January 2012

Real Life Rock Top Ten

A Monthly Column
of Everyday Culture
and Found Objects

by Greil Marcus

(1) Yael Bartana, Entartete Kunst lebt! (Degenerate Art Lives!), as part of Germany Is Your America, curated by Michael Bracewell and Anke Kempkes (Broadway 1602, September 13–December 15, 2011). An animated five-minute 16 mm film—which ought to be playing now not solely in galleries but as an art-house short, a film-festival gem, an online sensation—derived from Otto Dix’s still-shocking 1920 painting War Cripples, which was seized and shown by the Nazis at the 1937 Munich Degenerate Art exhibition. Bartana begins with silhouettes in a hobbled march across a dim screen, which is soon filled by an ever-increasing parade of four hideously maimed war veterans from Dix’s picture, figures that in Bartana’s hands turn into countless different people. In a parade of wooden legs and prostheses, all are in uniform, each one is seemingly more cut-up than the last, with the sound hammering and clattering from the tap dance of the artificial limbs to the screech and cranks of mechanical jaws and other body parts, until the centerpiece seems to become the jaunty man with dark glasses and a cigarette and no arms or legs, being pushed in a cart. More and more and more of them, sometimes shot from above, so you see only massed lines of hats—by the end spelling out the title of the piece like a college marching band as led by Leni Riefenstahl. What’s most striking is the image of happiness on the faces of the men—not pride, really, but smugness: “Look at what I gave for the Fatherland.”

(2/3) Mekons at Bell House (Brooklyn, October 7, 2011) and City Winery (Manhattan, October 8, 2011). At Bell House, before a surging, stand-up throng, they opened with “Thee Olde Trip to Jerusalem”—the trip the heretic takes, so that at the end any place can be the New Jerusalem. In the frenzy of the performance, everyone was a crusader, a Templar knight, a Ranter, a Familist, a Shaker, a Muggletonian. It was Norman Cohn’s Pursuit of the Millennium boiled down to a chant and blown up into “Hey Bo Diddley.” Later, with the Zuccotti Park occupation in its first month, guitarist John Langford announced he was “going to Wall Street.” There were cheers. “To see my investment banker,” he went on. “Play golf with Hank Williams Jr. and Hitler.” Sally Timms stepped forward to sing “I love a millionaire,” and you could see her crooning it at the head of a march, the song now a manifesto of ambivalence, self-hatred, whoredom, money, surrender, and rage. The next night at City Winery, with the band seated in a minstrel-show half circle for an audience of chattering texters, except for Rico Bell sacrificing his firstborn son for “Hard to Be Human Again,” the band did not quite come across—but in a place that a few nights before had hosted a “Music of Sting Wine Pairing” (twenty-five songs, seven wines, with “tasting notes placed at your table” to “reveal why we think each wine flight goes with the particular songs it’s paired with”), who could?

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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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