LARB IS THE NEW HOME for “Real Life Rock Top 10,” a monthly column by cultural critic Greil Marcus.
1. Taylor Swift, Twitter (May 29). “After stoking the fires of white supremacy and racism your entire presidency, you have the nerve to feign moral superiority before threatening violence. ‘When the looting starts the shooting starts’??? We will vote you out in November.”
2. Killer Mike of Run the Jewels, at a press conference in Atlanta opened by Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms (CBS, May 29). “I’ve got a lot of love and respect for police officers, down to the original eight police officers in Atlanta that, even after becoming police, had to dress in a YMCA because white officers didn’t want to get dressed with niggers. And here we are, 80 years later, I watched a white officer assassinate a Black man, and I know that tore your heart out.”
“I’m duty-bound to be here to simply say that it is your duty not to burn your own house down for anger with an enemy […] I woke up wanting to see the world burn down yesterday because I’m tired — of seeing — black — men — die. He casually put his knee on a human being’s neck for nine minutes as he died, like a zebra in the clutch of a lion’s jaw, and we watch it like murder porn, over and over again, so that’s why children are burning to the ground. They don’t know what else to do. And it is the responsibility of us to make this better right now. We don’t want to see one officer charged. We want to see four officers prosecuted and sentenced. We don’t want to see Targets burning. We want to see the system that sets up for systemic racism burnt to the ground. And as I sit here, in Georgia, home of [Alexander] Stephens of Georgia, former vice president of the Confederacy, white man said that law, fundamental law, stated that whites were naturally the superior race, and the Confederacy was built on a cornerstone — it’s called the Cornerstone Speech, look it up, the Cornerstone Speech — that Blacks would always be subordinate. That officer believed that speech because he killed that man like an animal.
“In this city, officers have done horrendous things, and they have been prosecuted. This city’s cut different. In this city, you can find over 50 restaurants owned by Black women. I didn’t say minority, and I didn’t say women of color. So after you’ve burned down your own home, what do you have left but char and ash?”
3. Lizzie Johnson, Trisha Thadani, Chase DiFeliciantonio, and Kevin Fagan, “Protests, violence shake Bay Area,” San Francisco Chronicle (June 2). “[San Francisco] Mayor London Breed said city leaders ‘feel the hurt and the pain’ of those outraged at Floyd’s death. But she also denounced people she said were ‘coming to our city for the sole purpose of destroying our city.’
“Protestors gathered outside Breed’s home Saturday night, shouting and setting off fireworks.
“Breed said the protestors outside her home ‘were all white people yelling, “Black Lives Matter.” But that didn’t bother me as much as the taunting of me coming outside with firework torches in their hands looking like what used to happen when the KKK would show up to black people’s houses to burn their houses down.’”
4. & 5. Eddie Glaude Jr., on The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell (MSNBC, June 1) and Annye C. Anderson with Preston Lauterbach, Brother Robert: Growing Up with Robert Johnson (Hachette). Glaude, chair of the Department of African-American Studies at Princeton: “There’s an old blues metaphor. You know, Robert Johnson found his sound at the crossroad when he made a deal with the devil. It seems to me that country is at a crossroad, whether we are going to continue to invest and double down on the ugliness of our racist commitments, or we’re finally leave this behind.”
Anderson was 12 when Johnson died in 1938. “He’s been gone so long, over eighty years. I think of saying goodbye to him. Walking with him to Third Street, Highway 61, where he’d hitch a ride across the Harahan Bridge, going over the Mississippi River. I still think of how it felt to hug him. He put his skinny arms around me. His clothes felt starched and pressed. His face felt smooth. He smelled like cigarettes and Dixie Peach.”
6. Dina Peone, “The High Notes and Hard Knocks of My Traveling Karaoke Family,” narratively (April 13). Her parents ran a company called Star Tracks Entertainment. She began performing in public at the age of four: “Before I learned to spell my name I was memorizing lyrics and rehearsing choreography […] I faked every word on the blue screen, watching the ball bounce in rhythm with the light swelling inside the hieroglyphics.” Her father was an adulterer, but even as the family was falling apart her parents still sang together onstage: “Although I had been impersonating my idols throughout elementary school” — her biggest number was Loretta Lynn’s “You Ain’t Woman Enough” — “I was still shocked to learn that karaoke could be a medium for insincerity, that my parents didn’t mean it when they looked into their eyes and sang, ‘There ain’t no hill or mountain we can’t climb.’”
