Real Life Rock Top 10

Lucinda Williams, eatin' dirt out by the barn
James Dankert

1) Leah Garchik, June 14 (San Francisco Chronicle) Regarding George W. Bush declaring the day of Ronald Reagan's funeral a national holiday, bold-faced names columnist Garchik cited a report of signs on the D Street post office in San Rafael, just over the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin County, on Friday, June 11: "Post Office Will Be Closed Today in Memory of Ray Charles."


2) Ratatat, "Seventeen Years," from Ratatat (XL) Two guys in a bedroom studio in Brooklyn make what sounds like the instrumental B-side of "Hey Ya"--the music is about half that inventive, which is to say very inventive, and never calls attention to itself. But then the glee of trading one piece of sound for another fades, and you're floating on a lullaby. The movement draws you in, quiets your mind, and then, whatever this is, you're swimming through it.


3) Lucinda Williams, "Love That Mystic Hammering" (New York Times Book Review, June 13) "I sure don't pretend to be no intellectual," says the adored tribute-album contributor in her piece on Bob Dylan lyrics. Her father was a college professor, but she spent her childhood out by the barn eating dirt, which is why her own songs ring so true today.


4) and 5), PJ Harvey, Uh Huh Her (Island) and Nick Catucci, "Carnal Fission" (Village Voice, June 9) Harvey rubs, scrapes, drags chairs around the room; sometimes it feels as if her music comes from her guitar applying pressure to her skin rather than her fingers applying pressure to her guitar strings. Each album seems to gravitate toward the point where a certain state of mind and body will flare up into a single image--which will then burn out and disappear, leaving you incapable of remembering what the image was, only that you glimpsed it. Here, you're on the way with the pulse of "Shame," only the second song; you can feel the destination has been reached with the next, "Who the Fuck?" which combines a Lenny Kravitz beat with an extremist, primitivist Sheryl Crow vocal--an affinity that lets you hear Harvey listening to Crow, lets you hear Harvey hearing something in Crow's voice nobody else hears, maybe including Crow herself.

That's the problem with artists: They know things other people don't. They feel compelled to say what those things are, and to conceal the strangeness and alienation of the act. If there is an "I" in their work, it ceases to refer back to the person writing, painting, singing; the person whose name is on the work has momentarily replaced herself with a made-up person who can say or do anything. This is what makes such a person an artist, and it's why critics who try to reduce an artist's work to her life are cretins. Thus we have Nick Catucci in the Village Voice, assuring his readers that Uh Huh Her is "a break-up album"--"as all save her last have been," he adds, in case you think there might be something out there that doesn't fit into a thimble. Forget that situations everyone goes through might go through Harvey differently than they do through you or me; don't worry that there might be anything here that isn't immediately obvious; after all, Catucci says, she's "an easy read" and "she's got a one-track mind." "We know she's been fucking and fighting, probably in equal measures, and maybe in the same moments." You can almost smell him, can't you?


6) and 7), Patti Smith, "Radio Baghdad," from Trampin' (Columbia) and Michael Kamber, photo accompanying Edward Wong's "Deputy Foreign Minister Is Fatally Shot in Baghdad" (New York Times, June 13) Smith has been selling death for years--but now mere husband, brother, friends, and poet comrades take a backseat to a whole city, a whole civilization: civilization itself! That's what was destroyed when the U.S. took Iraq. For Smith it's a chance to gas up the piety boilers, and remind us that we (or, rather, "they," which is us, but not her, unless we accept her vision, in which case we can be her, gazing with sadness and disgust at those who remain "they") destroyed a perfect city, the center of the world, where once walked "the great Caliph." How does it sound? Silly. The Aloha-Elvis wall hanging you could see in the background of Kamber's photo--captioned "American soldiers searched a suspected stronghold of the Mahdi Army, the militia loyal to Moktada al-Sadr"--was infinitely more interesting. Why doesn't Smith write a song about what Elvis was doing there: about a "we" that even she might not be able to make into a "they," unless the "they" included Iraqis, too?


8) Blue Sky Boys, The Sunny Side of Life (Bear Family) A five-CD box set of songs recorded between 1936 and 1950 by Bill and Earl Bollick of West Hickory, North Carolina, who look like the nicest insurance salesmen you'll ever meet. Their music creates a simple, innocent, white small town, all calm and pastoralism, and the calmest, most pastoral tunes are the murder ballads.


9) Evan Eisenberg, "Bushido: The Way of the Armchair Warrior" (New Yorker, June 7) A single page, and, with a quietly implacable rhythm, one word to the next, the most frigid, frightening, and complete portrait of the current occupant of the White House I have read. Machiavelli could have written the following lines, and in slightly different form he did: "The Chinese word for 'crisis' combines the characters for 'danger' and 'opportunity.' For the armchair warrior, the significance of this is clear. Every crisis is an opportunity, and the lack of crisis poses a grave danger." But even Machiavelli's ghost might flinch at the smile of evil to which Eisenberg appends his last period.


10) Shangri-Las, City Hall Park, New York City, June 19 In the May 17, 2001 edition of this column, then running in Salon, I included an item, written more than a week earlier, on an A&E documentary that featured an interview with Mary L. Stokes--formerly Mary Weiss of the Shangri-Las, the lead singer with long, straight blond hair. She was talking about why the 1964-65 tragedies of "Remember," "I Can Never Go Home Anymore" or "Leader of the Pack" were not difficult for her: because, she said, she had enough pain in her own life to stand up to the songs. A few days after the destruction of the World Trade Center, I heard that Stokes, now a manager for a furniture company, was present when the towers were hit and when they came down; I contacted her and asked her to write about that day for this column, and she did. When I read that the Shangri-Las would be performing in New York City, I asked my friend Robert Christgau to cover the show; as this will be my last column in City Pages for at least a year, the idea of tracing that circle, if not closing it, seemed right.

Christgau reports: "This may be the oldest crowd I've been in anywhere short of the Metropolitan Opera (and a beatnik poetry reading I attended a few years back). Intros by Randy Davis of WCBS-FM, 'New York's oldies station,' promising to 'walk you right down memory lane' in the 'real heart of New York City.' 'They were known as the bad girls of rock and roll...' Backing band all in black, three ladies in black slacks with V-cut red satin tops. Stage left a brunette in her twenties, stage right a well-preserved forty/fiftysomething, also brunette. But there's no Mary Weiss in sight--unless she now has brownish hair in a curly frizz, which would be bad for business. Four or five dozen onlookers come up in front of the stage in the sun, those on benches stay there, most of the crowd of perhaps 200 hangs back in the shade, including senior latecomers who really need to sit. The band vamps, sounding way too perky, and they are: The opening number is 'You Can't Hurry Love,' followed by 'Give Him a Great Big Kiss,' the nicest hit in the Shangri-Las' repertoire, which is also too perky. It's a generic oldies set ('Johnny B. Goode,' 'The Loco-Motion,' 'Be My Baby,' etc.) with three Shangri-Las tunes."

It turns out the Shangri-Las are the Shangri-La: Marge Ganser, "the twin who didn't die of a barbiturate overdose," accompanied by her daughter Mary and a friend. Christgau: "Five blocks from Ground Zero, we're told (well, not 'we,' but the younger fans Marge was looking down at; we 'survivors'--yes, the term was adduced, by young Mary--know enough to stay out of the midday sun) we're going to have 'a hell of a history lesson.' And the lesson is that although the Shangri-Las live (except for the dead Ganser) their individual-collaborative achievement does not; the lesson is that the past is already smooshed together into one perky playlist."



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