Real Life Rock Top 10

Special all-Beatles edition!


Greil Marcus
February 22, 2000 10:00PM (UTC)

Feb. 22, 2000

1-3) The Beatles "A Day in the Life" from "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" (Capitol, 1967); The Handsome Family "In the Air" (Carrot Top); and "Down in the Valley: A treasury of their most willowy and haunted songs" (Carrot Top, 1994-2000)

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Thirty-three years ago, the Beatles marshaled every studio trick to form a collage meant to enclose all modern existence in the arms of absurdity and alienation; the result was stupendous. It made those already passi '50s shibboleths seem so new you couldn't tell the threat from the thrill. The Beatles excavated the habitual in a car crash and the routine in art. They revealed the visionary possibilities of a commute. They threw in what sounded like complete symphony orchestras, echo chambers, electronic distortion and, to end it all, the return of the lost chord. Two-thirds of a century's worth of avant-garde experiments from cubism to futurist noise to Eduardo Paolozzi's post-war "Pop!" assemblages were boiled down into a pop song meant to last forever. The world reeled, then; today, when the seams and stitches of the piece may be more immediately apparent than the whole, it still sounds like a miracle, or an accident.

The Handsome Family, aka Brett (music, vocals) and Rennie (words) Sparks of Chicago, work the deep mines of fundamentalist American music, from the pre-blues and proto-country shouts and ballads where it is presumed that there are no experiments or accidents. In this valley, all thoughts and sounds (here made with guitar, bass, banjo, melodica, piano, drum machine and autoharp) are somehow preordained. There are no seams or stitches, but only a reach toward a secret that enclosed existence before human beings learned to write and will enclose it when they have forgotten how.

The Handsome Family's music is meant to seem discovered, not made; fated, not willed, but when fate is altogether out of your hands absurdity translates as guilt. Across the three albums mostly drawn on for "Down in the Valley" -- "Odessa," "Milk and Scissors" and "Through the Trees" -- the songs that begin as murder ballads in the recognizable line of "Omie Wise" or "Tom Dooley" -- the 1994 "Arlene," the 1996 "Winnebago Skeletons" -- reach the verge of the 1998 "My Sister's Tiny Hands," which is the "A Day in the Life" of folk music.

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Like the Beatles, the Handsome Family use everything they have, everything they can find; the difference is, the effects seem less to have been imposed on a composition than to be circling around a story like vultures. Shadowy clouds pass over the drama of twins so close in the womb and then in life you know neither will ever find another mate; when they are separated by a snake that leaves one dead and the other mad, winds blow through the tale so fiercely you can't tell them from baying hounds, chasing the singer through the swamp as he seeks to kill every snake on earth with a stick. But you don't have to hear the shadows, the wind, the howling. It's all subsumed into Brett Sparks' already-dead narrative tone, his refusal to give up the ghost just yet (over there, over there, one more snake!). The oldest truly common American folk song is the snakebite epic "Springfield Mountain," which is sardonic, mocking and social, a joke for the whole town to share. The aloneness that is the final subject of "My Sister's Tiny Hands" is about a much older, more notorious snake, and in this case Adam is cast out of Eden without Eve; he buried her in the garden. And it's all his fault. If he had never been born, she wouldn't have had to die.

"In the Air," the Handsome Family's new album, takes many steps back from this high Gothic -- from haunts Edgar Allen Poe might have envied, never mind Bob Dylan. This is like Dylan's soft-footed "Nashville Skyline" -- with the portents and warnings of "John Wesley Harding," of "All Along the Watchtower" and "The Wicked Messenger" hiding inside it. You can miss the murders, the torments of an isolation that is far beyond the help of a mere idea like alienation, because, as the record promises, you are in the air: floating on the airs of flattened melodies, calmed orchestrations, lowered voices. The music might be all about weather, no rain in sight. Outside of the quiet spell the music casts, though, the weather may have to change many times before the songs give up what they hold.

4-9 Astrid Kirchherr & Klaus Voormann "Hamburg Days" (Genesis Publications / Govinda Gallery)

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In concert with "Hamburg Days" the exhibition -- a show running through March 18 of paintings by original Beatle Stu Sutcliffe, who died in Hamburg in 1962; the early-'60s photographs of the Beatles made by his lover Kirchherr; and new Hamburg-days paintings by Hamburg Beatles discoverer Voormann -- the Govinda Gallery of Washington, D.C., is distributing "Hamburg Days," the two-volume, boxed, Genesis art book, available in a limited edition of 2,500 copies for $480, shipping included. You can order it by calling 1-800-775/1111, but it might be recalled that in 1980 Genesis issued a similarly limited $356 edition of George Harrison's "I Me Mine" -- which showed up not long after in a $12.95 version published by Simon & Schuster.

