Real Life Rock Top 10 (11/4/2002)

1. Sam McGee, “Railroad Blues,” from the anthology Classic Mountain Songs (Smithsonian Folkways)
McGee (1894-1975) played guitar with Uncle Dave Macon in the 1920s, with Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith in the ’30s and ’60s; in this 1964 recording he blows holes through the idea of “country music,” the “breakdown,” the “guitar solo.” Long, thin notes stretch into the air until you think you can’t hear them anymore, but you can; bass strings swoop down to rescue the melody from the silences that are almost left behind. It’s a workout, a cutting contest—but more than anything an acting out of the pioneer spirit, of America as experiment, as, “Hey, there’s always something better over the next hill,” but deep down not really caring if there is or not, not if to get from one place to another you can move like this.

2. Don DeLillo, Belknap Lecture, Princeton University (Oct. 16)
DeLillo read from his forthcoming novel, Cosmopolis, due next spring, about a day in the life of one Eric Packer, a 28-year-old billionaire currency trader. As the book opens he’s in his white limousine, on his way to get a haircut. Refusing to dramatize, letting the words carry the story, DeLillo read quietly, and the result was a dreamlike rhythm. As Dave Hickey says of Chet Baker Sings, there were “no range dynamics, no tempo dynamics, no expressive timbre shifts, no suppression of extant melodics, no harmonic meandering, no virtuoso high-speed scales.” Later there were questions from the audience. “What do you know about being fabulously wealthy?” a woman asked. “I can spell both words,” DeLillo said.

3. “Piss off Ryan Adams, win a prize!” (Oct. 17)
The tale of Ryan Adams’ response to a fan who shouted out for Bryan Adams’ “Summer of ’69″—Adams screaming, demanding the house lights be turned on, identifying the offender, paying him $30 as a refund for his ticket and refusing to play until the guy left the hall—even made it into Time. But not the response of songwriter Robbie Fulks: “Any reader on this site who attends a Ryan Adams show and disrupts the show with a Bryan Adams song request will receive in return merchandise”—T-shirts and autographed CDs—“of his or her choice equal to the cost of the ticket, from my online store… please provide the date and location of the show, what you yelled, and what Ryan’s reaction was.”
4. and 5. 16 Horsepower, “Folklore” (Jetset) and Woven Hand, Woven Hand (Glitterhouse/Germany)
In its best work, as with the 2000 Secret South, the Denver combo 16 Horsepower calls up the specter of itinerant preachers you can’t tell from thieves. It’s scary to believe David Eugene Edwards’ voice—it can be scarier not to. But Folklore lacks all conviction—and no one can get away with sounding bored with a song as good as the Carter Family’s “Single Girl,” let alone with Hank Williams’ “Alone and Forsaken.” Edwards could have been saving it all for his solo project Woven Hand—here, from the first notes, a banjo clattering as if the distant past is rushing forward so fast the future will be defenseless against it, nothing is certain. You understand what it means to wander in the desert, abandoned by God and hating every human face, and you wonder why such a life sounds so rich.

6. Ramsay Midwood, Shoot Out at the OK Chinese Restaurant (Vanguard)
Whether Midwood has a degree in creative writing from Harvard or was born in a graveyard in Alabama, he’s selling weirdo country shtick. But he’s also got Skip Edwards playing organ. “Monster Truck” is going nowhere until a descending wash of sound takes you out of the performance, and suddenly you’re floating down a river on a raft; nothing is happening in “Fisherman’s Friend” until there’s this odd little squeak, and then a new, wordless voice is singing the song, with humor and depth, and a momentum that seems to have come out of a need or a desire nothing in the music has even hinted at is burning off the pose. Strange.

7. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Irving Plaza, New York (Oct. 15)
On their 2001 EP this New York trio was rough, sardonic, pulling an anthem, “Our Time,” out of the ground: “Our time/ To be hated!” singer Karen O chanted. This night, opening for Sleater-Kinney, all they had were gestures, and by the time they got to “Our Time,” the last song, it felt like not even the band believed a word it said.

8. “Ferus,” at Gagosian Gallery, New York (Sept. 12-Oct. 19)
In a celebration of the revolutionary Los Angeles Ferus Gallery, which from 1957 to 1967 showed many of the most surprising works by Wallace Berman, Bruce Conner, Jay DeFeo, Richard Diebenkorn and Ed Keinholz, the most powerful piece was an unusual Andy Warhol “Triple Elvis” from 1963. Back then, Ferus mounted a whole show of Warhol Elvises, using the giant panels to make a labyrinth the visitor had to find a way through. Unlike most “Triple Elvis” works, the one in the Gagosian showed not three separate versions of Elvis from the movie Flaming Star—Elvis in cowboy gear, pointing a gun out at the world, his body hunched, his black-rimmed eyes falling into his face—but only two. On the right side of the piece there was a single, stable image. On the left there was a single image with a shadow breaking out of it, as if the Elvises were shaking, about to come apart. As Elvis’ body separated from itself, the terrified blankness in his eyes was more alive than ever.

9. Chieftains, Down the Old Plank Road: The Nashville Sessions (RCA)
Backing such outsider-country names as Alison Krauss, Lyle Lovett, Martina McBride, Vince Gill, Buddy and Julie Miller, Gillian Welch and Patty Griffin, plus Earl Scruggs, Bela Fleck and John Hiatt, the hallowed Irish quintet leads them through the thickets of such great numbers as Dock Boggs’ “Country Blues” and Uncle Dave Macon’s “Way Down the Old Plank Road,” into a land of such blandness you can barely tell you’re listening, let alone to who or what. It’s an acting out of America as, “Well, whether or not there’s always something better over the next hill, you’re probably better off not knowing.” I blame the Chieftains; no one else here has ever been so dull.

10. Bob Dylan, “Train of Love,” from Kindred Spirits: A Tribute to the Songs of Johnny Cash (Lucky Dog)
Aren’t tribute albums terrible? Dylan almost never does good work on them, but here, surrounded by Dwight Yoakam, Steve Earle (it’s against the law to make a tribute album without him), Travis Tritt, Keb’ Mo’, the unspeakable Hank Williams Jr., Bruce Springsteen, Mary Chapin Carptenter, Sheryl Crow, Emmylou Harris and Rosanne Cash, he gets real, real gone, though not before pausing to wave goodbye: “I used to sing this song before I ever wrote a song,” Dylan says before “Train of Love.” “I also want to thank you for standing up for me, wayback when.” Way back in 1965, onstage at the Newport Folk Festival, where, as the current revisionist line has it, nothing actually happened.

Salon, November 4, 2002

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