OCTOBER 25, 2019
LARB PRESENTS the October installment of “Real Life Rock Top 10,” a monthly column by cultural critic Greil Marcus.
1. Don Juan, “Gimme Shelter,” Lutsen Resort, Lutsen, Minnesota (October 4). It could have been taken from a particularly bland track on a José Feliciano album — but the soft treatment emphasized the words, they locked into the present day, and in this hotel lobby the song was still somehow irreducible.
2. Faiza Mahamud and Jessie Van Berkel, “‘I didn’t know we were hated like that,’”Minneapolis Star Tribune (October 13). Philip Roth wrote this story in The Plot Against America in 2004, when it was the early 1940s, the president was the Minnesotan Charles Lindbergh, “the only ones against him […] were the Jews,” and the witness was an eight-year-old boy named Philip Roth. Today it’s a 22-year-old Minnesota-born Abubakar Abdi, watching the October 10 Minneapolis rally where Donald Trump denounced the Twin Cities Somali-American community and the crowd joined him with catcalls and jeers. “What if my former classmates were among the ones booing?” he said. “What if it was my former teachers booing?” The show will be coming to your city soon.
3. Jon Savage, This searing light, the sun and everything else: Joy Division: The Oral History (Faber & Faber Social). In their few brief years before singer Ian Curtis’s suicide in 1980, the Manchester band left behind music (Unknown Pleasures and Closer), images (four young men from a distance, on a bridge under the overcast Manchester sky), and countless legends. With guitarist Bernard Sumner as the singer, bassist Peter Hook and drummer Stephen Morris, with Gillian Gilbert on keyboards, went on to a career of undimmed brilliance as New Order; all but Gilbert have written their own books, following the first, Touching from a Distance, by Curtis’s widow, Deborah Curtis, and 24 Hour Party People by the late Tony Wilson of Factory Records. None approach this assemblage of testimonies from musicians, friends, producers, drivers, journalists, photographers, designers, and others. With Curtis missing save stray words from music-paper interviews, in Savage’s hands everyone who had something different to say about a story that, it seems, made a poet of anyone who struggled to tell it speaks with a startling eloquence. As with Stephen Morris: “There were arguments. I mean, everybody argues, but we were almost a democracy. You were influenced by your limitations.” As with the photographer Daniel Meadows on Curtis onstage: “It was unlike anything I’d ever seen. It was strangely private. He was doing something I suppose a lot of young men sort of do in front of a mirror. It had that private feel to it, made public.” Or Bernard Sumner on Curtis: “He had a shadow on his personality that was so dark that I don’t think even he could see into it.”
4. Hanif Abdurraqib, A Fortune for Your Disaster (Tin House). From the Columbus, Ohio, pop critic and author of They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us and Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest, 51 poems, 13 of them titled “How Can Black People Write About Flowers at a Time Like This” (mostly love poems, almost all of which lack gravity and play on predictable rhythms, you’re not surprised by anything they say, until the last one, with changes so hard you’re never ready for the next line), three titled “It’s Not Like Nikola Tesla Knew All of Those People Were Going to Die,” and, as the heartbeat of the book, seven titled “The Ghost of Marvin Gaye” followed by a verb, as in “The Ghost of Marvin Gaye Sits Inside the Shell of Nikola Tesla’s Machine and Builds Himself a Proper Coffin,” plus “One Side of an Interview with the Ghost of Marvin Gaye” (all answers, the last being “A: anyone who thinks of death as a peaceful place is still alive”).
