Music

Greil Marcus’s Real Life Rock Top 10: Punk, Liberty, and Dreams

According to Viv Albertine, Pussy Riot, and Elvis Presley

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1. Viv Albertine, To Throw Away Unopened (Faber & Faber)

An unsparing, unforgiving book where Albertine — guitarist for the Slits from 1976 to 1982 and solo pub performer more than thirty years later — unravels and reknits her life around the death of her mother in 2014. It’s all caught in a single incident. One night not long ago, when Albertine is trying to get her songs across, a table of loudmouthed drunks up front refuse every polite request that they give her a chance, maybe go back to the bar. They couldn’t care less: “Instead of the audience witnessing Viv-Albertine-the-ex-punk come back to shake them up, they saw a middle-aged woman being disrespected and ignored.” So Albertine confronts the men: “It comes back to you, your punk attitude, when you need it.” She picks up one man’s beer and sweeps it across their faces. Then another: “A Guinness,” she says, because Albertine’s mind is pitched to the capture of the smallest details in any fraught moment.

In Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys, published in 2014 and likely the best book on punk anyone has written, the word always had quotes around it, as if Albertine wasn’t convinced punk ever really happened at all; in this book the quotes are off.

2. “25 Songs That Tell Us Where Music Is Going,” New York Times Magazine (March 11)

By 25 writers, from the Times’ Wesley Morris, John Jeremiah Sullivan, and Jody Rosen to the critics Jessica Hopper and Hanif Abdurraqib. “If you want to know where music is going,” writes editor Nitsuh Abebe, “ask an 11-year old.” So why didn’t he?

3. Gina Arnold writes in on Pussy Riot at the Rickshaw Stop (San Francisco, March 28)

“When members of Pussy Riot were arrested in 2012 in Moscow for performing a crude anti-Putin punk song atop an altar in a Russian orthodox church, the overblown reaction of their government seemed positively quaint. Six years on, after Russian interference in the U.S. election, Pussy Riot’s concerns have become ours. It’s now impossible not to feel politically energized by the sound of the Russian language, particularly when caught shouting feminist slogans over poppy EDM in front of fun video art depicting police brutality and political corruption. At the very least, the sight of Nadya Tolokonnikova in a neon-pink ski mask yelling, ‘Pussy is the new dick’ to a bunch of bouncy hipsters is a reminder that we in America are still at liberty to goof on this stuff. But one wonders for how long.”

4. Jack White, Boarding House Reach (Third Man/Columbia)

Or playing darts without a target.

5. Eels, The Deconstruction (E Works)

Cloying songs about personal misery. It all really happened! The insipidity of sentimentalizing your own life.

6. Yo La Tengo, There’s a Riot Going On (Matador)

It’s true that the title track of Sly and the Family Stone’s 1971 There’s a Riot Goin’ On was blank. That doesn’t mean you can use the title for music to put people to sleep.

7. Ad break on TruTV (March 17)

“This is your brain on TruTV,” a guy in a hoodie says. He holds up a TruTV device and places a plastic model of a brain on it. He looks blankly at you through the screen. “What were you expecting?” he says. “A metaphor?” As if it wasn’t in the budget.

8. Elvis Presley: The Searcher, directed by Thom Zimny (HBO)

In Part 1, ending with Elvis in the Army, the use of music is imaginative — “Blue Moon” unspools at almost its whole length, and it sounds more unearthly than ever. The documentary footage is fabulous. Some is unseen, and what’s been seen is made fresh. It’s a welcome relief to have soundtrack commentary but no talking heads. But only Bruce Springsteen looks for a social context, and with the banal dronings of Alan Light, Warren Zanes, Bill Ferris, and Tom Petty, there isn’t the slightest deviation from the conventional, chiseled-in-stone narrative. Before long it’s stupefying: Any new idea would die in this intellectual desert.

Part 2 is better: The conventional wisdom is less oppressive because no one seems to care that much if you believe it or not. It begins with unbelievably wild footage of Elvis performing Lowell Fulson’s “Reconsider Baby” in Hawaii in 1961 — his last live performance until the 1968 comeback TV show — which confuses the “he died in the Army” story the film seems to want to tell. Even more striking is a snatch of interview with Colonel Parker — has anyone ever heard him? — who is so clearly a colonel from somewhere in Europe.

For good or ill, this film comes down to an interview near the close of the film, after a title has announced Elvis’s death. The TV writer and producer Chris Bearde, who died last year, is talking about that ’68 TV show. Every day, he says, he and Elvis and the director, Steve Binder, would gather in Binder’s office. He recalls one day: “We had a little black-and-white TV in the corner. On the TV, Robert Kennedy has been assassinated. Elvis picks up a guitar, and he started playing. Talking a mile a minute. He said, ‘I want you to understand me, because this is a moment in time’ ” — and Bearde’s voice breaks, as if he’s overcome by the memory, yes, but also acting out how, in the moment, Elvis’s voice broke — “ ‘when we’ll,’ ” coming out w’eeeel, “ ‘have to understand each other.’ ”

“We didn’t know how to end it,” Bearde had said of the TV show, and now that becomes the entry for the end of The Searcher. The last song of that night now becomes the last song of this film — and the last word: “If I Can Dream,” the whole performance.

He’s wearing an ice-cream suit that doesn’t seem to fit. The song comes across like a building with all the nuts and bolts still visible. There’s no groove, and the delivery is clumsy and hesitant. And all of that is overwhelmed by the passion Elvis is digging out of his heart, and his story, his whole life as he has lived up to his heroic singularity and failed to.

9. Bettye LaVette at Freight & Salvage (Berkeley, April 19)

“He complains about everything,” LaVette said about her affinity for Bob Dylan, whose songs she was singing this night. “Just like an old woman. And I’m an old woman. But when a black woman ages, she can do it in less than nine verses. So I’m finishing Bob Dylan’s arguments.” At their best, the songs were final and transformed works of art: With “Things Have Changed,” presented as a classic blues, or “Ain’t Talkin’,” a flood of last words at the end of a life, or “Going, Going, Gone,” now a deep soul ballad you could swear had to have been written by Bert Berns, LaVette started at the emotional top of the songs and stayed there. Most unsettling was her at first unrecognizable “The Times They Are A-Changin’ ” — because the times have long since changed back, and the demand for a better country, so palpable when the song first appeared, can now be swept off the stage by a single presidential tweet. She had started the show with “Things Have Changed,” but it played behind everything she sang.

10. Paul Robeson, “King Joe (Joe Louis Blues)” (Okeh)

I’m teaching a course on the postwar period, where the reading includes the detective novelist Ross Macdonald’s 1947 Blue City, about a veteran returning to his Midwestern hometown, so I was reading Tom Nolan’s 1999 Macdonald biography. At one point he mentions that in 1941, Macdonald loved to sing Paul Robeson’s “King Joe” to his little daughter: “Lord, I know a secret, swore I’d never tell/Lord, I know a secret, swore I’d never tell,” the novelist Richard Wright had written. “I know what makes old Joe who can punch and roll like hell.” You can imagine: Daddy, sing the hell song again!

I’d never heard of it. Neither had anyone I asked. It’s a shock — the august, six-feet-under voice of the great dramatic actor and oratorio artist recording with the Count Basie band, singing across two sides of a 78, in and out of the gorgeous, yawning swing of the music, like he wants a pop hit.

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