Real Life Rock Top Ten – October 2009

Greil Marcus
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(1) Worst News of the Month: crime leaders kray twins schemed to take over as the beatles’ managers (Entertainment Daily, June 21). The scheme the Krays supposedly hatched was simple: instead of cutting up Brian Epstein with swords, threaten to expose him as homosexual—never mind that Ronnie Kray was gay himself. You can imagine that John Lennon might have found the prospect of being managed by the scariest people in London cool beyond cool—for about five minutes.

(2) Ettes, Do You Want Power (Take Root). With guitarist Coco Hames in front, drummer Poni Silver in back, and bassist Jem Cohen in the middle, this is a punk band—and depending as much on your mood as on their intentions, you might pick up the swooping grandeur of the Adverts’ “Great British Mistake,” the speed of the Clash, the distance and space the Rolling Stones found in rhythm and blues. Songs can take off so fast they all but leave you behind. But the oddest notes might be the most compelling, a few months or years down the line: the way the I-Can-Wait-Forever Appalachia voice of “O Love Is Teasin’” or “The Cuckoo” winks out of the verses of “While Your Girl’s Away,” the Cheshire-cat smile in “Keep Me in Flowers.”

(3) Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, directed by Werner Herzog (Saturn Films). Nicolas Cage’s lieutenant walks into a surveillance room across the street from a house detectives are checking out, hallucinating his head off from crack and coke. “What are these fucking iguanas doing on my coffee table?” he says, as one of the lizards only he can see begins to rotate an eye while Johnny Adams’s New Orleans version of “Release Me” comes out of its mouth—or its nose, or whatever it is that iguanas sing out of.

(4) Nicholas Rombes, A Cultural Dictionary of Punk, 1974–1982 (Continuum). You can’t use this for reference, and not because there’s no table of contents. Jumping all over the place is too much fun. A typical entry is the faux-referential “Ongoing force of me, the,” which cites a 1987 Johnny Rotten response to an “interviewer’s statement that there had not been anything as revolutionary as the Sex Pistols”: “There has been something as revolutionary as the Sex Pistols. The ongoing force of me. You might laugh as you skip backward or forward to Dhalgren (1975 novel by Samuel R. Delany, news to me) or “Punk, influence on something other than music or fashion”; you might also be stopped in your tracks by phrase-making I doubt could have been produced by anyone else on earth.

(5) Charles Taylor writes in on seeing Sonic Youth for the first time (United Palace Theater, New York City, July 3): “How do you explain the difference between volume that is pulverizing and volume that’s liberating? At one point during the first encore, Kim Gordon, who was wearing a silver sheath dress, was doing her go-go-dancer moves and looked as if she was actually surfing the waves of sound. Visually and in attitude, she’s the steady center of that band. At times, she and Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo and Mark Ibold would form a loose circle, facing each other, and they had the deadly precision of a group of hired killers in a Leone western. And the music seemed to me perfectly pitched between songs and guitar freak-outs, the latter of which never—never—lost discipline or structure. Maybe only Neil Young has that sense of physical expansiveness at his most slashing.

“Part of what moved me, and this may sound trivial, was that for the first time in memory I was at a rock show watching people older than myself, and people not playing at anything, not posing, but doing what they love without feeling they have to resort to rock-star clichés of bad behavior to do it. Did you see Gordon in Last Days? I hated that movie. I thought it treated Kurt Cobain the way generations of college girls have treated Sylvia Plath (though there it fits): as the fetish object at the center of a death trip. When Gordon walks in, she shows the entire movie for the lie it is. Here’s someone who is as rock and roll as rock and roll can be, and she’s not self-destructive or frantic or foolish. She’s an adult. That’s why I loved her as the gangster snapping off ­orders in Cantonese in Boarding Gate. She is such a cool, self-possessed professional. Jean-Pierre Melville would have adored her.”

