Real Life Rock Top 10: Colson Whitehead, Pere Ubu, Beyonce

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1. Aisha Harris, “Lion Queen (Beyoncé) Has Her Say,” New York Times (July 20). New Horizons in Democratic Theory Dep’t: “To hear Beyoncé speak is such a rare occurrence that any instance of it, no matter how fleeting, feels special, like catching a glimpse of a shooting star.”

2. Bruce Springsteen, Western Stars (Columbia). Battle of the Bands: Harry Nilsson v. Glen Campbell. On the record, it’s a draw, and really, who cares? Off the record, the world is smaller without Glen Campbell. It isn’t without Nilsson. And it isn’t bigger with this.

3. Pere Ubu, The Long Goodbye (Cherry Red). With bandleader, singer, and writer David Thomas looking at death, he went back to 1975 and Pere Ubu’s first song, “Heart of Darkness,” inspired not by Joseph Conrad—Thomas has always loved putting classic titles (as here “Fortunate Son”) on songs that have nothing to do with what they’re supposedly referring to—but by Raymond Chandler. For what he expected would be his own long goodbye, as if his whole life had been a kind of farewell, Thomas chose the title of Chandler’s 1953 novel, itself a kind of rewrite of The Great Gatsby, which as a detective story has more corpses than Chandler’s The Long Goodbye. And this time the title is not a false clue: putting a generic noir image on the album cover, Thomas digs down, inhabiting Philip Marlowe, looking for the streets he walked.

Thomas composed the songs, set them to music with synthesizers and drum machines, and sent the tracks to the rest of the band. The result is on the first disc here, which is not quite there. It’s all there on the second disc, a live performance of the album from Montreuil, just outside of Paris. Beginning with “Heart of Darkness,” moving with jumps and stalls through “Flicking Cigarettes at the Sun,” “Marlowe,” “Skidrow-on-Sea,” the band is severe and brittle, with Thomas, in his cracker-barrel philosopher mode, explaining the music: his favorite movie Marlowe is Robert Mitchum, he says, but the song he’s going to play next is based on Elliott Gould’s Marlowe in Robert Altman’s version of The Long Goodbye . . .  It’s game, a great circle of a band’s story, which might have made its best album.

4. National Delivery, A Plurality of One: The Song of Walt Whitman, a dramatic presentation written and staged by Joe Christiano, with sound ambiance by Justin J. Jones, Timbre Folk and Baroque (Berkeley, July 20, with a reprise August 3). Before a semi-circle of twenty-three in a stringed instrument space, Stanley Spenger strolled in as Whitman’s ghost, dressed in rough-looking clothes—he hasn’t slept since 1892—and a broad-brimmed leather hat, remarking that he was on leave from his usual haunts in any given branch of the New York Public Library. Soon enough in the hour-long production he was orchestrating “Song of Myself”—“Not all of it”—and instantly, it rang. Throwing out lines for people to shout back either together, or, with a pointing Whitman finger, any given person on their own, the poem began to echo over the whole of the American discourse that Whitman was calling up and that, since he wrote, has called up him. You could hear that the opening of the poem was purposefully following the cadence of the beginning of the Declaration of Independence (“We hold these truths to be self-evident” . . . “You shall assume what I assume”). As the poem stepped toward its last lines with “Look for me under your boot-soles” you could hear Tom Joad’s testimony as he disappears from The Grapes of Wrath (“Then I’ll be all aroun’ in the dark. I’ll be ever-where—wherever you look”). In Whitman’s “The kept-woman and sponger and thief are hereby invited” you could hear the witnessing in Bruce Springsteen’s revision of “Gospel Train” in “Land of Hope and Dreams”: “This train carries whores and gamblers,” which, presumably, Spenger’s Whitman, checking out Wrecking Ball at the Williamsburgh Library on Divison Avenue in Brooklyn, had already heard.

5. Rails, Cancel the Sun (Thirty Tigers). Two musicians flailing about, except when Kami Thompson does an ethereal float through “Save the Planet,” a punk song disguised as a soft, comforting ballad: “No one likes you, and you know why . . . Save the planet, kill yourself.”

