Real Life Rock Top Ten – Nov/Dec 2013

Real Life Rock Top Ten – Nov/Dec 2013

Greil Marcus
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(1/2) Radio Silence: Literature and Rock and Roll, issues 1 and 2. Edited by Dan Stone. Published in the form of a literary quarterly, but with a design that promises both seriousness and surprise, this Bay Area journal is something people have been waiting for for fifty years: writing in, through, beside, around, and about music, where the first criterion is writing. There is Fitzgerald sharing pages with Geoff Dyer. There’s Ted Gioia trying to bury the myth of Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil and finding that it can’t be done; there is Jim White trying to explain to an old man that a character in a Cormac McCarthy novel isn’t real, only to find Suttree’s ghost tapping him on the back. There is Rick Moody, who apparently never met a question he didn’t already know the answer to. But favorites or their opposites are not the point. What it is is a radical overturning of the whole notion of what music is, what it’s for, where you find it, where it goes, and one issue contains not a hint of what another one might have to offer.

(3) A mother takes her five-year-old daughter to see PUNK: Chaos to Couture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as related by Deborah Freedman (New York, August 14). Daphna Mor: “This fashion breaks the rules. They did things that other people thought were ugly, provocative—” Alona Mor Freedman: “I like acupuncture fashion!” Daphna: “It is not acupuncture, it is punk.” Alona [excited that she is wearing tights and a pink shirt herself, and pointing to a contemporary dress inspired by punk]: “Ima, this is not acupuncture—it is too pretty.” Daphna: “I know! This one is not real punk, and anyway—it is not acupuncture, it is punk. Acupuncture is what your uncle does with the needles.” Alona: “Ah, they didn’t use needles in punk?” Daphna: “They did, but a different kind…”

(4) Typhoon, White Lighter (Roll Call Records). This massed and layered music from Portland, Oregon—eleven band members are named—isn’t going to reveal itself quickly. Moodily considering the fate of the universe, Kyle Morton sings with unlimited self-importance—“Every star is a possible death,” he announces at the start of one number, and then, singing sometimes from behind where the song seems to be, from one state over, from years before it was written, he turns a tone that at first felt pompous into pure urgency. The music might be taking place in the sky—and then, near the end of a song, female voices come in and pull the rug out from under the whole edifice. The big voice is replaced by a little one—high voices, sometimes unnaturally high, Betty Boop after she’s seen it all and is ready to tell at least some of what she knows. And then the record begins to speak in its own tongues. There’s a banjo passage in “Possible Deaths” that can stop you cold with its embodiment of regret; doo-wop chords at the beginning of “Prosthetic Love” that promise a sweetness the song turns away from as soon as you feel its pull. Again and again, there’s a sense of something missing, something withheld. You’re almost there, you can practically touch it, and then you’re not sure that what you heard was there at all. “The Lake” might be the most compelling number; certainly it’s the loveliest. But it only suggests how bottomless the pools at the heart of these songs are.

(5) Aimee Bender, “Americca,” from The Color Master (Doubleday). A story about a household where gifts arrive out of nowhere—“We’ve been backwards robbed,” says one daughter. With an ending set precisely to the rhythm of “Ode to Billie Joe.”

(6) Hugh Laurie on The Colbert Report (Comedy Central, August 5). It began with Stephen Colbert taunting Laurie about his professed love for blues as opposed to the more appropriate, for an Englishman, Gilbert and Sullivan: “Do you have to live the blues to play the blues— ‘cause I always heard [growly whisper] You gotta live the blues—to play the blues!” Laurie: “Well, obviously I’m going to say, nooooo, because that’s the sort of position I’m in.” Colbert: “You’re an international star, who was until last year the highest paid man in a drama. That’s not exactly share-cropping.” Laurie: “No, you’re absolutely right. I was handsomely compensated.” Colbert: “And a handsome man as well.” Laurie: “Well, thank you for that. But here’s what I would say. My point is, that to me this music—I would hate for this music to be just put in a box of a sort of sociological category of American folk music that is only—it only has meaning because of the experience and the period from which it grew. I think of this music as high art, as high as some bloke singing Don Giovanni down the road.”

