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Real Life Rock Top Ten – November/December 2012

by Greil Marcus
Illustration by Charles Burns

Real Life Rock Top Ten – November/December 2012

Greil Marcus
13 Snaps

(1) Robert Pattinson in Cosmopolis, written and directed by David Cronenberg (Alfama Films/ Prospero Pictures). This slight figure, in ill-fitting clothes, no matter how expensive they might be—he’s supposed to be a financial titan, or monster, twenty-eight and worth far more billions than that, about to embark on a journey of systematically destroying everything he has. Can he carry a whole movie? It doesn’t look like it. But as the film goes on, his face becomes at once more expressive and withdraws more completely into itself, and an Elvis ghost emerges around the smudged eyes, to the point that you half expect someone, maybe the cream-pie guerrilla, to say, “Hey, you’re the Elvis of money!” But then the sun goes down, Pattinson sits across the table from his nemesis, and as his eyes go glassy—not blank, but a milky pool with no refection—you could be watching The Manchurian Candidate, with Laurence Harvey sitting across from Frank Sinatra as red queens cover the table between them and Harvey remembers what he’s done. Except for Keira Knightley, Cronenberg’s last picture, A Dangerous Method, seemed cast on autopilot, with Viggo Mortensen as Freud and Michael Fassbender as Jung; this, from Juliette Binoche’s bouncing art dealer to Paul Giamatti reaching all the way down into his bag of losers, is displacing from the first moment to the last.

(2) Cat Power, Sun (Matador). There’s always been an acrid, suspicious edge behind Cat Power’s tone of voice; except with other people’s songs, where she might drift, get lost, and not care, she doesn’t let herself go. What’s new here, as the songs, which are indistinctly outlined, slowly take shape, is what I can only call womanliness: a certain warmth, an undeniable lack of fear.

(3) Matthew Friedberger, Matricidal Sons of Bitches (Thrill Jockey). This is the other half of Fiery Furnaces’ twelfth solo album, and the fifth this year. (“I’m supposed to make two records this fall,” the one-man orchestra Friedberger writes, “one home made one and one ‘proper’ studio one—I think of those as being from 2012. But they won’t be out till next year. In other words, I’m confused by this.”) And that’s not even counting the “Table” series, which is said to include one album for each of the 118 elements in the Periodic Table. For the meantime, this is described as being inspired by Hollywood’s Poverty Row, the no-budget fly-by-night letterhead studios that churned out countless B to Z pictures in the 1930s and ’40s. You get a feel for the people hanging around the lots in Nathanael West’s 1939 The Day of the Locust; you can see what the style (form?) (junk heap?) produced at its most intense in Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1945 Detour. There’s an undertow implicit in both the idea and the fact of Poverty Row, a sense of just-shoot-me surrender, people pressing on to the next shot because it would be too much trouble to stop, and Friedberger catches that, as a kind of memory still present around the edges of even today’s most glamorous movies, as in the scene in Mulholland Dr. where Naomi Watts hires her hit man. There are forty-five tracks here; go to “I’m Sure It’s… for the Best,” number ten, and “Disappointed Dads,” number twenty-four, first.

(4) Beloved (Les Bien-Aimés), directed by Christophe Honoré (IFC). Frenchwoman walks into a London bar and hears a band playing a bloodless version of Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love?” but it moves her—and then she sees the drummer, who moves her more. A year later, after she finds him in another bar with another combo, they head out to the street, singing at each other: “Qui aimes-tu?” “Qui aimes-tu?” The song has turned into a little French street ballad—with an urgency all over it that the bar band never imagined.

(5) Mary Davis reports from Manhattan (August 16). “‘Is there a concert here tonight?’ That was the first question I overheard as I joined the long line for entry to the free event at the Ace Hotel, which was explicitly not a concert, but a ‘Reading of the Letters, Poetry, Lyrics, and Trial Statements of the Jailed Members of Pussy Riot’—held the night before Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, and Yekaterina Samutsevich were convicted of hooliganism and sentenced to two years in prison.

“The mostly young and stylish crowd seemed attentive as the speakers—poet Eileen Myles, actress Chloe Sevigny, artist K8 Hardy, musician Johanna Fateman, and performance artists Justin Vivian Bond and Karen Finley—took to the spare stage without introduction to read statements and transcripts from the trial, and letters written by the band members to Patriarch Kirill and Prime Minister Medvedev. As the evening wore on, a gaggle of waifish young women wearing trendy shorts, airy blouses, and high heels—models?—appeared in the front of the house, where they whispered among themselves, checked out the room, then slipped away as a group. Meanwhile, Sevigny calmly read Alyekhina’s March 5 prison letter: ‘It’s so cold in the cell our noses get red and our feet are ice cold . . . we sleep in our street clothes.’ Myles seemed emotional as she recited the rousing letter the band wrote to Patriarch Karill: ‘What troubles us is that the very shrine you consider so defiled is so inseparably linked to Putin . . . In the prayer in question we express our grief, shared with million of Christians, that you allowed the church to become in involved in a dirty political campaign.’ Finley’s fiery reading of Alyokhina’s closing statement honed the message: ‘The church loves only those children who believe in Putin . . . I never thought the Russian Orthodox Church’s role was to call for faith in any president. I thought its role was to call for faith in God.’

