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Greil Marcus’s Real Life Rock Top 10: Bettye LaVette Rewrites Dylan, George Washington Claps Back

1. Bettye LaVette, Things Have Changed (Verve)

She started singing in Detroit in 1962 at sixteen; her career didn’t really begin to come into focus until fifty years later. Her first single was a hit; the next forty years were snakebit. In A Woman Like Me, her 2012 autobiography written with David Ritz, LaVette describes what her future looked like to her in the 1970s: “I’d walk into a bar, order a drink, and watch a woman in her sixties singing in front of a makeshift band. She was fifty pounds overweight. Her makeup was running. Her clothes were frayed. I could hear that once upon a time her voice had been strong, but now her voice was shot. Her eyes were sad. While she sang, she worked the room, urging the patrons to stuff a dollar bill or two in her bra. Some did, but most didn’t. At one point, a guy screamed, ‘Let’s turn on the jukebox. Anything is better than this bitch.’ I wanted to slug the guy. I wanted to cry. I wanted to stop seeing myself in this woman.”

That future that didn’t come to pass is in the performances of Bob Dylan songs that make up this album — most of them obscurities from the 1980s on, “Emotionally Yours,” “Seeing the Real You at Last,” “What Was It You Wanted.” What is not in them is whatever past the songs themselves might carry, even when they’re “The Times They Are A-Changin’ ” or “It Ain’t Me Babe.” “I wasn’t going to tributize him,” LaVette said in an interview in Bluegrass Situation earlier this month. She had to make the songs “fit into my mouth,” she said, “just as if they’d been written for me.”

That’s how they sound. After the first few tracks, with the unforced unpredictability of the arrangements, the quiet, determined way LaVette enters the music, the open spaces of the band — with the guitarist Larry Campbell, who worked in Dylan’s band for years, playing behind LaVette as if he never played the songs before — you realize you have no idea how any song is going to sound: what it will be.

She needed the songs to fit in her mouth: “The Times They Are A-Changin’ ” and “Ain’t Talkin’ ” — one a programmatic manifesto that has always sounded to me as if it were written by a committee, the other a long, twisting parable of knowledge and revenge — feel like real talk, to the point that you don’t even hear the lines rhyme.

She rewrites the songs by the way she sings them, but she also rewrites the words. Dylan’s “Do you remember St. James Street/Where you blew Jackie P.’s mind?/You were so fine, Clark Gable would have fell at your feet/And laid his life on the line,” in “Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight” here comes out carrying the double first name LaVette was born with: “Do you remember 14th Street/When you blew Betty Jo’s mind?/You were so fine” — as fiiiiiiiiine, the word caressed as it’s stretched over its own whole measure — “Tina Turner would have fell at your feet/And left Ike hanging on the line,” which is the crack of a completely different whip.

I keep coming back to LaVette’s closing track, “Going, Going, Gone.” It was a hole in time on Dylan’s Planet Waves in 1974; now there’s an Ennio Morricone feeling in the opening phrases of Larry Campbell’s steel guitar. Once Upon a Time in the West rises up in the background. But the music deepens, touching the small-label soul records made in the South in the Sixties and Seventies — George Perkins and the Silver Stars’ “Cryin’ in the Streets,” Bill Brandon’s “Rainbow Road,” or LaVette’s own “Let Me Down Easy,” where despair was like the lead instrument. “Going, going, gone”: LaVette takes the phrase, the idea, to such depths of defeat that the fat woman in her sixties in that nowhere bar is anything but the worst that might come, and as the song goes on, you can hear the singer die over and over again. And yet it’s a perfect last track: It makes you begin again from the start.

2. Steve Eder and Ben Protess, “Hotel Carrying New Trump Brand Secures $6 Million Tax Break,” the New York Times (February 21)

On the opening of the first of the planned nationwide Scion chain, in Cleveland, Mississippi. To take advantage of Robert Johnson tourism. For real: It’s in the business model.

3. “On the Radio,” SFO Museum, San Francisco Airport, Terminal 3 Departures Level 3 (through September 30)

The United concourse features exhibits so alluring you avoid the moving sidewalk and walk to your gate as slowly as you can. Here, along with predictably stunning deco radios from the 1920s and ’30s were much odder pieces: from Arvin Industries of Columbia, Indiana, a 1956 box with the speakers covered in an abstract design based on the cool-jazz cartoons that were running in movie theaters at the time; from Kong Wah Instrument Company in Hong Kong, a 1977 device in the shape of a peanut, with, on top, a bright red grin, Jimmy Carter. 

