Real Life Rock Top 10

Published November 1, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

1) Sally Timms "Cowboy Sally's Twilight Laments for Lost Buckaroos" (Bloodshot)

Ever since she strolled coolly, coldly through "Millionaire" on "I HEART Mekons," Timms has been the last country singer you'd want to go up against in a staring contest. Her touch is light, and deceptive; her reserves of depth seem bottomless. But nothing she's done before suggests the exquisite balance of this disc, the way she makes both Robbie Fulks' "In Bristol Town One Bright Day" (which could be an ancient English ballad known through a 1928 recording by Buell Kazee of Kentucky) and Johnny Cash's ditty "Cry Cry Cry" (the flip side of his first single, cut for Sun Records of Memphis in 1956) seem like old family stories: tales Timms might not have quite believed when she first heard them as a girl, but which, to her surprise, as a grown woman, she found she had herself lived out.

2) Pet Shop Boys "Nightlife" (Sire)

Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe's "Very" and their remake of the Village People's "Go West" were the best album and single of 1993. In the years since it's been as if those records took all the two had to give. Here the group could be starting over from the beginning, in an '80s nightclub, dancing to the drum machine, all possibilities of love and fear present in the way your partner looks you in the eye or over your shoulder.

3) Bruce Bernard, editor "Century" (Phaidon)

Of all the summing-up volumes currently clogging the bookstores, this 1,119-page, 25-pound, $50 photo collection is infinitely the most powerful. The brief captions (printed faintly, so you can ignore them and confront the pictures directly) sum up Bernard's response to the times: a sardonic face, held until it falls apart in horror and disgust. That happens even though Bernard's atrocity shots -- even "Perhaps the worst photograph of all" (Page 421) -- are, formally, mild. A little girl abandoned on the street in Berlin in 1920 is not bleeding; she is merely the void into which she has fallen, and she pulls you in. So for the single image from Bernard's century I would use to blot out all the others, I choose "Lily Brik, girlfriend of the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky," photographed by the great Constructivist Alexander Rodchenko in 1924, an image later made into a still-famous Soviet propaganda poster. With the photo here a thing in itself, though, you can hear what the happy woman with her hand cupped to her shouting mouth is saying: "Calling out around the world/ Are you ready for a brand new beat?" And the world answered: Yes, but not yours. Stalin walks across the facing page; turn it and Hitler is waiting.

4) Peter Lely "Portrait of Louise de Keroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth," 1671/74 (Getty Museum, Los Angeles)

Spy for Louis XIV, mistress of Charles II and a dead ringer for Rose McGowan -- for the unsurprisable face she assumes in "Going All the Way," stripping as the Orioles float through "It's Too Soon to Know."

5) Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg & Eminem on "Saturday Night Live" (Oct. 23)

Despite the two CDs of "Saturday Night Live: The Musical Performances" now in the racks, musicians rarely explode on the SNL stage: In all these years I count only Squeeze with "Annie Get Your Gun," Jackson Browne with "Running on Empty" and Snoop Dogg's first appearance (back when he had "Doggy" in the middle of his name). Rap summit meetings too often settle for self-celebration. But as Dre led the others through two segments, this was otherworldly from the start. With Snoop Dogg as gangly bodily as he was lithe verbally -- he spoke the language as if he invented it -- Dre provided drama, pathos, silence between the words, a preacher to Snoop Dogg's trickster. Finally the whole, possessed by the reach for abstraction that drives Snoop Dogg's best moments, seemed on the verge of swirling off into the sky. Half an hour later, when without a trace of black tongue Eminem began snapping off his syllables, piling each on the one before it, until his sound was a staircase he was too busy, too outraged to climb, Dre embodied experience and stoicism. He wasn't countering the younger man's impatience with the knowledge that this too shall pass away, but with the advice to save your strength: It'll be back. If a black man and a white man could make the Rodney King videotape into art, this was it.

