Real Life Rock Top 10

Published October 4, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Oct. 4, 1999

1. Fred Eaglesmith "50-Odd Dollars" (Razor & Tie)

Opening with a backwoods ballad drunk on Led Zeppelin's "When the Levee Breaks," a stolid-looking man says he knows his country when he sees it, especially in old cars. Listen to "Georgia Overdrive" and try to convince yourself that for two minutes you don't want to be in the driver's seat more than you want anything else.

2. Jay Mohr as Peter Dragon in "Action" (Fox, Sept. 16)

Desperate, the producer runs to the house of his whore/script consultant, where he finds her with a client, who is down on his knees and cleaning her floor. Despite the bustier and black mask the guy is wearing, Dragon recognizes him as a Disney executive; "My name is Andri," the man insists. Dragon looks him in the eye: "My name is Luka," he says. "I live on the second floor ..." You can't tell if the vicious glee in his face comes from having a rival where he wants him, or finally finding a use for the stupid lines that have been bouncing around in his head for more than 10 years.

3. Michael Ochs "1000 Record Covers" (Taschen)

At 7 inches by 5 inches and 768 pages, this dense object is not a typical album-cover-art book, where designs supposedly fashioned according to vision or genre are presented for your admiration. Opening with Hen Gates and His Gaters' 1957 "Let's Go Dancing to Rock and Roll" (happy white kids in red convertible, balding dad-like person at the wheel) and closing with Oasis' 1994 "Definitely Maybe," this is stuff -- the sort of stuff you'd find flipping LPs in a vinyl emporium, sleeves warped, images scratched or faded or gleaming with an eagerness hiding the truth that the people you're looking at are probably dead. Not looking at all dead, however, is the dead girlfriend on the cover of J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers' 1964 "Last Kiss." There's been a car crash, but while her eyes are closed, her hair isn't even mussed. "Rumor has it that first printings of this cover actually had blood dripping from the girl's face but [it] was airbrushed out," Ochs says -- but that would have only made the fact that the girl's arm resting on her skirt is plainly held there by still-functioning muscles even more weird. The boyfriend, in perfectly pomaded ducktail and gray business suit, looks at the girl's face as if he can't figure out why she's playing dead. But he's supposed to be about to bestow "our last kiss" -- to act out the most convincing moment in the song. In 1964 and this year, with Pearl Jam's stoic, anguished, unteenage version, the words are rushed -- "I kissed her our last kiss." It's as if the singer can barely stand to remember what happened, and it catches you up. The burr in Eddie Vedder's voice, the labor you can feel from gestures you can't see, makes the quickness of the moment even more dramatic, almost secretly dramatic, than it was 35 years ago: You feel the moment, but you don't necessarily register it. The sour guitar note that closes the record says both you and the band know this dumb old song is a joke, but nobody told the singer, and that's why it's a hit. As for the cover of the album Pearl Jam's "Last Kiss" is on -- "No Boundaries: A Benefit for the Kosovar Refugees" (Epic) -- it shows a young man bent over, his hands gripping his neck, his whole body in a posture of despair. He's already learned about last kisses -- the kind there's no time to give.

4. Tori Amos "To Venus and Back" (Atlantic)

Or rather the Twilight Zone. She walks through a deserted mansion, and there are mirrors everywhere: Everywhere, she sees her own reflection. And then she sees it even when there aren't any mirrors.

5. Gino Washington "Out of This World" (Norton)

Detroit, early '60s, a time when only grunge and ridiculousness (the Flares' "Foot Stomping -- Part 1," Jimmy Soul's "If You Wanna Be Happy") made the radio bearable. Now a black teenager with a white band steps up to the mike for his song "Out of This World." There's a dull little "All right, now" business, and then the music leaps and it never comes down. Mediocrity is all over this collection: Life is hidden in the female backing singers, who sound like they were recruited out of the audience; in the way Washington loves his girl so much he actually doesn't care how he looks; in the twist of "Romeo": "Juliet was my first love / She won't be my last." And I'm not even mentioning what makes the set priceless.

6. David Johansen on soundtrack to "Burnzy's Last Call" (Ripe & Ready/Celsium)

Johansen hasn't simply put ironic scare quotes around his music since he gave up trying to be a real rock 'n' roll hero with the New York Dolls 70 years ago -- he's put scare quotes around the scare quotes, to make it seem like he was, you know, playing a role right from the start. So now his songs might as well have titles like """"Hi There, Sucker!"""" I don't care, and you probably don't either, but when you're paying for something else it's creepy.

7. Nokia cell-phone ring menu
Cell phones are personal car alarms, and there's a problem when out of 35 rings -- which include long, elliptical segments from "Ode to Joy," "The William Tell Overture" and Mozart -- the least annoying choices are "Fly" and "Mosquito." I know it's not in the public domain, but I'd pay an extra buck for a "Louie Louie" option.

8. Goran Visnjic as Dr. Luka Kovac on "ER" (NBC, Sept. 30)

Incredibly handsome new "sub-doctor" from somewhere in Eastern Europe spies pouty little girl sitting alone in ambulance. "My name is Luka," he says endearingly -- and that's all. What a letdown. But I'd bet money he'll get to the next line before the season is over -- or someone will throw it in his face.

9. Daniel Wolff "Elvis in the Dark" ( Threepenny Review, Fall 1999)

As a review of Peter Guralnick's "Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley," this is an almost physical summoning of the singer himself to make the critic's argument against the biographer: that the singer was no innocent, but engaged throughout his career in a complex, cryptic argument with whoever might be listening to him. Wolff makes his case by taking the reader through a long, dizzyingly vivid walk through a song everybody who might care enough to read him will know: "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" The faithless woman in the song becomes the audience, but the penitent who begins the performance is not the same person who finishes it: That man, Wolff says, is much closer to the singer in Bob Dylan's "Ballad of a Thin Man," asking Mr. Jones if he knows what is happening, because he knows he doesn't. "'Fate,' Presley told us in an earlier section of the song," Wolff says, "had him 'playing in love,' just as fate made him an icon for millions of adoring fans. But it isn't fate, now. We've struck a bargain with the singer: a whole, complicated tangle we're not particularly willing to take apart."

10. Peter Boswell, Bruce Jenkins, Joan Rothfuss "2000 BC: The Bruce Conner Story Part II" (Walker Art Center/D.A.P.)

This landmark show of work by the San Francisco artist opens Oct. 9 at the Walker in Minneapolis -- but the catalogue of the same name is no fun. Read what Boswell and Jenkins have to say about Conner's pre- (and for that matter post-) MTV song film for Toni Basil's "Breakaway" (by 1982 she was No. 1 on the charts with "Mickey"). Basil is dancing through uncountable thousands of Conner cuts, forward and backward, in costumes and naked, and the writers sound like they're taking her blood pressure and measuring her lung capacity. But turn to the very back of the book, where an impish editor or designer has given Basil and Conner the last word: four double-page frame enlargements of a woman saying, in essence, "You know something's happening, and I just might tell you what it is."

By 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.

MORE FROM Greil Marcus

Related Topics ------------------------------------------