4. Double Lover, directed by François Ozon, soundtrack by Philippe Rombli (Mandarin Films)

In this movie about sex, schizophrenia, and psychoanalysis — so “freely adapted,” as it says, from Joyce Carol Oates’s Lives of the Twins that, as she says, “I did not really understand the ending” — the main musical theme often drifts in or out of Elvis Presley’s “As Long as I Have You,” from King Creole in 1958. Though there are hints of doo-wop in the structure of the song, and Jesse Belvin in its texture, it feels much later — closer to “Always on My Mind.” It’s corny and powerful, but also menacing: “Can’t Help Falling in Love” as a curse, the voice of someone watching over the characters as they dance toward self-destruction, knowing everything they don’t. But the characters may be even more schizophrenic than they seem. If the heroine is moving into a new apartment in 2017, why is Linda Scott’s 1959 “I’ve Told Every Little Star” playing in the background?  

5. George Washington and Matthew Oshinsky, “George Washington’s Ten Favorite Songs,” Paste (February 22)

Pissed that Alexander Hamilton is getting all the noise, and channeling the voice of Taran Killam’s nineteenth-century movie critic Jebidiah Atkinson, the first president strikes back. Topping his chart: Magnetic Fields’ “Washington, D.C.”  “Ever been to the great city of Hamilton? That’s what I thought.”

6. Tony Kushner and Sarah Vowell, “The Lincoln Legacy: The Man and His Presidency,” Cal Performances, Berkeley (February 21)

It was a pleasure to listen to people who knew what they were talking about. “ ‘Negroes like other people act upon motives,’ ” Kushner quoted from a letter Lincoln wrote during the Civil War. With the context he and Vowell had built, the heresy of someone in the 1860s so casually referring to black people as people went off like the bomb it was. 

7. Denis Johnson, The Largess of the Sea Monster (Random House)

In 2009, Johnson published a crime novel called Nobody Move. It seemed forced and slumming. But “Dopplegänger, Poltergeist,” the last story in this posthumous collection, where Jesse Garon Presley, Elvis’s stillborn twin, if not Elvis himself, appears as the Maltese Falcon, might be what Johnson was aiming for all along. “You could see her mind wiggling right through her eyeballs” — that’s from another story, but it’s how you feel when you get to the end of this one.

8. Darling West, While I Was Asleep (Jansen)

American folk music from Norway, though it could be from Duluth. Inside the always curving modal lines in “Ballad of an Outlaw” and “Don’t I Know You,” there’s a pop insistence that lets Mari Sandvaer get closer to “Always on My Mind” — Elvis’s or the Pet Shop Boys’, it doesn’t matter — than to a traditional song like “John Riley,” and closer to Aoife O’Donovan on Crooked Still’s 2006 Shaken by a Low Sound than perhaps anyone has since.

9. I’m With Her, “Ryland (Under the Apple Tree)” and “Crescent City,” from See You Around (Rounder)

Except, along with Sara Watkins and Sarah Jarosz, O’Donovan herself.

10. Bettye LaVette, “Most of the Time,” from Chimes of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan (Amnesty International, 2012)

Her first recording of a Dylan song. Fit in her mouth? Here she lets the song strangle her.

Thanks to David Ritz, Joyce Carol Oates, and Julia Casey.

 

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TODAY’S SPECIAL

Alas, we’ll never know how close Denis Johnson’s spare, evocative Train Dreams came to winning the Pulitzer for fiction this year. But that doesn’t mean the National Book Award–winning author of Tree of Smoke and the masterful story collection Jesus’ Son doesn’t deserve a grand toast at tonight’s Eat, Drink, and Be Literary event at BAM. Pull up a chair for a buffet dinner, wine, and live music in the BAMcafé after which Johnson will perform a scene with actor Will Patton from his forthcoming book of plays Soul of a Whore and Purvis: Two Plays in Verse. Deborah Treisman, the fiction editor of The New Yorker, will moderate the discussion about his creative process (and, perhaps, that indecisive Pulitzer committee).

Thu., June 21, 6:30 p.m., 2012

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Denis Johnson’s Ukiah Heap

A nine-year-old girl’s voice, clear and fragile as cut glass and accompanied by a lonely piano, intones a prologue of sorts to Denis Johnson’s new tragicomedy. When this rendition of “Desperado,” by the Langley Schools Music Project, begins to play, though the lights haven’t yet dimmed, most of the audience looks up—puzzled or faintly stricken by the old sound of the young voice, the muffled chords lifting away that seem less heard than remembered.

