REAL LIFE ROCK TOP TEN

A MONTHLY COLUMN
OF EVERYDAY CULTURE
AND FOUND OBJECTS

by Greil Marcus

(1) Fiery Furnaces, I’m Going Away (Thrill Jockey). Musicality in speech is a common theme; the peculiar delight in the Fiery Furnaces’ eighth album in their six years is the realism of speech in their songs. The music is a given, so if you catch, say, the way Eleanor Friedberger turns her words, “Well, I thought I was thinking, but apparently not,” whatever context the words might inhabit in their narrative drops away, and you might be transported to a city street and enveloped by the feeling not of listening to a performance but of hearing a woman on her cell phone as she strides past you, with precisely the intensity and surprise of a smell taking you back to a face or a voice you haven’t thought of for years.

(2) Robert Cantwell, “A Harvest of Illth,” in If Beale Street Could Talk: Music, Community, Culture (University of Illinois Press). Cantwell is a subtle writer, and his collection of essays on the transformation of everyday life by art that resists disappearing back into the ordinary and the predictable is full of paradox (“The disc renders the performance silent, as the photo renders its subject invisible, each not merely representing, but replacing the other”). But in “A Harvest of Illith”—John Ruskin’s word for a form of wealth that “as it leads away from life, it is unvaluable or malignant,” here naming Mississippi blues 78s made in the ’20s and ’30s as accumulated by a few young men in the ’40s and ’50s—Cantwell finds his way into a kind of frenzy. If Beale Street could talk it might say this: “Like a bus driver caught in a skid”—imagine a tourist bus, with the driver on his intercom, “That’s where they had the Palace Amateur Nights, they say Elvis sang there before anyone knew his name, Oh shit, hold on!”—“the Delta blues thrusts the musician into a swiftly proliferating emergency that tests not only his competence as a musician but his grasp of the whole nature of his body and his instrument in the midst of the wider context of natural laws of which he and it are parts.”

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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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