Real Life Rock Top 10


Greil Marcus
August 23, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

August 23, 1999

1. Atmosphere "The Abusing of the Rib," on "Stuck on AM -- Live Performances on 770 Radio K" (No Alternative/www.radiok.org)

Drifting out of a studio at the University of Minnesota is a modest, unsettling, finally disturbing question: "What do you love?" The questioner is the earnest, smooth-voiced Slug, of the Minneapolis hip-hop collective Rhyme Sayers; off to the side is the gravelly, much older-sounding voice of Eyedea, a high school student. A piano runs a repeating, regretful line in the background, regretting that all questions were settled before the questioner arrived, but he doesn't buy it. Life has put him on the spot; he means to put you there, too. Still, he makes a beautiful reverie, and you can fall into it and forget yourself, until the very end. Somehow gathering up all the menace of Bo Diddley's "Who do you love" (God help you if it isn't him) and none of the flash, Slug's "What do you love?" becomes the hardest question he can ask. Now so much is at stake you can imagine that you or anyone might mumble, stammer, and then admit it: "Nothing."

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2. "lunapark 0, 10" (Sub Rosa/www.subrosa.net)

Beginning with a ghostly, unbearably romantic minute from Apollinaire in 1912, then thunderbolts from Mayakovski in 1914 and 1920, avant-garde poets read the century, which seems to have finished prematurely; by about 1960 they're mostly talking about themselves.

3. Ad for "Notting Hill" (your daily newspaper)

Snuggled next to Julia Roberts', Hugh Grant's face takes you right back to the silent era, when leading men like Wallace Reid (king of the racing picture -- "The Roaring Road," "Double Speed" -- before he became addicted to morphine) burst from their posters in unthreateningly fruity grins, mugs dripping with lipstick, rouge and the eyeliner that with Grant makes his eyes look like they were cut out of a magazine and pasted on. That's right, he's not human. He's not supposed to be.

4. Dusty Springfield "I Only Want to Be with You" (HBO, 9:30 p.m Sundays)

I have no idea why Springfield's 35-year-old fluffy first hit is so thrilling as the kickoff to "Arli$$," spreading warmth and delight over the montage of Robert Wuhl's sports agent suffering Bill Bradley's no-look hoop, Jesse Ventura's choke hold, Katerina Witt's kiss. Maybe it was just a perfect record; maybe the release is all in the editing.

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5/6. Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band "Kandy Korn" on "Grow Fins
--rarities [1965-1982]" (Revenant) and "The Mirror Man Sessions" (Buddah)

An L.A. band's guitar piece, live from 1968, from the studio the year before, in both cases arriving from a future still ahead of us, a future momentarily circling back to look for a spot in Mississippi in 1930, but missing.

7. Nik Cohn "Yes We Have No -- Adventures in the Other England" (Knopf, 326 pages, $22)

In this map of secret cultures hidden in plain sight -- anarchistic and seeking cultures made by solitaries (a man requesting official recognition as the antichrist; Johnny Edge, now an old West Indian London hipster, in 1962 the Christine Keeler boyfriend who "detonated the whole Profumo affair, blew Harold MacMillan out of office, and so gave the Anglo club a whack from which it never quite recovered") and groups (ravers, Odin worshippers, Elvis worshippers, travelers, Rastas, squatters, every form of contemporary heretic) -- the novelist and pop chronicler has rewritten "The Pursuit of the Millennium -- Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages," Norman Cohn's soul-shaking 1957 study of medieval heretics. "The old religious idiom has been replaced by a secular one," Norman Cohn wrote, "and this tends to obscure what otherwise would be obvious": what we call the present is a bridge over an ancient pit, a bridge built out of wishful thinking. Nik Cohn is more sanguine, but he is more than four decades farther from Hitler than his father was.

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8. Old Time Relijun "Uterus and Fire" (K)

A punk trio that believes in the past -- and that running headlong down a path naked will get you somewhere you want to be. "Jail" echoes both the thrash Descendents of Redondo Beach and Chicago bluesman Magic Sam: desperate, a confession, weird moments of reflection in the noise. "I have a lot of time on my hands," the singer tells you. "I got a lot of good books to read."

9. Magnetic Fields "69 Love Songs," Vols. 1-3 (Merge)

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Stephin Merritt of this and other bands is running this show -- writing all the songs, singing most of them in his cloying, sub-Morrissey voice, listing 90 instruments he plays, including not merely "jug" but "Paul Revere jug," which is to say that the preciousness of the project is all too apparent. (The voice is cloying on purpose, you fool.) But there's something intriguingly tentative and random about the words and the music, in the stupid puns and often slow, counted cadences. Just when you're ready to give up, a different singer will come in like someone on the street waving at the floats in a passing parade. You might find the radiant Shirley Simms hammering an old country vocal to a Bo Diddley beat on "I'm Sorry I Love You" ("It's a phase I'm going through"-- you ought to hear that on "Sex and the City" before the season is out) or Claudia Gonson on "Yeah! Oh Yeah!" -- though the exclamation points are strictly postmodernist. A rough version of the guitar line from the Feelies' "Raised Eyebrows" -- itself the inheritor of every great guitar melody from "Wild Weekend" to "Layla" -- kicks off a very up-to-date version of Paul and Paula's horrid 1963 "First Quarrel." Gonson is flagellating herself over the possibility that her marriage has always been a joke no one bothered to tell her: "Did you dread every phone call, could you not stand me from the start?" "Yeah, oh yeaaaaaaah," Merritt moans in languid ecstasy. It's clear this is how the husband gets off; for the wife you can't tell, but I doubt it.

10. "The Bad Seed" with Patty McCormack (Castro Theater, San Francisco, July 16)

In 1956 a 10-year-old McCormack played an 8-year-old serial killer in blond pigtails named Rhoda; the role was so perverse and her performance so fierce she burned up a whole career in advance. This night, with McCormack appearing after a screening of the film, the theater was packed with raucous gay men, but once the movie started the hooting part of the crowd was often shushed by those who didn't want to miss a word.

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McCormack came out to be interviewed by Village Voice gossip columnist Michael Musto. Instead of the female female-impersonator you often get with half-forgotten mini-legends, she sat down as a fast, cool, completely alive woman in her 50s. She looked like a cross between Carol Lynley and Debbie Harry; Musto couldn't keep up with her. On her Catholic mother refusing to let her do the 1959 shocker "Blue Denim": "[At 14] I thought about that and understood: I was allowed to kill people as long as I didn't sleep with them." (Lynley ended up getting pregnant and almost having an abortion instead.) Patty's little Rhoda dispatched whoever got in her way with whatever was handy -- fire, blunt instruments, a staircase; the story's conceit was that it was all in the genes, because her grandmother was a homicidal maniac. "Did you play Rhoda as pure evil, or as cursed?" Musto asked. "I played her as right," McCormack said without a smile, and nobody made a sound.


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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