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Beaten or Stoned? Was 1968 the Beginning of the End of the Sixties?

Late in the summer of 1968, Pope Paul VI came out forcefully against the birth-control pill, putting a moral crimp in the decade’s libido. London, however, was still swinging strong, and the Beatles decided — perhaps as Communist lark rather than Christian tithing — that it was truly better to give than to receive. In the August 8, 1968, issue of the Village Voice, part-time theater critic Charles Marowitz reported that the world’s most popular rock group was shuttering its Apple store (named for its record label) and giving away all of the shop’s existing stock. One mother walked in with her two children “just to windowshop and walked out with new dresses, summer suits, and other assorted goodies.” As she left, the mom said, “Give Ringo a big kiss for me.” The Voice correspondent noted, though, that not everyone was happy. “In the past few days, I have heard the Beatles maligned more viciously than they ever were at the height of their controversial pop success. For they have been guilty, in certain people’s eyes, of the worst sin imaginable — not weaning the young on drugs or spreading Buddhist cultishness, but subverting the principles of commerce…. The Beatles have repudiated the premise on which all business is firmly established: i.e., that you can’t get something for nothing.”

During that tumultuous decade, the pope wasn’t the only one questioning the mores of the times. In the October 3, 1968, issue, Howard Smith reported in Scenes, his regular Voice column, that the other chart-topping group from across the pond was being vexed by their record label. “The Rolling Stones, the group with the sandpaper personalities, continues to scratch the smooth wherever it is found. Although their new album, ‘Beggar’s [sic] Banquet,’ was completed months ago, it has still not been shipped to the stores. The Stones like the bathroom wall graffiti jacket design. Their record company says it’s in bad taste and won’t release it. Not even the $1 million advance sale has been enough to bridge this obscenity gap. Also turned down was Mick Jagger’s suggestion that the album be sold in plain paper bags labeled ‘unsuitable for children.’ ” (This almost two decades before Tipper Gore headed the Parents Music Resource Center’s crusade to label recordings for adult content in a manner similar to that used for motion pictures. Jagger, who had attended the London School of Economics before the Stones rocket took off, was cannily aware that the forbidden always makes for a good sales pitch.)

Next came a turn on the censor’s wheel for one of the Beatles, even as the bad-boy Stones were blinking in the face of their record company’s skittishness. The November 7, 1968, Voice offered readers full-frontal nudity from the cover of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s album Two Virgins; the record company objected to the nudity, but had even more problems with the only thing Lennon wore — an odd pendant. In a deep caption, Smith spelled out what it was all about. Sort of. “Hereby hangs a very interesting tale of commercial censorship. The music (which is electronic) from John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s film ‘Two Virgins’ was supposed to come out as a soundtrack album. But the Beatles’ British and American record companies balked because of the jacket photo, in which Lennon has a very unusual pendant hung around his neck. He refused to explain its meaning, saying: ‘If I give in on this and tell them, the next thing they’ll be telling me what kind of glasses to wear.’” Smith further reported that comedian Bill Cosby — of all people — came to the rescue, directing his record company, Tetragrammaton, to help with distribution, witchy jewelry be damned. “Meanwhile,” Smith concluded, “the handwriting on the bathroom wall has been erased by Decca Records: the Rolling Stones gave in, in this Year of the Great Album Cover Dispute.” (The Lennon tale hung around into the 1990s, when Noel Gallagher, of Oasis, obtained the bauble for brother Liam. “I bought him a few presents in the 90s. I bought him a thing from an auction which was an Indian necklace thing that John Lennon wore when he went to see the Maharishi. It’s worth a fortune — it was round the man’s neck when he wrote ‘Sexy Sadie’ — so I sent it to [Liam] for Christmas and next time I saw him he had it on. He took it out the frame and the label saying ‘worn by John Lennon.’ I said, ‘What are you doing? It’s fuckin’ memorabilia!’ and he said, ‘John Lennon wore it, I’m wearing it.’ He’s probably flushed it down the toilet by now. I don’t know, haven’t seen it since.”)

