Tag Archives: Greil Marcus

“Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus:Writings, 1968-2010” by Greil Marcus

by Carl Wilson

It’s such a plain-spoken title at first glance. At second glance it’s kind of audacious: Greil Marcus as the author of “Bob Dylan.” If there’s anyone who’s never had any author but himself it’s got to be Dylan.  And yet part of what makes Dylan Dylan – which is to say not just an artist but one whose life in and out of music makes him an unusually resonant avatar of the Human – is that he’s always erasing his own authorship, revealing that it is thieved and disguised, something that happened to Robert Zimmerman as much as something he did and made.

(That’s even true about his recent self-Chronicles-ing phase – an autobiography? a semi-official bio-pic? a radio show? This Rear-View Mirror facet of his kaleidoscope is as disorienting as any other; his explanations conceal as much as they unveil.)

So what Marcus does with his title is a little bit like what Bob Wiseman did when he announced that he would take the name Prince after Prince changed his name to

– that is, appropriating the shroud of the self-murdered author.

Marcus probably has more of a claim than anyone else to do so: These 450 pages and the two other books he’s written about Dylan (one about The Basement Tapes and the Harry Smith folk-music anthology, and one about “Like a Rolling Stone”) probably contain half of the most essential writing about Dylan, although The Old, Weird America is Marcus’s weakest Important Book. (There are 3: Mystery Train, Lipstick Traces and Invisible Republic, which became TO,WA in its second edition, to play up its most memorable and also unfortunate phrase and its tendency to exoticize and freak-show-ize rural  America – as if all the other Americas weren’t equally weird).

He says being a Dylan fan is what made him a writer. And while he’s hardly alone in that, Marcus was by age, demographic and inclination kind of ideally placed to make a life as a Dylan interpreter. He first saw Dylan at a Joan Baez concert in New Jersey in 1963 (Baez was from Marcus’s own California hometown, Menlo Park); he went up to Dylan afterwards to gush, to which Dylan replied that he’d been “shit.” Marcus also went to Berkeley during the Free Speech Movement, as he memorably recaptures in Lipstick Traces – a far more deeply Dylanesque political movement, in its rhetoric and aims, than the Civil Rights struggle Dylan is more commonly linked to. And Marcus came of age writing for Rolling Stone and other publications right at the point that Dylan was entering his long, perplexing middle period – a time when there was a lot for a critic to grapple with. Indeed, after the intro, the book opens with Marcus’s famous review of 1970’s Self-Portrait, which begins, “What is this shit?”

(I should acknowledge here that Marcus is also part of what made me a critic: Reading Lipstick Traces  at age 20 revealed that this could be an art form as much as any other – made it seem like a viable alternative for someone who wanted to be a playwright or a poet, and introduced me to a bunch of ideas and figures – especially Raoul Vaneigem, Guy Debord and the Lettrists and Situationist International – in an accessible and compelling way. People mistake it as saying that the Sex Pistols are the summit of that history, but I took it to be saying that the punk imagination has been a parallel presence, an unofficial opposition, throughout the course of so-called civilization. Hell, even its hyperbolic flaws were liberating.)

This book also makes it clear how much Marcus is the ghostwriter behind Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There, which has to be the best piece of Dylan analysis ever invented, much less as a feature film. It’s not just that the Richard Gere, Woodstock-era section of the film is almost a literal transcription of Marcus in Invisible Republic/TO,WA. It’s that Haynes’s Dylan is Marcus’s Dylan – it shares his sense of Dylan’s multiplicity (in the movie Dylan is played by a half-dozen different actors in contradictory stories) and Marcus’s central idea that it’s the voice, both literal and figurative, of Dylan that is really the crux of his art and his mattering.

Voice is what ties together Heath Ledger and Cate Blanchett and Christian Bale and the little black kid and the hip young “Rimbaud”-pretender and Richard Gere, even as their physical affect is wildly contrasting. It’s the “wild mercury sound” streaming through all his incarnations: “It’s the ability to bring the whole world into focus with the dramatization of a single syllable.” Marcus, more than any other critic, attended to that as it happened, and detached himself from tiresome debates about poetry and morality in other critics’ cant. His careful observation and ear for effect is why he’s the one you read to understand what’s going on in a live Dylan show when you don’t recognize a note.

One of the finest moments is Marcus’s review/DVD notes for I’m Not There, in which he confesses that the movie helped him understand the parts of Dylan’s career he never could get on his own – because he lived through them as a fan in a way Gen X-aged Haynes didn’t. It’s a ballsy admission for the self-appointed Dylan Expert. Here are his two blind spots:

1: The Born-Again Xtian phase, through which we’ve seen Marcus suffer, not at all gladly, in this book’s earlier pages. In the film, he sees that Dylan just wanted to be someplace where he could be the audience and not the star – that place was in supplication to Jesus, the only bigger star he could find (what, was he supposed to become a Led Zeppelin groupie?). In fundamentalist Christianity, earthly repute does nothing to redeem your sins. And we can only imagine how much Dylan felt like a sinner in 1978.

