Real Life Rock Top 10: December 2022
1. BevMo! Emeryville, California (September 8). Usually the sign over the exit is something from BevMo! top fave Thomas Jefferson: “In nothing have the habits of the palate more decisive influence than in our relish of wines,” for one. This day it was more direct:
2. Daniel Wolff writes in (October 29): “This morning's New York Times had a front-page obit picture of Jerry Lee Lewis. Next to it was the headline, ‘Melded Faith, Power and Politics.’ I thought, ‘That's amazing. They've finally started to get it right.’ The headline was for the Reverend Calvin Butts.”
He was born in 1935: imagine the cool, sadistic satisfaction he must have gotten from outliving almost all of his peers, people he would have shared the bus with on the great rock ’n’ roll package tours that crossed the map in the 1950s, from Fats Domino (1928-2017, first record released 1949), LaVern Baker (1929-97, 1949), Clyde McPhatter (1932-72, 1950), Jackie Wilson (1934-84, 1953), Little Richard (1932-2020, 1951), Elvis Presley (1935-77, 1954), Chuck Berry (1926-2017, 1955), Bo Diddley (1928-2008, 1955), Sam Cooke (1931-64, 1957), Eddie Cochran (1938-1960, 1955), Carl Perkins (1932-1998, 1955), Johnny Cash (1932-2003, 1955), Roy Orbison, 1936-88, 1955), the Everly Brothers (Don, 1937-2021, Phil, 1939-2014, 1956), Gene Vincent (1935-71, 1956), Frankie Lymon (1942-68, 1956), Buddy Holly (1936-59, 1956), Etta James (1938-2012, 1955), (Billy Lee Riley (1933-2015, 1956), Ricky Nelson (1940-85, 1957), and so many more, to Sun Records producers Sam Phillips (1923-2003) and Jack Clement (1931-2013), to at least two of his seven wives and two of his six children, and his first and finest biographer, Nick Tosches (1949-2019)—but not Dion (1939-, 1957) or Connie Francis (1938-, 1955), or the thrill and nuance he brought to the millions of his surviving fans from Siberia to Tierra del Fuego.
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3. Adam Nagourney, “Joan Didion and the Western Spirit,” New York Times, October 7, review of “Joan Didion: What She Means,” Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, curated by Hilton Als (October 11-January 11, 2023). “An excerpt from her 1965 essay, ‘Notes From a Native Daughter,’ highlighted on a wall of the exhibition, captures what it was about Didion’s writing about California that was so compelling,” said Nagourney, who was born and grew up in New York. He was talking about Didion’s lines, “This is what I want to tell you about what it is like to come from a place like Sacramento. If I could make you understand that, I could make you understand California... for Sacramento is California, and California is a place in which a boom mentality and a sense of Chekhovian loss meet in uneasy suspension.”
It really is the perfect thing to put on a wall of a show meant to celebrate someone who’s been called the poet of California, at least by the Easterners to whom, unlike, say, the Beach Boys, she presented the place as fundamentally strange, exotic, alien, all but outside of the country that through Hollywood it presumed to speak for—but which, shrouded as it is in lies, myths, catchphrases, and greed, needed Didion to explain it, in words more than anything pretentious, self-flattering, and completely meaningless.
4.-8. A reader writes in (June 8): “‘Real Life Rock Top 10’ has been missed these last few months, though I'll assume you haven't been completely shut off from the sorts of things that normally get to you. If so, are there any entries you wished you'd been able to cover and/or share with the world since January 2022? What has surprised/enraged/delighted you?” After open-heart surgery in May I remembered almost nothing of what had happened to me and my defenses were completely down. My sense of reality was slippery. I kept asking my wife if I was alive. When I tried to watch the Warriors in the playoffs, I couldn’t tell the games from the commercials. The music seemed the same on both sides and each play seemed to be wrapped up by the announcers the same way the ads used their little punch lines, and I had to turn the TV off.
Music got through: it was all magic, and I’m afraid to go back to any of it and find the magic is gone. One day when I was feeling particularly shaky, I played Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” on my phone three times in a row and broke down weeping in the middle each time. That had never happened in the hundreds of times I’d heard it before, but as the video unrolled behind it—images of the Civil Rights Movement from its ascension to its implosion—it seemed like the only decent response. John Jeremiah Sullivan sent Joanna Newsom’s 2006 nine-minute “Monkey and Bear.” I knew she could cast a spell—I always loved her voice in Be Good Tanyas’ “Lakes of Ponchartrain”—but not like this. This could have been an undiscovered Child Ballad about revenge, as most of them are. It comes in on the air of a tale told by the dead half a millennium before, the dead remembering back from your present. I stumbled on Television, who I always admired without liking, doing “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” for seven minutes, according to this on-line bootleg at CBGBS in 1976. It was stunning. It seemed like a bunch of people trying out the idea, of, you know, maybe, a band, and running a test of whether they are or not with a simple song that everybody knows. They make the passage through the verses feel like climbing a mountain, with no guarantee anyone’s going to make it to the top. When they do reach the summit—the chorus—the sense of release, relief, and liberation, liberation from the song itself, swimming upstream against the verses, washes over you. You realize that what makes the song unforgettable is its kinship with “Row Row Row Your Boat”—with a thousand times the vehemence, a scary momentum, it’s a chorus anyone can sing. Then there was the rehab gym, an expansive room filled with every kind of equipment and wrap-around windows providing a great view of West Oakland and the huge black plumes of smoke rising from car fires in homeless encampments, where the only music they piped in was fifties pop hits. Presumably the idea was that the rehab patients, most of them, like me, just beginning to regain the use of their legs, were old, and would relate—except that at least half the people there were under 50 and most of the people in their seventies and eighties were Chinese immigrants who spoke no English. I kept wondering what they were making of Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers proclaiming, “I’m Not a Juvenile Delinquent,” which seemed to be playing every time I was there.
