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Hostile Witness

We’re all timepieces; some of us are just more timely than others. Is Barbara Kruger, whose flashy, jarring, bellicose retrospective is now on view at the Whitney, only yesterday’s artist, or can her warlike work still be heard today?

Heard is the operative word, for no one spoke louder or carried a more vengeful stick from one end of the 1980s to the other than Kruger. It’s hard to imagine a time less like Kruger’s than ours. Her art cross-examined our relationship to desire, race, gender games, and consumerism. Now we’re all shoppers. At the Whitney, amid an installation that is part big top, part revival meeting, and part walk-in pinball machine, I felt any ironic reference to Descartes waft away when I overheard a twentysomething man say, “I don’t get it,” as he looked at Kruger’s emblematic work declaring, “I Shop Therefore I Am.” His girlfriend added, “She seems so angry.”

Well, angry is one word for it. Others include incredulous, incendiary, and unequivocal. The ultimate hostile witness and grand inquisitor, Kruger is the crossover artist par excellence. Your parents know her style even if they don’t know who invented it. Kruger did covers for Newsweek and Esquire; her work appeared in The New York Times op-ed pages; she designed shopping bags, billboards, coffee cups, and bus posters, and was ripped off by countless graphic designers without protest. She did what artists are always saying they want to do: She brought her art to the world and to the street.

But maybe you just can’t go home again. Having had all this influence “out there,” Kruger’s been at a loss about what to do with her art for the last five years or so. Her graphic style, in place by 1981, hasn’t shown much development. She’s turned to Nauman-esque talking heads, and her texts are now being spoken by actors on videotape or by audio voice-overs. So is Kruger more social critic and graphic designer than artist?

Pardon me, but what the fuck does it matter? Kruger cut through the bullshit. She completely nailed the potential of her art, and made it absolutely clear that she was at war with bias. She was critical but not negative, opened up a wide aesthetic swath, and created something so forceful and indelible it could be called the Kruger Effect. It’s everywhere. What more do you want from an artist? That’s why it’s smug and supercilious to say Kruger’s art is just “advertising,” or that she’s only preaching to the converted. Ask women artists and artists of color if they think the art world has been converted. And if Kruger is nothing but a political artist, I guess that makes Bob Dylan one, too.

Kruger may be the Robert Oppenheimer of postconceptualism. She initiated her own private Manhattan Project in the late ’70s, when, as a lapsed painter and practicing pictures editor at Mademoiselle, she took a radical step. Kruger combined the volatile, free-floating atoms of conceptual art, photojournalism, text, and graphic design, borrowed from John Heartfield and Hannah Höch, and added liberal doses of feminism, disappointment, and sarcasm. The resulting mixture was so radioactive you could almost hear her echo Oppenheimer’s famous words as she released her work on an unsuspecting world: “I am become death.”

The effect was like a big bug splatting on a windshield at high speed. In this shocking, simple way, Kruger fused image and text into a high-powered whole. Not only is Kruger’s black-and-white-and-red format instantly recognizable, the words we, our, and your belong to her the way fluorescent fixtures belong to Flavin and crushed cars do to Chamberlain. I spent part of the ’80s fearful that I was one of the yous she was addressing. Now I often have students compose Krugerisms to illustrate how effective her method is. Some I remember are “We won’t play Lord of your Flies,” “Your ace isn’t in our hole,” “I am your kiss of death,” and “We won’t put our eggs in your basket.”

Without her, artists as disparate as Sue Williams, Lorna Simpson, and Sarah Lucas mightn’t have happened. Maybe even Jeff Koons’s will to power owes a little something to Kruger’s. In light of how completely she occupies the commanding, authoritative voice of the patriarch, Matisse’s laudatory words about Chardin fit Kruger to a tee: She’s “the father of us all.”

Which may be what freaks some people out. These days, Kruger’s Swiftian rants strike some as “ridiculous,” “embarrassing,” or “overwrought.” But isn’t that like saying she’s hysterical? Unfortunately, the Oppenheimer comparison plays itself out as farce with Kruger; the same way he was suspended as a “security risk,” Kruger’s critics label her as “over.” In America, nothing fails like success.

My advice is forget about the decade stuff and the labels. Let Kruger’s accomplishments speak for themselves; allow her work to overtake you. Kruger’s done what Patti Smith boasted: “i haven’t fucked much with the past, but i’ve fucked plenty with the future.” Or, look at it this way: In four months, we could elect another Bush as president. If so, who you gonna call?

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Woody Guthrie’s Second Life

It’s a credit to the mythmakers of the Woody Guthrie revival that they’ve never claimed their hero was the proletarian everyman he sold himself as. Not that they had much choice—by the time Guthrie was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, Joe Klein’s thorough and brilliant Woody Guthrie: A Life had fondly but firmly debunked the thank-God-I’m-a-country-boy aw-shucksism the folksinger had put forth as an image-conscious man of the people. The son of a small-time Oklahoma real estate man whose luck ran out long before the Depression, Guthrie fit a downwardly mobile mold that turns out misfits like child abuse. He had the gift of optimism, but he knew more spiritual darkness than he let on, and he never resolved his internal conflict between principled collectivism and ragged individualism. He drank too much, he was always chasing skirt, he hit the road at the drop of a hint, and he was possessed by a creative drive so feverish that he left what Dave Marsh estimates as 750,000 unpublished words, including hundreds of lyrics—mostly from the ’40s, when his second wife, Marjorie, was tracking his outpourings, with many more gone. But for all their eagerness to promulgate Guthrie’s political vision, the likes of Marsh and Billy Bragg—the driving force behind the most miraculous of the Guthrie revivals, Mermaid Avenue, now into an improbably spirited second volume of new music fitted to old words—are decent and aware enough to understand that there’s no future for a politics that ignores unseemly complexities.

Still, canonization invites exaggeration. So it’s significant that the biggest overstatements in the uncommonly consistent Hard Travelin’: The Life and Legacy of Woody Guthrie, a book based on a 1996 symposium at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, involve music—the Hall of Fame guy stuck with specifying Woody’s impact on rock and roll (John Lennon? Bob Marley? please), the Smithsonian guy who can’t resist ranking him with Armstrong, Dylan, and Presley (what about James Brown and Dr. Dre?). It’s even more significant that although the 13 contributors chip in two excellent essays on his leftism and a sharply sympathetic survey of his 600 surviving drawings, none devotes more than a few passing references to Woody’s music per se—not even ace compiler Jeff Place, who details Guthrie’s recording history while barely mentioning his singing or playing. Nor does his life story feature that signal moment when the hero obtains his first guitar and isn’t seen again for three months, so obsessed is he with learning chords. For Guthrie, music was one interest among many. He was deeper into art, supporting himself as a sign painter. And when he performed around town with his Corncob Trio he was a comedian first. The adolescent author of a lost psychology treatise who somehow managed to turn out daily columns for the Communist press while pursuing his musical career in L.A. and New York, Woody Guthrie loved language above all else.

