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Real Life Rock Top Ten – February 2012

by Greil Marcus
Illustration by Charles Burns

Real Life Rock Top Ten – February 2012

Greil Marcus
18 Snaps

(1) Rid of Me, written and directed by James Westby (Phase 4 Films/Submarine Deluxe). In 2002—though it looks earlier: people can still smoke in bars—a woman is kicked out of her marriage and stranded in a small town somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. All she wants is revenge: on her ex-husband, his old girlfriend/new wife, his worthless friends, on herself for buying into the scam in the first place. Katie O’Grady walks her character through her dead-end room, into a job in a candy store, down supermarket aisles, and then, as a formerly nice middle-class genteel housewife in her thirties, straight through punk, until she ends up lying down drunk on a sidewalk in the middle of the night. It all rings so true you don’t really believe she’s going to get up; the movie could end right there, but it doesn’t. Because there’s still this subplot about a Cambodian rock song the director wants to get in.

(2) Bonnie “Prince” Billy, “Quail and Dumplings,” from Wolfroy Goes to Town (Drag City). Will Oldham brings you into the tune slowly, picking his mandolin in and out of an old mountain pattern, with Angel Olsen following his words in the background, then barely stepping past him with soft ooos. You relax into the song. Then someone claps hands, and Olsen grabs the song and, at first sounding as if she’s going to expire on the spot, stands up and demands that the song give up truths it hasn’t even hinted it might contain. Her voice breaks the pleasant folk spell Oldham has cast; there’s something stentorian and cruel in her cadence, in the way she hits back at the song as if it’s an enemy, a lie. And it’s this moment of drama that gives the song the power to tell whatever truth it knows. When Oldham comes back, after a rough, harsh electric-guitar break from Emmett Kelly, with “Weather ain’t judgment and money ain’t love,” he can stop you cold, the banality of the second phrase brought down by the uncertainty of the first.

 

(3) Jonathan Lethem, The Ecstasy of InfluenceNonfictions, Etc. (Doubleday). A lot of scraps— there are four pieces on the terrorist attacks on New York in 2001 that doggedly, dutifully say nothing. There’s a stiffness in many of the essays on fellow novelists, reputation, career, book tours, and literary theory. But when Lethem writes about music, there’s an unencumbered energy flowing through his sentences, a sense of discovery. The seemingly tossed-off, priceless notion that “pop was a trick, a perverse revenge against the banality of daily life dreamed up collectively by ten or fifteen Delta bluesmen and a million or a hundred million screaming twelve-year-old girls” conflates effortlessly with the idea that “little-girl screams” were “the essential heart of the Beatles’ true sound, the human voice in a karaoke track consisting of the band itself.” “The Genius of James Brown,” from 2005, is the hit: three days in the studio and a night backstage in London a week later as a version of Moby-Dick, with a seventy-two-year-old Brown as Ahab and his band members as his grumbling, awestruck crew. As Lethem follows Brown through a remake of his 1971 “Soul Power,” he falls into a theory of James Brown as a time traveler, “like Billy Pilgrim in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five”; it sounds cute, even trivial. But it takes Lethem only a page to march from the claim that Brown somehow “saw, or, more exactly, heard the future of music”—a line that sounds like a cliché even if the idea is new—to something so rich Lethem becomes a juggler of ideas, keeping six of them in the air at once, and making the reader feel the thrill: “If the man was able to see 2005 from the distance of 1958, he’s also prone to reliving 1958—and 1967, and 1971, and 1985—now that 2005 has finally come around. We all dwell in the world James Brown saw so completely before we came along into it; James Brown, in turn, hasn’t totally joined us here in the future he made.” You can shake your head in wonder over that, and then turn a few pages and run smack into Lethem running a little word-association game—

 

Analyst: James Brown. Please say the first thing that comes to mind.

Patient: I feel good!

Analyst: Stay with that thought.

