The Only Thing Worth Fighting For

1-2. John Lydon, Anger Is An Energy—My Life Uncensored (Dey St.) and Public Image Ltd., “Big Blue Sky,” from What the World Needs Now (PiL Official). Lydon’s first autobiography—the 1994 Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs, with full cover credit as “with Keith and Kent Zimmerman”—had its moments, but it was constantly interrupted and padded with other people’s words, and it wasn’t a real book. This, despite an inside note of “with Andrew Perry,” is a real book—full of blather, guff, and repetition, at least a hundred pages longer than it might have been, but singing, pounding, shouting, even whispering with such a fierce intelligence you can be brought up short on any page. Lydon apologizes for nothing, praises himself for everything, claims infinite meaning for the Sex Pistols (“Here we were, capable of making really big significant social changes to many things—not just the wonderful world of music, but to society itself” ) and his work with Public Image Ltd. from its start in 1978 to now, and makes you believe him. The Sex Pistols, he writes, were “a runaway train of thought,” and whole books on the group haven’t said a fraction as much. Even the songs themselves may not be as suggestive as those five words. When he digs in, paying off on his book title, he’ll boil decades of newspaper stories into a paragraph with a reach so great it can leave you breathless. On growing up in the Catholic Church:

Did I know there was sexual abuse going on there? Oh yeah, abso-fucking-lutely . . . everybody knew to run when the priest came a-visiting, and by no means every get yourself involved in the choir, or any altar-boy nonsense, because that was direct contact number one, so I learned not to sing very successfully—deliberately—bum notes, because I knew that would be a really dangerous thing to be waltzing into. So the love of singing was kicked out of me because of bloody priests. Imagine the joy of eventually joining the Sex Pistols, and making the world a better place—in a very vengeful way.

There’s no end to the delight in language in the book—Lydon’s description of PiL guitarist Keith Levene (“he never had a good word to say about anybody. That thrilled me no end—I’d never known such a professional misery”) is, in its last line, both poetry and something no one else would ever say, about anything. And if his music criticism sometimes leaves nothing behind but a hole in the page (“I love the Kinks—love ’em!”), sometimes it’s perfect, too. “Deep down inside, I think I wanted to sing like Robert Plant ,” Lydon says at one point. “I mean, I don’t like his hairdo, but so what?”

What the World Needs Now may be closer to Pil’s second album, the epic 1979 Metal Box, three 12-inch 45s in a film cannister (“A stunningly beautiful tapestry of high anxiety,” Lydon describes it: “The idea of it was, it would numb you, absolutely flatten your resistance, just wear you out with its omniprescence. I think we got there” ) than the tremendous This Is PiL, from 2012, which is probably closer to Bob Dylan’s Tempest, from the same year—a recovery of ambition marks them both. What the World Needs Now and Metal Box share the sense of a blasted, nearly empty landscape—pretty much what Viggo Mortensen found in The Road. The songs struggle toward a shape more distinct than atmosphere, until “Big Blue Sky,” where, over more than eight minutes, the atmosphere is itself so distinct, so American-desert, that you can see the singer in the last shot of David Lynch’s Lost Highway, with his thumb out.

3. Ratatat, Magnifique (XL). From Brooklyn, Mike Stroud plays melodica and guitar; Evan Mast plays bass; both deal in synthesizers and percussion. They’re infinitely more confident than they were on their debut, Ratatat: that was eleven years ago, and now they don’t even need words, even a human voice, though there are times where voices come in, but just to say goodbye. Because changes are so quick, subtle, and seemingly inevitable—could anything in “Abrasive” move from one place to another in any other way?—favorite songs change each time you play the record. These are dreamscapes, the kind that, opening a dance floor, shutting down for the night, running tourist ships to the moon, say “don’t let me wake up.” The inside and outside sleeve art, by the band, is a hill made of hundreds of faces. Moment to moment you might recognize Bruce Springsteen, Catherine Deneuve, Jim Morrison, Jonathan Franzen, Henry Kissinger, until they turn into someone else; the only one I’m sure of is Roy Orbison.

4. Ubu Roi, Cheek by Jowl (Lincoln Center Festival, July 22-26, in the Gerald W. Lynch Theater in the John Jay College of Criminal Justice). John Rockwell reports on a performance I couldn’t make:

I was never a big fan of Alfred Jarry’s play: maybe absurdist, maybe pre-Dadaist or pre-Surrealist, but too bratty, too self-consciously provocative, a prejudice only reinforced when reading how Jarry had orchestrated the riot at the 1896 Paris premiere. Never a big fan of the band, either, but what do I know?

The French-language staging of Ubu Roi at the Lincoln Center Festival July 22-26 was so brilliant that it almost changed my mind. About the play, that is. What the director Declan Donnellan did was recalibrate Jarry’s ravings as the murderous fantasy of teenaged, not to say punkish, angst. The show opens in a modern apartment wherein the teenaged boy in question is sprawled on a couch, fooling with a video camera. His parents are blithely preparing a small dinner party. They murmur inaudibly in the most polite French. Suddenly the lights change, casting a bilious green glow, and mom and dad become Pere and Mere Ubu, shouting and carrying on in their mad, bloody way. All the other parts in the play are enacted bv three guests and the son. Periodically things snap back to the decorous dinner party, the detritus of chaos all around but with everyone oblivious to anything odd having happened.

It’s all weirdly, shockingly illuminating, like The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, only bloodier. A transformative experience, not just of my prejudiced opinion but, maybe, of the play itself.

