“I’m Lesley Gore,” says the sixty-six-year-old onetime pop star, “and I approve this message.” It’s powerful to see dozens of women and girls lip-synching to the song that, so long after its moment on the charts (produced by Quincy Jones, #2 in 1964), has become such a touchstone—here, for abortion rights. As there is in the final-judgment almost–Law & Order bang! bang! of the music, there’s a sense of menace in the pacing of the quick but somehow hesitating cuts from one woman, duo, or trio to the next—directed by Sarah Sophie Flicker and Maximilla Lukacs, the little movie has the feel of Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. With the men in the “Top Comments” section hitting back (“Who would want to make love to the unlovable women hating men that open their big yaps on here?”), the spot, which is sure to be back, or remade, for all foreseeable elections to come, was an election in and of itself.
2. Corner Laughers, “(Now That I Have You I’m) Bored” from Poppy Seeds (Mystery Lawn Music)
Led by singer and ukulele player Karla Kane, this San Francisco combo has its feet in the pool of the Smiley Smile Beach Boys—the supposedly throwaway music (“Vegetables,” “She’s Goin’ Bald”) they made after they gave up on Brian Wilson’s Smile masterpiece. It’s sometimes sun-blindingly bright, never less than sweet. It may not wear any better than the singles of another San Francisco band, the long-forgotten Sopwith Camel of “Hello, Hello” fame. But for bringing new life to the dying art of parenthetical titling, this song would make my chart anyway.
3. Brokeback, Brokeback and the Black Rock (Thrill Jockey)
Douglas McCombs is focusing the textures of Tortoise, his better-known band, into something close to pure concept, but a concept so formally open there’s never a feeling of aesthetic claustrophobia. In other words, after the opening track, the harsh “Will Be Arriving,” this slips away into desert surf music, all guitars and reverb, a fantasy soundtrack to Kill Bill: Vol. 3—or, if Quentin Tarantino ever finishes it, who knows, the real thing. It’s slow, relentless, unforgiving, all landscape and bad weather—music so quietly grand it hardly needs the puny figures acting out the plot.
4. Andrew Loog Oldham Presents the Rolling Stones ‘Charlie Is My Darling—Ireland 1965,’ directed by Peter Whitehead (ABKCO Films)
An expanded version of a film that played briefly as a short and then went on the shelf—and though the concert footage can be hot (especially an ugly, onstage fans’ riot for “I’m Alright”) and the interviews with smiling girls and dour boys sometimes odd (“Did you enjoy it?” then-manager Oldham asks one. “No,” he says, as if he was determined not to, “the screaming was a bit much.” “In the next house we’ll turn the screaming off,” Oldham promises), the real action is backstage. After talking throughout about his discovery of the fallacy of the supposed ephemerality of pop music, Mick Jagger takes the long view: “In the last two or three years, young people have been—this especially applies to America—instead of just carrying on the way their parents told them to, they’ve started a big thing, where they’re anti-war, and they love everybody, and their sexual lives have become freer. The kids are looking for something else, or some different moral value, because they know they’re going to get all the things that were thought impossible fifty years ago. The whole sort of basis of society and values which were accepted could be changed, but it’s up to them to carry on those ideals that they have, instead of just falling into the same old routine their parents have fallen into. So it’s not until the people of twenty-one now reach the age of seventy-five—those kids actually have to be grandfathers before the whole thing is changed.” In a way, he and Keith Richards take an even longer view when in a hotel room they start working their way back through “Tell Me,” a song from their first album that I once read was “doowop trash.” It is doo-wop—elsewhere, they fool around with deep-voiced pseudo-Elvis versions of “Santa Bring My Baby Back to Me” and “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” (“This number has been for me,” Jagger says for the narration in the middle, “maybe what your father and mother were to you.”) But here, with Oldham keeping time by patting his hands on a nightstand, the echoes Richards is fingering out of his acoustic guitar are dark-hollow folk chords, taking the progression of the song—a step-by-step build toward a declaration of love declaimed from a balcony—into a stumble through the sublime, as if the song were not made but found.
5/6. Corin Tucker Band, Mercury Lounge (New York, September 27, 2012) and Public Image Ltd. at the Hammerstein Ballroom (New York, October 13, 2012)
Tucker came onstage featuring Veronica Lake’s peekaboo hairstyle, her blond hair draped over one eye. It’s an easy look to copy; given how strong Lake was on screen from 1942, in Sullivan’s Travels, to 1946, in The Blue Dahlia, it’s a lot harder to live up to. With bassist Dave Depper, guitarist Seth Lorinczi (he and Tucker traded leads, he with feedback and shredding, she with the more lyrical lines), and drummer Sara Lund, a marvel on oo-oo-oos, behind her, Tucker pulled no punches, and one eye was all she ever showed.