“I ain’t a writer. I want that understood. I’m just a little one-cylinder guitar picker,” Woody once wrote, but note that this was a man who signed his letters “True as the average” and was about to churn out the less-true-than-average autobiography Bound for Glory. For sure he warn’t much of a musician. His singing was famously unassertive, he never claimed to pick on two cylinders, his recordings benefited inordinately when his negligible sidekick Cisco Houston pitched in, and although Guthrie liked to argue that the simple old tunes were best because they were the ones folks wanted to hear, he showed small ability to concoct a simple new tune out of them, as has always been folk and pop practice. This is why there’s no equating him with Dylan, who’s taken his ideas so much further—it’s like equating Louis Armstrong with King Oliver because Armstrong comes out of Oliver. By all means invest in Smithsonian Folkways’ The Asch Recordings, which collects all four of Place’s meticulous reissues in one box. The first volume’s much the most listenable, but throughout it’s a fascinating and well-conceived overview of an American artist who surpasses, say, his mutual appreciator John Steinbeck. Just don’t imagine it’s this year’s Anthology of American Folk Music.

Sure Guthrie was influenced by Jimmie Rodgers and Blind Lemon Jefferson and all the songs his crazy doomed mama knew. And when he hit the road, damn right he took his guitar. But I say we see him clearer when we look beyond music for an immediate forebear: fellow Okie Will Rogers. This deeply affable part-Cherokee, who like Guthrie was a newspaper columnist as well as a performer, became a superstar saying things like “I never met a man I didn’t like,” “This country is here on account of the real common sense of the Big Normal Majority,” and “Don’t gamble. Take all your savings and buy some good stock and hold it till it goes up, then sell it. If it don’t go up, don’t buy it.” Guthrie loved him, as he loved Charlie Chaplin, whose impishness he also absorbed; the goofy hayseed he played on the L.A. radio shows where he first made his name was based on Rogers’s shtick. And though many other ’30s entertainers—including Bing Crosby, chief among the “sissy-voiced” jukebox lotharios Guthrie railed against—also drew on Rogers, none of them told friends that the men they most admired were Jesus and Will Rogers, much less named their firstborn sons Will Rogers Guthrie.

In part because Guthrie carried that guitar, he was never circumscribed by Rogers’s model, and he obviously outgrew it. Rogers was no conservative, but his folksy humanism was pretty soft—Guthrie met plenty of men he didn’t like, most of them moneyed. Soon the trouble he saw—and suffered—on his escapes from the Dust Bowl had planted in him a radicalism brought to fruition by the analysis and community of the Communist Party’s Popular Front. And that wasn’t all the CP provided. It also gave Guthrie an outlet and an audience for language the way he wanted to use it, language that honored the actually existing plainspeak of the folks whose voices he knew so much better than such perceived rivals as Walt Whitman and Carl Sandburg, touched unpredictably with a fanciful wordplay so extreme at times that it seems to prefigure the dementia of the disease that soon destroyed his mind and body. But—like Whitman and Sandburg, like Joe Hill and Robert Frost too, but also like all the matinee idols and pop stars he considered enemies of the people—Guthrie chose to project those words through a cunningly fabricated public persona.

No one understood this more profoundly than Bob Dylan, which is why that shape-shifting fame-gamer was as moved by Bound for Glory as by any of Guthrie’s recordings. It’s probably fair to say that without Dylan, Guthrie would have had no impact on rock and roll, and that as it stands he’s had plenty. Although some of his ideas would have lived on because they weren’t exclusive to him—the recycled folk melody above all, and also the vocal deadpan, what Wilfred Mellers called his “monody of deprivation,” which has lots of relatives in folk and country—it was Dylan who proved once and for all how musical logocentrism could be. Guthrie was a page writer of distinction—Pastures of Plenty: A Self-Portrait, which Marsh and Harold Leventhal constructed from the file drawers circa 1990, has even more of the unvarnished magic he cultivated than Bound for Glory. But it was in song—in rhymed doggerel shot through with the ordinary, often literally tuneless yet touched by the natural rhythms and casual eloquence that will rise to the surface of people’s speech for as long as they talk to each other—that he found his artistic inspiration and his artistic calling. And it was Dylan who took that calling to the next level, convincing rock and roll that popular song’s immemorial tradition of ambitious dreamers scribbling verses could go anywhere it wanted. It was Dylan who opened the floodgates to species of poetry good and bad that had more precedents in Guthrie’s wilder flights than in the well-honed bons mots of Broadway’s highest brows.

So please don’t suspect me of disrespect aforethought when I get better message from Bruce Springsteen’s revved-up “Riding in My Car” and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott’s wobbly “1913 Massacre” on the new Righteous Babe tribute ‘Til We Outnumber ‘Em than from Guthrie’s originals, or when I point out that James Talley’s calm, faithful Woody Guthrie and Songs of My Oklahoma Home has a warm clarity Guthrie lacks. And please don’t think I’m being mean when I declare the two Mermaid Avenues the finest Guthrie albums there are. The new one’s rougher and more garage, with none of the debut’s instant grace, but it’s far more than the outtakes you may first hear. The rancor Jeff Tweedy works up on “Feed of Man” packs a sharper political jolt than anything on the first volume, or anything I can recall from the Smithsonian box either; the long love ballad “Remember the Mountain Bed” is simply gorgeous; for grace there’s Corey Harris and Natalie Merchant; and on it goes. Really, folks—the gawky Bragg and the aimless Wilco, outdoing themselves yet again. Is it Guthrie’s myth that turns them into something like great artists? Or is it simply his words, within which is concealed the secret of a music he himself rarely unlocked? Volume three should be all union songs. We could use a bunch of good ones.

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Yearjerker

Has any miniseries ever had a title this grandly inane? The many characters in NBC’s four-hour sudser about The ’60s, airing February 7 and 8, don’t undergo a single experience that violates the clichés of the period. At least producer Lynda
Obst openly dotes on the clichés: “It’s impossible for me to think about the ’60s without feeling corny,” she burbles in the press kit. Or to make a miniseries about them that isn’t, since this account of generational conflict ends with a family reconciliation that’s the dopiest upbeat finale since Holocaust‘s. Happens right on cue in ’69, too, without a hint that plenty of polarizing stuff— hey, what about Kent State?— was yet to come.

Then again, by ’69 Bob Dylan himself thought corniness had its aesthetic virtues— and big-event TV isn’t made for Ellen Willis. On its own MOR terms, Obst’s numbskull epic— think Dharma and Greg meets The Winds of War— is gratifyingly nonrevisionist. Doesn’t vilify the era as destructive, wimps out on but doesn’t demonize sex-and-drugs, and offers not only a favorable if shallow take on the antiwar movement but a sympathetic if gingerly one on the Black Panthers. Which would leave me feeling grateful for small favors if by now these didn’t count as big ones. However fed up I get with the mythologizing of a decade I’m old enough to remember but can’t claim I experienced— too young and geeky for the sex (drat), too craven for the drugs (oh well), my dad dropped me off at the protest on his way to work at the State Department— I lost my taste for counterculture bashing as Newt discovered his. I think seeing yesteryear’s upheavals turned into schlock for the same mainstream that was appalled by the reality is sublimely touching— touching because it’s schlock.

Not that the dramatic content isn’t risible. The script serves up two representative families — one white, one black, and guess which hogs the screen. The Herlihys are blue-collar Catholics in Chicago; Dad, played by Life Goes On‘s testy Bill Smitrovich, is a barber who wants a better life for his children as the decade rosily dawns. But soon goofus son Brian (Jerry O’Connell) has joined the Marines: “I’ve got good news! I’m going to Vietnam.” Punished for doing the twist like she means it at a high-school dance, frisky Katie (Julia Stiles) is then impregnated by a passing rock-and-roller (simp-off-the-old-block Donovan Leitch, who’s pretty good until a hippie wig does him in), and tearfully flees her father’s reproaches by clearing out for the Haight.

