Greil Marcus’s Real Life Rock Top 10: Bettye LaVette Rewrites Dylan, George Washington Claps Back


1. Bettye LaVette, Things Have Changed (Verve)

She started singing in Detroit in 1962 at sixteen; her career didn’t really begin to come into focus until fifty years later. Her first single was a hit; the next forty years were snakebit. In A Woman Like Me, her 2012 autobiography written with David Ritz, LaVette describes what her future looked like to her in the 1970s: “I’d walk into a bar, order a drink, and watch a woman in her sixties singing in front of a makeshift band. She was fifty pounds overweight. Her makeup was running. Her clothes were frayed. I could hear that once upon a time her voice had been strong, but now her voice was shot. Her eyes were sad. While she sang, she worked the room, urging the patrons to stuff a dollar bill or two in her bra. Some did, but most didn’t. At one point, a guy screamed, ‘Let’s turn on the jukebox. Anything is better than this bitch.’ I wanted to slug the guy. I wanted to cry. I wanted to stop seeing myself in this woman.”

That future that didn’t come to pass is in the performances of Bob Dylan songs that make up this album — most of them obscurities from the 1980s on, “Emotionally Yours,” “Seeing the Real You at Last,” “What Was It You Wanted.” What is not in them is whatever past the songs themselves might carry, even when they’re “The Times They Are A-Changin’ ” or “It Ain’t Me Babe.” “I wasn’t going to tributize him,” LaVette said in an interview in Bluegrass Situation earlier this month. She had to make the songs “fit into my mouth,” she said, “just as if they’d been written for me.”

That’s how they sound. After the first few tracks, with the unforced unpredictability of the arrangements, the quiet, determined way LaVette enters the music, the open spaces of the band — with the guitarist Larry Campbell, who worked in Dylan’s band for years, playing behind LaVette as if he never played the songs before — you realize you have no idea how any song is going to sound: what it will be.

She needed the songs to fit in her mouth: “The Times They Are A-Changin’ ” and “Ain’t Talkin’ ” — one a programmatic manifesto that has always sounded to me as if it were written by a committee, the other a long, twisting parable of knowledge and revenge — feel like real talk, to the point that you don’t even hear the lines rhyme.

She rewrites the songs by the way she sings them, but she also rewrites the words. Dylan’s “Do you remember St. James Street/Where you blew Jackie P.’s mind?/You were so fine, Clark Gable would have fell at your feet/And laid his life on the line,” in “Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight” here comes out carrying the double first name LaVette was born with: “Do you remember 14th Street/When you blew Betty Jo’s mind?/You were so fine” — as fiiiiiiiiine, the word caressed as it’s stretched over its own whole measure — “Tina Turner would have fell at your feet/And left Ike hanging on the line,” which is the crack of a completely different whip.

I keep coming back to LaVette’s closing track, “Going, Going, Gone.” It was a hole in time on Dylan’s Planet Waves in 1974; now there’s an Ennio Morricone feeling in the opening phrases of Larry Campbell’s steel guitar. Once Upon a Time in the West rises up in the background. But the music deepens, touching the small-label soul records made in the South in the Sixties and Seventies — George Perkins and the Silver Stars’ “Cryin’ in the Streets,” Bill Brandon’s “Rainbow Road,” or LaVette’s own “Let Me Down Easy,” where despair was like the lead instrument. “Going, going, gone”: LaVette takes the phrase, the idea, to such depths of defeat that the fat woman in her sixties in that nowhere bar is anything but the worst that might come, and as the song goes on, you can hear the singer die over and over again. And yet it’s a perfect last track: It makes you begin again from the start.

2. Steve Eder and Ben Protess, “Hotel Carrying New Trump Brand Secures $6 Million Tax Break,” the New York Times (February 21)

On the opening of the first of the planned nationwide Scion chain, in Cleveland, Mississippi. To take advantage of Robert Johnson tourism. For real: It’s in the business model.

