Every month in this space, Greil Marcus offers ten findings from the world of music, books, film, and beyond.
1. Amy, directed by Asif Kapadia (Playmaker Films). The signal scene in this relentlessly depressing movie comes when Amy Winehouse is standing in a cramped closet-like space, recording “Back to Black” with headphones on. As the shot opens we hear only her voice, isolated both in terms of sound and person—she is so completely there she could be the last person on earth, with no one left to hear her. Then the music, presumably as she’s hearing it, rises on the soundtrack, while her voice continues over it—or, really, under it, all but buried under it. But as the song bends toward its last lines, the music vanishes, and again, but now more cruelly, it’s just a single woman and her voice, letting the words out slowly, as if they’re being pulled out of her: “Black . . . black . . . black,” with three full seconds between each breath. “Oh,” she says, surprised, “it’s a bit upsetting at the end, isn’t it?” Her commitment to craft, tradition, art—to her sense of a song as something at once part of her and outside of her, another being daring her to live up to it, is unerasable, and so is the stark fact of what was thrown away.
2. “HOOT!—Hard Sell: Songs We Hate,” St. Alban’s Parish Hall (Albany, California, June 28). At the Experience Music Project Pop Conference this last April, a roundtable based on a poll of conference participants asked to name the worst songs of all time fell flat: people rationally discussed whether, say, “Hotel California” or “We Are the World” had redeeming social, musical, satirical, or any other forms of value, but there was no loathing. That was not a problem at “HOOT!” Impresario Joe Christiano reports on a show I wish I’d been in town for:
This themed, participatory Bay Area songfest has dedicated evenings to Bob Dylan, California, money, cars, and twenty-five or so other subjects in its four-year history. Last month’s installment drew dynamically conflicted interpretations from its performers, and rowdy, sympathetic sing-a-longs from an audience who reclaimed—with righteous validation—that lamentable contemporary reflex, ‘haters gonna hate.’ The evening began with ‘The Sound of Music’ played by Theresa Kelly and Lisa Whiteman (The Shut-Yer-Von-Trapps), and sounding, without a changed chord, like an outtake from the third Velvet Underground album. Next was Paul Anka’s ‘(You’re) Having My Baby,’ sung straight by Greg Reznick (and a bewigged Sparky Grinstead), every line met with a horrified NOOOOOOO! from the shocked crowd, which had apparently suppressed all memory of the inexplicable hit.
The seventies were particularly well-represented: ‘Ben’; ‘Candida’; ‘Feelings’; ‘Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves’; ‘Silly Love Songs,’ and of course, ‘I Am Woman,’ sung by Joshua Raoul Brody, who transcended camp by replacing the song’s hollow assertions with lines like, ‘I am woman / watch me work / for a stupid macho jerk / who’s devoid of any semblance of feeling / But I’ll work just as hard as he / at two-thirds the salary / ‘Til I bash my head against that ol’ glass ceiling.’ Amy Kessler’s ‘I Am, I Said,’ dared all to defy the unintelligible ‘…not even the chair’ lyric, and received the first standing ovation in HOOT! history. Noam Rosen closed the first set with Journey’s ‘Don’t Stop Believin”,’ which, line for line, people know now as well as they once knew “This Land is Your Land.’ The unprompted sing-a-long was abashedly tender, and made the song seem as if it had been written by everybody’s dad. Wendy Fiering stopped time with an unironic reading of Neil Young’s “A Man Needs a Maid”, sung, with chilling resignation, from the maid’s point of view. And then came “Playground in My Mind”, re-imagined by Josh Senyak as a minor-key rant by Charles Manson: “My name is Mike-KILL, I got a nic-KILL, I got a nic-KILL, shiny and new…” et cetera.
The eighties and nineties were not forgotten: ‘Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)’; ‘Jump’; ‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World’; ‘Wonderwall’; ‘Achy Breaky Heart,’ and what would have been the ne plus ultra of the evening had the venom for the song not been tempered by the accidental death of its composer days before: ‘My Heart Will Go On,’ aka ‘Love Theme from Titanic.’ The group performing the song—the Short Tucanos—was named after James Horner’s ill-fated aircraft. How better to end such an evening than with ‘Hallelujah,’ a song ruined for most by the embrace of a multitude who wouldn’t know Leonard Cohen from their partner’s gynecologist? Neither redemptive nor redactive, the song was sung like a true hymn—involuntarily—and blessed a satisfying evening that recalled Christopher Hitchen’s’s mighty line: “For a lot of people, their first love is what they’ll always remember. For me it’s always been the first hate.”
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3. Jessica Hopper, The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic (featherproof). From the editor of the blazing quarterly Pitchfork Review, forty-one pieces drawn from journals ranging from Punk Planet in 2003 to the Village Voice in 2014, and not an expected note or a cowardly opinion in any of them. The story snaking its way through the book is indie rock as a little Stalinist clubhouse with NO GIRLS ALLOWED on the door. Stay away, go somewhere else, and Hopper finds herself face to face with R. Kelly’s pedophila, which isn’t different at all, or forcing herself through “An Oral History of Hole’s Live Through This,” where the band members talk about heroin as if they’re looking out the window to see if they’ll need a sweater if they’re going out later, as if bassist Kristen Pfaff did live through it. Hopper carries you through every piece with an eye growing ever more jaded, ever more clear.
