8, 1911, in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, there are new liner notes by the blues historian Ted Gioia and by Johnson copyrighter Steve LaVere—but what the music now needs is a full technical report. LaVere’s praise for digital transfers and noise reduction by the engineers Steven Lasker and Seth Winner is not adequate. What they’ve done is a revelation: they have stripped the past from Johnson, the nearly three-quarters of a century from then to now, and placed him and you in the same room. He’s playing to you, trying to get across. You are trying to tell him that you’ve never heard anything like this before, even though you have his records, even in a half dozen redundant editions, played to death, the covers of the original LPs instantly memorized for the drama of the first, the ordinariness of the second, which, coming in the wake of the first, was more dramatic still: the idea that some individual with a name and a face could be responsible for music that, no less than the forgotten playwright Aeschylus stole from, rewrote the human spirit. You’re trying to tell him all this; he’s listening.
You may have listened to Johnson through each successive improvement, each set of new sonic clothes; you haven’t heard these notes, these words, these leaves trembling on the trees.
(2) Elvis Costello and the Imposters, “Jimmie Standing in the Rain” (Fox Theater, Oakland, California, May 8). Near the end of the show, when he’d dropped the Spectacular Spinning Songbook format, he stepped into this tune from his 2010 National Ransom. It’s about a man in a British coal town, getting nowhere in his attempts to get by with cowboy music—because this is also a song about the Great Depression, and there’s no work, anywhere. The man in the song seemed to sink lower, down to his knees, the more expansive and delicate Costello’s voice became. The sound in the hall had been one impenetrable echo from the start—at one point Costello stepped away from the mike stand and sang without any amplification at all, and for a moment you could hear a real person on the stage—but finally the clouds cleared. And then, without any change you could catch, he was singing the last, desperately smiling verse of Bing Crosby’s 1932 “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” For a moment, many things just out of reach for the rest of the night were present: beauty, terror, a curl in the words, a naked soul, shame. The sounds in Costello’s throat grew bigger even as they seemed to scurry away from him, back into history, out into the street. “Mr. Harburg’s song,” Costello said the next day, speaking of Yip Harburg, who wrote the words Crosby sang, “is sadly back in vogue.”
(3) Alison Krauss and Union Station, Paper Airplane (Rounder). You could say there’s nothing new here in New Bluegrassland. Krauss and guitarist Dan Tyminski still trade tunes. Their approaches are so different—he’s funny regardless what story he’s telling, she’s a fatalist (the way she says “Save your breath” in “Sinking Stone”) no matter how happy an ending—they seem more like people who say hello when they pass each other on the street every day than members of the same band. If you want something new you might as well bulldoze the town.
(4) Rainy Day, “I’ll Keep It with Mine” (YouTube). Someone took Susanna Hoffs’s 1984 version of this 1966 Bob Dylan demo—a song that, as far as I know, has never been done badly, by anyone—Nico, Fairport Convention, Bettie Serveert (behind the crawl in I Shot Andy Warhol, maybe the best)—and used it as a sound track for excerpts from the rigorously formalist avant-garde filmmaker Guy Debord’s 1961 movie Critique de la séparation. In a Paris travelogue, the camera is madly in love with a young girl: a round, trusting face, very short hair, a gamin from central casting. As it follows her down the street, pauses over her outside a café, stops her in still photos, Hoffs, recording almost a quarter century later—former L.A. punk in the Bangs, in 1984 a glamour girl in the Bangles—seems to have been there and gone. She could be that same person, all those years later, facing the fact that all the wrong turns in her life started here.
(5) Steven Brower, “Breathless Homicidal Slime Mutants”: The Art of the Paperback (Universe). There are many collections of lurid paperback covers. This book makes gestures toward bibliographic seriousness, but it’s really about the necklines, when there are any: I mean, where would modern painting be without Erskine Caldwell? Still, it’s the nighttown cover for The Catcher in the Rye that might be the most unsettling: this thickset guy with what looks like a backward baseball cap on his head holding a heavy suitcase and walking with determination straight into a New York grotto of bad news, a look of utter suicide on what little you can see of his face.
