A Hell of a Song

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1. Colin Donnell, “House of the Rising Sun,” on The Affair (Showtime, December 20).  For the finale of the second season, Donnell’s Scotty Lockhard, just out of a three-month stint in rehab, starts drinking at his brother Cole’s wedding.  He gets up with the band to say he didn’t really get the happy couple a gift, but he does have this song: “It’s an old one, but, man, it’s a hell of a song.  And nobody really knows what it’s about but—to me, it’s about family.”  In a creepy David Lynch setting with dim red light, he launches himself into the most vengeful, self-loathing, threatening, shamed, they-will-pay rendition of the old folk song imaginable, stretching into hysteria at the end of the verses, and yes, he’s right: you don’t know what it’s about, just that he’s turned a wedding into a wake.

2. Waco Brothers, Going Down in History (Bloodshot).  The apostate honky-tonk band from Chicago with alternating suicide notes and cynical breast-beating: “The day after the music died / We can’t take all the credit, but we tried.”  But their fervor, the sense of what’s been lost, is as fierce as you can find anywhere—“We Know It” could have been called “Going Down in Flames”—and the suicide notes can be stirring.  Dean Schlabowske brings off a cover of the Small Faces’ “All or Nothing,” which could have been pure corn, because you can hear him standing back from every line before committing himself to it.

3. Sleater-Kinney, Irving Plaza (New York, December 14).  “Jumpers” (2005) was an epic, with an arc that minute by minute seemed to push toward a receding horizon like a black rainbow.  But the highlight might have been when Corin Tucker came back for a six and a half minute encore of the B-52s’ “Rock Lobster” (1979) led by Fred Armisen, wearing a metallic Cindy Wilson pink wig that came off about two thirds of the way in, while Tucker was lobstering on the floor.   With Armisen gone they closed the night with “Dig Me Out” (1997), as desperate as it ever was.  The walking-out music was the Spaniels’ “Goodnight Sweetheart, Goodnight” (1954).


4. Gimme Shelter Realtors (“Proof that home ownership isn’t just for squares”), listing for 616 Page Street, San Francisco, $1,500,000.  Special feature: occupied by the Manson Family in 1967.  Who in the fall of 1969 might have been the inspiration for the song.

5. Steel Hammer, Julia Wolfe, composer, Anne Bogart, director, text by Kia Corthron, Will Power, Carl Hancock Rux, and Regina Taylor, score commissioned by Bang on a Can, Brooklyn Academy of Music (December 2).  Which would be more remarkable—that John Henry’s race with a steam drill actually happened, and was then lost to history, the legend remaining but the facts gone, or that, one day, someone simply made it all up?  Here John Henry is going to prison and he and Polly Ann are breaking up.  They’ll never see each other again.  Make sure the children remember me, he says.  Oh, I’ll tell them stories, she says, with a hint of I’ve-had-enough-of-you sarcasm in her voice.  I’ll tell them what a great steel driver you were.  I’ll tell them you beat a steam drill!

6. Hamilton, book, music, and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, directed by Thomas Kail, Richard Rodgers Theatre (New York). “Go, man, go”—it’s a shout out of the hubbub, and, watching, you might find yourself experiencing a sense of double consciousness. In your first mind, the intelligence, speed, and glee of the voices, and the magnetism of the actors, especially Daveed Diggs doubling as Jefferson and Layfayette, is so complete you forget that most of the actors are black or Hispanic, that their language is hip-hop.  This is how they had to talk, you can think: this is what the whole revolutionary crew should have said.  And then you realize that if the same play were put on in its time, or even fifty years later—let’s say a blackface minstrel show with black actors blacking up, as African-Americans did after the Civil War—most of these people would have been slaves.  So the hammer comes down.  This is the absolutely marginalized fantasizing their way into the history that excluded them.  And still does.

7.  Philippe Margotin and Jean-Michel Guesdon, Bob Dylan: All the Songs—The Story Behind Every Track (Black Dog & Leventhal).  One element of philistinism is the denial of the imagination, which is also the denial of thinking, which is also a denial of style.  Any song, poem, film, painting—any representation, including the most abstract—must be seen literally, tied to an actual happenstance.  No creative occasion can simply occur.  No image, no pile of words, can leap out of an artist and appear as if according to its own will, then to be shaped by the artist and made into something that wasn’t there before.  I opened this book at random, to the section on the Basement Tapes tune “Goin’ to Acupulco.”  Each number is broken into “Genesis and Lyrics” and “Production”; this began with “In this song, Bob Dylan may have only wanted to sing about a trip to Mexico” (Acupulco is a city in Mexico) “and an unexpected encounter with a mysterious Rose Marie.”  There follows speculation that one line with a commonplace expression might refer to the Book of Revelation, and also that the song mentions the Taj Mahal, and that “some Dylan scholars see a link to the 1957 novel Candy, which tells the story of an eighteen-year-old girl who has many sexual experiences and undertakes a journey to India” (the Taj Mahal is in India).  But there may be more: “Or did Dylan just want to refer to Elvis Presley’s film Fun in Acupulco?” (The page features a poster for the movie.)  I leafed through the thing; that’s the book in one.  Unless you have $50 you need to get rid of and like carrying around an 11” by 8” 703-page book that weighs five pounds, read Michael Gray’s Song and Dance Man instead.

