2015 Top 10

I posted next to nothing here in the second half of last year, so here’s making up for lost time: here is a list of a few notable things I ran across over that period. I can’t resist stealing the format Greil Marcus uses for his monthly Real Life Rock Top 10 column, especially since he just published a book collecting all the columns he’s written over the years. Something to strive for.

1. Laurie Anderson, Heart of a Dog. In a year of decent-to-good memoirs by good-to-great musicians, this 80-minute meditation on memory, time, and loss was more powerful than the rest of them put together. There is a lot to say about this multilayered film, but two pieces in particular, one in the middle and one at the end, and neither one about dogs, truly blew me away. It would ruin the movie to give them away, but in the first, “A Story About a Story,” the artist, who’s been telling personal stories in one form or another for forty years, is brave enough to unpack and expose all the assumptions and poses behind the whole genre. And in the second, “The Lake,” she gives you a take on parent-child dynamics that my wife and I are still arguing about. Anderson’s work is always artistic and creative, but this film has an emotional rawness and a directness that feels like a brand new direction more than a summation. She was kind enough to stop by to chat at the screening that I attended, and I asked her if the “story about a story” episode in the middle of the film was indicative of a new outlook on storytelling as a whole. She said yes, in a way that made me think she was still figuring out the consequences, and that they would flow into her work for years to come. I can’t wait.

2. Mourning Sun, at the West End Theatre, NYC. Directed by my friend Ari Laura Kreith, this is a play about the fallout from the cycle of child marriage, rape, and pregnancy in Africa. You worry that an issue play might be didactic or artless, but there is a lot here that is artful, especially a scene late in the first act that brings the issue home in the most devastating terms.

You see a stark set on an almost bare stage, you see a young woman getting on a bus. The bus driver notices she smells like a bathroom, the woman explains it away: she just encountered someone incontinent, she says. She moves, unsteadily, to the back of the bus. The passengers around her rise up in disgust, the driver kicks her off the bus. She tries to get on another bus, and the cycle repeats. The woman has an obstetric fistula, a hole in her bladder, from when she was raped as a child bride, became pregnant, and went into prolonged labor that her body wasn’t mature enough to handle. Now she can’t stop peeing. She tries to get on a third bus, repeating the same painful dialogue, and by then you’re squirming in your seat, so uncomfortable that you think you might actually smell the urine in the theater.

3. Richard Thompson, “Fergus Lang.” I saw Richard Thompson play a great solo acoustic show at NJPAC in Newark in April, and the one new song that stayed with me was this caustic takedown of a not-at-all disguised Donald Trump figure. It was springtime then, months before Trump announced for president, and Thompson’s satire played mostly for laughs. “Fergus Lang (the Trump stand-in) has a fine head of hair,” Thompson sang in the chorus, “when the wind’s in the right direction.” In the moment, the song seemed totally over the top — but something changed later in the year, as Trump became the 2015 king of all media and the frontrunner for the Republican nomination. When you hear “Fergus Lang” now, all you can do is shake your head that it doesn’t go nearly far enough. Thompson may have a rich artistic imagination, but the real Fergus Lang has managed to imagine a kind of politics that even Thompson couldn’t dream up. If art is the expression of imagination, as Henry Moore said, then is Donald Trump also the frontrunner for the Grammy for New Artist of the Year?

4. Golden State Warriors and Kansas City Royals. Sports stories don’t have to be inspirational, and the good guys don’t always end up on top. But when the teams that play with the most joy end up winning it all, it’s beautiful to watch.

5. The Red Iguana, Salt Lake City, UT. Mexican is my comfort food, and this unassuming place in Salt Lake City had the best mole sauces, and probably the best Mexican food, that I’ve ever eaten. When you first come in, they give you a sample of eight moles, and you can have your meal made with any of them. I had a chile relleno with a combination of two sauces, and I still feel like I can taste them months later. I can’t imagine anything hitting the spot more after a long day’s drive across Utah.

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6. The Mekons, “Heaven and Back,” Bowery Ballroom, NYC. After a recent documentary expanded their cultural presence from hundreds of fans to possibly thousands, the Mekons toured this summer to larger crowds than usual, and on this night in July, the Bowery was packed. The band responded with fierce intensity, cutting out much of the usual banter between songs, and reminding you that no matter what you knew or thought you knew about them, they were a great rock and roll band first. They even brought out the high leg kicks for “Heaven and Back”… and then Rico fell backwards into Jon’s guitar amp, some of the sound went out, and the song disintegrated into three minutes of archetypal inter-Mekon insults, sarcasm, and laughter. Hard as they may try, they can’t escape being hilarious. Then everybody picked themselves up and tore into the next number. It was as perfectly Mekonic as you can get.

