1. Bumper sticker, Benvenue Avenue, Oakland, California (December 18).
2. Cat Power, Covers (Domino). As a musician, Cat Power hears songs differently: differently from the person or persons who made them, differently from you, differently from me, and given time and place differently from herself: “Unhate,” the most constructed and alluring number here, is a remake of her own “Hate.” Sometimes she can’t, or doesn’t try to, get out from under the basic arrangement of a tune, as if it’s as fixed as its title: “These Days,” “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.” But I’ve heard Bob Seger’s “Against the Wind” hundreds of times over more than 40 years. I used to think it was a clichéd Oh poor me I’m a star now song with easy listening music; now I hear it as something that can imprint every element of itself in your memory and on your skin and make you examine your values. I’ve listened to Cat Power do a song called “Against the Wind” over and over: in the sound she creates, instruments and voice, this is a song about wind. It says, “AGAINST THE WIND by Bob Seger,” right inside the CD, and I’m still not convinced that it is.
3. & 4. “Rolling Stones Drop Brown Sugar from US tour set list,” BBC News (October 13) and Karaoke Walkrrr with Mutually Assured Destruction, “Brown Sugar,” Whitney Museum of American Art Biennial, 2012 (karawalkerstudio.com). For last fall’s US tour, celebrated band the Rolling Stones announced that they were temporarily dropping their 1971 hit “Brown Sugar” from their set, even though they had apparently played it even more times than “Satisfaction,” due to, you know, Black lives matter, at least for the time being. Guitarist Keith Richards, known for never cutting his cloth to fit your fashion, was not happy with the current environment of so-called cancel culture: “Didn’t they understand,” he said, without going into further detail about who they might be, “this was a song about the horrors of slavery?” — even if in Mick Jagger’s performance he sounded like nothing so much as a British sex tourist in South Carolina in 1845. “I’m hoping,” Richards said, “that we’ll be able to resurrect the babe in her glory somewhere down the track.”
But what the artist Kara Walker did with the song in 2012 at the Whitney is proof that — I have no idea of what, except that Kara Walker can wring every last drop of energy out of the song while writing its history for all the years it has been circling the earth. Appearing in a beige hoodie and a cap with SECURITY on the front, with pianist Jason Moran, bassist Tarus Mateen, guitarist Brandon Ross, and drummer Jamire Williams, she opened with a long, at first scabrous, increasingly loud and urgent poem. The first sentence started with “Taking it in every hole, five massive cocks,” and ended with “Papa’s got a brand new bag.” With the band vamping atonally behind her for more than five minutes, a break led into a lecture on art history:
What is Dada without the severing of language from meaning? What is Early Modernism without the primeval Negro? What is Futurism without the machine gun? […] What is Degenerate Art without Jew, Black, mulatto? What is Expressionism without the denial of social inequities? Where is Pop without Motown? What about Conceptualism? Where was that without the riots in Detroit, Newark, Watts? […] Where would we be now, the young artists of today, without Willie Horton, James Byrd, Rodney King, saviors of your political moment? And when James Byrd Jr. was torn apart on a country road in Texas, Relational Aesthetics was born.
In other words, Black people died for your art — which had everything to do with her “Brown Sugar.”
She took off her hoodie and cap, glamorous with bare shoulders and a black leather top and skirt, as images began to flash on the screen behind her: Mick Jagger dancing, silhouettes from her own 2007 slavery-sex-and-violence exhibition My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love, which was also a version of “Brown Sugar,” though now it was vice versa. Brandon Ross hit the harsh, opening Bop-ba, ba da da da da. There was some noise from the crowd of perhaps a hundred people seated and standing. “I’m going to need audience participation this time!” Walker shouted gleefully. “You all know the words!” she said, as if that was anything but a simple thing to say: So why do you know all the words?
So she dove in, dancing and waving and pointing like Jagger, looking absolutely like herself, backing away from nothing, seizing every image in the song as if she’d savored it her whole life, when the song was ending changing it to “I ain’t no schoolmarm but I know what I like” and “Just like a white boy should” as “pink sugar,” “scraped scum,” and “brown cum” flashed on the screen. She fell to her knees and her face convulsed in desperation and pain as a photo of a lynching that because of the setting Walker made looked worse than any other lynching photo you might have ever seen appeared behind her.
But her performance had come true halfway through the song. “I can’t hear ya!” she shouted. “Like a black girl should!” The camera panned to the audience. Stonefaced. Not moving. Maybe a few people trying to compose a look of bemusement, as if to say, you can’t shock me. But not a whisper of physical or emotional response to what Walker was doing or who she was. Just sit there and it will be over. Please.
5. Last Words, directed by Jonathan Nossiter (Les Films d’Ici, 2020). Set in 2085 and 2086, when the world has been stripped bare from pestilence, and until a young African played by Kalipha Touray finds an old man played by Nick Nolte holed up in the ruins of the Cineteca in Bologna, he thinks he’s the last person on earth. Riding a bicycle and using a hand crank for electricity, Nolte screens him Buster Keaton to show him the glory of the world as it was. With a cart filled with an antiquated projector, a movie camera, and film stock they’ve made, and as many reels of old movies as they can cram in, they cross the deserts of Europe to find a settlement in Greece Nolte has heard about, maybe years before. There they become part of a community, and over the year everybody dies, until, again, they’re the only ones left. Nolte knows he’s about to go, and Touray knows he will be able to recite the film’s opening line: “I am the last man on earth.”