(I sympathize here – in my youthful Dylan-collecting enthusiasm, I was taken aback by those albums, only later hearing a gospel album of Dylan covers that made me realize how powerful they could be if you were not arguing with them but just appreciating them as hymns. Still, Marcus is not the person to go to when you want to consider Dylan’s engagement with religious musics and traditions, much less his Jewish heritage. Generationally and culturally, Marcus is never going to find those things cool.)

2: The “going electric” battles, because he had very little attachment to Dylan the folkie-propagandist. (It gets tiresome how many times he claims “Blowing in the Wind” is a bad song or “Mole in the Ground” is  a great one, but in 40 years of pieces on related subjects, you’re going to get some repeated tropes and bugbears.) Marcus was from California, so when Dylan played rock, he just thought, “Finally.” He never got what the Newport thing was about, which is the “secret community” Dylan waxes nostalgic about in a later interview – crying crocodile tears over the lost Eden he deliberately and methodically destroyed.

In Haynes’s recreation, Dylan was repudiating anyone who dared to attach to him – just as he’d later do to his rock fans, including Marcus. (“What is this shit?”) Marcus says of the loudness in the movie scene: “It’s an assault: from both sides… in the theater, it’s shocking, or even evil. I could imagine myself in the crowd, and I realized I had no idea how I would have responded.” It doesn’t mean that the folkies weren’t ultimately foolish, but it also doesn’t mean Dylan was innocent of his provocation.

All that said, if you’re mainly a Dylan fan and not a Marcus fan, the book will get tiresome. Even I don’t need to read every Dylan review Marcus ever wrote, especially when he’s beating his brains out over Planet Waves for pages on end but giving us only a brief rave for Blood on the Tracks. Still it’s interesting to watch him list back and forth on the question of authenticity, using it as a whip in the 1970s and then as a whipping boy in the 2000s – it’s admirable that he doesn’t strip out his outmoded thoughts in the reprint. And I sure do envy his collection of bootlegs.

On Dylan’s output of the past decade, there’s probably no one better. Marcus’s arcade of quotations reflecting on Sept. 11, 2001, for the NY Times Magazine – Dylan’s 9/11-released “High Water (Everywhere)” chief among them – was a daring move. I’m not sure if it worked, but I’m glad to have it between hard covers.

His tangentially Dylan-related meditations on Barack Obama’s election are a less-graceful postscript. It’s as if a baby boomer cannot cap a collection of 40 years of work without such a lunge for historical significance. Of course the Dylan-Obama connection is mandated to be about race – Marcus notes, movingly, that “Blowin in the Wind” was melodically derived from an anti-slavery song called “No More Auction Block,” and I’m grateful for the information.

But to me what Obama really inherits and incarnates is Dylan’s take on American identity – the high mercury sound of a selfhood that can’t be pinned to a board, classified in a census, confined by a community. That’s what Obama’s opponents use against him: This idea that he’s a deceiver, a double-agent, a trickster. It’s a central conflict in American life, in the democratic phantasy – do we have a duty to be transparently who we are, or a freedom to become whoever we can dream, or whatever? It’s clear where the party of Dylan stands – he’s the president of the republic in which you can be a toaster, a bull, Pocahontas or Marlon Brando and all four of you get a vote. And Obama’s a citizen of that many-headed Hydraland too.

(It’s the North American way, but America’s fundamental distrust of that liberty, its nostalgia for a fixedness that doesn’t exist here, but did in the places all our families once came from, is as much a part of the continent’s double-helix as any other strand. And part of the DNA of late capitalism, of course, in a way that hatchets as much as it heals.)

Between Baez and Barack, though, there are a lot of highlights: On Marcus’s visit to Dylan’s Hibbing, Minnesota, high school, it turns out to be a freak school, a gleaming educational palace – the most impressive public building he’s seen outside Washington, D.C., he says. This is a journalistic coup from a writer who seldom functions as a journalist.

And of course Marcus shows off his facility as a close reader of songs, an art at which he’s really an Olympian, when he burrows down into “Visions of Johanna,” analyzes “Desolation Row” as a musical cognate to Belgian artist James Ensor‘s “Christ Entering Brussels,” or explains why “Masters of War” is the best-worst protest song ever written and how its course through the world, from wacky celebrity moments to a high-school banned-band scandal, reflects that double identity.

Unfortunately Marcus retains the stylistic tic that drives many readers crazy: his tendency to describe every song as a place where dead voices rise from the grave and cosmic worlds collide – his take on the early-rock-crit desire to elevate the form with rhetoric (a defensive impulse) and to aim for the transcendent the same way ’60s and ’70s music did, with the same danger of getting overblown. A friend recently described it as “Ecstatic Cultural Studies,” and if that brings to mind the image of a perpetual nerdgasm, you can see what’s distasteful. Too often in Marcus’s canon, a great song “sounds like nothing you’ve ever heard,” and with every repetition that claim gets a little flimsier.

