The new(-ish) editor for the Oxford American emailed me and made nice! Y’all, I am off the Oxford American’s shit list! Eight years of nonsense, gone by the wayside. So, that’s nice, especially because I really like them and this year’s music issue–The Blues–sounds awesome.
Y’all remember when he wrote the Scene to make a snide comment about me? Lord, that was one of the weirdest things that has come my way.
Last night, The Last Waltz was on PBS and I watched the whole thing because I’m only human. And I have to tell you, I never put two-and-two together that the reason it has always felt to me like the movie stalls out after Muddy Waters is not just because the Muddy Waters segment is so fucking amazing, but also because I loathe Eric Clapton. After he plays, the movie picks right back up with being deeply enjoyable.
I think I might even be okay with it if they’d just flipped his segment and Emmylou’s.
Like I said on Twitter, I especially love the Van Morrison part because he looks like someone’s dad had a couple of beers and decided he could sing. But then he really can! But still, when he finishes up his song, he looks surprised and excited that he didn’t die out there. It is one of the moments where it feels like a real person is present.
Which is not to say that I don’t love that movie. And I love The Band, even The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, which should be terrible and embarrassing but somehow feels like the truth, but the combination of stoned/drunk everyone is and the awareness that they’re being filmed and that this is the end of things, there’s a performativeness to it. Which is fine, but it makes the moments of genuineness, like Van Morrison’s relief and delight, really stand out.
I keep trying to decide what it is about Muddy Waters’ performance I find so compelling, though. Because I watch that song and every time I feel like I’m seeing a truth about America I don’t know how to put into words. First, it’s the sense that he’s truly plugged into something transcendent and that you can see his connection to it grow as he performs. There’s not a good non-corny way of talking about it. But he’s in a groove and, as he realizes he’s settled into a familiar and powerful groove, you see a mix of confidence–he’s been here before, he knows what to do–and delightful surprise–“I got back here again, somehow? All right!” I just feel like performing, and performing masterfully, is doing something for and to him.
Also, this time, I was struck by how much eye contact he makes with the audience (or at least, how much eye contact he appears to be making with the audience. It’s hard to know how much he could see with the light in his eyes.) which isn’t really present in the other performers. They’re looking at the camera or at each other or out at the audience, but Morganfield looks like he’s looking at someone. I think part of this may just be his age and performance style–in other words, he came up playing at a time and in places where audience participation was a given so you had to learn how to work it and work with it–but it also goes to creating the sense that something is happening to and through him to us when he’s performing.
And I also can’t shake loose what it means for him to be standing on that stage, the 60s barely over, asking “Ain’t I a Man?” “I am a Man” on a sign in Memphis means, “See me as a citizen and a worker and someone with the inalienable rights our country was founded on. See me as your equal.” But Morganfield is up there singing about sex and erotic power and cocky assuredness and pleasure, at a time when we see black men’s sexuality as a threat for which they need to be constantly monitored and punished.
I definitely think one of the biggest threats posed by the blues and r&b is that there’s a long history of the importance of women’s pleasure and the joy men take in it. Once you stop to look for it, you’ll see it everywhere. The “black” version of a song includes women’s fun and the “white” version focuses on men’s pleasure or men’s suffering at the hands of women. So how could there not be anxiety on the part of white society, the fear that white women will gravitate to the men who enjoy their pleasure. You can even see how the Jezebel figures into this, white America trying to set up a dichotomy where black people are, yes, more passionate and sexual, but there’s no thought behind it–that’s just what they’re “for.” And good white people are the opposite of that.
So, you can see the claim Morganfield is making–“I know what I’m doing and I know you’ll like it”–and how it went against white views of black people.
It’s a less blatantly political claim and yet, just as important a one. So, there you have this guy, who makes this amazing music that most people who are in the movie love and have ripped off, who is risking and has risked more to perform it than they have, and, for me, the contrast between what he’s doing and what Clapton is doing is just so great it kind of repulses me to have them back to back.