So there we were, drinking at the bar before the show, watching the muted movie on the TV mounted in the corner and giving it a pretty hard time. AMC was showing Gothika, something that wasn’t aired with Goodfellas-level frequency but still got plenty of play in 2008. And at one point a woman came up to the bar to get some drinks and shot the shit with us while she waited, gleefully joining in as we riffed on Halle Berry’s mental crises and whether they really constituted a “movie classic.” Lisa Walker got her beers and went back to the rest of Wussy, the group we had come there to see, and after the great and occasionally prickly show I went up to the band to see if they’d sign their CD for me. They were all incredibly gracious and Walker, remembering the conversation earlier, wrote “Gothika has NO PLACE on AM Fucking C!”
Walker and Chuck Cleaver formed Wussy in 2001, quickly turning a duo into a full-fledged band. They’re based out of Cincinnati, where Cleaver previously helmed the great weirdo rock group Ass Ponys, and his skewed yelp and fuzzed guitar from that band meld with Walker’s wail and a slightly poppier vibe. (The pair also were involved romantically for a while, an on-again off-again couple that eventually split up as a relationship while staying friends and maintaining the band.) Wussy’s Facebook description of “Sludgy Turmoil + Harmonies” isn’t the whole story but is pretty accurate. They’ve gotten some mainstream play over the past two decades, but nowhere near the kind of attention that would break them large or even let them do this for a living; Cleaver was a bricklayer for years until injuries scotched that job. They don’t sing about the rock star life, but they sing about regular life and how loving rock is a way of living. And they sing about the movies as well.
Walker in particular has taken specific films as subjects, retelling them from different angles. The title track to 2014 album Attica! boils down the story of Dog Day Afternoon and in particular Sonny Wotjik. “How can I ever sway / Your heart on this dog day / Too poor to take the pill / I’ll name you in my will,” Walker sings as Sonny, and the mournful main lick of the song knows how this dream ends. But the band and Walker push it into something universal, a single movie and a specific reference becoming a cry and a challenge for any love worth fighting for. “It’s all been done to death / I’ll give you my last breath / I can’t admit defeat / I’m standing in the street,” Walker concludes. “Yelling, Attica, baby. Call it love.”
In “Donny’s Death Scene,” off 2016’s Forever Sounds, Walker again sings from a character’s point of view – here she is Walter Sobchak, recounting the one actual death in The Big Lebowski and the loss of his friend, and at times recalling the movie itself: “See the cameras pan the sky / And pastel stars change color in the lot” describes how the Coens frame the actual death scene more than what Walter sees. But Walker also gets into Walter’s mind and offers him and Donny grace that the movie does not. This isn’t a criticism of the film and its darkly hilarious scene of scattering Donny’s ashes and I am sure Walker doesn’t intend it as such. What makes the Coens so brilliant as filmmakers is how they mix conflicting tones. Donny dies without taking a hit after a fairly goofy fight scene and his remains are tossed to the wind and thrown back in his friends’ faces; the gulf between what has happened and how Walter and the Dude deal with it is as funny as it is sad. Walker bridges that gulf, rewriting and giving Walter words that he can’t quite find on the cliff:
Like so many others of his generation
Taken from the world before his time
He played a perfect game
Gave the spelling of his name
To the cashier for the winner’s outdoor sign
And I can’t seem to pull it all together
So here we join him to his ocean bride
Inside her stranglehold
He was a faithful soldier
In the service of her rising morning tide.
And the band – Joe Klug on drums (replacing original drummer Dawn Burman), bassist Mark Messerly and former Ass Pony John Erhardt joining Walker and Cleaver on guitar – creates a swirl of mournful feedback and distortion speckled with keening flickers, the musical equivalent of those pastel neon signs shining in the dark. “It would be ridiculous if not for the absolute conviction,” Adam Nayman writes of the song, and this could also be said of so many Coen moments. But what really ties the artists together is how they both seek in music what words and images can’t say by themselves. Songs soundtracking death fill the Coens’ movies, Walker and Wussy add their own dirge.
“Gloria,” from 2018’s What Heaven Is Like, also has a Coen connection of sorts. It’s about the lead character in Season 3 of the TV show Fargo, which riffs on/rips off the brothers’ movies. I haven’t seen that season but I still like the song a lot, it’s more despairing than “Donny’s” eulogy and less sanguine than “Attica’s” doomed love but Walker’s desperation in her vocal is folded around a hope that things can be put to rights and a refusal to stop trying. I can hear the character even though I don’t know the show. And Wussy’s songs are open enough for unrelated movies to find their way in.
I’ve had 4:44: Last Day on Earth on my mind for the last few months, and not just because it opens with Willem Dafoe and Shanyn Leigh fucking. If it’s not actual porn like other Abel Ferrara movies, the scene is intensely focused on the actors actually experiencing each others’ bodies. But much of the movie is about people talking to each other on screens and awaiting the end of the world, at one point Dafoe speaks to his ex-wife and they have a familiarity that approaches friendliness and a real shared interest in their daughter. But when Leigh walks by the rapport immediately vanishes and the Skype call dissolves into unrepentant screaming before Dafoe shuts it down. Not a great way to end a conversation, final or otherwise.
The recriminations can be muted but the life that led to them is still there and it’s affected what little future is left, just like Dafoe’s naked body at the start of the movie is one with a lot of wear and tear from decades of hard living. “If the bruises and the scars / Reflect the people that we are / I guess that you could say that we’re beyond it,” Cleaver sings on “Beautiful,” the song that closes out Attica!. It’s also about an apocalypse of sorts, a house fire that leaves a couple destitute and that may end a relationship that was rocky to begin with. Things are uncertain and uneasy, and the chorus lays down another contradiction: “I’m not the monster that I once was,” Cleaver admits. “Twenty years ago I was more beautiful than I am today.”
Those words echoed in my head watching a movie about the last day on Earth that has no explosive setpieces but does have a bone-deep understanding of lost time. Dafoe is a man who was once beautiful, he’s not that man here. But the conclusion to Cleaver’s line cuts both ways. It says that more then doesn’t mean zero now, that today he still has beauty and Dafoe does too. This movie and song are now linked for me just as surely as Dog Day Afternoon and The Big Lebowski are tied to “Attica” and “Donny’s Death Scene.”
Why is that so important? I think it’s because this kind of give and take enriches both works, ripples from separately thrown stones colliding and reshaping. These connections re-enforce the ones we make in our daily lives, like hearing a cool song the DJ played on the radio or watching a dopey movie with some folks at the bar. Wussy’s music says this stuff matters, not in an abstract “hooray for art” way but because the specifics of a work – a manic Pacino, a bewildered Goodman, a weary Dafoe, maybe even a baffled Berry – stay with you, and how you make them part of your life has a singular value that can still be shared with people on the same wavelength. “If you’ve given your heart to yesterday, stay right where you are,” Cleaver sings in “My Parade.” “But if you’re playing a part in the Great Escape, I’ll meet you at the car.” Next time I see a Wussy show, I’ll see if the bar gets TCM.