Real Life Rock Top 10

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1) Kaleidoscope, “Please,” from “Infinite Colours, Infinite Patterns — The Best of Kaleidoscope” (Edsel)

It’s no fun, the specter of — the specter of SPECTRE stepping out of James Bond movies and into everyday life, leaving postal workers dead in Washington, the vaporized thousands brought back to life for a few paragraphs and then returned to nowhere each day in the New York Times, and whoever is next by whatever means are next. Songs that cut all the way down are too painful to put on when you know that’s what’s coming, and too real to take off when they’re spinning. “Please,” sing this 1960s Los Angeles psychedelic country-blues band, digging so far down into the mine of the word you can feel as if you’ll never have the will to escape it. But the New Pornographers’ “Letter to an Occupant” is still No. 1 my chart.

2) A friend writes:

“People magazine, 10/22: ‘Cuttin’ Heads,’ John Mellencamp (Columbia), reviewed by Chuck Arnold: ‘Now that American flags are adorning every front porch, it’s time to dust off the old John Mellencamp discs — mostly the ones where Cougar was still a part of his recording name. In the ’80s he carried the banner for Americana, with a string of hit albums including …’

“Sorry — I just can’t transcribe more. Flags on ‘every front porch’? Even Mellencamp’s ‘little PINK houses’? Shouldn’t John Ashcroft be looking into musicians by now? Mellencamp carried the ‘banner’ for the meretriciously titled radio format ‘Americana’? This will probably come as a shock to — well, come to think of it, Gillian Welch and Wilco could use a shock. By the way, this is the same ‘Johnny Cougar’ whom I interviewed one night in L.A. at the Starwood Club in the ’70s and who told me, ‘This country has a big ol’ heart, but it’s also got politicians who’ll break it every time.”

3) Evelyn Nieves, “Bastion of Dissent Offers Tribute to One of Its Heroes” (New York Times, Oct. 22)

Regarding a testimonial at the Oakland City Hall for Rep. Barbara Lee, “for being the only lawmaker in the House or the Senate to vote against granting” George Bush “the authority to use military force against terrorism”: “Few here would argue that Ms. Lee would have received this hearty a celebration anywhere in the country.” Not that to the New York Times anywhere in California has ever really been part of the country.

4) William A. Shack, “Harlem in Montmartre: A Paris Jazz Story Between the Great Wars” (California)

It’s at the very end of this short book, in “Le Jazz Cold: The Silent Forties,” that the late Berkeley anthropology professor gets to the Zazous: “By December 1941 these young people began appearing in cafes off the Champs-Elysées and the Latin Quarter … In the metro you might see a young man or woman board a car, raise a finger in the air and say or cry ‘Swing’ and take a hop, before shouting ‘Zazou, hé hé hé, za za zou.’ Then three slaps on the hip, two shrugs of the shoulder, one turn of the head. Finished!”

They weren’t serious jazz fans — with their flamboyant hairstyles and zoot-suit clothes, they were jitterbuggers. Soon the collaborationist press was calling for their heads — wasn’t getting rid of scum what the Nazis were for? – -and weren’t a lot of these degenerate cosmopolitans obviously Jews? When in 1942 all Jews in Occupied France were forced to wear Yellow Stars, Shack writes, “Many non-Jews abhorred the decree and themselves wore a star on which they wrote BOUDDHISTE, GOÏ, or VICTOIRE” — Zazous wrote “SWING.” Thugs cut their hair off. They had songs, like the 1943 “Ils Sont Zazous,” written by Johnny Hess and M. Martelier, where a country notary arrives in Paris dressed in the formal business attire of about 1900, which in the provinces has never gone out of style — and in Nazi Paris finds himself the epitome of cool: “Hair in wild curls, eighteen-foot-high collar … a jacket that drags on the ground.” “There resides the spirit of all Zazous,” the tune ended: how many perished? How many went on, in the streets or watching from the cafés, to cross the line of the midcentury, to ride the next wave?

5) Jean-Michel Mension, “The Tribe: Conversations with Gérard Berréby and Francesco Milo,” translated from the French by Donald Nicholson-Smith (City Lights)

A man swims back through rivers of alcohol to the Paris of the early 1950s, when he was a teenage delinquent with borrowed ideas in his head and cryptic slogans painted on his pants. As an intense and subjective account of the creation of a subculture, this is also a true work of bookmaking, with illustrations and marginalia so completely contextualizing the story it doesn’t matter if you have no idea who any of the characters are or why anyone is talking about them now. With a passage like this — just a man in his mid-’60s sitting in the same café that today is just across the street from the Mabillion Métro station — you don’t stop: “The real neighborhood was here, at the Café de Mabillion, on the Boulevard Saint-Germain. Not the Dupont-Latin. The Dupont-Latin was the port, or the beach, before the great departure; and you had to cross the Boul’ Mich’ — leave the Latin Quarter, was the way we put it — and make the voyage from the Dupont-Latin to the Mabillion: that was the initiation. Most people got lost, got drowned, on the way over. There were some even who went back home right away, but the vast majority of the people from the Dupont drowned crossing that ocean.”

