SPECIAL POST-ELECTION WHAT IS AMERICA EDITION
(1) Amy Winehouse, “To Know Him Is to Love Him,” from At the BBC (Republic). A DVD traces her 2006 appearance at the Other Voices festival in the remote Irish town Dingle: a set of exquisite performances, Winehouse singing in a church, tiny under her bouffant, dressed in black jeans, trainers, a low-cut sleeveless top, two face studs, and her tattoos, accompanied only by bass and guitar. In interview footage intercut between songs she talks earnestly about the people from whom she learned to sing—Mahalia Jackson, the Shangri-Las, Ray Charles, Dinah Washington, Carleen Anderson, Sarah Vaughn, and Thelonious Monk, and the film lets you watch them as Winehouse might have. A CD collects fourteen BBC performances, most of them live, and as she moves through her own songs “Back to Black,” “In My Bed,” “You Know I’m No Good,” and “Tears Dry on Their Own,” and the torch singer Julie London’s 1955 “I Should Care,” you’re pulled into the impeccably edited and lit black and white film noir she acted out on the two albums she made while she was still alive. And then, on the last track, after you’ve admired her sense of style, her commitment to craft, the way her professionalism was inseparable from her fandom, comes the heartbreaker: a 2006 radio-station cover of the first record by the Teddy Bears, with Phil Spector on guitar and contributing the song, a vocal trio that came out of Fairfax High School in Los Angeles to score a number one hit in 1958. Then it was simpering, pious: Spector never failed to mention that he took the title phrase from his father’s grave (“From the words on my grave,” he once said before correcting himself). Now it’s full, rich, gorgeous, and slow, with a step from one word, one idea, to the next, the journey of a lifetime, which neither the singer nor the listener is willing to see end.
(2) Kanye West at 12-12-12: The Concert for Sandy Relief (New York, Madison Square Garden, December 12, 2012). Emerging from a sea of sludge—the critic and musician Tom Kipp’s term for the way rote rock riffs and gestures, in this case uncountable raised arms, brandished guitars, and drawn-out finales, can accumulate until the entire form can seem like the aesthetic equivalent of landfill—the only hip-hop performer to have been called a “jackass” by President Obama and coincidentally the only hip-hop performer on the bill broke the night open. First high-stepping, then bending low and all but tiptoeing, he made a drama of assault and stealth, upending the parade of stars for twenty solid minutes, raging through parts of twelve songs—from “Clique” and “Jesus Walks” to his lines in Jay-Z’s “Run This Town” and Rihanna’s “Diamonds”—he brought down the storm everybody else was only talking about. Suddenly, there was a doubling, art and jeopardy facing off as enemies and leaving arm in arm.
(3) George Bellows, Preaching (Billy Sunday), in George Bellows (Metropolitan Museum of Art, November 15, 2012–February 18, 2013; Royal Academy of Arts, London, March 16–June 9, 2013). Bellows is best known for his 1909 boxing painting Stag at Sharkey’s, where the bodies of the two fighters seem to stretch beyond themselves. This 1915 pen-and-ink drawing is even more extreme. The evangelist Billy Sunday started out as a major-league outfielder, and you can see that here. Addressing a huge crowd in an enormous hall—the high roof supported by wooden pillars that look like trees, giving the impression of a camp meeting, though person to person the well-dressed crowd is appreciative, ecstatic, stony-faced, despairing—Sunday stands on top of a jerry-built pine platform, his legs spread, his right arm shooting out, his index finger pointing like a knife, his left arm cocked with his hand in a tight fist, his body so tensed it’s as if he’s physically daring the whole world to doubt a word he’s saying. The picture is thrilling, frightening: an unparalleled portrait of American movement. And seated at Sunday’s feet on the platform are four clerks, carefully writing down his words, or entering figures.
(4) Adam Gold, “Q&A: T Bone Burnett on ‘Nashville,’ Elton John’s Comeback and Retiring as a Producer,” Rollingstone.com (December 18, 2012). “Listen, the story of the United States is this: One kid, without anything, walks out of his house, down the road, with nothing but a guitar and conquers the world.”
(5) Simone Jackson, “The Cuckoo,” in Wuthering Heights, directed by Andrea Arnold (Ecosse/Film4). Playing the servant Nelly, Simone, cooing to Hindley’s baby, sounds like the ’60s British folk singer Anne Briggs. Other folk tunes float through the film: “The Cruel Mother,” “I Once Loved a Lass,” “Barbara Allen.” “In the most extraordinary way,” the critic Peter Bradshaw wrote in the Guardian, “Arnold achieves a kind of pre-literary reality effect. Her film is not presented as another layer of interpretation, superimposed on a classic’s frills and those of all the other remembered versions, but an attempt to create something that might have existed before the book, something on which the book might have been based, a raw, semi-articulate series of events, later polished and refined as a literary gemstone. That is an illusion, of course, but a convincing and thrilling one”—or not an illusion. The movie itself is like a folk ballad whose origins can’t be traced, a ballad for which there’s no original, and thus no copy.
