May 2012

Real Life Rock Top Ten

A Monthly Column
of Everyday Culture
and Found Objects

by Greil Marcus

(1) Alison Faith Levy, “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” from World of Wonder (Mystery Lawn Music). On an album of children’s songs, this glorious recording—with startling new verses pitting a mouse against a cat, a monkey against a tiger, a hippo against a snake, and the spider against a bumblebee—comes forth huge, pounding, with a passionate vocal from Levy and, from producer Allen Clapp, the most convincing re-creation of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound anywhere. Precisely, it’s “Itsy Bitsy Spider” as the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby,” the feeling bigger with each chorus, and each chorus more ambitious, more deliriously affirming Levy’s animal-kingdom moral fables.

But Spector, now serving nineteen-to-life for second-degree murder in the 2003 shooting death of the failed actress and House of Blues hostess Lana Clarkson, remains as much an author as Levy. Released in 2009, Vikram Jayanti’s trial documentary, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector, can leave you almost certain that Spector did not kill Clarkson (after watching his attorneys present forensic evidence at his first trial, which hung the jury, you can imagine Spector bringing out a gun, showing it off, listening to Clarkson talk about how worthless her life had turned out to be, and then handing it to her: “Go ahead and kill yourself, I don’t care”). On February 21 the Supreme Court refused to review the case; as Spector waits out his time, I hope this puts a smile on his face.

(2) Eleanor Friedberger at the Independent, San Francisco (February 4). Appearing with Friedberger were a drummer, a bass player, and guitarist John Eatherly, who’s likely in his mid-twenties, looks sixteen (“That song was about fun times,” the thirty-five-year-old Friedberger said at one point, “back when I was his age”), and has the fastest hands I’ve ever seen. He reminded me of Tim Lincecum: he seems to invent melodies as he plays others, and he can shred. His face is always quiet; there’s a lyrical slide in his attack that takes the coolness off what might seem like technique for its own sake, and if his lyricism is still a step or two away from soul, it will come. Friedberger herself is impossible to fix, a singer who at her most distinctive comes across like someone arguing over the phone. A rambling, seemingly scattershot set turned on a dime with the unreleased “When I Knew.” It’s the kind of bouncing, emotionally blunt song the radio was invented to play, a song you hear once and then play over and over in the radio of your memory, hoping that when it is released it’ll sound half as right. For an encore, Friedberger came out alone and sang “(Ummm, Oh Yeah) Dearest,” recorded by Buddy Holly on acoustic guitar in his Greenwich Village apartment the month before he died, when he was younger than Eatherly. The song is so perfectly written (by Ellas McDaniel—Bo Diddley—Prentice Polk, and Mickey Baker) that it doesn’t seem written at all, and Friedberger let it sing itself, as if she were following a step behind, in love with the way every barely sung “Ummm, yeah” opened into catacombs of affection and regret.

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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