Real Life Rock Top 10
Rolling Stone is happy to be the new home of “Real Life Rock Top Ten,” a monthly column by cultural critic and RS contributing editor Greil Marcus.
1 & 2. Lana Del Rey, “Mariners Apartment Complex” and “Venice Bitch” (Interscope). As a song from her announced 2019 set Norman Fucking Rockwell (the Rockwell estate not yet heard from), “Mariners Apartment Complex” can be heard as part of the 100-track album Del Rey seems to be working on. But at more than nine-and-a-half-minutes, “Venice Bitch” is something else. This might be the most expansive California beach record ever made, and not just for its length. As it unwinds, continuing Del Rey’s claim on all of sixties pop music—you can hear the Beach Boys’ “Surfer Girl,” inside that their “In My Room,” you can sense Randy Newman’s “Lucinda” lurking in the background, and, as she chants over and over near the end, the long, shifting version of Tommy James and the Shondells’ “Crimson and Clover”—the whole of the coastline seems to come into view. There’s no hurry. The ribbon will be there as long as you need it—the song might as well serve as a celebration of the reopening of the Big Sur section of Highway 1 this July, after being shut down for more than a year from a mudslide.
It opens like a love letter, prosaic, direct; then a little more than two minutes in it begins to swirl, and you could be listening to an affair that began years ago or has yet to start. As the song goes on it turns into a series of reveries, suspended by the gorgeously sustained sound of liquid guitar feedback: it’s the feeling of a series of clouds passing. Turn your head, look up again, and the last one you saw, the one that looked like a face, is already gone.
3. Amy Winehouse, “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” from Lioness: Hidden Treasures (Universal Republic). The song was an epochal hit for the Shirelles in 1963; it was the kind of swooning, post-doo-wop music Winehouse turned to in the last years of her life, songs that seemed finished but that she heard as dialogues that were still going on. The girl in the Shirelles’ song was asking if her boyfriend would still look at her the same way if she slept with him; with a question like that long in the past for any persona Winehouse might inhabit, she sang as if she were interrogating the world, or even herself.
Mark Ronson’s arrangement is posthumous, and almost a wall against the singer: staccato horns, with unnecessary backing vocals, blatant, harsh, hitting notes of doom, as if to let you know the singer is already dead. What’s uncanny is the way Winehouse feels her way through the song—the way she gets out from under the detritus that wasn’t there when she heard the music. It’s a kind of war between the singer and the producer, who, out of love, wanted to sign the painting too. The voice escapes; no one has sung this song before.
4. Kitchen Sisters (Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva), “The Pack Horse Librarians of Eastern Kentucky,” NPR (September 13). In this riveting seven-minute recreation of a lost WPA program—women riding horses into Appalachian hollers at the bottom of the Great Depression with donated books and scrapbooks they made from used magazines (recipes, ballads, local histories, “dogs, Spain, Nazis, model airplanes”)—you hear the voices of FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt, of scholars and descendants, but most of all you hear Mary Ruth Shuler Dieter, who is 97 and sounds like she’s already outlived time. There are bits of songs in the program, but she makes the music. It’s her voice you wait for: “They were so happy to get a book. Tickled to death. We always sat under the big old chestnut tree. They didn’t know how to read so I read it and read it again so they could understand it.”
5. Jessica Hopper, Night Moves (University of Texas Press). A reconstructed journal of a woman in her early thirties living in the Chicago punk world from 2004 to 2008: though the entries jump around and there’s no sense of time passing (“Living in a city of drunk jocks will keep you punk forever”), as the book goes on the humor is tougher, the point of view sharper, the writer’s purchase on her city like a fist closing. Lines jump out of the this-then-that, all but making you jerk your head: “Whiffing hits of VCR cleaner from a little bottle”—did you read that or hallucinate it? An impatience begins to gather. A lame performer is one thing (“I would say his musical influence is the Capitol Steps. Lyrically, it was more like . . . Rufus Wainwright as a fourteen-year-old chess champion”). Seeing through the complex of gentrification and any bohemian’s insistence that the scene was always over before you got there is a leap far beyond that, but the demeanor is the same. “His nostalgia for the ‘Wicker Park of two years ago’ was enough to turn my stomach,” Hopper says bluntly, as if she’s said enough, but this book is about writing, and the action is in the parenthesis that follows: “(Has Wicker Park even been Wicker Park since Algren left in ’75? Since they stopped finding bodies in the alleys, circa 1999? Boo-fucking-hoo, the ‘cool’ shopping area is not very cool anymore!)” Except for the use of the scare quotes, which is a writer undercutting her own authority, that is as hard as can be.
6. Swearin’, Fall Into the Sun (Merge). From Philadelphia, guitarists and singers Alison Crutchfield and Kyle Gilbride and drummer Jeff Bolt: What it sounds like when people hold nothing back.
7. Marti Noxon, showrunner, Sharp Objects, Episode 7: “Falling” (HBO). In the swampy, sweaty milieu of the town, where the past is both formally and emotionally intercut with the present, the music undercuts the very idea of the present, laughing off its claims to know anything at all. Every episode opens with a needle coming down on an LP. The sheriff gets in his cruiser and it seems like the same Patsy Cline song is always playing. Amy Adams’s alcoholic cutter newspaper reporter lives off Led Zeppelin instead of food. But on this penultimate episode, the lack of focus was acute. In a diner, Jody Reynolds warbling his 1958 death ballad “Endless Sleep” is just barely audible—any louder and it’d be a metaphor, not atmosphere, which in this show is already a metaphor. At a joint in Beantown—the Hispanic neighborhood—it’s Fairport Convention and “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” from 1969: on the jukebox? Spotify playlist? Cook’s choice? Or the playlist in Adams’s characters’s head, because she knows Sandy Denny sang with Robert Plant on “The Battle of Evermore”? At the end, as the case breaks, the worthless husband puts on a record; you barely glimpse the Everly Brothers on the album cover. The show goes out on the slow, deliberate, mystified murder ballad “Rose Connolly,” from their 1958 Songs Our Daddy Taught Us, though this daddy never taught anyone anything.
8 & 9. Cat Power, “Woman” and “Stay,” from Wanderer (Domino, October 5). Despite Lana Del Rey somewhere in the smoke of the background, “Woman” is nothing anyone hasn’t heard before, from elsewhere. The same is true of Cat Power’s version of Rihanna’s “Stay,” but in a different way: one song has moments of exquisite singing but ends up hammering against a wall, and the other is almost an apotheosis. “Stay” became and has remained so popular that it’s now performed as if it’s seeped the bloodstream of anyone who sings it, as if it describes their own memories. As a well of emotion, the song is pure gravity: I don’t know if I’ve ever heard a version that wasn’t almost shockingly soulful, that includes videos by ten-year-olds. Cat Power catches that ordinariness, or maybe it’s truer to say she follows it. She might be noodling around an old folk song, something she thought she knew from some Smithsonian Folkways reissue, like her “Moonshiner” from twenty years ago, and got more than she bargained for.
10. Marianne Faithful,Negative Capability (BMG). A poor, forced album, casting back to her first hit, from 1964, looking back only three years to the Islamic State attack on the Eagles of Death Metal show at the Bataclan in Paris, where she lives. It could also be Lana Del Rey before she was born and after she’s outlived a lot of the people who bought her records.
Thanks to Steve Perry and Davia Nelson.