Robert Johnson: The Sound and the Fury

An early member of the 27 Club, blues master Robert Johnson has been an object of veneration among such rock luminaries as Eric Clapton and Keith Richards since 16 of the roughly three dozen recordings he made in makeshift studios in the 1930s appeared on a 1961 compilation album, Robert Johnson: King of the Delta Blues Singers. “Poor Bob” — as the singer, guitarist, and harmonica player referred to himself on “Cross Road Blues” — has also been the subject of numerous biographies, of which Bruce Conforth and Gayle Dean Wardlow’s Up Jumped the Devil is the latest.

Looking to get past the tale of Johnson (1911–1938) selling his soul to the devil at a Mississippi crossroads in order to master the guitar, the authors have tracked down birth certificates, land deeds, medical records, and other documentation of the musician’s actual life. They recount interviews with Johnson’s contemporaries and family members, and dive into all manner of books and articles to convey the poverty and racism through which Johnson persevered to become a performer whose dynamic guitar playing and beguiling vocals could make a juke joint jump or turn a house party solemn. The authors give a sense of Johnson’s power with a quote from an occasional collaborator, Johnny Shines: “One time in Saint Louis we were playing one of the songs that Robert would like to play with someone once in a great while, ‘Come on in My Kitchen.’ He was playing very slow and passionately, and when we quit, I noticed no one was saying anything. Then I realized they were crying — both men and women.”

Jimmy Page once said, “The music of Robert Johnson has inspired a million riffs. The myth of Robert Johnson has inspired a million dreams.” In the winter of 1986, Village Voice contributor Greil Marcus related his own first encounter with the legendary musician: “Robert Johnson’s music talked to me as the voice of a new world, where everything was at stake, and nothing was resolved. Every choice was open, made real — what hap­pened was up to me.”

If Conforth and Wardlow’s book looks to sculpt an accurate portrait out of a fog of poorly kept records and embellished memories, Marcus, in his essay below, gets at the poetry of pain, grace, and joy that has kept Robert Johnson alive long after his one-score-and-seven years on this Earth had ended. —R.C. Baker

When You Walk in the Room

Almost exactly 50 years ago, in late November 1936, a 25- year-old blues singer from Mississippi made his first records in San Antonio, Tex­as: among them “Terraplane Blues,” “Come on in My Kitchen,” “Walking Blues,” “If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day.” In January 1970, just a month after Altamont, the all-day Rolling Stones rock festival, where I’d witnessed the worst violence I’d ever seen in the flesh, I walked into a record store, not looking for anything in particular; I just wanted to buy a record. I flipped through the blues rack and saw the name Rob­ert Johnson. It didn’t mean much to me; I’d noticed it as a songwriting credit on Cream LPs, for tunes called “Crossroads” and “Four Until Late.” The previous fall, I’d watched the Rolling Stones play a pristine version of “Love in Vain,” a track on their then new Let It Bleed, but I hadn’t known it was Johnson’s — for rea­sons I’ve never figured out, they credited it to someone called “Woody Payne.”

I was just starting out as a rock critic, though after Altamont I felt a hundred years old; I thought I ought to know where Cream songs came from, so I bought the Robert Johnson album, King of the Delta Blues Sing­ers. It was one of those moments when you get your life changed — like picking a college course that leads you to think for the first time, or walking thoughtlessly into a room and falling in love. I took the record home and put it on: I knew nothing about country blues. I knew almost nothing about the Deep South in the ’30s — I’d never even read Faulkner. All I had were memories of Life magazine photos of lynchings, Richard Wright’s autobiography, the autobi­ography of one of the Scottsboro Boys (both mediated through the ever-chang­ing Communist Party line on the “race question”). All I had, really, was a liberal upbringing, a lot of socialist realism. I brought virtually no context to the record. I simply took it home, put it on, and had my life changed.

I heard a sound I’d never heard before, but which, for some reason, I connected to. It was what Edmund Wilson called “the shock of recognition” — and for me, the “shock” has always been the realiza­tion that you have recognized something nothing could have led you to expect to recognize. The question turns out to be not what-makes-the-music-great, but why you recognized its greatness when, all things considered, you shouldn’t have understood it at all, or even stumbled upon it in the first place. I’ve been mar­ried for 20 years; sometimes, like anyone married that long, I wonder what my life would have been like if, on a certain meaningless day, I hadn’t walked into a certain meaningless room. Sometimes I think my life would be more or less the same; sometimes I think I wouldn’t have a life at all. I feel the same way about Robert Johnson. And it’s this sort of con­nection I want to talk about.

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Predictably, playing the Robert John­son album, I didn’t like his 1936 version of “Crossroads” as much as Cream’s 1968 version. Cream’s version was a firestorm; this was too quiet. As the album played, I read the liner notes. This is how they began: “Robert Johnson is little, very lit­tle more than a name on aging index cards and a few dusty master records in the files of a phonograph company that no longer exists.”

