Real Life Rock Top Ten

A Monthly Column
of Everyday Culture
and Found Objects

by Greil Marcus

(1) Amy Winehouse, “To Know Him Is to Love Him,” from At the BBC (Republic). A DVD traces her 2006 appearance at the Other Voices festival in the remote Irish town Dingle: a set of exquisite performances, Winehouse singing in a church, tiny under her bouffant, dressed in black jeans, trainers, a low-cut sleeveless top, two face studs, and her tattoos, accompanied only by bass and guitar. In interview footage intercut between songs she talks earnestly about the people from whom she learned to sing—Mahalia Jackson, the Shangri-Las, Ray Charles, Dinah Washington, Carleen Anderson, Sarah Vaughn, and Thelonious Monk, and the film lets you watch them as Winehouse might have. A CD collects fourteen BBC performances, most of them live, and as she moves through her own songs “Back to Black,” “In My Bed,” “You Know I’m No Good,” and “Tears Dry on Their Own,” and the torch singer Julie London’s 1955 “I Should Care,” you’re pulled into the impeccably edited and lit black and white film noir she acted out on the two albums she made while she was still alive. And then, on the last track, after you’ve admired her sense of style, her commitment to craft, the way her professionalism was inseparable from her fandom, comes the heartbreaker: a 2006 radio-station cover of the first record by the Teddy Bears, with Phil Spector on guitar and contributing the song, a vocal trio that came out of Fairfax High School in Los Angeles to score a number one hit in 1958. Then it was simpering, pious: Spector never failed to mention that he took the title phrase from his father’s grave (“From the words on my grave,” he once said before correcting himself). Now it’s full, rich, gorgeous, and slow, with a step from one word, one idea, to the next, the journey of a lifetime, which neither the singer nor the listener is willing to see end.

(2) Kanye West at 12-12-12: The Concert for Sandy Relief (New York, Madison Square Garden, December 12, 2012). Emerging from a sea of sludge—the critic and musician Tom Kipp’s term for the way rote rock riffs and gestures, in this case uncountable raised arms, brandished guitars, and drawn-out finales, can accumulate until the entire form can seem like the aesthetic equivalent of landfill—the only hip-hop performer to have been called a “jackass” by President Obama and coincidentally the only hip-hop performer on the bill broke the night open. First high-stepping, then bending low and all but tiptoeing, he made a drama of assault and stealth, upending the parade of stars for twenty solid minutes, raging through parts of twelve songs—from “Clique” and “Jesus Walks” to his lines in Jay-Z’s “Run This Town” and Rihanna’s “Diamonds”—he brought down the storm everybody else was only talking about. Suddenly, there was a doubling, art and jeopardy facing off as enemies and leaving arm in arm.

(3) George Bellows, Preaching (Billy Sunday), in George Bellows (Metropolitan Museum of Art, November 15, 2012–February 18, 2013; Royal Academy of Arts, London, March 16–June 9, 2013). Bellows is best known for his 1909 boxing painting Stag at Sharkey’s, where the bodies of the two fighters seem to stretch beyond themselves. This 1915 pen-and-ink drawing is even more extreme. The evangelist Billy Sunday started out as a major-league outfielder, and you can see that here. Addressing a huge crowd in an enormous hall—the high roof supported by wooden pillars that look like trees, giving the impression of a camp meeting, though person to person the well-dressed crowd is appreciative, ecstatic, stony-faced, despairing—Sunday stands on top of a jerry-built pine platform, his legs spread, his right arm shooting out, his index finger pointing like a knife, his left arm cocked with his hand in a tight fist, his body so tensed it’s as if he’s physically daring the whole world to doubt a word he’s saying. The picture is thrilling, frightening: an unparalleled portrait of American movement. And seated at Sunday’s feet on the platform are four clerks, carefully writing down his words, or entering figures.

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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