February 2012

Real Life Rock Top Ten

A Monthly Column
of Everyday Culture
and Found Objects

by Greil Marcus

(1) Rid of Me, written and directed by James Westby (Phase 4 Films/Submarine Deluxe). In 2002—though it looks earlier: people can still smoke in bars—a woman is kicked out of her marriage and stranded in a small town somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. All she wants is revenge: on her ex-husband, his old girlfriend/new wife, his worthless friends, on herself for buying into the scam in the first place. Katie O'Grady walks her character through her dead-end room, into a job in a candy store, down supermarket aisles, and then, as a formerly nice middle-class genteel housewife in her thirties, straight through punk, until she ends up lying down drunk on a sidewalk in the middle of the night. It all rings so true you don't really believe she's going to get up; the movie could end right there, but it doesn't. Because there's still this subplot about a Cambodian rock song the director wants to get in.

(2) Bonnie "Prince" Billy, "Quail and Dumplings," from Wolfroy Goes to Town (Drag City). Will Oldham brings you into the tune slowly, picking his mandolin in and out of an old mountain pattern, with Angel Olsen following his words in the background, then barely stepping past him with soft ooos. You relax into the song. Then someone claps hands, and Olsen grabs the song and, at first sounding as if she's going to expire on the spot, stands up and demands that the song give up truths it hasn't even hinted it might contain. Her voice breaks the pleasant folk spell Oldham has cast; there's something stentorian and cruel in her cadence, in the way she hits back at the song as if it's an enemy, a lie. And it's this moment of drama that gives the song the power to tell whatever truth it knows. When Oldham comes back, after a rough, harsh electric-guitar break from Emmett Kelly, with "Weather ain't judgment and money ain't love," he can stop you cold, the banality of the second phrase brought down by the uncertainty of the first.

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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