But that’s not what makes the movie interesting. What does is the idea that culture only existed in the 20th century. Of all the movies and music and technological devices that appear in the movie, in the 21st century before the world ended nothing has survived: when a woman softly sings a song as if she’s taken it out of the breeze, it’s “Candy Says.” When the community all gather for a movie, it’s Sullivan’s Travels. But far more than that — as a kind of living out of that idea — as everyone in the world dies, as if to retain traces of what was, biological clocks go haywire. You begin to realize that, here, now, in 2085, the characters are as old as the actors who play them would be. That is, Touray, one of the last humans to be born, is 20, and Charlotte Rampling gets pregnant at 137; Nolte is 145. At the end, he looks Touray in the face, the rugged man gone, a small, bulky figure with a face surrounded by white and a twinkle in his voice. “I remember everything about my life,” he says. He begins to talk about the love of his life, and the two most beloved of his children — and then he says, as if he hasn’t thought of it for a hundred years, “A Sex Pistols concert in 1978. ‘God save the queen and the fascist regime.’” He looks at Touray as if this will, by the alchemy of his insistence, actually mean something. But he puts all he can of the Sex Pistols into the next line, and so it does. He smiles with absolute satisfaction. “‘We mean it, man,’” he says.
6. Ginger Dellenbaugh, Maria Callas’s Lyric and Coloratura Arias (33 1/3). Even if you’ve never heard of the 1954 Maria Callas album, even if you neither know nor care about her or opera, this book is entrancing. Dellenbaugh lets you follow every high and low, every shift in tone and emotion. She brings you into the performances. She compares the effect Callas produces in her to hearing Paula Abdul’s “Straight Up” when she was 11. She leads you to understand opera not only as craft but as labor, and how far that understanding can and can’t go: “[S]he is stripped of her agency as a technician; artistry becomes a sign of vulnerability, even of hysteria, rather than a sign of mastery.” She takes Barthes’s notion of the grain of the voice and expands it and deepens it and takes it to places Barthes would never have imagined but which, if he were here to read Dellenbaugh, he would recognize: when you listen to a recording again and again, the
burden of grain is completely shifted from the performer, and the sound object, and onto the ear. Just as a shot bullet retains the traces of a weapon’s barrel, the heard material receives the grain incised by the ear as it enters the body. The ear, to be more explicit, is scarred — it has bumps, notches, and ridges all formed by acculturation.
Ultimately this is a study of primal art: where it comes from, what it does, how it’s made. It’s a study of one singer’s mind, body, and voice, of her ability to create transcendence, and to reveal the void, which is what it was all for: mind, body, voice, years of training, hard work, hard labor, to expose the finality of what, even if in moments only, might be transcended.
7. & 8. Beyoncé in the World: Making Meaning with Queen Bey in Troubled Times, edited by Christina Baade and Kristin McGee (Wesleyan University Press) and Jay-Z and Beyoncé in “About Love” (Tiffany). While the use of Queen Bey in the title promises that there never will be heard a discouraging word, one might have expected more than a grid of received ideas and cant phrases laid over a modern Pythia. What is she really saying? It’s too bad the book had to go to press before anyone collected here had the chance to interpret Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s “About Love,” their new Tiffany ad, Jay-Z seated in a tuxedo with his hair sticking out in tufts like Basquiat’s and looking angry, Beyoncé standing and looking regal in a black Givenchy and a 128-carat diamond on her neck, with as a backdrop Basquiat’s Equals Pi (owned by Tiffany’s corporate parent, it turns out, not the couple), signifying — what? Good taste? High culture? Money? There are mysteries here. I once had a student, a dedicated Jay-Z fan, who was tortured over what he took to be the fact that as a drug dealer in New York in the 1980s, Jay-Z, almost certainly, in the line of work, killed someone. But there’s something even more suggestive here: Jean-Michel Basquiat died in 1988. If Jay-Z had sold heroin instead of cocaine, and maybe, when times were tough, he did, he could have sold Basquiat the drugs that killed him, helped make him a legend, increased the prices of his work, and led straight to this tableau. Not good taste, high culture, money — the Eternal Circle.
9. The Beatles: Get Back, directed by Peter Jackson from film by Michael Lindsay-Hogg (Disney+). In more than seven hours, wasn’t there time to show the group playing a single song from start to finish? Can it really be true that every time they took up the likes of “My Baby Left Me” or “Hi-Heel Sneakers” they stopped after a line?
10. Dave Grohl, The Storyteller: Tales of Life and Music (Dey Street). There’s a reason this book has topped The New York Times best-seller list, and not just for a week, as is common enough with rock-star biographies. It’s good. It’s fun to read. You believe what he says. It’s a fan’s book: he’s a grinning, humbled fan of punk, of Nirvana, of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, of Pantera, of his mother, of his daughter. And he has the best lost-wallet story of all time.
Not withstanding a student’s fantasy and the writer’s attempt at satire, nothing here is meant to impute or affirm any illegal or immoral conduct by Jay-Z (Shawn Carter).
Thanks to Bart Bull.
My thanks many times over to Boris Dralyuk, Cord Brooks, and Tom Lutz for giving this column a home during some of those most threatening and inspiring years of its life, or my life, or, maybe, theirs. They have been wonderful partners. But I’m going to move on — hoping to be back in these pages when the moment is right. The next installment of Real Life Rock Top 10 will appear at greilmarcus.substack.com. 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).