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Real Life Rock Top Ten – July/August 2012

by Greil Marcus
Illustration by Charles Burns

Real Life Rock Top Ten – July/August 2012

Greil Marcus
18 Snaps

(1Laura Oldfield Ford, Savage Messiah (Verso). From 2006 through 2009, Ford produced the issues of the fanzine collected here: hundreds of pages of text, maps, bland drawings of vague faces, and cumulatively riveting photos of architectural detritus—roads, graffiti, housing blocks, filthy courtyards, storefronts, overgrown building sites, almost all of them utterly depopulated—chronicling a long walk through the back alleys and abandoned patches of a London remade through Thatcherist and New Labour gentrification and the evictions and new constructions of the looming 2012 Olympics. Read straight through, Ford’s work is the most convincing follow-through there is on the project of poetic urban-renewal inaugurated by the situationists Guy Debord, Ivan Chtcheglov, and Michèle Bernstein. In the early ’50s, they and a few other young layabouts began an exploration of Paris as a city that ran according to its own backward-forward-spinning clock, where a drift down the streets might so scramble time that 1848 would exert a stronger spiritual gravity than 1954. In places Ford echoes Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, her slideshow of sex and death in bohemian New York in the 1980s, and the cityscape in Andrea Arnold’s 2006 film Red Road, where in a decaying Glasgow foxes dart around the base of apartment buildings that are corroding from the inside, almost as strongly. On any given page, Thomas De Quincey, from his 1821 Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, might be holding Ford’s hand: “I could almost have believed, at times that I must be the first discoverer of some of these terrae incognitae, and doubted whether they had yet been laid down in the modern charts of London.”

Number by number, Savage Messiah is a delirious, doomstruck celebration of squats, riots, vandalism, isolation, alcohol, and sex with strangers, all on the terrain of a half-historical, half-imaginary city that the people who Ford follows, herself at the center, can in moments believe they built themselves, and can tear down as they choose. The past is a shadow, an angel, a demon: most of what Ford recounts seems to be taking place in the ’70s or the ’80s or the ’90s, with the first decade of the twenty-first century a kind of slag-heap of time—of boredom, enervation, despair, and hate—that people are trying to burrow out from under. “1973, 1974, 1981, 1990, 2013,” she chants on one page. “Always a return. A Mirror touch. A different way out.” “Queen’s Crescent is the nexus of knife crime, a flashing matrix of Sheffield steel,” Ford writes in Savage Messiah #6, “…suspended somewhere between 1968 and 1981, and I sense my darling there, on the corner of Bassett St. and Allcroft Road. I’m searching the brickwork with dusty fingertips for the first Sex Pistols graffiti of 1976. He was here then, and possibly now, we drift in circles around each other”—and answering herself on the facing page: “In the fabric of the architecture you can always uncover traces and palimpsests, the poly-temporality of the city. As I lay my palm flat against the wall I grasp past texts never fully erasing the traces of earlier inscriptions.”

The aura of a mystical quest hovers over even the most sordid incidents, the ugliest photos of belongings piled up at the foot of an apartment block. John Legend’s “Ordinary People” is on the jukebox: “And all the guilt I harboured, all the shame, the walk around Highbury with so much hanging in the balance, tyranny of choice and the crashing cruelty of desire, it was all locked into that one anodyne song.”

(2) Evans the Death, Evans the Death (Slumberland). Dream pop, casting back to Pauline Murray and the Invisible Girls in London in 1980, coming into perfect focus on “Letter of Complaint,” where Katherine Whitaker dances so delicately, with such a sense of pleasure, she leaves a light behind with each step.

(3) Levon Helm, 1940–2012. Watch him at what might as well have been the end, as the blind, cursing desert rat in his friend Tommy Lee Jones’s 2005 movie The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada; listen to him at the beginning, in 1961, roaring through Bobby “Blue” Bland’s “Further On Up the Road” (collected on The BandA Musical History, or on Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks: The Roulette Years) as if he’s not the driver but the car. And then, in the Band’s “Chest Fever,” as he marshals what Tom Kipp, once of the Montana punk band Deranged Diction, calls “THE BACKBEAT OF GOD” to summon a sound that feels far more like a civil war than “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” let Helm describe an American epic of love and madness, home and flight—a sound so rich you can listen and watch at the same time. That was 1968. The music had no temporal frame of reference clinging to it then, and it doesn’t now.

(4) Peter Stampfel in conversation with RJ Smith, “‘We’re Gonna Rise When the Sun’s Going Down,’” at the EMP Pop Conference, NYU, New York (March 23). He loved rock ’n’ roll and he loved old-time music—but they were “incompatible,” the cofounder of the Holy Modal Rounders said of his dilemma in the Greenwich Village folk scene in the late ’50s and early ’60s. Then in 1961 he heard Bob Dylan singing “Sally Gal.” “His phrasing was so clearly rock ’n’ roll–influenced. He was already combining folk and rock ’n’ roll. I thought—what if we could bring Uncle Dave Macon, Charlie Poole, back, now, set them right here in the middle of rock ’n’ roll—what would they do?”

(5) Jack White, Blunderbuss (Third Man Records). Regardless of the passion in the music White made with the White Stripes—a harsh, at times almost frightened ­passion—there was always something cold about it. Whatever was happening, it was happening not here but over there—and to someone else. The best performances on White’s first solo album are those where this isn’t true, and in each case it may be because White’s ownership of the sound, his ability to look down on his own creation, is weakened, because other people are making themselves felt, and with such heart: Brooke Waggoner’s parlor piano on “Hypocritical Kiss,” Ruby Amanfu’s comradely backing vocals on “Love Interruption,” most of all Ryan ­Koenig and the mandolin player Pokey LaFarge singing not behind White but around him on “I Guess I Should Go to Sleep,” a reverie so entrancing that by the end the sense is that the singers slipped away well before they started singing, and what you’re hearing is the dream.

