AUGUST 28, 2020
LARB IS THE NEW HOME for “Real Life Rock Top 10,” a monthly column by cultural critic Greil Marcus.
1. Fundraising email from Mike Pence on Joe Biden’s selection of Kamala Harris as candidate for vice president of the United States, as reported in The New York Times (August 14): “This is YOUR country, not THEIRS.” This is the ruling social fact of life in the United States today. Everything else takes meaning from this fact, or fails to.
2. Steve Weinstein writes in on June 5: “I don’t know if you get these emails from Folkways. I found this one especially annoying in the same way that I find much folk music annoying, in that it just assumes the audience for folk music is white people, disaffected though they may be. Lead paragraph: ‘This week we challenge Smithsonian Folkways listeners to do more than listen. Educate yourself and begin dismantling the white supremacist narrative which has deferred justice in our country for over 400 years. The Smithsonian Folkways catalog is abundant with recordings from groundbreaking Black thinkers, poets, musicians, storytellers, and activists, past and present, who have much to teach us.’
“‘Us.’ If there actually were a young black fan of folk music, and she read this, how would she feel? Pretty excluded, is my guess.”
3. Emma Swift, Blonde on the Tracks (Tiny Ghost Records). Aren’t tribute albums terrible? Yes, except apparently when they’re made by one person about one other person, as in the Nashville singer from Australia taking on Bob Dylan. This doesn’t rise to the level of Bettye LaVette’s similar project, but her Things Have Changed was for me the best album of 2018 and the best of LaVette’s own career — and she released her first record the same year Bob Dylan released his. Here, Swift’s precise, slow-moving voice highlights lyrics, making you realize how musical Dylan’s own version of, say, “I Contain Multitudes” is — not that what Swift offers is a recital. As she picks her way through the words as if she’s walking barefoot on rocks, she orchestrates how the song was written as carefully as she’s singing it. At the same time, you can hear how contrived “Simple Twist of Fate” always was, as if it were meant to flatter the singer, to show you what a good writer he is. The song has no room for Swift — she doesn’t so much sing it as find herself modeling it. The real transformation comes with “One of Must Know (Sooner or Later),” from Blonde on Blonde, released 15 years before Swift was born. In Dylan’s own performance, undeveloped, scattered lyrics sung with increasingly terrifying intensity, and his only real attempt to get the sound of “Like a Rolling Stone” out of the bottle again, left the song stranded on the album, out of place. Swift somehow reconstructs it. Her high, clear voice highlights each syllable, letting you hear the words form, one seemingly following inevitably from the other, until they feel handed down, fragments of old songs now speaking to each other. And the more you listen, the more you hear Robyn Hitchcock’s guitar, never in the way, always on the verge of fading out, making you say, no, no, not yet. As tributes go, it may not reach the gold standard — “When I sing it,” Dylan once said of Jimi Hendrix’s version of “All Along the Watchtower,” “I always feel like it’s a tribute to him” — but it’s honorable work.
4. Senator Charles Schumer, D-New York, press conference (August 16). On Postmaster General Louis DeJoy:
So that’s why I say we should stamp him with “Return to Sender” if he won’t appear before the hearing. And I might add that it is appropriate to say today. Does anyone know why? It’s appropriate to call to tell him he should be stamped “Return to Sender” today because today is the 43rd anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death.
Reporters: “What’s ‘Return to Sender’?” “What’s that have to do with Elvis Presley?” “Who’s Elvis Presley?” “He was on a stamp.”
5. Beyoncé, Black Is King (Disney+). “If you trace back the DNA in the maternally inherited mitochondria within our cells,” as New Scientist summarizes current thinking about who we are and where we came from, “all humans have a theoretical common ancestor. This woman, known as ‘mitochondrial Eve’, lived between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago in southern Africa.” This is the character Beyoncé embodies as her latest extravaganza begins, with a bit of Pharaoh’s daughter rescuing Moses thrown in. Some years ago I heard a deeply respected and also puckish music writer refer to “Beyoncé, the mother of us all” — I didn’t think she was kidding, but Beyoncé definitely isn’t.
