LARB IS THE NEW HOME for “Real Life Rock Top 10,” a monthly column by cultural critic Greil Marcus.
1. Little Richard, “I Don’t Know What You Got But It’s Got Me” (Vee-Jay, 1966). “You can only carry ‘Tutti Frutti’ so far,” said Bob Dylan in 1984 (his “We’ll remember always” page in his 1959 high school yearbook featured “Margaret Spinelli: forever having her seat changed,” “Shirley Zubich: not least, but usually last,” and “Robert Zimmerman: to join ‘Little Richard,’” as if Little Richard were not a person but some sort of fictional construct, which among other things he was), but heaven help anyone who thinks he or she can go further than this deep doo-wop blues. Requiescat in Pace? Requiescat in Conturbet. He should have lived forever.
2. Geico commercial, “RATT Problem” (Martin Agency). First they had the band Europe playing in an office lunchroom. Now it’s the creepy ’80s hair band Ratt imitating vermin in a kitchen. Next up: Whitesnake in the bathroom down the hall. “We’ve played some real toilets lately,” David Coverdale says, “but this place is actually pretty clean.”
3. X, ALPHABETLAND (Fat Possum). When X’s Los Angeles appeared in 1980, three years after the group formed — singers John Doe and Exene Cervenka, guitarist Billy Zoom, drummer Don Bonebrake — they stepped past every other punk band in town, or the state (the Avengers had already broken up), or the country. There was nothing to match their perversity and bite: the five last notes of the title song felt like a story being cut off at the neck. This, with all four in the band, could be that first album. The solipsistic, nihilist disgust might be replaced by a refusal that’s more social, but “Goodbye Year, Goodbye” is the best song here, big, fast, complex, all bad weather. The record ends with a beat poem by Exene, which you could have found on a 45 in 1957, never mind 1977. It taps into the occult side of Los Angeles: the way that there are still pockets of the city where you can find people living out everything that ever happened there, adepts even of cults of one.
4. “Wartime,” Ozark, Season 3, Episode 1, written by Chris Mundy, directed by Jason Bateman (HBO). Laura Linney’s Wendy may be Lady Macbeth, but there’s no stain that doesn’t wash right off. Here she’s trying to talk a middle-aged dentist into holding his group’s convention at her family’s new money-laundering riverboat casino on Lake of the Ozarks rather than at entertainment hub Branson. “Have you ever visited?” says the dentist. “It’s not just country. That’s a misnomer.” His eyes light up with awe: “We saw Molly Hatchet open for 38 Special” — and you can’t tell if he’s more astonished that a band as great as Molly Hatchet was fucking opening for 38 Special or that two bands this great appeared on the same bill. As if setting up a murder, Wendy wants to know just what it’s going to take to make it happen for her Missouri Belle. “REO Speedwagon,” says the dentist, gazing off into the middle distance as if he’s just seen the Virgin Mary. She gets it done, too.
5. Bob Dylan explains “Murder Most Foul” to John Cohen and Happy Traum, Sing Out! (October/November 1968). “The thing about the ballad is that you have to be conscious of the width of it at all times, in order to write one. You could take a true story, write it up as a ballad, or you can write it up in three verses. The difference would be, what are you singing it for, what is it to be used for. The uses of a ballad have changed to such a degree. When they were singing years ago, it would be as entertainment … a fellow could sit down and sing a song for a half hour, and everybody could listen, and you could form opinions. You’d be waiting to see how it ended, what happened to this person or that person. It would be like going to a movie. But now we have movies, so why does someone want to sit around for half an hour listening to a ballad? Unless the story was of such a nature that you couldn’t find it in a movie. And after you heard it, it would have to be good enough so that you could sing it again tomorrow night, and people would be listening to hear the story again. It’s because they want to hear that story, not because they want to check out the singer’s pants. Because they would have that conscious knowledge of how the story felt and they would be a part of that feeling … like they would want to feel it again, so to speak.”
6. Guy Trebay, “No Prince Without the King,” The New York Times (May 11). “‘There would be no Prince without the King,’ the costume designer Arianne Phillips wrote in an Instagram post last weekend after Little Richard died at age 87,” Trebay says, and, while carefully noting Richard’s “pompadour adapted from the R&B singer Esquerita,” marches dead ahead: “no Mick Jagger,” “no Madonna,” for that matter likely no Janelle Monáe, H.E.R., or Tyler, the Creator, or a thousand other names you could toss out at random. It’s typical of the mindless reductionism sucking the life out of criticism in a any field: the disbelief in the notion that there might be something new under the sun — or that God forbid anyone should ever feel as if there were without someone to set them straight before it goes too far.
The dullest question any journalist can ask a musician is “What are your influences?” which means What box can I put you in. Run the same game Trebay is playing on, say, Prince’s “When You Were Mine.” It’s a perfect record no one else would have made, but dig between the notes and: No “When You Were Mine” without the Beatles’ “I’m Looking Through You” and Robert Johnson’s “Love in Vain”! And no “I’m Looking Through You” without Sam Cooke’s “Wonderful World” and no “Love in Vain” without Leroy Carr’s “When the Sun Goes Down”! Gotcha! And all it does is erect a screen between you and the object of your delight.
