LARB PRESENTS the November installment of “Real Life Rock Top 10,” a monthly column by cultural critic Greil Marcus.
1. “Blues & the Soul of a Man”: An Autobiography of Nehemiah “Skip” James, from interviews with Stephen Calt, edited by Stefan Grossman, with an introduction by Eddie Dean (Mel Bay Publications and Stefan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop). The Mississippi blues singer Skip James (1902–1969) first recorded in 1931; in 1964 blues devotees found him in a hospital in Tunica and brought him north to perform at the Newport Folk Festival, where despite not playing for decades he shocked the crowd with the ghostly curse of “Devil Got My Woman.” He was a difficult man who considered himself a great artist and most others pikers or pretenders — and he was a great artist.
The blues scholar Stephen Calt (1946–2010) spent countless hours with him, with the intent of compiling an autobiography; instead he published I’d Rather Be the Devil: Skip James and the Blues, a deeply researched book that at times spilled over into near dementia, as if what Calt wanted to say was that unlike Robert Johnson, who supposedly merely made a deal with the devil, James was.
By editing Calt’s interviews into a coherent and startling narrative, Stefan Grossman has produced a historic and invaluable addition to the story not only of the blues but of the American tradition of radical individualism, a book that despite less than 75 pages of narrative can be placed next to Theodore Rosengarten’s All God’s Dangers: The Life of Nate Shaw, a big, indomitable book of the voice of the Alabama farmer Ned Cobb (1885–1973 — Rosengarten changed his name to protect his family from reprisals from whites), who would have had a lot to say to Skip James.
“[Y]ou’re talking to the walking encyclopedia,” James says at one point, and in tale after tale he brings you into his life, often shaping his stories around lyrics from his songs, not as if the songs are autobiography, but as if they’re philosophy lessons. “But you take guys like John Hurt and Son [House],” James said of the two Mississippi blues singers from the ’20s who he was often paired with in the ’60s, “they’re just shaky. A white could tell ’em: ‘Go ahead and put your head in that hole nigger,’ and they’ll cower to that extent.”
Calt made much of the people he says James murdered as a younger man, and James does describe one fatal shooting, as self-defense, a death that in his account brought no charges or even blame — it happened at a work camp, and James didn’t even leave. But Calt also lied. At one point he takes James’s song “All Night Long” as proof that James was wanted for murder in Louisiana, and implies that James hinted that was so. What James actually said is not just a corrective, or, you can hope, the righting of a literary blues crime. In its way, it’s another version of the song.
“If it had been just a few Negros like my daddy and myself and a uncle or two I got, this riot” — the Civil Rights movement: James was found the same day the SNCC voting rights activists James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman disappeared, murdered in Mississippi by the Ku Klux Klan —
wouldn’t been existin’ now: everything woulda been settled fifty years ago. […] You know, the Southern white folk at that time didn’t wanna see the colored fellow with nothin’ but a shovel or a hoe-handle or plough-handle in his hands, and a mule to pull it. Some places, they tell me, down in Louisiana there, they made the Negroes pull ploughs. And they wouldn’t give ’em no place to lay down; just put ’em in a stall like they did mules and give ’em so many ears of corn. Sure! That was long about 1910 or 1912; I was just a kid when I heard all that kinda stuff. […] Now, I never did go down there and investigate. If I hadda did, they woulda had to kill me, understand. Just like I sang in All night long:
I’m goin,’ I’m goin,’ comin’ here no more
If I go to Louisiana mama, they’ll hang me sho’ …
“That’s the time this riot oughta been organized,” James said. “It should have originated right then. If you speak for yourself, and you know you’re right, it’s always best.”
2. Dwight Garner, “When Literature Mattered,” review of D. H. Lawrence, The Bad Side of Books: Selected Essays of D. H. Lawrence, edited by Geoff Dyer (NYRB Classics). Noting that Lawrence died in 1930 at 44: “It is curious to consider that Lawrence, had he not been unlucky, might have lived to see Chuck Berry and the Kennedy assassination and maybe even to write about them.” So perfect: in a new edition of his 1923 Studies in Classic American Literature, following the original last chapter, “Whitman,” with the new “Chuck Berry’s America: No Money Down.”