So the book is playful and serious, and you can’t always tell — you can’t always feel — what’s happening when. There are rhythms line to line, but deeper rhythms running through the collection as a whole. In “The Ghost of Marvin Gaye Plays the Dozens with the Pop Charts,” the seeming non sequitur “your mouth so wide / all the black people in Detroit don’t remember what they parents danced to” becomes the almost literal “everybody wanna make soul but don’t nobody wanna chew a hole through the night small enough for a bullet to pass through” — literal until a last line kicking off its ampersand, “& pull each of their lovers into it” — which is still laying the ground for “your mouth” shifting into “your mama” and a stinger you can imagine not even the form could top: “your mama so black she my mama too.” But the entire series, the whole conversation, finds its perfect balance, the balance between love and death, only more than 50 pages later. “The Ghost of Marvin Gaye Mistakes a Record Store for a Graveyard” — the kind of mistake a dead man might make, or a person who still uses the word “record” — is a switchback so quick you barely need a poem to follow it, until the poem does, and you realize where Abdurraqib was reaching all along, but not until he’d made his subject fully present, looking at you looking at him: “they burned the disco records / and from the smoke I heard / my mother’s voice or was it / that my father once wore / my mother’s dresses spun in front of a mirror.”
Like a song, the poems here pull you back, to listen to over and over again, until you can play them in your head.
5. Avengers at Fine Line, Minneapolis (October 14). West Coast punk: the Avengers came together in 1977 when guitarist Greg Ingraham of Orange County joined singer Penelope Houston of Seattle and others in San Francisco. They were at the center of the scene, and always different. When Houston shouted, “We are not fascist! … Capitalist! … Communist! … We are the one!” she made the first three labels sound as eternal, and as mystical, as the last.
With Hector Penalosa of the Zeros, which formed in Chula Vista in 1976, on bass and David Bach on drums, all but Bach in the range of 60, they did the same this month. Houston wore a black T-shirt reading “Punk Rock Sewing Circle,” Ingraham a REsearch cover T-shirt showing William Burroughs with a rifle, Bach a black number advertising Randy’s Record Shop in Gallatin, Tennessee — you couldn’t tell with Penalosa, because his leather jacket was zipped to the neck. There were no visible tattoos to prove that anyone meant what they said. That was the last thing they needed.
Houston and Ingraham’s commitment to “Open Your Eyes” and “The American in Me,” songs they were performing more than 40 years ago — the way they performed how real the songs remain to them — was a little shocking, but “Car Crash” was written as shock treatment. It was epic: like dreaming yourself into the car chase in Bullitt and then trying to dream your way out of it.
What is punk rock? It’s the fact that Houston and Ingraham still can’t play “Paint It, Black,” which fell down on their 1983 Avengers, which came out long after the band had broken up, and fell down at the end of their set. The rhythms are too complicated, too ornamented. Their timing disappears. It’s all wrong. It’s not a parody: to them, this song says what they want to say. But they’ve already said it, in their own language. That they can’t play the song is a negative affirmation that punk is a thing in itself; it’s not transferrable, and it’s not a translator.
6. Kim Gordon, No Home Record (Matador). West Coast punk: after the Avengers came Sonic Youth, which Kim Gordon, from Los Angeles, formed with Thurston Moore in New York in 1981. Her singing on “Shaking Hell” on their first album, the 1983 Confusion Is Sex, could have been an imaginary soundtrack to Ingmar Bergman’s horror movie The Virgin Spring; what she did with “I Wanna Be Your Dog” could make you think the Stooges had no idea what they were saying when they wrote it. It’s as physically present as any music I know.
After Sonic Youth dissolved in 2011, Gordon made two studio albums with the guitarist Bill Nace as Body/Head, and both were far more head than body. No Home Record is not. With Gordon leading as singer and guitarist, the harshness that has always been her most convincing tongue amplifies the stop-beat cadences of “Sketch Artist.” It feeds the way the scattered vocals in “Don’t Play It” burn off each other until a stray phrase — maybe “Don’t swing it!” — can feel like a dare. It turns the guitar in “Hungry Baby” into a gun firing tracer bullets and makes the song feel like a hit. It opens up the six-and-a-half minutes of “Cookie Butter” until from line to line in the chant that counts down the music — “I … fucked / I … think / I … want / I was born / I fell” is just the start — you can’t tell if you’re hearing a confession or a simple, measured fuck you, which as no surprise was the title of an Avengers song.
