“Real Life Rock Top Ten” is a monthly column by cultural critic and RS contributing editor Greil Marcus.
1. Nobody’s Baby, “Life of a Thousand Girls” (Bandcamp). “All the ingredients to an American classic, the Teenage Death Song,” says this San Francisco foursome of itself. “Noboby’s Baby formed around the idea of capturing the raw honesty buried in early 60’s cheese schlock.” Fair enough, but that doesn’t touch the dramatic hesitations or the pathos that Katie Rose, also of Dirty Denim, puts into the music. It’s as if her absolute seriousness is fighting off her own self-mockery. “I-I-I’ve lived the life of a thousand girls,” she sings to trebly guitars, through a tricky doo-wop change, to a high, chirpy chorus, in a voice that’s simultaneously rich and poor, a thousand years in the line each of the six times she lets it out.
2. Green Book, directed by Peter Farrelly (Universal). Yes. But what does Little Richard think?
3. Lt. Col Ralph Peters (Ret.), Anderson Cooper 360 (CNN, February 21). Bill Brown writes in: “‘It comes down to money!’ Peters says. A changed man — he used to appear on Fox News — he’s talking about the transactional relationship between Putin and Trump. ‘In the immortal words of that American neo-Marxist philosopher Cyndi Lauper,’ he says, ‘“money changes everything.”’ Cooper is smiling. ‘I’m trying to get the image of you sitting in a room,’ he responds, ‘analyzing the music of Cyndi Lauper from the neo-Marxist perspective.’ ‘Actually, I’m really more of a Velvet Underground guy,’ Peters says.”
4. Elvis All-Star Tribute Hosted by Blake Shelton (NBC, February 17). Part recreation of Elvis’s 1968 Singer Special (as in the sewing machine company, which sponsored it), known ever since as the ’68 Comeback — footage from the original show was intercut continually, to the point of Shelton dueting directly, and not badly — and part crapshoot — “Heartbreak Hotel” asks for understatement, but Jennifer Lopez’s only answer to any question is histrionic — this was not embarrassing. With a few more turkeys — Pistol Annies, Josh Groban, Yolanda Adams — most performers seemed honored by the songs, to be saying that only their best would do. Darius Rucker came on like an amateur for “One Night,” except that his voice is too good: He made you realize how big the song is, how much it wants, from the world or whoever sings it. Steve Binder, producer of the 1968 show, told a scary story about Elvis learning the finale for the night, “If I Can Dream,” the ballad that never mentioned the assassinations that year of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy, but carried them as if each word was a pallbearer — a story so strong it didn’t fade when Shelton led Rucker, Post Malone, Carrie Underwood and more through the number against footage of Elvis’s physically clumsy and emotionally harrowing original. Priscilla Presley and daughter Lisa Marie were zombies, but Don Was led a subtly nimble rockabilly band that gave those who could use it a perfect setting, and no one was better than Adam Lambert, of 2009 American Idol infamy, with “Blue Suede Shoes.” He looked to be having the time of his life. He sang with limitless pleasure without missing a step. He wore blue suede shoes. He wore blue nail polish. He made the song new.
5. Steve Binder, Comeback ’68 / Elvis—The Story of the Elvis Special (Meteor 17 Books). With redundant titling reminiscent of a mid-’70s Elvis budget album, this handsome, LP-size book is not what anyone might have expected. For a very short time, Binder broke Colonel Parker’s hold on Elvis — he allowed Elvis to set himself free, and after that Binder was treated like a disease. There is great heart here, moment-by-moment detail, a sense of suspense, and also bitterness. Never again allowed in Elvis’s presence, in the Seventies, well after Elvis’s cataclysmic debut at the International Hotel in Las Vegas, which Binder attended (“At my own expense . . . he was fantastic”), Binder went to Las Vegas to see him again: “I knew right then that it was over.” Elvis didn’t die of drugs, he died of boredom, Binder says, even if that amounts to the same thing. “The Colonel had his final victory. An empty and shameful one at that.” And Binder gets an eloquent last word.
6. Drew Harwell, “Fake Porn Videos are being weaponized to harass and humiliate women: ‘Everybody is a potential target’,” Washington Post (December 30). Scarlett Johansson, on having been “superimposed into dozens of graphic sex scenes” posted on porn sites: ‘The internet is a vast wormhole of darkness that eats itself.’”
7. The Killer Inside Me, directed by Michael Winterbottom (Revolution Films, 2010). I’d seen this precise adaptation of the 1952 Jim Thompson novel before. I’d never noticed that as the psychopathic small-town Texas deputy sheriff Lou Ford, Casey Affleck pitches his voice to precisely match Bill Clinton’s. It’s a hunch on his part, a joke, an argument: Listen for two minutes and try to deny it.
8. The Plagiarists theater group, Münsterspiel, written by Gregory Peters, directed by Jack Dugan Carpenter (February 22). Jon Langford reports: “Behind the Albert E. Berger mansion on the shores of Lake Michigan we gather in a Chicago Parks District coach house to witness time collapse. It’s 1534, OK, and all your punk rock hopes and dreams are bursting into brilliant flame in the German city of Münster. The Anabaptists are radical, heretical and sexy and they’ve taken over the town. Using buckets of hyper-protestant love power they’ve kicked out the Bishop/Prince for being a drag and punched a hole in the space-time continuum Doctor Who stylee. This isn’t going to end well. Peters based his play on literary and theatrical dramatizations of the proposition that long-suppressed histories of seismic social eruptions create non-linear cultural connections across all borders — so here the Stooges and Pistols provide the soundtrack as the big man in the big hat with the big chair teams up with an epoch-straddling black ops force of ultimate cosmic negativity to quell the dissent with B-52s and some old fashioned testicle-slicing. When the reluctant and useless smart-aleck Anabaptist leader John of Leyden gets branded (physically and figuratively) with corporate logos by a hooded Xbox shooter game assassin, it reminded me of Peter Cook’s disillusioned George Spiggott/Devil character in the movie Bedazzled: ‘I thought up the seven deadly sins in one afternoon. The only thing I’ve come up with recently is advertising.’”
9. Benvenue, “Days to Years” (Benvenue/Tunecore). The pauses in the harsh noise, not far from Bush’s “Glycerine” but more metal, the clear tone of the singer’s voice — “Truth be told, you were never there—never there” — the desperation of the reach in the music: for four mostly former Cal football players who named themselves after the one-mile Berkeley to Oakland street where some of them had their first student apartment, this song would have sounded at home on the soundtrack to Blindspotting, not only the best Oakland movie released in 2018, but also the best American movie. I had my own first student apartment on the street myself, at the Berkeley end — now I live on the same street a block over the Oakland line. It’s a quiet street with rose bushes; it doesn’t feel remotely like the sound the band makes. Until you remember it’s also the street where Patty Hearst was kidnapped.
10. Loose Wing, Loose Wing (Loose Wing). A Seattle band led by singer and guitarist Claire Tucker. Out of nine songs, “Learn Your Lines” sticks hardest. There’s a thinking-it-all-over feeling that calls up “Angel of the Morning” by Merilee Rush and the Turnabouts — another Seattle band, from 50 years ago. They walked the same streets, and maybe some of the same dirt rubbed off. Nothing can be rushed, both songs say, but Tucker goes farther when she lifts up for the last word of a verse: “I hardly ate my sophomore year/Learned to get a failing grade/I didn’t come back from winter break/But I knew that I was right.”