LARB PRESENTS the October 2021 installment of “Real Life Rock Top 10,” a monthly column by cultural critic Greil Marcus.
1. Parker Millsap, “Vigilante Man,” from Home in This World: Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl Ballads (Elektra). “Vigilante Man,” about police or hired thugs busting unions and driving people off their land, was the last of the 12 songs (with “Tom Joad” split into two parts) that made up the two albums of three 78s RCA released as Dust Bowl Ballads in 1940, Woody Guthrie’s historic panorama of one of the worst catastrophes of the Great Depression.
In this remake, with a few songs recorded for the original release but omitted because of length now added, there are people who rise to the occasion, or for that matter above it (Lee Ann Womack, applying pure professionalism to “Dusty Old Dust,” Katie Crutchfield as the one-woman band Waxahatchee stepping her way through “Talking Dust Bowl Blues” so intimately you can almost hear every footfall), and more who fail, or don’t try (Felice Brothers turning “The Great Dust Storm” into a bad episode of The Twilight Zone, Chris Thile playing his mandolins so fast he seems to be waving his MacArthur fellowship in your face). But no one comes close to the Oklahoma singer Parker Millsap. Guthrie puts a sheen of irony over the jocular cadence of a children’s ditty, somehow leaving the song far less threatening than it seems to mean to be; Millsap is all murk, crawling out of a swamp in the dead of night. “Is that the vigilante man?” the song asks at the end of every Guthrie verse; Millsap makes you feel that by the time you think to ask it’ll be too late. And then new names replace Guthrie’s Preacher Casey, “killed him in a river some strange man”: out of the dankness of Millsap’s sound you might catch “Breonna Taylor,” dying in her verse, then “George Floyd,” dying in his. There’s no irony, only a curse, as Millsap ends his song, which doesn’t really seem to end at all: “Will the vigilante man decide for me?”
2. Colson Whitehead, Harlem Shuffle (Doubleday). In the great tradition that stretches from Huck and Jim to Easy Rawlins and Mouse, a furniture store owner with a fencing operation and a killer who can always be found in the same bar, after the 1964 riots, after touring Futurama at the Queens World’s Fair: “What had started it, the mess this week? A white cop shot an unarmed black boy three times and killed him. Good old American know-how on display: We do marvels, we do injustice, and our hands are always busy.” The first in a series.
3. Brian Morton, The Making of Chet Baker Sings (Jazz Images). A small hardbound book with the 1954 album built into the back cover. On one page, the trumpeter born in Oklahoma in 1929 emerges out of the background of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre; on another he’s trumpeter Prewitt in From Here to Eternity.
4. Joshua Clover, Roadrunner: A Song by Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers (Duke University Press). The first in the series Singles, one-song-one-book books the exact size of a 45 in a sleeve. Here it’s Route 128 as both the road to Damascus and the entire Interstate Highway System.
5. Segue on SiriusXM “Elvis Presley DNA” channel (September 2). “Heartbreak Hotel” followed by “Ramblin’ on My Mind.” The treble notes on Robert Johnson’s guitar match the extra-trebly cool jazz piano wiggling behind Elvis, producing the feeling that Johnson was influenced by the Elvis record, not the other way around.
6. Annette, directed by Leos Carax, written by Ron Mael, Russell Mael, and Carax, original story by Sparks, music by Sparks, lyrics by Ron Mael and Russell Mael (UGC). Since 1972, Sparks, a.k.a. the vaguely incestuous brother act of Ron and Russell Mael, have followed the path of effete cabaret. They are the epitome of the cult band: anything resembling a hit, anything suggesting that everyone knows who they are, would erase their whole reason for being. It’s worked: while most of the world has ignored them, all kinds of people adore them, including Leos Carax, who more than two decades ago made the completely uncategorizable Pola X, perhaps the least likely literary adaptation in the history of cinema — it’s based on Melville’s nearly impenetrable Pierre; or, the Ambiguities — a movie I’ve always found impossible to remember in any detail and impossible to forget for its drive toward self-destruction. The result is a very long picture starring Adam Driver as an L.A. stand-up comedian who is above laughter — all of his routines seem to be based on King Lear — and Marion Cotillard as an opera singer with a two-octave range, and not a moment of believable human feeling in its 140 minutes. And the Maels have nothing to fear from Hollywood: the film cost $15.5 million and took in $3.1.
7. Sally Rooney, Beautiful World, Where Are You (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). A novel of two women, one a famous author and the other spinning her wheels through life, with far better sex scenes than the ultra-graphic ones running all through Annette, sending messages back and forth. Ending with:
I don’t know if you’ve been following any of this, but about a month ago I was doing an interview over email and the journalist asked me what my partner thought of my books. Unthinkingly, I wrote back that he had never read them. So of course this became the headline of the interview — “Alice Kelleher: my boyfriend has never read my books” — and afterwards Felix saw a popular tweet saying something like, “this is tragic … she deserves better.” […] At first I thought: a perfect example of our shallow self-congratulatory “book culture,” in which non-readers are shunned as morally inferior, and the more books you read, the better you are than everyone else. But then I thought: no, what we really have here is an example of a presumably normal and sane person whose thinking has been deranged by the concept of celebrity. An example of someone who genuinely believes that because she has seen my photograph and read my novels, she knows me personally — and in fact knows better than I do what is best for my life.
8. “Oyster Farming — outtakes” (Fox Movietone, 1929), University of South Carolina Moving Image Collections. John Jeremiah Sullivan sends in a 22-minute clip on African American oyster workers in Port Norris, New Jersey: the first five minutes are the prize. A fixed camera at the back of an oystery shucking room records two rows of men and women opening hundreds and hundreds of oysters. A white foreman walks through, dumping bushels into sinks. A black woman walks through covering her face for the smell. People begin to sing a spiritual, “Lead, Kindly Light,” with women’s voices dominating; the harmonies are full of body but delicate in the way they stay in the air, one measure building off another, lifting, then easing down. You play it twice, three times, trying to catch what you know you’re missing. “It’s hard to believe these folks didn’t make a living as singers,” said a friend. “I guess we’ll have to open up a whole new category of folk songs. We used to have sea shanties, now we have seafood shanties.”
9. Rod Stewart, Once in a Blue Moon — The Lost Album (Warner Bros.). A 1992 covers session. Ending with a six-minute unlisted “Waltzing Matilda,” which after five minutes of silence drops over into 19 unlisted minutes of Stewart going through take after take on “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar,” all of which are more fun than Bob Dylan’s original, and which in Stewart’s hands sounds more like Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Don’t Start Me Talkin’” every time.
10. “Amplifying Black Narratives: Past, Present, and Future,” University of Minnesota Libraries (October 1, YouTube). Identifying pronouns noted on the screen of a Zoom symposium: Jokeda (Jo Jo) Bell, executive director, African American Interpretive Center of Minnesota, AAICM; Tia-Simone Gardner, artist, Media and Cultural Studies, Macalester College, she/her; Cecily Marcus, director of Collections, Minnesota Historical Society, she/her/hers; Catherine Squires, interim dean, Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs, she/y’all.
Thanks to Ken Weinstein and Jeff Rosen.