Real Life Rock Top 10: January 2021

LARB presents the January installment of “Real Life Rock Top 10,” a monthly column by cultural critic Greil Marcus.

LARB PRESENTS THE January installment of “Real Life Rock Top 10,” a monthly column by cultural critic Greil Marcus.


1. Joe Biden, address to the nation (January 6). Against Donald Trump’s Capitol Death Trip oration rallying his troops to march on Congress to break the government and burn the Constitution, as president-in-waiting Biden gave his most eloquent speech since he threw his hat in the ring in 2019. It wasn’t any particular words. It was his tone of quiet vehemence, something that felt stronger than anything said by the destroyer he was facing down. And as Biden spoke — “At this hour, our democracy is under unprecedented attack” — and quoted Lincoln — “we shall nobly save, or meanly lose” — as the news flashed the picture of a man with a Confederate battle flag parading through the halls of the Senate as the tribune of abolition and Reconstruction Charles Sumner looked down from his portrait, and the champion of disunion John C. Calhoun looked down from his, you could hear that same tone carrying Walter Benjamin: “Not even the dead will be safe from the enemy, if he is victorious.” But not quite like that. Biden sounded like a real person talking. And so you could hear a real conversation, two people at a bar watching the television overhead, if there were bars where you could do that, one saying, “You know, not even the dead are gonna be safe from these motherfuckers if we let them win.” As much as anything the House and Senate were prevented, in this moment, from putting into the historical record of the country, in both the Puritan and republican meanings of the word, Biden sounded elected.

2. Wire, Mind Hive (pinkflag). Wire is a very old band. They formed in 1976, played the Roxy in London sharing the stage with the most piercing punk combos of the day, and three of the original four — Colin Newman, guitar and vocals; Graham Lewis, bass, keyboards, and vocals; and drummer Robert Grey — are still there. What’s so striking is that whenever they have resurfaced over the decades, on a new album, on stage, even if one looks as if he hasn’t aged a day and another looks as if he’s done the other one’s aging for him along with his own, they feel new, as if the idea of the band occurred to them a few weeks before. Their music never feels reprised, never seems to carry its past with it. If you’re a fan — maybe follower is a better word — if the music feels familiar, it’s because that’s a quality you’ve brought to it, not them. The songs are intricate, spectral, hints, not statements, and you pick your way through them; nothing settles quickly.

That is perhaps more true than it’s ever been with the last track on this album, which song to song does not feature a flat moment: a quiet, peaceful, fatalistic mystery called “Humming.” It’s theme music for any neurotic British TV detective series, whether it’s Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect or Paddy Considine in Red Riding or a hundred others. There’s just a whisp of story: “Someone was humming a popular song.” But what happens in the music pulls against any story, and then, in the music’s argument that peace of mind is what the dead get, begins to suggest one. It’s the held chord on an organ, or a synthesizer, with the bass counting behind it, then walking around it. Newman, in his small voice, talking to himself, thinks it over, but wherever he tries to go he’s walking in circles: when the band started, they were cheeky enough to have called this “Huis Clos.” The song plays: when the case is over and nothing has been solved, no one has been caught, and all that’s left is what the body looked like when you found it, you have to go on living. And this is what that sounds like, for the rest of the life of the person who has to do it. You can’t think about it too much. You can’t dwell on it. You can’t sleep. So you paint the ceiling with your eyes.

3. Charles Taylor writes in (January 4). “When you work retail, being a customer in another store gives you freedom with difficult customers you don’t have in your own place of work. I was in the record department of Barnes & Noble just now and there was a guy drawing out an absolutely simple order with the clerk. It’s bad enough that he was sputtering on about nonsense without, some of the time, wearing a mask. It’s bad enough he said ‘good girl’ to her when she did something that pleased him. But what really cheesed me off is that this poor kid has to risk her life so this useless motherfucker can order the first Jonathan Edwards album on CD.”

4. Fiona Apple, Fetch the Bolt Cutters (Clean Slate/Epic). Arch. And despite the title, for that matter the name of the label, there isn’t a whisper of free air anywhere on the record. Though there is, as always, a lot of whispering.

5. AT&T, “A Little Love,” January 1, College Football Playoffs, Alabama versus Notre Dame (BBDO). Among them LeBron James, looking like the nicest guy on earth, people Facetiming each other singing Jackie DeShannon’s 1969 “Put a Little Love in Your Heart” all over town. Presumably the message — i.e., what they’re selling — is something to do with “communication.” But what actually takes place is people all over town celebrating a song, and a songwriter.

6. Scott Simon, “‘The Great Gatsby’ Enters Public Domain But It Already Entered Our Hearts,” Weekend Edition (NPR, January 2). That I-don’t-have-to-raise-my-voice-for-you-to-hear-it attitude:

As we think of this past trying and tragic year, we might all imagine some names, many in high places, of those who disdained wearing masks and brushed aside guidelines to hold events when Fitzgerald writes of “careless people” that “smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

7. PJ Harvey, To Bring You My Love — Demos (Island). To Bring You My Love was a harrowing, entrancing album when it was released in 1995, and as it was released it still is. But this — with Polly Jean Harvey playing whatever instrument she needs, a fluttering organ, flat, dead drums, and dubbing it over whatever she needed before — is much scarier. The voice can be ugly, an organ like a kidney or a liver, but hanging outside the body. “C’Mon Billy,” “Long Snake Moan,” “Down by the Water,” “The Dancer” — you can see Charlotte Gainsbourg singing any of them as she walks through the woods naked in Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, or acting them out.

