LARB PRESENTS the June 2021 installment of “Real Life Rock Top 10,” a monthly column by cultural critic Greil Marcus.
1. & 2. “Tracked” iPhone commercial (TBWA\Chiat\Day Agency) and Delta 5, Singles & Sessions 1979-81 (Kill Rock Stars, 2006). Felix picks up his coffee and walks out of the coffee bar and suddenly the burly barista is on his tail and barging into his cab — all to an ominous two-bass pattern that would be obvious in a horror movie but in a depiction of everyday life is completely threatening. Soon Julz Sale is shouting “Mind your own business!” from Delta 5’s single of the same name, their first — and it sounds as fresh, as next year or for that matter next decade, as it did more than 40 years ago when the five-piece band came together in Leeds on the heels of the Mekons and Gang of Four. With both Ros Allen and Bethan Peters playing bass, spaces in the sound opened up — holes. As Jon King of Gang of Four puts it, “It’s striking how the simplicity of the bass lines and absence of studio trickery — esp the ubiquitous auto tune — creates a radical simplicity, where words actually mean something. Hats off to the music researcher!”
Those holes cried out to be filled, with anything, which puts the unexpected right in the middle of the sound, the sound kicking up ideas, with “Can I have a taste of your ice cream?” escalating to “Can I interfere in your crisis?” and the basic punk comeback of “Fuck off and die” transposed back into what people would actually say if they wanted to get out of a hassle without making a bigger one: “No! Mind your own business!” By this time, every encounter Felix has brings on more people hanging over his shoulders and reciting his information to anyone listening until with the song pounding in his ears he sits down and changes his privacy settings and everyone around him combusts. The spirit is right. The ad does as much for the song as the song does for the ad.
3. Sleater-Kinney, Path of Wellness (Mom + Pop). This is now definitively a two-woman band: everyone else, from bassist to keyboard player to drummers to background vocalist falls under “Additional Musicians.” The result is that at the most entrancing, seductive, explosive moments in the music you can’t tell Carrie Brownstein from Corin Tucker, either as singers or guitarists. Tucker’s once overwhelming voice — too big for mere will to account for, it always felt — now falls in Brownstein’s range, or just barely pushes its circle, and so the music is more down to earth, with less to prove, than before. In “Method” — like many songs here, it seems more musically surprising each time you hear it — there are riffs coming off riffs, not as one person commenting on another, but one mind thinking of two things at once. “Shadow Town” is a drama of reverb, with the guitars telling two stories in counterpoint. “Down the Line” might have no end, like the line one person after another joins in the Drifters’ “There Goes My Baby,” only to disappear. As the song breaks, guitars curl around each other, almost smiling over how right something can sound. Near the end of the song, the voices go higher. For an album made during a year defined by the murder of George Floyd in the middle of a pandemic that upended ordinary life — when the band’s Portland was a war zone, when the statue of Lincoln in South Park Blocks, both the posture and the face full of humility and doubt, was pulled down by people much purer than he ever was, when a man accused of killing a Trump demonstrator was targeted by the Justice Department and executed on the street — only the last line of “Down the Line” steps out to say so, which makes every other line hold its own shape, allows almost every song to mean whatever it says to you: “No getting it wrong this time.”
Which is not to gainsay Brownstein’s showcase, “Complex Female Characters,” where in a clipped voice she might be doing a Sandra Bernhard stand-up routine while sitting at a desk solving a social equation.
4. Karen Dalton, Cotton Eyed Joe: The Loop Tapes Live in Boulder 1962 (Megaphone). Dalton was a legend in her own time to the few who knew her — a ghost walking. “And I never saw her again,” one person after another ends up saying in Karen Dalton: In My Own Time, Richard Peete and Robert Yapkowitz’s film from last year. On the two discs here her playing on guitar and banjo is rudimentary, without apology: it’s enough to get the song across, to let her sound as if she came down the hill to sing and slept on the street after her show, just as with her account of “Pastures of Plenty” it feels as if she’s remembering how her family went down from drought and pestilence when she was five and they had to pack up and leave.
5. In Treatment, Season 4, Episode 5, written by Chris Gabo, directed by Julian Farino (HBO). Anthony Ramos plays Eladio, talking to therapist Brooke Taylor, played by Uzo Aduba, about how he met the Los Angeles family he works for, as an aide to their disabled son: he knows that as part-of-the-family he’s a completely disposable Latino. How did he meet them? He used to work at a restaurant, they’d come in, and the wife always wanted to hear Bon Jovi: “I didn’t know shit about Bon Jovi at the time.” “You didn’t know about Bon Jovi?” says Taylor — what planet is this kid from?
Well, he says, when he lived in Queens, with his aunts, they sent him to a summer camp at Bear Mountain: “Mostly I-ties and Greeks.” And that’s when he first heard Bon Jovi. Sort of. “One day, they started singing this song. You know, the campers. But, like, all at the same time, yo. I … Me and this one Black kid looking at each other like, ‘Yo, what are we gonna do?’ These motherfuckers out here like: ‘Ho! We’re halfway there! Whoa! Living on a prayer!’ Yo, shit was crazy. But it wasn’t until Mrs. D. requested the song that night that I heard it with instruments. You know, I known it only as this a cappella Anglo-Saxon folk anthem.”
