Music

Greil Marcus’s Real Life Rock Top 10: Angels, Demons, and Philip Roth

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1. Jennifer Castle, Angels of Death (Paradise of Bachelors)  

You might bet against the notion of anyone other than Lana Del Rey calling an album Angels of Death and not drowning in her own pretentiousness. With the Toronto singer Castle, you’d lose. The first song is last night’s dream you can’t remember; Castle remembers it for you, and as the songs roll on she stays on that path. The action is all in the interstices between the melody and the cadence, the voice and the instrumentation. The melody seems called up by the cadence, the instrumentation feels like a reflection of the voice, and you can find yourself listening for those tiny lifts, the suspensions in the songs replacing the songs themselves.      

2. “The King of the Delta Blues,” Timeless (NBC, season two, episode 6, April 22)

In this time-travel series, the bad guys go back to 1936 to kill Robert Johnson “to prevent the birth of rock ’n’ roll music and eventually the counterculture of the 1960s, the civil rights movement, the fall of Nixon, and the end of the Vietnam War.” The good guys go back to stop them, presumably to allow the birth of rock ’n’ roll and end the Vietnam War. Johnson, as played by Kamahl Naiqui, seems absolutely convinced.

3. Jackie Fuchs, at “What Difference Does It Make? Music and Gender,” MoPop Pop Conference 2018 (Seattle, April 26)

The former bassist Jackie Fox, on how being raped as a member of the Runaways led her to become an entertainment lawyer working with women in the music business: “It’s a lot easier to stand up for someone else than to stand up for yourself.” Harvard Law, she said of her alma mater, “turns out 600 lawyers a year: ‘Next!’ And there were so few female musicians in the Seventies — I wish I had known how much power I actually had.”

4. Les démons, window in the Nouveau Théâtre de Montreuil (Montreuil, France)

From floor to ceiling: Silk-screened on the glass, Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter in 1956 in the last moments of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, evanescent pods over their heads, are running right at you, so physically present you want to reach into the glass and pull them over to the other side. And they’re there forever. 

5. Jose Cuervo, “Last Days,” directed by Ringan Ledwidge (CP+B) 

In some Southwestern bar, the radio announces the end of civilization. Some people flee; one man cues up Elvis’s “It’s Now or Never” on the jukebox. He begins to dance, a woman joins him, the roof blows off, and as the bartender pours a shot and then leans back, singing along with indescribable pleasure, you might wonder why the song never sounded as good as it does here.

6. Rachel Kushner, The Mars Room (Scribner) 

Kushner’s celebrated last novel, The Flamethrowers, was so relentlessly brilliant I couldn’t finish it. I got the point: Kushner is brilliant. This book, about a former sex worker and convicted murderer serving double life sentences in California, is quiet, deliberate, slow. Iron Maiden, Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, “the wind of Elvis’s empty soul,” Richard Nixon playing piano at the Grand Ole Opry, the 1950s L.A. radio DJ Art Laboe (still taking prisoner’s requests in the 21st century) flit through the story like someone flicking a light switch on and off. Kushner doesn’t know how to end the novel, which barely matters; by the time she starts faking the plot, the reader understands that the story doesn’t need an ending, because the real story won’t have one. One line I’m still turning over and over: “People are stupider and less demonic than some can admit.”    

7. “Images en Lutte: La culture visuelle de l’extrême gauche en France (1968–1974),” Palais des Beaux-Arts, Paris (February 21–May 20) 

Mostly May ’68 posters, many made at the École des Beaux-Arts over a few weeks of hurry, excitement, and fear that the new world glimpsed as art students worked in concert could vanish overnight, and the posters looked like the analytic committee work they were. They didn’t have the casual flair or scrabbling insistence of the utopian graffiti that covered the walls and hoardings of Paris at the same time, which the show ignored. But in the back, off to the side, was La Datcha, a painting, from just a year later, of five radical French philosophers. Credited to Gilles Aillaud, Eduardo Arroyo, Francis Biras, Lucio Fanti, Fabio Rieti, and Nicky Rieti, it too was a collective work, but there was no sense of a group effort; the six dissolved into one whom they didn’t bother to name. They were having fun picturing a scene of absolute solemnity, in the style of a sort of socialist realist suburban pastoral. There was a very modern house, comfortable chairs, a gorgeous sunrise, all set up to catch a perfect May ’68 fantasy, matching perhaps the most inspired graffiti: “Run, comrade, the old world is behind you!” There was a plaque attached to the frame with a subtitle: “Louis Althusser hesitates to enter Claude Levi-Strauss’s dacha Tristes Miels, where, already reunited, are Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault, and Roland Barthes, at the moment when the radio is announcing that workers and students have decided to joyously abandon their past.” They all look miserable, but your eye is drawn to Foucault, in the foreground, the only one not frozen in the tableau, who really does seem to be thinking it over, plotting how he’s going to escape the curse of redundancy that, the painting says, the rest definitely will not.  

8. Mekons 77, It Is Twice Blessed (Slow Things) 

Over the Mekons’ forty-plus years, Jon Langford and Tom Greenhalgh have emerged as principal voices; in the beginning, in 1977, in the art student milieu of the University of Leeds, Mark White and Andy Corrigan were the singers, Greenhalgh and Kevin Lycett played guitar, Ros Allen, who would soon form Delta 5, played bass, and Langford played drums. They each do here what they did then, not with “Where Were You” or “Never Been in a Riot,” from their very first singles, but with new songs that could have been written and played right alongside of them. The argument is that while the affirmation that clatter and hum trump all other values might not have carried the band through forty years, once every forty years, with the title of this album continuing that of the band’s first, it’s a punk rock grail.

9. Michelle Goldberg, “A Grotesque Spectacle in Jerusalem,” the New York Times (May 14) 

“The juxtaposition of images of dead and wounded Palestinians and Ivanka Trump smiling like a Zionist Marie Antoinette tell us a lot about America’s relationship to Israel right now,” Goldberg wrote — and her line about the Presidential Daughter tells us more about Trumpism than a thousand fulminating screeds, let alone the NOKD sneers that continue to appear in the likes of the New Yorker (see, or don’t, Ann Beattie’s recent “Tasting Notes for a Teetotalling President”). What Goldberg wrote won’t change anyone’s mind. It won’t change anything. But it adds to the record that people will have to sift through if the republic emerges from these times with any sense of what it was and what it was supposed to be.

10. Philip Roth, 1933–2018  

Which was his great subject. Before and after everything else, Roth was a patriot, and consumed by the complexities of loving one’s sometimes hateful country. American PastoralI Married a Communist (to me, his best book), The Human StainThe Plot Against America, and The Great American Novel are proof of that. I’m sure he wanted to live to see Donald Trump gone. But his death saved him from a lot of torment, and deprives the rest of us of a voice unlike that of anyone else.

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