8. Kim Gordon, No Icon (Rizzoli). With a foreword by Carrie Brownstein (catching Gordon’s “playfully sinister” voice in Sonic Youth’s “Kool Thing,” taking the song “like the rest of the band suddenly required an invitation to be there along with her”) this is an autobiography in images: photos of Gordon, her paintings, sculptures, album art, gallery installations, bits of writing, full-page self-quotes (her indelible “People pay money to see others believe in themselves” from Artforum in 1983). There are a lot of performance photos — and performance photos are almost always boring because there are so few moves to draw on. Those collected here aren’t boring, because what they depict are not moves but variations on a stance: as shown in a blurry shot from 2008 on the first page of the book proper, a woman in a short striped dress, short-heeled shoes, shoulder-length blonde hair, holding a bass, one foot forward, establishing tension, one foot back, as if holding back, establishing uncertainty — from there to the end, the nearly 40-year story of a stance. That’s not a move, that’s a novel — and inside that story is another one, a story of abandonment. These are portraits of Gordon lying onstage and singing — rendered best in her own 2018 ceramic sculpture The Pitch 21, a woman in a black dress lying on her stomach, legs bent upward, one black, one white, no head. Look long at that, look at photographs, and you can glimpse someone for an instant turning into something else.

Placed all through the book are full-page presentations of Gordon’s 2010 “Noise Paintings” — mostly names of noise bands painted in big black letters on a white background (“The Stooges,” “Pussy Galore,” etc.). What makes them work — what makes them seem almost alive — is that they’re also drip paintings, with squirming, dirty black lines descending from each letter like strings for marionettes out of the frame. The most threatening is probably the one that looks most like an accident, or a mistake, or an artist giving up and throwing the paint at the canvas and stomping on the picture and leaving the room: The Promise of Originality, though it’s too smeared to read in a glance. And maybe that was the name of a band, for a day.

9. clipping., “Say the Name,” from Visions of Bodies Being Burned (Sub Pop). Reaching a high point with the faster than sound “Something Underneath,” ending with the nearly gospel vocal yearning in “Entrancing” and a chamber-music rendering of Yoko Ono’s 1953 “Secret Piece” — how little sound can you make if you’re still making sound? — you realize that track by track this album is made to defy expectations. That’s a formal goal and it’s pursued with a deadly serious sense of try-anything. But “Say the Name,” anchored by a distorted deep voice chanting a line from the Geto Boys’ bottomless “Mind Playing Tricks on Me,” from 1991 — “Candle sticks in the dark, visions of bodies being burned” — is the bedrock of the record. With a pace that touches the “Don’t push me” cadence of “The Message” from Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five in 1982, it’s constructed out of plain, straight discourse on social collapse from Daveed Diggs, the clatter of planks peeling off buildings, a steady, round bass, and a rising sythesized theme that makes you want to see the movie it’s calling up from William Hutson and Jonathan Snipes. Lines flash up, not explaining themselves but claiming history, saying this band can rummage through the attic of the 20th century and use it to decorate the 21st-century house: “a Guernica in blood on the wall.” “That train left the station with the great migration.” Or as the Chaucer scholar and Dylan fan Betsy Bowden put it in a year-end letter to friends, “We must never forget the year 2020, which emptied the ashtrays on a whole lotta levels.”

10. Conor Lamb on The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell (MSNBC, January 7). The Democratic congressman from western Pennsylvania after calling out Republican colleagues on the floor of the House as liars: “I really don’t think, you know, you have to be very partisan to look at yesterday and be insulted the way we would be if we’d been invaded by a foreign power. I mean, there were essentially foreign flags, Trump flags, being posted and hung from some of the most sacred square inches of ground in the United States” — and so the Trump project ends as it began, as it was supposed to, leaving the country discredited before the rest of the world, giving Vladimir Putin, collecting the interest on the loans to the Trump company, the free field he paid for. It’s the id surfacing as a person looks for the words to say what he means in a fraught moment, when the everyday unconscious limits on speech don’t work, and what comes out is not an argument, but a realization, the child realizing the emperor has no clothes: “Foreign flags, Trump flags.”

Thanks to Sean Wilentz.


Greil Marcus is one of the speakers in the documentary Creem: America’s Only Rock ’n’ Roll Magazine, just released on DVD by Kino Lorber.


Banner image: "93a.East.USCapitol.WDC.6January2021" by Elvert Barnes is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0. Image has been cropped from original.

LARB Contributor

Greil Marcus is a critic who lives in Oakland. This year, Yale will publish More Real Life Rock: The Wilderness Years, 2014-2021 (May) and Folk Music: A Bob Dylan Biography in Seven Songs (Fall).


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