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Real Life Rock Top Ten – October 2012

by Greil Marcus
Illustration by Charles Burns

Real Life Rock Top Ten – October 2012

Greil Marcus
12 Snaps

(1) Woods, Bend Beyond (Woodsist). It’s hard to believe that this small Brooklyn band is on its seventh album: everything they do seems experimental, half-finished. You hear ideas as much as music. It can make you shiver to be brought so close to people working over old themes, probing for ancient songs and melodies, forgotten images. The high, keening voice sounds like whispering; a wah-wah pedal sounds like an old folk instrument, which maybe it is. What makes this record different is Jarvis Taveniere’s drumming, which is always human, a voice, a stance, a refusal to cross a line or back down—dramatic, not functional, unless cutting down the sometimes-fey tones of Jeremy Earl’s singing is functional. The first seven songs—of twelve—can feel as if they’re fading into each other, nice jangly folk rock, so that when “Wind Was the Water” looms up, shoots right out of nowhere and in a minute and a half has gone right back you have no idea what happened. It’s as if those first seven songs were a setup.

(2) Take This Waltz, written and directed by Sarah Polley (Magnolia Pictures). On the soundtrack, at the end, Leonard Cohen’s title song versus the Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star.” And no contest.

(3) A.K.A. Doc Pomus, directed by Peter Miller and Will Hechter (Clear Lake Historical Productions). Jerome Felder, who died in 1991, was born in Brooklyn in 1925; at six he contracted polio, but by the late 1940s he was performing in New York clubs as Doc Pomus, a Jewish blues singer on crutches. The records he made were distinctive, but they went nowhere. He had been composing songs for himself; now, writing alone or with partners, he offered his tunes to others, and wrote history: “Lonely Avenue” for Ray Charles, “Young Blood” for the Coasters, “Viva Las Vegas,” “Little Sister,” and “Suspicion” for Elvis Presley, “There Must Be a Better World Somewhere” for B. B. King, and most memorably, for the Drifters, “Save the Last Dance for Me,” “I Count the Tears,” and “This Magic Moment.”

There is nothing remotely ordinary about this film. It can’t be compared to any other music biopic or documentary. There is just too much flair. The directors have a visual imagination that makes the cutting-together of historical footage, album covers, movie posters, vintage interviews with the main subject, and a voice-over of someone reading his journals (Lou Reed, as it turns out), talking heads of people now looking back, still photos, and home movies seem like a revelation instead of a formula—and too much love. The result is countless people—Pomus’s ex-wife, his girlfriend, his children, musicians, friends—laughing through tears, and soon enough you’re one of them.

Again and again you’re pulled up short by a moment too right to take in all at once: you hold it in your memory or stop the DVD and run it back. There are dozens, but I have two favorites. First, a hand goes to a car radio, and the critic Dave Marsh is talking: “You’ve got a radio on, right? And what’s coming across, most of the time, frankly, is static and nothing. And then, this thing—and that’s the Drifters.” It’s 1960; Doc Pomus is thirty-five years old. The swooning strings of “This Magic Moment” come up on the soundtrack, and Ben E. King, twenty-one, begins to sing, but with an odd, stentorian hesitation in every phrase, as if he’s giving a speech, as if what he has to say is so important he’s as much nerves as heart. There’s a close-up of the Atlantic label with the song title and the writers’ names, then head shots as Marsh goes on: “And that’s Doc Pomus, that’s Mort Shuman, and it’s Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Ertegun, Leiber and Stoller, and Tom Dowd, and all the people who recorded it, and then ultimately, that’s you and me.” By this time you are following the words swimming upstream against the melody, the delicacy of the story being told; you can hear the fear behind the desire. If you’ve heard the song before, you’ll feel as if you’re hearing it for the first time. If you’ve never heard the song before, you’ll have to hear it again: that the film then moves on will seem like a crime.

Almost an hour later, the movie is over. Pomus has died. You’ve attended his funeral. The credits begin to roll. In a box on the right, people who you’ve heard tell the story are now singing or talking the words to “Save the Last Dance for Me”—and you recall the footage from Pomus’s wedding, when his new wife danced with everyone but her new husband, who found a way to put it all down on paper. A phrase at a time; you’re surprised how well writers can sing, or that Ben E. King, who took the lead vocal, speaks the words like talk. Five, eight, twelve, seventeen, twenty, including, just before the end, the songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Leiber looking terribly debilitated and frail, but hitting all the notes—it goes on and on, until the whole song has been declaimed, and you’re caught up in a kind of musicality the film hasn’t shown before, not merely putting Dave Marsh’s words on the screen, but turning them into a kind of perfect life.

(4) Kim Baxter, The Tale of Me and You (kimbaxtermusic.com). Baxter was the most noticeable voice in the wonderful Portland punk quartet All Girl Summer Fun Band. They never pushed too hard. On her first album under her own name, Baxter does. “Oval Frame” is Nirvana with radio distortion around the sides. “Arc de Triomphe,” not that far from Freddy Cannon’s “Palisades Park,” is a celebration of an I’ll-do-anything-for-you love that you know won’t last, except in memory.