6. “Raymond Chandler interviewed by Ian Fleming in 1958” (Video Vault/YouTube). From the BBC Archives, and just posted this month: as of June 17 there were only 90 views. Fleming picked up Chandler in London; he was drunk. He’d be dead in seven months. His voice was slurred, but not so much to keep him from pronouncing “Los Angeles” with a hard g. He starts out with a distinct, British accent, at least to American ears — born in Chicago, Chandler grew up and was educated in England. He’s meticulous about the mechanics of mob hits — if it’s in New York, you go to a hardware store in Minneapolis, give two guys the guns, put them on a plane. It takes a certain kind of person to do that, Fleming says. “I’ve known people I’d like to shoot,” Chandler says mildly. “Why’d you want to shoot them for?” Fleming says. “I guess I thought they were better dead,” Chandler says, the accent completely gone.
7. Leslie Ylinen, “An FAQ About Your New Birth Control: The Music of Rush,” McSweeney’s Internet Tendency (April 13). How and why it’s impossible for a woman not in a coma to get pregnant while listening to, or being forced to listen to, anything by the Canadian band that was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2013. “Imagine taking the most annoying parts of science fiction and Libertarianism, isolating them, and then somehow blending them up into a cursed musical slurry. Then, infuse that slurry with a distinctive incel vibe, and presto! You’ve got one of the most powerful contraception options on the market” is as good as any criticism about anything as I’ve read since, say, 2013, and Ylinen is just warming up.
8. Most satisfying notice of Bob Dylan’s 80th birthday: Ryan Leas, editor: “80 Artists Pick Their Favorite Bob Dylan Song For Bob Dylan’s 80th Birthday,” Stereogum (May 24). They were asked to write between 100 and 200 words. In a few cases, Leas did brief interviews. Nothing is remotely predictable. Songs you might think couldn’t have affected a turtle have transformed the lives of actual people. John Hiatt: “My mother and I drove into a small town, we were up in a little fishing cabin my grandpa built. She had to go to the drugstore, and she went in and ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ came on the radio. I was certain when she came back out, she wouldn’t recognize me. I felt like the song had changed me that much, just by hearing it.”
9. Least auspicious notice of Bob Dylan’s 80th birthday: “CUP scores first dual biography of Dylan and Lennon by Sleeper guitarist,” The Bookseller (June 2). “Cambridge University Press has acquired the first dual biography of Bob Dylan and John Lennon, from Jon Stewart, guitarist for British bands Sleeper and The Wedding Present. Kate Brett, commissioning editor for music, acquired world rights direct from the author, who is also a course leader at BIMM Institute in Brighton. Dylan, Lennon, Marx and God will publish in November 2021.”
10. Steve Erickson, “American Stutter,” Journal of the Plague Years (Memorial Day Weekend). In 1989, Erickson published Leap Year, his account of the 1988 presidential election, and in 1997 American Nomad, on 1996. His novels have never flagged — since 1999, The Sea Came in at Midnight, Our Ecstatic Days, These Dreams of You, the scintillating Zeroville, the hugely ambitious and fully realized Shadowbahn. But the absence of his voice as a political chronicler — dedicated prosecutor, hilariously slashing judge, and, as a stand-in for the common good, victim, who may be guilty, too — has a left a huge gap.
Now, across 38,000 words — I read the day-by-day account of the last election straight through, over a day and a half — Erickson, as he’s always done, in fiction or not, works as a cartographer. He makes a landscape. He sets himself down in it, looks around, tries to get his bearings. Every time he thinks he has, something monumental shifts — a candidate self-destructs, a marriage breaks up, an American Godzilla devours values the way the original destroyed fields and houses, and like an ideological version of COVID-19, cancel culture infects everyone the author thought he trusted. It’s close to unbearable, the pain in this work, public and private, and the struggle of the writer to see that while they are not the same, it is nearly impossible to keep the language of one from subverting the language of the other. Which means, finally, that you can hear the Delta 5 as fiercely in Erickson as for iPhone. “Mind your own business!” the writer screams at the country. “Mind your own business!” the country screams right back. What Erickson is writing about is how in a democracy that’s not even the ghost of a choice anyone can make.
Correction: Benj DeMott writes in with a reminder that the Bob Dylan-Mark Knopfler rehearsal version of “Blind Willie McTell” is not the only one worth listening to. There is also a recording (on YouTube, of course) with Mick Taylor on slide guitar that has a feeling peculiar to certain guitarists’ recordings (Duane Allman on Boz Scaggs’s “Loan Me a Dime” perhaps most of all): that in a perfect world the song would go on forever.
Thanks to Steve Weinstein, Scott Wood, and Steve Perry.