“Desperado” comes from the Langley collection Innocence and Despair, which could be an alternate title for Shoppers Carried by Escalators Into the Flames, circling as the play does around the horrific, decades-past death of a baby girl named Amy. Twentysomething ne’er-do-well Cass (Michael Shannon), four years old at the time of his infant sister’s death, returns to his father’s home in Ukiah, California, to sober up and, perhaps, facilitate the family’s long-overdue reckoning with their defining, deforming trauma. Congenitally pensive Dad (Will Patton) spends most of his hours staring at a television set that, in an offhand magic-realist touch, talks back; in between stations, he reminisces and cogitates in a weak, bewildered drone, his worldview summed up by a pet declaration (usually apropos of little): “Sad . . . beautiful . . . bee-yoo-ti-ful!! . . . sad.” Cass’s older brother, aptly called Bro (Adam Trese), is a drifter seemingly sprung from entirely different genetic stock: Cruel, aggressive, and terrifyingly articulate, he’s crashing with a “retarded woman” (so he says) whom he steals from and sexually utilizes. He prefers stating the obvious to the talking cure Cass proposes. “We are fucked up!” Bro brays. “And I don’t mind it! I enjoy it!”

This brood takes a grim pleasure in martyring themselves under their hair-shirt past—Bro brandishes his eidetic memory of Amy’s death like a weapon at younger sister Marigold (Gretchen Cleevely), who’s too young to remember it; he seems at once to resent her relative innocence and bitterly proud that his pain is bigger than hers. The playwright himself wrings dark humor from bloodstained back pages. While Johnson’s 1997 “California Gothic” novel Already Dead mined a DeLillo-manqué quarry of cosmically doomed human relations, much of Shoppers hovers tentatively in a key just higher than black comedy—starting with Marsha Ginsberg’s splendid set, littered with ghastly needlepoint throw pillows and a coffee table fashioned out of what looks like driftwood. The telepathic boob tube—tuned in to the family’s biography—mocks, cajoles, and screams for attention; that it shares a sarcastic voice with the local pastor-for-hire (James Urbaniak) is a sly grace note on opiates of the masses. Lent a strong physical presence by the rangy (in all senses) Shannon, Cass is strongly reminiscent of Fuckhead, the sweet-souled druggie in the story cycle Jesus’ Son, and Shoppers strives for a similar defiant lightheartedness, especially when the pointless sideshow of premarital shenanigans enacted by supporting players Kevin Corrigan and Kaili Vernoff starts kicking up a racket.

Explicitly about the interface of what has been and what is now, Shoppers also takes as a given the collision of everyday bullshit with flashpoints of cruelty and catastrophe. The awkward lulls and sudden lurching between distant tones may not always be intentional, but always produce a queasy verisimilitude. Largely a revisitation of ground tread in Johnson’s novels, Shoppers offers as its final scene perhaps the bleakest moment in his oeuvre—one that’s all the more ruthless for having begun with the loopy appearance of a blue-painted sprite (Emily McDonnell) in hippie-Hindu raiment. The indelible last image crystallizes innocence and despair in the form of a sobbing, bleeding child-woman—an outburst of present-tense violence that immediately takes its place as another chapter of the imperious, insurmountable past.

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Speed Trap

There is a scene in John McManus’s short story “The Feed Zone” in which a poor Southern lad participating in a bicycle race swerves off the road to cut off and confront his nemesis—a blond pacesetter with a featherweight bike and a heavy attitude problem. The story, like many in this collection, has to do with weight; the weight of the bikes, but also the weight of apathies, addictions, angers, and cruelties of one sort or another that seem to drag McManus’s characters into the earth even as they race across its surface. But for a story that’s obsessed with weight on a literal level—it speaks of “titanium skewers and water-bottle cages and all the expensive little things [the racers] would buy to make their bikes an eighth-ounce lighter”—”The Feed Zone” has a strange denouement: The blond biker pulls from his racing jersey first a cell phone (to call for help) and then a knife (with which to slash the protagonist’s tires). A cell phone? A knife? McManus must have in mind a gravity knife.

Stop Breakin Down is full of such moments—promising scenarios let down by unaccountable lapses in logic and language. McManus’s stories involve adolescents speeding down Maryland’s highways, barrel-rolling in the south of England, and drinking themselves to death in Oregon, but in almost every instance, the author’s powers of description fail to evoke the plight and pathos we’re meant to feel for his characters. McManus writes about maggots burrowing into skulls, and alliterates and onomatopoeiates like crazy (“Listen to the wind blow listen. Ooooraroorarooo,” one story begins). But this doesn’t make him Cormac McCarthy. He writes about kids on drugs and how it feels to be a drugged-up kid (it feels “whatever”), but it fails to make him Denis Johnson.

