Greil Marcus’ Real Life Rock Top 10: Fun in the Time of Troubles

Mr. Wrong and Filthy Friends show where the remaining good times are, while Trump invokes Elton John to show where it all may go


1. Dean Torrence, Surf City: The Jan and Dean Story (SelectBooks)

His career in rock ’n’ roll spans sixty years. At 77, he writes as if he’s still 24. Not as good as “Dead Man’s Curve” (but what is?), as much fun as “New Girl in School.” More next month.

2. Nuclear-armed rock criticism, from Mark Landler, “President Trump Inside and Outside the Lines at the U.N.,” New York Times (September 21)

“ ‘Rocket Man is on a suicide mission,’ he declared Tuesday, very deliberately from the rostrum of the General Assembly, about the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-un. North Korea one-upped Mr. Trump on his reference to a 1970s Elton John lyric by labeling the president the “ ‘Madman Across the Water.’ ”

3. Patty Schemel, Hit So Hard: A Memoir (Da Capo)

For Courtney Love’s Hole, Schemel was the junkie drummer in a junkie band. She doesn’t pull punches. On prostitution to pay for heroin: “If what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas, I was Vegas.”

4. Loudon Wainwright III, Liner Notes: On Parents & Children, Exes & Excess, Death & Decay, & a Few of My Other Favorite Things (Blue Rider)

Weightless musings. Regrets, he’s had a few, but you won’t care. Each chapter ends with lyrics from one of his songs, which on the page don’t sound like songs at all.

5. Mr. Wrong, Babes in Boyland (Water Wing)

With a wave to the 1990s Minneapolis trio Babes in Toyland, which re-formed in 2014 after nearly twenty years in the wilderness, and far more in common with the late-1970s Zurich quartet Kleenex, this combo from Portland, Oregon — drummer Ursula Koelling, guitarist Lindsey Moffett, and bassist Leona Nichts — starts off with the playground chant of “I DON’T WANNA I DON’T WANNA,” leaps into the all-German “Baby Stimmen,” throws voices back and forth like a basketball team in “Troll,” and pulls out all the stops for its last song, “Asshole.” There’s a lead screech that keeps you in the song, waiting to hear it again, but at the end all three pound down on the chop chop chop bassline, which suddenly is as much words as sound: “Are you cool enough for Mr. Wrong? No!” These people are having a very good time.

6. Filthy Friends, The Independent, San Francisco (August 29)

As were Filthy Friends — Corin Tucker of Sleater-Kinney, Peter Buck of R.E.M., Kurt Bloch of the Fastbacks, Bill Rieflin of King Crimson, and Scott McCaughey of Young Fresh Fellows. Their best number was the hovering “Love in a Time of Resistance,” not on their album Invitation; the best song there is “The Arrival,” which Josh Kantor played on the organ at Fenway Park as the Orioles beat the Red Sox 16­-3 four days before. “Feels strange to have so much fun in such troubled times,” Tucker said from the stage — saying, it felt, what everyone was thinking.

7. Brad Paisley with Peyton Manning, “The Jingle Is Almost There,” Nationwide commercial

Where the singer pretends that maybe selling his style to an insurance company wasn’t such a good idea. He and his producer go over the matter in great detail on “Behind the Scenes of the Jingle Sessions,” as if “Nationwide/Is on your side” is Paisley’s Basement Tapes.

8. Twin Peaks: The Return, episode 18 (Showtime, September 3)

In this series, people live parallel lives: two, three, or more, sometimes simultaneously, that can begin before they were born and continue after they die. These other lives are forms of energy, generated by the last flash of thought before death, by the fantasies we entertain for ourselves or that others harbor about us, and by certain cultural eidolons — a song, perhaps, like the Platters’ “My Prayer,” or an image of a place that may not have ever existed, but which seems right, a place where parallel lives go to find out where the next turn might be, like an old gas station.

On such a stage, with a story taken up 25 years after it was presumed to be over, a key element is how people from then look now: how they’ve changed, how they’ve aged, or how they haven’t. In every case it’s displacing and confusing, alluring and factual. The phenomenon undermines both the surface reality of the story and the subterranean weirdness of the weird effects: It’s its own special effect.

Peggy Lipton’s diner owner and Miguel Ferrer’s FBI agent haven’t changed at all. As Audrey Horne, Sherilyn Fenn’s middle-aged features are unbalanced as if by some inner rot. Dana Ashbrook’s Bobby Briggs has white hair and a who-me expression but he’s still the same useless jerk he was before, even if now he’s a cop for a force that seems to have forgotten he’s a murderer. Kyle MacLachlan’s Agent Cooper, Mädchen Amick’s Shelly, and half a dozen more are older in a nice, orderly, acceptable way. There is even Catherine E. Coulson’s Log Lady — Coulson was dying of cancer when her scenes were shot, and that’s exactly what is happening to the Log Lady, with the faint wisps of hair on her head like a memory of it. But it’s not surprising that the revelation is Sheryl Lee’s Laura Palmer. In the second to last episode, in a cut-in from the indelible 1992 film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, we see her at 25, playing a high school senior, her eyes opening in anguish and terror with the depths of an actress from the silent era. In the final episode, Cooper, awakened from his life as a zombie Nevada insurance agent, freed from his murderer doppelgänger, once more from the FBI, tracks Laura Palmer down in Odessa, Texas. She opens the door to her house. Sheryl Lee is 50; she looks every day of it and maybe ten years’ more. Now Laura Palmer’s face is squared and puffy, dented, remade, you can see in an instant, by a life of heroin, street prostitution, beatings by the men she’s lived with — you can imagine anything you want, including that the dead man in a chair in her living room, shot through the forehead, blood on the wall behind his head, whom Cooper seems to see and forget in the same look, is his fantasy, or hers.

She doesn’t recognize the name Laura Palmer, but she freezes when Cooper says the name of her mother and father. She leaves with him for Twin Peaks because she has nothing better to do. Her whole being radiates jeopardy and soul: You are now watching a real person being taken to a place that isn’t real. Which will win, her reality principle or the principle that there is no fixed reality that governs the show? The scream that ends the story is not an answer. It’s merely an acknowledgment that the pieces can’t be made to fit. And it too is from the silents.

9. Jay-Z, “Bam” and “4.44,” Saturday Night Live (NBC, September 30)

Looking like himself, and with the emotional range of a light switch.

10. Josh Charles in “CSI: Crime Scene Idiot,” on Last Week Tonight (HBO, October 1)

Following a segment on the evidentiary standards for forensic medicine — “ ‘a reasonable degree of scientific certainty,’ ” which in English means precisely nothing — the best sitcom I’ve ever seen.