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6) Hoarding, rue de Seine, Paris (Oct. 7)

Posters and leaflets, announcements and ads, glued to the board, ripped, decaying, pasted over, new, photocopied, expensively printed, mostly in multiples: for an Andy Warhol gallery show, job listings, a chamber music concert, city and country tours, more gallery shows, museum exhibitions, real estate agencies and, always only partly visible from under something else, readable whole only by putting the pieces from three different places together, a big black-and-white square with block letters in English: “I WAS HONEST.”

7) Steve Erickson, “L.A.’s Top 100″ (Los Angeles Magazine, November)

Records made in Los Angeles from 1930 (Jimmie Rodgers) to 2000 (Eminem), and perhaps only a novelist could write a list that so fully tells a tale you don’t even think about what’s been left out. Certainly only a native Angeleno would include such hidden touchstones as the Premiers’ 1964 “Farmer John,” Charlie Parker’s 1946 “Lover Man,” the Mamas and the Papas’ 1967 “Twelve-thirty,” the Jewels’ 1954 “Hearts of Stone” or Ray Charles’ 1963 “That Lucky Old Sun.” No one but the author of “Amnesiascope,” though, could have written “snapping the beat to set the tempo, [he] was upstaged by his own fingers” (Tennessee Ernie Ford, “Sixteen Tons,” 1955), “Phillips probably didn’t notice that the young girls coming to the canyon were named Kasabian and Krenwinkle” (“Twelve-Thirty”), “Robert Johnson by way of Marilyn Monroe” (Julie London, “Cry Me a River,” 1955), “holding his own soul hostage” (Percy Mayfield, “Please Send Me Someone to Love,” 1950), “Their record company decided it would bring this Ann Arbor band out to L.A. to keep it under control, which was like bringing the Black Death to 14th-century Europe to control the world’s rodent population” (the Stooges, “Loose,” 1970) or turn Los Lobos’ 1984 “A Matter of Time” into an account of how Ritchie Valens actually got up and walked away from that plane crash that killed Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper.

8) James Mathus & His Knockdown Society, “National Antiseptic” (Mammoth)

The Squirrel Nut Zippers have their old-music cabaret act down, but they’re too cute. So the North Mississippi Allstars, who are not cute but don’t sing as well as Mathus, shove the Zippers’ leader face down into the dirt and he comes up spitting it out, but not all of it. Charley Patton’s “Shake It and Break It” turns into rubber band music, but there’s a rhythmic undertow to all the best tunes here, pulling back against the dominant rhythm, the players questioning the voice and vice versa. “Spare Change” (“Ain’t worth a dime today”) is dark, deadly, the blues as Chuck Berry once defined them: “When you ain’t got no money.” It’s a modest version of Otis Rush’s deep-blues “Double Trouble,” all on the surface, as deep as it has to be.

9) Fastbacks, “Waterloo Sunset” ands Heather Duby, “The Way Love Used to Be,” from “Give the People What They Want: The Songs of the Kinks” (Sub Pop)

Aren’t tribute albums terrible? There isn’t a performance on “Hank Williams: Timeless” (with Bob Dylan, Sheryl Crow, Mark Knopfler with Emmylou Harris, Emmylou Harris with Mark Knopfler, Keith Richards, Beck and Johnny Cash on hand) worth playing twice. “Give the People What They Want” features mostly performers who wouldn’t know how. But here — with the two most uncoverable songs Ray Davies ever wrote — two singers, faced with exquisite melodies they cannot in fact sing, humble the songs before the flatness of their own voices. Duby doesn’t even try to make “The Way Love Used to Be” — a reach into a past that never existed that is so passionate you can imagine it was composed by Jack the Ripper — her own; she merely lets it carry her. Can she keep the song’s promise? Yes, because while Davies was singing to himself, Duby is singing to another person, a person she has herself made real. “Terry and Julie” in “Waterloo Sunset” might have been Davies’ wave to Terrence Stamp and Julie Christie, but as Kim Warnick looks out the window of the song’s old man, she is both of the people she gazes at; she owns the world.

10) Wayne Robins writes:

“20 Oct: I’m riding the subway this afternoon down from Times Square. Three black men with plenty of mileage on them get on unobtrusively at 34th St. One of them says to a woman in a loud voice: “Ma’am, do you know what time it is?” The elderly man sitting across from me looks at his watch and yells back, ‘One o’clock.’ ‘No!’ one of the trio shouts gleefully. ‘It’s doo-wop time!’ At which time the three men begin singing one of the most beautiful a cappella versions of ‘In the Still of the Night’ I’ve ever heard. As I reach into my wallet to put a dollar in the contribution bag, I realize my face feels turned inside out from smiling. It was the happiest I’ve been for 60 seconds in the last five weeks.”

The Rude Mechs' theatrical adaptation of Greil Marcus' book "Lipstick Traces" will play Jan. 30-Feb. 1 at DiverseWorks in Houston. For more columns by Greil Marcus, visit his column archive.

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