I’d even argue that in the 21st century it’s not that attractive a pitch: We’re skeptical of any proclamations of novelty, and more  drawn to synthesis. What we want is a great song that sounds like everything you’ve ever heard, all at once. Luckily, Dylan also has plenty of those to offer.

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Filed under books, carl wilson, music

10 Things I Liked in 2010 (Singles, Supervillains, Socialism)

by Chris Randle

[I totally lifted this concept from Greil Marcus as well. My list is unranked and impulsive to the point of randomness; I avoided writing about anything I’ve already touched on at B2TW. And now, all hedges and caveats aside…]

1. Yeahhhhhhh

John Seroff’s epic Singles Jukebox blurb is a beautiful consideration of “Whip My Hair,” but to me the clip below embodies this ultra-processed, aggressively silly song. What’s more absurd, more galvanic in its absurdity, than a weak-voiced nine-year-old touting their “swag” and finally managing to convince? A parrot dancing to the same track! I can only assume that the lone Youtube user who clicked “dislike” here is even now teetering atop Mt. Crumpit with a sleigh full of stolen presents.

 

2. Damascus, Palestine, Texaco

A cut from Jean-Luc Godard’s maddening, cryptographic and sometimes very funny Film Socialisme:

 

3. “I’mma start rocking gold teeth and fangs” (Nicki Minaj’s 32 feral bars)

Still waiting on the music video, which promises lots of squicky necrophiliac imagery (I was hoping for a colony of bats nesting in Rick Ross’ giant beard), but “Monster” already has a storyline: it’s the track where Nicki Minaj reduces the world’s two most famous rappers to afterthoughts.

Her feat is less impressive than it appears on a tracklist; wheezing Grizzly Bear fan Jay-Z sounds like an awkward fogey here, and while Kanye acquits himself well enough, even pulling off a good punchline for once rather than a stupid non-sequitur (“Have you ever had sex with a pharaohhhhhh / I put the pussy in a sarcophagus”), he still strains as an MC. His other guest doesn’t. Nicki’s virtuosic verse mutates new flows, accents and personae at rapid speed: “Pink wig / Thick ass / Give ’em whiplash / I think big / Get cash / Make ’em blink fast.” She shares Kanye’s monstrous ambition, but not his self-pitying insecurity. Her climactic “AAAAAAH” modulates a scream queen’s cry with sharpened glee: suck in breath, grope around on the floor for your male gaze.

 

4. Light the Pentagram-Signal: Doctor Hurt in Batman & Robin

This one requires some nerdy backstory. Five years ago, DC Comics made Scottish weirdo Grant Morrison the writer of its main Batman series. (His anarchic 1990s head trip The Invisibles influenced my teenage self to a degree that is almost embarrassing.) A characteristically metafictional conceit of Morrison’s early issues was that all the Bat-archetypes from 75 years of publication history – the original pulp vigilante, the bizarre ’50s version who wore zebra suits and inspired Adam West, etc. – were his actual memories, and the stress of keeping these disparate personalities straight was driving Bruce Wayne insane.

The process was accelerated by Morrison’s new villain Dr. Hurt, a mysterious psychiatrist who claimed to be Bruce Wayne’s newly-undead father Thomas and then distributed evidence revealing that the orphaned hero’s parents were not saintly philanthropists but a locus of corrupt decadence. Eventually, in a crossover called Batman R.I.P., he put on a camp opera outfit, injected Bruce Wayne full of drugs and dumped him on the street to subsist as a disturbed homeless person. Then our protagonist made a new costume out of rags, regained his bearings with the help of fifth-dimensional imp Bat-Mite (seriously) and they had a big fight. But Dr. Hurt returned in 2010 for a final storyline that Morrison called “Batman R.I.P. repeated as farce.” It began, context-free, with this scene:

It’s a perverse inversion of the most familiar origin story in comics, one so famous that Morrison and artist Frazer Irving can go minimalist and rely upon iconic visual elements (the pearls that always scatter, the eternally recurring Zorro marquee). Dr. Hurt’s masturbatory fantasy comes complete with the sort of infernally opulent yet faintly ludicrous sex club that only exists in Radley Metzger movies. Remember the sight gag at the end of Rosemary’s Baby, where an upside-down cross is repurposed as crib ornament? The longed-for Black Mass emphasizes Hurt’s unusual nature as a foil: he thinks that merely killing his foe is so dull. “I will be Batman in my great black car, preying on the weak, in Gotham’s endless night.”