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Serendipitously — or perhaps not so much — in that same column Smith covered a Free Store on East 10th Street, which was having a much harder time with the locals on an even more expansive concept of giving than the Beatles did with their one-shot extravaganza: “The climax came one night last week when a group of cars and bikes reportedly pulled up and the store’s windows were shattered by shotgun butts.” Apparently, freedom, as the posthumously released Janis Joplin hit “Me and Bobby McGee” puts it, is indeed “just another word for having nothing left to lose.”

Stones guitarist Keith Richard once said, “Funny year, ’68, it’s got a hole in it somewhere.” In fact, two of the biggest albums of that (or any) year were released on ominous dates. First came The Beatles (more commonly known as the “White Album”), which hit the streets on November 22 — the five-year anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. That was followed by the Rolling Stones’ Beggars Banquet, on December 6, a date that would soon have its own run-in with history. In the December 12 issue of the Village Voice, music critic Carman Moore approached the White Album from clashing perspectives in the Riffs column —“I’ve never met a Beatle: they may be assholes, counter-revolutionaries, and purple meanies. But they’re always something more: the most complete music-making organization in the pop world and song writers whose corporate name is not out of place with those of the great classicalists. I don’t know whether the original idea of doing virtually every popular music style since the ’20s and putting those 30 cuts into a plain, white cover is actually pompous, larcenous, or what. I only know that they invade those fields and end up cutting the heavies in all but two or three of them (even Tiny Tim). The key to this mastery — the easy way to say it — is that while others break their necks inventing styles, the Beatles invent songs. Another way — also easy — is that they are obviously still respectful and excellent listeners to anybody else’s thing, that something makes them keep improving, and that music is their natural religion and they would yell their voices into hamburger, put their deepest secrets on a PA system, or strip stitchless if music is involved (A pretty girl is like a melody).”

Moore, an African American, wrote for the paper about such gospel singers as James Cleveland and Shirley Caesar, and found that in “Sexy Sadie,” Lennon sang “excellently with a black-style r&b ballad vibrato thrown in.” Moore also praises “Revolution 9” as “a not-badly-formed avant-garde outing.”

In that same Riffs column, rock critic Robert Somma sought language equal to the massive themes found on the Stones finally released Beggars Banquet (in a simple white cover with elegant script). “If rock has a royalty, then the Stones are king; if a hierarchy, they’re the Pope; if an occupation, then they’re the boss. ‘Beggar’s [sic] Banquet’ asks you to sup first with the devil, and then with the rest of the damned, a cast of characters, strangely not unlike you and me.” Somma goes on to list some of the players:

For Lucifer:
“I was there when Jesus Christ
had his moment of doubt and pain
made damn sure that Pilate
washed his hands and sealed his fate.”

For the rejected lover:
“Your heart is like a diamond
you throw your pearls at swine
and as I watch you leavin
you pack my peace of mind”

For the gangster:
“Yes he really looks quite religious
he’s been an outlaw all his life”

For the well-known common man:
“Raise your glass to the
hardworking people
let’s drink to the uncounted heads.”

It’s more than passing odd that during such a flamboyant, hopeful, violent, brilliant, mad travail of a decade, these two seminal albums arrived under similarly spare cover, the Beatles’ as bleached as bones, the Stones’ a prim invitation to the apocalypse.

But then things got weirder.

Far, far away from any London recording studios, a rancid guru named Charles Manson was in California — that ragged edge of a continent where dreamers, madmen, tricksters, and geniuses pile up on themselves with nowhere else to go — busily convincing his flock that he was in psychic communication with the Beatles. Such songs from the White Album as “Blackbird,” “Piggies,” “Revolution 1” (and “9”), “Sexy Sadie,” and, especially, “Helter Skelter,” were, Manson informed the faithful, direct confirmation that his visions of a world cleansed of pigs and killjoys was nigh. A career criminal, Manson was prepping his followers for murder and mayhem, and the Beatles were providing the soundtrack.

