1-3) David Johansen and the Harry Smiths, “Death Letter,” on “Shaker” (Chesky Records); White Stripes, “Death Letter,” on “De Stijl” (Sympathy for the Record Industry, 1998); and Son House, “Death Letter,” on “Son House: Father of the Delta Blues — The Complete 1965 Sessions” (Columbia Legacy, 1992)
Son House (1902-88) was the most melodramatic of the great Mississippi Delta blues artists, and when he sat in New York City in 1965 to record “Death Letter” for the first time, he pulled out all the stops — just as he’d done with the sardonic “Preachin’ Blues” in 1930, when he first recorded. In 1965 he wasn’t the musician he’d been as a young man, but the drive to thread a song through six minutes or more was still there. The guitar playing is splayed, but it cuts to the bone; the man recalling the death of the love of his life takes satisfaction from the fact that he will never get over it.
White Stripes Jack and Meg White attack “Death Letter” as Steve Miller might have, a couple of years after House cut it: Miller on stage at the Fillmore in San Francisco, determined to prove that disrespect — a tone more mordant than wounded, an orchestration less elegant than simply loud — is the surest route to the truth. With their band still coming together in 1998, the Detroit punk combo is as stumbling as House was, and they care as much as he did: that is, not at all. Again and again they climb the spine of the song, leaping off like little kids diving from a rock into a pond. They climb out, shake the water out of their hair and the song is theirs.
Punk progenitor Johansen — New York Dolls frontman in the 1970s, lounge lizard Buster Poindexter in the decades that followed — takes a different tack in his current incarnation as tramp folklorist. He shambles into the tune as if it’s obvious, as if its tale wouldn’t even be worth telling if he weren’t already drunk. Against House’s more than seven minutes, or the White Stripes’ branding-iron sound, Johansen needs only four laconic minutes to make the dead woman in the song perhaps more dead than she’s been before. There’s something about Johansen’s sense of humor — his weird way of communicating that even as he’s getting his story across he’s forgetting something more important — that allows him to relax into songs a contemporary white man should be ashamed to even consider singing.
4) Comet Gain, “Réalistes” (Kill Rock Stars)
Three in the morning in someone’s London apartment, unattached men and women not giving up on the night: At first you hear blithering, then the smartest blithering you’ve ever heard. Then shots in the dark: “There’s no security in purity.” Then anguish and hope, forgiveness and curses, and a heartbreaker from its title to the last note: “Why I Try to Look So Bad.” By this point you’re hearing people you’d like to meet.
5) Bernard Weinraub, “‘Six Feet Under’ Leads Emmys with 23 Nominees” (New York Times, July 19)
“‘Six Feet Under’ was not shown to a test audience, as it would be at a network,” series creator Alan Ball tells Weinraub. “Nobody ever suggested bringing people from a mall to get their opinion of the show” — and can you imagine? Mall people judging the work of the man who wrote “American Beauty”? The man who unmasked American suburbia as a land of moral hypocrisy and spiritual decay as not more than three or four hundred other movies had ever done before?
6) Anything for Art, or You Will Know Those Who Turn Self-Deprecation into Self-Congratulation by Their Trail of Dead (Shoreline Media press release, July 25)
“Two days ago, while in Philadelphia to tape Fresh Air, Linda Thompson found out that Lucinda Williams was playing that night, and then scored tickets to the show. Williams, who was tipped off that Thompson was in the crowd, stopped midway through her set and explained that ‘I feel really self-conscious Linda Thompson’s in the audience.’ She was, however, able to finish the show.”
7) X-Ray Spex, “The Anthology” (Sanctuary)
With Poly Styrene’s screech prophesying the London Hanif Kureishi would begin to write out in the mid-1980s, an affirmation of life no less fierce than Son House’s affirmation of death, and a setting that burned with the same intensity. The songs tumble down one after the other, each whole, each bursting its skin: “The Day the World Turned Day-Glo,” “Let’s Submerge,” “Identity.” On the first disc, collecting the 1978 “Germfree Adolescents” album, Rudi Thompson’s sax rolls over the music like a storm, but he holds the shape of each number; with the eight tunes cut in the Roxy nightclub in 1977, the sound splitting in half a dozen directions at once, original saxophonist Lora Logic (who in 1995 combined with by-then Hari Krishna sister Styrene for a few new tunes) is utterly elsewhere. She seems to be playing from a nightclub in Saigon, as if punk was as likely to first raise its head there as anywhere — and as Poly runs her songs to ground, it’s Lora who gives every performance its smell of the uncanny, the unreal, the sense that the performance this recording documents could never have happened.
8) Uncle Tupelo, “89/93: An Anthology” (Columbia Legacy)
Dull, but as Jeff Tweedy proves in a previously unreleased number that begins as a plaintive love ballad, there is no such thing as a bad version of “I Wanna Be Your Dog.”
9/10) On Louis Armstrong: Julio Cortazar, from “Hopscotch” (1963, translated from the Spanish by Gregory Rabassa, Pantheon, 1966) and Percival Everett, from “Glyph” (Graywolf Press, 1999)
In Paris in the late 1950s, in an apartment where every jazz 78 seems deeper than the last, an Argentine in his 40s lets his mind drift back to “Storyville nights, where the old only really universal music of the century had come from, something that brought people closer together and in a better way than Esperanto, UNESCO, or airlines, a music which was primitive enough to have gained such universality and good enough to make its own history, with schisms, abdications, and heresies” and most of all “Satchmo, everywhere, with that gift of omnipresence given him by the Lord, in Birmingham, in Warsaw, in Milan, in Buenos Aires, in Geneva, in the whole world, is inevitable, is rain and bread and salt, something that is beyond national ritual, sacred traditions, language and folklore: a cloud without frontiers, a spy of air and water, an archetypal form, something from before, from below, that brings Mexicans together with Norwegians and Russians and Spaniards, brings them back into that obscure and finally forgotten flame, clumsily and badly and precariously he delivers them back to a betrayed origin.”
In “Glyph,” his hilarious novel about the games language plays with people, Percival Everett brings Aristophanes together with Ralph Ellison, and has them put it somewhat differently. Aristophanes: “All war is unnecessary and finally ruinous for all parties, but yet I find that the notion of sincere reconciliation doesn’t appear as an option for humans, or for politicians either.” Ellison: “Perhaps. But the condition you call war is often the condition of life for many. We have in our time a musician who clowns before kings and queens, wipes down his sweating brow with a rag between creating the sweetest music with the same lips and breath that make a graveled growl of a voice. He is at war. Necessarily and perhaps forever. And his weapon is irony. The enemy loves what he does, but when they imitate him, try to make it themselves, they hate him because, not only do they fail to recreate his music, they are terrified of becoming the one they mimic.”
Or, as Melissa Maerz of City Pages in Minneapolis described Holly Golightly’s show at South by Southwest in Austin last March 27, “Little white singer-songwriter snarls the blues like a one-woman White Stripes. Somewhere, indie rockers torn between folk and garage are discovering the next big thing. Somewhere else, Son House is laughing his ass off.”