Real Life Rock Top 10 (4/93)

1. Popinjays: Flying Down to Mono Valley (Epic/One Little Indian)
A snazzier, more expert Fastbacks goes to the circus, where the women run the trapezes like hopscotch squares, get harmonies selling popcorn and hot dogs in the stands, and make a quick exit: who were those girls, anyway? In this case, Wendy Robinson and Polly Hancock of London.

2. Elizabeth Armstrong & Joan Rothfuss, curators, and Janet Jenkins, editor: “In the Spirit of Fluxus,” exhibition (Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, until June 6, and traveling in the U.S. and Europe until January 1995) and catalogue (Walker Art Center Bookstore, Vineland Place, Minneapolis, MN 55403, $35)
The best art out of Fluxus–a sort of ur-’60s conspiracy of minimalist careerists–was gestural: the discovery and performance of severe and extended gestures of (supposedly) enormous symbolic and (absolutely) no practical significance. It was the performance of life as a joke we play on ourselves. At the time, Fluxus struck me as an exercise in pose, the worst sort of bohemian condescension: a bet that the audience wouldn’t get the joke. But in the Walker, among various not-overworried reconstructions of Fluxus sites and events (the founding performances of Nam June Paik and others at Wiesbaden in 1962; the week Ben Vautier spent in the window of a London art gallery in the same year), the feeling was stirring. You could catch the desire of disparate people from all over the world to do things that had never been done before, no matter how dumb they might appear at first, or ever after.

That spirit gets codified and ossified as the exhibit moves on from its first rooms; then it breaks out again in odd places. When you reach the Flux-Labyrinth, a full-size recreation of the fun-house-as-punishment-contraption Larry Miller and the late George Maciunas built in Berlin in 1976 (Miller was at the Walker fine-tuning the monster), the spirit the Flux folk might have loved best is passed on, especially when you’re stuck in the room with the piano. As Kristine Stiles puts it in her fine catalogue essay, “Between Water and Stone,” the “ostensible inability to do or to get things right is the source of amusement and release.”

3. Arthur Flowers: Another Good Loving Blues, a novel (Viking, $20)
In Mississippi, in 1918, Luke Bodeen, a bluesman, meets Melvira Dupree, a conjure woman. She seeks the mother who abandoned her, he seeks the “‘blues that will still be here touching folk long after I’m dead and gone,'” and together they seek each other. There’s a great sweep of history in this peaceful, steady-rolling tale: as Dupree struggles with the modern disbelief that saps her powers, Bodeen can remember a time, right about the turn of the century, “when there wasn’t no such thing as the blues,” and he can remember when he first picked up hints of the new sound, as a riverboat piano man hired onto the Stacker Lee. Flowers never overplays a scene, not when Bodeen ends up a begging drunk in a public park, bereft of the dignity and moral purpose he’d discovered in the blues, and not when Dupree puts the hex on. “‘St. Louie Slick Miz Melvira. A lowlife pimp and gambling man,'” says the mother of a girl seduced into prostitution. “‘Hurt him before he hurt our baby.'” Dupree finds him in a barbershop. “‘St. Louie Slick?'” she asks.

Slick stared impassively from behind silvered shades. He saw a good-looking woman with a open-necked jar in one hand and a cork in the other.

He smiled his professional approval. “Yeah baby, thats me, what can I do for a fine young thing like you?”

Melvira corked the jar as soon as he answered her and walked out of the barbershop.
She’s taken his soul–and with no more fuss than if she were serving a subpoena.

4. The Troggs: Archaeology (1966-1976) (Fontana 3-CD box)
In John Duigan’s lovely film Flirting–Beatle-era teenage love in Australia–there’s a moment when a wispy, insistently affectionate piece of music comes on the soundtrack. It’s “With a Girl Like You,” a highlight of this collection. Here “Wild Thing” is just an immortal anomaly in a crude ten-year struggle to find the charts, and “I Just Sing,” “I Can’t Control Myself,” “Gonna Make You,” and 10 or 20 others, the real, ordinary story. The immortal and the ordinary come together on the last disc, “The Troggs Tape,” 11 minutes 45 seconds of argument accidentally salvaged from a wasted session in 1970.

