July/August 2011

Real Life Rock Top Ten

A Monthly Column
of Everyday Culture
and Found Objects

by Greil Marcus

(1) Robert Johnson, The Centennial Collection (Columbia Legacy). Johnson’s 1936 and 1937 recordings—to quote the late Wilfrid Mellers in his unsurpassed study Music in a New Found Land, “the ultimate, and scarifying disintegration of the country blues… The expression of loneliness—the singer speaking with and through his guitar—could be carried no further”—have been reissued in countless formats since they were first collected, in 1961. They have been remastered, reengineered, rebalanced, all but reamed to bring out the sound you can’t hear but should. But never like this. For this celebration of the hundredth anniversary of Johnson’s birth, on May 8, 1911, in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, there are new liner notes by the blues historian Ted Gioia and by Johnson copyrighter Steve LaVere—but what the music now needs is a full technical report. LaVere’s praise for digital transfers and noise reduction by the engineers Steven Lasker and Seth Winner is not adequate. What they’ve done is a revelation: they have stripped the past from Johnson, the nearly three-quarters of a century from then to now, and placed him and you in the same room. He’s playing to you, trying to get across. You are trying to tell him that you’ve never heard anything like this before, even though you have his records, even in a half dozen redundant editions, played to death, the covers of the original LPs instantly memorized for the drama of the first, the ordinariness of the second, which, coming in the wake of the first, was more dramatic still: the idea that some individual with a name and a face could be responsible for music that, no less than the forgotten playwright Aeschylus stole from, rewrote the human spirit. You’re trying to tell him all this; he’s listening.

You may have listened to Johnson through each successive improvement, each set of new sonic clothes; you haven’t heard these notes, these words, these leaves trembling on the trees.

(2) Elvis Costello and the Imposters, “Jimmie Standing in the Rain” (Fox Theater, Oakland, California, May 8). Near the end of the show, when he’d dropped the Spectacular Spinning Songbook format, he stepped into this tune from his 2010 National Ransom. It’s about a man in a British coal town, getting nowhere in his attempts to get by with cowboy music—because this is also a song about the Great Depression, and there’s no work, anywhere. The man in the song seemed to sink lower, down to his knees, the more expansive and delicate Costello’s voice became. The sound in the hall had been one impenetrable echo from the start—at one point Costello stepped away from the mike stand and sang without any amplification at all, and for a moment you could hear a real person on the stage—but finally the clouds cleared. And then, without any change you could catch, he was singing the last, desperately smiling verse of Bing Crosby’s 1932 “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” For a moment, many things just out of reach for the rest of the night were present: beauty, terror, a curl in the words, a naked soul, shame. The sounds in Costello’s throat grew bigger even as they seemed to scurry away from him, back into history, out into the street. “Mr. Harburg’s song, ” Costello said the next day, speaking of Yip Harburg, who wrote the words Crosby sang, “is sadly back in vogue.”

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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