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Real Life Rock Top Ten – May 2014

by Greil Marcus
Illustration by Charles Burns

Real Life Rock Top Ten – May 2014

Greil Marcus
17 Snaps

(1Tacocat, NVM (Hardly Art). Like Seattle’s Fastbacks and Portland’s All-Girl Summer Fun Band, this group from Longview, Washington—singer Emily Nokes, bassist Bree McKenna, drummer Lelah Maupin, guitarist Eric Randall—are boiling over with the thrill of writing a song, making it into something that can be played, and discovering that as it happens you love the people you’re playing with. The voice is jaded, the sound anything but, and the world that comes into view is a trick, but you can slip its grasp and take off—through the bubbling warmth of “You Never Came Back,” the surge of “Bridge to Hawaii,” so sweet you can’t believe it still hasn’t been built, and “Snow Day,” which soars to the sun. “Crimson Wave” might be the door that flies open first. You don’t have to catch that it’s a protest against menstruation (“All the girls are surfin’ the wave / surfin’ the crimson wave today”): when Randall’s whomping guitar solo kicks in it’s just punk surf music, shooting the same curl as the Forgotten Rebels’ unforgotten “Surfin’ on Heroin.” The song explodes with its own conceit, with the way there’s absolutely no end to what you can find when you take an idea, a riff, a single pissed-off thought, and run with it—something like the tossed-off “Sew a scarlet letter on my bathing suit,” or the matter-of-fact “There are communists in the summer house,” a line that leaps out as such a perfect non sequitur that it doesn’t even have to be a metaphor that can drop right back into the song. I love this band.

(2/3) James Agee, Cotton Tenants: Three Families, with photographs by Walker Evans (Melville House Books) and Alana Nash, “Elvis as a Teen? See a Never-Before-Published Photo from His Hometown in Tupelo, Mississippi,” Vanity Fair.com (January 8). Cotton Tenants collects the recently discovered thirty-thousand-word essay that turned into Agee and Evans’s 1941 Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. In contrast to the sweep and scope of that book, which rides the same American wind as Moby-Dick once the Pequod ships off, the piece—a never-printed 1936 assignment by Fortune magazine—pitches between fastidiousness and rage, coldly matter-of-fact summaries of infant mortality and flatly reported accounts of family economies, snide dismissals of individuals turned into types, and, for individuals who for a moment escape all typology, an awestruck respect that Agee seems almost desperate to suppress. Agee never finds an even keel, because he doesn’t want one. But Evans did want a stable perspective, a certain distanced, confident stance that allowed his subjects—men, women, children, their houses, their beds, their walls decorated with advertisements—to appear as both iconic and ordinary, as individuals and as objects, as poor people smashed by the cotton economy, and as art. It was this—as Agee, in the more than four hundred pages of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, dove so far down into the lives he chronicled it’s not clear he ever came up—that has allowed Evans’s pictures to enter the common American imagination as images that were not made but found, and that allows you to see them everywhere, as if Evans’s eye were not his at all but that of the country itself, dreaming its fractured, free-associating dream. For example: the 1936 picture made of the farmer and three children in Hale County, Alabama, that appears on the cover of Cotton Tenants, the man leaning with casual dignity against a support beam of his shack, the kids with their wet hair slicked back to look nice for the camera, and a recently surfaced photo, by an unnamed photographer, of a thirteen-year-old Elvis Presley, alone with his bike on a Tupelo street in 1948, his blond hair also slicked back, his face proud, and what might as well be exactly the same man in the first picture just to the boy’s right, the same hat, maybe slightly better clothes. You don’t have to know that Evans took photos of soil erosion in Tupelo in 1936—or to imagine that he came back years later to follow up and had his eye caught by a boy on the street who reminded him of children he’d shot before—to know that in the deepest sense he made both pictures.

(4) Pete Seeger, 1919–2014. He sang for union rallies and children, at civil rights meetings in fields and in concert halls. He defied the House Un-American Activities Committee. He was blacklisted and never backed down. He saved the Hudson River. He lived in a log cabin he built himself and his seventy-year marriage was ended only by death. He was also Arthur Dimmesdale, with all of the moral rectitude and none of the guilt.

(5) Anna Ostoya, Adad Good Spirits (2010), in New Photography 2013, MoMA, New York (September 14, 2013–January 6). Ostoya is a Polish artist working in New York; this supremely modest piece is a small, rolled-up scroll of the photograph of Hugo Ball in what he called his “magical bishop” outfit from the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich in 1916, and, next to it, in a placement that mirrors Man Ray’s 1926 Black and White, is an even smaller conical scroll reading “OSTOYA íst politicisch” (“Ostoya Is Political”), which is to argue that Ball was, or is, too. It’s a lovely dada three-way, quietly punk, blank and yet full of shifting meaning, and, with the white in the piece and its spare setting dominating the grays of the photo and the black of the words, above all coolly delivering its uncool message, which is now cool, too.

(6) Kevin Young, reading and talk, NOMMO African American Author Series, University of Minnesota (February 12). Young, author of The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness (2012) and eight collections of poetry, reads with delight: not with drama but with deadpan humor, a musician’s sense of timing that brings out the seductive economy of his writing. Not a word is wasted, and every word seems to perform at least two jobs at once. He talked about thinking he’d finished with the blues form after his 2003 book, Jelly Roll, and how, for the poems in the 2008 Dear Darkness, “blues came back and got me.” He writes from deep in the tradition and escapes it, as with “Last Ditch Blues”: “Tired of digging / my own grave.” The killer is “Flash Flood Blues.” “I’m the African American / sheep of the family,” he says, then, wending his way through six subtly whiplashing couplets to find lines Robert Johnson would have been more than happy to use: “Even my wages of sin / been garnished.”

