LARB PRESENTS the September installment of “Real Life Rock Top 10,” a monthly column by cultural critic Greil Marcus.
1. and 2. Bryan Ferry, Fox Theater, Oakland (August 31) and Bryan Ferry and his Orchestra, Bitter-Sweet (BMG). At the Fox, the music playing between the opening act and Ferry was interesting, and a cue: Little Eva’s “The Loco-Motion,” from 1962, the Shirelles’ “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” 1960, the Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine,” 1963, Betty Everett’s “The Shoop Shoop Song (It’s in His Kiss),” 1964 — a series Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everyday People,” 1968, closed perfectly. As the show unfolded, a nine-piece assemblage of musicians and singers and Ferry himself picking up a harmonica or sitting down at a keyboard, with spectacular extravaganzas from Bob Dylan’s “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” which seemed to fill 10 minutes without a sense it was even beginning to use itself up, to Wilbert Harrison’s “Let’s Stick Together” as a closing roller-coaster, what came into view — with “Out of the Blue” yielding to “Slave to Love” followed by “While My Heart Is Still Beating,” “Dance Away” moving into “My Only Love,” “More Than This” dissolving into “Avalon” — was the performance of a single romantic ballad, all of it finally revealing itself as a version of “Will You Love Me Tomorrow.” Each part seemed to make every other bigger, richer. Were you to hear them an hour or a day apart, “Slave to Love” is nothing compared to “More Than This” — but here they were discovering the same language, each a note in a song that’s still unfinished. Though his voice could be all silk, Ferry hid nothing of his age — he’ll turn 74 this month — and that added to the authority he brought to the songs, or the song: not someone who’s seen it all, but someone who still knows how much he hasn’t fully understood, which is why the songs remain alive, unsatisfied.
“Bitter-Sweet” takes off from Ferry’s cameos in the series Babylon Berlin — and his absolutely convincing performance at the end of the second season of a German-language version of the 1974 Roxy Music number “Bitter-Sweet” as it would have been done in a 1929 Weimar cabaret by a singer born in about 1858. Here everything that flowed from Roxy Music comes stepping to a Kurt Weill beat, jerky New York jazz you can imagine being played by puppets, and it feels like the tune the songs wanted all along. Especially “Dance Away”: in 1979 it seemed like a mandatory disco number on Roxy Music’s dispirited Manifesto. Now, as an instrumental over far too soon, it’s an unfolding of how many shapes and colors the melody can open up, like Gatsby throwing his shirts in the air.
3. Tom O’Neill with Dan Piepenbring, Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties (Little, Brown). Steve Perry writes in: “After seeing the Tarantino movie I reread Ed Sanders’s book and then started O’Neill’s new one. Here’s the strangest passage I’ve read in a while” — on record producer Terry Melcher using Manson to supply girls for his “executive parties” in exchange for a recording contract; when that didn’t come through, Manson supposedly ordered the massacre at 10050 Cielo Drive, where he had once met with Melcher and Candice Bergen, which is old news. But this, from one Bob April, whom O’Neill describes as “a retired carpenter who’d been a fringe member of the Family,” isn’t: “‘That’s why everybody got killed,’” April said: Melcher was going to put Manson on “‘“Day Labels,” his mother’s imprint. But Doris Day took one look at Manson and laughed at him and said, “You’re out of your mind if you think I’m going to produce a fucking record for you.” Said it to Charlie’s face.’”
4. Tui, “Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor,” from Pretty Little Mister (tuiband.com). From Maryville, Tennessee, fiddler Libby Weitnauer’s softly twisting voice makes the sexiest version of this previously done-to-death song I’ve heard. There’s an edge in the vocal: you don’t know how this story is going to turn out once the song is over. The rest of the album, with fiddler Jake Blount from Takoma Park, Maryland, on vocals, is fine, but this is harder. “Make me a pallet on your floor” — there’s a hint of apology, not come on. “I’m going to my long, lonesome home”: as Weitnauer sings the line, she lets you hear that in the language of folk music and blues it sometimes means not peace of mind but death, or that as far as she knows they’re the same thing.
