YouTube Hall of Fame: Guitar Lessons, Mutton Busting, and a Guy Who Saw Lincoln Get Shot

Every week, Grantland’s staff watches all 200 million videos on YouTube and picks their favorites.

Chuck Klosterman: “Before you can turn on your guitar, you must have a guitar.” This is excellent advice. I get the impression this whole clip would be authentically helpful to anyone who wants to start playing rock music today, although I’ve never actually tried (so what do I know?). I also like the comfortable interplay between Blaine Cartwright and Ruyter Suys; they seem to have a good marriage and — assuming they shot this at home — an extremely cool house.

Chris Jones: This clip features the National playing their song “Mr. November” at last year’s Lollapalooza. More specifically, it features the greatest moment in YouTube’s short history of live rock’n’roll.

You might think I’m referring to the exchange mentioned in the video’s title, wherein lead singer Matt Berninger walks seemingly along the top of a hedge, like a topiary Jesus, and sings the opening chorus to a little girl. You would be mistaken. That moment, in fact, is pretty anti-rock: Berninger realizes that he’s screaming the word “fuck” in the face of a delicate porcelain doll and changes midstream to “I won’t mess us over,” which is pretty dad of him, but which isn’t quite the same thing.

(“Mr. November” is an awesome song, by the way. It’s more straight-ahead than most of the National’s stuff, both musically and lyrically, but “I used to be carried in the arms of cheerleaders” is one of the most heartbreaking lines in the recent history of American music, though not quite as heartbreaking as the moment Bruno Mars informs us that he’s not going to answer the phone today, because he’s not feeling particularly productive.)

But then: Berninger drops into the crowd. Our amateur cameraman can see only the top of Berninger’s distant head, so he turns to film the big screen beside the stage. And then the cameraman’s hands begin to shake, as though there’s a tremor riding through. In an instant of perfect timing, micro-geography, and circumstance, he turns back, looking straight into the faces of Berninger and his most proximate fans, who are just then launching into the chorus as it was written, all of them screaming “I won’t fuck us over!” at each other and really seeming to mean it. (Check out the dude in the singlet.)

The 2:29 mark of this video is a spectacular, spontaneous confluence of music and heart, which doesn’t happen nearly often enough anymore. But when it does—

Katie Baker: If you suspended the millennium in amber, dipped it in giltter, and dangled it from Lance Bass’s neck, you would have the Super Bowl 35 Halftime Show. From the unmistakably MTV-y production values to the soaring violins of the Armageddon theme song, this 2001 performance is a moment of historical alchemy never to be replicated. Nelly in a two-tone jersey! “It’s Gonna Be Me”! A wigger Adam Sandler! And did you ever think you’d see a chorus line that included both Joe Perry and Mary J. Blige?

While Nerve ranks this halftime show as only the ninth-best of all time, their argument is invalid, because no other halftime show featured Britney Spears at the very height of her powers. Try not to gasp when she appears for her verse in “Walk This Way.” That stomach! Good god. After my, oh, tenth go-round of watching her and Justin Timberlake stomp down the stage, I Googled to see when they broke up (a year later) and found what must surely be one of the biggest understatements on the entire Internet: “Since the break-up, both stars have seemed to cope in very different ways.” Bye bye bye!

Alex Pappademas: In Thelma & Louise, Chris Whitley’s “Kick the Stones” plays when Geena Davis hits motel sheets with a sexy hitchhiker who’s just taught her the basics of armed robbery, starting her and Susan Sarandon down a road that ends abruptly at the Grand Canyon. The hitchhiker is a young, noticeable-for-the-first-time Brad Pitt. So in some small way you don’t get Brad Pitt without Chris Whitley, sort of. That’s Whitley’s first and last real claim to fame. “Kick The Stones” was on his first album, Living With The Law, which ran edgy-drifter blues-rock signifiers through a poetry-workshop stompbox. The songs were standard blues-guy stuff — sex and dirt and motor oil and prison and crows and Jesus and trailer parks and (I think) Tarot-throwing diner waitresses. But the production, by Daniel Lanois’ keyboardist Malcolm Burn, blew them up into epic Unforgettable Fire vista-vision — feedback tumbleweeds blowing around, radio-preacher samples, moody wind-in-the-power-lines keyboards — and made them sound mythic rather than mannered. Sony Music gave Whitley the big push and got a bunch of nice record reviews for their trouble. London’s Independent wrote that “Nick Cave would probably kill to be him.” In Time magazine, critic Jay Cocks cited Whitley — alongside artists like Richard Thompson and James McMurtry — in a rundown of “new troubadours” keeping the flame of “highly personal rock’n’roll” alive in a marketplace plagued by rap. (Seriously—Cocks’ lede was, “The music everywhere, in the air and on MTV, seems noisier than ever. Every time you change a channel it seems like some rapper is sticking his finger in your face: Yo! Listen up!” This was in August of 1991; when Nirvana’s Nevermind came out a month later, the definition of “authenticity” changed, and after that you didn’t hear a lot of people hailing quietly marginal roots dudes like Whitley as insurgents. (Whitley did place ninth in the 1991 Village Voice “Pazz & Jop” poll — he and P.M. Dawn were the only rookies in the top 10 — but Robert Christgau dismissed him as a “trad wet dream.”)

