Real Life Rock Top 10: October 2020

By Greil MarcusOctober 30, 2020

Real Life Rock Top 10: October 2020
LARB PRESENTS THE OCTOBER installment of “Real Life Rock Top 10,” a monthly column by cultural critic Greil Marcus.


1. Bruce Springsteen, Letter to You (Columbia). An ’80s or even ’70s Springsteen album with a decades-older self-questioning voice — the best of both worlds.

2. Robert Johnson, Phonograph Blues (Pristine Audio). Ten transfers from “ultra-quiet” test pressings prepared for the release of King of the Delta Blues Singers in 1961, and a lost mine for anyone touched by Johnson’s music before or since. Listen once, and the sound is most of all familiar, even if there are odd accents, stronger highs and lows: the progression of notes near the end of “If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day” is now a flurry. But listen three times, and it’s as if you’ve never heard these performances before. And you hear it immediately: there is more depth in the recordings made in 1937 — “Stones in My Passway,” “Love in Vain,” “Hellhound on My Trail” — than those made just a year before. There is more consideration, more thought, more intent, to the point that, in the right mood, or the wrong one, the intensity is almost unbearable. Once I couldn’t turn it off but I had to leave the room.

Here the revelation might be “I’m a Steady Rollin’ Man,” which before could have come across as little more than another got-to-ramble commonplace. Now the line “I am the man that rolls” lifts the singer above the ground as a pillar of air. You can see a colossus watching the whole of the earth unfold before him, half-heroic, half-cursed, a cloud fated to drift forever. And you can imagine it’s a deal some people might take, if they could just once speak this fully, and find at least one person to hear them.

3. JoAnn Mar, Folk Music & Beyond, KALW San Francisco (October 10). A celebration of the late John Prine. Most interesting: Band mates and compatriots taking up Prine’s songs, rising to them every time. Least interesting: The songs themselves, curdling with the cheapest nostalgia, from the unbearable “Paradise” on down.

4. Chuck Bromley writes in on The Harry Smith B-Sides (September 27). “I turned on the TV this morning to see the runner ‘Harry Smith celebrates 34 years of charity concert.’ It was Harry Smith the reporter talking about Farm Aid, of course, but for a second I had an image of an Ur-Woodstock, with Uncle Dave opening and Rabbit Brown singing at sunrise, ‘I’ve seen better days…’”

5. TK & The Holy Know-Nothings, “Hard Time,” from Arguably OK (Mama Bird). A Portland cowboy bar band recording in a theater that sounds like a bar, and after a string of low-key, low-stakes numbers that don’t stand out from each other, right from the start the feeling of an epic — as maybe anything that takes in the Stephen Foster song and all songs about going down to the river that aren’t about baptism but about murder and suicide take on by right and fate. Plus an echo of “Season of the Witch,” and lurch toward the chorus that tumbles into the refrain in the Beatles’ “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).” “When I was lowered onto the cold cement,” Taylor Kingman sings as if he’s still on it, with yearning horns on the bridge, “I hung my head by the river and prayed my eyes would close.” But his prayers aren’t answered, and he has to finish the song.

6. Dave Alvin, Facebook (September 10). “While my beloved California burns to the ground, I’ve been stuck on hold with the NOT beloved California DMV for the past two hours or so (their website has been unresponsive for at least 24 hours). After about 20 minutes of waiting and listening to the repetitive soft-rock and smooth jazz Muzak, I decided to make the best use of my time by practicing guitar along with the bureaucrat approved, inoffensive yet maddening garbage. After an hour and a half, I’m getting pretty good at playing this junk. Seeing how there are no live gigs in the foreseeable future, maybe I should consider changing musical direction and start recording easy listening, mind numbing pablum to make a little cash in the ‘waiting on hold’ music market … WAIT! Quick! Please someone slap me back to my senses! I may be losing it.”

7. Bettye LaVette, Blackbirds (Verve). Except for “Strange Fruit,” the songs aren’t strong enough. She’s a counterpuncher and they don’t give her anything to push back at. All she can do with the tunes is stylize them.

8. Neil Young, The Times EP (Reprise). If you found yourself in a coffee house in Santa Cruz sometime in the early ’70s and a sort of stumblebum folk singer with a guitar was doing mostly Neil Young protest songs, “Ohio,” “Southern Man,” “Alabama,” and not really bringing them off, after four or five efforts you’d probably go somewhere else. But a week later, or a month later, you’d remember something odd, a broken riff in “Campaigner,” or the slow lilt of the voice in “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” and you’d wish you could remember the guy’s name.

9. Peter Guralnick, “Robert Johnson and the Transformative Nature of Art,” in Looking to Get Lost: Adventures in Music and Writing (Little, Brown and Company). “To say that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil is to pay him the highest compliment we can pay any artist — which is to say that his art defies explanation.”

10. Street art, Lyndale Avenue and West 24th Street, in front of Misfit Coffee, Minneapolis (September 21). On a bright red newspaper dispensary box, a large white paste-on with a blank, pinkish eye staring out at nothing. On a mailbox a few feet away, a blue-and-white sticker showing a woman with short dark hair, fierce eyes, and a lettered bandana over her nose and mouth: “RESPECT MY EXISTENCE OR EXPECT MY RESISTANCE.”

If Donald Trump achieves four more years — and I’d give him about a 75 percent chance, holding his wins from 2016 except for Michigan and Wisconsin, Trump 280-Biden 258: polls don’t correct for voter suppression, where, to start at the scene of the art crime, post office self-sabotage, GOP suits against vote-by-mail, falsely invalidated ballots, polling place intimidation, disinformation online and on the streets, could mean a swing of three to five percent — this may be the only dissident form of speech left. Effaceable, replaceable — disable the security camera, sneak back into the long American night.

Thanks to Emily Marcus


Greil Marcus wrote the introduction to the new Strange Attractor/MIT Press edition of Cathi Unsworth’s novel Bad Penny Blues.

LARB Contributor

Greil Marcus is a critic who lives in Oakland. This year, Yale will publish More Real Life Rock: The Wilderness Years, 2014-2021 (May) and Folk Music: A Bob Dylan Biography in Seven Songs (Fall).


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