Real Life Rock Top 10

Greil Marcus is the author of "Mystery Train," "Lipstick Traces" and "Invisible Republic," among many other books. His column "Real Life Rock Top 10" will appear every other Monday in Salon Media.


Greil Marcus
August 7, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

August 7, 1999

1. Ga Va "Scarred for Life," on "Slapp Happy" (V2)

Inside an empty Middle European cabaret Dagmar Krause is singing. She's seen the whole of the century. She's not opening the door.

2. She Mob "Cancel the Wedding" (Spinster Playtime Records, P.O. Box 170694, San Francisco, CA 94117)

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As with such modest, cutting 1980s U.K. punk combos as Delta 5, women singing like people having real conversations. Increasingly funny, vehement, distracted conversations. For example, "Why did I become a teacher? Why did I become a teacher?" For all the right reasons, but --

3. James Marsh, director "Wisconsin Death Trip" (BBC Arena/Cinemax)

In 1973 historian Michael Lesy, working from an 1890s archive left by the town photographer of Black River Falls, Wisconsin, published a book of this name. It was a study of morbidity replacing vitality in the conduct of everyday life, a chronicle of seven plagues -- childhood epidemics, murder, suicide, insanity, drought, tramp armies and economic ruin -- and the story of how the Depression of the 1890s all but dissolved the assumption that is the bedrock of ordinary affairs: that tomorrow will be like today. Using unbearably intense frame-enlargements of family pictures, Lesy focused on disassociation in eyes, on horror around mouths. The time seemed very far away.

In James Marsh's poetically cruel film -- rumored to be set for its world premiere over Labor Day weekend at the Telluride Film Festival, which never announces its program in advance -- the distance of then from now seems our conceit, and Marsh collapses it. Using a steely, low-contrast black and white for the 1890s, color for underplayed footage of Black River Falls in the 1990s, and working almost without faces, re-enacting incidents Lesy unearthed -- the if-I-can't-have-you-nobody-can killings that in our newspapers seem like weather reports and here appear as parables scripted by Jim Thompson, or a 125-year-old Wisconsin Susan Smith, peacefully waiting by the water after drowning her children -- Marsh leaves only the quiet as an anomaly; salvation through vengeance seems not part of a time but part of the land.

Marsh uses very little music, and what he does use is extraordinary: At one point bluesman Blind Lemon Jefferson's "See that My Grave Is Kept Clean" from 1928, and, throughout, a variation of DJ Shadow's "Stem/Long Stem," the highlight of his epochal 1996 "Endtroducing ..." Jefferson's profound song is an argument with death; the singer surrenders, but as a guitarist the same man backs away, circles around, almost dances, the arcs of sound young, supple, a dare. Shadow's piece -- a purloined note layered until the theme constructed from it seems not made but found, always present, a reminder of something you just can't catch -- is calming, comforting. But in the reassurance of the repetition there is a suggestion of no way out, and before long the music is sinister before it is anything else. It's always struck me as film noir -- not film noir music, but a whole, generic film in the music itself -- and now it is, with film noir backdated 50 years from the '40s, and set in a small town in the Midwest.

4. Mark Pellington, director "Arlington Road" (Sony Pictures)

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For the scene where Jeff Bridges' Professor of Urban Terrorism stumbles into his terrorist neighbors' backyard cookout -- bizarre not just because he doesn't even notice the Ruby Ridge Body Snatcher who murdered his FBI agent wife, or because the gathering is set up to match the closing ghoul-fest in "Rosemary's Baby," but for the music that's playing. "Yes, after a hard day of smashing the state, we like to get down with the cool '70s sound of KC and the Sunshine Band -- don't you?"

5. Bonnie "Prince" Billie "i see a darkness" (Palace)

Lots of people go back to the hills and say they've seen a darkness; Will Oldham of Louisville, who usually records as Palace, just asks you to trust him. He sings a lullaby that takes you to the edge of sleep, where you realize the music is saying you might not wake up. "Nomadic Reverie" is just that -- until terrible voices begin to echo from the hills Oldham keeps in his back pocket. "Woo-woo, woo-woo" -- it's the sound Jeff Bridges can't get out of his throat.

6. Jonathan Van Meter: "The Tyranny of the Hit Single: What's a Record Exec to Do with Aimee Mann?" New York Times Magazine, July 11

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Still whining after all these years, the former 'Til Tuesday voice continues her Harold Stassen act: She had a hit in 1985. Given that her principal talent is for converting self-deprecation into self-celebration, with luck and a lot of critical support she could become the next Lucinda Williams.

7. Kristin Hersh "Sky Motel" (4 AD)

The former Throwing Muses singer presses on as well. Wan ballads in a thin voice, Appalachian standards, her own tunes, it all comes out the same: air conditioning.

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8. Tentacles "Louie Louie Got Married" (K 7' single)

He'd be 43, but the people at the wedding don't sound a day over 17.

9. ELVIS at UCSF Medical Center (Nuclear Medicine, basement, 505 Parnassus, San Francisco)

A dirty white contraption in the middle of a corridor, 4 feet high, 3 feet wide -- with a gorgeous black-and-white glossy of Elvis from "Loving You" laminated on the front. On the back is an Elvis tableau that, it turns out, changes with the holidays: On March 15 he's a leprechaun -- why not Julius Caesar? -- for St. Patrick's Day, an Easter bunny the next week. Signs on machine: "DO NOT BRING ELVIS INSIDE (CUDA) EVEN IF NOT WORKING" and "NO LAB SPECIMENS IN ELVIS." Two yellow headlights on the front look like eyes.

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A technician comes up and starts to press buttons. "What's this?" he's asked. "It's a robot," he starts to explain, when a doctor passing by indignantly corrects him: "It's Elvis!" It turns out to be an autonomous refrigerated drug-delivery apparatus: i.e., it's full of drugs. You program it, it navigates the hallways to its destination. The eyes register obstacles; bumpers around the bottom protect the walls when the eyes don't work. You don't have to pay it and it doesn't get benefits.

ELVIS ("Some kind of acronym," a pharmacist says. "Evasion/Sensory ... I don't know where the 'L' is") took off down the corridor, eyes blinking. "Be careful he doesn't hit you," the pharmacist said to a woman in the hall. "He's supposed to know better," she said. "Elvis wouldn't hit a woman." It just missed a wall, then smoothly turned a corner and disappeared.

10. Department of Yeah, Right, Death Trip Division, Midwestern Subsection San Francisco Chronicle, July 27

"Heat advisories were posted yesterday from Kansas eastward through the Ohio Valley and over parts of the Southeast. Temperatures throughout the region hit the 90s and reached triple digits with the heat index.

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"The weather was blamed on eight deaths in Cincinnati over the weekend, 11 deaths in Illinois in the past week and five in Missouri."


Greil Marcus

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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