Meanwhile, smart son Michael (Josh Hamilton) winds up at Loyola, to be tutored in the budding antiwar movement by Daniel Berrigan (Cliff Gorman) after a stint as a freedom rider. That’s how he fleetingly bumps into his African American opposite number— Leonard Roberts as Emmit Taylor, whose minister father (Charles Dutton) is leading Civil Rights protests. Then, at a teach-in whose location a title card helpfully identifies as “Greenwich Village, New York City,” Michael meets the love of his life: fellow radlib Sarah Weinstock (Jordana Brewster), who shares his fondness for conversing in Dylan quotes but soon falls under the spell of charismatic antiwar organizer Kenny Klein (Jeremy Sisto, pretending to be Mark Rudd).

In its nitwit way, this pastiche has some
ingenuity— you can’t say it doesn’t cover a lot of ground. Yet everyone is kept so busy hurtling among milestones that the actors have trouble registering as much more than Furby toys. (The main exception is Brewster; as Warren Zevon would say, her hair is perfect.) The miniseries’s opportunism can be so guileless it’s funny: the minute Michael shows up at the 1967 march on the Pentagon wearing a familiar-looking white sweater, you know he’s going to mimic the famous photograph of a protester placing a flower in a National Guardsman’s rifle barrel. Not only that, the gesture is what gets him back in Sarah’s good graces, since of course she’s nearby.

Less funny is the expedient way, once his church is burned down in payback for his activism, Reverend Taylor turns tail and moves his family to, whaddya know, Watts— insulting the staunchness of Taylor’s real-life counterparts to hustle viewers off to black America’s next flashpoint. In any case, the Taylor episodes are so glaringly a poor second to the Herlihys’ adventures that the only thing they’ll teach anyone’s children about the ’60s is the meaning of the word “tokenism.” Yet though I don’t want to minimize this failing, I’m going to, because The ’60s is of interest mainly in relation to the middle-class white TV audience— not just its attitudes then, but the limits of its nostalgia now. More than it knows, the lopsided structure recapitulates the discomfort of white folks happy enough to venerate MLK and SNCC but estranged from what followed.

While his flashy, fake-newsreely simulations of celebrated events— notably the recreation of the ’68 Columbia student strike— sling zeitgest hash with verve, director Mark Piznarski doesn’t lose sleep fretting that he’s too obvious. For That Day in Dallas, he piles on teary montages, the Zapruder film, and (let up already) Simon &
Garfwhozit mewling about “a time of innocence” until his one good image— a nun’s face crumpling as she prepares to break the news to her class— gets lost in the overkill. Yet just because Piznarski regurgitates so many hand-me-downs while remaining oblivious to their triteness, the miniseries lumbers right past cheap into primitive, which gets to you. When the Pentagon march begins to the chatter-toothy sound of— I be gosh, Velvets fans— “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” it may not be overwhelming, but it sure is disarming. And when part one cranks up to the frenzied climax of Katie’s symbolic labor pains— carries on like she’s giving birth to either Jesus or the thing from Alien— you may feel as sheepish as I do about admitting that hyberbole this banal can be moving.

Unexpectedly, the miniseries does better by the decade’s politics than its fun, which Obst probably worries will look silly. (It was, transcendently; it does, insipidly.) The sop to the audience is that Kenny the hardcore activist is an egotistic blowhard who comes to a bad end. He also “cares more about ideas than people,” a comment the script finds so deep it’s made twice. But compared to Forrest Gump‘s dim-witted caricature of Abbie Hoffman, treating the antiwar movement’s leaders as flawed but not monstrous looks downright sophisticated— and say what you will, The ’60s does make a hero out of a guy who burns his draft card, which in 1999 strikes me as affirmation enough. Obst’s message that her generation did more good than bad before ending up like everyone else is far preferable to The Big Chill, which declared boomers so wonderful that even their sellouts had magic.

Sentimentalizing got-a-revolution into a bourgeois rite of passage may enrage militancy fans. But it’s not a misrepresentation of the movement’s or the counterculture’s rank and file, most of whom, once all tomorrow’s nirvanas went phhhft, indeed did turn once more to Sunday’s God. At one level, Pop Herlihy’s reaction when his wayward offspring all turn up on his doorstep in ’69— they’ve been reunited at (c’mon, guess) Woodstock, and did I mention that Brian comes back from ‘Nam a hairy basket case?— trivializes the whole era into a sitcom episode. Yet it’s also such a great line that I don’t want to spoil it, and the moment where the miniseries should end even if we get a surfeit of maudlin wrap-ups instead.

Of course, conceiving experience generically falsifies it. Deep down in her shallowness, even Obst probably knows there’s no such thing as “the” ’60s. But her sappiness generates its own let’s-call-it-Pavlovian validity. Because it deems radicals and hippies fit subjects for bathetic prime-time crud, The ’60s both tests and celebrates just how much of the decade’s legacy has passed into the collective acceptance that appeals to bathos presuppose— which turns out to be quite a lot. Loved every stupid minute, myself.

 

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Y2K Pete

Richard Schickel’s His Picture in the Papers argues that it was Douglas Fairbanks”— not his wife, not his friend Chaplin, not any of the others— who cheerfully, perhaps unthinkingly, opened up his life, that rich good life, to the public, and invited them to participate in it, enjoy it with him. And it was he who then revolted against their endless intrusions.” Schickel then suggests “that J.D. Salinger learned his public manner from Garbo, that Hemingway was Fairbanks’ literary inheritor. The game of analogs can be indefinitely extended in literature. And in other fields.”

From Fairbanks to Hemingway to celebrities in “other fields,” i.e. Bob Dylan, is easy enough. And from Dylan to DiFranco the analogy is even easier. After the great “I Am” of her first eight albums, one could see In-Love-With-Goat-Boy Dilate and Call-Off-the-Girl-Police Little Plastic Castles as breaks with her audience.

“Not since Bob Dylan plugged in his electric guitar have a group of fans been so freaked by an artist’s evolution,” claims a 1997 Spin profile. But is it the same? What if that celebrity is a feminist? Suppose girls see the world more in terms of relationships and boys more in terms of abstractions. Suppose girls are made to feel not only that what they want and need is not important but that how they see things is less “mature” than how boys see things. Just suppose.

Suppose a female rocker who achieves an autonomous voice ends up on an island cut off from her female voice. And suppose a female rocker who stays true to her relational voice ends up cut off from her rocking voice and so ends up on another island.

And suppose that in the 1990s a punk comes along who calls herself a folksinger and a feminist and has a political and psychological understanding of the power grids people, particularly girls, have to live inside. Suppose she has a sense of history. And suppose along with her intelligence she has an erotically charged rock and roll musical stance and songs that acknowledge need and vulnerability and a voice to get it all across. And suppose this folksinger has a devoted female audience and controls her own career.

That is to say, suppose Ani DiFranco and her audience have acted out a successful drama combining autonomy and relationship. Suppose, unlike female rockers whose similar dramas were too often performed in front of what academics call “the male gaze” but we shall call “the male leer,” Ani and her fans gazed at each other and found their suppressed “other voice.” Or voices.

Maybe they healed a psychic split.