6. Colson Whitehead, The Nickel Boys (Doubleday). It takes nerve, or a blunt disregard for what the world expects, to follow the hugely honored best-seller The Underground Railroad with a small-sized novel of barely 200 pages and not a lot more than half as many words as the supposed game changer. Small novels don’t sell like big novels, because they seem small—too small to carry the weight of the world. But despite a story that posited a somehow completely believable real, actual underground railroad, with real stations, real conductors, and tunnels worthy of John Henry, and accounts of slavery and racism so brutal, so true to history, and so starkly, poetically written they can be as hard to read as Kara Walker’s silhouettes can be to look at, The Underground Railroad, which did everything it could to escape the escaped-slave and slave-catcher genre, remained a genre novel. There was a way in which you had read it before.

The Nickel Boys, following two boys in their late teens, Elwood Curtis and Turner, in the Nickel Academy, a segregated boys’ reformatory in Florida in 1963 and 1964, is not a genre novel. There is nothing in it that is mandated by its form, because it doesn’t inhabit one. There is nothing predictable. The sense of jeopardy is like a curse, and the most foreboding moments are those in which Whitehead lets both his characters and the reader relax, lets them and you almost off the hook, where for at least a moment they and you can forget what has already happened and what might come next.

At Nickel, boys who don’t know how to get along are beaten and whipped. Those who engage in some small, even semiconscious refusal, like failing to throw a fight that is supposed to be fixed, are tortured and starved, and then executed: “Sometimes they take you to the White House,” second-timer Turner tells the green Elwood, “and we never see your ass again.”

Eight years after Brown v. Board of Education, in his segregated high school in Tallahassee, with textbooks discarded by white schools and defaced with racist taunts by the white students when their new ones arrive, Elwood is studious, hard-working, breaking no rules. Whitehead could have called the book “The Sixties Without Music”: while there are snatches of Chuck Berry and Elvis and the theme song from The Andy Griffith Show from radios in the Nickel infirmary or a Nickel van, Turner picking up each as a whistle, the only album Elwood’s grandmother, who has raised him, will allow him is Martin Luther King at Zion Hill, which he finds as inspirational, as soul-filling, as Life magazine: “He knew Frenchtown’s piece of the Negro’s struggle, where his neighborhood ended and white law took over. Life’s photo essays conveyed him to the front lines, to bus boycotts in Baton Rouge, to counter sit-ins in Greensboro, where young people not much older than him took up the movement. They were beaten with metal bars, blasted by fire hoses, spat on by white housewives with angry faces, and frozen by the camera in tableaus of noble resistance. The tiny details were a wonder: how the young men’s ties remained straight black arrows in the whirl of violence, how the curves of the young women’s perfect hairdos floated against the squares of their protest signs. Glamorous somehow, even when the blood flowed down their faces.” [22] Whitehead’s reach back to magazines published before he was born is its own wonder: his homing in on those tiny details, bringing them into the present like shaming ghosts.

Elwood is in Nickel because, hitch-hiking to special classes at a nearby college, he caught a ride in a stolen car, which got him charged with car theft. Turner is full of rage, his talk is rough compared to his new friend’s, but he’s if anything more thoughtful, more attuned to what he doesn’t know, because unlike Elwood he doesn’t believe there are answers to every question. When you begin to feel that one of the two may not survive the story, you try to worry Turner out of it.

The variety of the books that sound through The Nickel Boys testifies to how and why, like Whitehead’s first three novels, The Intuitionist, John Henry Days, and the Apex Hides the Hurt, which in just over two hundred pages is as ambitious as Moby Dick and as precise as The Scarlet Letter—and unlike his next two, the coming-of-age Sag Harbor and the zombie-killer thriller Zone One—is a thing in itself. There are the Hardy Boys books, which make Elwood a reader. Even before the fight scene in The Nickel Boys you may have already thought of Ralph Ellison’s 1952 Invisible Man, which Elwood wouldn’t have read yet—and echoing just as strongly are books Whitehead himself may not have read, though given the research that went into John Henry Days, where it seems impossible that there is anything in the realm of fact or myth about John Henry that Whitehead hasn’t read twice he almost certainly has: Haywood Patterson’s devastating 1950 Scottsboro Boy, and beyond that Robert Elliott Burns’s 1932 I Was a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang. Beyond that there is Tom Sawyer, Detective and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The Nickel Boys has part of all of them in it while being not like any of them.

