Real Life Rock Top Ten

A Monthly Column
of Everyday Culture
and Found Objects

by Greil Marcus

(1/2) The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records, Vol. 1 (1917–1932) (Third Man Records and Revenant Records) and the Bladensburg High School Video Jukebox ( The Paramount set calls itself a “cabinet of wonder,” and it is. You pay your money, a large, elegant wooden box arrives in the mail, and you open it. You stick a thumb drive into your computer, and one of eight hundred songs, the most recent dating to 1927—volume two will appear later this year—begins to play. You finger a set of LPs, marveling at the labels. You glance through a big paperback discographical history. You pry open a heavy, clothbound volume and begin to follow the story of how a Wisconsin chair company figured out it could make money producing cheap records for people to play on its expensive phonograph cabinets, and how, after clueless executives set about anything with a pulse, a visionary African American producer and opera follower named Mayo Williams began to move the label into what was called race music—and then you begin to page through dozens and dozens of advertisements so daring, and at times so odd, you can’t believe the music will live up to them. Such as one for Ethel Waters’s 1922 “That Da Da Strain” (“It will shake you, it will make you, really go insane,” wrote a couple of Tin Pan Alley tunesmiths, eager to get a dance-craze tune on the market even if they had to name it after a European art movement): “The Only Genuine Colored Record. Others Are Only Passing for Colored.” The price is $400, which, compared to the recent Clash Sound System ($249.99 list) or Bob Dylan’s Complete Album Collection, Vol. 1 ($279.98), is not so much a bargain as a gift.

But there are all kinds of wonder cabinets, and the Bladensburg High School Video Jukebox—from the class of ’59, culled from YouTube, also featuring just about eight hundred songs, not counting full-length oldies shows and countless more embedded videos—is free. You click the button that lets each selection “drop the coin right into the slot,” as Chuck Berry put it, and then you have no idea where to begin, so you hit, say, Dion and the Belmonts’ “I Wonder Why—THEN”—a 1958 TV clip with dance moves so complex they might have taken months to work out—and then the same song “NOW,” from an oldies show, Dion and, let’s say, two of the Belmonts, with hats or scarves hiding their bald heads, and singing with a soul, a yearning, an accumulation of decades of disappointments that the kids three decades before never would have believed, and with vocal dynamics you won’t. And then you’re off, lost in a labyrinth where, say, Senator Everett Dirksen’s sonorous recitation “Gallant Men” rubs up against Johnny and Joe’s “Over the Mountain.” It’s 1957 on Milt Grant’s Record Hop, with two black teenagers lip-synching for an all-white dance floor and subtitles running on the screen, as if Johnny and Joe were singing in a foreign language, and then it’s “FIFTY YEARS LATER” and piano notes open the doo-wop song, a song that was tragic even in its day, because you could hear, you could feel, that the boy and the girl singing would never get over that mountain, would never cross that sea, are so weighted with experience that when you see Johnny’s white hair and white mustache he looks as if he’s grown into the song, that he’s finally ready to say what it says.

(3) Christopher Wool, Guggenheim, New York (October 25, 2013–January 22, 2014). A rich, deeply tactile retrospective from the 1980s to the present. As you wind your way up the circular galleries, near the top you find what Wool calls his gray paintings, a pursuit he took up in the middle of the last decade. Most are untitled. Made partly with a spray-painter, they look like any city’s urban scrawls, all loose lines reaching for the edges of rectangles and squares. You begin to notice what seems like over-painting, though it’s the mark of a rag scrubbing away part of the image that has yet to come together, whiting out, or graying out, whatever cryptic message someone else has left before. Sometimes there are lighter, less-clear revisions, as if someone caught a hint of an idea, a message, and tried to bring it out, to make it talk. The graffiti language at the root of the work breaks down the apparent abstraction of the pieces: they refer to something specific, even if you can’t locate it on a map. The pictures are big, unstable, unfixable, lucid, steely, and gorgeous, and the longer you look, the more you see. From 2005, the scrubbing of a piece is not so much an erasure as the creation of a cleared space, a new field of action to be occupied and then abandoned in turn, or even forgotten.

(4) John Chamberlain, Pigmeat’s E flat Bluesong (1981), Dia Art Foundation, Beacon, New York (on long-term view). Chamberlain made his first auto-parts sculpture in 1957; here there are twelve, from 1979 through 1988. It’s David Cronenberg’s Crash played out in single objects, but especially in this 72" x 75" x 61" lump. With fenders wrapped around chrome side strips and remnants of grilles, with yellow dominating red, orange, and cream over splattered surfaces, more than any other piece spread out through a long, open gallery it was a believable auto-auto-assemblage: something that put itself together, either what you might have seen after two or three cars merged into one in a single crash, or after Chamberlain rescued the thing from a compactor halfway through the job. What’s so immediate about it, so real, is that still and fixed as the object is, speed is still present all through it. You can feel the rush that made this.

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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.

March/April 2014
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