And maybe once that split was healed, although the machinery of celebrity was still in place, they all got off the island together. Maybe this time, when the core group of fans matured just as the artist felt the need to control the celebrity spotlight, it was neither Bob-Dylan-goes-electric nor Linda-Ronstadt-goes-bimbo but a healing of a second psychic split. Maybe DiFranco has the space to maintain a relationship with her fans while they differentiate. Maybe that will form a continuing story, not a break. Maybe DiFranco will be Pete Seeger, not Bob Dylan.

For Ani traditionalists, Up Up Up Up Up Up (hereafter UpX6) contains a breaking-up-with-a-girlfriend song and a political-outlaw-on-the-run song. But the voice is calmer. The first single is “Not Angry Anymore,” as in “not,” and this is the only Ani record with two songs in a row that mention churches. The vocals aren’t exactly understated. But they aren’t all over the place anymore either.

Much of the sound reminded me of early Country Joe, Surrealistic Pillow, and the pothead, flower-power Donovan. They were folkies gone electric also, but acidhead optimists, and evolutionists. Ani adds lyrical focus to the same spacey sound. “Come Away,” a lover-junkie song like Little Plastic Castles‘s “Two Little Girls,” is almost gorgeous, but the softer music only deepens the song’s bite.

UpX6 has been billed as the first Ani CD composed with not just drummer Andy Stochansky but the whole band in mind. There are no Ginsbergian explosions of words— the contrasts in mood and texture from cut to cut are more sonic than verbal, and mostly pleasing, even beautiful. But the expanded musical pallet makes the rough moments stand out. I’ll pass on the closing jam, thanks, although I liked “Pulse” the last time, and there’s awkward stuff that would have passed boiled down to an acoustic guitar riff. All in all, it’s an album that fits together better the more you listen. It needs a discerning and devoted audience before those rough edges will smooth out and cohere. And I hope such an audience is still there.

Why does it matter? Why can’t an old rad like me allow DiFranco, after all that she’s accomplished, the ambiguous spotty maturity of most pop acts?

Because of Buffalo.

As the saga is told, the young DiFranco moved from Buffalo to NYC, where she survived and found her voice. But her record company is up in Buffalo, and at some point DiFranco moved back. UpX6‘s “Trickle Down” is a reverbed recounting of childhood memories of the steel mills closing.

Maybe Buffalo is just another Rust Belt city, but that’s why I like its place in the DiFranco cosmology. Ani on tour helps bring a voice to all those demi-Anis struggling to survive in their own little Lower East Sides, and her widening audience shows that those struggles and sites now stretch across America. Although we aren’t all laid-off steelworkers, the anxiety that we might inhabit the next private Buffalo now stretches coast to coast as well.

In the remarkable and ignored Disconnected, Barbara Rudolph traces the lives of six employees who lost their jobs at AT&T during the great 1990s downsizings. Richard Sennett’s Corrosion of Character paints a larger picture of an affluent America where instability in the workplace has made everyone unsure of who they are and whether they have a history.

While the right wing sees the culture of the ’60s spreading like an illness and a stiff dose of trad morality as the only cure, the instability that culture was trying to address has spread to the emotional lives of middle managers in New Jersey.

When Bob Dylan cried out “How does it feel?/To be on your own/With no direction home” in 1965, he was inside an expanding subculture. Today, Rudolph and Sennett show, that same question could be politely asked of any corporate commuter on any train or bus.

In this context, a sexual outlaw whose goal was always connection as well as sensation gained a voice and a history and a self not just alone, but for and with others.

Now an insecurity different from but similar to the one she escaped in her adolescence is spreading to adults across the country. Dealing with it requires someone who understands the link between social context and inner life. It also requires a feminist. Only a feminist can reach back through identity politics to an earlier tradition of opposition without slighting either. Only a feminist can bring us that history, that story, that voice. And only a rock and roller can make it seem as much fun as Douglas Fairbanks in The Thief of Bagdad.

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Consumer Guide

Six of these 12 picks recast known compositions, and only two of the six are in the rock tradition. But I did find one medium-obscure alt band worth writing about. One.

BANG ON A CAN: Music for Airports: Brian Eno (Point Music) The problem with the original was that it had a bit too much going on melodically and structurally to minimalize down into a synthesizer, especially one that wasn’t pretending to be anything else. Here the piano-clarinet-cello-guitar-bass-percussion ensemble pretends to be a synthesizer. And although I pray postdance knob-twisters don’t fall for the Gregorian goo-goo girls who douse “1/2” with blancmange, the lovely textures will make them drool. Or anyway, sweat. Perspire. Exude. A MINUS

BECK: Mutations (DGC) Mellow Gold‘s loser thumbed his nose at the world; Odelay‘s winner put his mark on it. On this adjustment to musical fashion, a success story discovers what he already knew but hadn’t seen up close— eventually, winners lose. No longer immersed in failure, which you joke about (and then beat), he takes on decay, which you hold at bay (for a while). Although he hones his insults when the occasion arises, forget jokes— he’s in mourning for dead relationships and the bodily passing they prefigure, and he sounds it. But because he’s kept up with the times, he also sounds lyrical and elegiac, evoking the soft nostalgia of folk-rock without falling into it. Embracing the new directness, he feints and sidesteps just like always, exploiting a fad’s expressive potential like the shape-shifter he remains. A MINUS

BELLE AND SEBASTIAN: The Boy With the Arab Strap(Matador) Rather than singing the anxieties of suspended postadolescence in lyrics that dissolve upon contact with the mind, Stuart Murdoch pins his themes down one scenario at a time. Rather than tracing his uncertainties in music that wanders hill and dale, he erects song structures and rounds their corners with wispy vocals. With his little gang helping him, the music comes out beautiful and fragile. When their childhood ends, as it must, they’ll be happier than they are now— or else much sadder. A MINUS

JAMES BROWN: Say It Live and Loud: Live in Dallas 08.26.68 (Polydor) Counting the half-studio Sex Machine, this makes Brown’s fifth live album from the crucial 1967­1971 period— and except for Sex Machine, it’s also the best. Its chief competition, Live at the Apollo Volume II, was released a few weeks after it was recorded, but Brown moved so fast in those years that the Apollo record is radically different, a soul envoi at a moment when, as here, the funked-over “Cold Sweat” was his centerpiece and the daring “Say It Loud— I’m Black and I’m Proud” his pride and joy. From touchstone to newborn, from bop-inflected Maceo on the piss-break instrumental to born-again JB on the climax medley, breakneck intensity for the ages. A MINUS

BOB DYLAN: Live 1966 (Columbia) What no one ever mentions about this oft-celebrated Manchester concert is that the folk set sucks. It’s arty, mannered, nervous, as if Dylan is sick of these songs, although three of the seven haven’t even been released yet. And when they are, on Blonde on Blonde, they’ll be band— if not Band— backed like all the others except “Mr. Tambourine Man,” and as such relaxed, confident, committed, meaningful. Appallingly ideological though it is that anyone could have preferred this static display to what followed, the rock set is warmly received, which is not to say it lives up to its myth. You’ll hear some of the most freewheeling, locked-in live music of the ’60s— far more detailed and responsive than comparable Stones and Who, with Robbie Robertson so cockeyed funky he almost careens off the stage. You’ll also hear some folkie fool shouting “Judas” and Dylan calling him a liar and, if you strain, somebody muttering “play fucking loud.” But you will not hear the times a-changin’ or Robert Zimmerman jousting with destiny. That stuff’s for historians. And if we owe the historians for the terrific electric disc, they owe us for the awful acoustic one. B PLUS