No matter how augmented, dressed up or padded with sketches, scene-setting documentation and everything else anyone can think of, as a painter Voormann remains an ordinary commercial artist and Kirchherr's photos remain unforgettable, more severe than they are playful. In line with the way her pictures were restaged and she was interpreted in the fine 1993 Ian Softley movie "Backbeat" -- interpreted as a postwar Mona Lisa by Sheryl Lee, who put her Laura Palmer prettiness into her eyes -- her posed portraits of the Beatles as a group or as individuals, or her own self-portraits, communicate more than anything a moment that is about to vanish. As the Beatles played all night in the worst strip club in town, Kirchherr and Voormann glimpsed them as the true avatars of the postwar world they had been trying to make for themselves in bohemian, art-school Hamburg. Her pictures say that in an instant these determined-looking young men are going to leave not only Kirchherr but themselves behind as they are transformed into figments of the common imagination of the entire world.

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Beyond the photos -- which can be seen elsewhere, though not so gorgeously -- what makes "Hamburg Days" uncanny is the way it functions as a collective Kirchherr-Voormann memoir. As they remember growing up under the Nazis, you're reminded how close to the Nazis they and the Beatles all were in 1960, and how close the Nazis remained to them. "We had to say 'Heil Hitler' when we got to school in the morning, and it was the standard greeting when you met someone in the street," Kirchherr says. "When the war was finished and the English came, my mother took me aside and warned me, 'Now you must never say that again,' and I didn't know why. I'd thought it was like saying, 'How do you do?'" She is explicit that her and her friends' attempt to create their own culture, really a kind of secret society, out of Cocteau, the Marquis de Sade, Oscar Wilde, Sartre, and Villon -- all combining into something much closer to present-day Goth than '60s existentialism -- was an attempt to negate their identity as people who would have grown up as Nazis if Hitler had won: "So even before we met the Beatles, we were creating our own little innocent revolution." It was the success she saw coming for the Beatles, not the guilt of the past, that would take away whatever innocence that revolution had; once you help change the world, innocence is the last thing you can claim.

On his recent Hamburg-days album, "Run Devil Run" (Capitol), Paul McCartney acts as if he never did change the world. The lack of anguish and authority in his bash-and-split renditions of such old Beatles favorites as Carl Perkins' "Movie Magg" or Larry Williams' "She Said Yeah" is as weird as the 1999 picture inside the box, where he looks more like his own child than himself. The music is alive -- but nothing close to the anarchy of the music the Beatles actually made in Hamburg. You can find it on various official and legally-contested Live-from-the-Star-Club albums; it was never more raw than on a tape bootlegged as "The International Battle of the Century: The Beatles vs. The Third Reich." This was a takeoff on a real album, in which Vee-Jay Records of Chicago recycled the early EMI Beatles recordings to which they briefly held rights: "The International Battle of the Century: The Beatles vs. the Four Seasons." On the back was a checklist, where you could award between 10 and zero points to, say, "Baby It's You" vs. "Big Girls Don't Cry." The "Third Reich" version was far more inspired: the likes of "Matchbox" and "Little Queenie" vs. audience noise titled "Arbeit Mach Frei," "Schweinehund," "Your Papers, Please" and "Vhere Ist Pete Best?" Starting tepidly with "A Taste of Honey" and "Till There Was You," the band, with Paul doing most of the singing and John taunting the crowd, soon goes absolutely elsewhere, into sounds so rough the songs barely retain a shred of recognizability. On "Talkin' 'Bout You" 1977 London punk is discovered, not as style but strictly as form, with a disorientingly atonal one-note guitar solo -- here, as on "Where Have You Been All My Life" and "Roll Over Beethoven," impossible to credit as the work of sober, worried George. A tame Carl Perkins ditty like "Everybody's Trying to Be My Baby" goes over the edge into a kind of war -- or right into the secret society into which Kirchherr and Voormann had already initiated the Beatles, and vice versa.

10) Ringo Starr TV commercial for Charles Schwab

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As drummer for Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, Ringo often sat in with the Beatles in Hamburg; now he sits up straight in an office delivering investment-counsel gobbledygook to up-and-comers as the menacing piano line of "Money (That's What I Want)" bangs in the background. Of all the Beatles' official recordings, their 1963 cover of Barrett Strong's 1960 original (the first real Motown record; there's a blood-and-guts account of the making of the Detroit template in Raynoma Gordy Singleton's "Berry, Me and Motown," often translated as "Bury Me in Motown") was perhaps the only one to capture the spirit of the Hamburg cauldron -- capture it, and heave it at the world. Whenever I hear the Beatles' version, aiming, it seems for its whole length, at John's scream "I WANT TO BE FREE!" I know that nothing could ever be better. I hope Ringo made a good deal: The commercial is a reminder, or, for those who haven't heard the record, a clue.


Greil Marcus

The Rude Mechs' theatrical adaptation of Greil Marcus' book "Lipstick Traces" will play Jan. 30-Feb. 1 at DiverseWorks in Houston. For more columns by Greil Marcus, visit his column archive.

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