anomalisa-poster small8. Anomalisa, directed by Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufman (Paramount).  “I think Charlie Kaufman wants to punish us” said the person next to me: in this animated film hailed as a work of beauty, humanism, and compassion, with critics swooning over Jennifer Jason Leigh’s precious recital of “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” a motivational speaker with a hit how-to book encounters two women in his Cincinnati hotel who’ve driven all the way from Akron to hear him, takes them down to the bar and gets them drunk, peels off the one he sizes up as most vulnerable, takes her to his room to have sex with her, tells her he loves her and that he’s going to leave his family, and  — after she starts to get on his nerves  — goes home and forgets all about her.


9. Ork Records: New York, New York (Numero) Started 1975.  49 numbers including first singles by Television (“Little Johnny Jewel”) and Richard Hell  — the unusually double-parentheticalled “(I Could Live with You) (In) Another World” b/w “(I Belong to The) Blank Generation.” Added to those are tracks by Alex Chilton, Chris Stamey, Lester Bangs, the Feelies, and Lenny Kaye’s 1965 Link Cromwell single “Crazy Like a Fox” b/w “Shock Me,” as well as a superbly designed book with interviews with Terry Ork and others and extensive commentary by Ken Shipley and Rob Sevier.  A comment from Ork’s contemporary Michael Zilkha, who with Michel Esteban founded Ze Records in New York in 1978:

“When you start a label you can only sign bands that no one bigger wants. If your resources are limited, all you can offer is commitment and belief that your taste is prophetic.  My first signing was James White & The Blacks, a band that didn’t yet exist: White’s Contortions slowed down to a disco beat.  This alternate identity strategy, pioneered by Parliament/Funkadelic, enabled the Contortions to put out music and still hold out for a major label deal. I planned to meld a disco beat to a nihilistic attitude, and the marriage actually worked. Once Off White was recorded the Contortions signed too. Chris Blackwell financed my label, Ze Records, in return for European distribution rights for Island. I had suggested he sign Talking Heads when they were a trio, so he took a gamble. Terry Ork took a more traditional but difficult path. He paid for, pressed and distributed his early records himself. Then, predictably, once his artists had the opportunity they left him for larger labels.  Too few producers ask themselves, ‘Does this record really need to be made?’ The first three tracks here unquestionably did. There may be more definitive recordings elsewhere of Television’s ‘Little Johnny Jewel,’ the Feelies ‘Fa Ce-La,’ and Richard Hell’s ‘Blank Generation,’ but it’s magic hearing these urgent originals in succession: there’s an energy and sincerity that perfectly reflects the druggy schizoid ambitions of the early CBGBs scene. Bands want to make it, even if they are too cool to admit it.

“Like so many labels of love, Ork Records didn’t focus on the money. But it also failed to build an identity because it was a singles-centric operation and it was mostly hopeless at getting its products released with any impact. By the time Ork rebooted with proper distribution it was too late for the label. Their key artists had left, and the new ones got lost in the shuffle. I wasn’t much better at business. I forgot to pick up my Waitresses option when they were in the top forty and Kid Creole bought themselves out of their contract once they hit.   Being a middleman/farm team was untenable financially, and it was hurtful emotionally that my artists then viewed me as a tax, devaluing the contribution I had made advising and editing them so carefully. However because of that effort Ze did have an identity. We had developed a repertory company, and we put out coherent albums that told a larger story. When that magic was gone I quit.  Continuing Ze would have been a business rather than a mission, without the joy and excitement. Ork Records New York, New York conveys that sense of mission.  With its deluxe slip case and its informative annotated and photograph-filled 180 page booklet, it is endearingly out of sync with the squalor and disarray in which its recordings were conceived and produced.”

10. David Bowie, 1947-2016.  He wore his heart up his sleeve, but it was almost always there.  In Alexander Trocchi’s phrase, he was an astronaut of inner space.  Maybe now he’ll tell us if there’s life on Mars.

With thanks to Brett Lyman.  And deep thanks to Bill Tipper, Nick Curley, and Jim Mustich, who gave this column a good home.  Starting in February it will appear at pitchfork.com.