(6) Fiery Furnaces press release (Thrill Jockey Records, July). On the follow-up to the summer’s I’m Going Away: “The band is very optimistic—despite or because of it all—and will continue it’s ‘Democ-Rock’ efforts by releasing a fully-fledged ‘Derocmacy in America’ limited edition vinyl box-set. It might be called something like Your Cashier Today Was ACM CASHIER 96.…” Misreading “Derocmacy” as “Deromacy,” I asked Furnace Matthew Friedberger if it was a typo, and if so, or not, what it meant. His reply: “It’s meant to be the equally idiolect-ed ‘Derocmacy.’ ‘Roc’ as in ‘Rock’.… But that’s neither here nor there. And maybe ‘Deromacy’ is one of those fruitful sort of typos. It might therefore have—unknowingly—been derived from ‘derivo’—meaning the derive or divert. So ‘Deromacy’ might refer to an imagined, or real, Diversionary Republic.—Or from ‘derogo’—the Derogatory or Critical Republic.—Or from ‘derosus,’ which apparently means ‘gnawed away’—so, the Eaten-Away Republic.

“‘Derocmacy’ has to do with the ‘Democ-Rock’ thing, which started as a lark on our tour last year during the primaries. We had people vote on what we’d play and held a ‘caucus’ to determine what our next album would be. And I was to write songs, or put together songs, based on or determined by whatever printed ephemera fans had on them and put down on the stage (along with their song-votes). Receipts, mainly. (So the cashier number on a receipt would provide the intervals for the tune, and so on). The slogan was ‘Make the details of your life the sound track to your life.’”

(7–10) Megan Pugh, “Who’s Bad? How the King of Pop changed the course of American dance by transforming its past” (FLYP, July 3). Michael Thomas, “I Was Not Michael Jackson” (New York Times, June 28).  Bob Herbert, “Behind the Façade” (New York Times, July 4). Bill Wyman, “The Tragedy of Michael Jackson” (Wall Street Journal, July 15). These are a few of the few pieces on Michael Jackson’s death where writers had the heart or the nerve to dig out from under the endless stream of cant about the “sound track of my life” and “his gift to the world” and “now perhaps he can rest in peace.” In a scintillatingly linked essay on the website FLYP, Pugh set the scene with the spontaneous explosion of dance, not merely speech, that first greeted the news (“Fourteen-hundred prison inmates in the Philippines performed a massive, synchronized dance tribute in bright orange jumpsuits,” as you watch), and then moved out to trace Jackson’s debt to (and, clearly, study of) Bill Robinson, the nineteenth-century moonwalker Billy Kershands, Gene Kelly, and more, not diminishing Jackson’s work but allowing it to take on its full dimensions by expanding its context. Thomas, author of the novel Man Gone Down, a perfectly conventional realistic novel that can at times make you feel as if you’re reading Ulysses or Invisible Man, begins as harshly as he can, hearing the news on the radio, thinking about how he’d already left not only Jackson but his own brother behind: “He knows I don’t care about him.” He goes back to the 1970s and the Cousin 5, the living-room singing group he, his brother, his sister, and his two cousins formed in thrill and homage, and proceeds to twist his heart and yours. Herbert writes about a man who bought the world: about meeting Jackson in the mid-1980s, when he carried Emmanuel Lewis around “almost as a pet”—with Lewis, “probably 13 at the time, but he looked much younger, maybe 7 or 8,” a symbolic stand-in for the children in Jackson’s bed. Wyman presented Jackson as a man sustained only by his fame—sustained in the sense of Jackson himself feeding off his own renown. Wyman did not shy away from the hideousness of the face Jackson presented to the world, and not the face he got with plastic surgery: rather how, after inventing the previously unknown throne of the King of Pop and awarding himself the crown, “he developed a fondness for walking around in front of a large band of what seemed to be Central American military personnel; this was in the ’80s, the era of Salvadoran juntas and assassinations of priests and nuns. One album, HIStory, featured an enormous Soviet-style Jackson statue on the cover. Replicas of it were set up when he made public appearances.”

Unlike the thugs he liked to dress up as, Jackson didn’t have people killed. He enacted a complex drama that implicated millions of people in labyrinthine ways. With the avalanche of biographies and biopics to come, it will be hard to see even the curtain behind which that drama took place, but gathering these pieces and others as tough-minded in one place would be a first step. 

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