FEBRUARY 21, 2020
LARB IS HAPPY to announce that it will serve as the new home for “Real Life Rock Top 10,” a monthly column by cultural critic Greil Marcus.
1. Sarah Vowell writes in (February 11): “I just heard a guy on cable news say that last night at a rally in New Hampshire the Sanders campaign was handing out stickers that say, ‘Solidarity Forever.’ The other day I heard him asking a crowd which side they were on. I think he’s got the posthumous Pete Seeger vote sewn up.”
2. Luke Combs, What You See Is What You Get (River House Artists/Columbia Nashville) and “Lovin’ on You” on Saturday Night Live, February 2 (NBC). In American Humor: A Study of the National Character, published in 1931, Constance Rourke wrote about archetypes. So here she is today on a North Carolina country singer:
Like the Yankee in the Revolution the backwoodsman had leapt up out of war as a noticeable figure — the War of 1812; in the scattered western country his portrait had taken shape slowly. Once on the national horizon, however, he made up in noise what he had lost in time. […] He was not only half horse, half alligator, he was also the sea-horse of the mountain, a flying whale, a bear with a sore head. He had sprung from the Potomac of the world. He was a steamboat, or an earthquake that shook an enemy to pieces, and he could wade the Mississippi. “I’m a regular tornado, tough as hickory and long-winded as a nor’wester. I can strike a blow like a falling tree, and every lick makes a gap in the crowd that lets in an acre of sunshine.”
That’s Luke Combs, who’s also a better Big Bopper than the Big Bopper because he has more than one song (though if J. P. Richardson were alive today he couldn’t resist a stab at Combs’s “I don’t have to see my future ex-mother-in-law anymore” from “When It Rains It Pours”). But while What You See, only his second album, ought to be a knockout — the songs are good, Combs knows how to lift a rhythm past itself, when he crosses over the Valley of the Shadow of Death you can believe him — the sound is busy and cluttered, and he feels constrained. Too often the rhythms are guardrails. You have to see him live — and he clearly took the Saturday Night Live showcase, so often a setting for the precious, the jejune, the self-impressed, as a chance to say it all. “Lovin’ on You” uses the country form of verses full of clack-a-lacka verbiage wrapping around each other with a chorus that brings the song down to earth: on record, Combs tries to break out of the cliché but he doesn’t make it. Here the verses were a springboard, a warm-up, and when the chorus came he grabbed it out of the air and launched it as a missile. It was such a thrill it was hard to believe he ever got back to the song, but he did, and then he did it again. The right song, the right place, the right time, ghosts smiling in the background, watching as he did what they did: “Heels cracking, he leapt into the air to proclaim his attributes against all comers […] [a]s a preliminary to a fight he neighed like a stallion or crowed like a cock.”
3. Pedrito Martinez, “Loco Amor,” in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Season 3, Episode 5, “It’s Comedy or Cabbage” (Amazon Prime). Miami 1960: Lenny Bruce takes Midge to a Cuban nightclub where elegantly dressed hookers take up every seat at the circular bar, dancers prance in what look like voodoo masks, and a singer strolls through the place, flanked by a guitar player as a second guitarist plays with a small combo on a stage in the background. It’s a deep, nearly unbearably romantic doo-wop number with blues notes trailing every vocal phrase: transporting, with the singer moving slowly, as if thinking through every beat. The mood seems to pass through: as the night ends, Mrs. Maisel promises Lenny she’ll sleep with him before he dies. She has six years to keep her promise.
4. Elizabeth Pepin Silva and Lewis Watts, Harlem of the West: The San Francisco Fillmore Jazz Era (Heyday, 2020; Chronicle Books, 2006). A handsome new edition of a book first published in 2006 — page upon page of well-dressed people having a good time framed by a blunt and lucid history of postwar San Francisco as a viciously segregated city. There are almost no white faces here, a testament to how fully people cast into a ghetto created their own world. One striking note among many: five people gathered in front of Rhythm Records on Sutter Street in 1947, behind them a poster advertising Andrew Tibbs’s smooth, after-hours 78 “Bilbo Is Dead” — a number about the infamous Mississippi racist so slick you can’t even hear the sarcasm as Tibbs runs through the “One Meat Ball” melody to tell you how he’s not sure he’ll ever get over the death of his “best friend.” The poster adds a ! to the title of the record — thus turning the record into news, and a celebration.
