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Real Life Rock Top Ten – March/April 2014

by Greil Marcus
Illustration by Charles Burns

Real Life Rock Top Ten – March/April 2014

Greil Marcus
11 Snaps

(1/2) The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records, Vol. 1 (1917–1932) (Third Man Records and Revenant Records) and the Bladensburg High School Video Jukebox (1959bhsmustangs.com/VideoJukebox.htm). The Paramount set calls itself a “cabinet of wonder,” and it is. You pay your money, a large, elegant wooden box arrives in the mail, and you open it. You stick a thumb drive into your computer, and one of eight hundred songs, the most recent dating to 1927—volume two will appear later this year—begins to play. You finger a set of LPs, marveling at the labels. You glance through a big paperback discographical history. You pry open a heavy, clothbound volume and begin to follow the story of how a Wisconsin chair company figured out it could make money producing cheap records for people to play on its expensive phonograph cabinets, and how, after clueless executives set about anything with a pulse, a visionary African American producer and opera follower named Mayo Williams began to move the label into what was called race music—and then you begin to page through dozens and dozens of advertisements so daring, and at times so odd, you can’t believe the music will live up to them. Such as one for Ethel Waters’s 1922 “That Da Da Strain” (“It will shake you, it will make you, really go insane,” wrote a couple of Tin Pan Alley tunesmiths, eager to get a dance-craze tune on the market even if they had to name it after a European art movement): “The Only Genuine Colored Record. Others Are Only Passing for Colored.” The price is $400, which, compared to the recent Clash Sound System ($249.99 list) or Bob Dylan’s Complete Album Collection, Vol. 1 ($279.98), is not so much a bargain as a gift.

But there are all kinds of wonder cabinets, and the Bladensburg High School Video Jukebox—from the class of ’59, culled from YouTube, also featuring just about eight hundred songs, not counting full-length oldies shows and countless more embedded videos—is free. You click the button that lets each selection “drop the coin right into the slot,” as Chuck Berry put it, and then you have no idea where to begin, so you hit, say, Dion and the Belmonts’ “I Wonder Why—THEN”—a 1958 TV clip with dance moves so complex they might have taken months to work out—and then the same song “NOW,” from an oldies show, Dion and, let’s say, two of the Belmonts, with hats or scarves hiding their bald heads, and singing with a soul, a yearning, an accumulation of decades of disappointments that the kids three decades before never would have believed, and with vocal dynamics you won’t. And then you’re off, lost in a labyrinth where, say, Senator Everett Dirksen’s sonorous recitation “Gallant Men” rubs up against Johnny and Joe’s “Over the Mountain.” It’s 1957 on Milt Grant’s Record Hop, with two black teenagers lip-synching for an all-white dance floor and subtitles running on the screen, as if Johnny and Joe were singing in a foreign language, and then it’s “FIFTY YEARS LATER” and piano notes open the doo-wop song, a song that was tragic even in its day, because you could hear, you could feel, that the boy and the girl singing would never get over that mountain, would never cross that sea, are so weighted with experience that when you see Johnny’s white hair and white mustache he looks as if he’s grown into the song, that he’s finally ready to say what it says.

(3) Christopher Wool, Guggenheim, New York (October 25, 2013–January 22, 2014). A rich, deeply tactile retrospective from the 1980s to the present. As you wind your way up the circular galleries, near the top you find what Wool calls his gray paintings, a pursuit he took up in the middle of the last decade. Most are untitled. Made partly with a spray-painter, they look like any city’s urban scrawls, all loose lines reaching for the edges of rectangles and squares. You begin to notice what seems like over-painting, though it’s the mark of a rag scrubbing away part of the image that has yet to come together, whiting out, or graying out, whatever cryptic message someone else has left before. Sometimes there are lighter, less-clear revisions, as if someone caught a hint of an idea, a message, and tried to bring it out, to make it talk. The graffiti language at the root of the work breaks down the apparent abstraction of the pieces: they refer to something specific, even if you can’t locate it on a map. The pictures are big, unstable, unfixable, lucid, steely, and gorgeous, and the longer you look, the more you see. From 2005, the scrubbing of a piece is not so much an erasure as the creation of a cleared space, a new field of action to be occupied and then abandoned in turn, or even forgotten.