By then the Troggs hadn’t hit the American Top 100 for two years–an eternity in those days–and you can hear plain desperation straight off. “It’s a fucking number one! It is!” moans a young voice. “This is a fucking number one and if, if that doesn’t go, I fucking retire. I fucking do.” “It is a good song,” says an older, much-too-relaxed voice. “I agree–” “But it fucking well won’t be,” says the first voice, at once a general rallying his troops and a condemned man begging for one more day, “unless we spend a little bit of fucking thought and imagination to make it fucking number one!” And it goes on like that, the most profane pop document ever to surface, scared, hopeful, disgusted, doors slamming, instruments hurled to the floor, fights breaking out, a panorama of frustration, and aside from anyone’s everyday life there’s nothing like it anywhere.

5. Cynthia Rose: Design after Dark: The Story of Dancefloor Style (Thames & Hudson, $22.50)
At first it looks like a particularly well-set-up picture book, covering clothes, record sleeves, posters, videos, faces, plus captions–but in Rose’s text you’ll find not gloss but an animating sense of detail and adventure. She gives style weight without letting it weigh down her subjects–the tribes of black and white Britons, some anonymous, some now famous, who in the 1980s remade leisure culture sideways–and the result is a little depressing. So much flair, so much energy, so many ideas, so many good smiles, and, finally, no power. Style changed but not society; no-future didn’t move an inch from where it stood in 1977.

6-7. Sonic Youth: “Ca Plane pour Moi,” on Freedom of Choice–Yesterday’s New Wave Hits as Performed by Today’s Stars (Caroline), and Dave Markey, director: 1991: The Year Punk Broke (DGC Home Video, $19.98)
The bigger Sonic Youth have gotten the lower they’ve stooped–which is to say they’ll still pump out a track for fun or the betterment of humanity as readily as a nowhere band that only wants to get its name in print. “Ca Plane pour Moi,” by one Plastic Bertrand, was a near embarrassment in 1977–proof, from Belgium of all places, that a merging of punk and the Beach Boys might produce no contradictions whatsoever. On Freedom of Choice (all proceeds to Planned Parenthood) Thurston Moore rides the joke hard enough to prove that “guilty pleasure” is an oxymoron. 1991 is, offstage anyway, an embarrassing hand-held Don’t Look Back imitation covering Sonic Youth on tour in Europe, with then-smaller-fry (Nirvana, etc.) in tow. Onstage it’s the strongest documentation of how hard Sonic Youth can push their own music you can get without breaking the law.

8-9. Quentin Tarantino, director: Reservoir Dogs (Miramax), and Abel Ferrara, director: Bad Lieutenant (Aries Film)
Evidence that pop tunes say far more as part of a film’s soundtrack than in their own videos is all over these movies. In Bad Lieutenant, a dark-night-of-Harvey Keitel’s-soul number that’s about as liberating as a sermon on homosexuality by John Cardinal O’Connor, the only moments that don’t seem like a total crock come when Schoolly D’s “Signifying Rapper” and Johnny Ace’s “Pledging My Love” are playing–with Keitel slow death-dancing to the latter, just as he did almost 20 years before in Mean Streets. In Reservoir Dogs, a truly cruel picture where the shocks in the action hurt the viewer, the most perverse theme has to do with what the characters are listening to and talking about as their dishonor-among-thieves roundelay breaks up: a horrible, kind-of-catchy “Sound of the Seventies” retrospective on the local classic-rock station, with Stephen Wright in a perfect impersonation of what a classic laid-back ’70s DJ would sound like after two decades of Quaaludes. “Stuck in the Middle with You,” by Stealers Wheel, the Village People’s “Y.M.C.A.,” and more, more, to the point where you dread what song might be up next as much as what atrocity you might have to watch, which brings us to–

10. Billy Ray Cyrus: “Achy Breaky Heart (Dance Mix)” (Mercury)
Yes, he might be a walking score in some future edition of Trivial Pursuit, he may never have another mass hit, but he’s not going to be forgotten anymore than the world has yet escaped the specter Debby Boone raised with “You Light Up My Life,” which in 1977 was number one for ten weeks. There is an elemental stupidity in “Achy Breaky Heart,” a phrase so dumb it’s humiliating to say out loud; in the dance mix, over 7 minutes long but it might as well be 17 or 70, with some guy hee-hawing in the background over and over, as if to say “WE FOOLED YOU! AND WE’RE DOING IT AGAIN!,” stupidity becomes a sort of blessedness, a form of pop grace. Like Sheb Wooley (“The Purple People Eater,” number one for six weeks in 1958) or Ross Bagdasarian (as the Chipmunks, with “The Chipmunk Song,” number one for four weeks in that same weird year) before him, for as long as his song lasts–as long as he wants–Billy Ray Cyrus can get away with anything.

Artforum, April 1993

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