Greil Marcus’s Real Life Rock Top 10: Soul Music, According to Lester Bangs and Bettye LaVette


  1. Henry Holt & Co. announces Lucinda Williams memoir (February 12)

“I have a lot to say and a big story to tell,” Williams is quoted in a press release. “I want everyone to know what’s behind the songs and to know more about me than what people previously thought they knew.” Her whole career has been an act of condescension toward the stupidity of the world, and she just can’t keep it out of her voice.

  1. Elizabeth Flock, “Modern Love” (New York Times, February 4)

She’s been living with an architect for three years. They’re going to build a cabin in the woods, travel the world, have lots of kids, except he’s always tired and won’t talk. “Around this time, a man I had worked with began sending me links to music, the kind of folk-blues songs that got inside you and unsettled parts better left untouched.… At night, I listened to the songs he sent me, or the music of old punk bands I used to love, with lyrics that asked me questions about freedom whose answers I didn’t like.” It’s the most acute music writing I’ve read in years. I asked Flock for her playlist: “Folk-blues songs: Hurray for the Riff Raff, ‘Junebug Waltz,’ ‘Blue Ridge Mountain,’ ‘Hungry Ghost.’ Punk albums: Pixies, Doolittle and “Gigantic” from Surfer Rosa; Dead Kennedys, Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables; Ramones, Ramones — and newer: Downtown Boys, Full Communism.”

  1. Cris Collingsworth, commentary, Super Bowl LII (NBC, February 4)

“This game has been as good as Justin Timberlake!” he shouted seconds before Philadelphia went ahead of New England with 2:21 left in the fourth quarter, on a touchdown Collingsworth immediately disavowed, though for some inexplicable reason the call was upheld. The game actually was good.

  1. Franklin Foer, “The Plot Against America: Decades before he ran the Trump campaign, Paul Manafort’s pursuit of foreign cash and shady deals laid the groundwork for the corruption of Washington,” the Atlantic, January 28

In 1939, in the spy thriller The Mask of Dimitrios, Eric Ambler wrote about a klepto-capitalist conspiracy that traveled under such names as Pan-Eurasian Petroleum and the Eurasian Credit Trust. If he were alive today, he could have written this.

  1. Bettye LaVette, “Things Have Changed” (Verve)

Bob Dylan won an Oscar  in 2001 for this tune for Wonder Boys: a good song in a good movie. It was always down, but never sounded so much like an exploration of nihilism as it does here. Under a huge bass, a soul singer who hit the charts before he did wonders what she doesn’t want to do tomorrow, and with such determination she makes you want to come along for the ride, or at least watch from across the street. From her forthcoming all-Dylan album of the same name. I can’t wait to hear what she does with “Ain’t Talkin.’”

  1. Springsteen on Broadway, Walter Kerr Theatre, New York (January 12)

Along with a strange version of “Born in the U.S.A.” that was somehow reminiscent of Paul Robeson, the great actor and oratorio singer of pre-war years, the most striking moment in the show — as drama, timing, theatricality, personal history, musical history, and social history — came when Springsteen described encountering his future wife Patti Scialfa climbing onstage to sing the Exciters’ “Tell Him” with a local band in a New Jersey bar. “The first words I ever heard her say were, ‘I know/Something about love,’ ” he said. A line he followed with a sound lexicographically impossible to render, and vocally impossible probably for anyone else — something between “Hmmmm . . .” and “Oooo!”

That is storytelling. Though I felt cheated that Scialfa, onstage for all this, didn’t then dive right into the song.

  1. Halsey, “Bad at Love,” Saturday Night Live (NBC, January 13)

I have nothing to say, but I can inflate my gestures to the point that maybe you won’t notice, and anyway I have enough money to hire people who look like they would have something to say if they got the chance and have them stand around me as if I do.

  1. Advertisement for “Great Music by Nice People” from Party Damage Records, in The Believer (February/March)

Inexplicably including nothing from the Telluride, Colorado, band Niceness.

  1. Kesha, “Praying,” 60th Annual Grammy Awards (CBS, January 28)

As self-deification goes, right up there with “We Are the World” and Lillian Hellman. Presumably running this kind of number as Ke$ha might have compromised its purity.

  1. How to Be a Rock Critic: Based on the writings of Lester Bangs, written by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, directed by Blank, performed by Jensen, scenic design by Richard Hoover, sound design by David Robbins, Under the Radar Festival, the Public Theater, Martinson Hall (New York, January 13)

A marvelously fast and convincing one-man play, set in Bangs’s disheveled New York apartment, which the late critic (1948–82) finds full of people to whom he proceeds to act out what he does and why. The structure is, interestingly, on a parallel with Springsteen on Broadway — riffing through Bangs’s work as dialogue, instead of stopping to sing a song as Springsteen does to mark a point in his life, Jensen walks over to a phonograph, puts on a record, and talks over it. The music instantly confirms whatever case he’s making: The sound that comes out is so rich it’s as if you’ve never heard Otis Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now)” or Van Morrison’s “Cyprus Avenue” before.

Blank and Jensen get to the heart of the matter: The play is about Bangs’s struggle to believe that music can not so much save his soul as allow him, through signal moments of music, to construct a soul in which he might want to live, and his struggle to believe that he can pass that truth on to other people. For Lester, all good music, or all real music, was soul music. It didn’t matter if it was the nerd soul of White Witch or the heroic soul of Lou Reed, the doomed soul of Otis Rush or the intellectual soul of Charles Mingus. Because it was never absolute that what they had, could he write about it, would truly come to him, his work was full of longing, revelation, self-mockery, and pain. Jensen gets it all.

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