Real Life Rock Top 10

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1) The Best News of the Week: “Arrest in punk singer’s ’93 slaying” (Associated Press/San Francisco Chronicle, Jan. 12)

“SEATTLE — A Florida man has been arrested and charged with murder after DNA linked him to the death of rising punk-rock star Mia Zapata in 1993, police said.

“Police said Jesus C. Mezquia, 48, was arrested late Friday in the Miami area. His DNA profile matched a sample taken from the crime scene more than nine years ago, police said.

“Zapata, the 27-year-old lead singer of The Gits, was last seen alive July 7, 1993, in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. Her beaten body was left on a street curb more than a mile away. She had been strangled with the drawstring of her Gits sweatshirt.

“Police had no leads in the slaying. The Seattle music community — including its biggest names, Pearl Jam, Nirvana and Soundgarden — raised $70,000 to hire a private investigator, but eventually the funds dried up.”

2) Donnas, “Spend the Night” (Atlantic)

“Faster than sound,” as Big Brother and the Holding Company put it 35 years ago in San Francisco, up the Peninsula from the Donnas’ Palo Alto. But Big Brother didn’t have Skyline Boulevard in their blood. Speed-shifting on the Skyline turns at midnight, way above the Stanford hills, is just what the Donnas’ new music feels like — except when it feels like X in 1980, the punk band burning their song “Los Angeles” into the pavement like rubber. Today “You Wanna Get Me High” jumps off the radio, as familiar as weather, as much of a shock as lightning hitting your house. “Take It Off” is right behind. This is what rock ‘n’ roll never forgets — or rather it’s what rock ‘n’ roll always forgets, until people like Brett Anderson, Maya Ford, Torry Castellano and Allison Robertson find it.

3) Alison Krauss and Union Station, “Live” (Rounder)

Fine, fine, but across two discs it’s the smallest sound that cuts the deepest: “Forget About It,” sung as if the singer’s walking out on a fight at 4 a.m., her tiredness indistinguishable from her contempt.

4) Michael O’Dell, letter to the editor, City Pages, Minneapolis (Dec. 4)

Among pages of letters praising City Pages editor Steve Perry’s Nov. 27 cover story “Spank the Donkey,” in which Perry argued that people of good will should abandon the Democratic Party in favor of generations of Republican rule sufficient to produce conditions conducive to the election of Ralph Nader: “You should go back to singing for Journey.”

5) Mark Halliday, “Jab” (University of Chicago Press)

Ken Tucker writes: “Pop and rock have inspired some of the worst poetry ever, from Patti Smith to Tom Clark to Jim Carroll to Exene to Jewel to Amiri Baraka (New Jersey could have avoided the controversy over Baraka’s anti-Semitism if they’d just gotten an advance of the Roots’ ‘Phrenology’ and heard him ‘perform’). But Mark Halliday consistently makes music work for him as subject matter. In ‘Jab’ he imagines a session trumpet player during the recording of Jan and Dean’s ‘Surf City’ in 1963:

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“‘I see this trumpet player (was there even a horn section in that song?/ Say there was)/ I see this one trumpet player with tie askew/ or maybe he’s wearing a loose tropical foliage shirt sitting on a metal chair waiting/ for the session to reach the big chorus/ where Jan and Dean exult/ “Two girls for every boy”/ and he’s thinking/ of his hundred nights on his buddy Marvin’s hairy stainy sofa/ and the way hot dogs and coffee make a mud misery/ and the way one girl is far too much …/ Surfing — what life actually lets guys ride boards/ on waves?/ Is it all fiction? Is it a joke?/ Jan and Dean and their pal Brian act like it’s a fine, good joke/ Whereas the trumpet player thinks it’s actually shit/ If anybody asked him, a tidal wave of shit/ Nobody’s asking’”

6) Esperanto Cafe, Christmas night (114 MacDougal St., New York)

In this place that never closes, there are many volumes of “The History of Philosophy,” but no evident traces of Esperanto, the language invented in the late 19th century by a man who believed that if all people spoke the same tongue — “manufacturing a Tower of Babel in reverse,” as Lester Bangs put it — there would be no more war. As snow fell heavily outside, the Rolling Stones’ 1969 “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” was playing. Then came the killingly original blues line that opens their 1964 cover of Irma Thomas’ “Time Is on My Side,” and time really did begin to slide. It was only 107 years before, to the night, that in a saloon in St. Louis a man named Billy Lyons snatched the Stetson hat off the head of a man named “Stag” Lee Shelton, and Shelton, who some called Stagolee, shot him, retrieved his hat and walked out the door.

7) Richard Avedon, “Portraits” (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, closed Jan. 5)

Overfamiliar work, but in the room featuring pictures from Avedon’s “In the American West” series there was a stopper. Some of Avedon’s shots of highway bums are so lurid they’re unforgettable, in the worst, freak-show manner; “Clarence Lippard, drifter, Interstate 80, Sparks, Nevada, August 29, 1983″ was different. Instead of the lantern jaw and killer’s eyes of the other men on the walls, Lippard held himself in reserve. The countless big, dark freckles — or skin cancers — that covered his face and hands spoke for a life lived out of doors; his dark blazer and clean white shirt made it seem as if he were a gentleman farmer out for a stroll. Very handsome, in a moneyed East Coast way, with a full head of sandy hair, Lippard appeared in two photos. One — as if shot from below, showing Lippard from the waist up — softened his features, weakening his chin and turning his nose bulbous; he looked something like Kevin Kline in one of his good-guy roles. But the other picture, shot head-on and cropped at midchest, presented Lippard gazing straight out, his chin strong, his nose hard: in the way he carried himself, daring you to judge him.

His face now suggested Gregory Peck or Robert Ryan; the disease on his skin deepened his face, until you could see Lincoln along with the movie stars. And then another movie star who is not, really, a star: Bill Pullman, in the desert in “Lost Highway,” and then in “Igby Goes Down,” in the asylum.

8) “La Bohème,” directed by Baz Luhrmann (Broadway Theatre, New York, Dec. 22)

The 1896 Puccini opera updated to 1957, complete with cool Marlon Brando references and “Let’s go, cats!” dialogue, but with dying heroine Mimi looking like a leftover from a World War II movie, the men not remotely convincing as either Europeans or artists and the big Rive Gauche set altogether 19th century fin de siècle. Which didn’t matter. The change from garret apartment for Act 1 to Left Bank street for Act 2 was made in half light; when the stagehands, costumed as Paris workers, had everything in place, the audience thought the action would proceed in the shadows. Then the lights were flicked on, the tableau lit up like a firecracker, and a collective “Ahhhhh!” filled the theater. There were prostitutes draped over balconies, a patriotic parade, urchins and clochards, little rich kids in fancy coats, an English millionaire in tails with not-dying heroine Musette on his arm. The scene paid off with Musette’s (Jessica Comeau, this afternoon) long, increasingly passionate “Quando e’n vò” — which in 1959 was turned into Della Reese’s great hit “Don’t You Know.” It was a pure pop spectacle, which made the shift to Act 3, from Let’s Party to Tragedy, seem a little glib.

9) John Doe, “Employee of the Month,” from “Dim Stars, Bright Sky” (Im/BMG)

There’s something of the feel of Randy Newman’s “Vine Street” here, and as a loser’s song it’s convincing. But it’s not half as convincing as losers John Doe plays in the movies, from Amber Waves’ ex-husband in “Boogie Nights” to Mr. Werther in “The Good Girl”: characters so depressed they can barely summon the energy to look away from the camera.

10) Joe Strummer, Aug. 21, 1952-Dec. 22, 2002

“You know what they said? Well, some of it was true!”

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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