(4) John Chamberlain, Pigmeat’s E flat Bluesong (1981), Dia Art Foundation, Beacon, New York (on long-term view). Chamberlain made his first auto-parts sculpture in 1957; here there are twelve, from 1979 through 1988. It’s David Cronenberg’s Crash played out in single objects, but especially in this 72″ x 75″ x 61″ lump. With fenders wrapped around chrome side strips and remnants of grilles, with yellow dominating red, orange, and cream over splattered surfaces, more than any other piece spread out through a long, open gallery it was a believable auto-auto-assemblage: something that put itself together, either what you might have seen after two or three cars merged into one in a single crash, or after Chamberlain rescued the thing from a compactor halfway through the job. What’s so immediate about it, so real, is that still and fixed as the object is, speed is still present all through it. You can feel the rush that made this.

(5) The Jacksonian, written by Beth Henley, directed by Robert Falls, the New Group, Acorn Theatre, New York (November 5–December 22, 2013). A hotel drama set in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1964, with Ed Harris as a disgraced dentist, Amy Madigan as his disgusted wife, and Juliet Brett as their miserable teenage daughter, and featuring Bill Pullman as what Elvis would have ended up as if “That’s Alright Mama” had never gotten out of Memphis: an alcoholic bartender with a thing for jailbait who has no problem shooting a woman for a ring he doesn’t even want and letting a black man go to the electric chair for it. “I was a performer for a while,” he says under a huge pompadour, sideburns snaking down the sides of his face, but now his whole life is stage fright.

(6) Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Hals: Masterpieces of Dutch Painting from the Mauritshuis, Frick Collection, New York (October 22, 2013–January 19, 2014). A small show of rarely seen works, starring Girl with the Pearl Earring, which despite its celebrity—you can buy a GIRL ON TOUR T-shirt, with, just like a band T-shirt, all the exhibition dates listed on the back (starting in Tokyo in 2012, finishing up this year in Bolgona and the Hague)—you can still actually see. The painting is so luminous it burns off the haze of its publicity; there are countless unwritten books in the eyes. You sense that if you could touch the canvas, you’d feel flesh.

(7) The Past, directed by Asghar Farhadi (Memento Films). In a holiday season of movies whose nonstop fuck yous might as well be directed at the audience—The Wolf of Wall Street, August: Osage County are only the noisiest—this was displacing: a sophisticated picture about decent, intelligent people caught up in a dilemma they are incapable of resolving. Almost every scene brings a secret, or an untold story, but the movie is like a set of Chinese boxes: inside each secret there’s always another one, until the end. A man is about to tell a woman one last thing, you can feel that the film is a step away from turning into gimmickry, and she says stop—she doesn’t want to know. For its realism, and its relief, it was the most satisfying movie moment of the year.

(8) The Life and Death of Marina Abramović, directed by Robert Wilson, Park Avenue Armory, New York (December 12–21, 2013). The first true scene opens on a room bare except for a very freaked-out young girl, her even more freaked-out grandmother, and a 1950s washing machine; it’s explained that the Abramović household was one of the first in Belgrade to have one. As Paul Anka’s “Diana” plays, the girl throws herself onto the machine and begins to kick her legs as if she were trying to swim on it. The grandmother turns her face to the audience and sends electricity through her already Bride of Frankenstein hair by the force of her eyes, which seem to be rolling around in her head like cherries in a slot machine. It was the most vivid, in-the-flesh equivalent of the man-made chicken sequence in Eraserhead I ever want to see.

(9) Crooked Still, “New Railroad,” from Shaken by a Low Sound (Signature Sounds, 2006). Oscar Isaac has received universal praise for his performance of the “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” on Inside Llewyn Davis. Listen to that, and listen to this.

(10) Maria Alyokhina of Pussy Riot, on her early release from prison under a new amnesty law (December 23, 2013). “This is a lie.”

Thanks to Doug Kroll, Reenee Gregg, and John Rockwell.

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