What is punk rock? It’s Kim Gordon, at 66, back in Los Angeles, sounding as if she can’t blink.
7. Sleater-Kinney at the Palace Theater, St. Paul (October 15). West Coast punk: guitarists Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein formed Sleater-Kinney in Olympia, Washington, in 1994; drummer Janet Weiss joined in 1996 and left this year upon the release of The Center Won’t Hold, an album produced by the New York musician St. Vincent. With new drummer Angie Boylan, and, at either side at the back of the stage, Katie Harkin and Toko Yasuda alternating between guitars, keyboards, and singing, Tucker and Brownstein gave off an instant wave of glamour, pleasure, and heedlessness. They opened with “The Center Won’t Hold,” which, as if to prove it meant what it said, felt as if it lasted barely a minute. The stage was dark; Tucker hit a drum pad with a stick in one hand with the other on her guitar. There were no visible tattoos; the clothes were black and shiny. The show broke open with “Jumpers,” from the 2005 album The Woods; it was huge, as if without boundaries of loudness, speed, direction. “They were so serious,” Corin said later of the crowd at the start. “But the first eight songs are so dark — catastrophe.”
Some of the newer songs, which on record are decorated, were hobbled by fancy beats; with some you heard contrivance before anything else, and a kind of psychedelic pointlessness. But no lull spilled over. It became a game, wondering who of the five would do what, and when Tucker put down her guitar, picked up a hand mic, and came to the front of the stage like a torch singer — especially with the new song “Broken,” accompanied only by Brownstein on a small electric keyboard — you knew you were seeing a band you hadn’t seen before. Even if “Dig Me Out,” their last of five encore numbers, from 1997, still sounded as if it were being played from inside a collapsed mine — the collapsed mine of sexism and racism, plutocracy and domination, without a word naming anything of the sort — that was no clue as to how it might sound two, five, or 10 years from now.
What is punk rock? Carrie from the lip of the stage, to someone pressed up against it with his cell phone in his hand: “You filmed the whole show. How many times are you going to watch this later?”
8. Aleksandar Hemon, “Why Reward an Apologist for Genocide?,” The New York Times (October 16). On Peter Handke being named a Nobel laureate in literature: it’s not surprising that some people still consider Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize a crime against the Enlightenment. One New Yorker writer compared it to the election of Donald Trump less than a month later. Hemon calling Peter Handke, the author of A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, Offending the Audience, and A Moment of True Feeling, a supporter of the Serbian mass murderer Slobodan Milošević, and someone whose record collection, I would bet, includes the like of Highway 61 Revisited and Time Out of Mind, “the Bob Dylan of genocide apologists” says more about another writer’s contempt for Dylan than it does about his loathing of Handke.
9. Hanif Abdurraqib, “It Is an Entirely Different Thing to Walk into the River with Stones,” from A Fortune for Your Disaster (Tin House). Especially when the stones are the Rolling Stones and Merry Clayton is taking the third verse of “Gimme Shelter,” because Mick Jagger “needed someone to sing the word murder like they were trying to squeeze it through a barbed wire fence without opening a wound on their own fingers” — which is a writer trying to escape a tired phrase with a grace note that only highlights how obvious the tired phrase is. But that’s also a writer warming up, then hitting almost as hard as Merry Clayton did: “& when her voice tears at the air on the second syllable of murder Jagger whispers wow & the song must hold up despite death & it must still be able to sell a car or a sandwich or a war.”
10. Don’t Fret, poster in restroom at Cafe Alma, Minneapolis (September 19). By the Chicago street muralist, loosely hand-lettered, all caps, in blue, green, red, and black:
— BECOMING YOUR
— JOINING THE
— DYING ALONE
IN THE WOODS
Which, among other things, is punk rock.
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.