(6) Bo Diddley, Road Runner: The Chess Masters, 1959–1960 (Hip-O Select). I recently saw the first volume of this archival project, I’m a Man: The Chess Masters, 1955–1958, priced at $200 at Amoeba Records in Berkeley; Amazon had it at $255.99. I have no idea why. A few years ago it was just another reissue, if, as with anything the late strange character produced, full of twists and turns no one else would ever think of. Here, on an at least for the moment normally priced disc, you can find the most formally primitive and the most formally avant-garde music refusing to acknowledge any difference. “Bucket” strings folk-lyric fragments over the Bo Diddley beat, but there’s nothing generic, nothing automatic in the improvization—the thing is like a hand made of swamp gas, reaching out of the past, crooking its finger. “Mumblin’ Guitar” (“Whatchyu say, man? Quit mumblin’, and talk out loud,” Diddley opens it) is a swarm of insects dancing on his fretboard; you can see him throw the guitar away to get them off his face, and then stand back grinning as the guitar plays itself.

(7) Julyan Davis, Dark Corners: The Appalachian Ballad—Paintings of the South (Greenville County Museum of Art, South Carolina, through July 1; Morris Museum of Art, Augusta, Georgia, opening September 1). Davis’s talents are those of an illustrator—his faces have no life and his bodies have no movement. But he can see places—and in two paintings in this series of images he’s attempted to draw out of the likes of “Little Maggie” and “Barbara Allen,” he sees places no one has seen before. For “Pretty Polly,” instead of the hills and valleys of the murder ballad it’s a huge, ruined barn, covered with the wreckage of abandoned artwork, as if vandals broke in and destroyed the place with buckets of paint, canvases, stretchers, and unfinished images; the place looks dangerous, and you don’t need to see the woman inside or the man approaching from outside to feel that. With “Darling Corey,” the tale of a faithless lover, there’s a pastoral scene, a Currier and Ives print: winding dirt road, bare trees, melting snow, spring about to burst, and, in the distance, set in a meadow at the foot of a mountain, a family home, with smoke that at first comes into the landscape like fog billowing out of the windows, the hint of red so faint that at first, as you come up the lane singing, “Wake up, wake up, Darlin’ Corey, what makes you sleep so sound?” you might think everything’s all right.

(8) DJ Shadow, The Less You Know, the Better (Island). What made the sampling artist’s 1996 Endtroducing… and The Private Press, from 2002, so spooky—what let the person born Josh Davis live up to his chosen name—was a mood of clandestinity, of subterranean communication, the way he could make you feel as if you were listening in on a conversation you were never meant to hear. On The Less You Know, the Better, that happens only once, with “Give Me Back the Nights.” Shadow wraps film-noir tones around “The Night,” a frantic, all-but-suicidal lost-love rant by one C. E. Rabinowitz that Davis found in a thrift store—a 45? From an LP? In the least readable credits sheet I’ve ever seen, he doesn’t say—until the singer loses his performer’s body and becomes a figment of anyone’s nightmare. And that’s better than thinking that the singer’s nightmare is still going on. You can wake up; with Shadow pressing down on him, you know he can’t.

(9) Black Clock no. 15 (CalArts). A special issue of this adventurous literary quarterly on imaginary cinema, filled with clumsily executed posters for, say, Casablanca starring Ronald Reagan and Hedy Lamarr, who were up for Rick and Ilsa; Intolerance remade by Baz Luhrmann and starring Sasha Grey; Kill Bill directed by Russ Meyer and featuring Marilyn Monroe, John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, Dorothy Daindridge, Natalie Wood, Takashi Shimura, and Machiko Kyô, and each one all the more frustrating because the pictures were never made. The highlights might be Michael Ventura’s “Lou ’n’ Charlie,” the story of an eighteen-year-old Louise Brooks’s affair with Charlie Chaplin in the form of a memoir by Brooks’s lesbian roommate, and Howard Hampton’s “Breakaway: Summer of ’69,” a scholarly piece about how the San Francisco avant-garde filmmaker Bruce Conner took over Easy Rider when Dennis Hopper abandoned the project, complete with footnotes to nonexistent passages in real books, and so convincing that even the last paragraph, referencing “the McGovern interregnum and the Reagan backlash” and a final, post-credits mini-sequence where “a television announcer is heard introducing a car dealer (‘and now here’s Cal Worthington and his dog Spot’) as Conner injects Un chien andalou’s famous scene of a straight razor slicing a human eye,” rolls by without a blink. And both seem modest next to Anthony ­Miller’s “A History of the Cinema 1920–2014,” first in a ten-page chronology ranging from Das Cabinet des Dr. ­Caligari to an all-female remake of The Maltese Falcon starring Lindsay Lohan as “Sam(antha) Spade” and Patricia Clarkson as Kasper Gutman, and then ranging in pop-ups through the journal’s more than 190 pages, in which all of film history revolves around successive biopics on the late-Victorian adventurer Richard Burton (Lon Chaney plays him in The Mecca Masquerade, Harry Reemes in Dick Burton’s Kama Sutra) and the infinitesimally slow emergence, over nearly one hundred years, of an underground pseudo-masterpiece called, at least at first, The Zoo, “a work of undetermined length and origin by a filmmaker known only as ‘Darc’ (sometimes misidentified in studies of early film as ‘D’arc’).”

(10) Van Morrison, “Sweet Thing,” in The Five-Year Engagement, dir. Nicholas Stoller (Apatow Productions). If you’re going to fall in love at first sight to a song, nothing could be more complete than the Richard Davis bass pattern that opens this one: a lifetime unfolding in fifteen seconds flat.

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