(6) Son of Rogue’s Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs & Chanteys (Anti-). The New York producer Hal Willner is again drawing on his wide circle of rock legends, actors, and moderately obscure downtown Manhattan musicians. There are duds, mostly from the big names—Iggy Pop trying to be hipper than the songs he’s declaiming, Patti Smith and Johnny Depp making Real Art out of Old Folk Song. There are shots in the dark no one but Willner could have thought of, let alone pulled off: Macy Gray scratching her way through “Off to the Sea Once More,” so believable you can see her on deck with a peg for a leg, Anjelica Huston stepping through “Missus McGraw” as if it were a garden, Tom Waits with Keith Richards letting the melody of “Shenandoah” crawl out of his encrusted throat, Tim Robbins with Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs embracing “Marianne,” Robin Holcomb and Jessica Kenny’s subtle, faraway “Ye Mariners All,” the Americans—a New York foursome, led by Patrick Ferris, whose deep voice doesn’t sound like Richard Manuel’s but feels like it—on “Sweet and Low,” a small essay on the way a regretful mind doubles back on itself forever.
The glowing coal at the heart of all this—there are thirty-six performances—is the New York singer Shilpa Ray, with Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, on seven minutes of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s “Pirate Jenny.” Everyone has done this, from Lotte Lenya in The Threepenny Opera to Nina Simone to Bob Dylan rewriting it as “When the Ship Comes In” to Nicole Kidman using it to massacre the population of Lars von Trier’s Dogville. As the song’s scullery maid, Ray rushes into the piece as if her broom will be her ride when the song is over. Behind her, a sound somewhere between an accordion and a church organ sweeps up the music and holds it as one note. She’s enraged, contemplative, funny, wistful, throwing you back, lost in fantasy: “This whole fuckin’ place will be down to the ground.” Growling, she could be a female hobo who’s drunk too much Sterno; letting her voice smooth itself out over a string of words, she’s a schoolteacher giving her third-grade class a music lesson. The kids sing along, and then their parents call up the principal and want to know where their children learned this song about “Kill them now or kill them later.”
(7) The Acting Company, Of Mice and Men, written by John Steinbeck, directed by Ian Belknap, Baruch Performing Arts Center (New York, December 7, 2012, on tour March/April, see theactingcompany.org). With Bob Dylan’s defeated, fatalistic, dream-in-the-past 1961 version of “This Land Is Your Land” as exit music, just after Lennie (Christopher Michael McFarland) can finally see the land he and George (Joseph Midyett) will own, just before George shoots him in the back of the head. What makes this version of the song so different from any other, so jarring and hard to take, is put across in Dylan’s understated, hard cadence, in the way each line of the song is sung as a single, complete sentence, isolated from any other, so that they are pieces of an idea calling out to each other, each in its own exile, long since scattered, ideas that will never connect again: This land is your land. This land is my land. From California, to the New York Island. From the redwood forest, to the gulf stream waters. This land was made for you and me. It reaches the heart as “This land is not your land, this land is not my land, and it never was.”
(8) The Babies, Our House on the Hill (Woodsist). In this Brooklyn combo, Cassie Ramone’s acrid voice, full of thought, comes in behind Kevin Morby’s complacent leads as a dose of realism, not an attitude. When she takes a verse, especially on the duet “Slow Walkin,” it’s as if you’ve just passed her going the other way on the street, caught a snatch of conversation, and turned your head—Who was that talking?—half-recognizing the voice but unable give it a name.
(9) Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Barclays Center (Brooklyn, December 3, 2012). From passage to passage in a single song, they were Paul Bunyan, purposeful and determined, felling whole forests with a single swing of his ax, then Frankenstein’s monster, plummeting forward with the thrill of pure destruction. Some people might say it’s the same thing.
(10) Barrett Strong, “Money (That’s What I Want)” (Tamla, 1959), in Killing Them Softly, written and directed by Andrew Dominik (The Weinstein Company). You can watch the whole final sequence on YouTube: it’s November 4, 2008, and Brad Pitt’s hitman walks into a bar to meet mob fixer Richard Jenkins to collect for the three people he’s killed. Jenkins is trying to stiff Pitt on the price; on the TV above them, Barack Obama is giving his victory speech. “We have never been just a collection of individuals or a collection of red states and blue states,” he says. “We are, and always will be, the United States of America.” “Next he’ll be telling us we’re a community, one people,” Pitt says—he hasn’t been this convincing since True Romance. “In this country,” Obama says, “we rise or fall as one nation, as one people.” “This guy wants to tell me we’re living in a community?” Pitt says, after shredding Thomas Jefferson as “a rich wine snob… who allowed his own children live in slavery.” “Don’t make me laugh.” With the scene picking up momentum, force, his voice quiets: “I’m living in America, and in America you’re on your own. America’s not a country. It’s just a business. Now fuckin’ pay me.” And then a black screen and Barrett Strong’s ferocious song, written by Berry Gordy, his first hit, and his last word.
Thanks to Genevieve Yue.