John Lydon, too, called up an icon from another era. Early on came “Albatross” (from 1979, about “the spirit of ’68”) and “One Drop” (from 2012, a fifty-six-year-old man declaring, “We are teenagers… We are the last chance, we are the last dance”), both staggeringly fierce, one the tale of someone fighting his way through a miasma as thick as quicksand, the next a triumphant refusal ever to give up, both two sides of the same theme: how do you get out from under the shadow of the past and make your own history? Lydon’s singing style is close to speechifying: chanting, exhorting, warning. I was thrown by a familiarity in his manner I couldn’t immediately fix—but halfway into “One Drop,” it fell into place. The intentionally pompous expressions, in a face tilted up, the facial muscles seemingly locked into place, until for a crescendo they were twisting into an expression of anguish and challenge; the harsh, bleating tone; the flat palms held inches apart, just below the neck—those were all elements of Adolf Hitler’s speaking style. With all of it put together, as it was this night, it was more than a style. It was a way of drawing on the collective unconscious of the West to get songs about history across.
7. A history walk in Little Rock, Arkansas (September 25, 2012)
In the Clinton Library, from a hallway away from the gallery noting Hillary Clinton’s mother’s crush on Keith Richards, there was a waft from another gallery of the 1992 victory speech on the steps of the state capitol: that line about “the mystery of our democracy.” Far down the street, after President Clinton Avenue turned back into Markham Street, just across from the capitol, there was a plaque on a stand, FREEDOM RIDERS IN LITTLE ROCK: “On 10 July 1961 five Freedom Riders from the St. Louis Branch of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE)—Benjamin Elton Cox, Annie Lumpkin, Bliss Ann Malone, John Curtis Raines and Janet Reinitz—arrived at the Mid-West Trailways bus station at Markham and Louisiana Streets. A crowd of between 300 and 400 people watched as they were arrested. The Riders were later released from jail and continued their journey to New Orleans. The Freedom Rides led to the desegregation of bus terminals in Little Rock and other cities by order of the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) on 1 November 1961.”
Heading toward the Clinton Library again, one would have passed the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, with a banner announcing a new exhibition: The Civil War in Arkansas—Invasion or Liberation? On the next block there was another plaque, this one commemorating the 1880s site of the Concordia Association, a social club for Jews, part of Little Rock since 1830, but barred from all other city clubs and citizens’ groups. And then at 511 Clinton Avenue there was the Flying Fish Restaurant, where, had it existed in 1961, black people would not have been allowed. Painted on a window was a quote from “Fishing Blues,” a signature song for Henry “Ragtime Texas” Thomas (1874–1950?). When in 1952 Harry Smith compiled his epochal Anthology of American Folk Music, he made it the last number, the last word. As Thomas recorded it in 1928, it featured the most joyous panpipe playing since the devil put it down, and the most salacious lines in American blues: “Any fish bite if you got good bait.” Presented as the wisdom of the ages, an absolute truth.
8. Ralf Paulsen, “Tom Dooley,” in La Paloma (YouTube)
In 1958, the Kingston Trio made the post–Civil War murder ballad “Tom Dooley” an international hit and the Army stationed Pvt. Elvis Presley in West Germany; a year later future West German cowboy actor Ralf Paulsen appeared in this strange movie. Dressed as a GI, with a high Elvis pompadour, seated in a nightclub with two Army buddies, he begins to sing in English, somewhat haltingly, in a dank, somber tone: “Hang down your head Tom/Dooley, hang down your head…” The old waiters stare at them. They rise from their table, still singing, staring back at the waiters and the other patrons, staring at the musicians in the nightclub band who are trying to pick up the tune, all of them—it’s plain—old Nazis, now confronted with their American liberators—or avengers. The three GIs go through the door, closing it behind them, singing, “Poor boy, you’re bound to…” and then Paulsen opens the door, sticks his head through, straight at the old man on the other side, pushing the last word of the song right into his face: “…die.” Shot when Elvis, in uniform, was hanging out in West German nightclubs, resisting the constant calls from other patrons that he get up and sing, Paulsen’s scene plays as the most outrageous fantasy of what might have happened if Elvis had done just that—the killer Tom Dooley, in the person of another Southern boy, back from the dead to lay his curse.
9. Iris Dement, Sing the Delta (Flariella)
Country, oldtime, quiet, unassuming, all home truths. With one sting after another.
10. Second favorite election film (once removed): Jeremy W. Peters, “Strident Anti-Obama Messages Flood Key States” (New York Times, October 23)
On Dreams from My Real Father, a DVD purporting to prove that Barack Obama’s actual father was an American Communist Party activist and that his mother posed nude for a bondage magazine: “The film is the work of Joel Gilbert, whose previous claims include having tracked down Elvis Presley in the Witness Protection Program and discovering that Paul McCartney is in fact dead.”
Thanks to Virginia Dellenbaugh.
The Believer, January 2013