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Real Life Rock Top Ten – July/August 2013

A Monthly column of everyday culture and found objects
by Greil Marcus
Illustration by Charles Burns

Real Life Rock Top Ten – July/August 2013

Greil Marcus
20 Snaps

(1) Eleanor Friedberger, “I Am the Past,” from Personal Record (Merge Records). The song doesn’t just get under your skin, it seems to emerge from under your skin, a memory lost a lifetime ago, but somehow now speaking in its own, full voice. On her second solo album, Friedberger is bright, light, taking pleasure from the softly bouncing melody, the muted trombone, the skipping flute, letting the darker shadows of her character—alluring, beckoning, irresistible, unnameable and unknowable—rise up and disappear. Is the sprite really singing only a nursery rhyme, as she says before she turns into something else? You could play this song all day long and not get to the bottom of “I am the past…You have no idea what happened before me”—of the way Friedberger floats through the words, turning them into a wave goodbye, Audrey Hepburn, her hair in a scarf, in a skiff, smiling as she slips over the horizon.

(2) Jo Jackson, lettering; Chris Johanson, pictures; cover art for Last Kind Words 1926–1953 (Mississippi Records, 2006). This collection of blues and gospel, an out-of-print LP from a few years ago, is named for and leads off with Geeshie Wiley’s 1930 “Last Kind Words Blues,” a song that carries the singer from a man’s death to her own, and takes the uncanny as a walk down the street. The sleeve shows the walk down the street. It’s a colorful folk-art grid of a pleasant, sunny, orderly American place, and all the people going from here to there, looking out the window, sitting on the pavement, and what they’re saying, what they’re thinking. Back cover, in a neighborhood of apartment houses: “I am like some kind of a log rolling.” “That’s ok is it a fish I don’t know what the hells going on anymore.” “It is hard to leave you.” “Death is only a dream.” “Ding dong.” “It was so careless so very careless.” “I’m going.” “I see you.” Front cover, downtown: “That is no way to get along don’t now.” “Don’t let nobody turn you round.” “Money can’t buy your soul.” “Salvation.” “No kind words nowhere.” “Death is only a dream.” It’s a portrait of nearly complete isolation (a woman on the phone saying, “I called you this morning” might be talking to an actual person, or leaving a message), each phrase its own kind of last word, with no sense that anyone is listening, and most of the music—from Blind Willie and Kate McTell, the Mississippi Moaner, Robert Wilkins, Lulu Jackson, Cannon’s Jug Stompers—falls just short.

(3) Lightning Dust, Fantasy (Jagjaguwar). On a third album, Amber Webber and Josh Wells let their music float just off the ground, the sometimes-harsh consonants or quick shifts in tone from Lightning Dust (2007) and Infinite Light (2009) falling away like clothes. What’s left is a kind of séance. Webber’s voice—bigger than that of Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval, less self-regarding than Lana Del Rey’s, the closest analogue maybe Brit Marling’s demeanor as the quietly terrifying cult leader in Sound of My Voice—hovers somewhere between life and death. It’s not limbo, it’s a country to explore. What happens there? People think they recognize each other as they pass in the air, but names arrive only in the mind after the other person has disappeared. How do people talk there? In incomplete sentences, with a tone that’s unstable, that threatens to evaporate as you listen. With Cris Derksen’s cello giving the music muscle and bone, it all comes to a head with “Agatha.” It’s just over four minutes long; depending on your mood, it can feel like nine, it can feel like two. It won’t hold its shape, it won’t hold still.

(4) Anaïs Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer, “Tam Lin,” from Child Ballads (Wilderland Records). Deep down, this is the tale biding its time inside Lightning Dust’s sound: a ghost lover makes a woman pregnant, then turns into a wolf, a bear, and a lion before he appears naked in her arms as himself. In the full text of the ancient ballad, it’s because he’s cursed by a fairy; in Mitchell and Hamer’s version, as they explained on the Scott Simon program on NPR, getting rid of the supernatural lets in the subconscious—the real home of fairies and ghosts. Mitchell steps through the song as if she’s walking on water lilies, alive to the thrill of telling the best bedtime story in the world.

(5) Rihanna, “Stay” (SRP). It was stunning on Saturday Night Live months ago. On the radio, played constantly, the daring of the performance, its challenge to everything around it—the refusal of melisma, the singer not owning the words but letting them capture her, almost no accompaniment but a simple, chording piano—stands out so plainly you can hear the more extreme record the singer, the writers, and the producers might have wanted to make: Rihanna, a melody, a lyric, and absolutely nothing else.