GRANDADDY: Under the Western Freeway (V2) An indelibly local unit from the sun-baked I-5 nowhere of Modesto, California, they orchestrate lo-fi so cunningly that the tunes arising from the murk seem angelic in their grace and uplift. The title instrumental, a descending scale voiced by several flutes or recorders and a roomful of busted Casios, sets the standard. But that’s not to say skateboard pro turned glorified garbageman Jason Lytle throws away the words, starting with a lead track that dissents from meritocracy with a quiet defeatism too subtle and eloquent for any simple slacker. No matter how wearisome Lytle finds all the Neil Young, Howe Gelb, and Pavement comparisons, they triangulate him accurately and honorably. A MINUS

PJ HARVEY: Is This Desire?
(Island)
Seeing Harvey in her most original live guise to date at the Hammerstein
Ballroom, I didn’t think
Nick Cave or, heaven knows, Aretha Franklin. Instead I recalled the renowned art song singer Jan DeGaetani, whom I was dragged off to see 20-odd years ago. I didn’t much enjoy DeGaetani— not my repertoire, let’s say. But I admired her ease, her naturalness-within-formality, and more and more that’s how it is with Harvey. In a charcoal suit and stacked heels plus red top, this was a concert artist repaying the adoration of her fans, but not so as she’d give them the early songs they wanted. Instead she concentrated on less immediate new material, which gained power in performance just as it does with repeated exposure on record. Melding modal tradition and concrète futurism, dancing to the strong beat as the moment required, she sounded so good she made what she had to say irrelevant. Which is just as well, because what she has to say is limited. Is this desire? It must be, because all she’s certain of is that her characters rarely get what they want. Hence, neither do listeners who want formal command to provide some release. While every song here kicks in eventually, starting with the two-minute “The Sky Lit Up,” at times she could be the rock Wynton Marsalis. So thank God she’d rather be Tricky. A MINUS

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ALANIS MORISSETTE: Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie (Maverick/Reprise)If “pop” means anything anymore, it ain’t this. As a SoundScan-certified megadeal, she’s outgrown the bright appeal of pop the way she’s outgrown the punky abrasions that gave the debut its traction off the blocks. The mammoth riffs, diaristic self-analysis, and pretentious Middle Eastern sonorities of this music mark it as “rock,” albeit rock with tunes. And in this context I suck it up, feeling privileged to listen along with all the young women whose struggles Morissette blows up to such a scale. Here’s hoping lots of young men feel the same. A MINUS

P.M. DAWN: Dearest Christian, I’m So Very Sorry for Bringing You Here. Love, Dad (Gee Street/V2) Jesus Wept boded mediocrity— although composing is no harder than sampling, it is different, and once he’d redefined himself as one more R&Bsongwriter, Prince Be’s all-embracing aesthetic and fluky chart run seemed over. But working with a steady band, a sometime collaborator, and the occasional borrowed riff, he revives his spaced-out spirituality as music if not commodity, transfiguring his grumpy disillusion with melodies, vocal harmonies, and now also guitar parts, all lovingly designed to convince his son Christian to be here now. A MINUS

RED HOT + RHAPSODY (Antilles) Bacharachians please note: this AIDS-fighting Gershwin tribute is how great songwriters make themselves felt. Beyond near has-beens Bowie and Sinéad and the all-too-
inoffensive Natalie Merchant, the contributors are marginal. Spearhead, Sarah Cracknell, Morcheeba, Finlay Quaye, to stick to standouts, flounder as often as they fly. But entrusted with this material they soar or at least flutter about, as do Smoke City and Majestic 12, both previously unknown to me. Defined by keyboard textures from sampledelica to Hammond B-3, this is a seductive showcase of the moody sensibility shared by acid jazz and trip hop. Now if only the sensibility had Gershwins of its own— well, soon they’d no doubt find themselves something better to do. A MINUS

STEVE REICH: Music for 18 Musicians (Nonesuch) Grown even more universal (and likable) in posttechno retrospect, Reich’s mathematically ebbing-and-surging facsimile of eternal return is the great classic of minimalist trance, at once prettier and more austere than Terry Riley or Philip Glass. Eleven minutes longer than in the ECM original “owing to a tempo change governed by the breathing pattern of the clarinetist,” this relaxed rerecording will appeal to graduates of the chillout room. But though rock and rollers can go with its flow, it’s not a true reinterpretation like Bang on a Can’s Eno, and I prefer the intensities I learned to love. Maybe Beethoven can be rehashed forever (and maybe not). With Reich, one is all any nonprofessional needs. B PLUS

BUTCH THOMPSON: Thompson Plays Joplin (Daring) One reason Scott Joplin’s rhythmic revolution comes through so faintly on record is that it was swallowed whole by the tempo of 20th-century life. And it’s true enough, as anyone who’s ventured near Treemonisha knows, that Joplin craved respect. But that’s no reason to forgive all the concert pianists who’ve arted up and toned down his beat since Joshua Rifkin, and with a firm hand, the man from Lake Wobegon sets them straight. His Joplin doesn’t rock, swing, or anything like it. But at their most liltingly delicate these rags are set in motion, as he says, by “the same driving pulse that underlies all of America’s truly original music.” Marvin Hamlisch go back where you came from. A MINUS

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Dud of the Month:

PLASTIKMAN: Artifakts (BC) (Novamute) One needn’t feel deep sympathy for the minimalist project to find use and pleasure in the right Brian Eno or David Behrman, or to conclude that, all subjective affinities aside, Tangerine Dream were full of it. Richie Hawtin is at once sparer and beatier, but not by much, and anyone who would sit there for an hour finding out where he’s going has too much time to kill. The belated third volume of a trilogy whose earlier installments I dutifully checked out and guiltlessly discarded, this climaxes midway through with an uncanny evocation of static going down the drain before breaking into a cute little piece of electrofunk that might be sampled by someone with more to say. Then it moves on to Tangerine Dream. B MINUS


Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

Elvis Costello With Burt Bacharach, Painted From Memory (Mercury):sings Burt’s chewy music lots better than Burt, not to mention Hal, who proves a healthy influence on his poesy (“Such Unlikely Lovers,” “The Long Division”); Baby Sounds (Kid Rhino):ambient bio (“Baby Sounds [Part Two: Toddlers],” “Baby Sounds [Part One: Babies]”); Ultimate Christmas(Arista): chestnuts roasting on an open fire plus surprise gifts— but who invited Kenny, Carly, Sarah, Luciano? (Aretha Franklin, “Winter Wonderland”; Luther Vandross, “O Come All Ye Faithful”); Junior Brown,Long Walk Back (Curb): virtuosity as novelty act, meaning virtuosity that knows itself (“Stupid Blues,” “Peelin’ Taters”); James Brown, I’m Back(Georgia Lina/Mercury): it was like you never left (“Funk on Ah Roll [S-Class Mix],” “James on the Loose”); Clem Snide, You Were a Diamond (Tractor Beam): deadpan country-folk, nasty when you turn your back (“Nick Drake Tape,” “Chinese Baby”); Jad Fair & Yo La Tengo,Strange but True (Matador): Jad never runs dry, but he does trickle off sometimes (“Circus Strongman Runs for PTA President,” “Texas Man Abducted by Aliens for Outer Space Joy Ride”); Jay-Z,Vol. 2…Hard Knock Life(Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam): meet Keybmaster Swizz Beats, the missing link between Charles Strouse and Too Short (“Hard Knock Life,” “If I Should Die”); Little Charlie and the Nightcats,Shadow of the Blues (Alligator): ain’t love a bitch, ain’t Stratocasters bitchin’ (“New Old Lady,” “Dirty Dealin’ Mama”); Bette Midler,Bathhouse Betty (Warner Bros.): reclaiming her integrity if not— waddaya want?— her edge (“I’m Beautiful,” “Lullabye in Blue”); Silver Jews,American Water (Drag City): noise-tune simplified for baritone monotone (“Random Rules,” “Night Society”); Elliott Smith,XO (DreamWorks): high tune, low affect (“Waltz #2 [XO],” “Everybody Cares, Everybody Understands”); Chris Isaak, Speak of the Devil (Reprise): rockaballads AC (“Speak of the Devil,” “This Time”); Matchbox 20, Yourself or Someone Like You (Lava/Atlantic): clods have feelings too (“Real World,” “Long Day”).

