From Brooklyn, this set of nihilist love letters—originally released independently in 2001—keeps company with Van Morrison’sAstral Weeks, Denis Johnson’s novel Jesus’ Son, Sarah McLachlan’s “Sweet Surrender,” and the old American ballads in which the singer narrates his or her own death. In a clear, sweet, altogether assured voice, Sally Ellyson sings Dan Messé’s songs of abasement and ruin less as if she’s looking back on folly than helplessly anticipating it. Violin, viola, cello, and piano carry her into the songs like a stream carrying a piece of wood—there’s no will here, no struggle, not even a wave as again and again the people in these tunes go down, somehow rising to the surface every time.
2. Richard Powers, The Time of Our Singing (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux)
“Maybe it could work after all, this act of total madness,” thinks a young black woman in her parents’ home in Philadelphia in 1939; to their horror, she is about to marry the German-Jewish refugee physicist she met in the crowd at Marian Anderson’s historic concert at the Lincoln Memorial that same year, arranged by Eleanor Roosevelt after the Daughters of the American Revolution barred the black contralto from their Constitution Hall. “Maybe they could make an America more American than the one the country has for centuries lied to itself about being.” The Time of Our Singing is the story of these two people and their three children—the tale of the evanescent success and crushing defeat of the America the parents want by the America they mean to transcend—and the most ambitious and fully realized novel I’ve read since Philip Roth’s American Pastoral. After Powers’s last several novels—increasingly airless, didactic tracts about science and social wrongs—it’s a shock.
3. Pearl Jam with Corin Tucker, “Hunger Strike,” Sports Palace (Mexico City, July 18)
Eddie Vedder leads, and then Tucker subsumes him. As she pushes the words of the old Temple of the Dog number in front of her in a deep, thick voice, the performance finds its feet somewhere between Guns N’ Roses’ “Civil War” and Robert Plant and Sandy Denny’s duet on Led Zeppelin’s “Battle of Evermore.”
4. “John F. Kennedy Jr.’s Life Was Cut Short Four Years Ago in a Plane Crash. What If He Had Lived?” (headlines for a cover story by Edward Klein, Parade, July 13)
The bad faith, the lies, the corruption—all of it would be gone, of course.
5. Fleetwood Mac, Oakland Coliseum Arena (Oakland, July 23)
They’ll never escape Rumours, but new songs didn’t sound new or old. “What’s the World Coming To” brought the night to life; “Say You Will” sealed it. The words are trite, it’ll make millions when it’s franchised, and the chorus is a whirlpool, pulling you in. “Someone once said, ‘When love is gone, there’s always justice, and when justice is gone, there’s always force,'” Lindsey Buckingham said, introducing “Peacekeeper,” which comes off as a middle-of-the-night meditation on the Iraq war. I don’t think Laurie Anderson is going to mind his turning “O Superman” into folk wisdom.
6. “The Pinko Behind Little Richard”—or Your Freedom of Information Act at Work (e-mail from Dave Marsh, July 21)
Bumps Blackwell (1918-85) was a founder of rock ‘n’ roll. He produced Sam Cooke’s early pop records, Guitar Slim, Lloyd Price, Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti”; co-wrote “Reddy Teddy,” “Rip It Up,” and “Long Tall Sally”; in 1981 he co-produced Bob Dylan’s Shot of Love. Dave Marsh writes: “His FBI file identifies him as a member of the Young Communist League in Seattle c. 1943. He joined because he was fired from the Seattle Tacoma Shipyards on the grounds that he was a Negro; in essence, the Communist Party got him his job back: the campaign included a benefit dance called ‘Jibe Bombers Swing into the Second Front Stomp.’ ‘On Blackwell’s return to his job,’ the file reads, ‘many white young workers personally approached him expressing their support and welcoming him back to his job.’ Blackwell was already a musician and is further alleged to have been attending CP ‘hootenannies…'”
7. Warren Zevon,The Wind(Artemis)
Last fall it was announced that Zevon had been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Nothing on the old rounder’s putative farewell album can erase his version of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” which is not a joke.
8/9. Jeff Bridges in Masked and Anonymous, directed by Larry Charles (Sony Classics) and Masked and Anonymous—Music from the Motion Picture (Columbia)
Bridges’s rock critic Tom Friend is trying to get an interview with Bob Dylan’s half-forgotten troubadour Jack Fate. Looming over Dylan like a rain cloud, Bridges has a list of questions but instead of asking them spins his own theories of what it all means without letting Dylan get a word in—except that the words coming out of Bridges’s mouth are words Dylan wrote: Woodstock, man. You weren’t there, were you? I was there. Hendrix, man, what he did. The mechanics. What he did to ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’ Was that treason? I don’t think so. You could hear the tears in every note: ‘Love me, love me, I am a native son.’ He was reaching back to his Founding Fathers. To the Pilgrims… Dylan stares at him and turns away, but what happens to Dylan’s own music in the film—with, say, Articolo 31’s “Come una pietra scalciata,” an Italian cut-up that’s no less violent or loving a treatment of “Like a Rolling Stone” than Hendrix’s version of the national anthem—is what happens here, what nearly all of the characters in the film are trying to do: In an America that has collapsed into dictatorship and racketeering, to connect with a way of life that has gone into the past, that no longer makes any sense.
10. Summer travel tips (e-mail, July 22)
Michele Anna Jordan writes from Dallas: “The back of the ticket to the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealy Plaza offers $2 off your purchase of $15 or more at the Spaghetti Warehouse on North Market St.”
City Pages, August 6, 2003