(7) Joel Selvin, Here Comes the Night: The Dark Soul of Bert Berns and the Dirty Business of Rhythm & Blues (Counterpoint Press). Berns was a songwriter and a record producer; he died in 1967, at thirty-eight, leaving behind such epochal hits as the Isley Brothers’ “Twist and Shout,” the Drifters’ “Under the Boardwalk,” Them’s “Here Comes the Night.” He was also a man of the street, putting people together, avoiding others, looking over his shoulder, making deals that returned howling at his back. Selvin walks through his story with a Broadway swagger that at first feels contrived, third-hand, and after a hundred pages or so feels not only earned but musical, and a rhythm begins to count its way through the story. The songwriter Ellie Greenwich haunts the last part of the book like the ghost of a woman who doesn’t know her life is already over; Berns courts death like a man singing Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love?” under his breath. Again and again, Selvin brings forgotten recording sessions that any other chronicler would have ignored to such stirring life that they validate not only the story he has to tell but the worth of Berns’s own life. In 1963 he went into the studio with a neophyte named Betty Harris, who recorded two of his songs: “Cry to Me,” already a huge hit for Solomon Burke, and “I’ll be a Liar.” Selvin lets you feel the contingency of the moment, how everything that happened—this inflection, that hesitation—could have turned out completely differently, and led to nothing. You probably don’t know the performances, but the suspense that Selvin is building is too strong for you to turn to YouTube—and you know that what’s there won’t match the picture Selvin is drawing: “She didn’t know Berns wrote ‘Cry to Me’ when she auditioned for him by singing the song. She didn’t know that he originally envisioned the song the way she sang it, slowed down to a crawl… from the first sob that bursts almost involuntarily from her throat, Betty Harris slowly, deliberately picks her way through the pathos,” Selvin writes. It’s the word picks that throws the scene into relief, producing images both of a woman walking with care and fright and of her picking at her own skin, her own heart.

(8) Masha Gessen, Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot (Riverhead Books). An incisive and powerful account of the desires, instincts, decisions, strategies, actions, and punishments of a few people who committed themselves to living as if they were free in a society built to insure that they were not. The Russian American Gessen, author of The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin (who will not say “Pussy Riot” aloud), is first of all a reporter, and she traces the story of a performance-art collective that turned into a “fictional group” that turned into a real group, recording the playground shouts of “Kill the Sexist” at a playground, and then everything that happened, and didn’t, when they took their next step, bringing their act into a cathedral. The tone can be sardonic, from the inside, not the outside: “They were ready. Sort of. Maybe. Almost.” Gessen also writes like a novelist, preternaturally attuned to the way the perpetrators of an action can lose control of it—“Something felt off among them, and each of them sensed it, the way each partner in a romantic relationship senses when it has started to crack, even though neither can say what went wrong and when”—and to the feeling of loss, missed chances, and abandonment that sometimes accompany even events that, in their small or enormous way, can leave a nation, or the world, or only a single person changed. “There is that moment in every action,” Gessen says of a woman who did not go into the cathedral, but might have, “when you have handed over your personal belongings to whoever is helping and you know exactly why you are there and you know what you are about to do and you feel that you can do anything at all and at the same time it is as though you could see yourself, so lithe, so young, so bright in every way, climbing up onto that platform—it was this moment she remembered.”

(9) I Break Horses, Chiaroscuro (Bella Union). Maria Lindén is from Stockholm; through the haze of this shimmering album you can see her playing both the middle-aged La Dolce Vita parties in The Great Beauty and the funeral scene in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, if he’d shot it. You can see her spinning Alphaville’s “Big in Japan” over and over in her teenage bedroom, and a few years later watching Julee Cruise swim her way through “Questions in a World of Blue” in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me and realizing that was what she wanted to do with her life. This is synth-pop draped in Gothic mystery so thick it would be corny if there were a single element in the music—vocals, melody, rhythm, texture most of all—that seemed fixed, settled, seen as a fact by the woman who made it. You could play this record all day long, and I’ve never played it less than twice in a row.

(10) Sly and the Family Stone, “Stand,” from Higher! (Epic Legacy). On this career retrospective, a moment from a show at the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970: it’s 7 a.m. The band is following Miles Davis, the Doors, the Who, and Melanie. The crowd is dead but the group somehow brings it to life; then someone hits Freddie Stone on the head with a soft-drink can and they leave. Before that there is Sly Stone, with a few sentences and a few notes that capture the best of what he left behind: “People believe in a lot of different things—though our universal thoughts, in general… I mean, the people who believe that what’s up is up and down is down, simple things, you know. It’s very easy to be fair, and don’t kill nobody, and those things—hurts if you step on my toe: ‘Ouch.’ A lot of things happened in the sixties”—and it’s so displacing, to hear someone barely halfway through 1970 referring to “the sixties” as an already completely historicized past—“a lot of people stood in the sixties. A lot of people went down in the sixties—for standing. That’s unfair.” He begins a clear, calm, floating a cappella “Stand,” as voices come in behind him, then instruments creep in as nothing but the most distant, quiet vamp, and you can see a small band of people, dressed in white, as they were that morning, gathered in a circle, and then you hear a single drumbeat. O

Thanks to Cecily Marcus and Andrew Hamlin.

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