LARB PRESENTS the February installment of “Real Life Rock Top 10,” a monthly column by cultural critic Greil Marcus.
1. Inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris (January 20). When Garth Brooks actually took his hat off to sing “Amazing Grace” without accompaniment, I felt as if I’d never heard the song before. Every word stood out like a star, unmoving in its own light. Lady Gaga so mastered “The Star-Spangled Banner” she made it human, not abstract. She made it speak as strongly to history as it ever had. The tremor she gave to “Proof through the night” put you in the war it was written for, or any war. It put you in jeopardy: only 14 days removed from America’s own Kristallnacht, it made you feel the jeopardy of the moment. She’s up there with Marvin Gaye, I thought — until I watched him again at the 1983 NBA All-Star game. No, that was once in a lifetime — “I asked God,” Gaye said later, “if when I sang, it would move me in my soul” — the lifetime of the song.
2. Heather Digby Parton, “Trump lawyers make a mockery of Republican senators,” Salon, (February 10). On the opening impeachment trial presentation by Bruce Castor and David Schoen: “The two of them could have come out and done an interpretive dance to ‘YMCA’ and it wouldn’t have made any difference.”
3. “The Middle” (Doner Agency), Bruce Springsteen for Jeep, CBS Super Bowl telecast (February 7). “NO SONGS WERE HARMED IN THE MAKING OF THIS COMMERCIAL” [sic] reads the disclaimer — well, it might have, since there weren’t any songs in it. But given the opening lines — “There’s a chapel in Kansas, standing on the exact center of the Lower 48” — I wanted to hear Bruce quietly reading Allen Ginsberg’s “Wichita Vortex Sutra” in the background. He could have. In 2000, he attended an undergraduate seminar at Princeton on the poem. Like the students, he’d read it and listened to a 1994 recording of Ginsberg performing the 43-minute jeremiad-cum-Lenny Bruce routine while backed by downtown New York musicians from Philip Glass to Lenny Kaye to Christian Marclay. He came in with an argument he wanted to make, which with his preternatural ability to put people at ease he made only by responding to what others said: that “Wichita Vortex Sutra,” which is insistently about finding oneself in the exact center of the country, was Ginsberg’s affirmation of his place, his burden and his duty, as a full citizen of the United States. That said, the only commercial of the day worth remembering was the BBDO M&Ms spot “Come Together,” where it was about people offering packets of M&Ms to people they’ve offended, as in one woman saying to another, “Sorry I called you Karen.” “That’s my name.” “Sorry your name is Karen.”
4. On the Rocks, written and directed by Sofia Coppola (A24/Apple TV+). Rashida Jones is so half-dimensional even in a sitcom she could be out of her depth. Marlon Wayans’s role is so impoverished he might have more to do in a commercial. Bill Murray seems to think he’s Gene Hackman in The Royal Tenenbaums. Coppola has made exquisite movies, with a touch that’s both light and hard, kill-you-with-a-velvet-pillow movies — that this tepid comedy of errors opens with Chet Baker’s “I Fall in Love Too Easily” is the real proof of its cheapness. The song is meant to cast a veneer of seriousness, even impending tragedy, over everything to come, and what it does is expose that the only art in this picture once fit on a 45.
5. One Night in Miami, directed by Regina King, written by Kemp Powers (Amazon). Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), and the future Muhammad Ali (Eli Goree) really did meet in a Miami motel room on February 25, 1964, just after Cassius Clay shocked the world by defeating the undefeatable Sonny Liston. What happened only Powers knows, and he made it up: surrounded by many more themes, a battle between Malcolm and Cooke over the value of Cooke singing his music to white people and Bob Dylan’s own version of “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Odom brings some of the defensiveness and resentment of his Aaron Burr in Hamilton to his role; Ben-Adir makes Malcolm X a haunted, hunted man who can’t dance and could out-argue the devil. “That movie made me feel good,” said one person watching, even though it’s 114 minutes of tension and both Cooke and Malcolm X would be shot to death within a year. That’s because the picture doesn’t insult anyone’s intelligence: not the characters’, not the actors’, not yours. It engages it. It demands it.
