Real Life Rock Top Ten

A Monthly Column of Everyday Culture and Found Objects

by Greil Marcus

(1) Tacocat, NVM (Hardly Art). Like Seattle’s Fastbacks and Portland’s All-Girl Summer Fun Band, this group from Longview, Washington—singer Emily Nokes, bassist Bree McKenna, drummer Lelah Maupin, guitarist Eric Randall—are boiling over with the thrill of writing a song, making it into something that can be played, and discovering that as it happens you love the people you’re playing with. The voice is jaded, the sound anything but, and the world that comes into view is a trick, but you can slip its grasp and take off—through the bubbling warmth of “You Never Came Back,” the surge of “Bridge to Hawaii,” so sweet you can’t believe it still hasn’t been built, and “Snow Day,” which soars to the sun. “Crimson Wave” might be the door that flies open first. You don’t have to catch that it’s a protest against menstruation (“All the girls are surfin’ the wave / surfin’ the crimson wave today”): when Randall’s whomping guitar solo kicks in it’s just punk surf music, shooting the same curl as the Forgotten Rebels’ unforgotten “Surfin’ on Heroin.” The song explodes with its own conceit, with the way there’s absolutely no end to what you can find when you take an idea, a riff, a single pissed-off thought, and run with it—something like the tossed-off “Sew a scarlet letter on my bathing suit,” or the matter-of-fact “There are communists in the summer house,” a line that leaps out as such a perfect non sequitur that it doesn’t even have to be a metaphor that can drop right back into the song. I love this band.

(2/3) James Agee, Cotton Tenants: Three Families, with photographs by Walker Evans (Melville House Books) and Alana Nash, “Elvis as a Teen? See a Never-Before-Published Photo from His Hometown in Tupelo, Mississippi,” Vanity Fair.com (January 8). Cotton Tenants collects the recently discovered thirty-thousand-word essay that turned into Agee and Evans’s 1941 Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. In contrast to the sweep and scope of that book, which rides the same American wind as Moby-Dick once the Pequod ships off, the piece—a never-printed 1936 assignment by Fortune magazine—pitches between fastidiousness and rage, coldly matter-of-fact summaries of infant mortality and flatly reported accounts of family economies, snide dismissals of individuals turned into types, and, for individuals who for a moment escape all typology, an awestruck respect that Agee seems almost desperate to suppress. Agee never finds an even keel, because he doesn’t want one. But Evans did want a stable perspective, a certain distanced, confident stance that allowed his subjects—men, women, children, their houses, their beds, their walls decorated with advertisements—to appear as both iconic and ordinary, as individuals and as objects, as poor people smashed by the cotton economy, and as art. It was this—as Agee, in the more than four hundred pages of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, dove so far down into the lives he chronicled it’s not clear he ever came up—that has allowed Evans’s pictures to enter the common American imagination as images that were not made but found, and that allows you to see them everywhere, as if Evans’s eye were not his at all but that of the country itself, dreaming its fractured, free-associating dream. For example: the 1936 picture made of the farmer and three children in Hale County, Alabama, that appears on the cover of Cotton Tenants, the man leaning with casual dignity against a support beam of his shack, the kids with their wet hair slicked back to look nice for the camera, and a recently surfaced photo, by an unnamed photographer, of a thirteen-year-old Elvis Presley, alone with his bike on a Tupelo street in 1948, his blond hair also slicked back, his face proud, and what might as well be exactly the same man in the first picture just to the boy’s right, the same hat, maybe slightly better clothes. You don’t have to know that Evans took photos of soil erosion in Tupelo in 1936—or to imagine that he came back years later to follow up and had his eye caught by a boy on the street who reminded him of children he’d shot before—to know that in the deepest sense he made both pictures.

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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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