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Real Life Rock Top Ten – Nov/Dec 2008

by Greil Marcus
Illustration by Charles Burns

Real Life Rock Top Ten – Nov/Dec 2008

Greil Marcus
19 Snaps

(1) The Gits, directed by Kerri O’Kane (Liberation Entertainment). They were Mia Zapata, vocals; Matt Dresdner, bass; Andrew Kessler, a.k.a. Joe Spleen, guitar; and Steve Moriarty, drums. They formed at Antioch in 1986 and moved to Seattle in 1989, in time to catch the second wave of Northwest punk. The first half of this long-after-the-fact documentary is the band coming together, finding its music, and the pace is frustrating. You get only tiny snatches of songs, onstage, on the sound track, and what little is there is so alluring, so full of the spirit of someone driving herself through a storm of her own making, so delicious (“Another Shot of Whiskey,” “Here’s to Your Fuck”—they took Dennis Hopper’s rants in Blue Velvet and made a language out of them) that you can barely stand it when the film moves back to exposition, interviews, scene-setting. Inside the band’s velocity, the sound has grandeur; as Moriarty pounds shirtless and Dresdner and Kessler leave the action to Zapata, she is shockingly alive onstage, breathing the band’s tremendous, unpredictable rhythms like air. But as the band members tell you how they began to come into their own, you are there, and, bit by bit, whole songs begin to assemble themselves, in complete performances, in cutups of many performances, in costumes (street clothes, Medieval court jesters), in haircuts: “While You’re Twisting, I’m Still Breathing,” “Bob (Cousin O.),” “Second Skin.” It’s a great thrill to watch a whole creation take place in full before you, a song as a life lived. I’ve never seen the special quality of liberation punk offered people brave enough to take the stage and hold it put across so powerfully onscreen—and as the band members talk years later, they don’t hide the sense of privilege they still retain, the privilege of, once, making their own drama.

Zapata was raped and strangled to death sometime after 2 A.M. on July 7, 1993, on a deserted Seattle street. The second half of the movie is a funeral and a cold-case police procedural, the long story of a small community shattered, paranoia replacing comradeship and rivalry: It could have been any of us, a fear that cuts both ways.  Selene Vigil of 7 Year Bitch is a quiet, bitter, dignified presence: “She was missing in action.”  The case gets nowhere; Joan Jett fronts the three men to sing Gits songs and raise money to hire a detective: they “found out a lot of stuff about people”—about people they knew, that is—but no leads.  You see the tombstone

MIA KATHERINE ZAPATA

AUG. 25 MIA, 1965-JULY 7, 1993

CHERISHED DAUGHTER-SISTER-ARTIST-FRIEND-GIT

Ten years later, a DNA match pulls up a felon in Florida.  He’s returned to Seattle to stand trial: a huge thug with death all over his face.  Vigil: “The last thing she saw—she was looking in this guy’s eyes.”  O’Lane trusts her story; she never embellishes, never tells you something you’ve already heard.  She’s not afraid of her story, either; there’s not an unearned look on any face she found.

2) Lucinda Williams, Little Honey (Lost Highway).  The very first track ends with a flourish so drawn-out and self-congratulatory she might as well have dubbed in applause over the last note.

3) Hanif Kureishi, Something to Tell You (Scribners)  In London, a middle-aged psychoanalyst tied in knots tries to untie himself.  “I guess I’d been something of a snob before, wondering whether it was healthy to be so moved by Roy Orbison and Dusty Springfield.”

4) All Girl Summer Fun Band, Looking Into It (AGSFB Music).  Not as funny as the Portland combo’s 2001 debut, with “Car Trouble” and “Cell Phone,” but on top of a beat that snaps like a pencil there are gorgeous harmonies floating over no-nonsense lead vocals relating how nothing works out the way you thought it would.  The day Jen Sbrigia, Kim Baxter, and Kathy Foster describe is all-American: getting in the car, driving all over town running errands, looking at the signs, wondering if the person who just passed you on the left is someone you went out with two years after high school, the radio on, imagining it’s you.