The conventional idea of an obsessive super-nemesis is strange enough already; imagine one who yearns to expose every certainty in your life as a pathetic, comforting lie. He could be a jilted fanboy. Even after discovering that the bad Doctor was neither Thomas Wayne nor the devil, just (in his creator’s words) “this gibbering idiot with a very comic-booky origin,” his anti-prologue retains some Satanic allure. In a storyarc that also featured Shavian villain Professor Pyg raving about “the multitudes of the mother goat,” it was the creepiest moment of all, a flourish of satirical geek-blasphemy.

 

5. The moral responsibility of the blowjob artist: How Should a Person Be?

The second novel by friend of the blog Sheila Heti was, as they say, a long time coming. (There was an impatient Facebook group, even.) It still doesn’t have an American publisher, and a new article in the New York Observer speculates why: Too much cribbing from reality? Too many graphic descriptions of blowjobs? I would add another factor, one that took me by surprise despite my membership in that social-media cheer squad: the extreme depths of black comedy that Sheila reaches. There are lantern-faced fish swimming alongside some of these jokes. How Should a Person Be? is about struggling to live the good life, whatever that is, and Sheila the character’s earnest, agonized desire to become a great artist (or at least a famous one) is played for many painful laughs.

A later chapter, for example, ends with this passage: “I hadn’t realized until this week that in [Moses’] youth he killed a man, an Egyptian, and buried him under some sand…I used to worry that I wasn’t enough like Jesus, but yesterday I remembered who was my king; a man who, when God addressed him and told him to lead the people out of Egypt, said, ‘But I’m not a good talker! Couldn’t you ask my brother instead?’ So it should not be so hard to come at this life with a bit of honesty. I don’t need to be great like the leader of the Christian people. I can be a bumbling, murderous coward like the King of the Jews.”

As a blond gentile with an Old Norse surname – some drunk girl once asked me, “Did you steal your eyes from a dead Nazi?” – I felt a little uncomfortable just reading that. (The sexual interludes, not so much, perhaps because they’re specific to a particular situation.) I can see why publishers might shy away from it. But all the mordant humour extracted from her protagonist’s indulgent delusions and artistic crises has a point, and a pertinent one: What does it mean to be a writer or painter in a world where niche-level, D-list celebrity is radically accessible?

As for that “fact or fiction” question, a parlour game without the fun, let me cite Harry Mathews, whose last novel My Life in CIA explored similarly muddy waters: “Henry James once said that the Venetian painter Tintoretto never drew an immoral line. That seems madness, because Tintoretto was squiggling all over the place. I came to the conclusion that what James meant was that the moral responsibility of the artist is to make something real happen, whatever it takes. And for me, that is the moral responsibility of a writer: to make something real happen on the page. Its relation to fact is irrelevant. “

 

6. One word uttered forever

Toronto’s Double Double Land hosts an occasional series called Talking Songs, where lecturers play various pieces of music for the audience before discussing them. Carl’s spoken there before; I have too. At the event’s return a few months ago, one of the performers was York University professor Marcus Boon, who gave a talk called “Chopping and Screwing: From Terry Riley to DJ Screw.” I don’t really remember anything he said. What I do remember is that he finished by playing a single 25-minute-long drone and asking us to listen.

Erik Satie’s avant-garde endurance test Vexations, 34 dissonant chords typically performed 840 times in a row, is often said to have quasi-hallucinogenic effects on audiences. Palpable heat, like the kind inside DDL – it’s perched above a Portuguese bakery – must only intensify that. While Boon’s drone pulsed, time collapsed inwards before stretching out as if it might snap; most eyes stayed shut out of reverence or boredom, but sometimes I cheated and caught others fluttering open, sexy in their languour. After the noise spent itself, Boon very quietly asked how it made us feel. I still don’t know what my answer is.

 

7. The image world: Picture This, by Lynda Barry

Picture This asks the big question on its cover: “Do you wish you could draw?” Barry’s manner is the best Grade 3 teacher any kid/adult could hope for, supportive and pedagogical yet utterly free of condescension, and it comes through in her cartooning. Like Sean Rogers notes, this is an activity book featuring such activities as “collect blue.” Barry argues that we’re encouraged to trace and doodle as children only to be dissauded while we grow up, and her attempts to liberate your inner scribbler echo the open-ended tone of John Cage’s motto: “Get yourself out of whatever cage you find yourself in.”

One of Barry’s strips, “Chicken Attack,” was written by a five-year-old boy named Jack. He was sitting next to her on an airplane. While Mom dozed, he came up with a script: “One morning, the chicken was eaten by a man. The man went to work. His stomach started to feel funny. He went to the port-a-let, and then he went. The chicken came out. The man was surprised. The chicken was also surprised. The chicken ran from the port-a-let to the construction site. They put the chicken in charge, and from then on, the chicken was boss.” Lynda Barry is also pretty boss.

