Real Life Rock Top Ten

A Monthly Column
of Everyday Culture
and Found Objects

by Greil Marcus

(1) Counting Crows, Underwater Sunshine (Or What We Did on Our Summer Vacation) (Collective Sounds/Tyrannosaurus). After five top-ten albums on a tony major, the last in 2008, Counting Crows have put out a set of covers on their own label, some of them from little-known or never-heard bands they came up with in Berkeley in the late 1980s and early ’90s. “Every last bit of it,” singer Adam Duritz writes, “felt utterly unique and every last bit of it was being repeated somewhere else, lived by somebody else, experienced by a thousand ‘someone else’s’ in places all over like Minneapolis and Seattle and Boston and New York City and, of course, in a little town called Athens, Ga., not to mention London and Dublin and Glasgow.” As in those words, and as in all of Counting Crows’ best work, Duritz is sentimental, nostalgic, pleading, shameless; he wears his heart on his sleeve while the band, especially guitarists Dan Vickrey and David Immerglück, do their best to tear it off and throw it around the room. It becomes clear that with no period affectations, no genre inflections, Duritz is a soul singer; he sings to plumb the depths. Whether on Kasey Anderson’s 2010 “Like Teenage Gravity” or Fairport Convention’s 1969 “Meet on the Ledge,” he demands the songs explain themselves to him—why this word leads to that one, why the melody curves away from him when he thought he had it in his grasp, why the song cries out for something he can’t give but the musicians can, must—and the only way to make the songs do that is to sing them. It happens most acutely with Dawes’s 2010 “All My Failures.” In the original, the vocal is thin to the point of preciousness; you can hear the singer listening to himself. You can hear vanity, the way the song may not need you at all—and, for that matter, you don’t necessarily believe the singer believes he ever failed at anything. Counting Crows pushes hard from the start, and in the play that’s instantly under way, Duritz is a witness—to his own failures, sure, but also to yours. And then you are a witness to his, and to your own. And then you play it again, wondering why it sounds so good.

(2) Philip Kerr, Prague Fatale (Penguin). There are probably a number of reasons Kerr wrote this book, the eighth Bernie Gunther thriller, this one set in Berlin and Prague in 1941: to keep the series running, to fool around with an Agatha Christie parody that turns out to be too self-parodying for its own good, and—with a few pages on a dank room, a woman’s head, and a Nazi’s foot on a basin that are so harrowing you wish you could stop reading—to finish the argument over whether or not waterboarding is torture.

(3) Keith Richards on Robert Johnson, from “Love and War Inside the Rolling Stones,” Rolling Stone (May 23). “Robert Johnson, there’s fear there, yeah. A fear of what? If you’ve faced fear yourself, you want to tell other people that it’s faceable. There’s no point in ignoring it. That’s an element of the expression in what we’ve done, in, say, ‘Gimme Shelter.’ Fear is just a viable element, an emotion to use in a song as any other emotion.”

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Greil Marcus is the author of Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century, Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music, and The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy and the American Voice, and other books. His column, Real Life Rock Top Ten, runs monthly in the Believer.

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