Or not. Revisionist historians argue that prosecutors’ claims of Manson planning the murders of Sharon Tate and her friends to launch a violent race war, which would leave him and his followers as rulers of the planet, are as ridiculous as they sound. Instead, these scholars of Manson’s mind blame the Tate-LaBianca bloodbaths on drug deals gone very bad, crimes which were in turn covered up by the authorities to spare the reputations of Hollywood’s decadent, wealthy, and socially powerful elite. Whatever the motive, Manson was undoubtedly a world-class con man, one who once pontificated to a courtroom audience, “I have killed no one and I have ordered no one to be killed. I may have implied on several different occasions to several different people that I may have been Jesus Christ, but I haven’t decided yet what I am or who I am.” Such musings were much too heavy for Lennon and McCartney’s preternaturally catchy pop melodies to shoulder.

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And besides, the Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” was more legitimately drenched in blood than anything the Beatles ever put on vinyl. While the band was recording the song, in early June 1968, Jagger sang the lyric, “I shouted out, ‘Who killed Kennedy?’/When after all, it was you and me,” in reference to the JFK murder. But the world would come to know the lines that made the final version: “I shouted out, ‘Who killed the Kennedys?’/When, after all, it was you and me.” The lyric change was only made public thanks to Jean-Luc Godard’s film One Plus One (later retitled Sympathy for the Devil) — which featured the band revising and recording the song in a London studio. Even then, only close viewers noticed, as the musicians did numerous takes, that the lyric was changed from singular to plural after Robert F. Kennedy was gunned down by an assassin on June 5, in Los Angeles.

Additionally, “Sympathy” received undo credit, a year to the day after the album’s release, for putting the final nail in the Sixties’ coffin, when eighteen-year-old Meredith Hunter was stabbed to death by Hells Angels as the Stones were performing the song at their calamitous Altamont concert, on December 6, 1969.

Or so the story went. Again, it took a filmed record to set the facts straight. On December 6, 1970, Gimme Shelter, the Maysles brothers’ film of the Stones’ 1969 tour, revealed, for those willing to watch, that Hunter had, in fact, been attacked during the buoyant strains of “Under My Thumb,” not — as had been reported by media outlets around the world — during “Sympathy for the Devil.”

Perhaps it’s no surprise that Joan Didion called out this misshapen history in her 1979 collection of essays assaying California’s dystopian paradise, by titling her book The White Album. As she informs us on the opening page, “I am talking here about a time when I began to doubt the premises of all the stories I had ever told myself.” 

Didion had had a decade’s hindsight to arrive at her revelation, so give Voice critic Somma credit for divining the majesty and malignity of the music that defined his moment. He knew there would be much more to come, writing, “Like any work of art one can describe as total, insular, comprehensive, self-explanatory, and multi-layered, the ‘Banquet’ needs more than a few words and will reveal itself, like a shrouded, necessary truth, with the passage of time.”

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Jonathan Wilson

A classic rocker to his core, Jonathan Wilson writes, sings, and plays guitar as though Charles Manson had never slayed the ’60s. His music is rooted deeply in the crafty experimentalism of CSN&Y and Roy Harper, and his excellent band jams like a Southern-fried Pink Floyd — none of which is meant to diminish his intense personal vision. Laaraji is a prolific musical mystic whose amplified zither earned him a spot in Brian Eno’s Ambient album series more than three decades ago.

Wed., Feb. 12, 8 p.m., 2014

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What’re You Lookin’ At?

Christopher Wool had the good fortune to begin painting at a time when painting was dead. Again.

In the mid-1970s, Wool had a studio at the butt-end of the Bowery. During that rowdy and ragged epoch, artists were forming punk bands, making DIY films, and cranking out zines. In 1981, curator Douglas Crimp published “The End of Painting,” an essay asserting that the medium had been on life support throughout the modern era. Crimp, a champion of photography, wrote that painting’s claim to timeless universality — stretching seamlessly from Paleolithic cave murals to Pollock’s passionate drips — was a grandiose illusion. Look, part of his argument went, at how canvases first executed as altarpieces or royal portraits were wrenched out of historical context and entombed in museums.