Those lines were poetry to me. I still think the cadence of the prose is pure poetry — the movement from “little, very little” to “no longer exists.” I turned the record over and stopped dead with “Stones in My Passway”; my nice living room was suddenly invaded by absolute terror. To get away from what was hap­pening, I read on: “Robert Johnson ap­peared and disappeared, in much the same fashion as a sheet of newspaper twisting and twirling down a dark and windy midnight street.” This wasn’t po­etry — it was corny — but it reminded me of the cover of Camus’s The Rebel, a picture that has stayed with me with far greater force than almost anything in the book itself. The cover showed a sheet of newspaper, with headlines in half a dozen languages, all carrying reports of revolution, upheaval, blowing down the street to nowhere. The Paris Commune of 1871, the Berlin revolution of 1918, Barcelona in 1936 — all events expelled from history by those with the power to get history written, published, taught, and censored, the incidents appearing, when they ap­peared in the record at all, like a list of perversions in a sex manual about healthy married life. What I’m trying to say is that I experienced those words on the Robert Johnson album, and Robert Johnson’s music, as an invasion of a world I had taken for granted — of an ur­ban, modern, white, middle-class, educat­ed reality I had taken as complete and finished, as a natural fact.

Robert Johnson‘s music was a rent in that reality, a violent rip, a negation, a no. I suddenly realized that I was sick of rock ’n’ roll; sick, after Altamont, of what it could do and what it had already produced. Altamont showed me blood, and death. I’d seen people beaten to the ground with lead-weighted sticks, seen naked people with their teeth knocked out, and I’d left the place only to hear on the radio that, as I’d stood behind the stage on top of a van to hear the Rolling Stones, a young black man had been knifed, kicked, and bludgeoned to death. There was death in Robert Johnson’s songs — but it always stopped short, stopped short at the point of choice. As I listened, full of ugly memories, Robert Johnson’s music talked to me as the voice of a new world, where everything was at stake, and nothing was resolved. Every choice was open, made real — what hap­pened was up to me.

Now, this was not socialist realism, or even liberal realism, which says that all people are products of great historical forces in a world they never made: that all people are sociology. Robert Johnson’s music wasn’t just a rent in the bourgeois life I’d lived; it was a rent in the theories of the leftists who’d fought against that life, who reached their high point in the ’30s, at the very moment Johnson was singing. The bourgeois view of the world said people like Robert Johnson didn’t count; the socialist realist view of the world said that he’d been made not to count, and that if by some miracle he’d made his voice heard, it was as the voice of the irrepressible will of the people — in other words, as sociology; as an individ­ual, he didn’t even exist. But this wasn’t what I heard. I heard a particular person, someone no sociological construct could have predicted, or even allowed for. Years later I would read Albert Murray’s comments on Bessie Smith — he said, more or less, that writers have tried to tie the expressive power of Bessie Smith’s music to the pain and suffering of black people in America, and then he wondered why, if this were so, 400 years of slavery and oppression, of pain and suffering, had not produced another Bessie Smith. Albert Murray, a black writer, was trying to rescue Bessie Smith from socialist re­alism; he was trying to grant her the subjectivity, the autonomy, that in the Unit­ed States is automatically granted any white artist. She was, Murray was saying, a genius. And, as Freud said, everyone knows genius is incomprehensible. Com­ing from the premier 20th century advo­cate of rationalism, that is saying something.

I wasn’t ready to deal with this — this sort of autonomy. Instead I tried to un­derstand the form — the genre, the sociol­ogy. I became obsessed with Mississippi Delta country blues — primitive blues, it was called in the notes to the Robert Johnson album. I learned a lot about it. I bought everything I could find. I learned about the first country blues performers to record, men much older than Robert Johnson: Charlie Patton, Son House, Willie Brown, Skip James, Garfield Akers. I heard a music that was rich, fierce, funny, and bitter. But I kept lis­tening to Robert Johnson, and what I learned still didn’t touch what he was doing.

I learned that blues had come into be­ing — was invented, was discovered, I don’t know the right word — around 1900, probably in the Mississippi Delta; wher­ever it came from, the sound was soon heard across the South. Everyone, black and white, who heard this new sound — ­all those with enough education to write down their thoughts on what they heard — said the same thing. It didn’t matter if it was some benevolent rich white woman or W.C. Handy of Mem­phis, who later named himself “the Fa­ther of the Blues.” They all had the same reaction, used the same words: “Weird.” “Strange.” “Eerie.” “Unearthly.” “Devil­ish.” “Terrifying.” “Not of this world.”

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The blues was something new. Just as Robert Johnson’s music had made a breach in my white, middle-class, modern world, around 1900 blues had made a breach in the known world of southern blacks. It wasn’t like the old field hollers, work songs, animal fables, ring shouts, gospel music, though musicologists have traced the lines back so that you’d think a breach had never been made. A leads to B and B leads to C, and who can deny it? But the testimony of those who were there is what counts — and what those who were there said was that they’d nev­er heard anything like this before, and they weren’t sure they ever wanted to hear it again. A white woman heard her teenage maid moaning to herself as she folded laundry — whatever the song was about, if it was a song, it wasn’t about laundry. W.C. Handy was waiting for a train late one night; two men sat down beside him and began to play; later he wondered if it hadn’t been a dream.