5. New Pornographers, In the Morse Code of Brake Lights (Concord). When Simi Stone, Kathryn Calder, and Neko Case weave their voices around each other, they find the gorgeous sound of a fairy tale that begins with an embrace, a warmth that seems to flood your veins, and that ends with a wave as the three pass over a hill, leaving you behind, but feeling as if life is a gift. There is no sense of realism here; maybe that’s what the music is for.
6. mr. Wrong, Create a Place (Waterwing). And the joy of this band — drummer Ursula Koelling, guitarist Lindsey Moffett, and bassist Leona Nichts — is in the clatter their three voices make when they create the ambiance of people walking into each other as if they’re birds flying into plate glass windows, as if that’s their way of saying, What’s new? Anything happening? You’re kidding! On their second album — nine songs on a 45 rpm 12-inch — the playground shouts of the Slits and Kleenex are still there, but just try to untangle the three friends battering back and forth at each other. “Too much work,” sighs one. “So much fun,” says another. What’s different is the swirl of the rhythm in “Overstimulation” — the feeling you’re about to be taken somewhere you haven’t been before (you don’t get there; you just feel it is there) — and a certain determination to catch the true black humor of everyday life, as in “Holding for Healthcare,” where “getting older” (Your call is very important to us. The average wait time is approximately four hours) is the last rhyme.
7. The Assistant, written and directed by Kitty Green (Bleecker Street). The last pages before the first pages of “Bartleby.”
8. Bryan Ferry, Live at the Royal Albert Hall 1974 (BMG). By 1974, Ferry had released his first two solo albums, mostly of covers, with a taste in selection that both delighted and shamed any fan of any of the songs he chose, many of which should have been uncoverable: Elvis’s “Baby I Don’t Care,” the Beach Boys’s “Don’t Worry Baby,” Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” His approach was loving, heretical, absurdist; he could make you feel stupid, as you’d never had the nerve to sing along to Lesley Gore’s “It’s My Party” yourself. Here, facing the crowd, he crafts a version of “The ‘In’ Crowd” that all but puts triple scare quotes on the word — he makes the scene feel cheap, pathetic, even dirty, and he lets you feel how invaluable it is. But he was born to sing “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.”
9. “DISCOUNT MORTGAGES,” New York Post (February 12). A grimy-looking half-page ad, with three endorsements: “It’s Now or Never,” from “Elvis Presley, rock star,” “Great Rates and Great Programs” from “Keith Kantrowitz, Power Express President,” a mortgage broker and presumably the brains behind this, and “Closing Is Our Business,” from “Manuel Rivera, Hall of Famer,” also pictured to the side, looking very sincere for “Let me help you SAVE money,” with his name and honorific repeated, lest you doubt it’s really him. Too bad: Elvis sightings aren’t what they used to be. Neither, apparently, are Hall of Fame endorsement opportunities. Or maybe Elvis and Rivera need better agents.
10. Terry Gross on Fresh Air interviewing Martin Scorsese, NPR (January 15). On The Irishman, but also focusing especially on Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill in Goodfellas. She plays a clip of a Liotta voice-over: “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster. To me, being a gangster was better than being president of the United States.” “And now,” said a person listening, “you can be both.”
Thanks to Bill Brown
With Werner Sollors, Greil Marcus is the editor of A New Literary History of America (Harvard, 2009). In April, Yale will publish his Under the Red White and Blue: Patriotism, Disenchantment and the Stubborn Myth of the Great Gatsby. He lives in Oakland.