6/7) Blind Alfred Reed "Complete Recorded Works in Chronological Order: 1927-1929" (Document) and Del-Lords "Get Tough: The Best of the Del-Lords" (Restless)

From West Virginia, Reed (1880-1956) played a droning, sawing fiddle; along with Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family he first recorded at the fabled Bristol Sessions. He was a world-class complainer: He hated racism, feminism, alcohol, foolery and short hair on women ("Why Do You Bob Your Hair Girl" -- it must have driven him nuts when a second version was mistakenly titled "Why Don't You Bob Your Hair"). No socialist, he hated capitalism most of all -- for the way it promised that everyone could have everything, right now, including what a minute ago no one even thought of wanting, and produced instead worthless novelty, social division, ungodliness, inequality and poverty. So Reed struck back with his own songs, among them the remarkable "There'll Be No Distinction There" and "How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live."

The first, which as a piece of music could fit on Bob Dylan's "Time Out of Mind," is a vision of heaven where the scourge of race and class will be erased in favor of a beloved community, because everyone will play on golden instruments and there will be no more colored people: "We'll all be white in the heavenly light." No drinking, no women flirting or bossing men around ... the sweep of the performance is lovely and the sentiment irksome. Heaven is so obviously going to be exactly the way he wants it -- and stay out of Old Man Reed's yard if you know what's good for you. "How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live" is a carefully written attack on every public institution except the church, from the police to the courts to public schooling to the high price of dry goods and meat and -- everything else. It wasn't about the Depression -- it hadn't happened yet -- but inflation and the false values created by a runaway stock market. The sound is from another world, but you can feel the writer pressing down on his pencil, pushing right through from his time to now, where his words feel absolutely modern.

That hasn't gone unnoticed. The tune was covered by Ry Cooder in 1974, and 10 years after that, in a roughhouse rock 'n' roll version with new lyrics, by Scott Kempner (since then only coincidentally my son-in-law) -- a number that leads off the recently released "Get Tough." Alfred Reed would hardly have approved of Kempner's solution to their common predicament -- a beer run -- but could his bitterness and belief in right and wrong have inspired the Del-Lords' strongest number, "Judas Kiss"? "The radio kept playing the same rotten songs/ Every one reminded me of you/ All summer long," a guy says to his dead, junkie girlfriend -- that's Reed's voice if anything is. "Those roses in the closet/ Well, I took them from your grave" -- backing singers Syd Straw and Pat Benatar are harder on her than lead singer Eric Ambel is, but that might be because they can sing harder than he can. Their vindictiveness is more effective than his frustration, but neither is as effective as the melody, which far more than any words convinces the singers that, unlike the song's subject, they're alive.

8) Lindell Reeves "Stagger Lee" (Berkeley Farmers Market, Oct. 19)

Recognizable from 30 feet, the tune rolled over and over. Playing guitar and singing for tips, songster Reeves had a light tone, sad and amused. For the words he followed Lloyd Price, up to the final "Go, go Stagger Lee," but without the glee Price gave the chant, a restraint that set up Reeves' own close: "You have shot Billy/ Now your time is come." Aside from Reeves' particular variations, it was a scene that could have taken place almost anywhere in the country any time in the last hundred years. "Stag" Lee Shelton shot Billy Lyons in St. Louis in 1895; he died in 1912. When the last Americans then alive go out of the world, will the magic in the song go with them?

9) Counting Crows "This Desert Life" (DCG)

The heart-on-sleeve combo's "Across a Wire -- Live in New York City" was a thrill; this has its moments. When Adam Duritz sings with, you know, naked emotion, the idea is a clichi, but the idea is real to him as an idea. He chases it and makes it give up a kind of self-exposure that nakedness only hints at. I couldn't explain what Duritz means in "I Wish I Was a Girl," and he doesn't even try. He simply tries to convince himself he means what he says, and, like Prince with "If I Was Your Girlfriend" and Ian Hunter in Mott the Hoople's shattering "I Wish I Was Your Mother," he can leave a listener scared.

10) Bruce Jenkins "3-Dot Lounge" (San Francisco Chronicle Sporting Green, Oct. 23)

"As baseball's managerial crew grows increasingly whiter, the Rockies made a particularly weak choice with Buddy Bell. Next up: The Orioles hire Johnny Winter."

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.

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