Music

Greil Marcus’s Real Life Rock Top 10: Eminem and Neil Young Explore Trump’s Country, Mavis Staples Soldiers On

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1. Tokyo Fish Market, Berkeley (January 4)

A Japanese-American woman in a motorized wheelchair pulled up to the fresh-fish aisle.  It was clear she wasn’t going to be able to reach the Take-a-Number dispenser; a man offered to pull a slip for her. “No,” she said. “I don’t like numbers. I was in a concentration camp.” She looked as if she’d be happy to wait there all day. “They’ll notice me,” she said.

2. Bob Dylan, Trouble No More: The Bootleg Series Vol. 13 / 1979–1981 (Columbia Legacy)

Reviewers have stood in line to praise this testament to the years when the singer performed as a born-again Christian. In its fullest version, it’s eight CDs (concerts, rehearsals, alternate takes from Slow Train Coming, Saved, and Shot of Love), plus a DVD of concert footage and scenes of Michael Shannon reading sermons written by Luc Sante. The denunciations, warnings, prophecies, damnations, and entreaties Dylan offered from the stage between songs in those years were funnier, more inventive, scarier, and more horrible than the music, and while they were collected in 1990 as Saved! The Gospel Speeches in a watch-pocket book — and put across with acerbic heart by Christian Bale in Todd Haynes’s 2007 film I’m Not There — there’s none of them here.  

But no matter. This set documents as deep a creative dive as any in the singer’s career, one writer after another has said. The band is as good as any he’s ever played with — maybe better. And the choir line — in different combinations, Carolyn Dennis, Mona Lisa Young, Regina Peebles, Regina McCrary, Helena Springs, Madelyn Quebec, Mary Elizabeth Bridges, Gwen Evans, Clydie King, Jo Ann Harris — oh, the way they lift these songs up to…people have barely been able to restrain themselves from adding the word, and some haven’t. But they reach up and touch the Hem of His Garment on cue, their ecstasy so automatic that if the quest for God is real to you — and even if God isn’t — it can make you sick. Dylan’s singing on a 1980 version of the hallowed “Every Grain of Sand,” a/k/a “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” is the worst from him I’ve ever heard. Michael Shannon has played the sinner as avenging angel for years, but the role never takes on shadings. While there are interesting attempts to make “Slow Train” a more interesting song, and live versions of “Pressing On” that capture at least some of its beauty — though not, again, as much as Christian Bale did, with John Doe’s voice coming out of his mouth — as a friend said, there’s more piety in the few minutes of Van Morrison’s recent “How Far From God” than in the hours of bullying collected here.

3. Bob Dylan, “Louie Louie” (YouTube)

Uploaded just weeks ago (as of the first week of January only a few thousand people had seen it), from 1985,  a rehearsal with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers for the first Farm Aid show. It’s raucous, precise, determined, and somehow cruel, with Dylan singing words that can’t have been in the song before, though it might take months of listening to string three of them together. The backing singers — as from the revival shows, Carolyn Dennis and Madelyn Quebec, with Peggi Blu and Queen Esther Marrow — seem charmed by the song, and if the pleasure Blu takes in getting the Louie-Lou-Ay syllables exactly right doesn’t make you smile you’ve got a heart of stone. To say that it’s better than anything on Trouble No More is sort of a cheap shot. But it is.

4. G-Eazy, The Beautiful & Damned (RCA)

Swift.

5. & 6. Neil Young & Promise of the Real, The Visitor (Reprise) & Eminem, Revival (Interscope) 

Two musicians try to get inside Trump’s country — and get out alive. Young struggles to create the sense that all that much is at stake — countering MAGA with a first cut called “Already Great” is a wan gesture, and the song is barely a wave.  

It’s stunning the contempt Eminem has brought forth from so many critics policing their critical neighborhoods — the continual citing of his age seems to be an argument that he has no so-called street cred because he’s not dead yet. With eighteen full-length numbers and two slips, the album is too long. He does seem to run out of gas two-thirds of the way through — or the listener does. He may have lost a step: The cutting snap that has always made his delivery so distinctive seems soft, which makes him sound distracted. But that may be style, not form. The most powerful pieces here — “Walk on Water,” with a gorgeous, altogether down-to-earth echo from Beyoncé, and “Like Home,” a twisting, intimidated, blindman-with-a-pistol attack on the man who as president of the United States, the song says, humiliates the country’s own citizens — create an atmosphere of uncertainty, displacement, the desperation and defiance of someone trying to regrow a tongue that’s been cut out. Taking the choruses on “Like Home,” Alicia Keys pulls back, but her vehemence as she traces lines about nostalgia as the engine of patriotism — “There’s no place like home,” and there’s no place harder to hang on to — is different from Eminem’s in tone, not in kind.  

So much of the discourse against Trump and his clear vision of the country he means to create says little more than NOKD. As a pure demographic, not a person, Marshall Mathers is a pure Trumper. He knows it, and that’s why he sounds like Charles M. Blow and Masha Gessen, not the likes of E.J. Dionne or Frank Bruni. He can see himself as an enemy of the state, in a country where, in point of Constitutional fact, there is no state, and no such thing as a crime against it — even if in the United States today the Constitution is just another set of regulations.

7. Wolf Parade, Cry Cry Cry (Sub Pop)

Spencer Krug has a full, rounded voice that calls to mind Jim Morrison, Marian Gold of Alphaville, David Eugene Edwards of the fire-and-brimstone band 16 Horsepower. Without changing his tone, he can go anywhere: embrace, despair, a demand for freedom, a call to arms. From British Columbia, the group looks over the border and wonders if it sees its own country’s future — or if the future is in the past. Seek out “Valley Boy” — what the guitarist Dan Boeckner does in the break is like someone discovering fire.

8. Lana Del Rey, Lust for Life (Interscope)

The question has been raised as to whether Del Rey’s singing here draws more from Lauren Bacall’s Vivian Rutledge in The Big Sleep (from 1946) or Claire Trevors Velma in Murder, My Sweet (from 1944). With “Change,” in the way Del Rey’s voice floats on itself, it’s Vivian.  With the scraping “In My Feelings” (“Shot herself clean through the heart — twice,” says a cop in Farewell, My Lovely, which Murder, My Sweet, was made from), it’s Velma. But she’s saying things they never did.

9. & 10. Bob Dylan and Mavis Staples, Xcel Center, St. Paul (October 25)

He was so strong, the highlight was “Thunder on the Mountain,” which is a nothing song.  She sang “Freedom Highway”: “March for freedom highway/March each and every day/The whole world is wondering/What’s wrong with the U.S.A.” Once that last line referenced Emmett Til; now it didn’t have to. Then, with the band vamping behind her, in a kind of call-and-response with herself, she gave a speech about how her father had written the song in 1965 for the march from Selma to Montgomery: “I was there, and I’m still here. I’m a living witness. I’m a soldier.” She summoned the presence to fill the hall with history that was made and history that was being unmade. It was very overdone, very showbiz, and it was true. Even if you couldn’t get out from under what an act it was, it was impossible not to be humbled, at least if you were listening. Fans at Dylan shows are the rudest anywhere. They never shut up. They’re in the presence of a legend. Anybody else is trash, and he might as well be dead.  

Thanks to Steve Perry, Joe Levy, and Jon Bernstein

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