REAL LIFE ROCK TOP TEN

A MONTHLY COLUMN
OF EVERYDAY CULTURE
AND FOUND OBJECTS

by Greil Marcus

(1) Caroline Weeks, Songs for Edna (Manimal Vinyl). An “English Rose” (so described in a press release) setting Edna St. Vincent Millay to music? On the sleeve a leafy, garlanded Ms. Weeks holds a conch shell to her ear—the better to hear the glowing girl-poet of “Renascence” in 1912, a dead alcoholic in 1950? There’s a swan, for the 1921 “Wild Swans,” pressed onto the disc. I put it on, betting the music would be worse than the packaging.

That was a while ago, and I haven’t taken it off. Weeks sings Millay’s words slowly. She sings Millay’s rhythms, or dowses for them. “Her poetry, you soon found out, was her real overmastering passion,” her old Greenwich Village friend Edmund Wilson wrote in 1952. “She gave it to all the world, but she also gave it to you.” A reader entranced by Millay’s lyricism—not yet catching the way a blunt nihilism would reach up out of the ether of a poem and scratch its face—can always convince herself she’s the “you,” and read Millay as if she were Sylvia Plath or J.D. Salinger, which is to say as if Millay is her. But Weeks sings—high, fingering her guitar, maybe with clarinetist Peter Moyse singing wordlessly behind her—as if she’s heard something others haven’t heard.

Death—anticipated, remembered—is all over the songs. The album breaks after its first five pieces (among them “Renascence,” “What lips my lips have kissed,” “Wild swans”), beginning again with “The return,” from 1934, and you can almost sense an anchor being dropped.

Weeks will nearly stop, letting a piece breathe. When she moves back into it you can hear that she’s hearing something she herself hadn’t heard before. This rhythm of encounter makes it all but impossible to follow the tracks as tributes, or homages, even if you’re reading along as Weeks puts her mouth around Millay’s words, or her body.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Greil Marcus is the author of Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century, Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music, and The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy and the American Voice, and other books. His column, Real Life Rock Top Ten, runs monthly in the Believer.

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