July/August 2012

Real Life Rock Top Ten

A Monthly Column
of Everyday Culture
and Found Objects

by Greil Marcus

(1) Laura Oldfield Ford, Savage Messiah (Verso). From 2006 through 2009, Ford produced the issues of the fanzine collected here: hundreds of pages of text, maps, bland drawings of vague faces, and cumulatively riveting photos of architectural detritus—roads, graffiti, housing blocks, filthy courtyards, storefronts, overgrown building sites, almost all of them utterly depopulated—chronicling a long walk through the back alleys and abandoned patches of a London remade through Thatcherist and New Labour gentrification and the evictions and new constructions of the looming 2012 Olympics. Read straight through, Ford’s work is the most convincing follow-through there is on the project of poetic urban-renewal inaugurated by the situationists Guy Debord, Ivan Chtcheglov, and Michèle Bernstein. In the early ’50s, they and a few other young layabouts began an exploration of Paris as a city that ran according to its own backward-forward-spinning clock, where a drift down the streets might so scramble time that 1848 would exert a stronger spiritual gravity than 1954. In places Ford echoes Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, her slideshow of sex and death in bohemian New York in the 1980s, and the cityscape in Andrea Arnold’s 2006 film Red Road, where in a decaying Glasgow foxes dart around the base of apartment buildings that are corroding from the inside, almost as strongly. On any given page, Thomas De Quincey, from his 1821 Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, might be holding Ford’s hand: “I could almost have believed, at times that I must be the first discoverer of some of these terrae incognitae, and doubted whether they had yet been laid down in the modern charts of London.”

Number by number, Savage Messiah is a delirious, doomstruck celebration of squats, riots, vandalism, isolation, alcohol, and sex with strangers, all on the terrain of a half-historical, half-imaginary city that the people who Ford follows, herself at the center, can in moments believe they built themselves, and can tear down as they choose. The past is a shadow, an angel, a demon: most of what Ford recounts seems to be taking place in the ’70s or the ’80s or the ’90s, with the first decade of the twenty-first century a kind of slag-heap of time—of boredom, enervation, despair, and hate—that people are trying to burrow out from under. “1973, 1974, 1981, 1990, 2013,” she chants on one page. “Always a return. A Mirror touch. A different way out.” “Queen’s Crescent is the nexus of knife crime, a flashing matrix of Sheffield steel,” Ford writes in Savage Messiah #6, “…suspended somewhere between 1968 and 1981, and I sense my darling there, on the corner of Bassett St. and Allcroft Road. I’m searching the brickwork with dusty fingertips for the first Sex Pistols graffiti of 1976. He was here then, and possibly now, we drift in circles around each other”—and answering herself on the facing page: “In the fabric of the architecture you can always uncover traces and palimpsests, the poly-temporality of the city. As I lay my palm flat against the wall I grasp past texts never fully erasing the traces of earlier inscriptions.”

The aura of a mystical quest hovers over even the most sordid incidents, the ugliest photos of belongings piled up at the foot of an apartment block. John Legend’s “Ordinary People” is on the jukebox: “And all the guilt I harboured, all the shame, the walk around Highbury with so much hanging in the balance, tyranny of choice and the crashing cruelty of desire, it was all locked into that one anodyne song.”

(2) Evans the Death, Evans the Death (Slumberland). Dream pop, casting back to Pauline Murray and the Invisible Girls in London in 1980, coming into perfect focus on “Letter of Complaint,” where Katherine Whitaker dances so delicately, with such a sense of pleasure, she leaves a light behind with each step.

(3) Levon Helm, 1940–2012. Watch him at what might as well have been the end, as the blind, cursing desert rat in his friend Tommy Lee Jones’s 2005 movie The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada; listen to him at the beginning, in 1961, roaring through Bobby “Blue” Bland’s “Further On Up the Road” (collected on The BandA Musical History, or on Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks: The Roulette Years) as if he’s not the driver but the car. And then, in the Band’s “Chest Fever,” as he marshals what Tom Kipp, once of the Montana punk band Deranged Diction, calls “THE BACKBEAT OF GOD” to summon a sound that feels far more like a civil war than “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” let Helm describe an American epic of love and madness, home and flight—a sound so rich you can listen and watch at the same time. That was 1968. The music had no temporal frame of reference clinging to it then, and it doesn’t now.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

To read the full piece, please purchase a copy of the magazine from The McSweeney’s Store.

Greil Marcus is the author of Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century, Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music, and The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy and the American Voice, and other books. His column, Real Life Rock Top Ten, runs monthly in the Believer.

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