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Real Life Rock Top Ten – September 2012

by Greil Marcus
Illustration by Charles Burns

Real Life Rock Top Ten – September 2012

Greil Marcus
16 Snaps

(1Corin Tucker Band, Kill My Blues (Kill Rock Stars). Starting at nineteen with Heavens to Betsy in Olympia, Washington, moving on with Sleater-Kinney in Portland, Oregon, for more than twenty years Corin Tucker has been ripping up the pop landscape with the hurricane of her voice—a hurricane of subtlety, pauses, a sense of thinking it all over inside the maelstrom. On Tucker’s second album under her own name, the music is so fast out of the box, so relentless and fierce, that the doubt hiding in the sound—This way, that way, now, not now, never?—might not surface right away. Sooner or later it will, and the music will take shape less as sound than drama. And then, if you’re pulled back to the avalanche that begins with “Neskowin,” the third number, and only lets you go two songs later, at the end of the fifth, with Tucker’s banging the signature riff of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” as if her own “Constance” simply told her that was what it wanted, you may wonder how anyone could hold her breath as long as Tucker seems to.

(2) “State of Disconnect” (State Farm). Thirty-second spot: State Farm agent on the phone, selling, in a clipped tone: “You name it, we’re here, anytime, anywhere, any way you want it.” Customer, in his kitchen, flatly: “That’s the way I need it.” “Any way you want it?” “All night?” “All night.” “Every night?” “Any way you want it.” “That’s the way I need it,” the customer says, then pausing, as if replaying the conversation in his head: “We just had ourselves a little Journey moment,” he says. “Yep,” says the agent. “Saw them in ’83 in Fresno,” the customer says. “Place was crawling with chicks.” His wife comes into focus at the other end of the kitchen and gives him a dirty look. “I gotta go”—and as much as I loathe Journey, this was a perfectly crafted little fiction about pop music as real life. The agent and the customer aren’t proud or embarrassed or fannish, but kind of weirdly stoic: We’re fated to share this stuff to the end.

(3) God Bless America, directed by Bob Goldthwait (Darko Entertainment). A middle-aged man facing oblivion and his Juno-hating Ellen Page–like teenage sidekick saving the country from itself, one bullet through the head at a time, starting off with a reality-show star complaining about the car she got for her sixteenth birthday, loudmouths in a movie theater (“Thanks for not talking during the feature. Thanks for not using your cell phone,” says the man to the lone survivor. “You’re welcome,” she says, as if she’s just learned a valuable lesson). With Tea Party thugs beating up a man with Parkinson’s because he supports the Affordable Care Act, it’s American culture as a madhouse, a lot broader and a lot more convincing than Nashville, bodies everywhere, blood all over, with the whole show ending with a staging of the “Eat Flaming Death, Fascist Media Pigs” section of the Firesign Theatre’s In the Next World, You’re on Your Own, scored to the Kinks’ “I’m Not Like Everybody Else.” That’s taste.

(4) The Technical Impossibility of Dyslexia in a Mind Afflicted by Autism: The passage of a few people through the Damien Hirst retrospective at the Tate Modern between 3.52pm and 4.49pm on Tuesday, 24 April 2012, Observed by Fred Vermorel (YouTube). With a title referencing Guy Debord’s 1959 Paris film On the Passage of a Few Persons Through a Brief Moment in Time, Vermorel (author of, among other books no one else would have written, Vivienne Westwood: Fashion, Perversity and the Sixties Laid Bare, with Westwood naked from the waist down on the jacket) wanders the galleries with his video camera. He layers dialogue and sound from mystery films or radio plays over footage of people at the exhibition, until the camera goes into a darkened screening room, and we’re hit with an homage to Debord’s 1952 feature-length film Hurlements en faveur de Sade, most of which is black screen and dead silence (the rest is dialogue and a white screen), ending with the oddly loud, metronome-like sound of the footfalls of people walking through one room after another, trying to get engaged with objects, and not really succeeding. There’s a sadistic, nearly endless putative voicemail message from the Damien Hirst International Foundation—at first believable, then pure surrealist poetry, about sponsorship, surveillance, vandalism, the decomposed body of a black woman, and a businessman found hanging from a tree in a bondage mask—in other words, things you might someday encounter at a Damien Hirst exhibition. It’s a piece of phone art akin to the story in Nicholas Kristof’s May 31 column in the New York Times: “Does it bother you that an online casino paid a Utah woman, Kari Smith, who needed money for her son’s education, $10,000 to tattoo its Web site on her forehead?”—which, like Vermorel’s piece, is a version of what, in 1985, in Zone, Michel Feher and Eric Alliez called “The Luster of
Capital,” in this case, the humiliation of capital, the ability of capital to pay people to abase and debase themselves before it. The casino isn’t advertising its product, but advertising that it can get people to sell themselves to it for a price, and the Hirst voicemail is speaking the same language.