Wool, for his part, eschewed the market-driven slatherings of the era’s Neo-Expressionist painting and searched for strategies that might give the medium new vitality; by the late ’80s, he found himself dumpster-diving in the chasm between art and language. He avoided the trouble of originating subject matter by painting words in stacks of black block letters, such as “SEX” atop “LOVE,” or “PLEASE” repeated five times. Similar to Warhol’s cribbing of newspaper photos of car crashes for his “Disaster” paintings, Wool appropriated phrases from pop culture’s darker reaches, including

from Apocalypse Now.

He once read a Raymond Chandler excerpt at an art opening — “It is not funny that a man should be killed, but it is sometimes funny that he should be killed for so little” — and, like Chandler’s tales of hard-boiled dicks, Wool’s own work is laced with sardonic wit. A 1988 panel reads — or rather, misreads — “HEL / TER / HEL / TER,” the wall label noting that the painting refers to both the Beatles raver “Helter Skelter” and its appropriation by Charles Manson as the theme song for an apocalyptic race war. What the museum’s explanation leaves out is that when Manson’s murderous minions scrawled the phrase on a refrigerator in their victims’ blood, they got it wrong as well: “HEALTER SKELTER.”

Wool’s herky-jerky spacing — like type defaulting in a printer — and overpainted letters interrupt quick readings and force the brain to slow down to absorb the often lush subtleties of his surfaces. Clement Greenberg could have been talking about these nuanced images of words when he said, about Barnett Newman’s stripes in 1958, “All pictures of quality ask to be looked at rather than read.”

In fact, Wool goes hammer and tongs not just at Pop Art but also at Abstract Expressionism; his more recent work dispenses with text altogether and instead filters abstraction through various mechanical printing processes. But unlike Roy Lichtenstein, who simultaneously enlarged Ab-Ex brushstrokes while diminishing them through inert compositions, Wool expands on the grave abandon of postwar abstraction while continuing to roil concepts of language. The abstract black snarls in the nine-foot-tall He Said She Said (2001) actually comprise four different, sloppily aligned silkscreens derived from an earlier orange spray painting. These formal ruptures get at the heart of the title phrase, fraught as it is with intimations of misunderstanding and flayed emotion.

In an untitled work from that same year, Wool again screenprinted pictures of an earlier spray painting onto linen. This time he used rich red ink, which he hacked at with a palette knife as it dried, leavening energetic gestures into the mechanically rendered dots — themselves representations of the body’s movements — and landing the image somewhere between de Kooning–like grace and graffiti aggression.

Along with tactile beauty, narrative sensation, and anthropomorphic presence (some of the painting attributes that Crimp found “reactionary” in 1981), these works emit a belligerent buoyancy. Maybe the next time a critic pontificates on the death of Wool’s obviously beloved medium, the riposte will come in a 10-foot-tall slab of letters spelling out something like:

PAIN T I
NGSPITS
O N YOU
RGRAVE

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Barring a Few Unsavory Detours, Sample This Thrives in its Music and Legacy

“Destiny played a major hand,” intones creepy leather-goblin Gene Simmons, dramatically overstating what went down at early recording sessions of Michael Viner’s Incredible Bongo Band, a group of technically masterful studio musicians whose work would inform the earliest days of hip-hop. Sample This documents the assembly of the group by Viner, a former Robert F. Kennedy aide with a passion for soul and funk. DJ Kool Herc discovered the band’s Bongo Rock album while trawling through crates of used vinyl, and its knockout track—a cover of a 1960s Britpop instrumental called “Apache”—was an instant hit at New York dance parties in the mid-’70s. Grandmaster Flash popularized “Apache” on a demo that cut up 10 different songs, and his remix is considered a classic. A flawless arrangement of hooks and breaks, “Apache” builds to a climactic duel between drummer Jim Gordon and bongo player King Errisson that a good club DJ could cross-fade and extend for 15 minutes. The track has since been sampled into thousands of songs by hundreds of artists, the Mitochondrial Eve of modern pop. This documentary’s visuals rely on digitally separating old photos into layers to create a View-Master parallax effect, a visual cliché that illustrates not just the story of the record, but also some tedious historical background including an irritating detour into the production of Charles Manson’s music. Simmons, the narrator, appears on camera for two jarring first-person interjections demonstrating just how far into the uncanny valley a living human can plunge. But the music is incredible, and through interviews with Rosey Grier, Afrika Bambaataa, Questlove, and a squadron of old-school studio musicians, director Dan Forrer unearths some of the hidden history of American pop.

