Music

Real Life Rock Top 10: Memories of Aretha

Encounters with the Queen of Soul, Daveed Diggs, and the ghost of Jackie Wilson

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1. Tropical Fuck Storm, A Laughing Death in Meatspace (TFS)

Whether it has come as the leader of the Drones, on his own, or now fronting the mass of non-signifying words that make up his new band and its first album, Gareth Liddiard’s music has always been about war. You can’t prove that by parsing lyrics, which will tell you that the songs are about something else. It’s a matter of tone of voice, of instruments clashing until rhythm and melody feel like lies, of the fatigue of centuries: a stench that a million showers won’t wash off, because as the dead bodies of past wars fade, the dead bodies of future wars loom up before you. 

Compared to Tropical Fuck Storm — Liddiard lead singer and guitarist, Fiona Kitschin of the Drones bassist and singer, Erica Dunn guitarist, keyboards player, and singer, and Lauren Hammel drummer, all from Melbourne — the Drones, whether on their mid-2000s albums Wait Long by the River and the Bodies of Your Enemies Will Float By and Gala Mill or at a show in Brooklyn where Liddiard seemed to be carrying a hundred pounds of flu, as fierce a band as I’ve ever seen, can seem austere. The explosions in “Two Afternoons,” “A Laughing Death,” and “Rubber Bullies” are glorious and frightening, so big they don’t feel quite real, but there’s a story trying to climb out of the noise, carried by Liddiard’s weariness, his uncynical fatalism, but shaped by the counter-vocals of Kitschin and Dunn. Liddiard is responding instinctively to the war they are all describing; they are thinking about it. Soon you may begin to hear him as the background singer, and the women in the background as the leads. The balance shifts inside the songs, back and forth, back and forth, and you can feel as if this is what history sounds like as it’s being written.

2. Telegraph Avenue between Haste and Dwight, Berkeley (July 26)

I was in Amoeba Records looking for an Otis Redding reissue. Jackie Wilson’s “That’s Why (I Love You So)” was playing in the store. “You ever see him?” a guy working there asked me. “Otis Redding?” “No,” he said, pointing to the speaker above us. “Him.” “My Empty Arms” was playing now. “I never did,” I said. “Mr. Excitement,” he said. “I heard he was a show.” I crossed the street to Moe’s Books, where Wilson was singing “To Be Loved.” “Jackie Wilson in Amoeba, Jackie Wilson here,” I said to the man at the counter. “What’s going on?” “I don’t know,” he said. “An anniversary? Of his collapse?” I looked it up: Jackie Wilson was born on June 9, 1934; he suffered a heart attack onstage while singing “Lonely Teardrops” — “My heart is crying, crying…” — on September 29, 1975; he died after years of incapacitation on January 21, 1984. It must have been that on July 26, God was simply in the mood.

3. SPF-18, written and directed by Alex Israel (Netflix)  

In which the celebrated Los Angeles painter takes five putatively good-looking young people and has them hang out at Keanu Reeves’s Malibu beach house while he’s off on a shoot. Very likely the most vapid movie, TV movie, or for that matter sunscreen commercial ever made.

4. Sasha Frere-Jones, “I Thought I Was Taking Medicine: Twelve years on benzodiazepines,” popula.com (July 22)

I’ve never read a piece on addiction, dependency, or attendant personality disorders with anything approaching Frere-Jones’s gently hard-boiled tone — or so absent self-pity, special pleading, self-congratulation, or the mandated redemptive flourish.  

5. Steve Lowenthal, Dance of Death: The Life of John Fahey, American Guitarist (Chicago Review Press)  

At the start, in the late Fifties, he was a collector, driving through the South, “knocking on doors, asking for old records” from the Twenties and the Thirties. It was art: the music, but also the collecting. “Occasionally,” Lowenthal writes, “Fahey destroyed extremely rare records he found but which he already had, just to make his own copy more valuable.” 

