Real Life Rock Top Ten

A Monthly Column
of Everyday Culture
and Found Objects

by Greil Marcus

(1) PJ Harvey, Let England Shake (Vagrant/Island/Def Jam). It’s shocking to realize that her first album appeared nineteen years ago. While from one record to the next radical leaps alternate with at least one step back, from Dry to Rid of Me to the quicksand of 4-Track Demos, from To Bring You My Love to the bottomless Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea to Uh Huh Her to A Woman a Man Walked By with longtime collaborator John Parish—never mind the bootleg Blind Peggy Death—her sound has traveled with such immediacy, such an insistence that what you’re hearing is happening now, that notions of time, career, progress, or decline are meaningless.

Here her voice feels higher, damaged. The back-and-forth with Parish (guitar and percussion, saxophone and trombone) is more delicate than ever; notes feel as if they’re reaching for each other and barely missing. But the deep-blues pessimism that has driven Harvey all along finds a field so stark you can’t not picture it. The terrain the songs claim—a country used up, “damp filthiness of ages,” acres of corpses, “arms and legs were in the trees”—lets you imagine Harvey started out to create a soundtrack after the fact to Children of Men—the sounds coming out of her mouth feel like Clive Owen’s face looked—and then decided to remake the whole picture instead. While ending one song with a line from “Summertime Blues.”

(2) Kathleen Hanna, “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Joe’s Pub, New York (December 15, 2010, YouTube). As she goes on at length with the story of how she named the song, which she later found herself stripping to—it’s a stand-up routine, starting with graffiti on a fake teen-pregnancy center, graffiti on a bedroom wall, and then “one of those hangovers where you think that if you walk in the next room there could be a dead body in there?”—both glee and suspense take over the room. It’s the suspense of someone describing how history was made, which is to say describing how it might not have been; it’s the glee of having been in the right place at the right time, and for once saying exactly the right thing. When Hanna finally begins to sing the song itself in her little-girl voice, and the hairs rise on the back of your neck, you can feel them one by one.

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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