5) Fucked Up, The Chemistry of Common Life (Matador).  It’s glorious, the lyricism buried beneath the crumbling mountains of sound the Toronto hardcore band makes here: a wall of noise that’s not so hard the complexity of the singing—its doubt—can’t break through.  Mostly that’s Pink Eyes, aka Father Damian, real name Damiam Abraham, who growls, roars, rents his garments.  But it’s the backing vocals of lighter voices that givethe vision of social collapse and moral panic a kind of serenity.  Repeating one phrase over and over in breaks between Abraham’s rages in “Black Albino Bone,” Dallas Green appears as a second mind, saying what Abraham won’t, what he can’t, what might make him seem weak, afraid, though Green never sounds remotely weak or afraid.  One song later, in “Royal Swan,” instead of trading pieces of time Katie Stelmanis-Cali floats like a queen in a costume epic behind Abraham’s increasingly harsh chorus, until finally they’re walking through the ruins shoulder to shoulder.  It may not match the 18-minute single “Year of the Pig,” where Caitlin Starowicz, Katherine Pill, Visnja Jovanovic, Lauren Moses-Brettler, and Alison Griggs stroll through the forest of the music like a whole tribe of Little Red Riding Hoods to Abraham’s Big Bad Wolf—by the end, with the band fighting off its own feedback, you realize they’ve been in cahoots s all along—but its not certain anything this group can do would, or should.

6) U.S. Army, “Army Celebrates 60 Years” (television commercial).  It was all over the airwaves in July, marking the day in 1948 when, as a front page featured in the spot showed, PRESIDENT TRUMAN WIPES OUT SEGREGATION IN ARMED FORCES.  “Celebrating 60 years of a unified armed forces,” says a voice not unlike Dennis Hasbert’s, over a montage of soldiers then and now: “A diverse Army—is a strong Army.”  We know the word integration has disappeared from the language, but this makes it seem as if (first clause) we used to have two armies (which of course we did, during and after the Civil War) and that (second clause) it’s good to have people from different backgrounds in the Army.  What’s interesting is that the very fact of the message implies that this is still an open question.

7) Pipettes, “Pull Shapes,” from We are the Pipettes (Cherrytree, 2007).  Whenever this comes on—I heard it on The L Word—it’ll be a surprise.  Smiles as good as the one that breaks all over the chorus always are.

8) Ruth Gerson, Deceived (ruthgerson.com).  Death ballads, those first sung by people who’ve been dead for more than a century (“Butcher’s Boy,” “Banks of the Ohio,” “Delia’s Gone”) and some first sung by those still living (Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe,” Dolly Parton’s “Down from Dover”), getting under the skin every time.

9) Vladimir Feltsman, conductor and piano, Shostakovich’s “Piano Concerto No. 1 in C minor, op. 35,” 1933 (Aspen Music Festival, August 7).  In-your-face, thumb-up-your-nose drive, crazy-quilt rhythms, cool breezes blowing through spare piano notes followed by clashing and banging and a runaway train to nowhere.  It was futurism both as ethos and musical practice—a movement that had a huge impact on the Russian avant-garde in the 1910s and ’20s, and in the early ’30s was still traveling under the Stalinist radar.   As a conductor, Feltsman was unpretentious, very physical, but in the sense of someone at home in his own skin, never drawing attention to himself, no violent maestro’s head shakes or arm wrestling with invisible demons.  He gestured like a man having a conversation with the musicians—the Sinfonia, the student orchestra—just someone trying to make a point.

10) Rock ’n’ Roll Camp for Girls, edited by Marisa Anderson.  It’s a week in Portland where girls from eight to eighteen form bands with strangers, write songs, learn to play, and make themselves heard—or, in other words, stand up the public square, not alone, and speak to the crowd: “Bold,” Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney writes in the introduction, “is learning how to play the drums on Monday and performing in front of five hundred people on Saturday.”  A lot of this wonderfully illustrated book (shadowy photos and bright cartoons) is friendly, point-by-point how-to, but there’s also Sarah Dougher’s history lesson “Real Girls Rock,” Jodi Darby’s “Self-Defense,” where Mia Zapata is a present in her absence (“no matter how spirited and strong we might be, we are all potential victims of violent crimes”), and, perhaps most indelibly, “How I Got Out of My Bedroom (in eleven lessons)” by Mirah Yom Tov Zeitlyn, who records as Mirah (seek out Mirah with the Black Cat Orchestra, To All We Stretch the Open Arm, yoyo, recorded “in Larry Barrett’s basement in Seattle, WA in January 2003, as the world braced itself for another water”).  “In 1993, I was a student at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington,” Zeitlyn writes.  “I remember going to a Bikini Kill show downtown, standing outside the Capitol Theater and looking through the open door at all the girls inside and then deciding to just walk home.  It should have been a very inclusive situation.  I was a girl, I believed in the power of like-minded people gathering together, I was starting to make music, too.  But I went home instead of joining in.  I didn’t feel cool enough to stay.”  Or, as the late novelist Alexander Trocchi once put it, “We have to attack ‘the enemy’ at his base, within ourselves.”

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