Real Life Rock Top 10

Lucinda Williams, John Henry and Vermeer: Ten observations on pop and its discontents, from the noted author and critic.

Published May 29, 2001 8:34PM (EDT)

1) Michael Sergio, director/writer, "Under Hellgate Bridge" (Cuva Pictures)

One baroque scene in this worthless New York mob 'n' junkies movie: Evil low-level mobster Vincent and noble pretty boy ex-junkie Ryan, one-time rivals over ex-junkie Carla, now married to Vincent, give each other dirty looks in the local bar. Vincent's thugs have Ryan pinned to a chair; Vincent, in a fancy suit, waltzes Carla around a table gleaming with blue stemware. Wearing a matching blue cocktail dress, Carla, who Vincent has shot up "for old time's sake," flops on his shoulder as the jukebox plays Terry Cole's rendition of Bobby Bland's 1959 "I'll Take Care of You," one of Bland's most delicate and painful recordings. "I know you've been hurt/By somebody else," Cole sings as Vincent lays Carla on a table and sodomizes her, grinning at Ryan until his face breaks up in orgasm: "I can tell by the way you carry yourself." "This really takes me back," Vincent says.

2) Trailer Bride, "High Seas" (Bloodshot)

Melissa Swingle, singer and multi-instrumentalist leader (saw, guitar, banjo, harmonica, piano) of this country band, which sounds like an old motel on Route 66 looks, is going to have to change her "I Used to Be Disgusted, Now I Try to Be Amused, But Usually It's Not Worth the Effort" T-shirt sooner or later. But not just yet.

3) John McCready, "Room at the Top," Mojo (May)

The story of Joe Meek, the UK's first real independent record producer. The Tornadoes' 1962 "Telstar," which alone among period pop songs playing in the "Les Années Pop" show at the Pompidou Centre in Paris this spring came across as a match for the best of the pop art on the walls, was his biggest hit; he killed himself in 1967 after shotgunning his landlady to death. McCready on Meek's work with songwriter Geoff Goddard: "Like Joe, Goddard was an amateur spiritualist with a Buddy Holly obsession. Goddard's interests pushed them to attempts at contacting dead stars -- Al Jolson, Mario Lanza, and even Buddy. The sessions prompted Geoff to pen Mike Berry's 'Tribute to Buddy Holly.' Joe and Geoff decided to call up Buddy and see if he thought the record would be a hit. His reply? 'SEE YOU IN THE CHARTS.'"

4) Colson Whitehead, "John Henry Days" (Doubleday)

Anthropologist Harry Smith found the ballad "John Henry" -- or the story of the ex-slave and spike driver who dies in a race with a steam drill -- bottomless. No less than four versions are included on the four volumes of Smith's "Anthology of American Folk Music" -- by the Williamson Brothers and Curry ("Gonna Die With My Hammer in My Hand," 1927), Furry Lewis ("Spike Driver Blues," 1928), J. E. Mainer's Mountaineers ("John Henry Was a Little Boy," 1936) and the Monroe Brothers ("Nine Pound Hammer Is too Heavy," 1936). Scattered through this novel about a young journalist on a junket for the release of a John Henry stamp are Whitehead's versions of the way the song generates versions of itself: tales of how singers find the song, or how the song finds its singers, be they a present-day crackhead or a Jewish song-plugger a hundred years ago. Whitehead's hero stands in the way of a story trying to tell itself, but there is deeper writing here than in novels that have nothing wrong with them.

5) Jonathan Franzen, "Freeloading Man," review of Colson Whitehead, "John Henry Days," New York Times Book Review (May 14)

Novelist Franzen leads with the declaration that he was "irritated" by Whitehead's having made the hero of his first novel, "The Intuitionist," a woman: "Although it's technically impressive and theoretically laudable when a male novelist succeeds in inhabiting a female persona, something about the actual practice makes me uneasy. Is the heroine doing double duty as the novelist's fantasy sex object? Is the writer trying to colonize fictional territory that rightfully belongs to women? Or does the young literato, lacking the perks of power and feeling generally smallened" -- smallened? -- "by the culture, perhaps believe himself to be, at some deep level, not male at all?" Leave aside the assumption that women are by definition "smallened," or, for that matter, the case of Henry James (who, some have argued, was, you know, not exactly male at all, at least as Franzen seems to define male). By the lights of Franzen's argument, Whitehead, who is black, should also not attempt to inhabit white characters, which he does throughout "John Henry Days," and Franzen, who is white, should certainly not be judging the work of a black novelist. But since he is, we can fairly ask: Is he using Whitehead as his fantasy sex object? Is he trying to colonize territory that rightfully (at least as Franzen defines "rightfully") belongs to black writers? Does he perhaps believe himself to be, at some shallow level, not white at all? Or is he simply a moron who should never write about anyone but himself?

6) Lucinda Williams, "Angels Laid Him Away," on "Avalon Blues -- A Tribute to the Music of Mississippi John Hurt" (Vanguard)

More proof that Williams has taken the fawning reviews of her "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road" to heart, and is now ready to bestow her genius on anyone dead enough to keep quiet about it. Too bad Joe Meek isn't around to deal with this.

7-9) "Vermeer and the Delft School," Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, closed May 27)

"The baddest painter since God's Jan Vermeer," Jonathan Richman proclaimed on "Vincent Van Gogh." ("Bompabompadomp ramalangadangdang bompabompadomp oo-wah-oo," went the chorus.) A banner with those words should have hung over Vermeer's "The Procuress" (1656). On the right side of the large, florid painting is a man flipping a prostitute a gold coin while resting his other hand on her breast; on the left is a dandy, by consensus a Vermeer self-portrait, his eyes sparkling in a ravenously privileged male grin.

It's not characteristic. All through the Delft work, especially that of Vermeer (1632-75) and Pieter de Hooch (1629-84), there are quiet rooms, courtyards, streets. There is the emergence of bourgeois life as "a new idea in Europe" (as Saint-Just, at the height of the French Revolution, named happiness) -- as a new idea of harmony, simplicity, domestic art, leisure, neoteny (children are dressed as miniature adults, but their faces are their own, and the faces of adults retain childlike features). There is a stillness, a peace of mind that rules even as tales of colonial adventure bring drama into the home. There is a complete absence of decadence or pretentiousness -- or, most of the time, even anxiety. (Vermeer's 1662-63 "Woman With a Lute" is a glaring anomaly: a girl with hollow eyes in a bird's face, her blonde hair receding as if she's suffering from malnutrition, could be a London punk in 1976.) A whole way of being can be summoned in the luminous possibilities of a single flower or a commonplace bowl.

If you'd left the exhibit and walked across the museum to the William Blake show, you'd have passed van Gogh's 1888 "Madame Roulin and Her Baby," which measures the real distance between the Netherlands in the 17th century and France in the 19th: between a new idea and an old one. The mother is on the right, her head downcast, her yellow face fading into the yellow background as she holds up her baby with its ugly adult's face, with its grimace of one who has already apprehended and understood the ugliness of the world into which it has so recently been born. The mother's age can't be told from her face, but her hands are old and arthritic; she looks down in shame from her monster.

10), advertisement (Prince & Mulberry streets, New York, May 9)

Down the side of a building, the head of a pleasant-looking middle-aged man; your accountant, pharmacist, hardware store clerk. "Their music drowns out the evil voices in my head," he's saying.

By 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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