7. Sleater-Kinney, “Was it a Lie,” Kings Theatre, NYC. The opening notes echoed the better-known “Jumpers,” S-K’s other death-themed song, which the band had ripped through near the beginning of the set. But while “Jumpers” stands in direct opposition to its subject matter, as perhaps the most life-affirming song you’ll ever hear, “Was it a Lie” is a lot harder to pin down. It is complex, and subtle, and what makes it work is the astonishing delicacy and empathy of Corin Tucker’s vocal. This one is for everyone who makes the mistake of thinking of Tucker mainly as a screamer.

8. Sleater-Kinney, “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight),” Kings Theater, NYC. One of the band’s few false moves on this December night was a rushed rendition of one of their early statement cuts, “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone.” It didn’t ring true because it came across like a standard rock number, without any of the mystery, emotion, and slow self-discovery of the original version. The otherworldly shrieks that began the chorus were reduced to simple yells, the band calling happily to their audience, no longer the involuntary sounds of a woman alone in a room, discovering, step by step, the power of her voice. The song didn’t seem relevant for the band anymore.

Then, when the band came back out for their encore, Carrie announced, “We know it’s Hanukkah,” (and indeed a menorah rested on top of her amp), “but we’re going to play a Christmas song.”

What came next turned out to be a slightly obscure mid-period piece by those same Ramones. If you’ve never heard it, that’s because it’s not that notable: the original is hedged, campy, and plays largely for laughs. But S-K changed the terms of the song. Carrie put down her guitar, caressed the mic and slithered over the stage just like Joey Ramone used to, but with a seriousness of purpose that was all Sleater-Kinney. When she wished you “Merry, merry, MERRY Christmas,” she held you by the scruff of your neck; when she called out, “I don’t want to fight tonight!” her voice was filled with desperation, but also a keen awareness of her own capability. It was crystal clear, in that moment, why “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone” had sounded obsolete earlier: the band was already your Joey Ramone, and much, much more.

Meanwhile, alone in a small town basement somewhere, a thin, quiet, completely straight-eyed 14-year old was trying out voices that she might use to let you know how much she wanted to be your Corin Tucker, Carrie Brownstein, and Janet Fucking Weiss. Shoulders of giants.

9. Mad Max: Fury Road and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Two sequels to beloved sci-fi trilogies from the late 70’s and early 80’s with more than a few parallels. Both series were known for a grimier than usual picture of the universe, for one thing, and in both cases the second film in the trilogy was clearly the best and the third was relatively weak, for another. (In one case there was also a set of prequels that nobody wants to talk about, so I won’t either.) Seeing the Star Wars film was like seeing a band you used to like as a kid getting back together after twenty years and delivering a crowd-pleasing show of their hits, all the old formulas working as well as ever. Which might seem like enough, until you see Sleater-Kinney, or Fury Road.

10. Lou Reed, “Turning Time Around.”A late 90’s composition by Laurie Anderson’s late husband, played over the closing credits of Heart of a Dog, fitting the moment so perfectly that you couldn’t believe it wasn’t written specifically for the movie. Weren’t Lou and Laurie in the studio together working on it, going over sounds and timing and exactly how the credits would roll over the track?

Open Up Doors and Rooms Appear Like Magic

The Mekons are a rock band that a few people really like. Judging by the symptoms — heard all their records, seen them live in multiple time zones, even went to see “Revenge of the Mekons,” Joe Angio’s documentary about the band, when it premiered at DOC NYC last year — I am one of these people. This October, the movie returned to New York for a one-week run at Film Forum, which was occasion for Columbia University to convene a panel about the band’s stance and music, and for me to geek out on yet another kind of Mekons event. (A panel about the Mekons? At Columbia? Why, yes: you are not getting old because you’re hearing things, you’re getting old because Columbia is holding a panel about the Mekons.) After all that, I didn’t exactly need to go back and see the movie one more time, but my older son likes the band too, and sometimes he and I and my wife play their songs together, and DOC NYC and the Columbia panel had been way past his bedtime, so, OK, let’s go?

