Real Life Rock Top 10

By Greil Marcus
September 20, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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1. The Pale Orchestra conducted by David Thomas
"Mirror Man Act 1: Jack & the General" (Thirsty Ear)

The centerpiece of the 1998 Diastodrome! Festival in London, with impresario/composer/performer Thomas moonlighting from his band Pere Ubu: a live recording of what could have been called "Route 66," because the journey the singers and musicians take across an America they're afraid of forgetting is that expansive. What's missing is that old Bobby Troup-Rolling Stones glee as the miles burn up and L.A. gleams in the distance. This is all backroads and, with Bob Holman's increasingly frantic monologues about how, no, no, no, don't you understand, that's not it -- he's talking about gas prices and small towns and theme parks -- panic. Then the tone shifts. A character something like Steve Martin's corrupt, dreaming traveling song-salesman in "Pennies from Heaven" emerges: Thomas, ready to sell you the Brooklyn Bridge, or whatever bridge takes you from here to there. He convinces you that he has the right to do it, because he doesn't take the bridge for granted and you do. Suddenly you want to leave the house and get in the car and see if you can find the same country this company is finding -- leaving the disc on while you're gone.


2. Pere Ubu "Apocalypse Now" (Thirsty Ear)

A show from 1991, with David Thomas doing a stand-up comedy routine between songs ("I'm sure you'll be happy to know that one of our members onstage said to me right then, 'That was actually good'") and whispering the secrets of the universe into the ears of the audience as the songs themselves are played. With melodies rising out of the clattering sound like the modal themes of old folk songs, the effect is stirring, Cleveland punks more than 15 years down the road with no lessening of their conviction that they have been chosen to change the world, laughing at how little they've been changed by it.

3. Anonymous: altered billboard
(Gilman Street at San Pablo Avenue, Berkeley, Calif., Sept. 8)


A pair of red dice, one with a skull, and this message, in clean Times letters: "Just because you survived ______ doesn't mean your children will." The original word, still barely showing, was "drugs"; in the exact same typeface, it has been replaced by "Bush."

4.Jonathan Lethem "Motherless Brooklyn" (Doubleday)

A detective story where the hero's Tourette's Syndrome (unending waterfalls of tics, from the man's scrambled verbal outbursts to his fascinating need to straighten people's clothing) shapes the tale -- allowing a rhythm in which the frenetic almost hides the islands of quiet where thinking gets done. Tourette's is a thing in itself here, a kind of invisible twin; thus Lethem ("Gun, With Occasional Music," "Girl in Landscape," "As She Climbed Across the Table") writes in a double language, which opens up the mystery genre to the point that it's almost erased. As the hero tries to keep himself awake for an all-night stakeout, he recognizes "insomnia [as] a variant of Tourette's -- the waking brain races, sampling the world after the world has turned away, touching it everywhere, refusing to settle, to join the collective nod. The insomniac brain is a sort of conspiracy theorist too, believing too much in its own paranoiac importance -- as though if it were to blink, then doze, the world might be overrun by some encroaching calamity, which its obsessive musings are somehow fending off." His favorite song: Prince, "Kiss."


5. Quickspace "Precious Falling" (Hidden Agenda/Parasol)

U.K. drone band derived from th faith healers. (Thee Headcoats won their "e" in a poker game, I think they said.) Not as demented as that great combo (their 1993 "Imaginary Friend" remains the most blithelessly extreme music of the decade), but with a neat trick: fast drone. Squealing and clicking in "Hadid," they appear as naked people in a field regressing as you listen: regressing not to a pre-verbal childhood but to a previous species.


6. James Lee Burke
"Sunset Limited" (Island/Dell paperback)

"St. Peters Cemetery in ten minutes," says a witness to cop Dave Robicheaux. "How will I recognize you?" "I'm the one that's not dead." Don't let your mouth write checks your ass can't cash, Robicheaux should say -- but he doesn't use profanity. He won't even tolerate it unless it comes out of the mouth of his partner, Helen Soileau. ("I met Miss Pisspot of 1962 at the jail this morning," she says of an FBI agent.) It's not that he gives her a break because she's a lesbian; somewhere in the literary archetype Leslie Fiedler set out in 1948 in "Come Back to the Raft Ag'in, Huck Honey!" she's playing Jim to Robicheaux's Huck.

7. Glad bags commercial (A&E, Sept. 9)


A happy female gospel version of Mississippi bluesman Skip James' brittle, miserabilist 1931 "I'm So Glad" (famously redone in 1967 by Cream), and a travesty: not because it's being used to sell plastic bags, but because of the suggestion that it was originally used to sell God.

8. Vanity Fair/Neutrogena party at the Telluride Film Festival (Sept. 3)

The Neutrogena banner at the Skyline Guest Ranch was fairly modest, but against a backdrop of the Colorado Rockies, which were throwing up Matterhorns everywhere you looked, a big poster of the September Vanity Fair was like litter. It was the Bruce Weber shot of wistful, windblown, ridiculously blond Carolyn Bessette Kennedy -- a face that, the setting revealed, was unmistakably slipping into camp, into that realm of the undead where "The Private Princess," as the magazine named its cover girl, had already joined not Princess Di but "America's people's princess" -- as Patsy Ramsey calls her late daughter, JonBenet.


9. Associated Press, "Music, the Universal Language," Sept. 13

"After a week of chaos and terror in East Timor, Indonesia's powerful military boss sang 'Feelings' yesterday to show why he can't walk away from the independence-minded province.

"To cheers from retired military officers at a party, Defense Minister Gen. Wiranto dedicated the song to foreign journalists: 'I hope you have the same feelings, like me, for East Timor.'

"His eyebrows arched in restrained emotion, Wiranto held the microphone in both hands and stood stiffly in a yellow batik shirt and crooned as a band played the l975 hit popularized by Paul Williams:


"'Feelings, nothing more than feelings ...'"

I can't go on. This is just too sick. You always knew the song was rotten, but evil?

10. Fastbacks
"The Day That Didn't Exist" (Spinart)

It's scary that Seattle's Fastbacks formed 20 years ago, that except for the drum spot the lineup has never changed, that they've never made it, that their music has never gotten better, only utterly failed to exhaust itself. Guitarist Kurt Bloch writes songs about the everyday that somehow contain the state of the union; bassist Kim Warnick sings them in a punk voice that's flat until you hear it as a form of address, as real talk; guitarist Lulu Gargulio keeps the other two honest. Here, one of the days that didn't exist can be found on "I Was Stolen": "We tried to save the world last fall," Warnick says in her high, girlish warble, as if nothing could be more obvious; when she follows with "You remember that we didn't save anything at all," the story seems to end before it's had a chance to begin. But the story goes on, it gets interesting, full of fury and good works, and by the time the story is over you're no longer convinced these people left the world as they found it -- not 20 years ago, not last fall.

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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