LARB PRESENTS the May 2021 installment of “Real Life Rock Top 10,” a monthly column by cultural critic Greil Marcus.
1. Chrissie Hynde, “Blind Willie McTell,” from Standing in the Doorway: Chrissie Hynde Sings Bob Dylan (BMG). There’s nothing remotely dull here. Everything is distinctive, and it’s shocking how, more than 40 years since the Pretenders’ first single, a cover of the Kinks’ “Stop Your Sobbing,” Hynde continues to grow as a singer — and, somehow, without letting you notice, not until you’ve played a song 20 times and then realize how far down into the piece she’s gone.
Dylan’s original of “Blind Willie McTell,” an outtake from the 1983 album Infidels, was first released in 1991 on his the bootleg series volumes 1-3. It’s nothing more than a rehearsal between Dylan on piano and Mark Knopfler on guitar — a bloated, lumbering full band version was also made — and it’s always seemed to me that it was left off the album because if they’d kept it it would have exposed how empty the likes of “Jokerman,” “Union Sundown,” “Neighborhood Bully,” “Sweetheart Like You,” and “License to Kill,” most of them cheap, self-righteous protest songs, really were.
Over three decades, that little rehearsal has emerged as one of Dylan’s greatest songs — or even, perhaps, in the right mood, his greatest recording. From the start, it had a burgeoning charisma: the more you played it, the more it demanded that the volume go up, a fraction every time, until you hit the limit and realized it still wasn’t loud enough. Now Hynde, with her collaborator James Walbourne building a moving set behind her — piano, mandolin, acoustic guitar, most forcefully harmonium — doubles down. There’s no way you’re ever going to make this loud enough, not unless you rent a theater and a Marshall stack. The performance is six minutes and it seems like, nine, 10, 12 — it’s a rock, something that was always there and nothing you can move. You don’t quite hear it begin, and since you can’t bear for it to end you don’t hear that either. More inescapably than before, because of the way Hynde and Walbourne come down on certain aspects of the composition, the way they so furiously dramatize the song, slavery is at the heart of the quest the singer is making — a quest to escape it, or find a way back to it, to see the founding crime at the heart of America plain, to look it in the eye, to stare it down or be turned to stone. All of that is here, all of that is happening. So yes, it might be the best thing Chrissie Hynde has ever done, too.
2. Chris Stapleton, Starting Over (Mercury). As a Nashville bear, wandering in from some hidden glen in the Hermitage and then tramping west, Stapleton brings authority to everything he does, whether he’s singing about a dog or a broken heart — like a rock crashing through a window, he says, and as he sings it you can feel it, just as, in some cultural muscle memory, the line pulls back to W. C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues”: “He’s got a heart like a rock cast in the sea.” Or, most powerfully, with real-life panicked crowd noise unnoticeably changing into a looming chorus, “Watch You Burn,” right from the last words of any of the 60 people gunned down in Las Vegas by Stephen Paddock in 2017 before he shot himself. “If I could snap my finger, if I could flip a switch,” Stapleton snaps off the lines, flipping off the way history now swallows such events like candy, “I’d make that last bullet first, you son of a bitch.”
3. Dawnie Walton, The Final Revival of Opal & Nev (37 Ink). Given that the premise of this novel is that someone who has worked her way up the ranks of rock journalism to become the first Black female editor of a music magazine that sounds more like Rolling Stone than anything else has constructed an oral biography of an unlikely but undeniable group — a Black woman from Detroit, a white writer and musician from the United Kingdom — and that the narrative is so slick, so entirely constructed of clichés and standard turns of phrase that from almost the first page you can feel as if you’ve read this all before, and not once, that premise seems altogether believable.
4. K. C. Jones, “Stop on the Way,” from Queen of the In Between (K. C. Jones Music/Free Dirt Distribution). On her first album under her own name, a singer from Lafayette, Louisiana, whose every breath remembers old-time mountain singers, begins in a very small voice. As she moves on, it gets bigger. Until with “Stop on the Way” she can ride the surge of the Beatles’ “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” as if it’s a train.
5. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO). Putin is there as always on the opening bulletin board. His motto is “Adversarium Maximus.” Before January 20 it was “POTUS Operandi.”
