1. Lana Del Rey, “Looking for America” (Interscope). This airy, at times almost a cappella ballad is being called a protest song about the massacres in Gilroy, El Paso, and Dayton. I’d call it a song of refusal, and what makes it go in like a knife in the heart is the specificity of place — the way the singer floats over Fresno or Lake Placid, looking down as if they could be wiped out in an instant, if they haven’t been already. “It was quite the scenic drive” — the cynicism in the way she tosses off the line carries the whole sense of what the whole country has surrendered.
2. Sleater-Kinney, The Center Won’t Hold (Mom + Pop). It makes too much sense that after 22 years drummer Janet Weiss, the center of the band, quit. She’s here, and you can hear her being told what to do. It’s a producer’s record; everything sounds like a special effect.
3. Peggy Sue Gerron and Glenda Cameron, Whatever Happened to Peggy Sue? (Togi Entertainment, 2007). She died last year; at 18 in Lubbock, Texas, she let Holly’s drummer Jerry Allison bully her into marrying him. Holly met Maria Elena Santiago in New York and proposed to her on their first date. And then Holly tells Peggy Sue that he’s getting a divorce and she should too, since they should have married each other. Then he dies and she has to go on living.
4. Bill Wyman writes in: “So I’m several hundred miles south of Darwin, Australia, hanging out in a park with an Aboriginal guide, who’s telling our small tour group about her family’s ancient lands and taking us back several generations in her family line. Her grandfather was a noted person, she tells us — a fierce activist for Aboriginal rights and a noted author. Turns out he was also white. At a certain point she gets to her own parents, and shows us a picture of her dad.
“‘Everyone called him Elvis; I don’t know why,’ she says.
“‘Wait a minute,’ I say. ‘You don't know who Elvis is?’
“‘Well, yes,’ she says.
“‘But you don’t know why someone would call him Elvis?’
“‘No,’ she said, sincerely.
“‘Maybe because he’s incredibly handsome and is riding a fucking alligator looking like Marlon Brando in The Wild One?’
“She shrugged. ‘I thought it was because of his hair.’”
5. Quentin Tarantino, Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood (Sony Pictures). Los Angeles, 1969 — when, according to this movie, there wasn’t a single good song on the radio. When well into more than halfway through the Rolling Stones’s 1966 “Out of Time” comes on — not playing via the agency of any character, just dropped over a scene — the relief is like a wave that started in Japan coming down on the beach at San Pedro. Then it’s back to the sludge.
6. Geoff Dyer, “Broadsword Calling Danny Boy” — Watching “Where Eagles Dare” (Pantheon, 2018). Step by step through the greatest action movie ever made, with Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood behind German lines and passing as Nazi soldiers “so fluent in German that it sounds indistinguishable from English.”
7. Robbie Robertson, Sinematic (UMe). The accompaniment, both by other musicians and other singers, is restrained and subtle, almost spectral — except on “I Hear You Paint Houses,” a hit-man duet with Van Morrison where by the end Robertson, barely a singer, and Morrison, perhaps the purest singer of the last 60 years, are intersecting with each other within single words, with Morrison sounding like himself and Robertson like a character who’s listed in small type in the cast of a 1950s noir. That allows the best songs — “Dead End Kid,” where Robertson’s own background as a teenager on the fringes of the Toronto Jewish mob is the background, or “The Shadow,” starring (both on the 1940s radio show and here) Lamont Cranston and Orson Welles — to breathe and move. But ultimately the album comes down to “Once Were Brothers,” from the documentary Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band, an adaptation of Roberston’s 2017 autobiography, Testimony, premiering next month at the Toronto Film Festival.
In Testimony, Robertson recounts his discovery of a brotherhood within the brotherhood of the Band: Levon Helm, Rick Danko, and Richard Manuel were all using junk, creating a closed circle that shut Garth Hudson and Robertson out. With “Once Were Brothers,” the Protestant-funeral-procession cadence carries the story but allows you to forget the music; it’s something Robertson, as a singer, or more completely a witness to his own tale, can pace himself to. The song starts out harsh — “Once were brothers / Brothers no more […] There’ll be no revival / There’ll be no encore” — and there shouldn’t be, the song says, even if we were all here for it: “We lost our connection / After the war.” As the song approaches the middle-eight, with both the music and Robertson pressing down just slightly, but enough to let you feel as if something is about to change, there’s a feeling of suspense. The war Robertson is talking about is a civil war, with the Civil War draped over it: “We already had it out / Between the north and south / When we heard all the lies / Coming out of your mouth” — with who you is left to the listener. Levon, lying to Robertson about heroin? Naysayers, whoever they might be? Robertson, lying to himself? The whole idea of the Band? Or whoever loves their music?
8. Erica L. Green and Stacy Cowley, “For-Profit Failure Clouds Education Dept.,” The New York Times (July 23). Randy Newman has made no secret of his delight in licensing: “I sold it to toothpaste companies, mule-packing teams,” he once said of his “I Love to See You Smile,” from the 1989 movie Parenthood. I wonder if he got paid for the cover of “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” from the 1995 Toy Story, recently put out by a lawyer for the Dream Center Education Holdings college chain, which despite the best efforts of Betsy DeVos and Co. collapsed in January: “We’ve got a friend in Trump […] Too many regs, were way too tough / After so many years / We’d just had enough, but / Now, we’ve got a friend in Trump.”
9. Andrew Shaffer, Hope Rides Again: An Obama Biden Mystery (Quirk Books). It’s March 2019, just a little more than a month before Joe Biden announced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination. He’s almost but not quite made up his mind, and he and Obama are in Chicago for a connection that might help — who turns up dead. The real story, as with Hope Never Dies from last year, is in Biden’s attempt to untangle his psyche from the awe that overtakes him whenever he gets within a foot of Obama, and if Obama as walk-on-water, even in Schaffer’s Biden’s eyes, isn’t quite believable, Schaffer’s Biden is. It’s his narrative voice telling the story, all doubts and hesitations, as if you’re as trapped inside Biden’s head as he is, as if you want to burst out of it and into the light, into the race, as badly as he does. “Forward,” he says at the end, looking over the Chicago skyline, thinking about a city still acting out the legacy of slavery. “Barack looked at me sideways. ‘What’s that?’ ‘Our campaign slogan, from 2012. Forward. We keep moving forward, even if the current keeps pushing us back.’ I paused. ‘I’m paraphrasing from The Great Gatsby,’” Biden says, maybe thinking of the plagiarism scandal that sank his first run, back in 1988. “I’ve read it,” Obama says. “I suppose you have,” Biden says — someday, if only in this series, he’ll drop a line Obama can’t pick up.
10. Richard Russo, Straight Man (Random House, 1997). “I was about to achieve glory, and now I never will,” says the hero, a 50-year-old English professor who thinks that if he acts as if life is but a joke that it won’t be on him; he’s just awakened from a dream where he’s starring in the big game. “Someone left a cake out in the rain, I think, my dream sliding away on greased skids, and I’ll never have that recipe again. I’ve always feared the day would come when that lyric made sense.”
Thanks to Steve Erickson, Emily Marcus, and Steve Perry
Greil Marcus is the author of, among other titles, Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus, Writings 1968–2010 and Real Life Rock: The Complete Top Ten Columns, 1986–2014, and the editor, with Werner Sollors, of A New Literary History of America. He was born in San Francisco and lives in Oakland.