Real Life Rock Top Ten – October 2011

Greil Marcus
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(1/2) Amy Winehouse, Back to Black (Republic, 2007) andMyrmidons of MelodramaAgain and again after Winehouse died, on July 23, you could read her talking about how she’d written the self-mocking, self-loathing, unflinchingly fuck-you songs for Back to Black: “I didn’t want to just wake up drinking, and crying, and listening to the Shangri-Las, and go to sleep, and wake up drinking, and listening to the Shangri-Las.” But she did. That’s why she would let their deathly “Remember (Walking in the Sand)” drift into “Back to Black”—there is a stunning montage of her gorgeous performances of the two-pieces-in-one on YouTube. That’s why, in “Rehab” and especially in her irresistible, unreadable 2008 Grammy performance of“You Know I’m No Good,” Winehouse was her own leader of the pack, but without a pack, without even girlfriends to ask her if she was really going out with him, if she was really going all the way, on her own, perhaps with nothing but the satisfaction of getting it right, saying what she had to say, adding something to the form that brought her to life as an artist, adding her name and face to the story it told. Yes, she wrote “You Know I’m No Good,” and like any work of art it was a fiction that bounced back on real life, maybe the author’s, maybe not; as she sang it on the Grammys, you could hear her listening to the song as well as singing it, hear the song talking to her, hear her asking herself, as she sang, “Is that true? Is that what I want? Is that all I’ve got?”

“She could not stand fame any more than I could,” Mary Weiss, the lead singer of the Shangri-Las, said after Winehouse died. “I wish I could have helped her, even if she never sang publicly again. My hairdresser told me that is just ego, thinking that maybe you could possibly make a difference when others could not. I thought about it, long and hard. I do not think so. I would have only spoken about her pain, not drug usage, until (if ever) she was ready. I related to her so much it is a bit scary… I will never understand why people get off kicking people when they are down and need help. How could that possibly make you feel better about yourself?”

With anyone else but Mary Weiss as a lead singer, the doom in Shangri-Las songs might have turned into a joke, but it never happened: every time, whether in “Remember,” “Give Us Your Blessings,” “Out in the Streets,” “I Can Never Go Home Anymore,” or “Past, Present, and Future,” the singer was a different person, starting from the beginning, telling her story as far as it would go, which was never very far. Their songs, like Winehouse’s, were all locked doors, doors that locked you out or that you locked yourself from the inside. But maybe because she is still here and speaking plainly, inside Weiss’s words you can imagine other lives for Amy Winehouse: a junkie on the street like Marianne Faithfull, who finally walked away, back into the career she never really had the first time around, first recording in the same year the Shangri-Las first recorded, this year covering their ghostly “Past, Present, and Future” on a new album; a grimy singer with a guitar case open at her feet, like anyone in your town; a social worker with years of shock treatment behind her, like June Miller; a music teacher for kindergarteners; an old woman with stories nobody believes.

(3) Amen Dunes, Through Donkey Jaw (Sacred Bones). The music here—less abstract than vague—may be trying to live up to its cover photo by Deborah Turbeville, which could have appeared in Michael Lesy’s Wisconsin Death Trip: a dark-haired woman with glasses, a hand held to her open mouth in alarm, and frightened eyes—eyes frightened by something behind them, not in front of them.