Then on June 20, two days after I’d been sent home from the hospital after six weeks, eight days before I was sent back for two more surgeries and another two months in the wards, word got out that Bob Neuwirth had suddenly died. He was 82, but in the years I knew him, from 2006 on, no age ever seemed attached to him. He was a painter and a folk singer, but what was most distinctive about him was the way he talked, scratchy and rhythmic, with eons of thought in the tiny hesitations as he chose his words, as if he knew he couldn’t completely trust you or himself.
In 2007, walking down the street at night in Greenwich Village, a couple passed my wife and me going the other way, talking low. The man had a hat pulled down and I never saw his face, but after half a block I realized we’d just passed Bob. I emailed him the next day: You’re in town, I’m teaching a class tomorrow on “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground,” your version is unforgettable, could you come to my class and sing it? He did, and though his home base was Santa Monica, somehow it always worked out that he did the same for the next six years (“I forgot my banjo,” he always said. “I’ll have to do it on guitar”). He was warm, humble, open, but there was a shadow behind that: he was also like a low-level heavy around the edges of the frame in such 1940s noir films as The Strange Love of Martha Ivers or The Killers. Those were roles he played in real life, roles he performed, the roles from which his reputation was made. In the early sixties, at the Kettle of Fish, the bar upstairs from the Gaslight Café, on MacDougal Street, as Bob Dylan’s sidekick and whisperer, the two of them conducting a kind of court of hip, where anyone who approached could expect to be cut to ribbons and sent to Penitentiary L7, Bob Neuwirth was the flame that turned other people into moths. Thinking about that, so far from the person I knew, I realized that if you want to hear precisely what those deadly conversations were like, as real talk, Dylan and Neuwirth’s venom penetrating anybody else’s noise, all you have to do is listen to Dylan’s “Ballad of a Thin Man” from a few years later. You can even tune out the words and listen to the voice as its own sound, telling its own story.
9. Licorice Pizza, written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (Focus Features). Encino 1973: a lot of running around on repeated routes to no apparent purpose other than teenagers on the crooked road to becoming their own parents. Alana Haim is a camera magnet, Bradley Cooper is having more fun as one-time uber-producer Jon Peters than in anything since American Hustle, and at the grand opening of a waterbed store a band without a singer is trying to get what could be “In the Midnight Hour” off the ground. Even though they can change a chord like they’re opening a beer with a church key that doesn’t work, they can’t get the song. They’re just trying. It’s their first gig, no pay, they’re doing it for the exposure, and for a moment it blows a draft of realism into the picture that lingers below the non-stop contrivance of any Paul Thomas Anderson movie.
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10. Bruce Springsteen, “Nightshift,” from Only the Strong Survive (Columbia). His versions of old soul records—and it’s immediately striking how central these songs are as the building blocks of so many of his own songs, not in any direct manner, but for feel, for sensibility, as sparks. It’s not a tribute album; it’s a fan’s album.
The deepest performance, of the deepest song, is for the 1985 Commodores long wave to Marvin Gaye (1939-84) and Jackie Wilson (1934-1984)—and when Springsteen sings the first line, thirty-seven years on now, “Marvin, he was a friend of mine,” you realize it’s one thing for the Commodores to write and sing it: they knew him. For Springsteen it’s something else, and what it is is that someone you’ve never met, who you’ve only heard on the radio, can be just as much a friend as someone in your own band. The enveloping performance video—with what seems like more than a dozen accompanists floating around the singer—opens the song up, until it seems final, an epic that will play in the ether forever. It made me want to hear Richard Manuel sing it—he had a year left when the Commodores put it out.
“He would have killed it,” Springsteen wrote when I mentioned the idea. “I loved this song for years before I ever thought of singing it. I had a favorite little bar where I’d have a late afternoon drink with some regularity. This was a constant on their playlist, and after a tequila or two if this came on I’d have to turn briefly to the wall to hide the tears that reliably fell by the time the first chorus finished. I cut away some of the ‘80s production of the Commodores’ version and then let the song have its way. It doesn’t need much help.”
Great approach for first column in almost a year, and as your substack title clearly states, much more an ongoing personal letter to your friends and fans. I believe this is a format in which your writing and your voice will grow and expand not unlike the amazing end notes to Mystery Train, which now are longer than the original text itself. Welcome back, Greil, and take care of yourself in recovery. I remain a faithful and loyal reader.
Welcome back to the column and welcome to this platform. I have a relation in hospital/rehab limbo right now, and your description is helpful to understanding what he’s going through. Thank you