5. David Thomas, Baptized into the Buzz (Ubu Projex). A companion to Pere Ubu’s recent album The Long Goodbye. Included for the colophon: “An Irony-Free™ Book.”
6. Yes We Mystic, Ten Seated Figures (DevilDuck). Silent movie gestures: 10 people from Winnipeg make a better Alphaville album than the last Alphaville album Alphaville made.
7. and 8. Shirley Collins, “Adieu to Old England” in Jonathan Coe, Middle England (Knopf). As the novel opens in 2010 just after his mother’s funeral, Benjamin Trotter thinks of the 1974 recording by the British traditional singer. “If the world had been ended when I had been young / My sorrows I’d never have known”: it’s a tragic prisoner’s ballad that for Trotter strikes a chord of memory he can’t still. “… Yes,” Coe writes,
it was possible to extract this meaning from the words, to infer a story of loss, a loss of privilege, that resonated across centuries, but in reality everything that was beautiful about the song, everything that reached inside Benjamin now and clawed at his heart, came from the melody, from this arrangement of notes which seemed so truthful and stately and somehow … inevitable.
The book is about how in six years, with the impossibilities of the United Kingdom voting to leave the European Union and the United States electing a sadistic game-show host as president, the song will be a screaming headline.
9. Lana Del Rey, Norman Fucking Rockwell! (Interscope). One test of a good album is that your favorite songs keep changing — and another is whether one song drops away as another replaces it, or if each song that first drew you to it reemerges to let you hear something you didn’t hear before. That’s what happens on this record. Lana Del Rey crafts tunes the way Coe’s Benjamin is caught by Shirley Collins’s “Adieu to Old England”: whatever the words, it’s the melody that takes you down. Like Bryan Ferry, Lana Del Rey makes atmospheres, and in the slow-motion miasma of her Southern California, where all of life feels like an attempt by people born in the 1980s to escape a past sketched out by pop songs and never filled in, all the street signs are from old Top 40 charts or FM playlists, California Dreaming Avenue, Dream a Little Dream of Me Drive, Crimson and Clover Boulevard, Summertime Street, Crosby Stills and Nash Alley, I’m Your Man Frontage Road, Ladies of the Canyon Cul de Sac, Girls Just Want to Have Fun Dead End.
At more than nine-and-a-half minutes, “Venice Bitch” will stand as this album’s match for the Rolling Stones’ “Going Home,” which for what it’s worth was recorded in Los Angeles — it begins to fade out after about four minutes, and that’s when the real song begins. But it was the gorgeous “California” that pulled me in first; then it seemed to pale against “How to Disappear” and “Happiness Is a Butterfly,” which gets out from under its sappy theme in seconds. Then it came back; then “Cinnamon Girl” (you must be kidding) seemed far more subtle, more faraway, and then “California” was a state I didn’t know regardless of having lived here all my life.
Despite changing her name, as has been known to happen in Hollywood and New York, there’s no persona; this is no cute Manhattan art statement where Susan Thompson “performs as” the Impossible Dream and then goes shopping as a real person. On Norman Fucking Rockwell! there are echoes of Julianne Moore in Far from Heaven, Lindsay Lohan in The Canyons, Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity — the singer is an actress acting out characters in fictions of her own making, feeling her way through what they can barely admit to themselves.
10. Jon Caramanica and Jon Pareles, “What Do Rally Playlists Say About the Candidates?” The New York Times (August 19). Jon Pareles plays the songs and he plays the candidates: his account of Elizabeth Warren’s list reads like the bullet-point summary of a Warren position paper. Jon Caramanica would like you to know he’s hipper than Cory Booker.
Thanks to Emily Marcus
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.