 

8. Continue: Scott Pilgrim’s Finest Hour, by Bryan Lee O’Malley

The movie was fun, partly because its doomed marketing showed Torontonians that our shitty lives could be the basis for a fantastical mythos too. But it wasn’t first to do so, and in other ways I preferred Bryan Lee O’Malley’s print finale. It begins with depressed Scott Pilgrim acting like a skeezy jerk, hitting on his teenage ex: “So…uh…what’s it like to no longer be a child in the eyes of the law?” It gives another ex, Envy Adams (Chaotic Neutral), a costume that says “Legend of Zelda boss as worn by Lady Gaga.” And its unconstrained space allows for many pages where people just sit around and talk.

In that sense, the supporting cast was especially hard done by during the adaptation process; a lot of secondary characters got compressed to a single note or joke where they had originally existed in a broader context, one the self-absorbed hero didn’t always notice. As Mike Barthel wrote, “that sense of outward focus and of ladies existing without reference to dudes (or dudes without reference to ladies, honestly) absolutely vanishes [in the film].” I lament this both as someone who wants more movies to pass the Bechdel Test and as someone who thought Alison Pill was cute, which is probably to say, a confused someone.

Finest Hour‘s luxury of sprawl also benefits the villainous Gideon Graves. (That’s him above. In the movie he’s played by Jason Schwartzman, which is perfect casting if you dislike the public persona of Jason Schwartzman.) Gideon is a disquieting portrait of the smart, arty kid who becomes a grasping and covetous adult. A grimly funny, comics-only detail marks him as the only character in their thirties – indeed, he shares an age with his (happily married!) creator. The evilest ex is emotionally controlling on a megalomaniacal scale: Instead of stalking “the ones who got away” on Facebook, he captures them inside an elaborate machine borrowed from some Final Fantasy boss.

When O’Malley launched the series’ final volume last summer, my life was a bit like a Scott Pilgrim book – the bantering romantic scenes, not the epic battles, though they often bleed into each other. I didn’t strap somebody into a…device so I could siphon their vitality. But there were moments that resembled a flashback in Finest Hour, where the younger, less-evil Gideon watches pixie pugilist Ramona Flowers literally disappear from his life; moments that were one long uncomprehending “Whyyyyyyyy?” (Then, to fizzling teleportation residue: “But I thought it was going so well…”) This was maladroit and thoughtless for various reasons, as I probably would’ve figured out anyway, but the literary synchronicity led to a pre-emptive realization: Why would you ever want to act like a bitter, stunted asshole while blaming it on someone lovely? So call this comic a cautionary tale, as well as a damn entertaining one.

 

9. Torontopia time machine: Wavelength 500

I doubt that I could describe this event any better than Carl already did – or Michael Barclay, for that matter. The 10th anniversary of Toronto’s integral PWYC music series ended with a reunion of the Barcelona Pavilion (who broke up when I was still in high school) and a surprise set by Owen Pallett (who debuted his solo project at a 2004 Wavelength before going all those places). The BP were raucous and baldly conceptual again, even in the ways they scorned misty local eyes; their encore was an iPod singalong as it played Mag & The Suspects’ “Thousands Dead.” Whether or not nostalgia is misplaced, they certainly merited some.

Kids on TV followed, and then Owen, and then the 2003 iteration of the Hidden Cameras briefly swept aside layers of antipathy to play “I Believe in the Good of Life,” along with the half of the crowd that joined them onstage. There’s no visual record of it. (Never mind: Colin Medley popped up in comments to link his video!) I have to give you this clip instead, Owen and Steve Kado teaming up to cover “Independence Is No Solution.” It’s a great song about everything you believe in turning to shit: “Babies want to have publicists / Because better babies make best-of lists.” (No publicists contacted B2TW while we threw these together.) In that room, though, on that night, it felt more like shoving a crowbar in the coffin than a nail.

 

10. Thrash this mess around: Four Corners, at Steelworkers Hall, July 23

The concept for this show was simple enough. Four bands, all of them loud and scuzzy, manned the corners of a large room inside venerable Steelworkers Hall. We were in the centre. When the available light changed to a given colour, we streamed towards that corner for a few songs’ worth of ritual abuse. The beauty was in the details, and not just because the bill included Anagram, one of my favourite local bands.

Wandering through the cavernous Steelworkers Hall, with its tributes to industrial unionism and lefty agit-kitsch, I thought the venue could almost be a museum for older models of independent music. Meanwhile, the spastic colour cycles appropriated the structural logic of video games. But underneath those lurid lights, radical politics no longer seemed anachronistic, and the moshing reminded me that cathartic fake violence has its own history. To echo one of Carl’s entries, it was a new way of living. If you’re the resolution-making type, I hope you find a few of them.

