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Real Life Rock Top Ten – Nov/Dec 2011

by Greil Marcus
Illustration by Charles Burns

Real Life Rock Top Ten – Nov/Dec 2011

Greil Marcus
10 Snaps

(1) David Lynch, Crazy Clown Time (Sunday Best). Lynch has written songs before, most memorably for Julee Cruise. He’s recorded, notably with John Neff for the 2003 Blue Bob. But he has never tried anything like this: singing and playing lead guitar on a full-out set of songs. By its end, he has mapped a version of America—an America bordered on one side by teenagers getting drunk and on the other by perverts insisting they’re just like anybody else, fuckhead—a picture of ordinary life as funny and unsettling as you can find in Mulholland Dr. or Lost Highway. There is terrific psychedelic Duane Eddy guitar—a slow, seductive rhythm, reverb as big as a house. Again and again, there is a talking voice playing with syllables, stretching them out, bending them, curling them, until you become altogether attuned to the musicality of every inflection. But most of all, there are scenes you can visualize as you listen. For “Football Game” there is dramatic, gonging guitar, and the feel of the Top 40 death ballad brought up to date. “I went down… to the football game,” says a beaten-down character missing half his teeth (he’s not that far from David Thomas in “Nowheresville,” telling a story about the guy who thought his wife was going to leave him, how he had this great idea to build a motel on the new interstate, but then they put the interstate on the other side of the valley…), and you don’t take him seriously until “I saw you / with another man,” and the stakes go up.

“Good Day Today” plays with ’60s yé-yé, Hooverphonics’ synthesizer lounge ambience, cheesy French movie music, with tiny background synthesizer uh-uh-uh-uh-uhs, all so someone you do not want to meet can tell you, “I want to have a good day today,” which is to say he’ll do whatever he has to do to get it—don’t pedophile serial killers deserve one too? There is “Speed Roadster,” Bruce Springsteen’s “Stolen Car” as a stalker’s reverie, and “These Are My Friends,” where the singer tells you, “I got a truck,” that he’s “got two good ears, and my eye on you”—it’s a high-school love song, Marty Robbins’s 1957 “A White Sport Coat (And a Pink Carnation)” crossed with Larry Clark’s Tulsa, a creepy, moving version of Rosie and the Originals’ 1960 “Angel Baby” slowed down to a crawl: “These are my friends, the ones I see each day / I got a perscription fer a product, keep the hounds at bay.”

These are rich, sometimes tricky studio assemblages; after a few listenings you’re only scratching the surface, but with “Crazy Clown Time” you might get everything the first time. It’s Lynch in his high, thin voice, the old man suddenly reinhabiting his teenage self, Frank from Blue Velvet stopping you on the street to tell you just how it was when “Susie, she ripped her shirt off, completely”—and it’s that completely that still has him shaking his head in wonder after all these years. “Calling Little Richard,” the song begins, and he’s right there, the parents are gone, and while the party gets increasingly out of control (“Then he poured beer all over Sally… Danny spit on Susie”), nothing really terrible happens. But the tempo slows, the atmosphere goes heavy and dark, as if the party has moved from Fred’s house to the roadhouse in Twin Peaks. “Susie had hers off completely,” the man keeps saying, as if he’s trying with everything he has to remember exactly what that looked like, and just can’t. It would have been interesting to hear this on the radio in 1965, a dank, gothic, blues version of “Double Shot (Of My Baby’s Love).” “It was really fun,” the old man says finally.

(2) Sometymes Why, “Too Repressed” (YouTube). Aoife O’Donovan of the Boston traditionalist band Crooked Still in a side project with Kristin Andreassen and Ruth Merenda—though apart from background laughter this club performance is really all O’Donovan, with her angelic face, her soft, probing tone, and a new song which starts off like any other hand-me-down ballad she might take up. Until she gets to the chorus. “I want to fuck you,” she sings, “but I’m too repressed / I want to suck you / But I can’t take off my dress.” She’s as convincing on the first lines as she is unconvincing on the second.

(3) Martin Scorsese, George Harrison: Living in the Material World (HBO). A three-and-a-half-hour documentary on George Harrison, the Quiet Beatle, otherwise known as the Dull Beatle? Yes, and when it’s over you’ll want more. Never has Harrison’s music sounded so rich; never has his story been told with less pomposity and more grace. And, after Harrison’s years of seeking a higher truth, a purer life, a moment of shock, what he said after he and his wife, Olivia Harrison, fought off the man who broke into their house determined to exterminate the Beatle “witch”: “I never tried to kill anyone before.”

