June 2012

Real Life Rock Top Ten

A Monthly Column
of Everyday Culture
and Found Objects
Special Over Seventy Edition!

by Greil Marcus

(1) “Robert Johnson at 100,” Apollo Theater, New York (March 6). Charles Taylor reports from the scene: “The trick to feeling comfortable in Sunday clothes is to make sure that Sunday isn’t the only day you wear them. The famous 1930s picture of Robert Johnson looking sharp in his three-piece suit was projected over the stage for much of the centennial celebration, and the casual ease of everything about Johnson in that picture acted like a judgment on the parade of supplicants, posers, pretenders, and mediocrities who passed beneath. The ones who stood up to Johnson’s gaze were confident enough to sport their own style. Taj Mahal, walking out with the calm familiarity of a beefy working man approaching a job he long ago mastered, played and sang ‘Hell Hound on My Trail’ with a sound rooted to the earth while moving with the lightness of Jackie Gleason. Sam Moore’s high vocal was at first lost in ‘Sweet Home Chicago’ but the sweetness of his voice gradually drew you in like a beckoning finger. Elvis Costello, striking an unconscious echo of Johnson’s crossed-knee posture, performed a charming ‘From Four Until Late’ as if the evening’s honoree were George Formby, master of the English music hall. The Roots, who bend their knee to no one and do tradition the honor of never treating it as tradition, unleashed a staccato ‘Milkcow’s Calf Blues’ that was flabbergasting in its confidence. With ?uestlove’s drumming controlling singer-guitarist Kirk Douglas like a puppet master’s strings, the number grew into a duet recalling the unexpected and joyous rapport in Diner when Timothy Daly shakes up a lagging strip-club duo by taking over the empty piano, finding allies in the suddenly knife-sharp drummer and in the tired dancer out front, who responds as if she were once again the youngest girl on the bill. No one was more at home in his style than James Blood Ulmer, who followed Taj’s ‘Hell Hound’ with his own, never leaving his seat in the house band, using his voice and guitar to emit a series of yelps and moans and mutterings that could have been devil dogs at the crossroads, or the spirits of Stonehenge. The other ghost present, the faint smile on Ulmer’s face, suggested that the phantoms of the ages were all his familiars.”

(2) Mariee Sioux, Gift for the End (Almost Musique). Not as immediately arresting as Lana Del Rey’s “Video Games,” but mapping the same nowhere, and without the metallic smell of early death. That isn’t to say death is missing. Sioux, from the California Gold Rush country, sings softly, strums and picks, and you can’t get a fix on her in any way. Even as she seems to come right up to you, you sense a distance that can never be bridged. That may be because the eight songs here carry the feeling of Grimms’ fairy tales. “We’ve learned our lessons,” plead young girls, and you don’t want to know what schooled them. In her most uncanny moments, Sioux is less playing her songs than swimming through them: “No rest, no rest, no rest, no rest.”

(3) Jay Leeming, “Desolation Row,” from Miracle Atlas (Big Pencil Press). The whole place has been torn down and “replaced / by the new civic center, a gigantic white building / funded by a Norwegian greeting card company.” No one remembers all those strange characters who used to roam the place, “though now and then their names / turn up on the newspaper’s last pages: Doctor Filth / found strangled to death in the Brazilian jungle.”

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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