MARCH 27, 2020
LARB IS THE NEW HOME for “Real Life Rock Top 10,” a monthly column by cultural critic Greil Marcus.
1. Walter Mosley, Trouble Is What I Do (Mulholland Books). Walter Mosley plays the blues: as the African-American private eye Leonid McGill talks with a client in his office, he hears music coming through a door. He finds his own 18-year-old son Twill, and his 19-year-old receptionist Mardi Bitterman, and the client’s great-great-grandson Lamont, leading on guitar, making a song. “I’m gone after that rabbit, but she don’t wan’ none’a me,” sings Lamont. “I’m gone after that rabbit,” Twill answers: “She don’t wan’ none’a me.” “‘They wanna pull my long hair,’ Mardi added in a voice that was from another day, another time, ‘drag me down in infamy’” — and they all break up laughing, if only because it’s not likely anyone has ever sung a blues with that last word before. The most acute and dangerous of Mosley’s Easy Rawlins detective novels were mysteries of race; the sixth in his Leonid McGill series enters the same territory. He moves out from that office scene until finally a woman descended from a Mayflower daughter and 94-year-old Mississippi blues singer ends the tale on her own terms — and with 165 pages carrying less than 40,000 words, Mosley has completed Juneteenth, the novel Ralph Ellison left unfinished at his death.
2. La Serenissima, Adrian Chandler, director and violin, Antonio Vivaldi, Presto movement, “Summer,” from The Four Seasons, in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, written and directed by Céline Sciamma (Lilies Films). Years after the end of their love affair, Marianne spots Héloïse from the opposite balcony of a concert hall. Both are oddly alone — isolated not only from each other but from the world. The overpowering opening notes of the music are a shock. The camera remains on the second woman’s profile: she struggles to absorb the music, to merely listen to it, but she can’t. As the excruciatingly thrilling piece goes on, every shade of separation crosses her face: every degree of regret for what can never be recovered. It’s not that the music orchestrates or even prompts the response. As you watch, the woman’s response expands the music.
3. The Orlons, “I Caught My Jeans” (Cameo, c. 1964). I was changing stations and caught just the last 40 seconds of this, there was no ID, but it had to be them, in Philadelphia, a year or two and a lifetime after they had three hits in the top five and never again, by 1964 just trying to keep up with what everybody else was doing, so it’s the lead singer chasing her boyfriend down the street, screaming at him to stop, and just as she’s almost there she scrapes against something that stops her as if she’s been lassoed: “I caught my jeans! I caught my jeans!” but he jumps on his motorcycle and roars off, the vroom-vroom special effects making the record a cross between their own “Don’t Hang Up” and The Shangri-Las’ number one “Leader of the Pack” from the same year as this absolute obscurity I’d never heard before. Then I woke up.
4–9. Fleetwood Mac. Fleetwood Mac was a blues band at the start, and no one before or since ever matched their sound at its most distinctive: light, clean, uncluttered, emotionally and sonically transparent, with a sense that there is a place for every note, if you can find it — a tone that called up fated blues, if you could feel the edge of fate. The guitarist, singer, and songwriter Peter Green (5) formed the group in London in 1967 with the drummer Mick Fleetwood and, soon after, the bassist John McVie; when the guitarist Jeremy Spencer came on to make it Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac featuring Jeremy Spencer, Green cut back and named the band after the rhythm section, which meant as long as Fleetwood and McVie stuck together the band could go on forever, which it has — after Green left in 1970 after a mental collapse, after Spencer in 1971 disappeared into the Children of God, where he remains to this day, after they kicked out Lindsey Buckingham in 2018, after whoever is next is spun off into the rings traced by those the band has forgotten.