What was this? Robert Johnson at­tracted international attention in his life­time; Melody Maker ran a short item about him, bemoaning the fact that his record company wasn’t known for en­couraging protest songs. Obviously, blues was full of pain and suffering; therefore at its heart it had to be a protest against white oppression. On the page, that wasn’t hard to understand — why was the sound so hard to understand?

It was hard to understand because blues was not music born of oppres­sion, but of freedom. It was not a protest against “conditions” — ­against racism, lynching, sharecrop­ping, and worse — it was, like The Sound and the Fury, a protest against life.

Blues was invented by one of the first generations of black Americans not to be born slaves — to be born with the freedom of movement that from the time of Dan­iel Boone had been enshrined as the first principle of American life. They were among the first Afro-Americans to escape of their own free will the ties of home­town, home plantation, family, church — and, most important, work. The black church as well as white sheriffs pushed them back — and they pushed back against the black church no less than against white sheriffs. No, they said, I do what I like.

A whole new, common language grew up around that negation, that affirma­tion — “No, I do what I like.” It was a shared language of guitar riffs and lyric phrases (“My black mama’s face shines like the sun,” “The sun gonna shine in my back door someday,” “Minutes seem like hours, hours seem just like days”), a set of fragments reaching for some all-encompassing blues parable that every blues singer presented in pieces. You could say, as Peter Guralnick has, that the tradition itself, not the individual artist, was the poet, and the tradition grew up as a poetic opposition to playing by the rules. In that sense, of course, blues was a protest, but blues singers didn’t see it that way. They considered themselves free men, as good as anybody, better than most — if not better than most, freer than most. Their music was made out of a conviction that, like all Americans, they were masters of their own lives — or should be. When they ran into the limits of that mastery — the in­ability to hold a woman, to keep a dollar in hand, to live without fear — they found themselves face-to-face not merely with the particular racial, economic, or social conditions of the Deep South in the ’20s or ’30s, but with the facts of life. Those facts could be summed up in one: men and women are not at home in this world. It was the same fact that Herman Mel­ville had discovered in Moby Dick, that Faulkner was raging against in The Sound and the Fury, that the writers of Greek tragedies had chewed over more than 2000 years before. That was why, to those who heard it around 1900, the sound was strange, scary, confusing: the new blues singers were singing about things people had never wanted to talk about. For the first time, they were acting like free people, and running into the wall that separates desire from its realization.

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It took me a long time to understand this — or to believe it. For a long time, what I heard in Mississippi country blues, and always most intensely in Rob­ert Johnson, was a contradiction: the mu­sic reached me directly, went straight to the heart, seemed to call forth responses from the blood; but at the same time that music was impossibly distant, odd, and old. For black people in the ’20s and ’30s the Mississippi Delta was full of horses and wagons and ruled by peonage. There weren’t any telephones and there weren’t any toilets. No one was allowed to vote, and most couldn’t even dream of learning to read and write. The first contact most of these people would have with a world outside the one into which they were born was when their sons were drafted to fight in World War II — and many of their sons were given farm deferments, arranged by white landowners partly to in­sure that they never would see a world outside the one into which they were born.

But I’ve fallen back into sociology — the opposite of what I’m trying to talk about. I’m trying to talk about a different sort of distance, a different sort of oldness, a different sort of oddness. I was raised on The Twilight Zone TV show — Mississip­pi blues was twilight zone stuff. The sing­ers, recorded in their twenties and thir­ties, seemed in their voices to have been old before they were born. Robert John­son was a ghost — out of a past I had never expected to confront, he was years ahead of me every time I listened to his music, waiting for me to catch up.

I am writing about Robert Johnson be­cause if any of the things I have been saying are true, they are overwhelmingly, titanically more true of him and his mu­sic than they are of any other Mississippi blues singer one might mention. Once one has been through the tradition, many of the great singers and most of the countless minor ones — and scores of black men made records in the South in the ’20s and ’30s — recede into that tradi­tion: the tradition speaks for them: this means they become sociological. Their music makes sense sociologically — and after that, it may not make any other kind of sense, or, more important, make non-sense out of whatever preconcep­tions a listener might bring to it. Charlie Patton, considered the founder of Missis­sippi Delta blues, sounds like a founder. Son House sounds like an exponent. Skip James and Tommy Johnson, both of them with highly developed individual styles, sound like eccentrics, like isolates within a tradition itself isolated from the American mainstream, be it political or artistic, where history is supposedly made.