(6 & 7) Perry Lederman, “Impressions of John Henry,” and Debbie Green, “Who’s Going to Be My Man?” on Hear Me Howling! Blues, Ballads, and Beyond as Recorded by the San Francisco Bay by Chris Strachwitz in the 1960s (Arhoolie Records). An illustrated, 136-page book with a fine text by Adam Machado, four CDs of mostly unreleased work cut between 1954 and 1971 by the German-born folklorist and notoriously honest record man Strachwitz on the blues singers Skip James, Big Joe Williams, Lonnie Johnson, Bukka White, and Lightnin’ Hopkins, the Berkeley folkies and rock ’n’ roll singers Country Joe and the Fish and Joy of Cooking, the R&B shouter Big Mama Thornton, the Zydeco King Clifton Chenier, and many, many more—it’s unquestionably historic stuff. It can tingle. But it’s not their best stuff, and while I listened, fascinated, I was more moved by the unknown early ’60s performances by the guitarist Perry Lederman, dramatizing the John Henry story by trading off between taking the parts of both the steel-driver and the steam drill, and Debbie Green, the Cambridge folksinger who—so pretty people found it easy not to take her seriously—spent a good part of a lifetime accusing Joan Baez of stealing her music and borrowing her soul. On a version of “In the Pines,” her playing is as ragged, self-conscious, and convincing as her testament is elegant and enraged: “By the time I got to Berkeley toward the end of 1960, she had recorded all the songs that I taught her. All my arrangements, and learned all the inflections and facial expressions. She’s a mime. So anyway, then I couldn’t do any of that material because I was a Baez imitator.”
(8) Dreamweapon: The Art and Life of Angus MacLise (Boo-Hooray Gallery, New York, May 10–29). Robert Polito reports: “Memorialized often only as the first drummer (polyrhythmic bongos and tablas) of the Velvet Underground, Angus MacLise was the speeding Wagner of New York’s ’60s downtown: a guy from the suburbs, by way of Paris and India, who intended to scramble poetry, music, dance, theater, art, religion, and film into a total spectacle. Drolly curated by Johan Kugelberg and Will Cameron, the broadsides, posters, handwritten notes, and calligraphy of Dreamweapon suggest the post-cataclysmic totems of a vast, irretrievable civilization—Petra, Pompeii, or Z—if the residue of that civilization consisted of nothing besides ink and a hundred radiant pieces of paper. Collectors tag such stuff ephemera. The wonder is that most of this survived at all, never mind that decades later we still wander the ruins. A 1966 flier for the Film-Makers Cinematheque proposes that you see ‘in the person, or just in the film’ Harry Smith, the Gato Barbieri Quintet, Andy Warhol, Larry Coryell, Jack Smith, D. A. Pennebaker, Bob Neuwirth, Gerard Malanga, Jonas Menkas, Don Snyder, Marie Menken, Barbara Rubin, Weegee, ‘& ANGUS MACLISE & THE VELVET UNDERGROUND in THE DENTAL DESTRUCTION OF THE CHAIRS a MASS MENTAL CONCENTRATION AGAINST FURNITURE BY MOVIES MOVIE MOVIES SLIDES & LOOPS & BURNING PROJECTORSMUSIC WOVEN FOR 12 DAYS ONLY IN THE MASS LOVE CONTEST “SMOTHER ME” FREE FORM WALKING BOO LOVE HISS n’ COME COSTUMED.’ If that’s an advertisement for Paradise Lost, a 1979 pencil draft of a poem (MacLise would die that year in Nepal) is a postcard to the next world—‘Enjoying life I Iook forward to death with the eagerness of a lover. The stars will be mine!—and the final depths of poetry.’”
(9) Dolores Fuller, 1923–2011. In the 1953 Glen or Glenda, she gave Ed Wood—“the cross-dressing writer and director of films so awful they have a stupefying, apocalyptic beauty,” Margalit Fox wrote in her New York Times obituary for Fuller—the angora sweater he craved beyond all flesh. Then she became a songwriter, cowriting the Elvis numbers “Rock-a-Hula Baby” and “Do the Clam”—compositions so awful it’s embarrassing to type their names. Whatever Ed Wood got from her, she got back.
(10) Robert Johnson’s Hellhound on My Ale (Columbia Legacy/Dogfish Head Craft Brewery, dogfish.com). As a promotional tie-in, I figured this had to be terrible: all concept (“Brewed with Lemons,” the front label reads, with the second label explaining the flavoring “as a shout out to Robert Johnson’s mentor Blind Lemon Jefferson”), no beer. It comes only in a twenty-five-ounce bottle, there was no one to taste-test it with, but I opened it anyway.
It was rich without noise, with a huge head. Flavors swam through the glass. It was so smooth it was like drinking a sunset. I reached for the bottle and it was empty.