(5) Jacob Mikanowski of State College, PA, writes in on the Penn State scandal: “State College is a bucolic, tranquil town. The ‘Happy Valley’ nickname isn’t a joke. I saw the Red Riding movies last year, and I thought they were well made but that the overarching premise—that there was a conspiracy to protect a child sex ring in a North English town—was basically preposterous. But when the story broke in November, it was like going to bed in Mayberry and waking up in Twin Peaks.”

(6) David Byrne, How Music Works (McSweeney’s). A complex musical autobiography and investigation into the question of how music talks—with an opening scene on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley in the early 1970s, when Byrne and his Rhode Island School of Design classmate Mark Kehoe, busking their way around the country—Kehoe on accordion and Byrne on ukelele and violin—tried to get people to pay attention to “Pennies from Heaven” and “The Glory of Love”—“as well as our arrangements of more contemporary fare, like ’96 Tears.’” And that really does tell you all you need to know about what Talking Heads was aiming for all along.

Pussy Riot performs at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow, February 2012. © Aleshkovsky Mitya.

(7) Cathi Unsworth, Weirdo (Serpent’s Tail). A London private detective arrives in a seedy British town to reopen a twenty-year-old high-school murder mystery. Half of the story is told in flashbacks, and it’s the story he doesn’t discover: a swamp of sexual degradation, a few people of decency, and a clue that turns on the cover of the second Echo and the Bunnymen album.

(8) James Luther Dickinson and the North Mississippi Allstars, I’m Just Dead I’m Not Gone (Merless). “When I leave here, just hang crepe on my door,” Frank Hutchison of West Virginia sang in 1928 in “Worried Blues.” “I won’t be dead, just won’t be here no more.” Dickinson, a storied bandleader and producer, died in 2009—“Three hundred pounds of barbeque,” as one of his friends lovingly said at the time. All that’s missing from the spooky show the bandleader and producer recorded in Memphis in 2006—with humor in every performance, resentment and regret coming up behind it, especially in a harrowing, last-will-and-testament version of Buff St. Marie’s “Codine”—is a cover of the Hutchison song, with his “won’t be dead” turned on its head.

(9) Pussy Riot, “Punk Prayer,” Cathedral of Christ the Savior (Moscow, February 19). On that day, four Russian women—reenacting both Johnny Rotten’s “I am an antichrist” in “Anarchy in the U.K.” and the action of one Michel Mourre, who, dressed as a Dominican monk with his head in a Dominican tonsure, stepped up during a break during Easter High Mass in 1950 to deliver an address on the death of God—momentarily seized a church. They were dressed in bright red-and-pink shifts, blue leggings, and yellow, mauve, green, and turquoise-colored sky masks. They genuflected, stood up, began to stomp and prance. They shouted, shrieked—attacking Vladimir Putin, attacking the church, crossing themselves as they were pulled off by guards—and from the sound they made, clipped, sharp, harsh, joyful, the sound of people feeling, if only for a minute, completely free. Singing in Russian, they could have been the all-women Zurich punk band Kleenex (aka Liliput), singing in Swiss-German more than thirty years ago. You could imagine them in the audience, then, thinking, as punk then made people think, Hey—we could do that. How would it feel?

Yekaterina Samutsevich, Maria Alyokina, and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova have been held in prison since. As I write, they are on trial, facing seven years for hooliganism and inciting religious hatred; in the courtroom they’re displayed in a box. When the Plastic People of the Universe were mercilessly harassed and members jailed under the Soviet puppet regime in Czechoslovakia, people smuggled their music out on homemade lps. Today you can go right to YouTube—but for a lot of reasons, something more tangible, an object, a physical fact, is called for. Kill Rock Stars, which reissued Kleenex and Liliput, not to mention their labelmates and punk comrades Essential Logic and Delta 5, has destiny waiting.

(10) Posting, Hammersmith, London (Jubilee Week). In the early 1970s, Jamie Reid, by 1976 the designer for the Sex Pistols, put up little pink stickers in London supermarkets: “OFFICIAL WARNING—CLOSING DOWN SALE,” they read. “LAST DAYS BUY NOW WHILE STOCK LAST—This store will be closing soon due to the pending collapse of monopoly capitalism and the worldwide exhaustion of raw materials.” “God save the Queen / The fascist regime,” Johnny Rotten sang in 1977: “Your future dream is a shopping scheme.” Thirty-five years later, Danny Boyle, the director of Slumdog Millionaire, now in charge of the official soundtrack for the London Olympics, included the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen.” But on a wall in London two months before, there was a better homage: either an ironic celebration of Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee, or just another ad. Or the Sex Pistols’ latest trick.

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