Now, compared to Skip James or Tom­my Johnson, Robert Johnson does not sound particularly individualistic. Com­pared to them, he sounds very tradition­al — and also as if the tradition, this par­ticular social/economic/religious/aesthetic happenstance, is meaningless, as if it had never existed. In his music you seem to hear what everyone else was reaching for, what everyone else was try­ing to say, what no one else could touch, what no one else could put into words, into the twist of a vocal, the curl of a guitar line — or for that matter into the momentum of a passage of prose, the scene of a play, the detail of a painting. Robert Johnson takes the tradition as a given, in the same way we take it as a given that people we meet will speak, eat, and sleep, and then goes beyond the tradition to such an extent that the concepts of speech, eating, and sleeping lose their meanings, or acquire entirely new ones.

Robert Johnson, his music says, worked and lived with a deeper autono­my than any other bluesman, all of whom came forth to affirm autonomy. He made his music against the limits of that au­tonomy, limits he discovered and made real, and he did so with more ferocity, and more tenderness, than any other bluesman, all of whom encountered simi­lar limits. The difference is this: all the other bluesmen dealt with that problem within the bounds of the tradition, within the bounds of the form of Mississippi Delta blues, speaking that common lan­guage. If the tradition allowed them to refuse the limits on their life, they ac­cepted the limited power of the tradition to deal with those limits, to make sense of them.

Robert Johnson did not do this. As an individual, sparked by the blues tradition to want more out of life than he might have otherwise demanded, he refused to accept the limits of the blues tradition itself — a tradition that, as an aesthetic form, at once inspired and limited his ability to make demands on life, to pro­test it. It’s said that when he started out he was a pest, a teenager making noise at houseparties and juke joints, a complete incompetent on the guitar, a joke. Then he went away, and a year later came back, still demanding that Son House and Willie Brown give him a chance to play in public. They laughed at him and left the room; he started to play. They turned around — and what they heard sounded as strange to them as the first blues had sounded decades before. It was like Vasily Rozanov’s metaphor for nihil­ism: “The show is over. The audience get up to leave their seats. Time to collect their coats and go home. They turn round… No more coats and no more home.” Right there, in the heart of the tradition, in the sociology of its everyday life, no one knew what was going on.

Blues was Robert Johnson’s lan­guage. It’s unclear whether he could read or write, but if he could, it was at a rudimentary level; blues was his only chance at self-expression, or making a mark on the world, of leaving it even slightly dif­ferent than he had found it. He mastered the tradition — he formally extended its guitar language, formally raised the level of song composition, deepened its formal possibilities for vocal strength and delica­cy. Yet he also found the tradition inade­quate — and you can hear this in his greatest songs, in “Stones in My Pass­way,” “Hellhound on My Trail,” “Come on in My Kitchen,” “Traveling River­side Blues.” The tension of wanting to say more than the tradition can allow explodes the tradition. “Stones in My Passway” and “Hellhound” do not sound like any other blues. It doesn’t matter how well any musicologist can trace their melodies or their lyrics back to any other performers. You run into a wall of emo­tional, aesthetic fact: sociology can ex­plain the Mississippi Delta blues, but it cannot explain Robert Johnson any more than 400 years of pain and suffering can produce two Bessie Smiths.

Most traditions of any sort decay, fall into ruin, wear out. It’s rare to see, to hear, any tradition actually be explod­ed — to be taken to a critical mass of pos­sibility and desire and then be destroyed. That’s what happens in Robert Johnson’s last recordings, made in 1937, the year before he died. It seems impossible that there could be any Mississippi blues after those last recordings — and, in a way, there weren’t. Nothing new; just refine­ments, revivals, footnotes. Many of Johnson’s more conventional compositions­ — “Sweet Home Chicago,” “Dust My Broom,” “Crossroads” — became blues and then rock ’n’ roll standards in the years and decades after Robert Johnson’s death; it’s interesting that almost no one has even tried to make a new version of “Stones in My Passway” or “Hellhound on My Trail.”

Once it’s really heard, Robert John­son’s music takes shape as a mystery — and, confronted with a mystery, the hu­man impulse is to try and solve it. Robert Johnson is no longer a name on an index card; since King of the Delta Blues Sing­ers was released, 25 years ago, almost every fact one might care to know about him has been discovered. There are enough facts for a full biography; not long ago there was mostly legend, tall tales, superstition. And yet Robert John­son’s music has not been reduced, has not been contained, has not been made sense of, not one bit. You hear a man going farther than he could ever have been ex­pected to go — even if you know nothing of the particular limits of Mississippi blues, you can hear those limits being smashed, or hear a man fall back violent­ly before them. What you hear is a strug­gle more extreme, and more fully shaped, than you can accept. So you begin to ask: what would it mean to want that much? What would it mean to lose that much?

