Real Life Rock Top Ten – May 2013

Greil Marcus
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(1) Django Unchained—Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Republic). Quentin Tarantino’s sound-track albums are as rich as his movies—with the two Kill Bill discs, more so. This is a swamp where hip-hop, Jim Croce, dialogue going on just long enough, spaghetti western classics, and John Legend all rise to the surface, one head bobbing up as another one sinks out of sight. The album creates its own drama, and as you listen, music that in the theater you only heard in snatches or didn’t register at all reshapes the story. But Anthony Hamilton and Elayna Boynton’s “Freedom” is the fire on the water. It’s ominous, menacing, stirring—so much so that it’s almost corny. And then the music seems to swoon over itself: time is coming to a stop, and every note seems so rich, so full of suggestion, portent, danger, and desire that you are willing time not to move, because you don’t want the moment to get away, even if the song promises that the next moment will hit even harder. The performance is at once a functional piece of movie music and a soul classic that, somewhere back in the ’70s, when Isaac Hayes first recorded with Sojourner Truth, got lost in a time warp.

(2) Girls, “It’s About Time,” directed by Lena Dunham, written by Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner (HBO, January 13). Speaking of time warps, or the way that in culture time is a Möbius strip: Dunham’s Hannah and Andrew Rannells’s Elijah are kicking around ideas for a theme party. “OK,” says Hannah, “so it’s like the Manson family before they committed any murders? And Squeaky Fromme was just like the Mary of a Peter, Paul and Mary?”

(3) Christian Marclay, The Clock (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, through June 2). Speaking of Möbius strips, you start out watching this twenty-four-hour compilation of film clips as a game, identifying the movies—you walk into the screening room at 5:15 p.m., whatever’s happening on the screen is happening at 5:15 p.m. You relax into the jokes in the scenes, into the punning cuts. Then you realize, especially as the clocks approach the hour, no matter what the hour is, that all of the pieces are actually going somewhere: toward suspense as a cinematic value that overrides all others. Marclay goes back and forth between shots of a woman waiting in line with mounting anxiety and a spaghetti western, and it’s the shots of the woman where the suspense is at its most intense, even if in the western somebody dies. Ralph Meeker carefully opens a door in Kiss Me Deadly and from another film Ingrid Bergman turns her head in shock.

(4) Kelly Clarkson, “My Country ’Tis of Thee,” at the Inauguration (January 21). Speaking of shock, she had to follow Aretha Franklin, who had performed the song at Barack Obama’s first inauguration, and Clarkson didn’t shame herself. As she slowly turned the song toward a bigger and bigger presence, she was both a star and self-effacing, heroic and modest. Moving into the forgotten third verse, then the fourth, she made the country look up, saying, There is so much we don’t know, there is so much to remember.

(5) Kelly Willis and Robison, Cheater’s Game (Thirty Tigers). Speaking of Kellys, as a country singer Willis seems to look at the form—the genre, the style, the radio stations, the industry—from a long way off, something she remembers, and misses, but knows her music would be dead if she ever went back to what the country music is supposed to be. So she slides on the melodies that drift out of what she remembers, bends to the words, and the feeling that comes out of the songs is like what you feel when you bend a sapling right up to the point where it breaks.

(6) Eddie Money for Geico (youtube). Speaking of being till it breaks, a horror movie: four nice people ARE [IF YOU DON’T HAVE THE “ARE” YOU’RE WAITING FOR A VERB AFTER “OFFICE”] seated in a travel agency office and in comes travel agent Eddie Money, looking like a sixty-year-old woman carrying a hangover that’s already lasted since 1978. “I’ve got—two tickets to paradise,” he sings. “Whoa-ah, whoa.”

(7) George Packer, “Loose Thoughts on Youth and Age,” the New Yorker on line (February 8). Speaking of paradise, there are certain people who, in respectable circles—such as the New York Times—are beyond criticism: Patti Smith, Christopher Hitchens, Nora Ephron, Susan Sontag, among others. Packer might have found another. “American culture belongs to the young, and, for that reason, it isn’t really mine any more,” he wrote; he’s 52. “My favorite album of 2012 was Neil Young’s ‘Psychedelic Pill,’ featuring a twenty-seven-minute meditation, “Driftin’ Back,’ about the deterioration of musical sound due to digital technology. Yet, I still live in the culture, experience it, react to it. For example, during the Super Bowl halftime show a friend and I exchanged e-mails (not texts, though they’ve been making serious inroads on my phone) about Beyoncé’s performance. We agreed that it left us a bit cold—a highly polished combination of corporate marketing and pole dancing. But I instinctively sensed the danger in going public with this view, on, say, my Twitter feed (if I had one).”

(8) The Return of Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of (Yazoo). Speaking of the deterioration of musical sound due to digital technology, in the notes to this joyous celebration of Record Collecting OCD—a set of ultra-rare blues and country records from the 1920s and ’30s—there’s a story about one of the pioneers, Harry Smith, who in 1952 turned his 20,000 78s into the 84-track anthology American Folk Music and set the stage for countless performers to come: “I would hear from Harry when he was short of money, and I would buy some records from his collection,” the collector Pete Kaufman writes of a man who was perhaps more of a trickster than anything else. “Finally I heard from Harry and he was down to his last NINE most prized records in his collection, and he offered to sell them to me for $5. We met at a bar in the East Village and exchanged money for records. Harry was drinking a beer. He asked the waiter how much it would cost if he dropped the mug on the floor. The waiter said five dollars and Harry dropped the mug on the floor and Harry gave the waiter five dollars from the money I’d given him. Then he lit a match and burned a twenty dollar bill.”

(9) B. F. Shelton, “Molly Dear,” from The Return of Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of (Yazoo). Speaking of The Return of Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of, there has always been something terribly creepy about the Appalachian standard “East Virginia,” which begins, “I was born / In East Virigina / North Carolina / I did roam / There I courted a fair young maiden / What was her name / I did not know.” It’s that missing name: it turns the song into a stalker’s confession. Or worse: maybe only barely below the surface, it’s a murder ballad. Except that in this version, recorded at the Bristol Sessions in Tennessee in 1927, there’s no maybe, and so convincingly it’s a secret you might rather have not been told.

(10) Christopher Gowans, “The Record Books” ( Speaking of untold secrets, “If best-selling albums had been books instead,” reads a tagline to this site, and then you see, say, Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation: an elegant book jacket where the art seems to suggest a British judge in a white wig looming like weather over a tiny skiff. But the true action is in the little book-catalogue summaries: here, “60s radical thinker Kenton ‘Sonic’ Youth’s polemic about the refusal to embrace the tide of West Coast philosophies in his native country, Papua New Guinea.” And then you can’t stop. Blood on the Tracks returns as a 25-cent ’50s romance thriller, New Order’s Power, Corruption and Lies as a business manual, Abbey Road as a Penguin Classics reprint of a minor novel by Grahame Greene, and, perfectly, Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks looking like a mildewed tract found in the basement of some foreclosed country manse: “This appears to be either a learned book of astrology or a misinformed book of astronomy, written in an impenetrable ancient Dutch dialect. There are many amendments and corrections—in a rough hand—peppered with large quantities of swearwords still in use today. Peculiar.”

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