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Real Life Rock Top Ten – September 2014

by Greil Marcus
Illustration by Charles Burns

Real Life Rock Top Ten – September 2014

Greil Marcus
8 Snaps

(1) Lana Del Rey, Ultraviolence (Polydor/Interscope). The best that could happen to this whirlpool of an album—freezing up only with its last number, “The Other Woman,” a torch song written by Jessie Mae Robinson and a hit for Sarah Vaughan in 1955, which is structured, which is obvious, and which compared to everything else here sounds artificial and fake—is for it to sell its requisite five million copies and then be completely forgotten. Erased from public memory, so that generations from now, when someone opens a closet and finds—along with the Lana Del Rey hologram projector and the Lana Del Rey Barbie—a CD and an old box to play it on, that person will wonder what it is, and hear it at least as clearly as anyone living now, but in a world where our frame of reference is completely gone. Everything I’ve read about this record is about its words, literal-minded, Philistine readings that assume that the I in any song is a real person, and the same real person: What is Lana Del Rey telling us about herself? But no good song—no good creative work of any kind—is literal. Even if the artist starts out thinking she knows exactly what she means to say, the rich text, as I once read, resists not only the reader but the writer as well, and intent vanishes into the swirl of the songs. The music is gorgeous, and uncanny—words matter only when they play a musical role. You can hear the singer fall in love with the staircase she makes out of the repetition of “I fucked my way up to the top… fucked my way up to the top”—it’s not a confession; it’s a rhythm. Again and again, a chord comes down, breaks like a wave, flows back, and you keep listening for that moment to repeat itself, but it never quite does. Lana Del Rey knows how to wait out a song, and this album may know how to wait out its time.

(2) Cyndi Lauper, She’s So Unusual: A 30th Anniversary Celebration (Portrait/Epic/Legacy). The first disc is the original album, with the four top-ten hits. The second is outtakes, and the first of them, an “early guitar demo” of “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” opens back into a career that might never have happened. The recording is stunning—and also dark, doom-struck, absolutely negative, frantic, panicky, the girl all dressed up to have fun taking one last look in the mirror and reeling from what she sees.

(3) Cabaret, directed by Sam Mendes, the Roundabout Theatre Company at Studio 54, New York (June 13). Cecily Marcus reports from New York: “At the end, Nazism has seeped in everywhere. Alan Cumming’s Emcee comes back to center stage, wearing the same black leather trench coat that started the show. He starts undoing the buttons, sort of suggestively, but not really. If you saw the movie, you expect him to be just another Nazi. But in a move that is both a total shock and suddenly makes absolute sense, the Emcee is wasted, standing there dressed in concentration camp pajamas with a yellow star and a pink triangle. It’s not a costume; it’s not entertaining. It’s horrifying and real and makes you wonder why you never understood this story before, no matter how many times you have heard it.”

(4) Amanda Petrusich, Do Not Sell at Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78rpm Records (Scribner). Mostly focusing on discs from the 1920s and ’30s on the Paramount label, this book is so alive to its subject, to the grail of the music, that it pulls the reader through the author’s speculations about Collector’s Neurosis or her scuba-dive into the mud of the Milwaukee River in search of records discarded there the better part of a century ago. “But the more I thought about why” collectors gave up their lives to the rare, the arcane, the unfindable, Petrusich writes, “the less I cared,” and that’s the key to her sensibility: she wants to get inside the music she’s writing about, and she does. Her best writing is about listening, rooted in her “base, possibly shameful desire to hear someone so overcome by emotion that they could no longer maintain any guise of dignity or restraint,” and as she listens the mask drops from her face as well: “I wanted to crack into bits and use them as bones,” she says of Mississippi John Hurt’s 1928 “Big Leg Blues”—you don’t know if she means the shellac or the song. She quotes James Weldon Johnson’s “O Black and Unknown Bards” to catch the breath of Geeshie Wiley’s 1930 “Last Kind Words Blues”: “How came your lips to touch the sacred fire?” Charley Patton’s sound translates itself into a single image: “Some goon waiting outside.” She watches the collector Joe Bussard as he pulls a record from his shelves and puts it on his turntable, listening to him listen, to the way as the record spins he can’t hold still: “At times it was as if he could not physically stand how beautiful music was.” Petrusich will make you desperate not only to hear the records she’s writing about—though only single copies of the actual discs may survive, you can hear everything on YouTube—but to feel the way they make her feel, to feel the mask dissolve on your own face.

(5) Dave Hickey, Pirates and Farmers (Ridinghouse). In a world divided between pirates and farmers, Hickey makes sure you know what he is—but any posturing dissolves when he homes in on Jackson Pollock’s Autumn Rhythm as a “disobedient object” or pulls the plug on the Hunter Thompson cult (“I found myself, for the first time, feeling sympathy for Johnny Depp”). There’s a lot of re-reading in this collection of pieces from 1999 to the present, and it explodes when Hickey goes back to Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. It’s 2007, the book’s fiftieth anniversary, and Hickey tells you he read it exactly fifty years before, “when I was in my early teens”; that he bought it “off the rack, in hardcover, because we were a transient family and the title, On the Road, seemed to promise some insight into that peculiar gift and affliction”—he wasn’t falling for any best-seller hype, no way. OK, cool. But his account of reading it again twenty years later, after finding himself embarrassed by re-reading Sartre or Hesse or Rilke, isn’t cool: “It was like being hit by a truck. It was so much better than I ever would have imagined that I wanted to cry.” It’s that high-art swoon, so you aren’t ready for him to argue that the book’s closest cultural kin might be This Is Spinal Tap: “They both get sadder every time… With each subsequent experience the truth gets tougher; there is more rage in the lunacy and outrageousness. The folly of vanity and demented hope becomes more excruciating.” But that’s not all that lasts. “No story in Dickens or Kerouac is so abject that you do not feel the joy of the author who is writing it,” Hickey says, and that holds true for him, too.

