LARB PRESENTS the April installment of “Real Life Rock Top 10,” a monthly column by cultural critic Greil Marcus.
1. Neil Young with Crazy Horse, Way Down in the Rust Bucket (Reprise). Recorded on November 13, 1990, at the Catalyst in Santa Cruz. I’m fairly confident that had I been there that night I would have dropped dead in the middle of the second guitar solo in “Over and Over.”
2. Shiva Baby, written and directed by Emma Seligman (Dimbo Pictures / It Doesn’t Suck Productions / Bad Mensch Productions). An exquisitely made horror movie with nothing supernatural and no violence: a Jewish Get Out.
3. Nomadland, written and directed by Chloé Zhao (Highwayman Films). At least there aren’t any Leonard Cohen songs.
4. St. Vincent, “The Melting of the Sun,” Saturday Night Live (NBC, April 3). Performing as the grand dame of bohemia, rotting around the edges, she’s finally come into her own. As the reincarnation of Sylvia Miles.
5. Lana Del Rey, “Yosemite,” from Chemtrails over the Country Club (Polydor). It starts with a modal chord on Jack Antonoff’s guitar, which if your heart’s in the right place immediately roots the music deep in the ground. Throughout, though, it’s single notes on his bass, measuring out the song, that seem deeper, even if they’re right on the surface. It could be the most abstract setting Del Rey has ever worked with, which means it might be her best recording. She’s set herself up to disappear, but instead it’s one more small story, the kind that sets her work apart: a sense of weather, two people and the time between them, perfectly specific (“I showed up for you, you showed up for me”), but coming across more like passing someone on the street, not even looking back until whoever it was has turned the corner, and something about whoever it might have been sticks in the mind like an unnamable memory. It can leave you stranded in your own life.
6. Joel Selvin, Hollywood Eden: Electric Guitars, Fast Cars, and the Myth of the California Paradise (Anansi). Forget the subtitle, which is its own myth. The book is in stray facts no one else would dig up, yet alone think of publishing (there must be someone else on the planet who knows that in 1965 Mick Jagger was part of a crew having a great time with Tab Hunter’s “Young Love” on the B-side of a degraded parody of “House of the Rising Sun” by a non-group called Bo and Peep, but I’m not sure I want to meet them), and, in this 10-years-on-the-strip tale of white people coming out of University High in Los Angeles and making records, the way Selvin can cut right down to what really matters, over and over again: “Bruce Johnston may have been only sixteen years old, more than ten years younger than his bandleader, but he could tell Kip Tyler was a creep.”
7. Rachel Kushner, The Hard Crowd: Essays 2000–2020 (Scribner). The novelist as journalist and rememberer. There’s fluff here, as on a New York Times Magazine piece on prison abolition, mainly a gloss on the work of Ruth Wilson Gilmore, who asks “how we resolve inequalities and get people the resources they need long before the hypothetical moment when, as Gilmore puts it, they ‘mess up,’” which is right up there with the spokesman for the sheriff of Cherokee County, Georgia, describing the man who shot and killed eight people in Atlanta last month as having “a really bad day.” But at its best, especially in the many tales of bartending at San Francisco music venues, this is a book of attitude — attitude distilled so finely it becomes philosophy, a matter of telling truth from lie. As with working a private Rod Stewart concert for the staff of a forgotten South Bay company where the only drinks were four kinds of Budweiser (“Don’t want to give raises and benefits? Hire Rod Stewart once a year, and serve Bud Light”). As in a thought coming off Oliver Stone filming The Doors in Kushner’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood:
In her eponymous White Album essay, Joan Didion insists that Jim Morrison’s pants are “black vinyl,” not black leather. Did you notice? She does this at least three times, refers to Jim Morrison’s pants as vinyl.
Record albums are made out of vinyl. Jim Morrison’s pants were leather, and even a Sacramento debutante, a Berkeley Tri-Delt, should know the difference.
8. Moon, Shine (MOONtransmissions.com). Dan Silver, guitar; Chelsea Davis, singing, bass, drums. There’s something of Mariska Veres of Shocking Blue — less out of “Venus” than “Never Marry a Railroad Man” and “Rock in the Sea” — in Davis’s voice: a one-foot-in-the-grave Gothic remove. On this EP the four songs build as her grip tightens. “Down by the Water” is where people are saved and drowned. “My Oh My (I’ll Take You Home)” sounds like you might not get back.
9. Peter Stampfel’s 20th Century in 100 Songs (Louisiana Red Hot Records). Stampfel’s voice is an addled croak, and you could say he can’t sing at all — which, this mad, relentlessly rational project proves, is another way of saying he can sing anything. Extremely late of the purist avant-garde folk duo the Holy Modal Rounders and the filth ’n’ fun Fugs, Stampfel is an archivist, a scholar, a prankster, a man in his 80s in love with the youth that lives in songs, and a musician with impeccable taste — it’s not likely anyone else would have come up with the notion of tracing a century with one song a year, let alone execute it, but if someone else had, they wouldn’t have been sharp enough to bet 1989 on Fine Young Cannibals’ “She Drives Me Crazy.”
Stampfel got together with the producer Mark Bingham — who also serves as musical director, multi-instrumentalist, singer, and chronicler (his brief session notes are a counterpoint to Stampfel’s expansive, sometimes autobiographical annotations, which are little records in themselves). Bingham put together different ensembles, and provided a setting in which songs from “Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life” (1910) to “Running Bear” (1960) to “Yellow” (2000) could either dissolve or say what they’d never say before. Probably a real critical response to Stampfel’s project would be to re-annotate it, from one’s own perspective — but anyone who takes this up will just be struck by surprises, moments of inspiration, clarity, flair. My notes are all moments: the whistling in “Indian Summer” (1940). The way the Jewels’ 1954 “Hearts Made of Stone,” originally one of the wildest doo-wop records, is now a campfire singalong — and also a Fugs song. The melody of “Handy Man” (1959) brought out as a lead instrument, a lead vocal, the whole song, and sweeter than before. The accordion on what was once Jan Bradley’s ineffable 1963 “Mama Didn’t Lie.” The formerly unbearable “I Will Survive” (1979) as an old folk song. The melancholy, the deep hurt, in Stampfel’s dive into Crowded House’s 1987 “Don’t Dream It’s Over,” which to me has always been the “Hey, now, hey, now” song — I never knew it was called anything else. “Peter breaks our hearts again, as he struggles to sing,” Bingham writes, but he goes so far into song he’s behind it, looking through it as if it were a prism.
10. An Old Folk Song My Daddy Used to Sing Me Dep’t. #347: “Twenty years ago in Montana,” said the state’s Senator Steve Daines during a visit by a Senate group to the Mexican border, as reported by Mary Papenfuss in Huffington Post, “meth was homemade. It was homegrown. And you had purity levels less than 30%. Today the meth that’s getting into Montana is Mexican cartel.” But Steve Daines is going to bring those jobs back.
With thanks to Doug Kroll and Tom Luddy.