Greil Marcus’s Real Life Rock Top 10: All Punches

Eminem, Bruce Springsteen, and Pussy Riot are not playing with words


  1. Eminem, “The Storm,” on BET Hip Hop Awards (BET, October 10)

The video of this solo attack on Donald Trump and his supporters, shot in a parking structure with nine other rappers looking on from the shadows, is more frightening to me than anything Donald Trump has said in the last year or that anyone else has said about him. Maybe it’s because Eminem isn’t afraid to sound as if he’s searching for words, not playing with them.

  1. Bob Dylan and Mavis Staples, Xcel Energy Center, St. Paul, Minnesota (October 25)

Overheard in Row 7: “Have you guys seen Bob Dylan before?” “No, but we never miss Mavis.”

  1. Hanif Abdurraqib, They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us: Essays (Two Dollar Radio)

This first collection by a pop critic from Columbus, Ohio, is funny, painful, precise, desperate, and loving throughout. Abdurraqib’s most ambitious piece might be on Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” and the difference between what white people and black people tend to say when someone asks them how they’re doing. I hear that question every hour I’m out of the house and it’s as if Abdurraqib put a little loudness button under it. Not a day has sounded the same since I read him.

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

There are so many memorable passages in this book — hilarious, bitter, pleasurable simply for the phrasemaking — that I may feature one per column for the next year. This month it’s 1963 and Brian Wilson has brought our boys “Surf City,” but Dean is a surfer and Brian isn’t and Brian doesn’t know that, say, “I bought a ’33 panel truck and we call it a woody” is not going to work because a panel truck is not a woody and anyway they didn’t make them in 1933 so they change that to “I bought a ’34 wagon,” and “ain’t got a heater or a radio” is wrong because you have to have a radio and “if this woody is missing anything, it should be the back seat and the rear window because that’s where the surf boards go. Plus, window rhymes with ‘go’ in the next line.” If anyone asks you where culture comes from, this is the answer.

  1. Bruce Springsteen, Springsteen on Broadway, Walter Kerr Theatre, New York City (October 18)

Cecily Marcus writes in: “In 20th Century Women, Annette Bening’s Dorothea is talking to us, sometime after her death, about how her younger charges have no idea that in 1979, when the movie is set, ‘this is the end of punk. They don’t know that Reagan’s coming.… It’s impossible to imagine HIV and AIDS, what will happen with skateboard tricks, the internet.’

“Since we elected Donald Trump, the legacy of the 1980s that Bening’s inscrutable, unusual, utterly California mother describes has never been clearer. At Springsteen on Broadway, the best moments have their roots in the Bible: ‘Promised Land,’ sung in the dark with no guitar, no piano, no nothing, and ‘Land of Hopes and Dreams,’ which may not be of the Bible but has always sounded like Noah’s ark. The sad truth of the show is that everything that Bruce Springsteen has done, brought to life, stood up for — or everything we have done over thousands of years of human civilization — has led to this.”

  1. Joe Hagan, Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine(Knopf)

That Hagan names as inspirations The Lives of John Lennon, Albert Goldman’s attempt to destroy John Lennon, and Positively 4th Street, David Hadju’s attempt to discredit Bob Dylan, means that his book is one more proof that a biography grounded in its author’s contemptuous distaste for his or her subject is not a good idea. There’s a huge amount of information here, but if what Hagan did with what I told him is remotely typical then it can’t be trusted.

When I became the first Records editor at Rolling Stone in 1969, I told Jann that the section would have to be like an independent republic: I would print what I decided to print. He could suggest that I cover certain records, he could read every review and object, but the only way he could overrule my decisions would be to fire me. This always held.

At one point, I assigned Langdon Winner Paul McCartney’s first solo album, which had arrived with a self-interview — for the press kit, not the public — dismissing the Beatles as a whole and denigrating the others as not really worth his time. Langdon’s review didn’t mention this; Jann said it had to; I said no. We went back and forth for twenty minutes and got nowhere. Jann said he had other things to do and that when he’d finished we should go out to dinner and talk more. We did; we argued for three straight hours, and finally he convinced me. I went to Langdon’s house and we spent three more hours arguing until I convinced him. He rewrote the review. Both he and I considered it an example of why Rolling Stone was a great magazine and why Jann was a great editor.

In Sticky Fingers, that story is not there. There is mention of a dispute, and the implication that Jann either forced Langdon to insert negative comments into his piece or that Jann rewrote the review himself.

Hagan’s book has already had such an effect that one review said that it was proof that as the creator of Rolling Stone “Wenner was the wrong man for the job” — as opposed, presumably, to all those other people who would have done it if Jann hadn’t pushed his way in front of them. The book is vile.

  1. Van Morrison, Roll With the Punches (Exile)

His own strong songs and r&b standards, and a tremendous rebound from his last few albums. He may go farther down “Lonely Avenue” than even Ray Charles did. He makes Sam Cooke’s “Bring It on Home to Me” feel like it has a hundred years ahead of it.

8.–9. Maria Alyokhina, Riot Days (Metropolitan Books), and Nadya Tolokonnikova, on The Last Word With Lawrence O’Donnell (MSNBC, November 3)

Alyokhina’s book is a retrospective present-tense journal from Pussy Riot’s anti-Putin performance in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow in 2012, to their Alice in Wonderland trial, to Alyokhina’s two years of prison and resistance (Tolokonnikova’s two years are closely followed in Masha Gessen’s Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot). In an invisible translation, Alyokhina is all punches: short, direct sentences driven by thought, rage, a sense of history, and a kind of disbelief in the official reality and philosophical chaos of an unfree country. It is easy to read and hard to read: hard to get one inch away from the gravity of Alyokhina’s voice. “The door closes. I sit on the bench. I need to understand what has happened. I need to understand. The turn my life has taken. My life in prison. I have to remember things in the proper order. I need order.”

Both Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova see protest as a form of life based in the thrill of proving your own reality — in concert with others, if possible, or if necessary alone, as it was for Alyokhina in prison. “I believe that the main problem right now about political action is that people treat it as duty, that they have to do as a part-time thing,” Tolokonnikova said to O’Donnell. “I believe that if politics will become an important and joyful part of your life, then things maybe change.” O’Donnell offered Tolokonnikova a gift of his new book — the title of which, in a strikingly nonpromotional gesture, he neither mentioned nor displayed — coming out November 7: the same day, he noted, as her birthday. “This is about the protests of the 1960s and the activism of the 1960s, which you say inspired you,” O’Donnell said. “I think 1968 is my favorite year in history,” Tolokonnikova said, noting that her birthday fell as well on “the date of the Russian Revolution,” an idea she left hanging in the air.

  1. Robert Plant, “Dance With You Tonight,” from Carry Fire (Nonesuch)

“I offered up the secret places/Reveal the magic of the land/All bound by blood and lipstick traces,” he sings in one of the best songs ever written, right up there with Old Weird America Pale Ale. I’m not as cool as Lawrence O’Donnell.