Choice Cuts:

John Prine, “Let’s Talk Dirty in Hawaiian” (Lucky 13, Oh Boy); Def Squad, “Rhymin’ Wit’ Biz Markie,” “Def Squad Delite” (El Niño, Def Jam/Jive); Nick Lowe, “Man That I’ve Become,” “Failed Christian” (Dig My Mood, Upstart).

Duds:

Black Tape for a Blue Girl,As One Aflame Laid Bare by Desire (Projekt); Adam Cohen (Columbia); Creeper Lagoon, I Become Small and Go (Nickel Bag); Mary Cutrufello, When the Night Is Through (Mercury); Deftones, Around the Fur (Maverick/Warner Bros.); Grooverider,Mysteries of Funk (Higher Ground/Columbia); Pere Ubu, Pennsylvania (Tim/Kerr); Queens of the Stone Age (Loosegroove); Track Star,Communication Breaks (Die Young Stay Pretty).

Addresses:

Alligator, Box 60234, Chicago IL 60660; Daring, Box 793, Marblehead MA 01945; Drag City, Box 476867, Chicago IL 60647; Gee Street, 14 East 4th Street, NYC 10003; Matador, 611 Broadway, Suite 712, NYC 10012; Tractor Beam, Box 1591, NYC 10276-1591; V2, 14 East 4th Street, NYC 10003.

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The Unflashiest

At 65, Willie Nelson is an icon. His headband-and-pigtails could be trademarked if it was in him to bother, and neither his IRS run-in nor his adventures in the marijuana trade will stop the man who toked up on the roof of Carter’s White House from receiving his Kennedy Center honor this December— no doubt with more enthusiasm than his immediate predecessor in this modestly countercultural coup, his longtime Columbia labelmate Bob Dylan. However suspect, this analogy goes a long way. True, Dylan was promulgating his songs as a youthcult avatar while the older man still hewed to the Nashville system of selling “Four Walls” to Faron Young and “Crazy” to Patsy Cline, finally cracking the hit parade with a cover of “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” after 15 years of major publishing bucks and failed record deals. But as Nelson entertained a solidly middle-class crowd at Newark’s New Jersey Performing Arts Center last month, what came clear was the overriding link between these two great American songwriters: both now earn their livings, and find reason for living, as road musicians. Maybe if Nelson has a near-death experience someone will notice.


The irritation in my tone is not meant to imply that Dylan is unworthy. On some objective level, he’s probably more “important” than Nelson. But not by much— they’re both titans, definitely in the same league. Live and on record, I’ve gotten even more from Willie than from a resurgent Bob in recent years. So I’m impatient with the cultural politics that transform one icon into a symbol of eternal life and the other into a has-been. Admittedly, I was long derelict myself— until the 1996 Supper Club gig timed to his finest recent album, the Island debut, Spirit, I’d never seen Nelson, and so was astonished by what was in many respects a standard set. An hour in, figuring he was about done, I chortled to my wife that he was going to exit without playing one song from the record he was supposedly promoting. Just then he ambled into an instrumental I dimly recognized: the lead cut from Spirit, which he proceeded to run through in its entirety and in order. Then he went on as usual. All told, Nelson and his companionable little four-piece played for two hours and 40 minutes that night, performing some 52 songs. It was wonderful. It was also, as I told my diary, “the unflashiest music I’ve ever seen in my life.”


Understandably, the standard bios all strike the same chords: Nashville and then outlawism, annual Fourth of July shindig and then Farm Aid, concept albums and then off-the-cuff collaborations, the unplanned windfall of his 1978 classic-pop masterpiece, Stardust. Whether or not they note Nelson’s stint on bass for Ray Price (taught himself overnight, the Virgin Encyclopedia adds), all they have to say about his guitar is that he plays one. They talk up his “starker, more modern” writing, so much “more complex technically than the usual country tune,” while treading gingerly around the “weatherbeaten directness” of his
“parched, grainy” or “dry, wry voice.” But in concert it’s different.

The first thing you notice is that he’s some guitarist. Famously, at least to his fans, his customized Martin has two holes, one cut by the luthier, the other worn in by his pick. Its sound is resonantly gorgeous, and the chords he gets from it have no like in country— he has a way of timing a dissonant comp so that the beat stumbles in a precise-seeming parallel to the chord’s harmonic effect. His single lines are just as adroit and unpredictable, and once you acclimate to his musicianship, you start really hearing his singing, which beyond all that parched stuff is loud, flexible, strong. Nelson’s midrange is so nasal that it diverts attention from his phenomenal breath control, and though he doesn’t lift into high tenor as readily as when he was 40, he still glides at will into a powerful baritone that locates the true source of his voice deep in his thorax. What makes this harder to remember is that his records hardly seem sung at all— they register as half-spoken. Like all his music, the off-beat phrasing and talky melodic alterations that pigeonholed him as uncommercial until he fled Nashville in 1970 are distantly informed by jazz, but the effect he intends is antivirtuosic. He’s going for the intimate clarity of one-on-one conversation.

That’s the secret of his unflash: he’s an adept of the natural. Amazingly, the band that backed him in Newark— guitarist-vocalist Jody Payne, harmonica heartthrob Mickey Raphael, bass man Bee Spears, percussionist Billy English, drummer Paul English (his kit a snare on a packing case), and older sister Bobbie Nelson playing piano as if she’d learned from the saloon scenes in a hundred westerns, although in fact she doodles Mozart in her spare time— has been with him since 1972. These are not the crack shots Dylan likes to hire— they’re just Willie’s friends, and 150 nights a year they play together like water seeking its own level. They were on for two hours and 38 songs— one every three minutes, bang bang bang. Both nights the simplicity of the presentation had a devotional aura. Not that there was anything mystical or sanctimonious about a bunch of old buddies playing a bunch of old songs. But in an artist who willingly keyed 1981’s Somewhere Over the Rainbow to E.Y. Harburg’s dreamy kitsch and 1993’s Don Was-produced showcase Across the Borderline to Paul Simon’s filigreed “American Tune,” the
basic-English literalness of the set list amounted to a statement of aesthetic principle— or at least entertainment strategy. In Newark, Nelson’s mostly instrumental Cole Porter selection was the elegantly laconic “Night and Day.” “City of New Orleans” and “Pancho and Lefty” seemed positively Shakespearian in their narrative detail.

