1) Strokes, “Is This It” (RCA)
Fast, expert, hanging-out sounds from a young New York five-piece with a guru — not the so-named older guy with the comb-over pictured with the band on the insert, but, wow, Lou Reed. Julian Casablanca’s vocals may be filtered so that their tinny sound matches the group’s skinny-tie beat, but that doesn’t save the Strokes’ “Modern Age” from dissolving back into the Velvet Underground’s “Beginning to See the Light” — and “Modern Age” is the best thing here. The cover of the import version offers a white woman’s naked ass cupped by a black gloved hand: “So 1983,” said one disappointed fan.
2) Yeah Yeah Yeahs, “Yeah Yeah Yeahs” (Shifty)
As slick as the Strokes are, this ill-named New York trio (can you imagine yourself saying, “Hey, let’s go see the Yeah Yeah Yeahs”? It’s like saying “Let’s go see Who’s on First”) are abrasive. They’re so heedlessly tough that the arty touches at the end of “Miles Away” can seem like a relief, a promise that the music is an effect, not reality. But the first four songs on this EP are as good as they have to be; they might be a way of your getting used to Karen O’s small, pressured voice, until with “Our Time” you’re ready to actually listen to her. Announcing “I — may be dead, honey,” over a stop-time orchestration of the band’s single-guitar and drums wall of sound, O could be Melissa Swingle of Trailer Bride as easily as she calls up Mary Weiss of the Shangri-las: you don’t question for a second that she knows what she means. Her voice curls, like a finger beckoning you into the music. “It’s the year to be hated,” she says, then leading a chant: “OUR TIME! It’s our time! OUR TIME! To — be — hated — ” The music rises like a flag blowing. “C’mon, kids,” O says — and there is nothing so modest, so defiant, so hopeless, so much of a smile, short of the Who’s “The Kids Are Alright.” But this song has its own place and time, even if it didn’t make its time, but fell into it — even if 19 men came from elsewhere and destroyed thousands to make the song’s time. Three musicians standing up to attest with the crowd they gather around themselves that they’re ready to be hated, that they’ve waited all their lives for the chance — I can’t believe people in New York aren’t singing this on the street.
It was Connie Nisinger, a high school librarian in the Midwest, who decided that this interesting site needed a picture of the final resting place of Billy Lyons, shot dead in St. Louis on Christmas Day, 1895, his corpse kicked through time ever after in the countless versions of “Stag-o-lee,” “Stacker Lee” and “Stagger Lee.” Click “Search by name,” type in “William Lyons,” and there is Lyons’ plot in St. Peter’s Cemetery in St. Louis, sec. 5, lot 289. The site allows you to “Leave flowers and a note for this person”: keep clicking and you can leave a cigar or a beer instead. Advertising bars include “Contact Your High School Classmates” — to find their graves?
4) Hanif Kureishi, “Gabriel’s Gift” (Scribner)
Screenwriter for the socially commonplace and artistically unique London romances “My Beautiful Laundrette” and “Sammy and Rosie Get Laid,” writer and director of the stupidly dismissed “London Kills Me,” author of “The Buddha of Suburbia,” “The Black Album” and “Intimacy,” Kureishi is a born storyteller, but he is not a natural novelist. On the page, his dialogue can seem perfunctory, looking for another medium, a way from one place to another, not what a person would say: “‘Talent might be a gift but it has to be cultivated. The imagination is like a fire or a furnace; it has to be stoked, fed and attended to.’” The man talking, speaking to a teenage boy, is a great rock star from the 1970s, still worshipped; far more alive on the page than the star or the boy — or dead on the page, which here amounts to the same thing — is Rex, the boy’s father, who once played with the star. Save for his moments in that man’s sun, he has been a nobody, and he has stoked, fed and attended to his failure until, after nearly 30 years, he can almost live off of it.
There are thousands upon thousands of middle-aged men like Rex, each one the butt of every musician joke, their delusions of glamour inseparable from their resentment of almost everyone they meet, men for whom aging means only helpless self-parody. Yet while Kureishi’s version contains them all, gives off the smell of fear they carry, Rex is not only a version, a type or a joke. Even though you may not want to, you can see him, imagine the way he talks, the way he moves, and even if you know too many people whose lives he is living out, he doesn’t look or move like they do. In that sense Kureishi, if not a natural novelist, is a real one.
5/6) Ernest C. Withers, “The Memphis Blues Again: Six Decades of Memphis Music Photographs,” selected and with text by Daniel Wolff (Viking Studio) & “American Roots Music,” edited by Robert Santelli, Holly George-Warren and Jim Brown (Abrams)
While not as rich as Withers’ “Pictures Tell the Story”, in which music was one element in the great social drama of the Civil Rights movement, there is a reminder of Withers’ true vision in a portrait of Aretha Franklin at a Southern Christian Leadership Conference event two months after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., her face swollen — from tears or a beating you can’t tell. Otherwise there’s merely fabulousness, everywhere you look: Louis Jordan and his father in matching 10-gallon fedoras, the Moonglows in action, a crowd waiting outside the Club Ebony in the rain, B.B. King accompanied on facing pianos by Jerry Lee Lewis and Charlie Rich, a Hollywood Elvis back in town and posing as if he’s already slept with everyone in it. It’s history as rumor, as a story you know can never be nailed down, proven, finished, only forgotten, until someday people will find these pictures and disbelieve everything they say.
“American Roots Music” — the book of the PBS TV series — is very nearly a miracle: It makes the twisted tale of American music, its strands intertwined like lovers hiding from the light, seem bland. Worse, it makes the tale seem obvious. And, as it is obvious, it has nothing new to say, which means that as a tale it was over before it began.
The Withers book is $14 cheaper, too.
7/8) Britney Spears Live from Las Vegas” (HBO, Nov. 18) & “Jennifer Lopez Live” (NBC, Nov. 20)
Howard Hampton writes: “In case you missed it, I can tell you that I watched Britney Spears’ concert and I missed it too. It’s as if she’s made of flesh-colored Teflon. You can look, but your gaze just slides right off the surface. It’s not simply that she lacks imagination, personality, charisma, or stage presence” (hosting “Saturday Night Live” last year, she had it all) “but that this absence is the structuring principle of her act. There’s not even the pretense that those different voices are really coming out of her body, to the point where her piped-in vocals were like canned fetish objects, floating over the stage like props. It comes across like a Vegas Club Silencio converted into a vocational junior high school for strippers.” Two nights later, Gary Radnich of San Francisco NBC-TV affiliate KRON ended his nightly sports report with detailed comparison footage of the Spears and Jennifer Lopez specials, naming Lopez the clear winner because she had more costume changes — and because while “When Jennifer Lopez crawled on the floor she acted like she meant business. When Britney Spears crawled on the floor you wanted to say, ‘Get up.’”
9) Mick Jagger, “Goddess in the Doorway” (Virgin)
Reviews are saying this isn’t really terrible. It’s really terrible.
10) Berkeley, Calif., Contra Costa Ave. (Nov. 17)
On our woodsy street, the mail carrier walks with dignity, handling dogs, obstructions of foliage and hanging gardens of huge spider webs with determination, humor and a pith helmet. After watching her negotiate a particularly steep and slippery walkway, a neighbor offered encouragement: “All, this, and then the anthrax terrorists. I’ll bet when you went to work for the post office you didn’t realize you’d be a, a — ” The neighbor couldn’t find the right word. “A warrior!” the mail carrier said.
Thanks to Andrew Hamlin