3. Duracell Optimum, “Gamer x Toothbrush” (Wieden+Kennedy, directed by Tom Kuntz). In the living room, Asian-American woman holding a remote and jumping all over her video game. What does she want out of a battery? “Extra Life.” African-American man in the bathroom, about to turn on his electric toothbrush: “Extra Power!” But now, with Optimum, you can get both … but this ad is coded. As it goes on, she burrows into the sofa, and a huge white smear of toothpaste cream takes over the bottom of the man’s face — precisely as if he were a Negro blackface performer from the turn of the 20th century, his face made darker than whatever shade it really was, and gross white lips painted over his mouth, as with Bert Williams and George Walker, who, to put themselves a cut above the simple white man’s blackface worn by Irish and Jews, billed their act “Two Real Coons.”
Black people loved it; whites did too. So what kind of cultural memory is being summoned here? Unconscious throwback image retrieval on the part of the ad directors, or the suggestion that black people are already being pulled back to a different time, in the same place?
4. Motherless Brooklyn, written and directed by Edward Norton (Warner Bros.). These days, everything and its mother is called film noir, but noir is more than plot, attitude, and shtick — or rather it’s not that at all. Noir is tone, texture, pacing, a matter of walk and talk — ambiance, and a certain sense, not delivered directly, not even something you can name, that the world is out of joint. In Motherless Brooklyn, inspired by Jonathan Lethem’s 1999 novel but departing from it by a long stretch, this comes from setting, a grimy late-’50s New York that radiates the affection people have for it, from the ratty features of Edward Norton, playing the private detective Lionel Essrog, and from the holes in Essrog’s brain, which give him both a photographic memory and the uncontrollable tic that causes him to react to any transitional situation, like encountering someone or opening a door, with a jerking burst of words that sound like something between obscenity and nonsense but are in truth violent word-associations as pointed as puns, or guns.
They must have been hell to write. “I’m sorry,” Essrog keeps saying, but nobody seems put off, even irritated — given that everybody else in the film lies, his outbursts come off like indecipherable truths. They pull you in. You wait for the next one. You wonder how you’d handle it if you had the same problem. You worry that if his affliction goes away he’ll lose his edge and never solve the case.
Norton’s picture has echoing affinities with Carl Franklin’s exquisite 1995 film of Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress (down to Michael K. Williams in a version of the Don Cheadle role) — and it may stand as that good. Aside from This is how the world works, buddy monologues from Alec Baldwin’s all-powerful master builder and Willem Defoe’s cast-aside bug of Baldwin’s younger brother — as Mosley has written of hard-boiled language, “it is elegant and concise,” not didactic and explaining — the movie doesn’t slip. God knows Essrog’s language is concise, and it shares a mission with the hard-boiled as Mosley fixes it: “[T]o describe an ugly and possibly irredeemable world […] it is a blunt object intent upon assault and battery.” That is how Motherless Brooklyn works: Essrog is the only one who gets the joke that the scrambled eggs that jump out of his mouth are really weapons.
5. Matthew Frye Jacobson, One Grain of Sand (Bloomsbury Academic). A 33 1/3 book on the 1963 Odetta album, made up of deep-diving and unlabored social histories of five songs, most strongly “Midnight Special” and “Cotton Fields,” all based in the idea that as a singer Odetta was a social historian. “Folk songs,” Jacobson quotes her from 2007, the year before she died, “were the anger, the venom, the hatred of myself and everybody else.”
6. “2020 Grammy Nominees: Complete List,” Billboard (November 20). Halsey denied shocker: she’s white, she has a lot of tattoos, she has a bullying style, any given song is no more than a marketing strategy — what isn’t she doing right?