(4/5) McCabe and Mrs. Miller, “Nebraska,” from First Person Singular Presents Debts No Honest Man Can Pay (Pegasus Books, Berkeley, July 20) and Debts No Honest Man Can Pay (Veritas, Taking part in a performance series that means to redefine not only the literary event but the literary as such, the duo—guitarist and singer Victor Krummenacher, late of Camper Van Beethoven, and pianist and singer Alison Faith Levy, once of the Sippy Cups—stepped up to perform, or rewrite, Bruce Springsteen’s 1982 album Nebraska, and they hit a vein right from the start, with the title song. As a murder ballad, Springsteen’s account of Charley Starkweather and Caril Fugate’s 1958 teenage murder rampage is as stark as a Robert Frank highway photo—a song so severe in its conception and performance it could have been made to deny anyone else the chance to sing it. Krummenacher and Levy, who later recorded all the songs from the show, with “Highway Patrolman” as the clear, soul-deep stand-out, seized Springsteen’s song by doubling down, with Krummenacher as Starkweather and Levy as Fugate trading verses and sharing lines that in Springsteen’s original had been Starkweather’s alone. He was executed in 1959; Fugate, who claimed to be a hostage, was paroled in 1976. Since then she has never spoken of the eleven bodies she and Starkweather left across Nebraska and Wyoming, but she was speaking this night. She was there as Levy sang, “Me and him, we had us some fun”—and she came in without flinching to sing Starkweather’s real-life line about what he wanted when he went to the electric chair, “Make sure my pretty baby / is sitting right there on my lap.”

(6) Woods, Sun and Shade (Woodsist). There’s a little of Velvet Underground’s “New Age,” more of the Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset,” a lot of the Beatles and more of the Beach Boys, but the feel of the bedroom is stronger: from the high, high voices of “Pushing Onlys,” the primitive, fully realized pop song “Who Do I Think I Am,” the tunneling playing in “Out of the Eye,” this is the band the fifteen-year-old music obsessive Jason in Dana Spiotta’s novel Eat the Document would have formed, if only in his head.

(7/8) Diann Blakely, “Dead Shrimp Blues,” with comment by Lisa Russ Spaar, The Chronicle of Higher Education (July 15). For years, Blakely has written what she calls “duets” with Robert Johnson: her poems visiting his songs, his songs breathing in her poems. Here she has Tennessee Williams and Maggie from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof cross paths with the blues singer in Clarksdale, Mississippi, so she can address him directly, circling around the imagery in one of at least two Johnson songs built around a metaphor for impotence. She writes like a window-peeper: “I’ll undress / Down to my humid white-girl slip.” Spaar follows the way Blakely’s words curl around Johnson’s until it can seem as if Johnson’s are curling around hers; she rescues the phrase “posted out” from the murk of Johnson’s song so you can hear it crack in Blakely’s.

(9) Eleanor Friedberger, Last Summer (Merge). Jittery—someone talking too much, for a moment gritting her teeth if that’s what she has to do to squeeze out the five or six words that matter. That’s the story, until near the end the tension begins to break—with Friedberger’s own piano running the music in “I Won’t Fall Apart on You Tonight,” her harmonica breaking “Early Earth-quake” open with a huge laugh, her distantly doo-wop guitar chording letting the last song end the album miles away, and lives away, from where it began.

(10) Mekons, Ancient and Modern 1911–2011 (Sin/Blood-shot). This is a treasure chest, and what it contains is the whole of the band’s thirty-four-year stumble-and-fall career: Tom Greenhalgh’s no-hope chronicles, Sally Timms’s icy X-ray gaze, Jon Langford’s rousing odes against all odds—odes to defeat, because the game is fixed. But across eleven songs, none of that touches the delicacy, the detail, the tiny gestures that make the music new: the quiet, measured, rock-hard spoken interludes by Susie Honeyman and Sarah Corina in the title song; the intimations of plague, carried by fleas or ideas, in “Warm Summer Sun,” mapping the same blasted terrain PJ Harvey is crossing in Let England Shake. And then there is “Geeshie”: a dive into Geeshie Wiley’s uncanny 1930 “Last Kinds Words Blues.” “Lu and I,” Jon Langford says of Mekon Lu Edmonds, “became obsessed with the unpredictable insanity of the chord progressions, the length of the bars. Then we tried to play an instrumental version, cut it up into pieces”—and then let Sally Timms walk the tune from a Mississippi juke joint to a Weimar cabaret, turning Geeshie Wiley into Kurt Weill, though the tune in its new form moves so lightly on its feet it could be, to Weill’s endless delight, the other way around.

Thanks to Andrew Hamlin.

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