Real Life Rock Top Ten

A Monthly Column
of Everyday Culture
and Found Objects

by Greil Marcus

(1/2) Radio Silence: Literature and Rock and Roll, issues 1 and 2. Edited by Dan Stone. Published in the form of a literary quarterly, but with a design that promises both seriousness and surprise, this Bay Area journal is something people have been waiting for for fifty years: writing in, through, beside, around, and about music, where the first criterion is writing. There is Fitzgerald sharing pages with Geoff Dyer. There’s Ted Gioia trying to bury the myth of Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil and finding that it can’t be done; there is Jim White trying to explain to an old man that a character in a Cormac McCarthy novel isn’t real, only to find Suttree’s ghost tapping him on the back. There is Rick Moody, who apparently never met a question he didn’t already know the answer to. But favorites or their opposites are not the point. What it is is a radical overturning of the whole notion of what music is, what it’s for, where you find it, where it goes, and one issue contains not a hint of what another one might have to offer.

(3) A mother takes her five-year-old daughter to see PUNK: Chaos to Couture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as related by Deborah Freedman (New York, August 14). Daphna Mor: “This fashion breaks the rules. They did things that other people thought were ugly, provocative—” Alona Mor Freedman: “I like acupuncture fashion!” Daphna: “It is not acupuncture, it is punk.” Alona [excited that she is wearing tights and a pink shirt herself, and pointing to a contemporary dress inspired by punk]: “Ima, this is not acupuncture—it is too pretty.” Daphna: “I know! This one is not real punk, and anyway—it is not acupuncture, it is punk. Acupuncture is what your uncle does with the needles.” Alona: “Ah, they didn’t use needles in punk?” Daphna: “They did, but a different kind…”

(4) Typhoon, White Lighter (Roll Call Records). This massed and layered music from Portland, Oregon—eleven band members are named—isn’t going to reveal itself quickly. Moodily considering the fate of the universe, Kyle Morton sings with unlimited self-importance—“Every star is a possible death,” he announces at the start of one number, and then, singing sometimes from behind where the song seems to be, from one state over, from years before it was written, he turns a tone that at first felt pompous into pure urgency. The music might be taking place in the sky—and then, near the end of a song, female voices come in and pull the rug out from under the whole edifice. The big voice is replaced by a little one—high voices, sometimes unnaturally high, Betty Boop after she’s seen it all and is ready to tell at least some of what she knows. And then the record begins to speak in its own tongues. There’s a banjo passage in “Possible Deaths” that can stop you cold with its embodiment of regret; doo-wop chords at the beginning of “Prosthetic Love” that promise a sweetness the song turns away from as soon as you feel its pull. Again and again, there’s a sense of something missing, something withheld. You’re almost there, you can practically touch it, and then you’re not sure that what you heard was there at all. “The Lake” might be the most compelling number; certainly it’s the loveliest. But it only suggests how bottomless the pools at the heart of these songs are.

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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