Elephant Dancing: Maps (02/08)


New York City, fall 2007. Performing two weeks apart in small clubs in October, the Avengers and Mary Weiss made a kind of epiphany: This country is very small. Appearing at Madison Square Garden nearly dead center between them, then across the country, Bruce Springsteen drew a different map, one of time, not space: This country is very big. In early November at a revue including many of the singers featured in Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There, the film or the soundtrack album, a few people set the map on fire: This country lives on borrowed time. And the New Pornographers, mostly from Canada, and the Mekons, after 30 years now mostly resident in the USA but originally mostly from the U.K., claimed a different country altogether: a place where, despite the past or the future, anything could happen.

In 1964 Mary Weiss of Queens was the lead singer of the Shangri-Las; their most famous hit was “Leader of the Pack.” At Southpaw in Brooklyn on October 12, her straight blonde hair was like a light onstage. She brought a few old songs and inferior new ones, but every tune seemed capable of opening the same well of passion. In 1977 Penelope Houston was 19 with a blonde crew cut, fronting the Avengers in San Francisco. Their best song was “Car Crash,” and it still is; at the Knitting Factory in Manhattan on October 27, with founding Avengers guitarist Greg Ingraham and two younger musicians who played as if they’d been born in the band, it was a shock to realize that “Car Crash,” an almost too-punk celebration of death, and “Leader of the Pack,” a stylized lament for a motorcycle crash, were the same song. “No no no no no no no!” sang the Shangri-Las, horrified that a life could end so soon. “Whoa wo, whoa wo, no no no no no no no sang Penelope Houston, gratified: “Look at you, baby, you lost your head.” It was as if the USA could be found on a single stage.

“Philadelphia (7/4/1776), Gettysburg (11/19/1863), the Moon (7/27/1969), Oakland (10/26/2007).” That was a comment my friend Megan Pugh passed on from her friend Andy Horowitz after Bruce Springsteen’s show at the Oracle Arena in Oakland on October 26. The performance Springsteen is giving now has none of the furiously confined explosiveness of the solo tour that followed the release of his 2005 Devils and Dust. The E Street Band spreads across the stage like a parade, and the music has the same expansiveness: It passes by, and despite a conventional entrance and a comradely final encore you don’t really see it begin, and you don’t quite see it end. The country the show enacts cracks open halfway through. “The Promised Land,” from 1978, tells an American story that is supposed to last forever; one song before, “Livin’ in the Future,” from 2007, tells an American horror story that’s not supposed to happen. The new song is like the bad dream inside the old one, revealing the doubt and fear that was hiding there all along, pushing “The Promised Land” forward, fleeing not the past but the present. In a moment like that, yes, the Declaration of Independence, the Gettysburg Address, the homecoming of the Apollo 11 astronauts, and Springsteen’s show were not only on the same map, they were floats in the same parade.

On November 7 at the Beacon Theatre, for the I’m Not There extravaganza, of the more than twenty acts that addressed themselves to Bob Dylan songs, two stood out. Tiff Merritt has a pleasing voice; when she took up “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” a 1963 song of America as a wasteland, it was the very blandness of the performance that revealed the magnificence of the song. Instead of dramatizing the song, she let its drama emerge. She was ordinary; the song made the ordinary heroic. The Roots, comprised this night of singer and guitarist Captain Kirk Douglas, drummer Questlove, and sousaphonist Damon “Tuba Gooding Jr.” Bryson, who looked as if he had an elephant wrapped around his neck, began “Masters of War” as “The Star-Spangled Banner.” As Douglas rose to the end of the second stanza, you could imagine that no one has ever hit that “land of the free” note–here, “and you turn and run faaarrrr“–so right. And then it went on, and on, into a stair-climbing rhythm, with an instrumental break before the final two lines of the following verses, until the song seemed to take in the whole country, all of its history, all of its wars, from its time to ours, as if our time was a black hole and there was no way out.

Seated in a half circle at the Gramercy (now the Blender Theater at Gramercy) in Manhattan on October 3, celebrating 30 years as a band, the Mekons took the form of a minstrel show about an old marriage; there was bickering, old scores that could never be settled, and there was, as in their last song, “Wild and Blue,” a hint that it is only perseverance, and the years to make it count, that sets the voice free. That free voice was the trea­sure offered by the New Pornographers. A woman who attended their October 25 show at Webster Hall in Manhattan wrote on the blog Battle of the Midwestern Housewives: “I think I could live the rest of my life in the moments they played ‘The Laws Have Changed.'” I came away telling friends the show had restored my faith in humanity. The New Pornographers know the trick of high voices: Pitched right, and at the racing pace they favor, they can, on their best nights, make everything seem in doubt, every stand worth making, every chance worth taking. This was their best night. That means the best may now be in the past, or that the map of the country remains to be filled in.

Interview, February 2008


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