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Filed under books, chris randle, comedy, comics, dance, events, lectures, literature, movies, music, TV/video, visual art

Top 10 Moments, Gestures and Consolations of 2010

by Carl Wilson

[With a debt of gratitude to Greil Marcus’s Real Life Rock Top 10, the Back to the World team is reviewing 2010 on a free-associative, nerve-impulsive basis. I’ve confined myself to things I haven’t already written about at length on this site this year, and discarded all critical-game rules of rank, comprehensiveness or balance. Another week it might be another 10.]

1. Collective redemptions: Auto-Tune the Meme

Antoine Dodson, singer of the year

I don’t know how long it will last but for now it’s a blessing to live when whatever nonsense goes viral will be remixed with Auto-Tune, usually by the reliably silly Gregory Brothers. What was the sonic signature of high-end rap/R&B (and Asian and Caribbean pop) in the ’00s becomes the crazed sound of the inside-out unconscious of the Internet digesting fetishes in the ’10s. Which comes with a disturbing side, of course: What seems fair game for politicians and newscasters on the Bros.’ great, long-running Auto-Tune the News series, and unimportant when it’s Double Rainbow Guy, becomes more complex when it comes to Antoine Dodson losing his shit about a rapist in the Huntsville projects on a local news report.

Without music, it seemed nauseatingly clear people were mocking the way a gay, black man in a poor neighbourhood of Alabama spoke in a state of distress. But the music, I’d argue, really did transform that into a celebration of Dodson’s flair and sincerity, into a tune so distinctive that it can be played without words by a marching band (at a historically black university, fwiw) and still hit the same sweet divot in the brain pain. And the Dodson family was able to buy a house on the spinoff proceeds, inverting the usual consciencelessness of that Internet unconscious.

Would it be too treacly to say that it’s a reminder of how rhythm, melody and harmony are ancient technologies to mediate alienation and generate human connection? Definitely, but grant me an Xmas pass.

2. Candid-camera delusions of grandeur/grotesquery: Destroyer ft. Loscil, “Grief Point” (Archer on the Beach EP)

Destroyer, Archer on the Beach

Another angle on the music/reality blur zone comes from Dan Bejar: This song is how it would be if songs or albums regularly came with the commentary tracks we’re used to on DVDs of movies and television, presuming that the commentaries were written by self-excoriating poets of course. (There’s precedent in the Dr. Horrible musical’s musical commentary tracks, though to more blatantly comic effect.)

Dan voices notebook entries seemingly written while recording last year’s “Bay of Pigs,” the “ambient-disco” song apparently originally titled “Grief Point” (or “May Day,” or “Christine White”) that reappears as the closing highlight of the upcoming Kaputt album, about which much more in the New Year. The way this track keeps up the links in this three-year chain of significance/striptease is part of the pleasure.

I prefer the denser EP version to the superminimal “Making of Grief Point” that Loscil (Vancouver electronic composer Scott Morgan) released earlier in the year: This one better fulfills and thus escapes what Dan calls “the same old shit. A potential, complete ignorance of ambience, real ambience, in that: Can you really construct it, every last bit of it, and just let the listener feel its effects? And is this the right treatment? Always the same question.”

The paradox of the ambient, which is Loscil’s genre, has percolated since Brian Eno coined it: How to listen to music not designed to be listened to, only heard? This track revisits that issue as the life/art problem (blah blah John Cage blah) etched in blood: Trust Destroyer to come up with a genre one could call Brian Emo.

As Dan considers whether to quit music or to be happy that he hates what he’s recording because “it means I’ve changed,” he flirts with the lines between social-media-panoptical self-indulgence and self-celebritizing and the substantive mental torment inherent to making meaning.

That’s what many of the most vital artists’ work currently does – such as B2TW intimate Sheila Heti’s 2010 novel How Should a Person Be?, which found a surprising champion in The New York Observer this week; but then the Observer, name down, has always been the cultural voyeur’s broadsheet.

Yet Destroyer was in this territory well ahead of the pack – “your backlash was right where I wanted you/ yes, that’s right, I wanted you,” he sang, before having enough recognition to get backlash. And he approaches it with a half-careless swagger but also a wolfish hunger to make the risks count, this fucking time at last at last.

3. Sex is so much more than sex: You Can Have It All, a performance by Mammalian Diving Reflex, Feb. 12-13, Toronto

"The Best Sex I've Ever Had"

Perhaps Ontario, the home of the old-lady sex Yoda, Sue Johanson, may inevitably eventually have generated something like this performance, but we’re lucky to have artist Darren O’Donnell to nudge it along.

Having advertised on telephone poles and bulletin boards for people “over 65 and still thinking about sex,” he gathered an incredible panel of women and men to first workshop and then publicly talk about their erotic lives in intimate, funny and often wrenching detail.

I can’t reproduce the effect here, except to say how exhilarating it was to hear how recent the participants’ greatest sexual experiences (in their opinions) often were. And conversely how intense it is to talk about great sex with someone now dead. … Funeral speeches that never were.

