LARB PRESENTS the August 2021 installment of “Real Life Rock Top 10,” a monthly column by cultural critic Greil Marcus.
1. Jon Langford & Skull Orchard, “Devil’s Replacement” (Tiny Global Productions). From the Mekons singer in a side project, a dank tale — it sounds as if it’s coming from the bottom of a lake in the bottom of a cave — about, maybe, the corruption of the New World by the Old. Or maybe just corruption. Or maybe just dankness. And yet, as with his “Lost in America,” always carrying the feeling that it’s inviting you to join a great adventure: it’s stirring, it can take you out of yourself, even if there’s no one to root for. Two lines seem to capture the story, the music soaring, voices in the background questing, the person singing telling you how he beat the devil at his own game: “You can only stay on top / When you don’t know when to stop.”
2. Hank Williams, “Ramblin’ Man” (1951), in Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain, directed by Morgan Neville (Focus Features). As he travels the world, as he turns away from the world, as his suicide begins to hover over the last third of the movie, Bourdain’s favorite punk songs play, but it’s Neville’s shaping of the story that makes Hank Williams hit with far more power than the Modern Lovers or the Brian Jonestown Massacre. “Ramblin’ Man” — of course they could have called the movie that. It’s always been a spooky little horror story — the first few high notes on the steel guitar are like someone’s fingers on their own neck — but never before has the song felt so much like a curse.
3. Matthew Tauch, cover illustration for Eric Weisbard, Songbooks: The Literature of American Popular Music (Duke University Press). As a subject in some of its pages I can’t write about the perspicacity of this book, other than to say that the writing dances and that it will shame almost anyone in their ignorance. But I can comment on the cover, where Tauch’s adaptation of Paul Revere’s 1770 engraving for The New-England Psalm-Singer, seven men sitting around a table for one of the composer William Billings’s singing schools, becomes seven of the writers Weisbard takes up in the same position. With Lester Bangs sitting right next to Zora Neale Hurston.
4. Ambient music, Social Bird, Lafayette, California (July 27). Outside at this very good bistro, the music playing, just loud enough for you to register but not quite loud enough to listen to, is all Van Morrison and Otis Redding. Van floats through everything, highs and lows, whether a song is dense or airy. The mind of the music is all in the rhythm. But every Otis number seems to be taking place in the same enclosed room: a stage set, bounded by the three walls, and whether it’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now)” or “These Arms of Mine,” the drama is about moving from one place to another, and the way you can hear the decisions involved with every move. You become aware of every hesitation, every stop, each moment where a character advances only so far; you can hear Redding running the band like a director telling the actors where to stand and how to turn their heads. You can hear the notes, but you feel the spaces in between them.
5. Diet Cig, “The Unforgiven,” from The Metallica Blacklist (Metallica.com). On their own, the New York band — Alex Luciano, singing, jumping, guitar; and Noah Bowman, drums — are too cute to live. Luciano seems to have adopted Audrey Tautou as a role model and she acts as if she’s never wanted a greater emotional range. Here her voice may not be any lower than before, but it seems so. She and Bowman play the song — try to ride it, try not to be bucked off into its ditch — as if it scares them. As if they have to walk through its valley of death without letting anyone know how scared they really are, finding the song in falling just short.
6. Beach Bunny, “Cloud 9” (Mom+Pop). Female singer in Chicago band (there are bunnies on Ocean Street Beach?) plays jangle guitar: Lili Trifilio sings flat and makes her guitar into a body. This is pure fun, pure fluff, irresistible if you’d rather listen to the Corrs’ “Breathless” than Jerry Lee Lewis’s. It’s girl meets boy, but there can be a dozen different happy endings in the song.