There are occasional lightning flashes here: A young man’s manic frustration at his inability to play the banjo comes across clearly and compellingly; the story of a teenage drug dealer who is expelled from high school and takes to peddling E over the Internet (“nobody born before 1976 can use the Web at all period, nobody before 1980 can use it good like us”) captures the inarticulate without resorting to it. But such moments are few and far between. Like his characters, McManus—who is 22, and will be entering an MFA program in the fall—seems to be trying to do too much too soon.

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Anatomy of Melancholy

Charting an American fringe populated with drug addicts, killers, members of obscure Christian sects, and muck-mouthed conspiracy mongers, Denis Johnson has developed a keen eye for the dropout as emotional wreck. True enough, some of his creations have taken up permanent residence in the realm of paranoia and the paranormal, the sort of people for whom brain control via satellite dish is a quotidian concern. But for all his underbelly-gazing and psychotic underpinnings, Johnson’s best characters to date have had one foot planted in a slippery reality. They’re anxious, shifty guys with spotty work records and not much good sense, like Resuscitation of a Hanged Man‘s Leonard English, who flees a career as a Kansas medical-supplies salesman to become a bumbling PI in Provincetown, where he falls for a lesbian and becomes convinced that a local archbishop is leading a militia-like crime ring. Johnson doesn’t spend much time exploring the sources of these characters’ neuroses (English is recovering from a horrifying job, a suicide attempt, and conflicts with his Catholicism). Rather, he takes them as a given, emphasizing the downhill race into nervous breakdown, not its antecedents.

Johnson’s new, compact novel, The Name of the World, signals a jaunt into new terrain, not least because its narrator has a very specific reason to act crazy—and leads an all-too-tame life. This doesn’t mean that Name entirely boils off the weirdness of his previous work. The opening’s tone is measured and quiet, but as the story progresses, Johnson’s inimitable sound-bites-from-the-insane style burns through the fissures of an initially stoic facade.

Almost four years ago, Michael Reed’s daughter, Elsie, and wife, Anne, died in a car accident. In losing his daughter, Reed claims, “I’d lost all of us,” and when Name begins, he still hasn’t found himself. As an uninspired history professor in the Midwest, he ekes out an emotionally dormant, repetitive existence of oppressive faculty dinners and daily ruts as he waits for his adjunct position to dry up. Johnson spends a good deal of time helping us feel Reed’s fading past and empty present. A former speechwriter for a Democratic senator, he no longer votes, and judging from his narrative, doesn’t speak much either, except for imaginary conversations he conducts with the local art museum’s rent-a-cop, with whom he “discusses” “the indiscernible points, the little dimes, where fate takes its sharpest turns.”

No stranger to the theme of dependency, Johnson here portrays a different sort of addiction, not so much to lost loved ones as to going through the motions of grief. Staring at ice-skaters circling the campus rink, the professor thinks of his own methodical orbit around a core of absence:

As I followed my own round over and over I wandered farther and farther from its core, my course less and less beholden to the central shape. For a long time now I’d really had little to do with the source of my grief. I was in fact quite free of it. Yet my devotion remained.

At times Johnson’s prose can feel a bit chilly and distant, caught in a series of burdensome metaphors (in one scene, Reed runs into a head-trauma victim bearing an imaginary torch). But he also shows a deep feeling for the banality of mourning’s aftermath and, as time goes on, produces a tense, damp-fuse portrait of a life smothered by routine. Reed might be devastated, but he struggles with the acute boredom of his sadness as much as anything else. He repeatedly gives the sense that he has rationalized his paralysis to the point that he can’t imagine anything outside of it, and needs something unpredictable to burst his bubble.

The surprise arrives in the form of college student/stripper/performance artist/insouciant caterer Flower Cannon, who becomes for Reed an odd combination of sexual conquest and doppelgänger for his dead daughter. This rings somewhat false—Flower is 26, and Elsie died just shy of five—but the incongruity seems part of the point. Flower becomes not only Reed’s fixation, but an almost mystical presence signaling an exit out of his mundane life, suddenly appearing every time he acts, uncharacteristically, on a “crazy impulse.” Reed searches for a professor he might date, and walks into one of Flower’s comically described performance pieces. He hops a bus to an Indian-run casino, spots Flower as she accepts an award for best stripper, and gets punched in the face by an ex-con he’s just befriended. After years of being carless, he acquires a BMW from a friend, and uses it to follow Flower to what appears to be a Mennonite service, which inspires him to denounce God. Afterward he drives Flower back to her studio in an abandoned schoolhouse for the novel’s most alarming scene.