When you follow a band over many years, you join a community, with the attendant feelings of familiarity and comfort. Which may seem contrary to the punk ethos (quote-unquote) of challenge and rebellion, but most of us find it easier to question the status quo in the company of friends. At the Columbia event, Greil Marcus had read from an essay that set the Mekons up as comforters for society’s exiles, the kind of knowing, good-humored companions you want to have, even as the world crumbles around you. That came back to me now, sitting in the dark with my son, other fans around us, waiting to hear the chiming-at-midnight opening E chords of Where Were You (one of the band’s canonical anthems, or anti-anthems, which opens the movie). Our own version of a cozy barstool on Cheers, waiting for Norm to show up.

But the best music also knocks you off your barstool, even when you’re sure you’ve heard it all before. And so, about two thirds of the way through the movie, peeking out from in between the band’s greatest hits, or what would have been if they ever had any (Now in one place, all your favorite Mekon chart-toppers! Last Dance! Memphis Egypt! Hard to be Human! The Curse!), I caught something much less familiar. Sally Timms’s voice was at the center of it, slow, jaded, yet full of drama. The guitars behind the vocal were simultaneously grand and tense, chords building, and not resolving. There was only a snippet of the song, barely enough to catch your attention, but it was more operatic than anything I had ever heard from the band, and in that moment it made my head spin, and then it was gone.

What had I heard? I figured it out the next day: a song called Love Letter, off an album called I ♥ Mekons, which the band released in the early 90’s after two years of record label limbo, to a remarkably indifferent reception even by Mekons standards. I bought the album when it first came out, fell in love with the dynamite first cut (Millionaire, a gloriously poppy cross between Heart of Glass and Cyndi Lauper’s version of Money Changes Everything), and mostly ignored the rest. I managed to forget the record entirely after my copy vanished a few years later during a move between coasts. Now I found it online and dialed up the song.

It opens with the same majestic guitar I had heard for an instant in the movie, waves crashing against the rocks. Then the music calms a bit and the vocal comes in. Sounding as compromised as she did on Millionaire, but a bit more distant, Sally tells the story of a doomed love affair. A man, out of sorts, likely away from home, is writing to his lost love. He has probably just been with someone else. Having set the scene, Sally becomes the man, expresses his turmoil and contradictions: he loves and hates the woman he is writing to at the same time. The pace is slow, the man conflicted, but then, with no warning whatsoever, there’s a great rush forward, a decision. “When you come back to me!” the singer cries. A boulder rolls down a hill, faster than you could have imagined, and shatters at the bottom.

Then the chorus. “Open up doors and rooms appear like magic,” and the music opens up too. It calls up new worlds to discover, but the singer warns you to be afraid as you walk down the hall: monsters, not prizes, hide behind these doors. Guitars rise up again and now you realize Sally is speaking as the woman, toying with the man: “Oblige me and I’ll scorn you… Offend me and you’ll see how much trouble I can be.” Was this the section I had heard in the film? The turbulence dies down, without resolving. The woman, an exile too, just as compromised as the man, receives his letter, crumples it up. The water roils, the boulder rolls down the hill once more, the waves crash again.

Hearing the song again, I couldn’t believe it made no impact on me when I first encountered it. It’s filled with thrills: that mad rush forward, the sense of endless discovery in the chorus. The singer may try to hold you back with her words, but the music pulls you ahead, you can’t help opening one door after another. Walking down the street the next day, fully engaged with the song, hearing it over and over, I still saw those doors, and I couldn’t help thinking that the miracle of the Mekons’ music, over all these years, has been that endless sense of surprise, for both the listeners and the band. And I couldn’t help thinking back to the end of the film, which gives Greil Marcus, music enthusiast and Mekons champion, the last word: “They still play as if they are discovering their music. Talk about capturing the punk ethos!” No quote-unquote needed now.

Open up doors. Away on a business trip a few days later, I called my wife, who told me: “Your son just discovered Hüsker Dü!” He had found their music on an old iPod of mine that he dug up I have no idea where. I don’t remember exactly what was on the Pod, and I don’t know how he decided to put on Hüsker Dü, but he did, listened a bit, turned to his mother, and said: “Mommy! What is this rocking music?” New worlds ahead to discover, always.