6. “To play or not to play the national anthem; Chronicle readers respond,” San Francisco Chronicle (July 23). More than 640 people wrote in in reaction to sports columnist Bruce Jenkins’s suggestion “that perhaps the time had come for the national anthem to not be played before every sporting event in this country.” There were reasoned and fulminating yeses and noes, along with predictable calls to replace “The Star-Spangled Banner” with “America the Beautiful” or “This Land Is Your Land.” Others actually rose to the challenge. “The ‘Marvin’s-late-Marvin’s-late-whoa-Marvin-got-all-of-that-one’ anthem at the 1983 NBA All-Star game is not walking through that door,” wrote Bill Devine of Mountain View. “Marvin Gaye’s performance appears to be a once per half millennium experience. I vote with you.” “Personally,” wrote Kevin O’Brien of San Mateo, “I like the theme from Rawhide.”
8. “Your Favorite Rock ‘n’ Roll, Country and R&B Legends as Marionettes” (Dangerous Minds). The Glasgow musician George Miller had nothing better to do during his virus lockdown, so he played Punch and Judy with Chuck Berry, Wanda Jackson, Gene Vincent, Little Richard, Link Wray, Buddy Holly (who came out looking exactly like Elvis Costello), and a glorious Bo Diddley. You can’t buy them, but you can look, with the figures sometimes in action, most often in their match-box like containers, which means you get to see them sitting up in their coffins, as if they’re about to stand up and go looking for blood. Especially Jerry Lee Lewis, who isn’t even dead.
9. Allstate, “Burger Joint” (Starcom). In this ubiquitous commercial, which is really a commercial within a commercial, its self-referentiality subsuming any other reality, Allstate “Safe-Drivers-Save-40-Percent” pitchman Dennis Haysbert walks into a restaurant. The host does a double take, then excitedly welcomes him by name: “Safe Drivers Save 40 Percent!” (Shouldn’t he have said “Mr.”?) The place goes quietly bananas: it’s that guy they’ve seen on TV, in their restaurant, breathing the same air they’re breathing, which means they get to breathe the same air he’s breathing. “Safe Drivers Save 40 Percent!” “Safe Drivers Save 40 Percent!” “Safe Drivers Save 40 Percent!” everyone says to each other. “That’s totally him,” says a man to a woman, as if he’s just won the lottery of life.
Dennis Haysbert is a big man, a first-class actor with a deep, ineradicable presence, a presence as powerfully moral as it is physical: as President David Palmer in 24, a great, complex role, as the gardener Raymond Deagan in Todd Haynes’s devastating Far from Heaven. Nobody in the burger joint — a very genteel, upscale burger joint — sees him as those people, The-Guy-Who-Was-Almost-Assassinated-But-Became-the-First-Black-President, The Guy-Who-Was-Run-Out-of-His-New-England-Hometown-Because-He-Was-Seen-in-Public-with-a-White-Woman, even if they actually did see him as David Palmer or Raymond Deagan — those people have been erased, which means Dennis Haysbert, even in the fictional roles he’s inhabited, is erased, appearing in a little commercial drama as if the rest of his life never happened. BLACK LIVES MATTER really means IN THIS COUNTRY BLACK LIVES DON’T MATTER — and the black lives that don’t matter, that in Allstate’s commercial never happened, are of a piece with what one Rob Bliss found when this July he stood by a street in Harrison, Arkansas, a Klan haven, holding a homemade BLACK LIVES MATTER sign, filming what people shouted at him as they passed by. “Explain to me why a coon’s life matters,” said one — an unspoken line in the episodes where David Palmer’s cabinet invokes the 25th Amendment and removes him from office, when white kids chase Raymond Deagan’s daughter after school and pelt her with rocks. Why does a coon’s life matter? Because in a burger joint a guy without a name walks in, and he’s been on TV.
10. Cinder Well, No Summer (Free Dirt). A woman from California moves to Ireland to find how folk songs are sung. That transports her back to the Kentucky highlands a hundred years ago, and then a hundred years before that. She opens her mouth and she still sounds like she’s from California; a hum rises up behind her, as if the whole murderous tradition is waiting to hear if she can get out of the song. She sings very consciously as a haint: when she says she’s far from home, you don’t believe she ever had one. So the tradition sits back and listens to see if there’s anything here it hasn’t heard before. “California?” it says when the record is over. “Where in California?”
Thanks to Bill Brown and Charles Taylor.