Real Life Rock Top Ten – September 2008

Greil Marcus
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(1) Prime Suspect 7—The Final Act, directed by Philip Martin, written by Frank Deasy (Acorn Media, 2006). You suspect the father of a missing schoolgirl until he puts his head inside her backpack as if he knows this is as close to her as he’ll ever get again. “Did you ever hear that song, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’?”

(2) Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Lie Down in the Light (Drag City). For years Will Oldham—traveling under variations of the name Palace, as himself, as a figment of his own imagination, no doubt under names I’ve missed—has written and sung from an Appalachian highlands that may as well be his own imagined country. But in his music Oldham gets to live there, and there he does what he wants; even as you might swoon at their delicacy, the songs give off the smell of perversity. Here he sings as the sole member of his own religion—and you can’t tell if the faith has all but died out or if the prophet has yet to find his first follower. He can call up a company of selves at will, to watch, to witness, then make them disappear before the revelation comes: “Kneel down to please me,” he says, as caught between sex and adoration as Madonna in “Like a Prayer,” but his voice tells you he’s the supplicant. From song to song the feeling is more abstract, harder to hold on to, beauty flashing like an animal in the forest you can’t be sure you saw at all, just as in the moment you’re convinced this person will never make a record this good again.

(3) Howard Hampton writes (June 11, 2008): “I stumbled on Dylan’s endorsement of Obama (London Times, June 5: ‘Right now America is in a state of upheaval. Poverty is demoralizing. You can’t expect people to have the virtue of purity when they are poor. But we’ve got this guy out there right now who is redefining the nature of politics from the ground up—Barack Obama.… Am I hopeful? Yes, I’m hopeful that things might change. Some things are going to have to’). Makes sense that there would be that spark of recognition—the thing that amazes me is that the Clintons never seemed to get that they were dealing with someone more formidable than a Howard Dean in blackface. So they wound up looking like Baez and Seeger, the Old Regime, undone by the sound of a greater sense of possibility than they were willing to entertain—hence the whole ‘Electability’ issue would frame the election as ‘No We Can’t’ (elect a black man) vs. ‘Yes We Can’ (dream a better country, as MLK or poor tortured RFK did once upon a time).”

(4) Shannon McArdle, Summer of the Whore (Bar/None). Late of the Mendoza Line, for the title song McArdle summons a slow shame ballad, full of portent and dread, a pop form that goes back to the early ’60s (“Suspicion,” “Endless Sleep”) and has never worn out, maybe because so few have had the nerve to try it. It’s a self-lacerating heartbreaker (“A little filth for my record,” the singer snaps over a dead marriage)—with the reverb on the guitar making each note a warning, the voice seems to grow thinner and stronger at the same time.

(5) Counting Crows, Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings (DGC). Why is it so uncool to like Counting Crows? Because Adam Duritz has made so much money that he can wear his heart like a coat instead of merely sticking it on his sleeve? “1492,” the first thing you hear, is Jon Langford’s “Lost in America” with Columbus standing in for John Henry, relentless, ridiculous, embarrassed, defiant, and despite hilariously pretentious song titles as the album winds on (“When I Dream of Michelangelo,” “On a Tuesday in Amsterdam Long Ago”), its echo never really dies out.

(6)       Hoagie’s Restaurant, Hopkins, Minnesota. A family place filled with placards and metal ads, some original (Uncle Remus Syrup: “Dis sho’ am good,” says an old black man), some reproductions, and one bizarre anachronism: a go-getter dressed in ’50s suit and tie and a sly grin holding up an LP under a banner: EDUCATION: THE NEXT BEST THING TO A RECORD DEAL.

(7)Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, Raising Sand (Rounder, 2007). The old rocker and the bluegrass queen: Very nice people. Very polite. To each other, to the songs, and to you. But all the singing is whispering and it was the dullest album of the year.

Onstage, though, fervor comes out—especially for Led Zeppelin songs that go back to the woods. On YouTube videos from this year’s New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, the Druids in “Battle of Evermore” take to the skies: two final minutes of furious mandolin slashing and Plant’s snaggletoothed hair bucking (“Bring it back! Bring it back!” My God, are you sure? Bring what dragon back?) as if the notes have him on a trip wire. For “When the Levee Breaks,” with Plant quieting Krauss’s keening fiddle to let lines from Bob Dylan’s “Girl from the North Country” float through to be lost in the flood, the song sweeps up Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe McCoy, who recorded it in 1929, and walks their ghosts across the stage.

(8) Carolyn Jessop with Laura Palmer, Escape (Broad-way Books, 2007). “I was born into a radical polygamist cult. At eighteen, I be-came the fourth wife of a fifty-year-old man. I had eight children in fifteen years. When our leader began to preach the apocalypse, I knew I had to get them out.” In case you were wondering what she’s been doing since Twin Peaks.

(9) Randy Newman, “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country,” from Harps and Angels (Nonesuch). It’s been clear for some time that the theft of the 2000 election laid the foundation for the Bush administration as such: if they could get away with that—with the Supreme Court having discredited itself to get Bush into the White House, the last check was gone—they could get away with anything. And, says Newman’s unmade bed of a song, the bed of someone who hasn’t gotten out of it for days, they did.

The number was first floated on iTunes in 2006, then adapted as an op-ed piece for the New York Times; now, to shards of the tune to “Columbia, Gem of the Ocean,” Newman runs through the worst leaders in history, from Stalin and Hitler back to King Leopold of Belgium and Torquemada, trying to convince himself they were worse than our own, but who cares if they weren’t? In a verse the Times left out, he thinks about the curse of history: “You know it pisses me off a little / That this Supreme Court is gonna outlive me.” “Get over it,” Justice Antonin Scalia said in April of Bush v. Gore. “It’s so old by now.” He’ll get the last word, but to sing even a clumsy song in the face of that knowledge is not nothing.

(10) What I really want to do is be Edmund Wil-son, or “Interview with the Doors,” Mojo Navigator #14, August 1967, collected in Bomp! Saving the World One Record at a Time, edited by Suzy Shaw and Mick Farren (Ammo).

JIM MORRISON: “Interviews are good, but…”

MOJO: “Oh, they’re a drag.”

JM: “Critical essays are really where it’s at.” ✯

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