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Nelson has cut lots of rock material, but “City of New Orleans” is as close as I’ve seen him get live; although he has a Jamaican album in the can and correctly credits producer Booker T. Jones as the hidden genius of Stardust, the only African American song he performed (both nights) was Kokomo Arnold’s “Milk Cow Blues.” “What I do for a living is to get people to feeling good,” he declares on the jacket of his out-of-print autobiography, and this he achieves with instantly recognizable country and pop touchstones whose meaning can’t be mistaken: “All of Me” and “Blue Skies,” “My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It” and “Rolling in My Sweet Baby’s Arms,” “Working Man Blues” and “Georgia on My Mind.” If other people’s copyrights outnumbered Nelson’s two-to-one at his shows, the model for their simplicity was still the bare-bones diction and subtle musicality of “Crazy” and “Funny How Time Slips Away,” of “Night Life” and “Me and Paul,” and of Spirit, an album buoyed by new songs, suffused with his guitar, and defined by a drumless variant of his road band.


It is widely believed by people who’ve barely listened to Nelson’s ’90s albums— and in part because he’s bedded down with at least six labels since Columbia left him in 1993, this clueless group includes almost everyone outside his fan club— that they aren’t much good. But in fact the quality has picked up plenty since that played-out relationship ended. Nelson will never write a “Funny How Time Slips Away” again, but neither will anyone else. In fact, most would be happy to match the rejects he pulled out of a steamer trunk for the new Daniel Lanois-
produced showcase, Teatro, especially the infinitely hummable “Everywhere I Go,” which celebrates either a memory or a harmonica. And on Spirit, the likes of “I’m Not Trying To Forget You Anymore” and “Too Sick To Pray” break Nelson’s New Age-ish vow to abjure songs “that can put you into a self-perpetuating mood of negative thinking”— only to be turned around by the likes of “I Guess I’ve Come To Live Here in Your Eyes” and the inspirational “We Don’t Run,” performed at the Supper Club as a sing-along devoid of all exhortation and cheerleading. Spirit certainly deserves canonical status as much as the overinflated Red Headed Stranger.


And to get down to cases, I also prefer it to another artist’s Daniel Lanois-produced showcase: Time Out of Mind. Because if Bob Dylan seeks to capture what Greil Marcus has dubbed “the old, weird America,” then Willie Nelson is after the enduring, commonplace America. One is as great a mystery as the other.



Unflashdisk


You’d figure the greatest Willie Nelson record has strings all over it. But instead, 1978’s definitive Tin Pan Alley resuscitation, Stardust (now available straight up or as a luscious audiophile CD), relies on the subtlest organ Booker T. has ever played, several hotshots, and the same road band that lives and breathes Willie two decades later. The jazzier Somewhere Over the Rainbow is the runner-up in this vein, but before you invest, access his inconsistent, ill-preserved Columbia output via the three-CD Revolutions of Time— 60 tracks that do right by Nelson-on-Columbia’s panoply of conceptual tactics and commercial calculations.

These come to a head on his label farewell, the inspired yet mannered Don Was cameofest Across the Borderline. Like such deleted Columbia oddments as Me and Paul and the Hank Snow vehicle Brand on My Heart, Spirit recreates the naturalness Nelson achieves live as no live album can (cf. disc two of Rhino’s obscurantist box). For all Daniel Lanois’s aural affectations and pet drummers, the new Teatro gestures honorably at the same feel, although Justice’s 1995 Just One Love, an old-fashioned country record produced by sometime Nelson guitarist Grady Martin and featuring Austin songbird Kimmie Rodgers, is sure more fun. Atlantic’s 1974 Phases and Stages remains the most coherent of his concept albums. Rhino’s Nite Life and (less undeniably) RCA’s Essential Willie Nelson offer generic Nashville stylings of a catalog now so classic it renders off-the-rack arrangements becoming, while Kingfisher/Ichiban’s I Let My Mind Wander stands as the strongest current configuration of Nelson’s stark, early, oft-recycled Pamper demos. And Sundown’s 1997 Don Cherry collaboration, Augusta, features the singing golfer, not the sainted trumpeter. The title song is about a golf course. Did I mention the golf course Nelson owns? A man of parts, that Willie.

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If She Makes You Happy

I wish women singer-songwriters let themselves be fast, funny, and funky more often, and that might explain why Sheryl Crow makes me wince less than any other female folkie out there right now. She’s upscale, up-to-date, and down-to-earth, she’s got a headful of ideas driving her insane, and her sense of rhythm is as underappreciated as her sense of humor. She talks her lyrics as propulsively as she sings them, and the handclaps and boom-baps of her organic-and-synthetic rhythm section do not let her down. ”This ain’t no disco,” she admitted in her biggest hit ”All I Wanna Do,” but she’s still one of the most dance-music­influenced chirpers ever. She used to provide studio and songwriting assistance to Michael Jackson and Lisa Lisa, as well as AOR and c&w stars, and her big ballad ”Strong Enough” even inspired a Keta-Men club remake where they asked if I was hard, long, and strong enough to be their man.


The two danciest songs on her new The Globe Sessions are also its two least introverted, augmenting party chatter, sax solos, forward-rolling rhythm guitar, and mechanical click-tracks with commentary about rich white night people: ice-addicted Uncle Larry hitting on ladies in his Members Only jacket, for instance, and some photo-spread chick showering in her panties. But the lowlife that Crow mostly paints caricatures of on Globe, for a change, is herself–lots of sad breakup ballads sung in the first person. Perhaps in honor of all these lovelorn laments about being second-hand news, her rhythm section turns tracks six through eight into a Rumours tribute.


She wants the songs to capture monogamy’s misery the way Fleetwood Mac did, the way Marvin Gaye did–at CD’s start you press play and immediately hear ”I Heard It Through the Grapevine” through the bassline and spurned falsettos of the radio single ”My Favorite Mistake,” where Sheryl’s alone at six in the morning and the grapevine’s a phoneline and it’s a thin line between love and hate. In ”Am I Getting Through,” over ominously hollow drum-tension from Mac’s ”The Chain,” the guitar-and-vocal melody resurrects the midsection of ”Stairway to Heaven” while little violins itch out; the song’s ”Part 2” is a loud, fuzzy, minute-long quickie that’s the funniest faux-punker about Mazeratis since either Ted Nugent’s ”Wango Tango” or Joe Walsh’s ”Life’s Been Good.”


Joe, you’ll remember, had an office with gold records on his wall; just leave a message, maybe he’ll call. Sheryl’s outgoing voice mail says ”Hello it’s me, I’m not at home, if you’d like to reach me, leave me alone,” but she’s got gold records, too. 1996’s Sheryl Crow had more medicated Exile on Main Street blues fog than Exile in Guyville ever did, and its three hit singles were eccentric mile-a-minute streams of consciousness to be reckoned with. Every-which-way-but-loose scatter-logic comes easy in the age of Beck, though, so I don’t hear The Globe Sessions‘s more reigned-in embrace of direct emotion as an aesthetic retreat.


Crow’s become a magician of end-of-verse vocal key changes, and now and then her belting flashes me back to late ’60s white women like Merilee Rush and Bobbie Gentry. Sheryl never liked punk, she says, because it never seemed soulful enough. Despite hailing originally from a small Missouri town just outside Memphis (and attending the University of Missouri at the exact same time as me!) and thereby being allowed to impress adult-alternative program directors with corny claptrap about ”roots,” she’s never come off remotely stodgy. She still gets stoned, she’s not the kind of girl you take home, and she wears really colorful tank tops.