Musicians Roger McGuinn, Joni Mitchell, Richi Havens, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan perform the finale of the The Rolling Thunder Revue, a tour headed by Dylan. Photo credit: AP/Shutterstock AP/Shutterstock

7. & 8. Bob Dylan, “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” & “This Land Is Your Land,” Rolling Thunder Revue: The 1975 Live Recordings (November 19, 20, 21, two shows, December 4, Columbia). Over 16 CDs, along with rehearsals and songs not often performed, the shows collected here are standard: in the first set “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” comes third, in the second “This Land Is Your Land” comes last, and without variation and a doggedly uninspired band—with the exception of Scarlet Rivera on violin, the faceless musicians back Dylan, but they don’t play the songs—I found myself waiting for those to come around.

Hearing “Hattie Carroll” again and again, you realize it could be Bob Dylan’s best-written song, and structurally his most original, with all the different parts—the direct opening line of each verse, then the music opening up for a detailed narrative, then the chorus undermining what you’ve just heard and speeding you into the next verse—speaking a different language, almost becoming a different language. In the last performance, at the Forum in Montreal, you feel that in every previous attempt Dylan has been holding back: here there is a rush, a desperation, behind every syllable, each one building up to an intensity that throws the reality of the story Dylan is telling, and the art with which he’s telling it, straight in your face. It suggests that one direction Dylan’s bootleg series could take would be discs of versions of songs Dylan has performed from the beginning of his career on, in different times, settings, election nights: “Masters of War,” “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Young But Daily Growing,” “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.”

“This Land Is Your Land” is interesting because it’s absolutely horrible. It’s a hoedown with big names each taking a verse—Jack Elliot! Roger McGuinn! Bob Neuwirth! Joan Baez! Joni Mitchell!—and if you’ve ever wondered what hell is like, it’s Joan and Joanie singing this song as if it’s opera and they’re opera singers, night after night. Glen Campbell used the same arrangement in his TV show a few years later, duetting with Andy Williams. It was better. “This Land Is Your Land” was written buy Woody Guthrie as an answer to Kate Smith’s pompositous rendition of Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.” That was better.

9. Diane (IFC), written and directed by Kent Jones. Set in decaying rural Massachusetts with snow on the ground and Mary Kay Place’s Diane in every scene, this is a movie about aging, death, addiction, poverty, religion, and bad food. Especially bad food: the people in this story live lives without pleasure. The most spectacular event shown is an argument at a dinner table; repeatedly, you see Place and others serve food to the homeless and indigent in a church basement. You can’t look away from anything. In a performance that echoes Robert Duvall in Tomorrow in 1972 and Melissa Leo in Frozen River in 2008, across an hour and thirty-five minutes Place’s expression barely seems to change, and so it’s the moments when it does, or almost does, that might stay with you. Place sits stone-faced in a holiness church while everyone around her is in a trance of deliverance; in the kind of bar where they never take down the Christmas lights, she drinks herself into a resolute oblivion, dancing at the jukebox to Bob Dylan’s “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here with You,” which in this setting sounds trashier than Leon Russell’s “Out in the Woods”; in a displacement of her own son’s addiction that seems at once a willed nightmare and everyday life at its limit, she goes to see a man to get shot up with heroin, for the first time, in her seventies, maybe the last time, maybe not, and here, most strikingly, her expression does change. A whisper of a smile crosses her face as the man plunges the needle; it’s as if she’s gone to see a priest to confess and without saying a word leaves feeling blessed.

10. Mekons, Music Hall of Williamsburg (Brooklyn, July 19). Shannon McArdle, late of the Mendoza Line, writes in: “Sally Timms’s brown purse plunked in front of Steve Goulding’s kick drum, a harbinger that she, the bag, and the remaining seven Mekons would be coming and going a few times during the two-plus hour affair. There was warm teasing and loving surrender in Jon Langford’s oral interludes. Just before a more rocking, still reggae version of ‘Tina,’ he acquiesced: ‘Even the setlist has arthritis!’ Expression of such feebleness has long been there, far before the members themselves confessed to any of the personal physical manifestations of it.

“When Sally sang ‘I Love a Millionaire,’ the mordant, mournful tone–a woman mourning herself and the world, too—‘Dreaming of a creature who is too pale and large to stand and only feels the terror of his vain flight from earth’—the words portended a sickness where they stood now that the band dared to imagine over twenty-five years ago. Tom Greenhalgh presented a more personal exploration of what plagues us currently, collectively. ‘Father, father, dig my grave, for I am pickled, I am done / Upon my hand, a velvet glove to show them all I died for love,’ he implored, studying his open hand in the air, not one star in sight.”