“Such clarity was not a hallmark of the band’s statements, which tended toward exaggeration and self-aggrandizement: should the reference points for Pussy Riot be Brodsky, Kafka, Debord, Solzhenitsyn? Maybe that was the intention: the formal but über-hip setting heightened the sense that the event itself was an extended Pussy Riot provocation, simultaneously earnest and ironic—a dual sensibility likewise suggested by the colorful CBGB/Free Pussy Riot T-shirts sported by many in the audience. The show trial may have been in Russia, but there was a spectacle in Liberty Hall.”

(6) Raymond Pettibone, No title (I Don’t Know Why, 1985), in This Will Have Been—Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis (June 30-September 30). In simple pen-and-ink, J. Edgar Hoover with headphones, his head bent slightly forward, the hint of a smile, under the caption “I DON’T KNOW WHY I’M LISTENING TO THIS BUT I CAN’T STOP.” Given the album and 45s jackets, flyers, and ads Pettibone was doing for the L.A. punk label SST at the time, you have to wonder what band it was he had Hoover hearing. Black Flag? Minutemen? No, it would have to be “Walking Down the Street” by Nig-Heist, which means kidnapping black people and beating them up.

(7) David Segal, “Amid the Wonder, Some Wondering,” Olympics wrap-up, New York Times (August 13). “WORST MUSICAL CLICHÉ The theme to ‘Chariots of Fire’ played time and time again during medal ceremonies. MOST WELCOME MUSICAL SURPRISE Joy Division’s ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ played in the Olympic Stadium during track and field events. Especially the Draw-and-Quarter.

(8) Bumper sticker, Berkeley, August 18 : “FORGET WORLD PEACE—VISUALIZE USING YOUR TURN SIGNAL.” Just above it: a version of the Shepard Fairey Obama Hope poster with a face that could have been Herbert Hoover’s.

(9) Bob Dylan, Tempest (Columbia) and at the Capitol Theatre, Port Chester, New York (September 4). On the surface of this album and far beneath it, a rewriting is going on—a rewriting of what, in his book Chronicles, Dylan called “a parallel universe . . . a culture of outlaw women, super thugs, demon lovers and gospel truths . . . streets and valleys, rich peaty swamps, with landowners and oilmen, Stagger Lees, Pretty Pollys and John Henrys—an invisible world that towered overhead with walls of gleaming corridors.” [235-36] In the most intense and ambitious songs here, Dylan takes the folk standards “Barbara Allen,” “The Titanic,” “Black Jack Davy,” “Matty Groves,” and more, and guides them to places they have never been—places, you can imagine, the songs always knew were there, but that they couldn’t reach. “In Charlotte Town, where I was born,” Dylan began his performance of “Barbara Allen” at the Gaslight Café in New York in 1962, changing the usual “Scarlet Town”; the eight minutes it took him to say what the song said then are matched now by the seven minutes of “Scarlet Town.” Here, fifty or five hundred years later, the suicides of Sweet William and Barbara Allen have left a curse on the town, a kind of ugly, alluring gravity, each step lifting a leg of a thousand pounds, a force, a specter, one can neither accept or reject—and you don’t want to get to the end of it any more than the singer does. “The streets have names / That you can’t pronounce,” Dylan sings in a slow, considered manner, as if to get you to believe it, to weigh the fact as he does; is it that as soon as you learn how to pronounce the name of a street, it changes? The lines may be as ominous and intriguing as any Dylan has ever sung—and while I fully expect someone to trumpet the discovery that they were taken from Sherwood Anderson, Tacitus, or the Sixth Century A.D. Arabian poet Imrù al-Quais, if not Carl Barks, in this music they sound like a gong.

At the Capitol Theatre, Dylan did not play any songs from Tempest—which had gone up on iTunes that day, a week in advance of the album’s official release—but he offered music that was just as new, if nothing like so old. With the acoustics of the less than 2,000-seat hall shockingly bright—inside the storm of texting, flash bulbs, filming, phone-calls, and constant chatter, you could hear every note of Dylan’s piano, follow every curling riff on Charlie Sexton’s lead guitar—the most effective performances were sly, insistent, rough, syncopated, harsh, and even scary: “Highway 61 Revisited,” “High Water (For Charley Patton),” and “All Along the Watchtower” were sent out in staccato bursts, with stinging, isolated rockabilly notes that were like flash bulbs in the sound. The most carefully written passages in the songs seemed to bring out the most in Dylan as a pure singer, alive to the way a word might call for a hesitation, a moment of doubt, a dive forward. Just as often he put the pressure not on words but syllables, each one carrying an exclamation point, which suspended the ideas or dramas in the songs—the sardonic dread and idealistic cynicism in “All Along the Watchtower,” the Englishman, the Italian, and the Jew at the bar in “High Water”—even as the pace picked up with every chorus. Finally, the whole show was a matter of cadence—with “All Along the Watchtower” moving from ! ! ! to a kind of slow, doubting abstraction, the song dissolving into the miasma of a noir film like In a Lonely Place, where no one could tell who to be afraid of. Dylan has played this song at the end of shows for years; this was the best performance of it I’ve ever heard.

(10) Two Days in New York, directed by Julie Delpy, written by Delpy and Alexia Landreau (Magnolia). Chris Rock’s Mingus to Julie Delpy’s Marion: “He’s mildly schizophrenic? What’s mildly schizophrenic? He hears nice voices? He would have killed Ringo and not John?”

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