(7) Walter Mosley, Little Green (Doubleday). It’s 1967 in Los Angeles and Easy Rawlins is looking for a young black man who gotten mixed up with hippies and acid. In a commune he meets a runaway who sleeps outside a window and calls herself Coco. She doesn’t seem to notice or care that he’s black. She doesn’t seem to notice or care that she’s naked. The detective listens to her talk, watches as she smiles, and for the first time in the ten novels that have tracked Rawlins’s secretive life from just after the Second World War to now, he is face to face with something he wasn’t prepared for, and doesn’t understand. It’s a queasily thrilling tale as it unfolds: he believes, at least for a moment, that he is glimpsing the fresh green breast of a new world, and, for a moment, so do you.

(8) Girls Names, The New Life (slr). A Belfast dream-pop four-piece, with, as it happens, only one girl’s name in its line up, and that’s appropriate. There are words in guitarist and singer Cathal Cully’s songs, but sometimes there don’t have to be, and at their most effective—“Projektion,” elegant, unpretentious Old World surf music—the occasional human-voice sounds are just another instrument. You can hear Barbara Gogan’s Passions from London and the Young Marble Giants from Cardiff in the late 1970s, the Chantays’ “Pipeline” from 1963, but most of all Alphaville, that lovely, bitter German synth combo from the mid-1980s, whose “Forever Young” has so far lived forever at high-school graduations. Girls Names lives in a more abstract forever.

(9) Crocket Johnson, Barnaby, Volume One: 1942-1943, edited by Philip Nel and Eric Reynolds (Fantagraphics). Johnson is best known for the children’s book Harold and the Purple Crayon, in which a round-faced, apparently bald little boy creates the world with a single crayon—just like God. But that little boy first appeared in the early 1940s, in a daily grown-ups’ comic strip in the pages of the left-wing New York tabloid PM, as Barnaby. He lives in a nice house with his nice parents in a nice suburb. His world is also inhabited by a beer-drinking, cigar-smoking, permanently hungry, profoundly irritating fairy godfather in a pork-pie hat and gossamer wings named Mr. O’Malley, who manages to fuck up every conceivable patriotic, virtuous, charitable, unselfish, necessary war-time endeavor—a neighborhood blackout, a scrap metal drive—while somehow maintaining an uncanny ability to help Barnaby expose Nazi spy rings. Until, at the end of this big, smiling collection, the House Committee on Un-American Activities comes along, and O’Malley, who previously sabotaged a mayor’s radio speech with a Duke Ellington record, takes over with an investigation of a man in a red suit. It’s wonderful the way Barnaby ignores his parents’ attempts to humor him about his delusion, to talk him out of it, to prove that fairies don’t exist, and lucky it’s the forties, not the fifties, when they would have packed him off to a child psychiatrist. There’s no way Jack Kerouac, along with every other self-consciously cool person in New York, wasn’t reading this. O’Malley turns into Neal Cassady, the guy who’s not quite human, who never shuts up, who drives you crazy, and who can make anything happen, just like that. There will be a Volume Two; in the meantime, there’s also Nel’s lively, inspiring Crocket Johnson and Ruth Krauss—How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature (Mississippi).

(10) Lester Chambers, “People Get Ready,” Hayway Russell City Blues Festival, Hayward CA (July 13). For the record: On the day George Zimmerman was acquitted of murder, Chambers, 73, of the Chambers Brothers, dedicated the Impressions song to Trayvon Martin, saying that if its composer Percy Mayfield had been alive he might have changed the line “There’s a train a-comin’” to “There’s a change a-comin’.” Dinalynn Andrews Potter, 43, then leaped onto the stage and knocked him to the ground. One week later, on August 19, Chambers, who had to cancel shows because of injuries caused by the attack, filed a $5 million suit against the city of Hayward, the concert promoter, and those responsible for concert security, saying he was left him unable to perform for at least the rest of the year—but his main complaint was that Andrews, who was charged with felony counts of assault and elder abuse, was not charged with a hate crime. Her attorney said she was a victim of PTSD—and NBC Bay Area reported that “the beat of the song triggered the attack.” Presumably, if the case goes to trial, Potter will have to name the song that caused her original trauma. And then, if there is any justice, at least in the realm of people coming up with really great excuses for horrible acts—and Potter’s is much better than the one Zimmerman’s lawyer provided for him, charging that the unarmed Martin was indeed armed, “with a sidewalk”—whoever owns the copyright will be able to sue her. For libel. Or slander. Defamation. Loss of earnings due to fear that the song might cause harm to others. Or just for the pleasure of watching Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Ann Coulter, Michael Savage and more defend her defense. I mean, you can hear them say already, have you ever heard “A Change Is Gonna Come”? I mean, really heard it?

Thanks to Linda Mevorach, Deborah Freedman, and Charles Taylor


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