For all their universality it’s also a very local conversation; every community should bring in O’Donnell to root out these words stirring unspoken among them.

But the thing I was left thinking about most was that all the straight men on the panel dropped out before the performances: Was this just a generational blip or does it reveal something deep and hard to uproot about gender, power and vulnerability? (Including O’Donnell’s own power dynamic as a director, though that seems too simple.)

4. Past, unpassed: Richard Harrow (played by Jack Huston) on Boardwalk Empire

The best TV show I watched in 2010 was no doubt the third season of Breaking Bad, but the best thing on TV was this extraordinary character on an otherwise mediocre series.

Sniper-turned-hit-man Richard Harrow is a veteran of World War 1 whose face was so maimed in battle so that he wears a painted tin mask in public – a historically accurate representation inspired by this Smithsonian Magazine article. He befriends one of the central characters, fellow vet Jimmy Darmody (the anemic Michael Pitt), whose mutilation is less visible but similarly soul-obstructing. Together they use their skills to make themselves other-than-disposable to men in power the one way they know: murder at someone else’s command.

Yet Harrow (despite his wince-worthy, typically Boardwalk Empire-showboating name), as image, and in Jack Huston‘s physical and vocal dance (he is the mess of tics we all would be in his place, but never a cartoon), more than even Steve Buscemi’s ever-virtuosic lead, inspires a sympathetic vibration very near love. At one point, to soothe spooked children, he jokingly calls himself the Tin Man (referring to the book, not the yet-unmade film). Huston (grandson of John, nephew of Angelica) earns the parallel.

Boardwalk Empire‘s fatal flaw is its jones to emulate its media-gangster icons, from The Sopranos (on which its creators worked) to The Godfather and the best films of producer Martin Scorsese. But to do something memorable with the dawn-of-Prohibition lawlessness it aimed at, it needed someone more like David Lynch, who could capture the uncapturability of those silent-film years: the way its sensibility is just out of reach of an audience for whom history really begins with the talky mass-cultural connection that’s come to spell “20th century.”

That there was a 20th century before the 20th century is a fact the tapes in our cathode-ray lizard-brain stems don’t readily disclose. (As a music guy, I’m sad their takes on Eddie Cantor and Sophie Tucker don’t gel, though the Hardini-Houdini’s-brother riff had legs.)

Thus the series can’t give us the uncanniness, the unheimlich feeling of meeting Freud’s day on its own terms. Except with Richard Harrow. In his face we get a time before medicine was anything we’d see as fit for the title, when the compromises had other stakes – the spasms that pushed the modern out its birth canal. Upheavals still felt like phantom pains in today’s post-everything pathologies. What a story that could have been.

5. Mantler, Monody

There were days this year I wanted to live in a ditch. I wanted rats to nibble at my shoelaces and beetles to replace the pupils of my eyes. Too often I got right down in that culvert and dug my elbows into the grime and let the parasites feast on my shit, then come back up and spit it in my ears.

If I knew a little better any given Sunday, though, I’d put on Toronto singer-songwriter Mantler‘s record and then the goat-footed balloon man would come laughing, “Have you forgotten the word ‘mudluscious’? What’s wrong, fetish not got your tongue? Displace a little up-up-and-away into me, and wrap your troubles in dreams till they’re helium-drunk and far and wee.”

That most hospitals were never told about this miracle cure is one of the true scandals of 2010. That it had been six years since the last release of the absintheian elixir that Mantler (Chris Cummings) pours generously out of a cauldron full of white suits and colour organs and herbs that taste like bells is the occasion of every party you should have been invited to when some sad bastard forgot your name.

6. Not ready to make nice: Bernie Sanders’ 8-hour semi-filibuster

Bernie Sanders: Mad as hell and he didn't have time to go round and round and round... but did it anyway, dammit

What I don’t really want to talk about, despite how much it weighed through 2010, is how hard it was to keep supporting Barack Obama (if Canadian support counts). Especially after November, when the tax deal, in particular, seemed to squander a vital “lame duck” opportunity to counterbalance the upcoming bullying of liberty, logic and economic justice by the Republican House.

But then there was this bit of performance art in opposition to tax cuts for millionaires at the expense of the vanishing middle class (and not just in America) by the only avowed democratic socialist in federal American politics, and nearly the only mensch (well, along with Barney Frank). It was just what I wanted for Christmas and Hanukah. This shit is the gelt.

Sometimes you speak truth even knowing power is deaf. And abusive. And would rather look good at basketball than take, to revisit a theme, a goddamn risk.

7. Stretching for substance: Taylor Swift, “A careless man’s careful daughter” in “Mine” (Speak Now LP)

From the "Mine" video: I didn't post the rest 'cuz it's awful

This year Taylor Swift fell into a tabloid-tell-all mode that’s warped the naturalism that served her so well, not to mention overmilking the princessy crap. And where her nemesis Kanye at least freaked out creatively about their encounter of the 2009th kind, making it the sub-theme of his fine (if overpraised) new record, she was all too level and dull on the topic, on an album that marks her predictably awkward transition from teen songwriting prodigy to young-adult celebrity.

