DECEMBER 17, 2020
LARB PRESENTS THE DECEMBER installment of “Real Life Rock Top 10,” a monthly column by cultural critic Greil Marcus.
1. Yard sign, 6100 block of Hillegas Avenue, Oakland (November 8). Designed just like a BIDEN-HARRIS sign, reading:
PRESIDENTS ARE TEMPORARY
2. Walter Mosley, The Awkward Black Man (Grove Press). None of the stories here is predictable, even if the reader might begin to notice how large amounts of money turn up at the end of many of them. The characters surprise themselves. An alcoholic homeless man named Albert (“I live in a hole in the ground,” he says, “but I’m not homeless”) is picked up by a white woman named Frankie, who hires him as a decoy while she shoplifts (“I won’t steal,” he says, “but I don’t mind walkin’ around in a store”). Like the other Frankie, she has a gun and uses it. Unlike the other Albert, he ends up with peace of mind, and $83,000 he’s put away from begging on the street.
3. David E. Kelley, The Undoing (HBO). A sleepwalking suspense thriller without suspense or thrills, though Nicole Kidman’s hair does give a whole new dimension to over the top. I reread the novel it was based on — or you could maybe say platformed on — Jean Hanff Korelitz’s You Should Have Known (2014). It’s about a well-off, middle-aged woman living out the unthinkable, and even more skin-crawling the second time around.
4. Andrew Martin, “A Dog Named Jesus,” in Cool for America: Stories (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Dialogue —
“Oh man,” Clyde said, deliberately shifting the conversation. “Today a guy came into the store asking for a book to give to his girlfriend. He says, ‘What’s the one about the famous magician? The one with Leonardo DiCaprio?’ And I’m thinking, I’m thinking.”
“Oh no,” Allison said.
“And suddenly I realize what he’s talking about. I ask him, ‘Do you mean … The Great Gatsby?’ And he’s all relieved. ‘Yes! Dude, thank you!’”
“It is a pretty misleading title,” Jake said.
“It should be about a magician,” Leslie said. “A magician who hypnotizes women into thinking he’s Leonardo DiCaprio.”
— that’s pretty typical of the attitudes Martin’s people use to work their way into a future that barely seems like an idea. Plus a nice invocation of “The old, fake America” — “People in cities.” “I should move back to New York and be a brand consultant or whatever.” “Yeah, follow your dreams,” Jake says.
5. Eternal Beauty (2019), written and directed by Craig Roberts (Samuel Goldwyn). Sally Hawkins goes nuts. Since her whole career is about someone balancing on a knife with sanity on one edge and insanity on the other, to have her go all the way in either direction isn’t interesting. The way songs are used in the film is. The blandness of Ricky Nelson’s “I Will Follow You” makes it ordinary, giving the characters just a thin layer of believability. The madness around the edges of Beth Orton’s “Blood Red River” creeps over everything as nothing on the screen quite does. Willie Nelson’s “Blue Skies” can make you think everything in pop music is a lie.
6. Nobody’s Baby, “Acid in Marin” (Spotify). “I don’t fucking remember!” This fierce and unclassifiable San Francisco four-person combo — I’ll call them hardcore tattooed doo-wop, today — starts at the top. Every time you think Katie Rose, with a shade of Grace Slick in “Somebody to Love” in her voice, but with a warmth Slick was never interested in, can’t go any farther, she does. But the bass might draw you into a song that under the noise you can barely follow. Or the guitars. And then Rose is back, shouting, No! Listen to me!
7. The Doors, Morrison Hotel: 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition (Elektra). As these now inescapable expensive reissues go, this is very discreet. There are no facsimiles of concert tickets or hardbound art books picturing Doors T-shirts from every country on earth. What there is is the original album as LP and CD, and one disc of outtakes and rehearsals on the two most interesting songs. There is the jazz ballad, “Queen of the Highway” — you can almost picture Jim Morrison composing it, mouthing it to himself as he writes lyrics on a bar napkin somewhere in Santa Clarita. And there’s “Roadhouse Blues” — and that, after nine stabs and versions, with at one point Morrison declaiming, as if in an old-man alkie bar in Hollywood where he can be sure no one will pay any attention to him, on the real meaning of roadhouse, blues, and everything else, could go on forever. The song doesn’t so much get better as it gets more — grabs more musical geography, sets you down in any town off any interstate, and lets you, for a while, feel at home. The song becomes more of itself, wrapping around itself like a snake, tense, scared, and thrilled to be right where it is, where it can say anything, dive into be-bop-a-lula glossolalia, shout, “Save our city!” as a patriotic oath. “I woke up this morning and got myself a beer / The future’s uncertain and the end is always near” — it’s pretentious, but Morrison can make you feel as if you’re doing just what he’s describing and feeling just like he says.
8. “Daydream at the DMV,” GEICO Insurance commercial (Martin Agency/Horizon Media). Guy in his 60s waiting in line but deep in a reverie where he’s a biker heading up a mountain with the Troggs’ “Wild Thing” coming out of his mouth. “Wild thing / I think I love you,” he says in his own voice before realizing he’s at the head of the line and the clerk, played by Bonnie Hellman, looking about the same age, maybe older, is waiting for him to remember where he is. She stares up at him — way up at him; she seems to be about five feet tall — amusement playing over her face. “I think you owe us $48.50 — wild thing,” she says mordantly. But there’s just a hint she wouldn’t mind a ride.
9. Hillbilly Elegy, advertisement (Netflix). Glenn Close in an American flag T-shirt six sizes too big and looking mean and indomitable, Amy Adams bulging out of her cut-off overalls and looking Fuck you looking at? Absolutely fulfilling the Firesign Theatre on their 1970 Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers: “Presenting stories of honest working people as told by rich, Hollywood stars…”
10. Uptown Theatre marquee, Hennepin and Lagoon, Minneapolis. It went up months ago, the election has come and gone, it hasn’t changed: YOU’RE STILL HERE? IT’S OVER. GO HOME GO.