3. “On the Radio,” SFO Museum, San Francisco Airport, Terminal 3 Departures Level 3 (through September 30)

The United concourse features exhibits so alluring you avoid the moving sidewalk and walk to your gate as slowly as you can. Here, along with predictably stunning deco radios from the 1920s and ’30s were much odder pieces: from Arvin Industries of Columbia, Indiana, a 1956 box with the speakers covered in an abstract design based on the cool-jazz cartoons that were running in movie theaters at the time; from Kong Wah Instrument Company in Hong Kong, a 1977 device in the shape of a peanut, with, on top, a bright red grin, Jimmy Carter. 

4. Double Lover, directed by François Ozon, soundtrack by Philippe Rombli (Mandarin Films)

In this movie about sex, schizophrenia, and psychoanalysis — so “freely adapted,” as it says, from Joyce Carol Oates’s Lives of the Twins that, as she says, “I did not really understand the ending” — the main musical theme often drifts in or out of Elvis Presley’s “As Long as I Have You,” from King Creole in 1958. Though there are hints of doo-wop in the structure of the song, and Jesse Belvin in its texture, it feels much later — closer to “Always on My Mind.” It’s corny and powerful, but also menacing: “Can’t Help Falling in Love” as a curse, the voice of someone watching over the characters as they dance toward self-destruction, knowing everything they don’t. But the characters may be even more schizophrenic than they seem. If the heroine is moving into a new apartment in 2017, why is Linda Scott’s 1959 “I’ve Told Every Little Star” playing in the background?  

5. George Washington and Matthew Oshinsky, “George Washington’s Ten Favorite Songs,” Paste (February 22)

Pissed that Alexander Hamilton is getting all the noise, and channeling the voice of Taran Killam’s nineteenth-century movie critic Jebidiah Atkinson, the first president strikes back. Topping his chart: Magnetic Fields’ “Washington, D.C.”  “Ever been to the great city of Hamilton? That’s what I thought.”

6. Tony Kushner and Sarah Vowell, “The Lincoln Legacy: The Man and His Presidency,” Cal Performances, Berkeley (February 21)

It was a pleasure to listen to people who knew what they were talking about. “ ‘Negroes like other people act upon motives,’ ” Kushner quoted from a letter Lincoln wrote during the Civil War. With the context he and Vowell had built, the heresy of someone in the 1860s so casually referring to black people as people went off like the bomb it was. 

7. Denis Johnson, The Largess of the Sea Monster (Random House)

In 2009, Johnson published a crime novel called Nobody Move. It seemed forced and slumming. But “Dopplegänger, Poltergeist,” the last story in this posthumous collection, where Jesse Garon Presley, Elvis’s stillborn twin, if not Elvis himself, appears as the Maltese Falcon, might be what Johnson was aiming for all along. “You could see her mind wiggling right through her eyeballs” — that’s from another story, but it’s how you feel when you get to the end of this one.

8. Darling West, While I Was Asleep (Jansen)

American folk music from Norway, though it could be from Duluth. Inside the always curving modal lines in “Ballad of an Outlaw” and “Don’t I Know You,” there’s a pop insistence that lets Mari Sandvaer get closer to “Always on My Mind” — Elvis’s or the Pet Shop Boys’, it doesn’t matter — than to a traditional song like “John Riley,” and closer to Aoife O’Donovan on Crooked Still’s 2006 Shaken by a Low Sound than perhaps anyone has since.

9. I’m With Her, “Ryland (Under the Apple Tree)” and “Crescent City,” from See You Around (Rounder)

Except, along with Sara Watkins and Sarah Jarosz, O’Donovan herself.

10. Bettye LaVette, “Most of the Time,” from Chimes of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan (Amnesty International, 2012)

Her first recording of a Dylan song. Fit in her mouth? Here she lets the song strangle her.

Thanks to David Ritz, Joyce Carol Oates, and Julia Casey.