6. & 7. Tesla, written and directed by Michael Almereyda (IFC) and Ethan Hawke, A Bright Ray of Darkness (Knopf). As someone so trapped within himself that his most evident human attribute is smoking, with Almereyda and Ethan Hawkes’s reconstruction of the visionary inventor Nikola Tesla (1856–1943) it somehow seems inevitable, after his finally dead-end entanglements with Thomas Edison (1847–1931, Kyle MacLachlan), J. P. Morgan (1837–1913, Donnie Keshawarz), and Sarah Bernhardt (1844–1923, a slithering Rebecca Dayan), and his outliving them almost into the postwar modern world, dying alone and forsaken in a New York hotel, that in some karaoke bar of the mind Tesla will finally stand up to croak out Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” The first-person narrator of Hawkes’s A Bright Ray of Darkness, one William Harding — a movie star whose marriage has broken up after he was caught on the covers of tabloids around the world with another woman, and who’s about to make his Broadway debut in Henry IV — runs through the pages of this backstage/onstage novel as if he expects, deserves, wants, no-no-no-no I don’t! the same fate as his Tesla. The book shivers with suspense and excitement: suspense backstage, over the first rehearsal, the first preview, opening night, over what the New York Times review will say, and excitement onstage, with the actors throwing Shakespeare’s lines in the air and watching them explode time, place, and, in Harding’s case, what he thought was his personality. When, following a fraught performance that has shown Harding he has never understood his character, his Hotspur is hammering Henry as he never has before (“—by the CHANCE OF WAR!”), and the actor playing Henry hits back with even greater force (“Mighty and to be fear’d!”) and then drops dead on the stage of a heart attack, the audience thinks it’s part of the play, and Harding actually has to ask “IS THERE A DOCTOR IN THE HOUSE?” The last line of the chapter seems as unavoidable as Tesla singing 1985’s most memorable song 42 years after his own death, and just as funny: “The King had left the building.”
8. The Band, Stage Fright 50th Anniversary (Capitol). For $19.98, you get Stage Fright remixed by Bob Clearmountain to bring out startlingly acute and yet warming accents, with a booklet of photographs, effectively brief liner notes, and Robert Hilburn’s original Los Angeles Times review. There’s a new, deeply more effective track order, supposedly the once-intended arc of the album (opening with the now almost stomping “The W. S. Walcott Medicine Show,” the head-on “The Shape I’m In,” and the spinning “Daniel and the Sacred Harp” instead of the far more modest “Strawberry Wine,” “Sleeping,” and “Time to Kill”). On the same disc there are “Alternate Mixes” of “Strawberry Wine” and “Sleeping” — which are in fact irresistibly rough solo demos, as full of feeling as anything here, the first with Levon Helm on acoustic guitar, the second with Richard Manuel on piano. There are Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, and Manuel in a hotel room, working out songs and fooling with a few oldies, but what you really hear is friendship, trust, fun — music that doesn’t have to mean anything, that needs no consequences, new songs that could be left off the next album, as the small, glowing “Get Up Jake,” which they try to get twice, was. On a second disc you get a very hot 1971 Albert Hall show — the singing is diminished by a recording that doesn’t approach Rock of Ages or The Last Waltz, but you can ride the music by itself. For $129.96 more, you get that plus a cardboard box that may hold up better than a CD case, a Blu-ray, the revised album as an LP, a 45, a larger-size booklet, and a slipcase of three suitable-for-framings.
I always liked The Godfather Part III, but it wasn’t until last year’s revision — a few cuts, a few scenes transposed, a slightly different ending — that it too felt like a masterpiece, that it escaped the first two movies and spoke in its own voice, told its own story. The burden of the epic hung over the 1990 original, making it seem tacked-on and contrived. The new version lets you watch the film as a chamber movie, or Chekhov as opposed to Verdi, each actor moving around another with small gestures, which now took on affection, fright, foreboding. After Music from Big Pink, full of epic songs, and The Band, an epic in itself (“We could have called it ‘America,’” Robertson once said), Stage Fright could feel constricted, the songs separated from each other, and as mostly a set of solo or separated vocals, diminishing each other — without the community of voices in a single line, or Huey, Dewey, and Louie finishing each other’s sentences. The new version of the album (with what now feels like a nearly religious ending of “The Rumor,” the whole congregation shouting out for the good and the right) says, yes, that’s all true — but step back, and see if a walk down the street might not be just as interesting as climbing a mountain and jumping off. And the remastering of the one epic song here — “Daniel and the Sacred Harp” — brings out a totality in the indecipherable parable of the tune, a great melodic sweep. It was always there — but as an idea, not a body. Now it gets up and runs.
9. Barack Obama, A Promised Land (Crown). Blast from the past, on one of his rivals for the nomination in 2008: “Though I didn’t know him well, I’d never been particularly impressed with Edwards. Despite the fact that he had working-class roots, his newly minted populism sounded synthetic and poll-tested to me, the political equivalent of one of those boy bands dreamed up by a studio marketing department” — or like a K-Pop star with his very own sex scandal.
10. “The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Foundation announced today the following Nominees for 2021 Induction” (February 10). Mary J. Blige, Kate Bush, Devo, Foo Fighters, the Go-Go’s, Iron Maiden, JAY-Z, Chaka Khan, Carole King, Fela Kuti, LL Cool J, New York Dolls, Rage Against the Machine, Todd Rundgren, Tina Turner, Dionne Warwick — yeah, I guess. I’ll probably vote for the female nominees who aren’t already there. But like Cato ending every speech with “Carthage must be destroyed!”: What about the Shangri-Las?
Thanks to Michael Almereyda.