LARB PRESENTS the December installment of “Real Life Rock Top 10,” a monthly column by cultural critic Greil Marcus.
1. Rachel Harrison, Life Hack, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (through January 12). As a sculptor, Harrison is playful, tough, funny, a visually promiscuous found-object maven whose aesthetic is rooted in the double-take. This vast, full-floor show breaks out all the way in the last gallery, with an untitled circular grouping of 12 big pieces which often — especially a huge pink green and white mottled rectangle named Al Gore — loom up like the Neolithic standing stones you can still see in Brittany, the Orkney Islands, or the Isle of Skye. With among the others I’m with Stupid, Panama Papers, Life on Mars, and Sculpture with Hot Sauce, and a circle of 44 folding chairs facing outward, this is Harrison’s Stonehenge.
2. Sasha Frere-Jones, “New as Foam, Old as Rock: The Music Criticism of Ian Penman” (Bookforum, December/January 2020). A review of the UK critic’s essays on James Brown, John Fahey, Elvis Presley, Donald Fagen, Charlie Parker, Prince, and Frank Sinatra. It could not be more fulsome, and I’m looking forward to finding the book, but from what Frere-Jones quotes from Penman I doubt I’m going to find anything as good as his own “With Nelson Riddle’s string arrangements, Sinatra found the heartache in every dream home and then sang the doors shut.”
3. Tony Conrad, Writings, edited by Constance DeJong and Andrew Lampert (Primary Information). Conrad (1940–2016) was a New York drone musician, a filmmaker, and much more — over the years he moved from the Theater of Eternal Music (a.k.a. the Dream Syndicate) to the Primitives (with Lou Reed and John Cale) to work with Jim O’Rourke, Faust, and Animal Collective. But from the time he was 21 into this decade, he wrote, and what he wrote — collected in a compact, quietly elegant volume, nearly 600 pages that in your hand feels like something much more modest — is unparalleled in postwar arts criticism for its lack of affect, its clarity, and a coolly surprised humor that seems to run beneath every line.
Revelations are everywhere. I went to “Sacred Harp Heterophony” (from 2003, and like much here previously unpublished) almost randomly, and after Conrad’s invocation of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four “SLAVERY IS FREEDOM / FREEDOM IS SLAVERY” found an account of how Louis XIV invented both the modern state and modern music. The tool was the centralization of administrative power and the nationalization of taxes, thus turning directorates into provinces, which led directly to the erasure of the ancient practice of heterophony, where, as in the Sacred Harp music of the American South in the 19th century, many voices sang their own tunes at the same, and its replacement with homophony, where, in musical ensembles, discipline and a single focus both reflected the new political order and reinforced it, thus instituting an aesthetic order “that was to become the hallmark of genteel Western music, from Moscow to Boston.” But in a society with a democratic charter, it didn’t quite work:
It is all too easy to transfer one’s disciplined attentiveness from one’s own feelings and thoughts to the authority of another person — a teacher, maestro, or composer. Can we be surprised that most black Americans didn’t fall for this slavery? — for the classic double bind that is latent within the deepest paradox of composed music: “You are ordered to express yourself!” “Be free!”?
4. Incident at a Minneapolis Lower School (November). “I turned the gym teacher on to Lana Del Rey,” said a third-grader. “He went to the principal and said he wanted to play Lana Del Rey during gym, and she was like, ‘No!’ He said, ‘What if he made sure none of the songs he played had swear words, and she said,” — in a fed-up voice — “‘Fine.’’’ “So he went and listened to everything again to check?” “No, he just googled Clean Lana Del Rey.”
5. Henry Rollins and Cyndi Lauper, “Rise Above,” The Novo, Los Angeles, December 10 (YouTube). In a black T-shirt, short white hair, and armfuls of tattoos that still look fresh, Rollins kicked off the Black Flag anthem with harsh gestures. In a huge yellow Mohawk, black jacket, and a plaid skirt held up by a square yard of petticoats, Lauper came on as if wired to open current. If one dance went back 45 years in a time machine to invent punk, this was it.
6. Marriage Story, written and directed by Noah Baumbach (Netflix). It starts out with a hilariously affected, pretentious bit of downtown New York avant-garde theater (soon to go to Broadway! — in some Broadway producer’s worst sadomasochistic fantasy of a play closing on opening night). The movie picks up its own cue: in a picture as emotionally predictable as any you’ve ever seen, there’s never a moment when you don’t know the actors are acting — when you’re taken out of the dictatorship of the film and are living alongside the characters. Scarlett Johansson’s actress and divorcing wife is written cold; her role is finished with a supplicating gesture, which makes her human. Theater director and divorcing husband Adam Driver, often a magnet, here never more dour, is written as heroic (he bleeds!). The movie reaches its height when Driver takes the mic at the piano bar where his company hangs out and, in an increasingly mellifluous voice, sings Stephen Sondheim’s “Being Alive” for 40 minutes.
7. Randy Newman, Marriage Story — Original Score (Lakeshore). Teasingly allusive — to other Randy Newman soundtracks.
8. The Band, The Band: 50th Anniversary (Capitol). From the overstuffed box set (though the full performance from Woodstock that same year is flaming — Richard Manuel hangs the moon as he all but laughs in falsetto on “I don’t think I’m gonna last” from “Chest Fever” — “very much longer!” Levon Helm comes down like a hammer), available on its own, and you don’t need it. Where for Music from Big Pink the Bob Clearmountain remix from last year found accents and textures that could make some songs sound not merely reissued but rediscovered, here the revision offers a thin, trebly, brittle sound. Single elements are brought out far too strongly, and all sense of “a mutual, joint-stock world,” as Ishmael puts it in Moby-Dick, describing the essence of the Band’s sound more than a hundred years in advance, is wiped away. Second and third voices that in John Simon’s original production were all taking part in the same conversations — the Band’s version of heterophony — are now backups; what you might have called simply the first voice is now a conventional lead. On Manuel’s ineffable “Whispering Pines” — he could be singing asleep, any sense of self-consciousness is that distant — the delicacy and soulfulness of his voice, and the slipstream organ, is brought out as never before. But Levon Helm’s singing behind him, or hovering above him, is now stark, intrusive, not as in John Simon’s original production the first singer’s second mind, his unconscious, or his conscience, but merely half of a formal duet, and here a half plus a half equals zero.
9. Paul Solman, interview with Pete Townshend, PBS NewsHour (December 5). “As an artist, I feel very, very lucky to have, what do they call it, a patron. And the patron is my audience. What I do has worked for them and continues to work for them. And I want to keep doing it, if I can.”
10. Martin Chilton, “‘Up on Cripple Creek’: The Story Behind the Band’s Song,” uDiscoverMusic (November 29). “Robertson has admitted that the song is not dealing with particularly sophisticated people.” Yeah, right. The song is about a trucker and his prostitute girlfriend. Who heard this guy talking about them and voted for Trump.
Thanks to Elisabeth Sussman, Rose Perry, Stan Draenos, and Andrew Hamlin. Photograph of Rachel Harrison’s Life Hack by the author.
Greil Marcus is the author of Lipstick Traces (1989) and Three Songs, Three Singers, Three Nations (2015), and the editor, with Werner Sollors, of A New Literary History of America. His book Under the Red White and Blue — Patriotism, Disenchantment, and the Stubborn Myth of The Great Gatsby, will be published next spring by Yale University Press. He was born in San Francisco and lives in Oakland.