7. Adele Bertei, Peter and the Wolves (Smog Veil). A young gay woman finding a precarious place in the Cleveland punk world in the mid-’70s, where its “parochial, sexist, and homophobic mentality” was a “mindset as prevalent in its supposed avant-garde community as it was in a Christian church.” Singing with Peter Laughner, the Pere Ubu founder in one of his last bands before his death at 24 in 1977 (“certain guys in the music scene were reading Ayn Rand, getting off on her sexed-up capitalist white male superiority, while Peter was reading Walt Whitman, James Baldwin, and Anne Sexton”), for the first time Bertei felt unformed, innocent, clear-seeing, and unjudged: as if she had a life to make. Laughner could play like Eric Clapton with an emotional nakedness, a moral charge that exposed both the self and the world, that Clapton couldn’t touch, and Bertei got to stand next to it:
The torque of notes moving though his hands, through the guitar and into my nervous system felt like the earth reversing its turn. To play like that — how much time had he spent practicing? When he showed me how to play scales on the guitar, I understood how mastering an instrument, or any art form requires a commitment to a solitude I was not ready to embrace.
8. Bob Dylan, “New Danville Girl,” from Springtime in New York: The Bootleg Series Vol. 16 (1980–1985) (Columbia). For years, I’ve tried to figure out why this 1984 outtake from the misbegotten Empire Burlesque — a song written with Sam Shepard that starts out with the singer trying to remember a Gregory Peck movie, and goes on for nearly another 12 minutes, by which time the singer is trying to remember a different Gregory Peck movie — is so much more alive than “Brownsville Girl” from the no-better-maybe-even-worse Knocked Out Loaded from 1986, which on paper is basically the same song: why in its utterly singular way it’s as good as anything the singer has ever done. Hearing it now as part of a five-CD set of unreleased material from Dylan’s worst decade of record making, it’s clear: he sounds interested. You know: a movie. You want to see how it comes out. Even if you’re the one writing it, or for that matter acting it, or came in in the middle and are sticking around to see how it begins.
9. Wilco Instagram post (August 12). Wilco and Sleater-Kinney are touring together. With their Kansas City date cancelled because of bad weather, Jeff Tweedy and his band got together with Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein in their dressing room to do what they could to play a show in spite of it all. Which means that for 47 minutes you can watch Wilco meander through the twigs and brambles of their vague songs while Tucker and Brownstein get to sit around and do nothing.
10. Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), directed by Questlove (Searchlight/Hulu). The Roots leader and all-world record person took 50 hours of abandoned footage from the Harlem Cultural Festival — six city-sponsored multi-performer shows staged over six weeks in the summer of 1969 — and came away with a two-hour movie, which is made to leave the impression of a single historic day, cut with interviews from people who were there now looking back. You might find yourself mesmerized just watching the crowd, scanning shot to shot for people you want to follow, to check their reactions, just to see what they’re doing. The dancing, the smiles — there’s an autonomy here that matches anything coming from the stage, and not everything on the stage is worth preserving.
It’s fascinating to see Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis of the 5th Dimension talk about radio colorism — their perception on the part of black audiences as white, and how much it meant to counter that by playing for this crowd — but it doesn’t make “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In,” a number-one pop hit for six weeks in the spring of 1969, any more bearable. It might make you cringe to see B.B. King and the Chambers Brothers forced to play to a soul beat as if they were 1980s MTV performers forced to wear shoulder pads. But the dross, or, to be kind, the merely historic, is swept away by two performances that ought to outlive anyone alive to watch them now.
If you don’t believe in God, you will at least know what you’re missing when you watch Mavis Staples carry Mahalia Jackson through “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” It must be the most transcendent performance of this transcendent song ever captured in any medium — you’d have to be God itself to imagine the song taking anyone further, or anyone doing the same for the song. But to me the most indelible and the most warming footage is simply that of Sly and the Family Stone, a black and white band without stage suits, appearing as if what they’re doing is only a heightened version of ordinary life, building “Everyday People” as if it were a house, piece by piece, composer and architect Sly here, trumpeter and carpenter Cynthia Robinson there, pianist and welder Rose Stone holding it together, making it seem as if raising a shelter where anyone could live is the most obvious and unlikely thing in the world.
Thanks to Pearl and Rose Perry.
Greil Marcus was lucky to attend American History 17B, taught at Berkeley in 1964 and many years after by Leon Litwack (December 2, 1929–August 5, 2021), who can be seen on his own front porch, as he was in 1968, on the cover of Mother Earth’s Living with the Animals.