Real Life Rock Top 10: Robert Johnson, ‘Her Smell,’ Pete Buttigieg

Real Life Rock Top Ten” is a monthly column by cultural critic and RS contributing editor Greil Marcus.

1. Overheard at “The World of Bob Dylan” symposium, University of Tulsa (May 30-June 2): “I’m 71 years old. When will excruciatingly boring fat men cease trying to hit on me?”

2 Erin Durant, Islands (Keeled Scales). I’ve played this album a dozen times over the last two months. Sometimes Durant’s piano seems to be drifting in from a neighbor’s window; then it might all but fade out as she plays. From Brooklyn by way of New Orleans, Durant has a tiny voice that never presses; it can feel as if it’s been under your skin, in the back of your mind, for years, and then you might not be able to remember it. But her playing and singing can call you back, trying to hear what she’s not saying. The first number here, “Rising Sun,” opens one verse with “There is a house in New Orleans,” another with “Take me to the river,” but neither connects to an old song as deeply as the way Durant faintly admits she’s “a little drunk”—there’s a movie of a whole life in her few words, running backwards

To put this record on is in a certain way to risk never turning it off.

3 & 4, Bruce Conforth and Gayle Dean Wardlow, Up Jumped the Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson (Chicago Review Press) and Remastered: Devil at the Crossroads—A Robert Johnson Story, directed by Brian Oakes (Netflix). Robert Johnson, 1911-38; as the title of the 1961 album that introduced the 29 songs he recorded in 1936 and 1937 to the world put it, “King of the Delta Blues Singers.” He has travelled down to our time with the legend that he sold his soul to the devil for the right to outplay anyone who was ever born. Despite their devil-mongering title, the longtime blues researchers Conforth and Wardlow claim to have settled the matter against the underworld—and you don’t have to believe a ghost of the story to be appalled by what they’ve done to it. Ignoring the testimony of the blues scholar Mack McCormick (1930-2015) and the blues guitarist Mike Bloomfield (1943-81) that the tale of Johnson’s deal with the devil was a widely shared and dispersed story going back to the 1940s, Conforth and Wardlow source the claim solely to the blues critic (at the start, that was his beat at Rolling Stone), researcher, and record producer Pete Welding (1935-95), and his quote from Johnson’s older compatriot Son House: “He sold his soul to the devil in exchange for learning to play like that.” In a cowardly manner, not naming Welding but unmistakably fixing him, the authors imply that he both plagiarized his supposed interview with House, and made up House’s supposed statement out of whole cloth. Running the previously impossible trick of proving a negative, Conforth and Wardlow insist that House never said any such thing—because, as one reader of the book who has himself weighed in on Johnson over the years puts it, “Well—he just couldn’t.” That the book is marred by all kinds of errors, some of them merely sloppy, some of them stupefying—stating that Johnson’s 1990 Complete Recordings “has sold more than fifty million copies in the United States alone,” which, as a two-CD set, would make it by far the best-selling album in history, not to mention amounting to one copy for nearly every sixth American, including infants, undocumented immigrants, and racists who would never let an object with the face of a black person on its cover into their houses—makes it difficult to trust any given particular in the vast and humbling trove of biographical information the authors have assembled, let alone this.

It’s an epic labor of devotion to facts large and small—and that, harvested especially from interviews with Johnson’s contemporaries (many of them, going back to 1967, conducted by Wardlow), is where the value of the book lies, to the point that one can imagine the the loudness of the dismissal of the deal-with-the-devil as most of all a commercial hook. Detail upon detail of family life, love affairs, marriages, education both formal and in the blues, apprenticeship, musical partnerships, travel, hoodoo practice, composition, recording, popularity, career pursuit (it’s wonderful to read that while passing through New York, Johnson tried to get on the national CBS radio showcase Major Bowes Amateur Hour—and that “Frank Sinatra originally appeared on the show as part of the Hoboken Four quartet in 1935”), craft, money, and death does demystify the always mystified and for that matter self-mystifying artist in an accumulatingly powerful and valuable way. But while Conforth and Wardlow can explain Johnson’s music, they can’t convey anything of its novelty or daring—of the shock, on the part of people in Johnson’s time or ever since, of encountering the music. The prose rarely rises above lumpiness: “Robert’s rambling had become both his main way of traveling from one job to the next and his way to satisfy the need to just ‘get up and go.’” There is more than a hint of a certain animus, or distaste, for the way Johnson lived his life: “They frolicked,” the authors write, describing a single Mississippi night, “until Robert went home with one of the women or collapsed drunk on the floor,” which means they have no idea what Johnson actually did that night—he could have stayed up reading Walt Whitman. They find nothing more gratifying than being able to reduce art to biography: for the meaning of “Dead Shrimp Blues,” recorded in San Antonio in 1936, “it might not be necessary to look any further” than the fact that San Antonio was a good place to eat shrimp. And even that kind of reduction leads to a greater reductionism: that of the essential hollowness in the sensibility that is brought to bear in what is finally a charmless book. “One can,” they say of “Hellhound on My Trail,” “sense a certain angst in this song. It’s not a happy piece.” To which the world shakes its head in awe: Really? I never thought of that!