(5/6) PiL, This Is PiL (PiL Official) and Oliver Hall, “John Lydon: I Am Folk Music,” L.A. Record (June 18). The first song on the first album in twenty years by the band John Lydon formed after the demise of the Sex Pistols is “This Is PiL”—and it doesn’t matter what your cachet, when you were born, or even if you’re dead: you can’t do a name-of-the-band song without sounding like the Monkees. But the second song, “One Drop,” is a version of the first—and it’s staggering, a manifesto that the once-and-future Johnny Rotten has given up nothing and never will. You can ignore him, or shake your head in wonder at the way he can ram the lines “We are the ageless, we are teenagers” through the history he shares with his audience, which includes people who weren’t born when he and the Sex Pistols were rehearsing on the Monkees’ “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone”—and come out the other side with his best album since Metal Box, and that wasn’t twenty years ago, it was thirty-three.
“I am a member of the folk, I am one of the folk, I am folk music, and that’s how it is,” Lydon told Oliver Hall this spring, speaking of this record. “And we will con-tin-ue. And there will be folk to follow me, and music will continue to progress in a very positive and steady way, always with the voice of rebellion. And no touch of découpage, is it? Is that what they call it? Or faux painting? Rustic? Fuck off. I leave rustic up to Neil Young—you know when he wrote Rust Never Sleeps, that cheeky monkey? ‘Oh, this is the story of Johnny Rotten, the king is gone but he’s not forgotten.’ So we ring him up, don’t we, for the VH1 show, right?
‘I never heard of Johnny Rotten,’ says Neil Young.”

(7) Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Americana (Reprise). Too much of what’s here, from the listless, condescending cover of the Silhouettes’ 1957 “Get a Job” to the pallid version of “Wayfaring Stranger,” a song so ghostly it’s almost impossible for a singer not to be swallowed by it, is dead air. But the opening blast of folk songs—more than five minutes of “Oh Susannah,” nearly six of “Clementine,” and more than eight of “Tom Dula,” that last simply hammering away at the standard Kingston Trio lyrics as if there weren’t so many other ways to tell the story—gives these old texts a life neither they nor anyone who’s ever sung them have remotely suggested. The Crazy Horse sound, with Young’s lead guitar snaking through it like a sardonic curse, is battering, rough, big, then bigger, then so complete you can believe the story that Johnny Rotten wanted Young to produce the Sex Pistols. But with “Clementine”—which makes it clear that when Billy Talbot, Ralph Molina, and Poncho Sampedro break through the wall of their own sound Young could sing the telephone book and make you think you were listening to the end of the world—what comes out of the old summer-camp singalong is not just a lament for the poor drowned girl, but a murder ballad. The unforgiving slam of the music leaves you as shaken as the way the singer, ending the song with a smile, confesses between the lines.

(8) Patti Smith, “This Is the Girl,” from Banga (Columbia). A tribute to Amy Winehouse. From the Madame Defarge of rock ’n’ roll.

(9) Hemingway and Gellhorn, directed by Philip Kaufman, written by Jerry Stahl and Barbara Turner (HBO). The reviews were dismissive at best—as they were for The Right Stuff, nicely setting people up to be surprised at how tough it was. This is the same. What were reviewers watching, what were they thinking, what sense of discomfort or ingrained disdain was behind the refusal to see what’s on the screen? As the war correspondent Martha Gellhorn, Nicole Kidman has never been harder to look away from, and her looks—fire in her cheekbones, intelligence in her eyes—are part of why it’s her most convincing part and performance since Malice.

This is a historical drama, taking the protagonists from the Spanish Civil War to the Japanese invasion of China to the Soviet assault on Finland—the 1930s before the world war had come together, when it was one fireball after another—and the most startling element in it is the way Kaufman drops his characters straight into historical documentary footage. When he did the same thing with the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, it was gimmicky, jarring, taking the viewer—really, the characters—out of the story rather than integrating them more fully into it. I don’t know if it’s a matter of changes in technology, a deeper sense of history, or the faces and body language of the actors, but the technique is a miracle here. Most of the time I couldn’t tell what, when the actors were present, was historical footage and what wasn’t, when a scene was unfolding or was constructed, and quickly didn’t care. Something shocking and revelatory was going on. The first instance comes with Gellhorn, Hemingway, and the photographer Robert Capa covering a firefight in Spain. We see men moving on a hill and then, flash, there’s the Capa shot of the Loyalist soldier, caught in the instant he takes a bullet. OK, you might think, signal moment in twentieth-century iconography, check. But then the body behind, or inside, the iconic, preregistered image tumbles out of the image and onto the ground, and Clive Owen’s Hemingway kneels down next to him. The sense of reality, of contingency, of lived, subjective experience flooding into objectified history and wiping out its received imagery is stunning—but it’s nothing compared to the Newsreel Wong moment, the moment when, in a bombed-out Shanghai railroad station on August 28, 1937, H. S. “Newsreel” Wong filmed a blasted, burned, crying baby. A frame was taken from the footage and published all over the world, and even today it makes you want to go through the picture and save the baby, as if it has been screaming for these seventy-five years, and always will be. To see, now, that horrifying, soul-withering footage unwinding through Kaufman’s movie like a river, to see the baby placed on the platform, then Kidman’s Gellhorn lurching toward it, being pulled back—again, the feeling that this was not a Moment in History but a moment in someone’s life, the baby’s, is crushing. And as horrible as the moment is, you don’t want it to end. You want to see a life, that baby’s, removed from its historical heaven and lived out on earth. Which you don’t get.

(10) Brother and sister Nat Wolff and Elizabeth Olsen arguing in the back seat in Peace, Love and Misunderstanding, directed by Bruce Beresford, written by Joseph Muszynski and Christina Mengert (BCDF Pictures): “What about the time when your Barbies tried my toy soldiers for war crimes and had them all decapitated?” 

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