(6) Pere Ubu, Carnival of Souls (Fire). David Thomas’s love for recycled titles pays off in this wave to the 1962 horror movie, which Pere Ubu has accompanied in-theater. “Golden Surf II,” the first song, shoots out like a flood, and then you can ride the wave of transmogrification that sweeps over the whole album. “Carnival” is a combination of “96 Tears” and “The Signifying Monkey” on the surface; below it you can hear second and third rhythms and hints of second and third voices everywhere. “Irene” is Lead Belly’s “Goodnight, Irene” hammered by “I Put a Spell on You”—but recalling Lead Belly’s last lines, which the Weavers cleaned up for their 1950 hit version. “If Irene turns her back on me / I’m going to take morphine and die”—this might be closer to the Handsome Family’s modern murder ballad “Arlene.” The killer is the last number, the twelve-minute “Brother Ray”: a revisiting of the Velvet Underground’s “Sister Ray,” but also of Thomas’s own numbers “Little Sister” and “Runaway.” Thomas walks back and forth in front of a weather report of a jangling groove, telling his story about a phone call from the desert, about how Brother Ray—himself a version of the brother in Raymond Chandler’s The Little Sister, just before, or maybe after, he turns up dead—just has to get it across that he’s going to play cards with God in heaven, Thomas at first jocular, a medicine-show majordomo, then wistful, then faraway, each voice marveling, in its manner, over the way some songs never stop teasing you with the possibility that, no matter how many times you’ve heard them or sung them, you were wrong all along.

(7/8) Rolling Stones, Acoustic Motherfuckers (Kobra Records, bootleg) and Nicholas Confessore, “Republicans at Romney Retreat Search for Focus,” the New York Times (June 14). For the indelible regret of its opening strum, the standard version of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” is included on Acoustic Motherfuckers, otherwise a collection of if not altogether acoustic then quiet, downplayed outtakes, mostly from the late ’60s. There are revelations here, and all are a matter of delicacy and restraint: Mick Jagger’s vocals in “You Got the Silver,” making the official version, with Keith Richards singing, seem coarse and shallow; in “Wild Horses,” the acoustic guitar coming up in front of the singer, then falling behind him, the way a single mandolin note can break you, and then the way Jagger, by stepping away from a word as he sings it, can break your heart; Jagger and Richards together hovering over “Sister Morphine” as if they’re afraid they’ll wake it up. And as for proof that the depths of this music have yet to be plumbed, all you have to do is read the papers: “On Friday afternoon, former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas delivered a stump speech that was equal parts red meat and rueful political self-improvement. Republicans, he said, need to stand up for working-class voters, while Washington needs more compromise.

“‘The Rolling Stones were the greatest political philosophers of all time,’ Mr. Huckabee told the crowd, ‘and they got it right: “You can’t always get what you want.”’”

(9) Street musician, corner of Fifth Street North and Third Avenue North, Minneapolis (June 7). In a light rain, as we approached Target Field, where the Twins would beat the Astros 8–0, you could make out a high, keening sound that didn’t fit. We passed a Latin drum crew; the high sound got more definite if not louder, and as we turned onto a desolate block it did fit. There was a fiddler, and he might have been a hundred and forty years old: that is, he looked fifty, maybe sixty, but his hat, suit, beard, and mustache made an image of him coming up at that age from West Virginia in the 1920s, and his tone was from the nineteenth century if not before. His music, too, smeared time and place: the harsh, up-and-down cadence from his fiddle, “Shenandoah” splintering into what might have been “East Virginia,” was shrouded in low, shapeless moans that felt like an argument about the insufficiency of language to tell any kind of truth worth hearing. He was still singing three hours later, looking as if he’d been playing across town outside Nicollet Park when Babe Ruth drove in six runs on a barnstorming tour in 1924.

(10) Kara Walker, A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant, Creative Time, Brooklyn (May 10–July 6). Cecily Marcus reports from New York: “Everyone is talking about the massive woman taking up the back of the building. She’s worth talking about, but I want to talk about the boys lining the path to the sugar Sphinx. The boy sculptures are life-sized and realistic. They lack any of the exaggerated features that make the woman in the back a showpiece. The boys are field hands, supplicant and abused, cast of molasses that is breaking down at every moment. At their feet are pools of melting molasses blood. Some have lost legs or arms, and in the humid heat inside the sugar factory, the molasses drains the color from the sculptures, leaving them a translucent reddish, or even white in places. Worse, there are sugar parts dropping from the building onto them, dripping, then cooling, then dripping, leaving the boys’ backs, arms, chests, faces mottled and disfigured. They have been beaten and sent back into the fields to work. This art will look different every week it’s open. Some of it won’t live to see the end.”

 Thanks to Steve Perry.

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