Notwithstanding, a key line in the record’s lead single has followed me through the months: “You made a rebel of a careless man’s careful daughter.” It may be the most writerly moment in her career, at least in a chorus, with its un-Nashvilley cram of syllables. You can tell how proud she is of it because she puts it in the repeated pivot point of the song. You almost want to come back with the old saw of writing-advice, “Kill your darlings.” But a songwriter in her position might need her darlings in a way a poet or novelist wouldn’t, as a creative love-rival to fame’s blandishments.

In “Mine,” we never hear anything more about the father, but the line tells us enough about who the protagonist is, and who the boyfriend is (his version: “I fell in love with a careless man’s careful daughter”) to double the narrative’s heft.

That reversal of P.O.V. when the boyfriend assuages her fears could seem rote as craftsmanship, but in pop, rote narrative moves that sync up just right are the ones that get you teary-eyed. Hell, it’s not that dissimilar to the move Stephin Merritt makes in one of my favourite songs, “Papa Was a Rodeo” – it just lacks the knowingness about itself as a move.

I’m not sure why it’s so effective at lumping my throat. Maybe it’s that I’m a careful man’s more careless son. I’ll keep mulling the question in 2011. But I hope that in the next few years, Swift stays proud of it and fills more of her songs with lines like it, till they become adult stories. She’s a country songwriter, after all, and she’s got examples like Dolly Parton and Merle Haggard to show that if you hold true to your craft, hang your heart on those pivot points, they can take you anywhere. It’s not about being as fancy a syllable crammer as Elvis Costello, who just as often is hoist on that petard. There’s so much that suggests Swift could get there, and so many reasons to fear that she won’t. Grant me another Xmas pass here while I bet against the house.

8. The medium isn’t such a mess-age: The San Francisco Panorama


After years when there’s been nothing but gloating and/or despairing obits for the print media in which I mostly make my living, I want to give thanks to McSweeneys/The Believer for demonstrating that death isn’t the only possible future.

Their one-shot example of what a glorious print newspaper could look like (it came out in late 2009 but was widely available in 2010) may be starry-eyed, but it makes concrete what I often say to my peers: Losing the position of first choice for news every weekday morning doesn’t doom newspapers. Play to strengths: weekend features, investigative reporting, physical scale and, well, “eye-feel” (the way foodies talk about mouth-feel). And – well, maybe not a 96-page books section, where the publishers played too aggressively to their strengths, but a books section, because those other people of words are allies. I think people would pay, and they’d stay.

My paper took baby steps this direction this year but those booties need a harder sole (soul).

9. Chatty Kathy

Has any cultural source made me regularly happier than Kathleen Phillips’ video blog in 2010? Her live character comedy came close, particularly when I got to help program her (playing a deluded actress-turned-writer) as part of the Scream in High Park this summer. But can that compete with The Ballad of Four Feet Joe? With her other animations of the inanimate? Oh, world, you will never look quite the same and thank Heaven or whatever department is in charge. Even if Virgin Mobile ripped it off in the name of Christ.

10. Sex is so much sexer than sex: The collected works of Tonetta; Good Intentions Paving Company by Joanna Newsom, 4:35 to end.

It’s been a long year. Remember when all we could talk about was Lady Gaga?  But finally some serious sensual competition came along in the struggle to make humans delirious, delusional, demented by delight. Toronto’s own Tonetta might have occupied my whole year if I were still writing a locally centred music blog (good thing there was someone around to fill in). You could shorthand it as Jandek meets Gaga meets Iggy in your pervert uncle’s basement, but the catchy hooks and obscenity and freak-flag-fluttering come with a poignant sense of a man finding himself in the act of losing himself (this is his post-divorce project). Social-media-voyeurism comes in for a lot of bashing, but Tonetta suggests one of its graces: Helping us discover what in us is worth gawking at.

Joanna Newsom has had that kind of gnosis for a long time, even too much so – she’s less sharp about what to leave out. Still, there are also great grasshopper artistic leaps on her 2010 album Have One on Me, including a verse that leaves me dizzy with desire – not for its singer (however deserving, vide the lascivious montage above), but with thoughts of people in my life who can reliably and relentlessly render me this way:

But it can make you feel over and old, Lord, you know it’s a shame / When I only want for you to pull over and hold me/ Till I can’t remember my own name.

And as she casts this invocation, horns and strings rise restless from every corner as if to redecorate the room for their sex-magickal rites. (RIP Peter “Sleazy” Christopherson.) May that be your benediction in the gloaming  of 2010, and as 2011 rises, aroused.

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