Music

Greil Marcus’ Real Life Rock Top 10: Convincing (And Otherwise)

Chris Stapleton gets small and wins, Clipping take John Henry back, the Beatles belong to everyone

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1. “1927 Il Ritorno in Italia,” Museo Salvatore Ferragamo (Florence, through May 2, 2018)

The shoe designer sailed back after twelve years in Hollywood, a return marked by the makeover of his museum as a steamship, with a gallery of photographs of then-famous women from the Twenties and Thirties, each framed by a porthole, and almost all in clothes or hair or expressions that fix them in the foreign country of the past. But around a corner is Ines Donati, identified not, as with the rest, as “Actress,” “Writer,” or even “Mussolini’s wife,” but “Fascist Militant,” daring you to deny that she is absolutely present.

Born in 1900, she embraced violence as a teenager. She joined the Blackshirts; she was one of the few women in the 1922 March on Rome that put Mussolini in power. Framed by a short pageboy, her barely smiling face had vengeance waiting behind the eyes. Though she was dead of tuberculosis by 1924, there is a lot of the twentieth century in that face.

2. Chris Stapleton, From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury)

Stapleton has overwhelming physical presence, and on his 2015 debut, Traveller, the most authoritative music was of a piece. Here he’s thrown that formal authority away. This is a folk album. Without a big sound he might have been exposed as all mannerisms; that’s what too many singers marketed as country are selling. Instead he feels smaller, ordinary, and more convincing than ever.

3. The Randy Newman Songbook Vol. 3 (Nonesuch)

One too many.

4. Gina Arnold, “The Arms of America,” foolsrushinredux.blogspot.com (May 15)

On the opening of the Joshua Tree tour in Seattle: “U2’s stock in trade is how moral they are, it is the bedrock of their bullshit.”

5. In France after the presidential election

We asked friends who their candidates were. Most said Macron both in the first round, in April, and the second, against Le Pen, in May. One first backed the leftist Mélenchon, another “The Shepherd” Lassalle from the Pyrenees, and one the conservative who collapsed in scandal and still came close to making the runoff. “I’m gay, I’m Catholic, and I have money,” said a bartender. “I voted for Fillon.”

6. “Walker Evans,” at the Centre Pompidou, Paris (through August 14)

The most expansive and imaginative Evans exhibition I’ve ever seen, with as much or more conceptual space devoted to the 1938–41 hidden-camera New York subway photos as the iconic but cliché-resistant 1936 FSA work on Alabama tenant farmers. “I would photograph anything that attracted me,” Evans (1903–75) says in a 1969 interview film by Sedat Pakay. He was against beauty, a kind of permanent happy ending: “Out of anger, I did the opposite.” “To a rather rebellious individual,” he went on, with the Show-Me poker face of his native Missouri, there “was outright communism, which was a trap. I didn’t want to be told what to do by the Communist Party any more than I wanted to be told what to do by an advertising executive making propaganda for soap.” For all that, one day in Alabama, when the destitute family he was living with was gone, he rearranged everything in their house — furniture, decorations, plates — to get the pictures he wanted, to find the source of the attraction.

7 & 8. Sophie Abramowitz, “ ‘Run Him Right Out of the Country’: The 1949 VD Radio Project,” Mo Pop Conference, Seattle (April 21), and Red Foley, “Ballad of the Man of Steel” (wnyc.org)

On a panel where everyone was from the University of Virginia, Abramowitz gave a coolly gleeful presentation on a government effort against venereal disease, the highlight of which was an excerpt from Foley’s fourteen-minute radio play. It’s the John Henry story, with the John Henry melody — except it’s the story of Joe Pullman, because John Henry is black, and Red Foley is a white country singer and the government has hired him to tell a white country story. Warned against liquor and women, Joe stays pure until a rival spikes his nightly forty-gallon shot of lime juice (if there’s an original contribution to the John Henry saga here, lime juice is it) and hires one Rosie to do him in, and the melody turns to “St. James Infirmary” before it goes back to “John Henry” and Joe dies from syphilis. So remember, boys — remember that the devil is always waiting, and that in America, just as any white man can put on blackface, any black hero can be made white.

9. Daveed Diggs and William Hutson of Clipping at the University of California at Berkeley (April 13)

And whiteface can be washed off until all that’s left is a mask anyone can use. For a class on “America Song by Song,” programmer Hutson and rapper Diggs of the futurist hip-hop combo described how on their murkily alluring album Splendor and Misery they took “our fake John Henry” back — with what Diggs called “rap work songs” and Hutson “field recordings from inside a spaceship.” “In my mind,” Diggs said, “it’s been passed down for so long” — and they were not about to let the story end.

10. Rob Sheffield, Dreaming the Beatles (Dey Street)

Why neither the Beatles nor anyone else has ever owned their songs. Usually hilarious, always surprising; that Sheffield quotes lyrics only to reveal a musical effect opens up tune after tune. High: on John naming Elvis in his litany of apostasies in “God” (“That’s where he has doubts midsyllable and tries to gulp it back”). Low: doesn’t know “I’m Looking Through You” with the vocal channel turned off is the music of the spheres.

Thanks to Sophie Abramowitz and Kathleen Moran.

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