“Real Life Rock Top Ten” is a monthly column by cultural critic and RS contributing editor Greil Marcus.
1. “Lana Del Rey and Jack Antonoff Debuting New Country Song at the Ally Coalition Talent Show” (YouTube): From December — and can this performance really have had less than 9,000 views? There’s no title: With Antonoff strumming an acoustic guitar, then hinting at a figure, the song refers to Hank Williams in its first verse, but that’s as close to what’s sold as country as it gets. In the melody as it slowly takes shape, in the forest mood, in the faraway lilt of the voice pitched high, as if walking a rope bridge over a gorge, without any details this is a 19th-century murder ballad, half “Poor Ellen Smith,” half “Danville Girl.” The musical intensity once the theme is set—the “I’m unprepared to die you see” line repeating from ballad to ballad and not sung here, but wordlessly acted out—is hard to take; the shouts from the crowd are shouts of recognition, of the thrill and the fright of seeing your own face in the mirror of the song. Will it be on the long-promised Norman Fucking Rockwell? If it is, will anything on Norman Fucking Rockwell be half as good?
2. Billie Eilish, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? (Darkroom/Interscope): Catchy. But The New York Times has invested so much ink and picture space in this performer you might fairly wonder what it expects in return.
3. Billions, “Overton Window” (Season 4, Episode 4, Showtime, April 7th): In someone’s mind, there was an emblematic subtext in both opening and closing the show with a remixed version of Bob Dylan’s 1993 cover of the Mississippi Sheiks’ 1931 “World Gone Wrong”–for this continuing investigation of Manhattan money-tower nihilism, with guitar chords shooting out of the song like bone fragments.
4. “Kentucky Fried Chicken and Waffles,” Golden State Warriors vs. Los Angeles Clippers, NBA Playoffs (ABC, April 21st): The current Colonel Sanders, the one with the grating and bullying voice — but here silent, as, whiter than white, he approaches a life-size brown Mrs. Butterworth syrup bottle, shaped and colored as a grotesque Aunt Jemima parody, and, to “The Time of My Life,” sweeps her off her feet and lifts her into the air in a gesture of absolute ownership: I’m gonna pour you, baby. Unbelievable.
5. “Dream Bigger,” Virginia vs. Texas Tech, NCAA Men’s Basketball Finals (CBS, April 8th): For Mazda, a version of the Cranberries’ “Dreams” just over a year after their singer Dolores O’Riordan was found dead in a hotel bathroom — clueless, or was that the hook? It was followed by a sound-alike Beatles’ “Help” — as with the first number, you buy rights to the song, not the performance, you hire mimics to make it sound as close to the real thing as possible, which is very close, but not close enough to keep you from realizing you’re being fooled, that what you’re hearing is real fake news, not close enough to keep you from feeling not only that the commercial wants your money but that it’s already stolen it. But after that, a Gatorade ad positing a Seventies disco battle between Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck and Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout was just fine.
6. James Lasdun, Afternoon of a Faun (Norton): As a rape accusation from long ago surfaces, a frame of the 2016 election is thinly drawn around the story, until the last pages, at a party to watch the second Clinton-Trump debate, the one following the it’s-all-over release of the “Grab them by the pussy” tapes — when Trump rounded up a rack of women who had accused Bill Clinton of worse and sat them in the front row, and then left his place onstage to menace Hillary like a stalker, and everyone knows it’s in the bag for Hillary, and the frame is hardened and the picture is blacked out. “The nightmarish possibility of his presidency was slipping, mercifully, into the realm of bullets dodged, disasters averted. Some day no doubt novelists would write dystopian alternate histories in which he won, but it was becoming clear, if one had any doubts, that in the real world rationality and basic decency were going to prevail, as they usually did.”
7. Northern Coffee, Minneapolis (March 28th): When I opened the door in the late afternoon, the place was nearly empty. Sinéad O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” was playing, and for a second or two it was simply gorgeous, like being wrapped in a blanket after coming in from a storm. But as it never quite had before, what came across was the violence in the performance: the way O’Connor spits out the last two words of each chorus, cutting off “to you” as if she’s cursing her own memory. Then the John Maybury video, that almost-absolute five-minute close-up of O’Connor’s face, appeared as if it were playing on the walls of the shop, and for the first time I realized where that image came from: the end of Carl Dreyer’s 1928 Joan of Arc, holding on Falconetti’s face as she’s burned at the stake.
8. Jenny Lewis, “Rabbit Hole” (Warner Bros.): From her all-breasts-no-face album, On the Line, a dim version of the Primitives’ “Crash.” She sings “the Rolling Stones” as if she’s heard of them, which means David Bowie got it right with “My brother’s back at home with his Beatles and his Stones/We never got it off on that revolution stuff,” in “All the Young Dudes,” in 1972, four years before Lewis was born.
9. “Warpaint: Live Score + Films of Maya Deren,” San Francisco International Film Festival (Castro Theater, April 19th): Gina Arnold reports, “Cinematically groundbreaking though they may be, Maya Deren’s experimental black-and-white films from the 1940s and ’50s can be difficult to parse when viewed on YouTube (or in a stuffy graduate-school classroom, which is where they’re usually seen). But blown up to fit the massive screen at the Castro and then sonically jet-propulsed by the Los Angeles-based band Warpaint’s tense score was a different story entirely. As on their own collaborations, like the song ‘Elephants,’ which was featured on the soundtrack of the horror film Siren, or the equally haunting ‘Love Is to Die,’ from their second album, Warpaint, the band (or half of it, Stella Mozgawa on drums and Theresa Wayman switching between keyboards and guitar) created a lush, percussive moodiness that perfectly accentuated Deren’s dreamy and beauteous, but often frightening, subjectivity. Hence, what once had to be painstakingly explained by some antic film professor was now made plain: the sinister image of a statue leaping from a plinth to pursue the filmmaker, the horrifying reaper hurrying down the path to the sea . . . these and other arresting images were dramatized by Warpaint’s work so strongly that, for those who were there, the films may now be impossible to watch in any other way.”
10. Cheyenne Roundtree, “EXCLUSIVE: Hey, Mr. Trampoline Man! Bob Dylan, 77, makes sporty updates to his Malibu compound — purchased for $105,000 in 1979 — but keeps true to his folk roots with wood cabin on grounds,” Daily Mail (March 12th): From a drone photo, there is a trampoline; the cabin is built like a share-cropper’s shack, something out of Walker Evans, if not Marie Antoinette’s farm at Versailles. There seem to be dogs on the porch. It looks like a place the Mississippi Sheiks would be renting if they weren’t all somewhere else.
Thanks to Michael Robbins and Steve Perry