Carlos Fuentes once spoke about the difference between literature that can be contained within the bounds of sociology and ethnography and literature that can­not. “Perhaps Babbitt and Main Street could only have been written by a per­fectly determined North American writer born in Sauk Center, Minnesota, in the year of grace 1885,” Fuentes said of Sin­clair Lewis. “But Absalom, Absalom!, Light in August or The Sound and the Fury could, in their mythic essence, have been told by a wise savage in central Africa, an ancient guardian of memory in the Himalayas, an amnesiac demon, or a re­morseful god.” Sam Charters, one of the first to write in detail about Mississippi blues, once wrote that only a black man living in the Mississippi Delta in the first third of the century could possibly un­derstand what Son House meant when he sang, “My black mama’s face shines like the sun.” Maybe that is true, in the same way that Fuentes’s words about Sinclair Lewis may be true. But nothing similar could ever be true about Robert Johnson, just as one does not have to be anything like Faulkner to understand what he wrote.

For all this, Robert Johnson remains a figure in a story that, as it is usually told, is already completed: that is, he is a so­ciological exemplar of an ethnographic cultural incident that makes complete sense within the bounds of American so­ciocultural ethnography. No one talks about Melville, Hawthorne, Emerson (or even D.W. Griffith, John Ford, and Howard Hawks) this way. They are discussed as people who took on the world and, for whatever reasons, made some­thing of it; what they made of it is what gets discussed, and discussed in the most wide-ranging way, connected to and informing anything that might connect to or inform it. Such talk makes their work richer, and the world richer, more inter­esting. But there are few American black artists discussed in these terms, and no blues singers. Formal objections are easy — how can you compare a handful of two-and-a-half-minute songs to Mel­ville’s books, or just Moby Dick? Can you actually say that there is a labyrinth as deep, as complex, in “Stones in My Pass­way” as in The Sound and the Fury? Maybe not. But one can say that Robert Johnson went as far, went far enough that the question becomes not how he got there, but what goes on there. ■


Greil Marcus’s Real Life Rock Top 10: Angels, Demons, and Philip Roth

1. Jennifer Castle, Angels of Death (Paradise of Bachelors)  

You might bet against the notion of anyone other than Lana Del Rey calling an album Angels of Death and not drowning in her own pretentiousness. With the Toronto singer Castle, you’d lose. The first song is last night’s dream you can’t remember; Castle remembers it for you, and as the songs roll on she stays on that path. The action is all in the interstices between the melody and the cadence, the voice and the instrumentation. The melody seems called up by the cadence, the instrumentation feels like a reflection of the voice, and you can find yourself listening for those tiny lifts, the suspensions in the songs replacing the songs themselves.      

2. “The King of the Delta Blues,” Timeless (NBC, season two, episode 6, April 22)

In this time-travel series, the bad guys go back to 1936 to kill Robert Johnson “to prevent the birth of rock ’n’ roll music and eventually the counterculture of the 1960s, the civil rights movement, the fall of Nixon, and the end of the Vietnam War.” The good guys go back to stop them, presumably to allow the birth of rock ’n’ roll and end the Vietnam War. Johnson, as played by Kamahl Naiqui, seems absolutely convinced.

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3. Jackie Fuchs, at “What Difference Does It Make? Music and Gender,” MoPop Pop Conference 2018 (Seattle, April 26)

The former bassist Jackie Fox, on how being raped as a member of the Runaways led her to become an entertainment lawyer working with women in the music business: “It’s a lot easier to stand up for someone else than to stand up for yourself.” Harvard Law, she said of her alma mater, “turns out 600 lawyers a year: ‘Next!’ And there were so few female musicians in the Seventies — I wish I had known how much power I actually had.”

4. Les démons, window in the Nouveau Théâtre de Montreuil (Montreuil, France)

From floor to ceiling: Silk-screened on the glass, Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter in 1956 in the last moments of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, evanescent pods over their heads, are running right at you, so physically present you want to reach into the glass and pull them over to the other side. And they’re there forever. 

5. Jose Cuervo, “Last Days,” directed by Ringan Ledwidge (CP+B) 

In some Southwestern bar, the radio announces the end of civilization. Some people flee; one man cues up Elvis’s “It’s Now or Never” on the jukebox. He begins to dance, a woman joins him, the roof blows off, and as the bartender pours a shot and then leans back, singing along with indescribable pleasure, you might wonder why the song never sounded as good as it does here.

6. Rachel Kushner, The Mars Room (Scribner) 

Kushner’s celebrated last novel, The Flamethrowers, was so relentlessly brilliant I couldn’t finish it. I got the point: Kushner is brilliant. This book, about a former sex worker and convicted murderer serving double life sentences in California, is quiet, deliberate, slow. Iron Maiden, Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, “the wind of Elvis’s empty soul,” Richard Nixon playing piano at the Grand Ole Opry, the 1950s L.A. radio DJ Art Laboe (still taking prisoner’s requests in the 21st century) flit through the story like someone flicking a light switch on and off. Kushner doesn’t know how to end the novel, which barely matters; by the time she starts faking the plot, the reader understands that the story doesn’t need an ending, because the real story won’t have one. One line I’m still turning over and over: “People are stupider and less demonic than some can admit.”    