Patient: Uh, just like I knew that I would?

 

—and realize that this would sound better on Brown’s tombstone than all of his heroic titles scrolling down.

 

(4) Shailene Woodley in The Descendants, directed by Alexander Payne, written by Payne, Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash (Fox Searchlight). Playing Alexandra King, daughter of George Clooney’s Matt King, at the door of her mother’s lover, verbally driving nails into his forehead as his eyes pop out—a moment that catches just how quick and tough a seventeen-year-old can be.

 

(5) Loretha Z. Smith on “Ike Zimmerman,” Alabama State Council on the Arts/Alabama Arts Radio Series (July 24, 2011). The story has long been told that, sometime in the 1930s, Robert Johnson of Mississippi spent a year or more with an unrecorded blues singer from Alabama, and under his tutelage changed from an incompetent guitar banger to someone you could imagine the guitar had been waiting for since someone first tuned its strings. Johnson’s mentor’s name is usually given as Isaiah “Ike” Zinnerman, or Zinneman; it was Zimmerman. That opens a spectral connection to a singer from Hibbing, Minnesota, who, when he first heard Robert Johnson, “immediately differentiated between him and anyone else I had ever heard.” But as Zimmerman’s daughter Loretha filled in her father’s life, one also learns that he later presided over his own Pentacostal church in Compton, California. That opens up the possibility that his parishoners included the parents of kids who went on to form N.W.A—the possibility that Ike Zimmerman could also have passed something on to Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, and Eazy-E, or that we might see them as much Johnson’s progeny as Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, Walter Mosley, Bob Dylan, or Cat Power. Loretha Smith described her father taking Johnson to a cemetery (owned by white people, she said gleefully) to play, sitting on gravestones—a Johnson-lore ghost story related here as plain family fact. “He learned Robert so good, how to play the guitar, that he was telling him he was ready to leave, and go back, to where he came from,” Smith said. “And my understanding, now, he came from Tennessee, where he was tryin’ to play the guitar, but when he went back he could play better, than any of those. And so they named my daddy the devil, because, they felt like no human being could teach a person how to play the guitar like that. But my dad, he wasn’t the devil. He was a good man. Very good man.”

(6) Charles Taylor reports on Fucked Up at Le Poisson Rouge (New York, November 14, 2011). “Le Poisson Rouge is a strange place to see a rock n roll show: a medium-sized basement room in a piss-elegant club that looks like it thinks the basement is where that kind of show belongs. The performers stand on a low-rise stage near the front of the room, surrounded by the crowd on all sides, standing in a circle. Fucked Up had to fit all five members on that stage plus a string quartet. It didn’t matter much to Pink Eyes, who spent the whole show facing the crowd, holding the microphone out so we were hearing the audience’s vocals (most of them knew every word), roaming around to different parts of the room, at one point jumping up on the bar, and then, when the song ended, politely shaking hands with the bar staff before taking a candle and pouring hot wax on his chest while singing Madonna’s ‘Erotic.’ This is a guy who clearly believes the fans are part of the band. He thanked ones he’d recognized who had come distances to see the show, offered profuse and heartfelt thank yous after each number, gently shhhed the crowd so they listened when the string quartet played. It was lovely, and it was also the problem. You can’t tell moshers, ‘This is your show, too,’ because they just take that to mean that they’re cool for acting like assholes. It was no surprise when the most persistently obnoxious of the moshers, a little bastard with a ridiculous ’fro that made him look like Leo Sayer inducted into the MC5, climbed onstage and was handed the mike. I was about ten feet from the edge of the mosh area. I saw some girls in there, and the ones who were held aloft weren’t being manhandled. But it’s still male in the worst sense. (I loved the riot grrrls for getting rid of this shit at shows.) These adolescent boys—most of them well past adolescence— would never think of themselves as frathouse thugs. But I kept thinking that there was no difference between them and the cretins out supporting Joe Paterno. Essentially, they’re all fascists who believe their traditions are sacred and fuck anyone who’s hurt by it. Maybe this is generational. But you can’t get swept up into FU’s sweaty, loving cameraderie if you’re worried about getting your glasses shattered, or that someone’s foot is going to smash an overhead light or set that hanging speaker swinging one too many times. Given the hardcore genre Fucked Up works in, I don’t know what the answer is. I do know that the majesty of David Comes to Life, which the band played in its entirety, was lost. It wasn’t a bad show. The band put their heads down and powered through the music. The sound had the steeliness and flexibility and hypnotic shimmer of vibrating sheets of metal. Eighty minutes of that kind of force can feel hypnotic. What was missing was the sense that the record gives of something being fought for and hardwon and of your having had some part in the outcome. I think Fucked Up’s hearts are in the right place. This is a band I could love and not just admire. But they’ve got to resolve how to stay true to a belief in community when your community sweeps up bullies along with everyone else who’s willing to listen.”

