LARB PRESENTS the January installment of “Real Life Rock Top 10,” a monthly column by cultural critic Greil Marcus.
1. Queen & Slim, directed by Melina Matsoukas, written by Lena Waithe, with Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith (Universal). The black-Bonnie-and-Clyde plot is so oppressive that at one point a character has to step in and apologize for it — after which the movie doubles down to the point of restaging the iconic outlaw-lovers-and-their-car photo.
But the real movie is in its ambiance, its barely shifting tones, the feel for shadows, faces, settings: “There were scenes that seemed lit only by their eyes,” said a friend.
2. Fran Lebowitz on Toni Morrison in The New York Times Magazine‘s annual “The Lives They Lived” issue (December 28). In the first paragraph, the word “I” appears 10 times. Plus one “me.”
3. Steve Perry writes in on Paul Schrader’s “Notes on Film Noir” (Film Comment, Spring 1972) and Lana Del Rey: “As a description of the way her music admits of no vision of a future, this passage, on what Schrader calls ‘the overriding noir theme,’ stopped me cold: ‘The noir hero dreads to look ahead, but instead tries to survive by the day, and if unsuccessful at that, he retreats to the past. Thus film noir‘s techniques emphasize loss, nostalgia, lack of clear priorities, insecurity; then submerge these self-doubts in mannerism and style. In such a world style becomes paramount; it is all that separates one from meaninglessness.’”
4. Big Thief, Two Hands (4AD). The second 2019 album by the Brooklyn band led by Adrianne Lenker, their second for the tony UK label, and like most groups on 4AD — Bauhaus, Dead Can Dance, Modern English, Throwing Muses, the Breeders, St. Vincent, Deerhunter — not really anywhere.
5. Drive-By Truckers, “Thoughts and Prayers,” from The Unraveling (ATO). As an attack on what people who don’t think and have never prayed say about school shootings, it’s all concept, music and voice, and the concept is a twang so encompassing it turns everything it addresses into corn.
6. Adrienne Miller, In the Land of Men: A Memoir (Ecco). At 25, Miller became the literary editor of Esquire, a job she held for nine years. This cool, careful, enraged book about condescension has quiet humor (“I would come to note some regional peculiarities such as the appearance of John Denver in a great number of the stories from Aspen, Colorado”), perfect pitch (“Like so many other of David’s most deliberately self-deprecating one-liners, this mordant comment has the character of something rehearsed, rehashed”), and an unfashionable stoicism, especially for someone writing a memoir (“Most people leave no legacies”). When finally the fuse that’s been burning under her desk for nearly a decade of literary gate-keeping and risk-taking goes off, you don’t even feel as if Miller is raising her voice, only saying what she means, editing out, as was her profession, whatever doesn’t need to be there: “What I really wanted to do was write manifestos, organize opposition parties, pick fights, scream obscenities into a bullhorn.”
7. Same Game, Different Smokers: A Look at the Tobacco Industry’s Footprint on Black Lives and Black Lungs, San Francisco Public Library (through February 6). Opening with a note that the first African slaves brought to the American colonies in 1619 were sold to tobacco planters, this small exhibition on the marketing of cigarettes to African Americans, curated by Tracy Brown, is full of bombs. You’re first caught by Brown’s signature juxtaposition: a circa 1830 image of the white minstrel Thomas Rice in the midst of his “Jump Jim Crow” jig, a performance that set off the blackface craze that dominated American entertainment before and after the Civil War, up to Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer in 1927, with a 2007 Newport ad showing a band onstage, the black singer jumping in Thomas Rice’s shoes as his white bandmates gape and point at him as if he’s from another planet.
As with the current Duracell blackface ad, this isn’t a matter of the ad-maker’s subconscious cultural memory: it’s the ad-maker’s conscious cultural memory playing on the subconscious cultural memory of the people who are supposed to be attracted to the product. But this is nothing compared to the ads, from around the turn of the 20th century, for Nigger Hair Long Cut Tobacco (“long, curly shreds makes it slow-burning and cool smoking”) and Coon Skin Cigars (copy is a poem featuring sexual innuendo between a black couple around “de coon skin,” which seems to be both their skin and what they might be doing with their cigars). The images and text may seem quaint —
— but not Brown’s own copy:
These ads evoke the idea of separating pieces from the Black body and ingesting them through smoking. One cannot ignore the connections of this idea to the history of public lynching of Black people as a social activity in the United States, a popular practice at the time these ads were running. One of the many disturbing aspects of the public lynching was the collection of pieces from the body of the human being who had just been brutally murdered by savage white supremacists. Attendees would cut off feet, skin, fingers, toes and genitals and then display them in jars in shop windows or even mail them, along with commemorative picture postcards, to their loved ones who may not have been able to make the “social event.”
In addition to portraying humans of African descent as subhuman savage buffoons, Black bodies and the very lives they live are portrayed as chattel or property to be used, exhausted and tossed aside like cigarette butts.
Which is a story you can follow today on signs reading “BLACK LIVES MATTER.”
8. Steve Miller Band, Welcome to the Vault (Capitol). From 1967 to 2016, three CDs of live recordings, alternate takes, official releases, many of them blues, whether “When Things Go Wrong (It Hurts Me Too)” or “Double Trouble,” deeply felt and far less than great, plus a DVD of performances, and what they leave behind is the warm sense of a hit-maker who continues to live out an honest career without taking himself more seriously than he might. Even if he means every note he plays in the devastating outtake of his 1970 “Jackson-Kent Blues” — an answer record to two student massacres — he really is the joker he claimed to be.
9. Santo & Johnny, “Sleepwalk” (1959) in The Irishman, directed by Martin Scorsese, music by Robbie Robertson (Netflix). For the long Joe Gallo sequence, what always seemed like a dreamy stroll becomes perfect music for big black cars on dark big-city streets. It’s the constantly high, piping organ sound, a sense of action within the famous guitar lines that are now mere foreshadowing, that makes the difference — something that was never in the song before. “Just added some sounds,” Roberston says, as if reimagining and then remaking a song that has lasted more than half a century was the most obvious thing in the world.
10. Algiers, “Hour of the Furnaces,” from There Is No Year (Matador). From a band that in its sound does what Adrienne Miller really wanted to do, utter fury — with a chorus of what sounds like real people having fun making music. For a would-be revolutionary protest song, this isn’t easy to pull off.
Greil Marcus is the author of Lipstick Traces (1989) and Three Songs, Three Singers, Three Nations (2015), and the editor, with Werner Sollors, of A New Literary History of America. His book Under the Red White and Blue — Patriotism, Disenchantment, and the Stubborn Myth of The Great Gatsby, will be published next spring by Yale University Press. He was born in San Francisco and lives in Oakland.