7. “Images en Lutte: La culture visuelle de l’extrême gauche en France (1968–1974),” Palais des Beaux-Arts, Paris (February 21–May 20) 

Mostly May ’68 posters, many made at the École des Beaux-Arts over a few weeks of hurry, excitement, and fear that the new world glimpsed as art students worked in concert could vanish overnight, and the posters looked like the analytic committee work they were. They didn’t have the casual flair or scrabbling insistence of the utopian graffiti that covered the walls and hoardings of Paris at the same time, which the show ignored. But in the back, off to the side, was La Datcha, a painting, from just a year later, of five radical French philosophers. Credited to Gilles Aillaud, Eduardo Arroyo, Francis Biras, Lucio Fanti, Fabio Rieti, and Nicky Rieti, it too was a collective work, but there was no sense of a group effort; the six dissolved into one whom they didn’t bother to name. They were having fun picturing a scene of absolute solemnity, in the style of a sort of socialist realist suburban pastoral. There was a very modern house, comfortable chairs, a gorgeous sunrise, all set up to catch a perfect May ’68 fantasy, matching perhaps the most inspired graffiti: “Run, comrade, the old world is behind you!” There was a plaque attached to the frame with a subtitle: “Louis Althusser hesitates to enter Claude Levi-Strauss’s dacha Tristes Miels, where, already reunited, are Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault, and Roland Barthes, at the moment when the radio is announcing that workers and students have decided to joyously abandon their past.” They all look miserable, but your eye is drawn to Foucault, in the foreground, the only one not frozen in the tableau, who really does seem to be thinking it over, plotting how he’s going to escape the curse of redundancy that, the painting says, the rest definitely will not.  

8. Mekons 77, It Is Twice Blessed (Slow Things) 

Over the Mekons’ forty-plus years, Jon Langford and Tom Greenhalgh have emerged as principal voices; in the beginning, in 1977, in the art student milieu of the University of Leeds, Mark White and Andy Corrigan were the singers, Greenhalgh and Kevin Lycett played guitar, Ros Allen, who would soon form Delta 5, played bass, and Langford played drums. They each do here what they did then, not with “Where Were You” or “Never Been in a Riot,” from their very first singles, but with new songs that could have been written and played right alongside of them. The argument is that while the affirmation that clatter and hum trump all other values might not have carried the band through forty years, once every forty years, with the title of this album continuing that of the band’s first, it’s a punk rock grail.

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9. Michelle Goldberg, “A Grotesque Spectacle in Jerusalem,” the New York Times (May 14) 

“The juxtaposition of images of dead and wounded Palestinians and Ivanka Trump smiling like a Zionist Marie Antoinette tell us a lot about America’s relationship to Israel right now,” Goldberg wrote — and her line about the Presidential Daughter tells us more about Trumpism than a thousand fulminating screeds, let alone the NOKD sneers that continue to appear in the likes of the New Yorker (see, or don’t, Ann Beattie’s recent “Tasting Notes for a Teetotalling President”). What Goldberg wrote won’t change anyone’s mind. It won’t change anything. But it adds to the record that people will have to sift through if the republic emerges from these times with any sense of what it was and what it was supposed to be.

10. Philip Roth, 1933–2018  

Which was his great subject. Before and after everything else, Roth was a patriot, and consumed by the complexities of loving one’s sometimes hateful country. American PastoralI Married a Communist (to me, his best book), The Human StainThe Plot Against America, and The Great American Novel are proof of that. I’m sure he wanted to live to see Donald Trump gone. But his death saved him from a lot of torment, and deprives the rest of us of a voice unlike that of anyone else.


B.B. King

“I’ve had some weird troubles along my 88 years,” B.B. King told an audience two weeks ago in St. Louis. He had some more that night when he got heckled for telling too many hard-earned stories and doing a sing-along version of “You Are My Sunshine.” Would they heckle their grandpa? When he comes to New York, he better get the respect he deserves because King’s a living legend. Anyone who gets to sing “You Are My Sunshine” with B.B. King and doesn’t appreciate it will get theirs when they’re permanently banned from Robert Johnson shows in hell.

Sat., April 19, 8 p.m., 2014


Michael Pisaro’s Tombstones Brings Out the Dead

Tombstones, a collection of songs guitarist and composer Michael Pisaro describes as “an indeterminate, experimental piece for voice,” has been a work-in-progress for the past six years. Nine of the 20 songs by the CalArts professor and leading figure of the Wandelweiser Group (an international group of experimental composers who pick up where John Cage’s explorations of silence and minimalism left off), will see a vinyl release by HEM Berlin in November. At Our Lady of Lebanon Cathedral in Brooklyn on Wednesday night, seven Pisaro associates, including the vocalist Julia Holter, the guitarist Jason Brogan, and the clarinetist Katie Porter, form an ensemble to perform select pieces from Tombstones.