This last encounter is erotically charged, and at first it seems like Johnson has set up a pat formula to bring on the healing, in which desire for the living trumps love for the dead. What he delivers is something entirely different. It turns out that Flower thinks of the professor as a double too: When she was four, a man who looked like Reed kidnapped her from her backyard, took her to what she calls a gingerbread house, and provided her with her name. Flower’s story—a hodgepodge of alien-abduction narrative, fairy tale, and “Young Goodman Brown”—shows Johnson at his most haunting, in part because it’s so cryptic. While her tale never divulges any specific trauma, it’s certainly ominous, full of ghosts, submerged emotions, and blind spots that plunge Reed, and the reader, into unknown fear and confusion: “What connected these words from Flower’s lips to the accident that killed my family? From them I understood that I could no longer bear my daughter’s death. It was going to break me. And I would have to let it.”

“Am I making sense in this account?” Reed asks the reader late in the novel. Not entirely, but the professor’s dilemma throughout is his relentless clinging to sense and acting too much like an adult. Johnson frees him by demolishing meaning in the end as well as he evokes it at the beginning. Reed’s strange meeting with Flower clearly moves him to a hilariously childish departure from the college town, long-suppressed tears, and eventually a job signaling a return to the world. It’s a happy, somewhat tacked-on ending. But if Name‘s conclusion doesn’t quite hold together, this doesn’t diminish Johnson’s brilliance as a writer—or his point that mourning can become a dull habit, that understanding it too well might only deepen the rut. Grief, The Name of the World powerfully suggests, is a messy thing, requiring a messy exit.

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Your Own Impersonal Jesus

Alison Maclean’s chilly, mopey materialization of Denis Johnson’s story cycle Jesus’ Son might be the supreme screen portrait of ’70s drug culture, except there’s very little culture. The film’s lovable dopenik, referred to only as Fuckhead and embodied in a guileless trance by Billy Crudup, spends the movie of his life between places, waiting for something, waking up in the dead center of nowhere, or wandering rain-sodden highways. Talk about unreliable narrators: FH hallucinates, jumbles his time line, chases after free-associative memories, and focuses on ephemera, and the film leaps and lollygags with him. An opening car crashdoesn’t get completely told until deep into the first hour; like most things about Jesus’ Son,its narrative frazzling is ingenious and smart but self-consciously so. (Example: the split screen Maclean uses to show Fuckhead getting rescued from an OD as a buddy dies in another room.) The blowing-leaf form of My Own Private Idaho had an organic, risky quality that Maclean misses here, and for all of its charming messiness, Fuckhead’s odyssey of cheap rooms and scag buddies leaves no pressing questions unanswered.

The vignettes have a hilarious integrity, particularly the hangout with a Stetson-sporting hot dog (Denis Leary on fire) who takes our easygoing hero to rip out an empty house’s wiring and sell the copper for a fix, and the deadpan sketch-comedy of Fuckhead and a pill-scarfing buddy (Jack Black) working as very stoned hospital orderlies the night a man calmly wanders in with a hunting knife buried in his eye. (Sequences with recoverers Dennis Hopper and Holly Hunter are impeccably performed but negligible.) Much of Fuckhead’s tribulations, however, focus on Michelle (Samantha Morton), an evasive junkie sprite whose romantic demands deaden the movie’s nerves long before her beleaguered boyfriend goes to rehab.

Filthy with talent though he might be, Crudup seems attracted to passive characters, and here as before he’s accomplished (with a sublimely retarded walk) but never dazzling. He didn’t have much of a chance: Like so many novels that beckon filmmakers, Johnson’s is largely attitude and rumination, and though Maclean uses every trick available to make up for the missing inner voice, we never get into Crudup’s mellow loser like we should. Maclean’s got an incisive eye, but it’s poised on the outside of the terrarium looking in.


A sunset painted on black velvet by comparison, José Luis Cuerda’s Butterfly bears no relation to the 1981 Pia Zadora landmark, though like me you may pine for a Pia-in-the-tub scene not long in. Rather, it’s boilerplate Miramax: a sentimental import with lovingly photographed Euro locales, an adorable kid (Manuel Lozano) learning about life (and watching a randy couple rut in a haystack!), a crusty old man (Fernando Fernán Gómez) dispensing wisdom, a tsk-tsk-ready historical trauma (the ascent of the fascists in 1936 Spain). Originally titled The Tongue of the Butterfly (a title that belongs in Pia’s oeuvre), Cuerda’s unconvincing mush could warm the innards of only the truly desperate, or those for whom seeing Cinema Paradiso was a transcendental moment.