7. Gordon Sondland testifies before the House Intelligence Committee (November 20). “Well, the whole thing sort of came back to me after he mentioned A$AP Rocky,” he said of his July 26 call with Donald Trump from Kyiv. Kim Kardashian and Kanye West were pressuring Trump to get a rapper out of jail in Sweden, where he and members of his entourage were charged with beating up a man who had annoyed them. Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union, was attempting to talk Trump out of intervening directly — which he did anyway, calling the Swedish prime minister. “You can tell the Kardashians you tried,” State Department official David Holmes, who heard both sides of the call, testified Sondland told Trump. “Let [him] get sentenced, play the racism card, give him a ticker-tape when he gets home.”
The hearings are meant to demonstrate that when it comes to the interests of Donald Trump, the United States has a private foreign policy. But the lodestar of an American ambassador’s memory of a call with an American president about the subversion of Ukraine was the centrality of the fact that, with the entire force of American policy working to serve the desires of two famous people who might give an American president a leg up with black voters, we now have a private government.
8. Bob Dylan (featuring Johnny Cash), Travelin’ Through, 1967–1969: The Bootleg Series Vol. 15 (Columbia Legacy). The two discs of material with Cash are poor; the real stories are in the disc of outtakes from John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline. From the first, there’s a slow, burdened attempt at “As I Went Out One Morning,” the song coming across anonymously, as if it’s a lost Child Ballad the singer is merely passing on — but the artistry in the piece, the way “my voice” floats into “the center of her mouth,” can glide past a listener in the released version, and here it rises to the surface with a slithering delicacy. The portent of doom, of fate in your hands, in the opening strums of “All Along the Watchtower” in a version that can make you feel you’re less listening to a song than overhearing it, made me think of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid from a year later. Imagine, if this was playing during the bicycle scene instead of “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head,” then with the words “two riders were approaching” fading into your head, as the movie goes on, into the Pinkertons who follow Butch and Sundance even to South America. There’s no such drama in takes on “Peggy Day,” “One More Night,” “Tell Me That It Isn’t True,” “Country Pie” — this could be a Brill Building songwriter banging out Bobby Vee B-sides, with “Lay Lady Lay” and “I Threw It All Away” A-sides for Elvis or Tom Jones.
9. Freakwater, “Sway,” on Too Late to Pray: Defiant Chicago Roots (Bloodshot). Twenty-two acts fill this 25th anniversary celebration of the back-alley Second City country label, and the lithe, long-lasting combo of Catherine Irwin and Janet Beveridge Bean — here just a banjo and two voices — step past even Big Sadie, Kelly Hogan, and the Handsome Family. “Should the days of solitude run into years,” the late Nick Tosches once wrote about the notion of being stranded on a desert island with nothing to listen to but the Rolling Stones’s Sticky Fingers, “I might even figure out the lyrics to ‘Sway.’” Even though you can hear the words the women are singing, there’s a damning bluegrass dip in the melody as Irwin plays that takes the song all the way back to what you don’t want to know.
10. Nell Zink, Doxology (Ecco). This is a coyly written, hateful novel about how some people are better than others. But when you start off making a joke out of one lead character’s mother dropping dead at a college picnic (“The students mimed heartbreak while her husband mimed CPR”), or have another character who “personally had first heard of John Lennon the day he died” play “post-sensitive” while doing an inside-baseball mental jigsaw puzzle over Mark Chapman, it’s kind of hard to convince the reader you’re serious that the death of your idiot savant pop star the first time he tries heroin is some kind of tragedy that casts a shadow of inspiration and legacy over everybody else. Even if it happened on the day of the terrorist attacks in 2001, the cheapest touch of all.
Greil Marcus is the author of Lipstick Traces (1989) and Three Songs, Three Singers, Three Nations (2015), and the editor, with Werner Sollors, of A New Literary History of America. His book Under the Red White and Blue — Patriotism, Disenchantment, and the Stubborn Myth of The Great Gatsby, will be published next spring by Yale University Press. He was born in San Francisco and lives in Oakland.