For Tombstones, Pisaro used small fragments of popular songs — a melody, a few words from the lyrics — as the base for each piece. Treating them as found objects, he spotlighted and stretched a particular part from each song in order to deeply examine these sliced moments. The function of a tombstone is to express the death of something, while also serving as a memorial for that thing so that we do not forget it. In this case, Pisaro’s objective is to express the death, and to (possibly) resurrect, the political quality contained within the song fragments.

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Robert Johnson At 100

“I chose pieces that say something about the current political situation when they were written,” Pisaro explains. “No matter what political moment they responded to, and no matter what political momentum there was, those moments are all dead. The chosen lines are epitaphs for a period when there was some sort of political interaction between the songwriter and the world. Whatever situation it was responding to is no longer in the air, and what we know about the situation comes from the song itself.”

The first piece Pisaro wrote was “Blues Fall,” which uses the mysterious bluesman Robert Johnson’s 1937 recording of “Hellhound on My Trail” as its source. “It represents, in this highly fragmented, poetic way, the situation African Americans found themselves in at the time,” Pisaro says. On the recording, the phrase “Blues Fall” is repeated numerous times while (mostly) acoustic instruments drone, swarm, and disappear. Although not on the recording, Pisaro constructed one piece from a fragment of Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War” using the lyric “Like I see through the water that runs down my drain.” Pisaro says, “He’s referring to how he can see through the rhetoric of the people proclaiming war, but there’s no obvious political content in that line.”

Pisaro’s most intriguing source material, which also leads to the most haunted of all the recordings, is a version of the rap duo UGK’s song “One Day” by DJ Screw, the Houston pioneer of the Chopped and Screwed sound. Screw had already slowed and throwed the tune using his own time-warping technique, similarly exploring the forgotten, concealed ghost moments of the original, and Pisaro pays homage while simultaneously magnifying Screw’s already magnified version.

“DJ Screw’s a great inspiration for this work,” Pisaro says. “He was doing the same sort of thing years ago, but his methods were much different. But there is a process by which he’s attempting to resurrect that which has been given to him, I think. I’m a huge fan of his, so I had to involve him in some way.”

Julia Holter, who appears on the Tombstones recording and is part of Wednesday night’s ensemble, is a former student of Pisaro’s at CalArts. The vocalist and multi-instrumentalist, whose 2012 release Ekstasis has been celebrated for its sophisticated merging of pop and experimental music, was also a member of the Pisaro-led Experimental Music Workshop, for which fellow students performed their own work and the work of big guns like Cage, Morton Feldman, and Christian Wolff. “I was immediately drawn to Michael’s music because it opened up the opportunity to perform something not necessarily based on a particular virtuosity,” Holter remembers. “But more so on the particular piece of music.”

“I’m scared to talk about it because I don’t know if Michael wants me to give it away,” she says when I ask about the source material from her favorite Tombstones piece, “Silent Cloud.” But then she makes the mistake of singing the melody to me through the phone. It’s clearly “Julia,” by the Beatles. She laughs when I call her out on it. “I know that song really well, but I didn’t know the part came from it when I first sang it,” she says. “It’s really not about the actual songs, but capturing and stretching out a moment of a song you might not normally experience in order to experience it in a different context.”

The most precarious part of “Tombstones,” it seems, is whether this different context will somehow raise the original song’s supposedly dead political sentiment. “It’s a very fragile thing, because whatever new life they get has to happen in the performance, because it doesn’t exist in the composition,” Pisaro says. “This kind of resurrection — giving one of these events a chance to live again — has to undergo that kind of transformation where you cannot predict what will happen. This is what I’m trying to do.”

Datebook Museums & Galleries VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES Where To

‘Beats in Space’ w/ Matias Aguayo+Ivan Smagghe

Matias Aguayo has been a little quiet since joining up with chaotic Warp band Battles last year.. The Chilean-born producer followed his soaring early success as half of Closer Musik (“One Two Three No Gravity”) by conjoining minimalism, pop, and tropicalia on his brilliant 2009 Kompakt album, Ay Ay Ay; the stuff coming out on his own Comeme label has been just as inventive.France’s Ivan Smagghe’s darkly accessible techno and house built winning Robert Johnson and Kill the DJ mixes. With Tim Sweeney.

Sat., Oct. 13, 9 p.m., 2012


Why Bronx Prosecutors Don’t Suck At Prosecuting Criminals — As Explained By Bronx Prosecutors

This morning, we told you about a new report that shows the Bronx District Attorney’s Office only pursues about 75 percent of its cases, which is a dramatically lower rate than the other four D.A.’s offices in the Big Apple.

According to the report, the Bronx D.A. pursues a mere 76.6 percent of its cases. Collectively, the four other New York City D.A.’s offices declined to
pursue 10.5 percent of their cases last year, with Staten Island dropping 12.1
percent of its cases and Manhattan dropping 4.8 percent.

The report credits the low percentage to an internal policy of Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson’s office that says prosecutors
should not pursue a case if the victim doesn’t give a statement within
24 hours of an arrest.

No other D.A.’s office in New York has such a policy — they also have much fewer dropped cases.