7. and 8. Bob Dylan, “False Prophet” (bobdylan.com) and Tom Moon, “Trickster Treat: Bob Dylan’s New Song Sounds Awfully Old … and Familiar,” NPR (May 12). “False Prophet” is the most musical, the most sung of the three songs Bob Dylan has released this spring, and the funniest: a 19th-century Mike Fink brag, from the Colorado River to the source of the Missouri, a drunk standing on a table swearing he wrassles with wild cats, sleeps with thunder, drinks the Mississippi dry, and takes the Ohio for a nightcap. As others have done (where do these people find the time?), Moon sources the song to a number called “If Lovin’ Is Believing,” the B-side of a single by the supposedly everbody-knows Sun singer Billy “The Kid” Emerson, now 94 — with Jerry Lee Lewis one of the last people still on earth who recorded for Sam Phillips in Memphis when he and others were inventing or discovering rock ’n’ roll. “If Lovin’ Is Believing” is as obscure as the music gets; Emerson was never famous. He was a fairly colorless singer who wrote indelible songs: “Red Hot” was cool for Emerson and red hot for Billy Lee Riley, “When It Rains It Pours” was a weather report for its composer and an odyssey across more than 11 minutes for Elvis Presley in 1955. Nobody knows this stuff more minutely than Bob Dylan: “False Prophet” does have Emerson’s arrangement, defined by his lurching beat. But it’s nothing like the way Dylan draped Gene Austin’s 1928 “The Lonesome Road” over his 2001 “Sugar Baby.” With that you couldn’t not wonder where the magical tone of Dylan’s recording came from; “False Prophet” doesn’t ask that question. Moon may offer what seems like a reasonable accounting of how “popular music is an ongoing conversation between the creators of the present and those who came before,” and of how Dylan has made “tweaks or modifications”: “Dylan truncates the form to 10 measures instead of 12.” But you can hear Thief! Thief! between every line.
If you read through Dylan’s interviews from the start of his career to the present, it’s striking how consistently he insists that he’s “not a melodist,” that over and over, often citing specific records and performers, he has built his tunes on songs from folk music and early rock ’n’ roll, sometimes speaking in religious terms: “The songs are my lexicon,” he said in 1997. “I believe the songs.” This comes out in the way that, from high school to now, people playing with Dylan have said that songs they thought were his weren’t and those they thought weren’t were. The filmmaker D. A. Pennebaker told the story of a few minutes Dylan had him cut out of Don’t Look Back: in a hotel room after-party, Donovan, in 1965 celebrated and shamed as the latest New Dylan, playing “Mr. Tambourine Man,” convinced it was an old folk song he just hadn’t found before, and how disappointed Dylan was to hear it. “Most of my songs aren’t original,” he said to Pennebaker in the moment. “But that is.”
9. Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band, written and directed by Daniel Roher (Magnolia Pictures). A convincing film about regret, with thrilling onstage performance footage from their days as the Hawks in the early ’60s. Of the talking heads, bandleader Ronnie Hawkins is a firecracker in his 80s; Dominique Robertson, Robbie’s former wife, is a savant. You believe everything they say, even if in Hawkins’s case the tall tale is his first language. The picture lights up every time they come back on the screen.
10. Glenn Danzig, Danzig Sings Elvis (Cleopatra). Maybe not quite as far back as his punk days with the Misfits, but Glenn Danzig has threatened this record for decades. He falls short, or apart, with Sun rockabilly or well-known RCA material (“Baby Let’s Play House,” “When It Rains It Really Pours,” and “One Night”), but with his voice as full and deep as it can go, on ballads — not the ballad as Bob Dylan talked about it, but straightforward manufactured pop love songs — he inhabits levels of subtlety, doubt, certainty, and despair that Elvis didn’t allow himself.
The accompaniment is minimal, a fuzz guitar and backing vocals removed to a faraway, echoey dankness, and Danzig stills the room. “Is It So Strange” is not of this world; it seems somehow suspended between Elvis’s death and whenever the singer’s might be.
The heart of the music is in the many ballads slipped in as filler on Elvis soundtracks and throwaway albums that now live lives they never lived before, even when you could hear in Elvis’s own singing an implicit admission of how little he cared about the songs, or a listener’s apprehension of how much the songs wanted more: “Lonely Blue Boy,” “First in Line,” “Pocketful of Rainbows,” “Loving Arms,” “Young and Beautiful,” which closed Jailhouse Rock in 1957 — a song it’s hard to credit anyone would try again after the way Aaron Neville sent it to heaven in a live performance included on the bizarre 1990 tribute album The Last Temptation of Elvis: Songs from His Movies. But “Love Me,” played so slowly it’s hard to take, could be the one. The bridge — the I would beg and steal — so barely varies the song it doesn’t actually register as any kind of musical shift. The song is all on one plane, as if there is only one truth in life, as if for a moment someone glimpsed it.
Thanks to Jean-Martin Büttner.
“Report from Cartier,” on a 2007 encounter with Little Richard (and Tina Turner, Wanda Jackson, Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller, Jean Dujardin, and Alexandra Lamy) in Paris in 2007, and “Little Richard from A to Zeeza,” from Artforum in 1984, are currently posted on the front page of greilmarcus.net.