LARB PRESENTS the December 2021 installment of “Real Life Rock Top 10,” a monthly column by cultural critic Greil Marcus.
Special Song That You’ve Heard Before Edition!
1. Paul McCartney, The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present (Liveright). The poet Paul Muldoon sat down with the songwriter Paul McCartney to discuss his work, and in this nine-pound, two-volume, 900-plus-page treasure chest of photos, work sheets, holograph and printed lyrics, the result is so relentlessly fascinating — McCartney is relaxed, warm, humble, funny, thoughtful, quick word by word, and discursive on almost everything — that if you turn from McCartney talking to listen to a song you might have forgotten or never heard at all, say the 1983 “Average Person” from Pipes of Peace, it can be a terrible disappointment. But you’ll keep reading.
2. Cruella, directed by Craig Gillespie (Disney). “Oceans Eight, Project Runway, and The Devil Wears Prada all rolled up together — an origin story for Cruella de Vil,” said a friend — and Emma Stone plays the title role of 20-or-so Estella with fabulous intelligence and glee, even if you keep pining for the pure punk rage of Tipper Seifert-Cleveland as her 12-year-old school-girl self. For a movie about instinctive refusal and defiance — in the setting the film makes for its soundtrack, the comic book political theory of the Doors’s “Five to One” has never sounded so interesting, so thought out — you wonder where the punk songs are. Until the final credits, when the punk iconography on the screen makes the movie into a parable: an origin story for Vivienne Westwood.
3. Dave Simpson, “‘A nation’s fabric unraveling’: stars on Sly Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On at 50,” Guardian (December 2). On the rerelease of the album on red vinyl, Simpson asked 20 musicians, from the drummer Greg Errico of the original Family Stone to Booker T. Jones to Lee Tesche of Algiers what they had to say. They let you hear the record as a moment in time and as a presence mocking the idea of progress. Errico on Sly’s use of a drum machine after he quit the sessions: “It was the kind of thing the guy in the lounge of the Holiday Inn would use to make lame music, but Sly used it very creatively. Starting the machine’s rhythm on an off beat turned the beat inside out.” Johnny Marr of The Smiths on the album as a $500,000 rock of cocaine: “I don’t think such an important record was made by accident.” Howard Devoto of The Buzzcocks and Magazine and Luxuria, after explaining how it was only the Stooges’s Fun House that let him hear Riot for what it was:
It fascinated me how Sly had taken an earlier, upbeat-sounding song — Thank You Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin — and turned it into Thank You For Talkin’ to Me Africa, almost a relentless dirge. We covered it in Magazine, rebranded with its original title, and performed it at the end of gigs as a “Thanks but no thanks for making me suffer it all again”.
4. Neil Young Crazy Horse, “Human Race,” from Barn (Reprise). The big noise of the number is Young, Billy Talbot, and Ralph Molina, now with Nils Lofgren, doing what they’ve been doing since “Cowgirl in the Sand” in 1969 — making a sound so personal and unhinged it can make a screed about the world going to hell — “Who’s going to tell the children of destiny we didn’t try to save the world for them?” — into the charge of the Light Brigade. “The human race is on,” you can catch out of the discordant crazy-cross lines of the guitars, the one-beat on the snare behind them. “We’re all lined up / At the starting gun / The crowd is rising to its feet.” It can make you feel like rising to your own, even if the image the song calls up is the Boston Marathon in 2013, even if you know what happened to the Light Brigade.
5. Michael Lesy, Snapshots 1971–77 (Blast Books). In 1971, the photographic historian — which doesn’t do him justice: maybe photographic philosopher is closer, with trickster thrown in — found a lot of color photos in a dumpster in San Francisco, and thus, inevitably, presumably to mark the 50th anniversary of the discovery, has published them and a few more as a … book? Yes, it’s a time capsule. Artless family snaps, from weddings and vacations. Early ’70s haircuts. Hippie in geodesic dome. Guy with a new car. It’s not The Americans — but page by page it slowly grows more compelling, as if you’re sure that, if you keep going, at the end there’ll be a porn shot or a corpse. The picture I keep turning back to shows two big black loungers, the footrests formally stored, against a backdrop of white drapes. It’s as full of death as anything in Lesy’s first book, the 1973 Wisconsin Death Trip, about the collapse of rural Wisconsin during the depression of the 1890s, taken from the cache of the town photographer — and, for this picture at least, made with the same eye.