Regardless, Bronx D.A.’s Office spokesman Steven Reed has provided the Voice with an explanation, which you can find below.

“Far too many Bronxites continue to become victims of crime. Yet, the fact remains that at times one citizen will have another arrested when no criminal conduct occurred. A major part of doing justice involves screening out such cases, as soon as possible. This saves falsely accused defendants from spending time in jail, and saves resources which are badly needed for cases involving provable cases against guilty defendants.

Critics fail to understand that when a defendant has already been arrested courts require that he or she be arraigned within 24 hours. The best way to achieve all of our goals is by actually speaking to accusers as soon as possible. That process is not inflexible; we certainly do work with victims whom we believe need more time to “get it together.” When additional evidence is required prosecution is deferred and NYPD is advised of what we need to build a case.

Being a DA is more than just prosecuting. The evaluation of cases is one of our most important responsibilities. When the consequence is depriving a citizen of their liberty, we will continue to screen to ensure that sufficient evidence is put before the court. Every case is different, and we try to achieve the best results for all concerned.”


Bronx Prosecutors Kinda Suck At Prosecuting People

UPDATE: the Bronx District Attorney’s Office has provided the Voice with an explanation of its high percentage of unpursued cases, which you can see by clicking here.

Note to self: if you’re gonna break the law, do it in the Bronx — there’s a one in four chance you’ll walk away scot-free.

A recently released/superb investigative report by WNYC shows that the Bronx District Attorney’s Office prosecutes criminals at a dramatically lower rate than any other D.A.’s office in the city, pursuing a mere 76.6 percent of its cases.

For anyone keeping score, that means roughly 24 of every 100 cases is not pursued by the Bronx D.A.

The main reason for the large number of dropped cases is an internal policy within Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson’s office that says prosecutors should not pursue a case if the victim doesn’t give a statement within 24 hours of an arrest.

No other D.A.’s office in New York has such a policy — they also have much fewer dropped cases.

Collectively, the four other New York City D.A.’s offices declined to pursue 10.5 of their cases last year, with Staten Island dropping 12.1 percent of its cases and Manhattan dropping 4.8 percent.

Johnson’s 24-hour victim statement policy is only part of the problem. The other: apparent laziness.

From the Post:

One street cop told The Post that inexperienced prosecutors bristle at having to actively pursue a case.

“They whine about doing the work. They say, ‘I’m not doing it.’ I’m like,
‘Well this is your job. Go and flip burgers at McDonald’s if you don’t
like it,’ ” the officer said.

We reached out to Bronx D.A.’s office spokesman Melvin Hernandez for an explanation of his office’s poor performance but didn’t immediately hear back. We’ll let you know if he gets back to us.


‘Robert Johnson at 100’

Robert Johnson gave his soul—as in, his immortal soul—to the blues, as in his immortal soul. And who knows if Time Warner services hell, but maybe the 27 Club forefather will be able to strum along to a live feed of this belated 100th birthday party (or at least get Wi-Fi for ?uestlove’s live tweets of the event). Why is it belated? Probably the devil’s handiwork. That, or the behind-the-scenes machinations of producer-impresario Michael Dorf, whose own deal with the devil probably included this gig as a bargaining chip. The Roots, Chuck D, Bettye Lavette, Taj Mahal, and others will all be at the Apollo to hail Satan.

Tue., March 6, 8 p.m., 2012


John Mellencamp: It’s About You

John Mellencamp comes across as the kind of anti-establishment millionaire who believes in artistic freedom but knows things are better done his own way, who likes it ragged but also just so. Which, considering his track record, is eminently fair, but it’s enough to give a genuine free spirit fits. Interested in self-documentation but drawn to unconventionality, he recruits photographer (and non-filmmaker) Kurt Markus to chronicle his 2009 concert tour and No Better Than This recording sessions as a rough-hewn work of independent art. “This film should be about you,” Mellencamp insists, denying the inherent hypocrisy of his charge and evidently persuading Markus that he’s sincere. The result is an amateurish travelogue that feels like a botched assignment, halfheartedly self-regarding and resentfully remote from the object of our fascination. The footage often looks great, captured as it was on Super 8 stock that abstracts visible light sources and gives skin an indefinite warmth. And the music, recorded on analog equipment at historic locations like Sun Studios and Robert Johnson’s hotel room, turned out to be Mellencamp’s strongest in decades. But Kurt’s monotonous, diaristic voiceover drowns the film in armchair philosophizing, bloodless “this is so kickass” editorializing, and sarcastic swipes at his rock-star employer. Such failures to ingratiate only make Mellencamp’s expertly calibrated folksiness more appealing, which might have been the plan all along.


Todd Rundgren

The art-pop eccentric has a new album out on which he tackles the oeuvre of blues pioneer Robert Johnson. Reports from the road indicate that on his summer tour, Rundgren’s only dropping a blues number or two between more familiar material from throughout his 40-something-year career. With Les July.

Wed., July 6, 8 p.m., 2011