For all of its self-presentation as an exercise in exploitation, the Remastered documentary, with animated sequences of the devil granting Johnson his powers and, of all people, Bruce Conforth as the principal walk-through narrator, may ultimately be more sophisticated about the old story, which, I think, no one ever really believed, but which has taken so many so far. “It’s a metaphor,” says Keb’ Mo’, “for a person to go ahead and become who they are.”

5 Kelly Hunt, Even the Sparrow (Rare Bird). Growing up in Memphis, now in Kansas City, Hunt plays a soprano banjo, which sometimes jumps right out of a song as if it wrote it and is demanding credit. She’s not exactly afraid of song titles, or taking on—or taking down—whatever one might bring to them: on her first album her own songs include “Across the Great Divide,” “Back to Dixie,” “Men of Blue and Grey,” “Delta Blues,” and “Gloryland.” “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?” opens with plucked notes on the banjo; Hunt lets the instrument shape her syllables. From the first instant you know you’re in a place where there is no sense of time, where anything can happen and no one will ever have to admit to a thing: “You go to your pasture, I’ll go to my field.” The high voice snaps; the mood insists you’re listening to a murder ballad, but no matter how often I go back to the song I can’t tell you if anybody dies—the faraway drift of the song as it begins to give up on itself, to give up on life, sweeps me away from whatever the story might be every time.

6 13th Floor Elevators, “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” in Charlie Says, directed by Mary Harron (IFC). In the only film treatment of the Manson saga that captures the bone-rattling nightmare of Ed Sanders’s The Family, which is credited as source material, this 1966 song finds a new voice. It always had a dark, doomy feeling, and it was always sort of a cartoon. Here it feels like a wolf running over a hill in the dark with a hand in its mouth.

7 Her Smell, written and directed by Alex Ross Perry (Bow & Arrow Entertainment). Who knew that Gloria Swanson, who in 1966 appeared on an Avalon Ballroom poster for a Big Brother & the Holding Company show—the 1924 Edward Steichen portrait, her eyes burning through a veil—would turn up half a century later as the face of riot grrrl? Sixty-nine years after Swanson shot William Holden in Sunset Boulevard, Elisabeth Moss’s Becky Something is Norma Desmond from first to last.

8 Timothy Hampton, Bob Dylan’s Poetics: How the Songs Work (Zone Books). Forget the main title; the subtitle describes what happens here. With a style that turns analysis into a form of suspense, Hampton can walk you through “Visions of Johanna” or “Summer Days” the way the art historian T. J. Clark can walk you through Manet’s Olympia. There’s the same generosity of spirit, the same love for the work and the social meanings it absorbs, transforms and sends back, as with Hampton on Dylan’s so-called Sinatra albums of the last few years: “Dylan suddenly became a ‘folksinger’ who turned songs that”—like the 19th century composed and copyrighted parlor songs that A. J. Carter re-copyrighted and turned into what everybody embraced as Carter Family songs—“were initially thought to be the very opposite of ‘folk songs’ into folk songs.” Which doesn’t begin to catch the delight Hampton takes in criticism, as with his account of “Tombstone Blues” and the line “Ma Rainey and Beethoven once unwrapped a bedroll” as “a rewrite of Chuck Berry’s ‘Roll Over Beethoven’ (now we know we who Ludwig was with when he rolled over).”

9 DJ Khaled, Saturday Night Live (NBC, May 18). The Emperor’s New Clothes, with, lining the streets and cheering him on, John Legend, Lil Wayne, SZA, Big Sean, and Lil Baby—not to mention LeBron James, Al Gore, Felicity Huffman, Tiger Woods, Beto O’Rourke, and an ultrasound of a six-week fetus.

10 Trip Gabriel, “Pete Buttigieg (It’s ‘Boot-Edge-Edge’) Is Making Waves in the 2020 Race,” New York Times (March 28). “‘I think there’s still an attitude in some parts of the party that what we have to do is find the final proof that Trump’s a bad guy and show it to everybody,’ Mr. Buttigieg said in an interview. ‘What it misses is there’s a lot of people where I live who were under no illusions about his character. They already get that he’s a bad guy, but they made a decision with their eyes open to vote to burn the house down.’” Didn’t Chris Stapleton say that?

Thank to Emily Marcus, Robert Cantwell, Elijah Wald, and Ramona Nadaff.

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