(4) James Gavin, Deep in a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker (Chicago Review Press). Across a lifetime of ruin, the persistence of “My Funny Valentine.”

(5) Veronica Falls, Veronica Falls (Slumberland). Maybe out of season, this is warm-weather driving music, airy and determined, with more than a hint of the Jamies’ “Summertime, Summertime,” as it plays in James Toback’s 1978 Fingers, with Harvey Keitel in a café with his boom box playing when a man at the next table complains. “Do you believe this?” Keitel says. “This is the Jamies, man! ‘Summertime, Summertime’—the most musically inventive song of 1958!”

(6) Percival Everett, Assumption (Graywolf Press). “I was tired of being a good guy,” says small-town New Mexico deputy sheriff Ogden Walker, not quite all there in the three detective stories that make up this book. Coming at the end of the last one, this simple line sends you back, mentally rewriting the ones that preceded it to try to make them work out differently, but they are not quite all there either. These are murder mysteries where the holes in the plot undermine all the apparent facts.

(7) Michael Pisaro, asleep, street, pipes, tones (Gravity Wave). Pisaro is a minimalist composer whose music—here, a more than hour-long piece—reaches for what can feel like nearly absolute abstraction. The abstraction, though, is so complete that you soon begin to feel at home with it. It begins to feel like a landscape, and you begin to inhabit it, to feel your way through it, to recognize features, even to remember landmarks. What begins as a kind of industrial noise turns into industrial wind, and you have the feeling of being taken into a vast desert, which after a long traverse opens up onto a city, one of Anselm Kiefer’s abandoned, after-the-apocalypse ruins, and you can imagine yourself living there. Or, as the title implies, at least sleeping there.

(8) Alan Jackson, Norah Jones, Patty Loveless, Jack White, et al, The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams (Egyptian). Aren’t tribute albums terrible? Yes, and for a collection of Hank Williams lyrics now set to music, Lucinda Williams goes so far around the bend of her own mannerisms she vaporizes like the Wicked Witch of the West. Everyone else is merely earnest and competent, except for Jakob Dylan, whose “Oh, Mama, Come Home” finds a quick beat, then slows the song behind it, then looks past it. Two-line verses, a four-line chorus: you feel someone walking a circle around his day, trying to find a way out, then not caring if he does, in love with the rhythm of his loneliness. It’s the most modest track on the album, the only one with nothing to prove, and you could play it all day long.

(9) Steven Greenhouse, EXAMINING A LABOR HERO’S DEATH: LETTER EMERGES IN 1915 CASE AGAINST JOE HILL (New York Times, August 26). “A new biography makes the strongest case yet that Hill… executed by a Utah firing squad in 1915… was wrongfully convicted of murdering a local grocer, the charge that led to his execution at age 36… The book’s author, William M. Adler, argues that Hill was a victim of authorities and a jury eager to deal a blow to his radical labor union, as well as his own desire to protect the identity of his sweetheart.”

There was powerful if circumstantial evidence against Hill: On January 10, 1914, the same night John G. Morrison and his son were shot to death in their grocery, Hill, an organizer and songwriter for the IWW, the “one big union” which before 1920 was spreading like fire among the miners and loggers in the west, was himself shot in the chest. Prosecutors argued Hill had been hit by a shot Morrison’s son had gotten off before dying, and though Hill had supposedly mentioned a woman and a jealous suitor to the doctor who treated him, at his trial he refused to say anything at all. But for his book The Man Who Never Died, Greenhouse went on, Adler found a “longforgotten letter from Hill’s sweetheart that said he had been shot by a rival for his affections”—and, Greenhouse reported, Adler had been inspired to dig up the bones of the case “after reading Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, which argued that the Hill case was a miscarriage of justice.”

In 1968, Dylan based “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine” on the old labor song “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night” (“Alive as you or me,” it went; “‘I never died,’ said he”). “The more I thought about it,” Dylan says in the three pages in Chronicles he devotes to Hill and the question of the protest song, “‘Long Black Veil’ seemed like it could have been a song written by Joe Hill himself, his last very last one”—but who knew that wasn’t poetry but detective work?

(10) Brighton Rock, written and directed by Rowan Joffe (IFC). On the Brighton pier in 1964, at a “Make a Record of Your Own Voice” booth, Pinkie Brown—played by a terrifying Sam Riley, who four years ago in Control gave a shattered performance as Ian Curtis of Joy Division—cuts the first punk 45. Luckily, the stuff they use for the discs is really cheap.

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