Artists of the Year

All of which helped reconfirm two impressions for me. One, that there is nothing quite so beautiful as a body given up to music. And two, that a professional dancer's life is a difficult one. Myron Johnson is 45 years old, which translates to dead in dancer years. He has been at the helm of Ballet of the Dolls for 13 years, and his genius can be measured in how loyal all the Dolls--past and present, and of all ages and body sizes--are to their waifish guru. He is constantly working, providing choreography for the Dolls, Children's Theater, or Dayton's Fash Bash, but his work never takes on the harried stench of a workaholic. He is the epitome of the great artist--risky, funny, passionate, a sponge for the influences that surround him--and it is apparent to anyone who has ever seen him dance that he does so because he has no choice, because that is how he connects and communicates with the world.

Of course, he could have been artist of the year most any year before this--or in 1999, when he'll stage a retrospective of his solo dances. But this night he and the Dolls were fresh: His face beamed, with those black diamond eyes poking out from his white pancake makeup, and pursed lips stuck on permagrin. He kept his cape and feet twinkling, looking for all the world like Nosfera-tutu. As the cats lolled about him, he rolled his shoulders, swayed his hips, and, with tickling fingers, beckoned, flirtatiously, to an offstage partner--us. In that single movement, Myron Johnson melted me, and wordlessly said what every memorable musical moment I had this year managed to say: C'mere.

 

Jim Walsh is pop music columnist for the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

 

JON LANGFORD

by Will Hermes

Aside from the Mother's Best Flourradio recordings, still snared in a familiarly evil web of industry litigation, the most glaring omission from this year's landmark Complete Hank Williams 10-CD box is the art of U.K.-to-Chicago transplant and country-punk true believer Jon Langford. Perhaps Mercury Nashville felt that, among the homey images chosen for the box's folk-art postcard collection, Langford's vision of Williams as a bare-chested, arrow-impaled St. Sebastian would have struck a discordant note. That memorable image (as well as other Williams studies) did make it to Music City, though. This August it appeared in an exhibit of Langford's visual art called "The Death of Country Music" at Nashville's American Pop Culture Gallery--chiseled into a 135-pound granite headstone.

That show was only one line in the jam-packed, lager-stained datebook of rock 'n' roll's hardest-working prole artiste. Last year saw two releases by his honky-tonkin' mosh-pit crew, the Waco Brothers, as well as his sinfully overlooked solo debut, Skull Orchard, a Marxist punk-rock Moby Dick spewing Gertrude Stein verse and visions of the apocalypse. This year saw an all-star tribute to Bob Wills by Langford's classic-country cover band, the Pine Valley Cosmonauts, and the limited-edition Gravestone EP, whose epic "Nashville Radio/Death of Country Music," by Jon Langford's Hillbilly Lovechild, was as poignant a Hank tribute as the Mercury box. There was also a freaky new LP by Langford's artistic homebase, the Mekons, the fully engorged Me. And last month saw Great Pop Things: The Real History of Rock and Roll from Elvis to Oasis, a volume of hilarious and highly principled comic-strip bullshitting by Colin B. Morton and his childhood pal Chuck Death, a.k.a. Jon Langford--a guy who evidently doesn't sleep much.

The pseudonym, however, is worth noting. Painting, penning, and playing himself pink in the face, attending to his audience and muse as opposed to the fickle demands of the culture industry, Langford's tireless, unbridled, grimly joyous and ever-true artmaking is a testament to what remains art's ultimate driving force--the desire to tell the Reaper to drop dead. It's a helluva job, but bless him for doing it so well, so long, and so loud.

 

Will Hermes is a Bay Area writer and a frequent contributor to City Pages.

 

AALIYAH AND TIMBALAND

by Jon Dolan Maybe it's a bit sanctimonious to stumble into the Gomorrah that was 1998 and point at something as self-consciously innocent as Aaliyah's "Are You that Somebody?" as a sign of life. But then again, consider the following scenario. You're dial-twisting: Rock 100.3 is airing sexist ads that make Tom Barnard's Asian-baiting over on KQ seem like a Fireside Chat. KSTP is hosting discussions on presidential scandals that read like rejected entries to Penthouse Forum. On Zone 105, Courtney Love is proving the road of excess leads to, well, more excess. And on KDWB T-T-T-T-Tone E. Fly is programming Will Smith's father-son two-man march, "Just the Two of Us" back-to-back with Lauryn Hill's disses of black women with "fake nails done by Koreans."

Set against that soundscape, the best radio hook of 1998 was a sample of an infant waking up, backed by a skip-hop beat, and beatboxed castanets. And then came the vocals of a "goodie goodie...naughty naughty" diva named Aaliyah, preying on a brother and praying for a lover with the timid query: "Are you res-pon-si-ble?" Your radio melted in her mouth, club owners hired full-time trainers to deal with Timbaland-related ankle injuries, and all the would-be No Limit goons and Wu-Tang soldiers posturing at the bar started looking for the door. As that newborn's mewling got prouder, fiercer, and almost weirdly spectral, the best song of 1998 morphed into the tensest, direst rendering of "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?" imaginable.

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