A young Californian who sings and plays as someone who’s crawled out of the Virginia mountains carrying familiar songs that in his hands sound forgotten: broken lines, a dissonant drone, the fiddle or the banjo all percussion, every rising moment louder than the one before it.
2. There’ll Always Be an England: Sex Pistols Live from Brixton Academy with The Knowledge of London: A Sex Pistols Psychogeography, directed by Julien Temple (Rhino/Freemantle DVD)
At the show, from 2007, there seems to be almost as much footage of the audience as of the band, and what’s odd, if you’ve been anywhere recently where fame is on the stage, is that you see almost no one holding up a cell-phone camera, taking a picture of an event instead of living it out, even if a thirtieth anniversary show is a picture of another show before it is anything else. Instead, people are shouting, jumping up and down, shoving, and most of all singing their heads off. Johnny Rotten, Steve Jones, Paul Cook, and Glen Matlock (“You’re a lucky cunt,” Rotten says near the end, “because this is the best band in the world”) find moments they might not have found before. The old British tourist song “Beside the Seaside” is sung in full as a lead-in to “Holidays in the Sun”; in the fiercest passages of “God Save the Queen” and “Bodies” a true dada vortex opens up as words lose their meanings and seem capable of generating entirely new ones. But the real fun is in the “psychogeography” (“The study of the specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals”—Internationale Situationniste #1, June 1958), which is the band minus Rotten taking us on a tour of its old haunts. Cook and Matlock look the same as they did in 1976, merely older, but Jones is unrecognizable. Onstage he looks like one of his own bodyguards; here, wrapped in a heavy coat, with dark glasses and a cap pulled down, he could be a mob boss or merely a thug with money in his pocket. The three are touring SoHo, checking the hooker ads in doorways. (Jones goes up, comes down: “That was great! But she made me wear a johnny.”) “It’s like a fuckin’ Dickens novel,” Jones says, surveying the sex shops, the dubious hotels, the strip clubs they once played (the El Paradiso, they remember, was so filthy they cleaned the place themselves). “I feel like a bucket of piss is going to come flying out the window.” They visit pubs, search for old performance spaces (“Do you know where Notre Dame Hall is? The Sex Pistols did a show there—ever heard of the Sex Pistols?”), and like spelunkers they navigate dank hallways until they reach their old rehearsal space and crash pad off Denmark Street. Rotten’s caricatures of the band members are still on the walls, plus “Nanny Spunger” (Sid Vicious’s Nancy Spungeon) and “Muggerade” (manager Malcolm McLaren by way of Malcolm Muggeridge). And there is the outline of a manifesto, words running down a wall:
END DEPT ILL
“This is where we began to take it seriously,” Glen Matlock says. “If there was half an idea floating around, we was in a position to do something about it.”
3. Tom Perrotta, Bad Haircut: Stories of the Seventies (Berkley, 1994)
Perrotta’s ongoing chronicle of men and women moving through the last decades (Election, Joe College, Little Children, The Abstinence Teacher) is no secret. But until a few months ago I’d completely missed this first book, a collection of stories following one Buddy, of Darwin, New Jersey, from Cub Scouts to the summer after his first year in college. There doesn’t seem to be a moment Perrotta doesn’t get right, or more than right: “On Friday, Mike was holding hands with Jane. On Monday he had his arm around a hot sophomore named Sally Untermeyer, while Jane drifted through the halls, looking like she’d just donated several pints of blood.”
4. Ty Segall (Castle Face)
Away from the San Francisco punk combo the Traditional Fools, Segall dives into one-man-band bedroom classicism. Very mid-’60s—with the Seeds, the Standells, and Bo Diddley smiling down from the walls—until “Oh Mary,” a leap into the crazed under growth of the ’50s, where you never knew what you’d find when you turned over a rock: most likely some guy screaming about “Oh Mary” while chasing a beat as if it’s a snake and he’s on a horse.
5. Eugene Carrière, Two Women (Minneapolis Institute of Art, Minneapolis)
Though the painting is from the late nineteenth century, the mood is shockingly modern—a picture where the present is already the past. In a portrait that calls up Margarethe von Trotta’s Marianne and Juliane, about two sisters, a ghostlike face hovers over the shoulder of a woman in a red dress holding her chin in her hand, her eyes looking off to the right, into the future, toward death. This is a picture of a woman thinking—and the feeling is that by some chance the painter has caught something that has never happened before.
6. Serena Ryder, “Sweeping the Ashes,” from is it o.k. (Atlantic)
A twenty-five-year-old from Peterborough, Ontario, Ryder presses hard, and over a whole album the feeling can go soft. But this is the first track; it hasn’t yet worked as a warning a listener might take to the rest of her songs, and so a simple angry love song rises up like an epic. The tie to ordinary life is never cut—not with a banjo running the rhythm—but all Ryder has to do is take a deep breath to open up the song, to blow the clothes off the floor of her bedroom and reveal how much territory the performance actually claims. If you heard this on the radio you might come away feeling bigger, stronger, defiant.
7/8. TV Smith, In the Arms of My Enemy (Boss Tuneage), and Jamie Palmer, video for “Clone Town”
In 1978, Smith led his band through the perfect London punk album, Crossing the Red Sea with the Adverts: the sleeve showed the title on a billboard and the ugliest public housing in the city behind it. Now he looks like someone you’d cross the street to avoid, old, beaten down, muttering to himself, consumed by his own fury. “Clone Town” isn’t even Smith’s best new song, but it presents the character he’s made fully: a crank, unwilling to keep his mouth shut, the man with the bad news, even if that makes him someone you’d cross the street to avoid. “You don’t really want to know how they get those prices so low!” he sings in a battering closing refrain, the phrase taking on another exclamation point with every repetition—but you do, you do.
9/10. Lawrence Frascella and Al Weisel, Live Fast, Die Young—The Wild Ride of Making Rebel Without a Cause (Touchstone, 2005) and Rebel Without a Cause, directed by Nicholas Ray (Warner Bros., 1955)
Even without a single distinctive sentence—note the tripping-over-its-own-feet syntax of the subtitle—this book is irresistible. With all of the principals other than writer Stewart Stern dead—James Dean (1955), Sal Mineo (1976), Ray (1979), Natalie Wood (1981), a wipeout, as if Dean came back in that Porsche Spyder to get them—Frascella and Weisel rely mostly on actors who in the film played gang members (Corey Allen, Frank Mazzola, Steffi Sidney, Beverly Long, Dennis Hopper) to reconstruct it. But because the movie changed the way the world looked, how it felt, they only have to apply a bit of pressure to a tiny matter—the sixteen-year-old Woods’s simultaneous affairs with Ray (on his urging) and Hopper (on hers), the fate of Dean’s red jacket—to find their own drama. Today the gravity in the picture belongs wholly to Dean, and the gravity is a matter of an intellectual energy so bright the man carrying it seems constantly on the verge of bursting into flames.
The Believer, February 2009