6. David Lynch and Kristine McKenna, Room to Dream (Penguin Random House)

As collected in her 2001 Book of Changes, in 1986, 1989, and 1992 McKenna, the unrivaled historian of the postwar Los Angeles avant-garde, published interviews with Lynch as heretical as they were hilarious: You couldn’t predict a word. For this all-new auto/biography–career survey she provides continuity while he talks into a tape recorder, and there doesn’t seem to be a line you haven’t heard before, even if there is.

7. Joe Henry, “The Ghost in the Song: Songwriting as Discovery,” Aspen Ideas Festival (June 29, aspenideas.org)  

A 52-minute talk by the somewhat under-the-radar record producer (the shimmering post-Katrina Our New Orleans, the Carolina Chocolate Drops’ perfect-pitch Genuine Negro Jig), performer, and composer on how to listen as the song you flatter yourself you’re writing tells you what to do. As generous and revelatory a primer on creativity as anyone has not written — delivered conversationally, without drama, without notes.

8. The Who, Live at the Fillmore East 1968 (Geffen)

The first piece I ever published was a 1968 review in Rolling Stone of an album called Magic Bus: The Who on Tour — a collection of B sides and throwaways disguised as the live album all Who fans were pining for. But I didn’t know they’d already turned into Led Zeppelin, which didn’t even exist yet. If you go for the vinyl edition you can hear more than thirty minutes of “My Generation” spread across both sides of a single LP. As instructions for a record I can’t quite place once had it, play loud and leave the room

9. Blindspotting, directed by Carlos López Estrada, written by Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs (Lionsgate)

There are countless details around the edges of the frame and in throwaway dialogue (“I hate suspense. Fuck Alfred Hitchcock. Fuck M. Night Shyamalan. He makes me nervous”) that may come back over time with as much force as anything in the foreground, but in this great picture — with the impact of Straight Outta Compton and the inventiveness of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby Daveed Diggs is the center of gravity. It’s in the way he acts so fully, with such layers of depth and thought, altogether with his face: He makes it into a canvas where any emotional image may appear — terror, rage, shame, panic, determination, fury, control — only to be overpainted by another. It’s in the way he slips into his role as a man with three days left on his probation, knowing a single slip by himself or for that matter anyone around him will put him back in jail, and so trying to navigate the changing streets of his West Oakland standing grounds as if he’s actually, officially free, idly trying to put together rhymes as if there’s some song out there they might someday fit into, all of them shooting blanks until a climactic scene when that song arrives like the cavalry coming over the hill with Diggs’s character leading the charge.

 

 

Really, Diggs should run for president. “Nobody wants to be president,” he wrote back at the suggestion. “That job sucks. That’s how we end up with lunatics in office.” Sure, but can’t you just see the first commercial: “Hi. I’m not Thomas Jefferson. But I played him in Hamilton, and I’m here to tell you…”

10. Aretha Franklin, 1942–2018  

August 16: A friend writes in from Mississippi: “As I was nearing the Big Black River border between Warren and Hinds County, I saw the time and turned on NPR for the news. They said something about the weather, the live from somewhere standard intro, and then the first bars of ‘Chain, Chain, Chain.’  

“I turned off the radio.” 

I don’t know how much more needs to be said. But when I heard of Aretha Franklin’s death, two voices arrived at the same time. The first was of a businessman in his thirties, sitting at the bar of a London pub in 1967. “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” was on the jukebox. He seized up. I was sitting next to him: I could physically feel his desire to say what he felt burning out of his body. Finally Aretha shouted the last two shouts of the song and he shouted too: “Did you hear that? Can you believe that?” I realized at that moment that a particular woman, living her own life, trying both to make a hit record and say what she felt, had drawn out of herself the ability to touch absolutely anyone on earth. She had become a world figure.

Despite a 32-year-old Donald Fagen in “Hey Nineteen” singing “She don’t remember the Queen of Soul” — and that was almost forty years ago — she was never anything less. I thought of that man in the pub when I first heard the Steely Dan song, knowing that somehow he’d given it the lie so long in advance. That’s what happens when you put something new into the world, which is what Aretha Franklin did: Time wraps its straight line from then to now into a circle. 

Thanks to Jo Anne Fordham and Bob Scheffel.

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