SEPTEMBER 25, 2020
LARB PRESENTS THE SEPTEMBER installment of “Real Life Rock Top 10,” a monthly column by cultural critic Greil Marcus.
1. Eric Burdon, on the use of the Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun” at a Trump rally in Wilmington, North Carolina (Instagram, September 5). “A tale of sin and misery set in a brothel suits him so perfectly!”
2. Robin Wright, “Is America a Myth?” The New Yorker (September 8). An altogether vile, intellectually empty little piece about how America never existed — and, given Wright’s “fairly explicit Calhounism,” as Sean Wilentz writes in, why it shouldn’t. It may be a giveaway that Wright — a New Yorker staff writer, not President Claire Underwood — adopts Nazi race theory to press her argument for division over commonality: “The American promise has not delivered for many Blacks, Jews, Latinos, Asian-Americans, myriad immigrant groups, and even some whites as well.”
3. Spoon, “The Fitted Shirt,” on The Current (KCMP-FM, Minneapolis/St. Paul). From the backseat: “Is there nothing to write about now?”
4. Benjamin Taylor, Here We Are: My Friendship with Philip Roth (Penguin). Benjamin Taylor certainly knew Philip Roth infinitely better than I did. He was, he writes, Roth’s best friend and closest confidant for over 20 years: “Wait till you go well and truly to sleep where the body forks. A great peacefulness, yes. But it’s the harbinger of night,” he quotes Roth, speaking of joining “the ranks of the sexually abdicated.” I only had dinner with Roth a few times. But I do know he didn’t speak in engravings.
5. Cristiano Bianchi and Kristina Drapić, Model City: Pyongyang (MIT Press). Soundtrack to this account of Ozymandian capital city architecture, with full-page photos rendered in pastels: David Bowie, “Life on Mars?” To which the book replies: Of course! Aren’t buildings life? Even if they look like they were put up thousands of years ago?
6. Bruce Springsteen, “Letter to You” (Columbia). There’s nothing new in the sound of the title song from the forthcoming album — if someone were playing it on the street on their phone you’d say “Bruce” from half a block away. What is new is the trust in abstraction in the story the song is telling. What does the letter say? The song doesn’t say, and that can suck you right in.
7. Early James, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” with the Marcus King Band’s “Four of a Kind: Live from Nashville” virtual concert, August 3 (Fantasy Records). Aren’t tribute albums terrible? Especially when they condescend to their material, in this case by enlisting Robbie Robertson and Levon Helm into Lost Cause mythology, as if the Band’s song were a statue of Robert E. Lee and had to be pulled down. Which, by gesture, the country singer Early James — if country singers can actually have their records released by the chamber music label Nonesuch — is going to do with this rewrite: “Depraved and powered to enslave, I think it’s time we laid hate in its grave. / I swear by the earth beneath my feet, monument won’t stand no matter how much concrete.” If the philistinism of this verse doesn’t make you cringe, what might is the fact that regret over fighting a war that deserved to be lost fills every word of what used to be the song as Helm sang it.
8. The Harry Smith B-Sides (Dust to Digital). Flips of the 84 selections of 1926–’33 78s the anthropologist Smith compiled for his revolutionary 1952 art project — as the historian Robert Cantwell called it, his American “Memory Theater” — Anthology of American Folk Music. Except when white artists use the N-word, as Black artists like the Memphis Jug Band were doing with their uproarious “On the Road Again,” which for its 1928 beat could almost have reappeared in the Bronx in 1980 as an answer record to the Funky 4 + 1’s “That’s the Joint” without sounding out of place. Which means you can’t hear Uncle Dave Macon’s “I’m the Child to Fight,” from the same year, which even without the word would still be one of the most outrageous American records ever made, if there were such a thing as America.
9. Hoyt Ming and His Pep Steppers, “Indian War Whoop,” from Anthology of American Folk Music (Smithsonian Folkways). Again from 1928, and as a Redface example of a white band not only stealing but, by the very act of white people identifying themselves as other, mocking what they’re stealing, eminently censorable, though the B-side was “Old Red,” which wasn’t a reference to Native Americans, so it’s included on The Harry Smith B-Sides. Which in any case justifies its existence with Jim Jackson’s 1927 “I Heard the Voice of a Pork Chop,” which you don’t even have to hear to have it make your day.
10. News Break, CNN (September 8). “President Donald Trump launched an unprecedented public attack against the leadership of the US military on Monday, accusing them of waging wars to boost the profits of defense manufacturing companies. ‘I’m not saying the military’s in love with me — the soldiers are, the top people in the Pentagon probably aren’t because they want to do nothing but fight wars so that all of those wonderful companies that make the bombs and make the planes and make everything else stay happy,’ Trump told reporters at a White House news conference.” Great. But you probably shouldn’t expect “Masters of War” the next time the Trump show comes to your town.
Thanks to Steve Perry, Pearl Perry, and Lance Ledbetter.