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Real Life Rock Top Ten – January 2012

by Greil Marcus
Illustration by Charles Burns

Real Life Rock Top Ten – January 2012

Greil Marcus
9 Snaps

(1) Yael Bartana, Entartete Kunst lebt! (Degenerate Art Lives!), as part of Germany Is Your America, curated by Michael Bracewell and Anke Kempkes (Broadway 1602, September 13–December 15, 2011). An animated five-minute 16 mm film—which ought to be playing now not solely in galleries but as an art-house short, a film-festival gem, an online sensation—derived from Otto Dix’s still-shocking 1920 painting War Cripples, which was seized and shown by the Nazis at the 1937 Munich Degenerate Art exhibition. Bartana begins with silhouettes in a hobbled march across a dim screen, which is soon filled by an ever-increasing parade of four hideously maimed war veterans from Dix’s picture, figures that in Bartana’s hands turn into countless different people. In a parade of wooden legs and prostheses, all are in uniform, each one is seemingly more cut-up than the last, with the sound hammering and clattering from the tap dance of the artificial limbs to the screech and cranks of mechanical jaws and other body parts, until the centerpiece seems to become the jaunty man with dark glasses and a cigarette and no arms or legs, being pushed in a cart. More and more and more of them, sometimes shot from above, so you see only massed lines of hats—by the end spelling out the title of the piece like a college marching band as led by Leni Riefenstahl. What’s most striking is the image of happiness on the faces of the men—not pride, really, but smugness: “Look at what I gave for the Fatherland.”

(2/3) Mekons at Bell House (Brooklyn, October 7, 2011) and City Winery (Manhattan, October 8, 2011). At Bell House, before a surging, stand-up throng, they opened with “Thee Olde Trip to Jerusalem”—the trip the heretic takes, so that at the end any place can be the New Jerusalem. In the frenzy of the performance, everyone was a crusader, a Templar knight, a Ranter, a Familist, a Shaker, a Muggletonian. It was Norman Cohn’s Pursuit of the Millennium boiled down to a chant and blown up into “Hey Bo Diddley.” Later, with the Zuccotti Park occupation in its first month, guitarist John Langford announced he was “going to Wall Street.” There were cheers. “To see my investment banker,” he went on. “Play golf with Hank Williams Jr. and Hitler.” Sally Timms stepped forward to sing “I love a millionaire,” and you could see her crooning it at the head of a march, the song now a manifesto of ambivalence, self-hatred, whoredom, money, surrender, and rage. The next night at City Winery, with the band seated in a minstrel-show half circle for an audience of chattering texters, except for Rico Bell sacrificing his firstborn son for “Hard to Be Human Again,” the band did not quite come across—but in a place that a few nights before had hosted a “Music of Sting Wine Pairing” (twenty-five songs, seven wines, with “tasting notes placed at your table” to “reveal why we think each wine flight goes with the particular songs it’s paired with”), who could?

(4) Deep Darkwoods, The Place I Left Behind (Sugar Hill).  From Saskatoon, burrowing into the Appalachian highlands, a band living up to its name and its album title, raising their heads with swooning lead guitar playing this sort of music doesn’t often hear.

(5) Tony Bennett and Amy Winehouse “Body and Soul” from Tony Bennett, Duets II (RPM).  Put this in your computer and iTunes will tell you it’s Easy Listening.  Not any more.  You can hear Bennett forming the words, one by one; Winehouse was speaking her own language.

(6) Kim Criswell, “One,” in Happy Days in the Art World, written by Michael Elmgreen ad Ingar Dragset, directed by Toby Frow, NYU Skirball Center (November 1).  Two men, once a couple, now just collaborating artists, wake up in a bunk-bed limbo; after about a hour of Waiting for Godot-like freaking out, making sardonic jokes, and wondering if they still have a career, Criswell shows up as a blind hysterical post-modern Federal Express delivery person and steals the show like Jim Brown breaking into a Woody Allen drawing room comedy, even when she’s dead.  And then at the end she lifts herself off the floor on one elbow and in a full, clear voice sings the U2 song.

This is the great modern melody, a match for the Wailers’ “Redemption Song.”  U2’s original is stiff, bellowing, but they left a treasure on the road for anyone to find.  The song actually seems to \ to ennoble whoever sings it: Johnny Cash, Warren Haynes, Kim Criswell, so many more to come.

(7/8) Steven Bernstein’ Millennial Territory Orchestra MTO Plays Sly (Royal Potato Family) and Sly Stone, I’m Back!  Family & Friends (Cleopatra).  Aren’t tribute albums terrible?  Yes, and Sly Stone dives into the quicksand with his first new music under his own name since the Treaty of Versailles: old songs featuring Ray Manzarek, Ann Wilson, Jeff Beck, Johnny Winter.  Actually, it’s not terrible; there’s just no reason to listen to it.  But Steven Bernstein’s downtown New York assemblage is another story.  Very little is obvious: not Martha Wainwright diving into “Que Sera, Sera” as if it were a well, the disturbing moans all through “Sly Notions 2/Fun,” the Dean Bowman and Vernon Reid’s rediscovery of the blues in “Time.”  The musicians and singers seem to be chasing the music down, not remotely sure they’ll catch it, or that they deserve to.

(9) Washington Phillips, “A Mother’s Last Wish to Her Son” (1927), in We Have to Talk About Kevin, directed by Lynn Ramsay (BBC Films).  In the ultimate bad-seed picture, a Texas gospel singer with a tragic voice emerges to say that from the day Tilda Swinton and John C. Reilly’s son was born there was no hope.

(10) Bo Diddley, “Hey Bo Diddley,” on Shindig, 1965 (YouTube).  Around the time this show aired, well-meaning people were making films in which one could see first-rank blues singers offering European audiences approximately five percent of what they’d need to get over in a South Side bar.  In a sort of TV-studio-as-nightclub setting, with well-dressed couples at his feet, the Great Reverborator smashes out of the box with the first note, handsome, powerful, flashing an outrageous rubber-legged strut, his band steaming, and a horn section that looks like it was recruited out of a Delta Sig house at the University of Myrle Beach.  “If this were any better,” John Jeremiah Sullivan writes in, “I think my head would burst into flames.”

Thanks to Steve Weinstein

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