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Real Life Rock Top Ten – March/April 2009

by Greil Marcus
Illustration by Charles Burns

Real Life Rock Top Ten – March/April 2009

Greil Marcus
8 Snaps

(1) Cat Power, Dark End of the Street (Matador). Six numbers left over from Jukebox, her deadly covers collection from 2008, but with every song here—most deeply with her version of Brendan Behan’s “The Auld Triangle”—the slow ache of Chan Marshall’s voice comes through like a promise that might take her a lifetime to keep.

(2/3) KT Tunstall, “Little Favours,” from Drastic Fantastic (Virgin, 2007), and “Mr. Fritter,” “The Tunstallator” (YouTube). So fierce on its own terms, as Tunstall’s voice wraps itself around her own body; in another life it opens up into a bizarre video, credited to an “ex-teacher,” a slightly balding man of about thirty-five who’ll turn out to be a cross between Terence Stamp in The Collector, whoever killed the Black Dahlia, and your everyday bondage fetishist. “I just want to show you something I’ve been building for the last few months,” he says before he beckons you into his house to show you a life-size puppet topped by a rotating box of Tunstall faces with an ugly slashed mouth. After jerking the strings on the mouth, on the metal hook that serves as the hand on the plastic guitar, and the body, all in sync to the music—precisely, which only makes it worse—the man, silently singing along with the drumbeat that opens the record, ties the strings around his own face as he kneels before his idol, just like Ed Gein draping the faces of the women he killed over his own. And the song still sounds glorious.

(4) Irma Thomas, “Wish Someone Would Care,” from Soul Queen of New Orleans (Mardi Gras) or Swamp Dogg Present Two Phases of Irma Thomas (S.D.E.G.)  Not the quiet original, from 1964, the saddest song that ever hit Top 40, but a shouting version cut in 1973 with the eccentric soul singer Swamp Dogg at the controls, re-produced by him twenty years after that—turning up now late in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, for a few moments in a diner late at night, as if from somewhere in the back, maybe a dishwasher singing to herself and keeping time off the beat by banging on the counter with a fork.

(5) Orioles, “Crying in the Chapel” in Revolutionary Road, dir. Sam Mendes (soundtrack album on Nonesuch)  Hidden in this adaptation of a 1961 novel about spiritual death in the suburbs of New York in 1955—a book that would never be mentioned today if it had been set in Michigan or California—is one strange scene.  Leonardo DiCaprio’s self-loathing business-machine promotion man Frank Wheeler sits in his cubicle late at night, speaking into a Dictaphone.  “Knowing what you’ve got,” Wheeler says deliberately.  “Knowing what you need,” he says.  “Knowing what you can do without”—all with the Orioles’ ethereal harmonies about peace and redemption drifting somewhere behind him, as if from another building.  “I live from day to day,” they sing, their words aimed right at the office drudge Wheeler has become.  But the group sets an inescapably poetic mood, and for a moment you can believe that the artist Wheeler and his wife know sleeps somewhere inside of him is about to break through.  “That’s inventory control,” Wheeler says.

(5) Beyoncé, “Church Bells,” in Cadillac Records (Sony Pictures).  The Chess Records story, with Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf, Etta James, Chuck Berry: one thing after another and no sense of having gone from one place to another, with a finale listing the date of each of the principal’s induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, as if they needed that validation.  The reason to see it is Beyoncé, singing James’s songs with such drama, conviction, and simultaneous mimicry and invention you can hardly credit her own musical career as anything but a marketing strategy.  Yes, she’s a businesswoman: after getting under the skin of this music, why else would she still be out there twirling in her own melismatics, oversouled and overdressed?  What happens here happens most completely with James’s early “I Heard the Church Bells Ring”—here called “Church Bells.”  It’s the first song we see her cut in the studio—off to the side, you see Jeffrey Wright’s Muddy Waters shut his eyes and lift his eyebrows in admiration as Beyoncé comes down hard on a line, and you know just how he feels.  Omitted from the soundtrack album in favor of one of Beyoncé’s own songs—but you can find the whole scene on YouTube, and if you go to imeem.com you can hear James herself.

(6) Teddy Thompson, “Down Low,” from Upfront & Down Low (Verve Forecast, 2007)  Hidden in his collection of dull versions of country standards is a single original: the cruelest, most self-pitying, least overstylized and best Chris Isaak ballad in year.  Minus only Chris Isaak.

(7) Alvin and the Chipmunks, “Don’t Stop Believin’”, from Undeniable (Razor & Tie).  Finally, the supposedly most down-loaded song of the 20th century gets the singer it always needed.

(8/9) Stanley Booth, “Triumph of the Quotidian,” in William Eggleston: Democratic Camera, Photographs and Video, 1961-2008, ed. Elisabeth Sussman and Thomas Weski (Whitney Museum/Yale) and Eden, dir. Declan Recks (Samson Films).  On the white gallery walls of the Whitney, in a show that closed in January and is now at the Haus der Kunst in Munich, Eggleston’s deadpan color photos didn’t hold their places; they got lost in the crowds looking at them.  In the catalogue, though, each image on its own page, you can hear what Eggleston is after: silence.  As in his 1972 picture of shoes under a bed, creating the atmosphere of a room no one has entered for years, nearly everything he processes through his camera and his darkroom looks abandoned.  That makes room for Stanley Booth to tell stories, and one started me thinking about how songs travel.  In Eden, a film about a miserable Irish couple’s tenth anniversary, Aidan Kelly’s Billy Farrell leaves his wife in a disco for a party, chasing a girl he thinks has eyes for him, though all she sees is an old man.  He passes out drunk; in a room behind him, people start singing “House of the Rising Sun.”  Farrell wakes up, automatically singing along, sees the girl, stumbles to his feet, and as he grabs her, forcing himself on her as she tries to push him away, the song continues, but now the voice you hear belongs to Sinéad O’Connor, an avenging angel who seems to be singing from inside Farrell’s heart, which she’s turned against him.  The song has gone from its commonplace beginnings somewhere in the American south, somewhere in the late 19th or early 20th century, to Bob Dylan’s first album in 1962 to the Animal’s epochal 1964 worldwide hit to countless versions by street singers and karaoke belters to a party in an Irish town in the early 21st century, where if nothing else it’s a song everybody knows, and from there into the spectral hands of a woman who could stare down anyone on the planet—and who’s to say where its true home is, who owns it, whose singing most rings true?  “A number of years back,” Booth says of Eggleston, “he was honored by the Photographic Society of Japan at a Tokyo ceremony on the occasion of photography’s sesquicentennial anniversary.  When he accepted his award, Eggleston, who speaks little Japanese, sang, in English, ‘Heartbreak Hotel.’  Still singing—‘I been so lonely, baby’—he went out to the sidewalk, where a Japanese woman he remembers as ‘very beautiful’ looked into his eyes and said, ‘Oh so lonely.’”

(10) Tallest Man on Earth, “I Will Follow the Rain,” 7” with Shallow Grave (Mexican Summer 7”).  Aka Kristian Mattson of Dalarna, Sweden, the Tallest Man on Earth sounds the way he wants to: as if he’s stuck his head out of his hole in East Kentucky just long enough to make you wonder if you shouldn’t crawl after him.  The guitar picking is of that seductive, mysterious strain that goes back to “The Coo Coo,” a calm inside the bluegrass nervousness.  “Have you ever”—that’s all he needs to say to make you feel as if you have.

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