6. Marianne Faithfull with Warren Ellis, She Walks in Beauty (BMG). It’s not as if she doesn’t have a pretentious bone in her body. Sometimes it feels like that’s her whole skeleton. She truly has seen everything twice, and sometimes the post–World War I and pre–World War II cabaret smoke she exhales can suck all the oxygen out of the room of a song. So an album of her reciting the greatest hits of 19th-century romanticism — from Byron, Shelley, Burns, Wordsworth, Tennyson — would seem like something to flee with whatever you could carry and not look back. Instead it comes off as someone talking about what she likes, and trying to pass it on. If Keats can be brought down to earth, she’s done it. “Ode to a Nightingale” feels like ordinary talk. You can relax into it, forget that it’s poetry — so that when “tender is the night” appears you freeze, your body reacting before your mind can.
7. & 8. At the Minstrel Show: Minstrel Routines from the Studio, 1894-1926 (Archeophone) and Edgar Sandoval and Simon Romero, “Despite Outcry, University of Texas Keeps a Song With Minstrel Roots,” The New York Times (May 7). As an orchestrated account of a proudly racist past, caught just as the lynching craze of the first decades of the 20th century was taking off — the public murder of Black Americans by white Americans was a show of power, and it was also a show — the minstrel set is a history lesson, sometimes with performances so good you might almost forget the blackface, sometimes unbearable, often appallingly familiar. And, as with the controversy over calls to replace the University of Texas school song “The Eyes of Texas,” “which was first performed in 1903 at a minstrel show by white students who were likely in blackface,” At the Minstrel Show is also anything but buried history. “The eyes of Texas are upon you” was a way of telling those who in 1903 were still called Freedmen that they could take no freedom for granted, that they could be killed at any time. And it was not simply a song with so-called minstrel roots. “White students at the university, which remained” all white “until 1956,” Sandoval and Romero write, “regularly performed the anthem at blackface minstrel shows that continued until the mid-1960s.” And, at fraternity parties, probably still do.
9. Van Morrison, Latest Record Project: Volume 1 (Exile/BMG). There’s something bracing about listening to someone complain about everything under the sun for two hours, especially when the voice is never raised, when almost every tune flows right through such titles as “Latest Record Project,” “No Good Deed Goes Unpunished,” or “Stop Bitching, Do Something,” the impeccable professionalism of the playing hidden in quiet do-wahs and do-ways, when “A Few Bars Early,” a little jazz ballad, as unassuming and elegant as anything Morrison has ever offered, just slides along as one more song. Until, at the end of the second disc of this 28-number set, he gets to “Western Man,” a jaunty banjo jig that could be Tom Buchanan ranting about “The Rise of the Colored Empires” and if we don’t look out the white race will be utterly submerged, and then the stentorian “They Control the Media,” which as at least one person has said is the first time The Protocols of the Elders of Zion has been done with a saxophone as the lead instrument. Played by Van the Man himself.
10. Jonathan Taplin, The Magic Years: Scenes from a Rock-and-Roll Life (Heyday). This is a unified story, from Taplin’s time as road manager for Bob Dylan and the Band to movie producing to investment banking to technology writing, and what makes it so is thinking: someone always wondering what’s behind the curtain, if only because what’s behind it is almost certainly going to make a better story than what’s in front of it. So in a concise and burrowing manner, he tells you about the music business, with Meyer Lansky behind both MCA and Warner Communications; Michael Milken as the architect of the media landscape that Donald Trump harvested; how with their version of Marvin Gaye’s “Don’t Do It” the Band, having “trapped themselves within a sort of puritan destiny,” at least for a few minutes “shed the hair shirt”; or for that matter why Gaye’s What’s Going On “was as politically symbolic as track star’s John Carlos’s raised fist at the 1968 Olympics.” And a hundred other tales and grace notes — but, for me, nothing matches what Taplin excavates from his time as a volunteer in Robert F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign, where he turned after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., just a paragraph from a speech at the University of Kansas: “Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion a year, but that Gross National Product — if we judge the United States of America by that — that Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and jails for people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and it counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities. […] It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.” And the echoes of that speech, which was even tougher than Taplin’s quotation encompasses — the Gross National Product, Kennedy said, “counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife” — run all through the book.