4. Stung, directed by Benni Diez, written by Adam Aresty (Rat Pack/XYZ). A very gory slapstick mutant-wasp picture with first-class steals from the basement scenes in Night of the Living Dead and the parasitic twin in the “Ventriloquist’s Dummy” episode of Tales from the Crypt—plus, at the very end, the least expected version of the young-people-have-sex-and-then-die scream-movie requirement I’ve ever seen. Or want to. I was really on their side.
5. Darius Rucker, “Wagon Wheel” (Capitol Nashville, 2013) at Roller Garden, St. Louis Park, Minnesota (May 30). Maybe everything feels good on a roller rink sound system, especially with eighteen birthday parties underway, but this—a fragment of a Bob Dylan song fleshed out by the Old Crow Medicine Show, a pallid hit for them, a better one for Rucker—made you hope the system would get stuck and play it all day long. It’s in the warmth of the singing, the fiddles sawing away like trees blowing in the wind but with a circling rhythm nature doesn’t make, the sense of a long trip that’s never going to end. In The Sellout, Paul Beatty’s new novel about blackface, whiteface, and black towns wiped off the map not by the Ku Klux Klan but by mapmakers, he has his hero call Hootie and the Blowfish “the whitest music I knew” (along with Madonna and the Clash), maybe not in spite of but because they had a black lead singer, one Darius Rucker, but there’s no white in this record, and no black, just landscape, movement, tiredness, laziness, getting up, stepping out, blinded by the sun.
6. Hush Point, Blues and Reds (Sunnyside) Or, “The Birth of the Cool.” There’s no sense at all that the birth took place 66 years ago; there is insider trading over Sketches of Spain. By the end they’re running out of gas, but “Live in Stockholm” and “Grounds for Divorce” are more than good song titles.
7. Kim Gordon, “Design Office: The City Is a Garden,” installation at 303 Gallery (New York, June 4-July 25). There were artificial hedges placed all around the room, and, scattered like bodies on the floor — maybe covering smaller hedges — crushed paintings with unreadable words on them. The juxtaposition made you bend down, squint, try to make the markings signify: were they Occupy slogans, already erased by history? Look for more than a moment and you’re not in a gallery: you’re in the vandalized lobby of a hedge fund, and they’ll have it cleaned up before you know it.
8. Andy Abramowitz, Thank You, Goodnight (Touchstone). Long years after Tremble’s one hit—number one, but it might never have happened at all—their leader Tedddy Tremble puts the band together again. He has great new songs. The chemistry is there. Everything’s rolling along, until this hard-working, determined guy, our first-person narrator, turns ugly. Why couldn’t the band come back? “The Pet Shop Boys were still at it because the musical tastes of Eurofags hadn’t evolved in the past quarter century. The few members of Lynyrd Skynyrd who hadn’t ridden over themselves with their own motorcycles could still do ‘Gimme Three Steps’ to a crowded barbeque because somebody had to make music for dirtballs.” Never mind that he means the Allman Brothers, not Lynyrd Skynyrd—it feels like a violation, the author breaking his character to put a few of his own thoughts on the page. The novel seems to lose its voice right here. And then you find out that you weren’t really seeing who was there at all: a total asshole, weak, incompetent, sneering. Not that he can’t still convincingly get off a good line, or would be out of place at “Songs We Hate.” “He paused to sniffle. ‘I know no one said it’d be easy. But no one said it’d be this hard.’ ‘Pathetic,’ Alaina jeered. ‘It is pathetic,’ I agreed. That’s Coldplay.’”
9. Elevator Repair Service, The Sound and the Fury, Public Theater (New York, June 23). As seen on Hee Haw.
10: Barack Obama, “Amazing Grace,” TD Arena (Charleston, South Carolina, June 26). Cecily Marcus comments:
In a week when the news should have been full of black people talking about the nine black churchgoers who were murdered by a racist—saying their names, who they were, what their murders mean, how it feels—the focus was stolen by white people talking about white power and supremacy: debating and explaining the Confederate flag, laws, heritage, Southern pride.
President Obama’s eulogy for Reverend Clementa Pinckney was the end of an awful week, and it was devastating. Maybe for the first time in his presidency, President Obama could be a black man without apology, finally embracing a language that no other president has been able to claim. It was shocking to hear the president use ‘we’ and ‘our’ so fully when talking about African American life and history.
It was shocking to hear phrases I didn’t know—‘hush harbors’ to describe the history of black churches where people could pray in secret—as a common parlance that he shares with honor and great ease. President Obama had planted the phrases from ‘Amazing Grace’ at the beginning of his speech, but when at the end he sang the song, he didn’t sing well. He sang unforgettably, charging the words ‘was’ and ‘found’—‘I once was lost but now I’m found’—with a sound that comes from belonging to a community that for seven years of his presidency he seemed to run from. In the act of singing, his voice shed all oratorical skills and rhetoric, his words carried instead by the cadence of millions of black voices who sang before. For a few moments, he wasn’t just a historic figure. He was utterly human, and part of a deep tradition.
It’s a lie of history that good things come from bad. There is nothing good about nine black people being murdered, or about six African American churches burning in the seven days that followed. This is the country we have built. We have waited a long time to have a president who shows the country what that means and how it feels. I hope it’s not another 200 years before we have another.
With thanks to Emily Marcus