But Green cast a long shadow. He survives today as a ruin; he was unique in the history of the blues. His songs “Oh Well,” “Rattlesnake Shake,” “The Green Manalishi,” and “Black Magic Woman” shot through the charts in the UK, but in his deepest work he took the music to places Robert Johnson would have recognized, but never described. “I just wish that I’d never been born,” Green sang in “Man of the World,” in his plain English voice, no down-home mannerisms, no drawl, and he could stop you dead with that line, the song going on but you not hearing a thing, frozen in contemplation of how a line that first took shape in the fourth century BC in Sophocles’s Oedipus at Colonus — “Not to be born prevails over all meaning uttered in words; by far the second-best for life, once it has appeared, is to go as swiftly as possible whence it came” — had traveled the millennia whole until they found a voice that could make them seem at once like words spoken for the first time and the end of history. Even Green’s playing seems to have an English accent: clipped, precise, lucid, each line an aphorism, all governed by a sense of restraint, as when after the shockingly loud first note in his almost unbearably sustained, nearly two-minute closing solo in “Love That Burns” he pulls back and over the next measures leads the song into silence. There are many Fleetwood Mac collections where, among Spencer’s ridiculously satisfying Elmore James covers, Green seems to arrive from some blues country not on any map — the most recent is (6) Before the Beginning: 1968–1970 Live and Demo Sessions (Sony). It can stop you anywhere: “Worried Dream,” “Trying So Hard to Forget,” “Have You Ever Loved a Woman.” If his most indelible songs aren’t here, it hardly matters: what you hear now is that it was all one song, a song no one else could sing.
On February 25, Mick Fleetwood hosted a concert at the London Palladium (7) to celebrate Peter Green, though he did not play. There was a train full of famous names, from David Gilmour of Pink Floyd to Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top to Steven Tyler of Aerosmith (did he really need to tie all those signature scarves to the microphone at a show that was supposedly about somebody else?) to Pete Townshend of the Who and so many more, who added nothing, and nothing of themselves; the one exception was (8) Noel Gallagher, late of Oasis. Carrying an acoustic guitar, he came on to sit down with a small band for “The World Keeps on Turning.” “I know what some of you are thinking,” he shouted at the crowd. “What does he know about the fucking blues? Well, you’re about to find out.” After that it wouldn’t have mattered if he’d played “Wonderwall,” but he crawled into the song, and every word rang true: “I need her like the sky needs the sun.”
Mick Fleetwood was seated next to him, tapping sticks on a block. “Did you learn a lot from Peter Green?” he was asked last year on the Raised on Radio podcast (9), and he spoke with an eloquence that you can read back onto any Peter Green song:
Did I learn a lot — I learned pretty much everything as a player. I learned, one, that someone believed that I could actually play — which was a huge help. And he found whatever trigger that was that I could identify with being okay with myself playing. Which is the perfect slot to be suited — a sort of simple, groove drummer, that maybe thought I didn’t think I was very good, or I thought I wasn’t clever enough. And he saw, and had the perfect music, sort of diagnosis for it, which was playing blues, as long as you listen like a hawk, and you know how to swing, and you are on the edge of collapse, and therefore vulnerable — which leads you to empathizing with feeling. It was the perfect lesson that I learned from Peter Green.
On the edge of collapse — that was it. That’s what Peter Green reached for, over and over again, and what he left behind.
I never saw it happen. I could have: the band played its first show on August 13, 1967, at the Windsor Music Jazz and Blues Festival in Berkshire, England. But I was there to see Donovan, then deep into his shimmering Pre-Raphaelite period, with a small band at his right, a string quartet to his left — and, to its left, a helipad, where a machine carrying musicians landed and took off throughout his set, which didn’t do a lot for the sound.
10. Elliott Chaze, Black Wings Has My Angel (1953, republished by NYRB Classics, 2016). Lovers on the run after the big score, with a line a man named Peter Greenbaum could have written: “I was too stinking rich and bloody and scared to listen to my real name.”
Thanks to Charles Taylor and Bart Bull
With Werner Sollors, Greil Marcus is the editor of A New Literary History of America (2009). This spring the Folio Society is publishing a new and illustrated edition of his 1975 book Mystery Train, and on April 28 Yale is publishing his Under the Red White and Blue: Patriotism, Disenchantment and the Stubborn Myth of the Great Gatsby. He was born in San Francisco and lives in Oakland.