Once upon a time Neil Young and a trio named Crazy Horse cut a tune called “Cowgirl in the Sand,” three verses serving as on excuse for three guitar breaks. On the first of those, Young made four stabs at a leading theme. He tried it as flamenco, screech, fuzz-tone; finally he gave up and played scales. Only second guitarist Danny Whitten, playing around the beat, held the sound together. Then Young sang the next verse and came off it so fast the expectations a listener brought to the second break never had a chance. With bassist Billy Talbot and drummer Ralph Molina pushing the rhythm and Whitten somehow anticipating the explosions going off in Young’s heart, the music changed into something there’s no word for: by split seconds it grew bigger, too big, blew away the room. That was in 1969; Whitten died in 1972 of a heroin overdose, his place taken by Frank Sampedro. The other difference is that this time Young gets it all on his first try.
2. Memphis Slim, Big Bill Broonzy, and Sonny Boy Williamson, as recorded by Alan Lomax: Blues in the Mississippi Night (Rykodisc CD with transcript)
In 1946 three black men sat in a small studio with a folklorist and described and sang their music. Their subjects were peonage, violence, white supremacy, and death. The language they spoke summoned up an ancient world that promised mostly it would never change: mentioning a holster, Memphis Slim (Peter Chatman, 1915-88) referred to it as scabbard. The men were certain their families would be killed if their talk were made public, and when the session was released, in the late ’50s, their names stayed missing. Now it’s history—meaning not that you can forget about it, but that once you’ve heard it you cannot.3. Simon Reynolds, Blissed Out—The Raptures of Rock (Serpent’s Toil, $15.95)
Drunk on good French wine (mouth-filling Bataille red, astringent Kristeva white), a self-described “acolyte of obliteration” and “sucker-ass liberal” claims the pop present of A. R. Kane and Metallica over what anyone else cares to make of its past or future. “‘Bliss’ and ‘noise’ are the some thing,” this young British critic insists, as he grasps contradictions with both hands: “To embrace both decency and pop… to be a socialist by day and a hip hopper by night after a hard day’s campaigning, are quite feasible options, but only in a rotten, free-market society such as our own.” Thus Reynolds’ credo, “Pop or a better world. The choice Is yours!”—a good joke when he first flips it at you, a true riddle by the time you close his book.
4. Danzig, Danzig (Def American)
What might happen if Jim Morrison reappeared fronting a mean, very efficient hard rock band: all those years in the grave would have turned his psychedelic shamanism into satanism, at least as a convincing career move. They would have also left him more ordinary, more passionate, and shameless, finally ready to admit how much he admires Gene Pitney.5. Bob Dylan, “10,000 Men,” from Under the Red Sky (Columbia)
His voice seems to drift away from him, all the way back to the way he sang “Trail of the Buffalo” 29 years ago, which may be where he left it.6. Sidra Stich, curator, “Anxious Visions—Surrealist Art” (University Art Museum, Berkeley)
Stressing the realism in Surrealism, arguing for its objects as versions of experience directly lived—the cataclysm of World War I and the chaos of the next two decades—the show uses blowups of contemporaneous news photos as a frame. Most striking is “The Union of Bashed Faces,” two formally dressed, hideously disfigured Trade veterans: “what,” Stich says, “the surrealists saw when they walked down the street” (and what, had this show been up 12 years ago, we would have seen—on punk flyers). Reflected off this item, the likes of Dora Marr’s uncanny photograph Pere Ubu (1936: a fetal armadillo that looks a thousand years old) don’t seem precious, or in any manner fantastic. They seem most of all unfrivolous.
7. Boogie Down Productions, Edutainment (RCA)
Hip-hop as lecture, thin and echoing—a great lecture, sometimes, as with “Love’s Gonna Get ‘Cha (Material Love),” a dope-dealer parable that with its tinny toy-Uzi sound effects falls not far short of the empathy and fright of Graadmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message.”
8. Anonymous, Fascist—“Life Affirmation” issue (c/o Hungry Mind Books, 1648 Greed Ave., Saint Paul, MN 55105, free)
A Xeroxed collage journal, highlighted by an Archie comic with new speech balloons, wherein mellorist Veronica and CIA plant Archie outpoint commie dupe Betty in a dispute over Gramsci’s concept of hegemony, then call for violins to be dubbed in on every Replacements LP.
9. SPOC, “I Fought the Law” (wedding in Corruna, MI, 21 September, as reported by the AP)
The groom was a major drug buyer fronting for a crime boss, or so the guests, all of them dealers, had been led to believe; when the band—COPS spelled backward—broke into the old Bobby Fuller Four hit, the bride pulled a gun from under her gown, and she and the rest of the wedding party busted everybody else. Whether it was a fitting homage to Fuller may depend on whether you believe his death in 1966 was due to accidental asphyxiation or, as rumor had it, gasoline poured down his throat.
10. Great Balls of Fire Inc., Nampa, ID: Great Balls of Fire© (about $2.50 at food stores)
Strike a match to one of these little gray spheres (six per box) and your charcoal or firewood starts up slow and steady, no flare, no smell. In a year or so they’ll have figured out how to make the things play the song while they burn.
Artforum, December 1990