6. The First Rock and Roll Record (Famous Flames). I believe that before the emergence of rock ’n’ roll records in the late 1940s, nothing like the sound they carried had been heard on earth — that was why both singers and censors claimed it came from Mars. By including anything with the magic words in its lyrics, this three-CD, 95-track set, beginning in 1916 with the five-inch 78 “The Camp Meeting Jubilee,” manages to get through 45 tracks before lighting on anything that signified that, in a certain way, certain people in different parts of the country were speaking a new language: here, The Orioles’s “It’s Too Soon To Know” from Baltimore in 1948 and Fats Domino’s “The Fat Man” from New Orleans in 1949 — which I heard on the radio a few days ago and almost drowned in pleasure. A new language: it had to do with the country letting out its breath after having held it through the Depression and the war — a great awakening to the fact that both were really over. Suddenly, in all kinds of sectors in American life, borders that had always been taken for granted began to dissolve. The boom in the economy meant people could take chances — in presidential politics, in the beginnings of the modern Civil Rights movement, in be-bop, in painting, in film noir, in fiction and poetry. You can hear it happen with these two songs — but the most suggestive thing about this package might be the image on the back, even obscured by track listings: WPA photographer Ben Shahn’s Doped Singer, shot in 1935 in West Virginia. It shows a movie-star handsome man in his 30s or 40s with short, well-kept hair and an open shirt playing a guitar and singing — the song was written down as “Keerless Love” — as a younger man in a hat and suit and tie sits not an inch away from him, as if he’s thinking about how much a night would cost or signing him up. I’d give a lot more than this set costs to hear that.
7. Chuck Berry, Live at Blueberry Hill (Dualtone). Recorded from July 2005 to January 2006, just before and after he turned 79, at the St. Louis club he played for years, with his daughter Ingrid Berry on harmonica and his son Charles Berry Jr. on guitar, his voice is rough, his timing is gone, and the music is hot. The songs seem to open up, to invite the listener in. “Let It Rock,” the once-obscure 1960 “John Henry” rewrite about railroad workers playing dice in a teepee built on the tracks, had a certain vogue in the early 1970s, with celebratory versions by Bob Seger and the Rolling Stones: here he shuffles the verses and it explodes off the stage like the “off-schedule train” that’s driving the story. You can hear his pride, his belief that he will never be forgotten: “Some people said that rock ’n’ roll would fade,” he throws into “Rock and Roll Music”: “Been forty years since that remark was made.”
8. Klaudia Schifferle, 152 Paperdolls (Edition Patrick Frey, Zurich). Schifferle, starring here last month in her band ONETWOTHREE, has always made her living as an artist. In this collection of women constructed out of bits of paper, with each piece of the collages raised off the page so that it shines with light — ads, fashion features, photos: on one page opened at random you see a top knot of blonde hair, googly eyes from a toy, big red lips and white teeth holding a black pill, black Jimmy Choo high heels, and a body made of what looks like a red car door opener — almost every page can make you laugh out loud. And then you keep looking, and you see more. Hannah Höch must be smiling in her grave.
9. Billie Eilish as host and her own musical guest on Saturday Night Live (December 11). As a singer, she has the makings of a real comic. The songs are hackneyed and predictable, sometimes a little sickening in how completely they rest on arranging tricks that were tired before she was born. But in skits she’s sly, as if she’s not telling half of what the lines she’s reading really say, which makes you want to watch her twice to see what you missed.
10. Neil Young Crazy Horse, “Welcome Back,” from Barn (Reprise). “Gonna sing an old song to you right now,” he begins in that high innocent sound, sappy lyrics following, “One that you heard before” — just the sort of thing that inspired National Lampoon’s “The last half hour of No Neil Young Music was brought to you by…” 50 years ago next year. “I been singing this way for so long,” he goes on, as if in acknowledgment. The repetition of “welcome back” — to me and you — brings up horrible buried memories of John Sebastian lilting out the theme to Welcome Back, Kotter. But as the guitar playing begins to wander the trail Young cut a quarter-century ago for the soundtrack to Jim Jarmusch’s frame-perfect Dead Man, the song is a fully sustained eight-and-a-half-minute meander, and the message is that whatever he might be saying in “Human Race,” there’s all the time in the world.
Thanks to Cecily Marcus.