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Noise Violation: Four Hours with Boyd Rice

One interviewee in Iconoclast recalls first hearing artist and controversy-stirring Boyd Rice appear as guest villain on Bob Larsen’s Evangelical call-in show: “I don’t know if it’s like a goof or if this guy’s really evil.”

The most genial professed Social Darwinist you could ever meet, Rice has never stopped to explain how much of his persona is a goof. Likewise, Larry Wessel’s documentary portrait Iconoclast doesn’t bother to synopsize its subject for the novice before setting off on its four-hour journey.

For the record, Rice has released noise music under the moniker “Non” since 1976. He has been the confidante of Church of Satan head Anton LaVey, Christian weirdo Tiny Tim, and Charles Manson. Rice has researched, written on, and proselytized for his various esoteric obsessions including tiki culture, girl groups, Gnostic mysticism, and the films of Ray Dennis Steckler—all of which he has time to opine on in Iconoclast. He has variously been called a Nazi, fascist, cradle-robbing sexual predator, and misogynist—all by people who are pointedly disinvited to participate in this movie.

Wessel’s project is less investigative than collusive, less interested in provoking its provocateur subject than making him feel at home. This keeps Iconoclast from the first rank, though it creates a spacious area for Rice, born in 1956, to unfurl an intellect that has made an art of extracting occult meanings from the pop culture of his youth.

Iconoclast is organized in three chronological sections, named for Rice’s three primary residencies. Last is his current home, Denver, from where the mellowed middle-aged Rice gives his interviews; the middle is San Francisco where, for a good decade, he was a professional agitator in the liberal bastion. But it’s the first section, titled “Lemon Grove” (after a San Diego County suburb), that’s the most revealing. It shows Rice in the early ’70s as a young outcast, thrift-scavenging an identity from readymades: Barnabas Collins on TV’s vampire soap opera Dark Shadows, Glam Rock, and Dada pranksterism, all predicting the career of a social dropout who, through alchemy of personality, spun pop dross into a personal El Dorado.

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SHARPE FOCUS

Alex Ebert, former rapper/garbler for Ima Robot, brings conceptual loftiness to blazing new heights with his latest project, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros; the double-digits psych-pop troupe sprung from Ebert’s idea of a modern Jesus-like figure destroyed by mortal temptations. Onstage at this year’s Bonnaroo Festival, the highfalutin’ premise rang more Tower of Babel, with a fully disoriented Ebert whipping his rasta beehive and mewling through most of 2009’s Up From Below as trust-fund hippies helicoptered their Band of Outsiders scarves. Still, the Los Angelenos power on via their Laurel Canyon languidity, Cyrus trailer-approved hit single “Home,” and Ebert’s imperious cult charisma: Think Charles Manson meets Chris Carrabba meets . . . a scarf. With We Are Each Other.

Wed., July 21, 8 p.m., 2010

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Manson: The Musical! Settles for Puerile Provocations

A Charles Manson musical is actually a pretty good idea. The bloodthirsty would-be messiah moonlighted as a songwriter while plotting America’s destruction; he heard instructions for murder in the Beatles’ White Album. Pondering Manson’s love affair with pop music could reveal the seamy side of the counterculture’s yen for radical utopias.

Unfortunately, Manson: The Musical!—originally created by Chicago’s Annoyance Theatre, now revived by EndTimes Productions under the direction of Russell Dobular—settles for puerile provocations instead. In numbers set to jangly psychedelic tunes, the company sings Manson’s exploits: shacking up on a ranch with a coterie of runaways; the ritualized Tate and LaBianca massacres; his trial’s bizarre spectacle. Lampooning Hair, performers trip around beatifically; the Tate murders become a finger-snapping Fosse-style sequence.

The piece relishes Manson’s orgiastic lifestyle: The Manson Family—the guru’s harem and death squad—is portrayed as a tittering coven of bimbos in halter tops, alternately chirping lascivious banalities and shrieking satanically. Here, Manson is a lusty goofball: “Put my dick in your hand,” he croons to a new initiate, before receiving mimed blowjobs from successive disciples.

