Real Life Rock Top Ten – June 2009

A Monthly column of everyday culture and found objects

Real Life Rock Top Ten – June 2009

Greil Marcus
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(1) Miguel João (Chiado Square, Lisbon, April 6). A street singer with an early Springsteen look and an unusual style. Most people trying to sing songs on the order of the Wailers’ “Concrete Jungle” or Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone”—songs that are like whales in their power to displace everything around them—act at least slightly embarrassed. João strummed sharply, with silences, and sang as if he’d written the tunes the night before—as if, with great seriousness, he was fooling with them, experimenting, working them out as you watched.

(2) A Canção da Saudade, directed by Henrique Campos (1964). At Leão d’Ouro in Lisbon, the literature professor Américo António Lindeza Diogo pulled out his iPod to pass around a perfect print of “the first Portuguese rock-and-roll movie.” Starring pop star Vitor Gomes and Ann-Margret lookalike Soledad Miranda, it’s a parable of cross-generational conflict as expressed through—and ultimately resolved by!—music: traditional fado v. the new sound, which ultimately blend into a new new sound. What’s so gripping about the film is that you may have already seen it a dozen times: with the same plot, the same faces, the same gestures, the same contrived, spontaneous songs and dances, the picture was made between 1957 and 1965 in the US, the UK, Germany, France—for all I know Canada, Mexico, South Africa, India, Brazil. All except for one stunning shot: the cast ringing a stairwell and looking down to the camera on the distant bottom, just like the Beatles on the cover of their first album.

3) William Eggleston, “Paris” (Fondation Cartier, Paris, through June 21).  From Atget to Brassai to van der Elsken and beyond, in photographs Paris has always been a black-and-white city.  The approach the Memphis color photographer takes is to all but escape Paris as a subject.  His intent is not to capture a unique city but to let his eye move toward whatever attracts it, and the result is that the strongest images might have been made in Chicago, Beijing, Berlin, or Buenos Aires.  One picture showed a tableau that could have come from any city where technology is advertising before it’s anything else.  Oozing confidence, health, and freedom, a man and a woman walk down a corridor of an ultra-modern (which thus already looks out of date) gallery or mall or office building.  But they appear superimposed, as if they’re projections, not people—and seemingly superimposed over them is an Asian man on a cell phone, bigger, and if anything more confident.  In the background, an older couple walk away from our gaze; they seem both symbolic and dropped in.  In the middle, shadows of two men in an office discussing something in a relaxed way communicate almost subliminally.  Was this picrure taken, in the vernacular sense, or was it in a literal and not photographic sense made—and never actual at all?  That’s precisely not how Eggleston works, which makes you wonder what, if anything, this is a picture of.

4) “The Jazz Century: Art, film, music and photography from Picasso to Basquiat” (Musée de quai Branly, Paris, through June 28; Centre de Cultura Contemporania de Barcelona from July 21 through October 18).  A huge, very popular exhibition, with an overemphasis on visual art with a capital A instead of, say, a Billie Holiday dress or Duke Ellington’s tuxedo.  But despite a black hole almost before the show gets underway—positing 1917 as the year of birth of jazz, when it had been all over New Orleans since the end of the 19th century, led by Buddy Bolden’s band, of which there survives one photograph, because in that year the all-white Original New Orleans Jazz Band made the first record with the word “jass” in the title, and the Army shut down the Storyville red light district (once upon a time purists would have called this the year of jazz’s death, not birth)—there were highlights around every corner:

  • In an opening wall of pre-jazz sheet music—coon songs, minstrel standards—a full color illustration for E. T. Paul’s 1895 composition “Warmin’ Up in Dixie”: black men and women dancing around a fire in the woods. It’s where slaves would go to sing forbidden songs, which might be coded spirituals—“Daniel in the Lion’s Den,” for one—but here it’s a Devil’s Sabbath, with the firelight reflected in the dancers’ eyes turning each one demonic.  Racist, but not about nothing.
  • Sheet music for Bert Williams’s “Nobody,” in 1906 a number one hit for nine weeks straight. “Latest Oddity Successor to ‘I May Be Crazy But I Ain’t No Fool,’” reads a tag line.  Is it jazz?  As music, no.  As heart, all the way.
  • A first edition of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Tales of the Jazz Age.” Little bands playing on the jacket—it should have been a curio.  But it was the thing itself, and it had an aura you could have touched if it wasn’t in a glass case.
  • Illustration by Aaron Douglas for the “Charleston” chapter of Paul Morand’s 1929 jazz novel Black Magic: a black jazz club, in smoky grays. In the foreground, people at tables, dominated by a long arm and a hand resting on a chair, from the left; in the background, a saxophonist seated in a chair, a pianist behind him; in the middle, hanging down almost to the empty dance floor, a noose—more suggestive and shocking, because it was inside a jazz moment, than the pictures of actual lynchings that bracketed the exhibition’s illustrated time lines this artifact was part of.
  • Cover story, The Etude Music Magazine, August 1924: “The Jazz Problem: Opinions of Prominent Pubic Men and Musicians.”
  • Jazz Magazine, October-November 1954, sidebar to an article titled “Bird Lives! Bird Lives!  Bird Lives!  Bird Lives!  Bird Lives!  Bird Lives!” (and he wasn’t even dead yet): the poet Ted Joans reporting on a “dada-surrealist party (poems by Breton, Prévert, Péret, etc.)” in Greenwich Village: “Parker arrived without a costume . .  but he improvised one”: taking off his shirt and shoes, rolling up his pants, and whiting up his face into a mau-mau mask.  Who was this joke on?  Who got it?
  • And, among many film clips, perhaps the most explosive moment of all: the “Come to the City” sequence of F. W. Murnau’s 1927 silent Sunrise, with the flapper seducing the married country man with tales of thrills, glamour, jazz: she shimmies in the marsh where they’ve been laying, and suddenly it all appears, with a pounding band right in your face, the conductor throwing his arms into the air, all of it overwhelming, with lightning superimpositions and tilted frames that perhaps more than anything in all of cinema says, this is what movies were for, this is why they were invented, to catch this moment.

(5) Walter Mosley, The Long Fall (Riverhead Books).  On I’m Not Jim’s You Are All My People, the Jonathan Lethem / Walter Salas-Humara collaborationWalks In” is an infinitely compex stand-up routine on the opening line of the all-all-American joke—and out of this cradle endlessly rocking comes a Mosely version, in his first novel featuring a black New York City private eye named Leonid McGill.  One tricky, unstable theme of the book is that racism isn’t what it used to be—but, McGill says as he walks into Oddfellows Pub, a white man’s bar in Albany, “It wasn’t 2008 everywhere in America.  Some people still lived in the sixties, and others might as well have been veterans of the Civil War.   In many establishments I was considered a Black Man; other folks, in more genteel joints, used the term ‘African-American,’ but at Oddfellows I was a nigger where there were no niggers allowed.”

(6) Bonnie “Prince” Billy “Beware” (Drag City)  “’My Life’s Work’ would be his ‘My Way,’” Will Oldham says in the March issue of Mojo, speaking of one of his new songs; on the cover of the album he looks just like Friedrich Nietzsche.  “That’s my dream.  When I meet him I’ll say, I’ve got this tune, man, you wanna see if you can get behind it?  I’m sure he would, because he’s already sung it so many times.  In my mind, I hear him.”  I don’t hear it, but I’m still trying.

(7) Neko Case,  Middle Cyclone (Anti).  Case has reached that point where she’s apparently beyond criticism: writers cite her flame-red hair as if it’s proof of daring, passion, danger, ecstasy.  Her pitch is perfect; every note glows—because it’s been polished to death.  One play through this album and it’s used itself up.

(8)  Van Morrison, Astral Weeks Live at the Hollywood Bowl (Listen to the Lion).  Listen to “Madame George”—that’s what Morrison is doing. 

(9) Standard Hotel (Los Angeles, March 8).  Phone buttons: “Front Desk” “Room Service” “Voice Mail” “Housekeeping” “Motivational Speaker.”  And also “Fluffer,” though that might mean more in San Fernando Valley than L.A.

(10) Lisbon, April 6.  A friend on her apartment overlooking the Cemitério dos Prazeres (the Cemetery of Pleasures): “I have a great view of eternal life.”

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