The only time Globe rotes itself into anal-compulsive Americana quaintness is the Dylan outtake ”Mississippi,” where Crow conserves energy in apparent homage to Time Out of Mind‘s lethargy. And the only time the set feels pretentious is ”Crash & Burn,” an interminably atmospheric art-whisper that would’ve ended the album on an absolutely snoozeful note if not for an untitled talking blues tacked on afterward alluding to ”Ball of Confusion,” ”Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream,” and presidential impeachment. That’s our real Sheryl: bouncing her mental dysfunction coast to coast, listening to Coltrane and derailing her own train and sifting through thrift-store jungles in search of names to drop. Performing Feng Shui on her wallpaper and hall carpet to purge some creep from her memory, letting a drawled melody worthy of Rapmaster Tom Petty build to a rampaging raveup while she considers seducing the electric-meter man. If only she’d wear her fake fur on the outside as well as the inside, if only her videos glammed as much like Marilyn Manson as her photo does inside Sheryl Crow‘s foldout sleeve, she’d have all the bases covered.

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Rad Like Who?

Michael Portnoy, the self-anointed “Soy Bomb” who jumped onstage during Bob Dylan’s performance at the Grammy Awards, was himself performing at P.S.122’s “New Stuff Festival” on March 7 when he twice jumped into the audience. Climbed the chairs. Touched the spectators. The fourth wall just isn’t safe around this guy.

During his show at P.S.122 a week earlier, “three Dylan devotees” (according to a Daily News gossip column) heckled Portnoy, prompting him to pull a knife and chase one of them through the theater. It was a plastic knife, he told the News, and “they were just a bunch of jerks.”

Meanwhile, Portnoy had called me with the helpful suggestion that I connect his Grammy attack to “the history of subversive performances.” I’m more tempted to connect it with the history of publicity stunts, since Portnoy isn’t quite ready to enter the pantheon that runs from Alfred Jarry to Chris Burden and beyond, and those artists–unlike Portnoy–won’t be appearing in Entertainment Weekly anytime soon. The Soy Bomb is having his “15 minutes” because that’s what happens when you do something weird in the vicinity of an icon. It doesn’t even have to mean anything.

But the soy shenanigans bring up a valid question: What exactly is a radical gesture in the ’90s? Modernism always fed on shock; the historical avant-garde gave us a century of iconoclasm and nose thumbing. But now, rebellion is just raw material, easily commodified. Today’s “subversive act” becomes tomorrow’s Saturday Night Live sketch.

In ye olden days of the Living Theater, for example, assaulting the audience was always part of a larger, righteous, hopeless cause: to end the war, legalize marijuana, or otherwise change the world. But these days, an assault is usually just an assault.

I have a litmus test for male aggression passing itself off as vanguard performance: Is there anything here we haven’t been watching since caveman days? At one point during his 15-minute show at P.S.122, Portnoy climbed a couple rows into the audience and either kissed a woman or, according to a spectator with a better view, tried to give her a hickey; then he climbed into the seats again during a total blackout, so I can’t say what happened, though I did hear some nervous laughter.

The show was meant to be comic, of course, given the title: “Sontag, or The Shattering of All Undertakings that Presuppose Man To Be Something (the tragedy of a beautiful moron).” I found it impossible to hear most of Portnoy’s patter, but others were laughing. He wore low-riding red tights, no shirt, a scraggly feather boa. I did catch some comment about “respect for my elders” followed by what seemed to be a parody of Eric Bogosian; he did a number of silly walks, groaned out part of a song, and concluded by trying to stick his tongue into a light socket. Portnoy has some comic talent, real stage presence, and incredible chutzpah, but nothing to say beyond “see me, feel me.” Could this be why he “crossed over” so quickly?

Meanwhile, back in the realm of not-ready-for-prime-time, Martha Wilson and Vince Bruns made every effort to be traditional by having a wedding last January 18, but they found their motives and even their authenticity questioned once the newspaper of record got involved in covering the event.

Admittedly, few such ceremonies begin with the bride marching into a Quaker meetinghouse in medieval princess garb clutching a goldfish Beanie Baby, followed by 30 children in party hats and tulle capes blowing bubbles. It was unusual enough to attract The New York Times, which sent a photographer and reporter to write it up for the Sunday “Vows” column. But, according to the bride, the Times then decided that the whole thing was a hoax. As Trip Gabriel, editor of the Sunday Style section, put it to me, “Are they really a couple?”

Who knew a wedding could be so confusing? Wilson and Bruns accomplished it by declining the marriage that usually follows the ceremony–along with a few of the more traditional parts of the tradition. As the invitation explained:

“This performance spectacular is a wedding, not a marriage, a temporal artwork celebrating our existing relationship. We did not get a license, don’t plan to live together, and won’t be filing joint income tax; we neither pledge nor eschew a lifelong commitment. We like the idea of the public celebration that accompanies marriage, but are too old and set in our bachelor/bachelorette ways to undergo the changes a real marriage would entail. And what if people started calling us ‘husband’ and ‘wife’?”

The ceremony had been tailored to Wilson’s calling as champion of the avant-garde (she is the director of Franklin Furnace), but was given its central theme by Bruns’s occupation–fishmonger. (He owns Westfield Seafood in Westfield, New Jersey.) Playbills distributed at the door featured Wilson and Bruns in the classic American Gothic pose beneath the title “The Making of a Fish Wife–Fish or Foul?” Deborah Edmeades’s costumes for Wilson and the children included fish scales and lures. And when the couple commissioned “something extreme to provide closure” from Pat Oleszko, the artist obliged at the end of the ceremony by inflating two giant fish balloons, one of them eight or nine feet tall.

The couple did exchange rather lengthy individual “vows” that mostly described what they appreciated in each other. I pointed out to Wilson later that not only was this a wedding without a marriage, it was built on vows that didn’t promise anything.

“Yes,” said Wilson, “they’re more like a limited warranty.”

In fact, both had described their connection as “tenuous” (though they have been a couple for four years). When guests then stood to speak Quaker-style–that is, as the spirit moved them–one said he appreciated the fact that they’d come together to “celebrate ambivalence.”

This wedding and unmarriage was a highlight of the winter performance season, and the happy couple had been looking forward to their inclusion in the “Vows” column. But according to Wilson, “An unnamed copy editor at the Style section saw the story in the computer and said, ‘Martha Wilson is a known lesbian in the art world. This is a hoax.’ I then got two calls asking me very strange questions: ‘Do I live with a woman?’ or ‘Am I a lesbian?’ I was so floored, I just said, ‘Well, I might become a lesbian. I’m not going to rule it out.’ The word I got was that all-evidence-to-the-contrary made no impression on the Style folks.”

Gabriel insisted he had never heard the lesbian rumor. “The column didn’t run because we learned that they were never legally married, which is a violation of the editorial standards for that column.”

Bruns said this was also the Times‘s excuse for not covering gay weddings: “We have to presume that’s what’s behind this.” What it comes down to is that Bruns and Wilson had a sort of gay wedding for straight people–a celebration with no papers and no stamp of approval outside their community.

Of course, the avant-garde tradition has always threatened to undermine the simplistic codes that govern journalism and publicity. That may be why the wedding got so little ink and the Soy Bomber exploded. He could even explain his act to the New York Post with a well-chosen soundbite: “It’s my path to superstardom.”