Manson creates a parodic free-fire zone, content to hit anything that moves. But who really wants to laugh at a dumb-blonde caricature of Sharon Tate? Far from illuminating the ’60s’ apocalyptic undercurrents, or Manson’s enduringly scary myth, the musical simplemindedly laughs him off as one more hippie relic.

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Anger Management

There are some artists who live through their artwork, and then there are some, like avant-garde film director, occultist, and scandalmaker Kenneth Anger, who simply are art. In his first major survey at a U.S. museum in more than a decade, P.S.1 examines the early works of Anger’s extensive oeuvre, including the 1947 homoerotic Fireworks (about which Anger once explained: “This flick is all I have to say about being 17, the United States Navy, American Christmas, and the Fourth of July”); the psychedelic Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954-66); and Scorpio Rising (1963), considered to be one of the first postmodern films and an influence on the work of David Lynch and Martin Scorsese. Fans of early-’70s rock especially won’t want to miss the short film Lucifer Rising, starring Marianne Faithfull. Upset with the soundtrack Jimmy Page recorded for the film, Anger replaced Page with Bobby Beausoleil, an incarcerated associate of the Charles Manson family, who recorded the entire score in prison.

Mondays, Thursdays-Sundays, midnight. Starts: Feb. 22. Continues through Sept. 14, 2009

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Machine Age

WHOLE

May 17 at 11 on Sundance Channel

We’ve become rather blasé about human perversions, but Melody Gilbert has found one that still freaks us out: the desire to amputate a perfectly healthy limb. This amateurish but fascinating documentary, which made the film festival circuit last year, takes an uncritical look at a bunch of articulate men who dream of lopping off a leg, or have already done so and feel pleased with the stumpy result.


LEWIS BLACK: BLACK ON BROADWAY
May 15 at 10 on HBO

Lewis Black’s truculent brand of political comedy works as a perfect counterpoint to Jon Stewart’s more subtle style on The Daily Show. In this hour-long special, though, he’s like a white Chris Rock gone to seed. Angry white liberals, stand up and be counted!


HELTER SKELTER

May 16 at 8 on CBS

No, we probably don’t need another television movie about Charles Manson and his psycho-hippie minions. But here it is all the same, just 28 years after the original movie of the week that creeped out so many of us in our impressionable youth. This one stars Jeremy Davies (so sweet in movies like Spanking the Monkey and CQ) and former Kate & Allie child actor Allison Smith as Patricia Krenwinkle.

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Dada Salamanders in the Beer Hall, Pissing the Night Away

If you’ve always felt that the only thing missing from Leonard Cohen was a little Charles Manson, then let me direct you to Alvarius B—a/k/a Sun City Girl Alan Bishop—and his reworking of down-easter creaky-barn-door-core combo Cerberus Shoal’s track “Ding,” off of the recent Cerberus and Al split Vim & Vigor Of EP. It’s a mildewy stream of creepy unconsciousness and Dada as death-folk that will warp your floorboards. Trying to pick a favorite line is almost as hard as choosing your favorite member of Acid Mothers Temple. “We’ll drink newt urine slingshotting candles into the firmament” is hard to beat, however.

Two solo Alvarius tracks are next. And then his simple, bare-to-the-chopped-up-baby-bone takes on rural dementia are subsequently fleshed out by the Shoalsters, twice. The first of these numbers, “Blood Baby,” is given the old Weimar Republic/Weill treatment that’s all the rage; the second, “Viking Christmas,” is given a more modern beer-hall treatment—it sounds like it was recorded at a desolate T.G.I. Fridays at a particularly unhappy hour.

Finally, Cerberus retake “Ding,” renaming it “The Real Ding,” and give it their own inimitable stamp. Their version—with its female vocals, haunted youth-camp chorus, beautious harmonies, crowd noises, chitty chitty bang bang percussion, and clacking typewriter—just keeps blooming and writhing and snaking its way down a dark path. It’s a pleasure to keep up with.