Real Life Rock Top 10

Gumshoes and old men edition.


Greil Marcus
October 18, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

Oct. 18, 1999

1. Stan Ridgway "Anatomy"
(Ultra Modern/New West)

Coming out of the old L.A. punk scene with Wall of Voodoo, Ridgway has always peeked around corners as a kind of detective ("of the heart," I think you're supposed to add). Here the liner art plays off the '50s moderne credits of the 1959 movie "Anatomy of a Murder." But unlike other detectives, Ridgway has all the time in the world. He's not going anywhere; he doesn't solve anything; he just takes notes. The slowness in his singing is like the slowness in the way Dwight Yoakam's trucker moves in "Red Rock West." He misses nothing and he keeps his mouth shut. That's a hard trick for a singer, but that's the feeling you get: In Ridgway's songs, not a word is spoken out loud. They all take place in his thoughts as he tries to figure out what he's seen. The music is muscular, but all restraint: You don't raise your voice if you're not really using it. "Wrong, so wrong, we're wrong," Ridgway says in "Mission Bell"; he winds the words around each other until the song they cast back to, a 20-year-old Elvis Presley's "I'm Left, You're Right, She's Gone," has grown up without ever announcing it's there at all.

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2. Heather Duby
"Post to Wire" (Sub Pop)

Seattle 25-year-old with a deeper voice than you'd put to her Juliette Binoche haircut pursues interesting project: Take outsider cool and early-'80s synth bumps and echoes into Sarah MacLachlan territory. It's a seductive journey, even though she may never get back.

3. Chicago
"If You Leave Me Now" in "Three Kings"

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On the day after the end of the Gulf War, the creamy 1976 No. 1 adult-contemporary hit is playing in the purloined Mercedes as Sgt. Ice Cube and an Iraqi rebel hairdresser pull up to the bunker where they're going to try to rescue Sgt. Mark Walhberg from torture, the hairdresser silently mouthing the words as if they're a prayer.

4. Robert Crais
"L.A. Requiem" (Doubleday)

P.I. Elvis Cole is riding with angry cop Samantha Dolan when her choice of L7's angry "Shove" on the radio inspires a critical meditation on the strategic use of pop music in everyday life. "'Too on the nose, Dolan,'" Cole says. "'The music should be counter to your character, and then the statement would be more dramatic. Try Shawn Colvin.'

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"Dolan jerked the sedan around a produce delivery truck and blasted through an intersection that had already gone red. Horns blew. She flipped them off."

5. Blank culture sighting
(Oct. 1, 63rd St. & College Ave., Oakland, Calif.)

Street flyer glued to newspaper rack, black and white with vertical lines. Scrawled motto: "I eat fascist." Graphic: squared, elongated Hitler figure. On his sleeve: "Pez."

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6. Jacket of Raymond Chandler's "The Little Sister" as published in the U.K. by Hamish Hamilton, 1949
(Otto Penzler Books facsimile edition)

"I ought to have locked the door and hid under the desk," L.A. dick Philip Marlowe says of his encounter with Orfamay Quest of Manhattan, Kan., a young woman with a "prim little narrow-minded smile." Here you see her entering his office for the first time, looking like the grammar-school teacher everyone's had and no one forgets. I mean, you're lucky if you've already read the book, because you may not want to open it.

7. David Lynch, director, "The Straight Story" (Disney)

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In Lynch's version of the adventure of the late Alvin Straight, who at 73 drove a lawn mower and a trailer across Iowa and into Wisconsin to visit a brother he hadn't seen in 10 years, people sometimes assume stiff, theatrical or uncomfortable postures; they occupy themselves with unique, seemingly obsessive, unexplained gestures. These incidents -- Straight's next-door-neighbor fitting a pink SnoBall into her mouth; the fright in his daughter's eyes when she tries to push words through whatever it is that blocks them; a man at the end of a bar moving his hand (or a knife?) in a circular motion, making a distant, discomforting scratching sound -- are no different from the way the Log Lady in "Twin Peaks" tries to get people to listen to her, or the way Kyle MacLachlan's Jeffrey says almost anything he says in "Blue Velvet." As they are composed in Lynch's films, such events carry a displacing sense of the unnatural, yet once you've watched them, it's impossible to imagine the actors acting in any other way.

"I want to make films that occur in America, but that take people into worlds where they may never go," Lynch has said, and this America emerges not as a place, a history of deeds or a set of ideas. Instead it's a story people tell each other: a fable about how people can be expected to act, about how events can be expected to unfold. With "The Straight Story" this is a story about determination sliding into obsession -- craziness, one could call it -- and the persistence of the pioneer spirit, the faith that in America anything is possible, with the whole enveloped by decency on the part of every character present, a decency that seems brought forth by one man's expectation that he will find it. In "Blue Velvet," "Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me" and "Lost Highway," the story is about determination sliding into obsession -- sociopathology, you could call it -- and the persistence of the pioneer spirit, the dead certainty that in America anything can happen and probably will, with the whole wrapped in a storm of derangement, which some survive and some don't.

The language spoken to tell either story, though, is the same. People move and speak as if they are performing, for others and for themselves. They make gestures that are in some profound and casual way absolutely self-legitimating: gestures that say that those who wave their hands, stutter or proffer strange talismans have as much a right to speak, to tell the story, as anyone else. Sort of like the people on an old Randy Newman album.

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8. Fleetwood Mac
"Shrine '69" (Rykodisc)

Live records by the original Fleetwood Mac, the all-English blues combo led by Peter Green, are all over the place. Legit, illegit -- the cheesy cover art won't tell you which, or that, to bend a phrase Mississippi's Skip James once applied to himself, the band came and went from places its contemporaries never got to. The great guitarist Lonnie Mack used to tell a story about a ratty gig where a mouse crossed the stage "just as I hit my highest, most soulful note -- and the mouse dropped dead." As Danny Kirwan finds his way into his Elmore James tribute "Something Inside of Me," you can kind of imagine that happening here.

9. Iggy Pop
"Avenue B" (Virgin)

The first, spoken track is Mr. "Search and Destroy" talking about growing older and facing death: "It was in the winter of my 50th year when it hit me ..." (It would be the winter.) Funny thing is, the tone is exactly the same as in the Barbarians' 1965 "Moulty" -- you can find it on Lenny Kaye's compilation "Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era" -- where Moulty the drummer talks about how he lost his hand and now has to drum with a hook.

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10. Stan Ridgway
"Songs That Made This Country Great: The Best of Stan Ridgway" (IRS, 1980-91)

Well, you never know. But "Lost Weekend" is one of those songs that describes the country as it is -- a broken promise, with the whole of the nation present in a promise a couple make to each other.


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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