(7) Snakefarm, My Halo at Half-Light (Fledg’ling). A follow-up to the 1999 Songs from My Funeral, or the s econd chapter in Anna Domino and Michel Delory’s techno book of traditional ballads—“Little Maggie,” “Staggerlee,” “Omie Wise”—music that turns into its own kind of dream pop, picking up echoes of Portishead, Bryan Ferry, the Cranberries, Kate Bush, and Pauline Murray along the way. “Darlin’ Corey”—the wellspring of a whole school of songs of faithless lovers that has tangled through the southern forests since the time of Daniel Boone like a rat king—is the most deadly. The melody is transposed from “The Streets of Laredo,” the mood is that of someone fingering memories like rosary beads, and by the end of “Darlin’ Corey”’s few minutes—“Corey,” Domino calls her plainly, with an intimacy the song may have never permitted before—whole lives seem to have been lived and ruined.

(8) VIGGO MORTENSEN: HOLLYWOOD’S GRUNGY ANTIHERO, New York Times Style Magazine (December 4, 2011). Inside, accompanying a profile by Zoë Heller, Mortensen has a fifty-three-year-old’s lines cracking his face when he grins. In the retouched cover photo, all pensive and fey under a watch cap, he looks exactly like Justin Bieber.

(9) Carolyn Hester, “Lonesome Tears,” Teatro Bibiena, Festivalettertatura, Mantua, Italy (September 9, 2011) and on Hester’s From These Hills (Road Goes on Forever, Outpost, 1996). Hester, a Greenwich Village folkie from the late ’50s and early ’60s, recorded her first album in 1957 at Norman Petty’s studio in Clovis, New Mexico, with Buddy Holly chipping in on guitar during rehearsals; one of the songs she cut was “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair.” When Holly and the Crickets played London the following year, the show began with a ghostly organ sound, but no organ, no musician; then a platform rose from beneath the stage, revealing Holly alone at the keyboard, playing “Black Is the Color” as if it was the only song anyone needed to hear. In Mantua, in a severe, steep eighteenth-century theater where Mozart once performed, Hester took the stage with her two daughters and, before running through a set of wasn’t-that-a-time chestnuts, stilled the room with Holly’s “Lonesome Tears,” the song as she played it at once earthy and delicate, sounding both like a handeddown ballad and a perfectly crafted pop song. “The day before yesterday was his birthday,” she said, with a tone that made you think not a week had gone by since his death in 1959 that she hadn’t thought about him.

(10) “Regifting: Songs My Mother (or Some Other) Gave Me,” hosted by Joe Christiano and Theresa Kelly, St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Albany, California (December 4, 2011). “Cover songs only!” was the first of a list of rules for a hootenanny of “passed on” tunes (“This Land Is Your Land,” went a list of suggestions, “Up on the Roof, My Yiddishe Momme”)—along with the disclaimer that original songs would be permitted only if they were “credited in performance to Paul Anka.”

 

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