Anyway: It’s kind of a fantastic eighties rock record that had the bad luck to come out the year the nineties really started, music-wise. It didn’t sell. Whitley gave Sony a deliberately un-bluesy art-noise album, Din of Ecstasy, as a follow-up, opened for Tom Petty and Alanis Morrissette, and somehow remained a major-label recording artist until 1997, when he shuffled off to cultland and made a bunch of records beloved in places like Europe and the Internet. Accounts as to when he acquired and beat a hard-drug habit vary; in the trailer for the as-yet-unfinished documentary Dust Radio: A Film About Chris Whitley, he’s seen drinking Cuervo from the bottle and looking real Chet Baker-y, like Viggo Mortensen on Christian Bale’s Machinist diet plan. He died of lung cancer in 2005. There are a lot of versions of the Living With the Law standout “Big Sky Country” on YouTube—here’s the video, which incorporates Whitley’s camera-wary presence so awkwardly it feels posthumous even though Whitley was alive when he made it, and audio of John Mayer covering it at a concert in 2001, wearing the song like it’s his dad’s suit.

But this version gets at both why Whitley was great and why he isn’t more famous. He’s playing in the corner of a room in Hannover, Germany, at a birthday party for guitar manufacturer Dieter Goelsdorf. Nobody likes it when there’s live music at a birthday party. It always seems like a party value-add until it starts, and then it’s something you’re obligated to pay attention to when you’d really rather be drinking and talking to people. And at first that’s what everybody does; they’re yammering over the whole first minute, and when the person holding the camera pans the crowd you can tell that only the guy in the white shirt (he pushes his way to the front before the song starts) is really into it, and everybody else is just being semi-polite. Whitley has an amp; presumably he could have played louder. Instead he sings the whole song while barely playing at all. A couple bent notes, like fistfuls of punctuation, just enough to telegraph the melody — that’s it. A guy who seems like he’s about to play guitar is way more compelling than a guy who’s actually playing; Whitley stretches that implied demand for attention over the length of the song, moving his hands on the strings, adjusting his tuning pegs, building a tension he won’t resolve. He’s refusing to give people what they want in a way that seems designed to make them wonder why they want it.

Dan Fierman: A 96 year-old man appears on I’ve Got a Secret. He has a black eye and trouble hearing. A young contestant, who looks remarkably like Matt Damon, asks him series of questions, which he answers quietly. Slowly, his secret is teased out: he is the last surviving witness to Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in 1865.

This clip isn’t funny or weird, but it is remarkable — not just because it’s a snapshot of something captured at the last possible moment by a technology still in its infancy. It’s haunting as a reminder of how quickly events that we consider immediate slip first into collective memory and then into history. The last surviving American WWI veteran — Frank Buckles — died last year. He’s gone. Today’s version of this video would be made about D-Day, or Truman’s decision to drop the bomb on Hiroshima. But one day, it will be about 9/11 or the swearing in of the first black president or some other moment that we, living current enactors of history, have yet to experience as part of the essential narratives of our lives.

Anyway. Seymour lets his story be told, how he watched Booth jump off the balcony and shatter his leg. How he had no idea the president had been shot. How he actually worried for the health of the assassin. One of the most important sequences in American history, as remembered by a five year old. The story winds up and Seymour blinks his misshapen face into the camera and shuffles off — not with the customary complementary carton of Winstons, but Prince Albert pipe tobacco instead. (He didn’t smoke cigarettes, we’re told.) He died two months later.

Sarah Larimer: Before I moved from Washington to California this summer, my buddy Metcalfe was telling me about some sport called mutton busting, which apparently just involved sticking a kid on a sheep and setting the pair loose at some sort of a country fair event. (Calm down, moms! The kids wear helmets!) The New York Times later wrote about it, and my buddy also sent me this video, which is either one of the greatest “sports” highlight reels or one of the worst. Hard to say, really. No. Sorry. I take that back. It’s definitely among the worst — and it’s certainly among the weirdest. My favorite part is the close-up of the lady’s eyes. Kind of sad that that’s the part that is going to haunt my dreams, and not the image of a poor little kid on a sheep, right?

(Hat tip to John Metcalfe! Thanks … I guess?)

Molly Lambert: In case you were worried that country music and rap weren’t still trying to solder themselves together to create the dreaded “country rap fusion” genre, worry no more. The Moonshine Bandits are here and they brought Colt Ford and Big B, and it’s just about suppertime! Taking place in a jail? Or a zoo? Or a street art exhibition?

Previously: YouTube Hall of Fame: George Michael, a Knife-Throwing Mom, and a Space Armadillo
YouTube Hall of Fame: Sheep, Kurt Loder on the Internet, and Dating Advice From Dr. Paul
YouTube Hall of Fame: Tales From the NBA Lockout, an Angry Keith Richards, and Shark Week Memories From January Jones
YouTube Hall of Fame: Brawling Bruins, Marshmallow Tests, and the Latest Jamaican Dance Craze

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