5-8. Leonard Cohen, “Nevermind,” Lera Lynn, The Avenues (leralynn.com), Jake La Botz, “The Rose,” New York Dolls, “Human Being,” Rick Springfield, “Jessie’s Girl,” on True Detective Season 2 (HBO). Despite the fraying plot lines, this was far stronger than the first season: if the story was absurd, real life bled every time you looked into Colin Farrell and Rachel McAdams’s faces. Didn’t you always want to see Farrell as human wreckage—wasn’t it clear, watching, that that’s where, for him, all his old pretty-boy leads were leading? Didn’t you wonder if Rachel McAdams could carry self-loathing through a whole season without blinking—wasn’t it scary to find out she could, that anyone could? All reviews aside, the real disaster of the season finale was her losing her haircut.

Throughout, music created the most memorable ambiance. “Nevermind,” the theme song, was Leonard Cohen at his most pretentious and preening, and across his long and hallowed journey through the forests of narcissism he’s set a high bar. Unlike the Handsome Family’s “Far from Any Road,” the theme from the first season, which could have been sung by Matthew McConaughey without anyone wondering why, here the show bucked the song right off its back: you forgot it as soon as someone began walking or talking. The real action was in a Farrell fever dream of an Elvis impersonator in with a big frizzy hairdo uncoiling himself like Arnold Schwarzenegger in the first Terminator for “The Rose,” or Farrell drinking and snorting himself back to life to “Human Being,” not only the New York Dolls’ best song but the only one that altogether burnt off their pose, or Rick Springfield, looking as if he’d break if he stood up quickly, so tanned and planed down by plastic surgery you couldn’t imagine “Jessie’s Girl,” which is all moving quickly, coming out of his mouth.

Lera Lynn, a Nashville singer whose most recent album has enough death—“Standing on the Moon,” “Comin’ Down”—in it to keep you listening through its love songs, was the specter, the fate that met Farrell, Vince Vaughn, and Taylor Kitsch, even though they died and she didn’t. As she sat on her stool in a bar that never seemed to have more than her and two or three other people in it, or as she walked out, carrying her guitar, at the end of the last episode, as if she couldn’t stand another minute in the place, the bruises on her legs spread, her shoulders bent even farther toward the floor, and her voice pushed toward 2 AM, when she’d get paid, enough money to buy another fix from the bartender and go home.

9. James Gavin, Is That All There Is? The Strange Life of Peggy Lee (Simon and Schuster). Gavin brings the music to life: “Why Don’t You Do Right,” “Lover,” “Fever,” and carloads of dreck. It doesn’t matter that the story began in North Dakota—the carelessness of a Hollywood life takes over and never lets go, except when Lee commits herself to a song, to getting it right, as she does in the suspenseful pages Gavin devotes to his title song. It was Lee, not writers and producers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who wanted Randy Newman to arrange the song: she’d heard his first album, the dead-end American dream of “Love Story”—“We’ll play checkers all day / Until we pass away”—and it took her back to home truths that had passed out of her own songs, and she put them back into “Is That All There Is?” as defiance, a refusal, as Gavin makes you believe, of the Weimar nihilism Jerry Leiber was after all along.

10. “Folk City: New York and the Folk Music Revival,” City Museum of New York (through November 29). Housed appropriately in the exquisite City Museum on Fifth Avenue between 104th and 105th streets, which features Stairwell B in the back, billed as “THE MOST EXCITING STAIRWELL IN NEW YORK,” and it probably is—the exhibit is skimpy, with infinite missed chances. There’s stuff, and blown-up photos—you’re pointed toward a showcase of holograph Dylan lyrics, all of which look very carefully written after the fact, maybe for sale purposes. They bear no resemblance at all to the smeared and crossed-out typed originals displayed in the past at the Morgan Library and elsewhere. Most interesting are a series of song clips, which reveal the utter confusion of the show, which can’t decide if it’s about politics, music, the brotherhood of man, or just being good.

There’s Lead Belly’s “Goodnight, Irene,” first in in a recording he made for the Library of Congress in 1934—though here it seems like a vocal dubbed over footage of him performing something else, which makes no sense: there’s evocative footage on YouTube of him performing it in a New York apartment for well-dressed, mostly black people who seem like friends. Then the the 1950 hit version by the Weavers, with Pete Seeger wrapping himself in a nightclub-grin, who are dead fish; Mississippi John Hurt with a down-home Pete Seeger and the folk singer Hedy West nodding along in approval, with Hurt looking uncomfortable and out of place—the song doesn’t fit his style, and he’d never sing it if he weren’t being used to construct a canon. Then the folksingers Arlo Guthrie and Steve Goodman, who have nothing to give the song, with Hoyt Axton, who brings his single verse dignity and sorrow, but he’s just a commercial sellout, unlike the legacy Guthrie and the sainted Goodman, so who cares? There’s Eric Clapton at some bizarre 1982 Christmas special, a bad-haircut version of American Bandstand: all the people dancing and singing along in swaying lines look like actors.

I once heard a woman tell of visiting the Morrison household in Belfast in the late 1940s, with George Morrison showing her his collection of blues and jazz 78s, while little George Ivan skittered around the floor shouting “Play ‘Irene’! Play ‘Irene’!” Here we see Van Morrison with Jerry Lee Lewis, both dragging music from their bones, stonefaced, silently saying that there are things in the song that still can’t be said out loud. We see Jack White dive into the tune as if it were a lake, and then a big onstage singalong with Pete Seeger late in life surrounded by what seems like a hundred happy people—a terrible anti-climax, but it’s Pete Seeger, and its his song, isn’t it?

A following set of performances of Lead Belly’s “Midnight Special,” with Seeger and the Greenbriar Boys, Bobby Darin, and Don McLean with the Persuasions, is more interesting, if less perverse: it makes you think it’s not a very good song. Except for Paul McCartney, nobody can keep time.