At 16, after her father had been kicked out, she woke up in the middle of a fire. She and her younger sister and her mother escaped just before their house exploded. Her sister was in an induced coma for more than two weeks, she for nearly three months. When she came to she learned that “I was held together by stapled pig skin, cadaver skin, and skin from my shaved head.” One hand was missing two fingers; the rest were frozen. She couldn’t write and a tracheotomy had left her with a hole in her throat and no voice.
After a year most of her voice came back: “Due to smoke inhalation, I could no longer hit high notes […] I felt resigned to the idea that my vocal range was now limited to songs sung by men.” She practiced with a karaoke machine in her family’s new kitchen.
For her comeback, “my first live performance as a burn survivor took place under a pop-up tent in a veteran’s backyard. It was the summer I turned 18, and my wavy hair had grown back in wild curls.”
She sang “Light My Fire.”
7. Joe Biden, speech in Philadelphia (ABC, June 2). “‘I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.’ George Floyd’s last words. But they didn’t die with him. He’s still being heard, echoing all across this nation. They speak to a nation where too often, just the color of your skin puts your life at risk. They speak to a nation where more than 100,000 people have lost their lives to a virus and 40 million have filed for unemployment — with a disproportionate number of those deaths and job losses concentrated in black and brown communities. And they speak to a nation where every day millions of people, millions, not at the moment of losing their life but in the course of living their life are saying to themselves, I can’t breathe.”
8. Jackson Browne with Bruce Springsteen, “Running on Empty,” at Vote for Change, Continental Airlines Arena, Rutherford, New Jersey, October 13, 2004 (YouTube). I stumbled on this looking for something else and played it for half an hour. I’ve always loved the song, but at a time when the country is running on empty, it felt like a national anthem.
9. Michael Corcoran, illustrations by Tim Kerr, Ghost Notes: Pioneering Spirits of Texas Music (TCU Press). With short chapters and rich drawings covering the territory from the 1920s gospel singers Arizona Dranes and Blind Willie Johnson, from Hattie Burleson’s 1928 “Dead Lover Blues” (in 1918 she had shot and killed the editor of the African-American newspaper Dallas Express) to the Austin rocker maudit Roky “I Walked With a Zombie” Erickson, ending with Don Robey, who founded the Duke/Peacock record company in Houston in 1949: “Half black, half Jewish, all gangster” — an “entrepreneur whose very name started with R-O-B.” “Robey did have a heart, it turned out,” Corcoran finishes up. How could anyone tell? “It stopped beating in 1975.”
10. Noel King, “Black Female Lawmaker in Minnesota Worries About Teenage Son’s Safety” on Morning Edition (NPR, June 2). State Representative Ruth Richardson, DFL-Mendota Heights, on why it isn’t safe for her high school sprinter son, Shawn, to run alone in their neighborhood: “You can’t do the same things that your white friends do.” “If I can’t run in the neighborhood,” Shawn says to King, “it’s like I can run on a track or something. You know, it’s not the end of the world.” “It is the end of the world,” Richardson says. “Because if you can’t run in our neighborhood, if you can’t walk out into the world, and just be seen as a 17-year-old boy who loves to run, there’s something deeply wrong with that.” “What do you think the right response is?” King asked later. “To address racism in our country?” Richardson said. “I mean, that’s a really big question because, look: you can change legislation, but you can’t change hearts and minds. When I visited the site of George Floyd’s death, there was a sign that said, SMASH WHITE SUPREMACY. And as I was watching the sign just kind of blowing in the wind — it was on a white sheet and spray-painted with red letters — it was like the answer is literally blowing in the wind at the site of where George Floyd was murdered.”
“The systems that we have built within this country have been built with racism at the core,” she said. “People talk about our systems being broken. Our systems are working just the way that they were designed to work.”
Thanks to Robert Christgau, Jon Landau, and Paul Bresnick.
Correction: In my last column, on the Geico commercial featuring Ratt as the “rat problem” in an otherwise nice new house, I hadn’t watched it carefully enough. They aren’t playing in the kitchen, where I put them: they’re in the basement, the laundry room, and the bathroom down the hall. Which I guess leaves Whitesnake in the Porta-Potty in the backyard.
Featured image: “2020/05/29 BlackLivesMatter GeorgeFloyd Protest Oakland, California” by Daniel Arauz is licensed under CC BY 2.0.