(6) Twenty Feet from Stardom, directed by Morgan Neville (Tremolo Productions). A documentary about black female backup singers that owes its life to producer Gil Friesen, who died last December. Darlene Love is the heroine, but every woman here reads from her own book. Most confounding is Lisa Fischer, so wrapped up in her own language as she hums and scats into a microphone today, so onedimensional as she tried for a solo career in the 1970s with the likes of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s “Southern Man.” Most dignified, and the most fun, is Merry Clayton, talking about the third verse of “Gimme Shelter.” It’s the middle of the night in Los Angeles, and the phone rings—there’s some group, “The Rolling—the Rolling Somethings,” they need a singer. “They picked me up with silk pajamas on,” she says, “a mink coat, and a Chanel scarf.” “I didn’t know her from Adam,” Mick Jagger says; he still can’t believe she showed up in curlers. She can’t believe what she’s supposed to sing. “I said, what? ‘Rape—murder—it’s just a shot away’?” They run through it once. Jagger asks if she’ll do another take. “So I said to myself,” Clayton says—and you can see her setting her mouth, tensing her body—“I’m going to do another one—I’m going to blow them out of this room.” You hear the naked track, just her in dead air; you hear how she did it, her voice breaking, the near-stop just after the last “it’s” in “It’s just a shot away” that makes all the difference. And it’s not even her best story. “Many years ago, when I was singing with Ray,” she says of her time as one of Ray Charles’s Raelettes, “I saw this guy contorting in the front row of the concert. I’m saying to the rest of the girls through my teeth, ‘Who is that guy? What’s wrong with him?’” She ended up singing behind Joe Cocker, too.

(7) The Company You Keep, directed by Robert Redford, written by Lem Dobbs (Voltage Pictures, 2012). Thirty years after a Weatherman robbery that left a bank guard dead, the whole crew comes up from underground as Redford crisscrosses the country to get Julie Christie to clear his name. It’s a good movie. At seventy-one, Christie is Friedberger’s “I Am the Past” in the flesh; she has a pull the woman in Billy Liar, Darling, or even Don’t Look Now only hinted at. And what’s altogether remarkable, what keeps the story clean, what keeps it whole, is that there is no soundtrackof-their-lives. No “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).” No “Turn! Turn! Turn!” No “War.” No “Bad Moon Rising.” Not one song.

(8) The Canyons, directed by Paul Schrader, written by Bret Easton Ellis (IFC Films). A New Poverty Row Productions project, starring a glass house high in the L.A. hills and rotting cinemas in abandoned strip malls. “About kids who got in line for a movie and the theater closed, but they stayed in line anyway, because they had nowhere else to go,” Schrader says—and a Los Angeles where film culture consists of people in their twenties with money from their parents financing “run-of-the-mill slasher movies in Arizona.” Starring Lindsay Lohan, who goes all out, and porn star James Deen, who’s believable until he has to kill someone, which he didn’t really have to.

(9) Levon Helm, “Kingfish” (Rollingstone.com). A clip from the documentary Ain’t in It for My Health: A Film About Levon Helm. On Electric Dirt, the Randy Newman tribute to Huey Long seemed like a setpiece about two professional Southerners. Here it’s so relaxed, the singer as satisfied as the listener, and the song something Helm could have been singing since he was ten.

(10) Julie Bosman, “Judging ‘Gatsby’ by Its Cover(s),” the New York Times (April 25). Boycott independent bookstores? In a story about new editions of The Great Gatsby—that is, about which stores are stocking only the Baz Luhrmann movie tie-in with Leonardo DiCaprio on the cover (Walmart) and which only the one with the original spooky-eyes art—Kevin Cassem of McNally Jackson, a beloved independent in New York, told Bosman that the movie version was beyond the pale: “‘The Great Gatsby’ is a pillar of American literature, and people don’t want it messed with. We’re selling the classic cover and have no intention of selling the new one.” Bosman apparently caught the genteel fascism in Cassem’s attitude; she asked him “whether the new, DiCaprio-ed edition of ‘Gatsby’ would be socially acceptable to carry around in public.” “I think it would bring shame to anyone who was trying to read that book on the subway,” Cassem said. So it’s better not to read the book at all than to read it with the wrong cover? Or is Cassem going to be the literary Bernie Goetz?

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