Real Life Rock Top Ten

A Monthly Column
of Everyday Culture
and Found Objects

by Greil Marcus

(1) Woods, Bend Beyond (Woodsist). It’s hard to believe that this small Brooklyn band is on its seventh album: everything they do seems experimental, half-finished. You hear ideas as much as music. It can make you shiver to be brought so close to people working over old themes, probing for ancient songs and melodies, forgotten images. The high, keening voice sounds like whispering; a wah-wah pedal sounds like an old folk instrument, which maybe it is. What makes this record different is Jarvis Taveniere’s drumming, which is always human, a voice, a stance, a refusal to cross a line or back down—dramatic, not functional, unless cutting down the sometimes-fey tones of Jeremy Earl’s singing is functional. The first seven songs—of twelve—can feel as if they’re fading into each other, nice jangly folk rock, so that when “Wind Was the Water” looms up, shoots right out of nowhere and in a minute and a half has gone right back you have no idea what happened. It’s as if those first seven songs were a setup.

(2) Take This Waltz, written and directed by Sarah Polley (Magnolia Pictures). On the soundtrack, at the end, Leonard Cohen’s title song versus the Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star.” And no contest.

(3) A.K.A. Doc Pomus, directed by Peter Miller and Will Hechter (Clear Lake Historical Productions). Jerome Felder, who died in 1991, was born in Brooklyn in 1925; at six he contracted polio, but by the late 1940s he was performing in New York clubs as Doc Pomus, a Jewish blues singer on crutches. The records he made were distinctive, but they went nowhere. He had been composing songs for himself; now, writing alone or with partners, he offered his tunes to others, and wrote history: “Lonely Avenue” for Ray Charles, “Young Blood” for the Coasters, “Viva Las Vegas,” “Little Sister,” and “Suspicion” for Elvis Presley, “There Must Be a Better World Somewhere” for B. B. King, and most memorably, for the Drifters, “Save the Last Dance for Me,” “I Count the Tears,” and “This Magic Moment.”

There is nothing remotely ordinary about this film. It can’t be compared to any other music biopic or documentary. There is just too much flair. The directors have a visual imagination that makes the cutting-together of historical footage, album covers, movie posters, vintage interviews with the main subject, and a voice-over of someone reading his journals (Lou Reed, as it turns out), talking heads of people now looking back, still photos, and home movies seem like a revelation instead of a formula—and too much love. The result is countless people—Pomus’s ex-wife, his girlfriend, his children, musicians, friends—laughing through tears, and soon enough you’re one of them.

Again and again you’re pulled up short by a moment too right to take in all at once: you hold it in your memory or stop the DVD and run it back. There are dozens, but I have two favorites. First, a hand goes to a car radio, and the critic Dave Marsh is talking: “You’ve got a radio on, right? And what’s coming across, most of the time, frankly, is static and nothing. And then, this thing—and that’s the Drifters.” It’s 1960; Doc Pomus is thirty-five years old. The swooning strings of “This Magic Moment” come up on the soundtrack, and Ben E. King, twenty-one, begins to sing, but with an odd, stentorian hesitation in every phrase, as if he’s giving a speech, as if what he has to say is so important he’s as much nerves as heart. There’s a close-up of the Atlantic label with the song title and the writers’ names, then head shots as Marsh goes on: “And that’s Doc Pomus, that’s Mort Shuman, and it’s Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Ertegun, Leiber and Stoller, and Tom Dowd, and all the people who recorded it, and then ultimately, that’s you and me.” By this time you are following the words swimming upstream against the melody, the delicacy of the story being told; you can hear the fear behind the desire. If you’ve heard the song before, you’ll feel as if you’re hearing it for the first time. If you’ve never heard the song before, you’ll have to hear it again: that the film then moves on will seem like a crime.

Almost an hour later, the movie is over. Pomus has died. You’ve attended his funeral. The credits begin to roll. In a box on the right, people who you’ve heard tell the story are now singing or talking the words to “Save the Last Dance for Me”—and you recall the footage from Pomus’s wedding, when his new wife danced with everyone but her new husband, who found a way to put it all down on paper. A phrase at a time; you’re surprised how well writers can sing, or that Ben E. King, who took the lead vocal, speaks the words like talk. Five, eight, twelve, seventeen, twenty, including, just before the end, the songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Leiber looking terribly debilitated and frail, but hitting all the notes—it goes on and on, until the whole song has been declaimed, and you’re caught up in a kind of musicality the film hasn’t shown before, not merely putting Dave Marsh’s words on the screen, but turning them into a kind of perfect life.

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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