Real Life Rock Top 10


Greil Marcus
December 13, 1999 10:00PM (UTC)

Dec. 13, 1999

1) Beck "Midnite Vultures" (Interscope)

This is embarrassing.

2) Gayl Jones "Corregidora" (Beacon Press reprint)

Jones' first novel from 1975 about a blues singer singing a song no one's exactly heard before. "'Songs are devils. It's your own destruction you're singing. The voice is a devil.' 'Naw, Mama. You don't understand. Where did you get that?' 'Unless your voice is raised up to the glory of God ... Where did you get those songs?' 'I got them from you.' 'I didn't hear the words.' Then let me give witness the only way I can. I'll make a fetus out of grounds of coffee to rub inside my eyes." On the other hand, Henry Louis Gates recently claimed the real significance of the book was that it introduced oral sex into fiction by black women.

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3) Metallica "S&M" (Elektra)

Recorded in April at the Berkeley Community Theater with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Michael Kamen, and glorious. On "Bleeding Me," Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir" comes into view, but it's a mirage: The real vision in the music is far more desperate, Ronald Colman clawing his way back to Shangri-La in the last shots of "Lost Horizon." Across two discs, the band isn't lost for a second; they sound like they're on top of the mountain.

4) Dolly Parton "The Grass Is Blue" (Sugar Hill)

This is the best album Parton has made since "My Blue Ridge Mountain Boy" in 1969, and the killer is "Silver Dagger" -- the pristine Appalachian ballad that in 1960 led off Joan Baez's first LP. Baez rarely again opened herself to a song so fully; Parton follows Baez like a girl following her mother through a field, wandering off the path, circling back, then disappearing into the woods. But now it's nightfall, everyone in town is searching and some people are already talking about haunts and ghosts. How it ends: The fiddler, Stuart Duncan, finds her.

5) Martha Rosler "Positions in the Life World" (retrospective at the Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona)

In the 1967-72 series "Bringing the War Home," Rosler made John Heartfield-like photocollages of disfigured Vietnamese waiting patiently on suburban patios; the images were disconcerting, but immediately obvious. At the end of the string, though, was "First Lady," and real art: Pat Nixon posing proudly in a full-length formal gold gown, while over her shoulder in a gilt-framed mirror, Faye Dunaway was being shot to pieces at the end of "Bonnie and Clyde." Not many thought that was a Vietnam movie when they walked out of the theaters, but, like Rosler, a lot of people knew.

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6) Bono on "Selections from the Book of Psalms" (Los Angeles Times Book Review, Nov. 28)

The way the U2 singer writes, King David might still rule and the psalms might still be in production. Or that's his argument: David "was forced into exile and ended up in a cave in some no-name border town facing the collapse of his ego and abandonment by God. But this is where the soap opera gets interesting: this is where David is said to have composed the first psalm -- a blues. That's what a lot of the psalms sound like to me, a blues. Man shouting at God." Of course, Bono later calls David "the Elvis of the Bible," but that's just to set up his closer, a brief dissertation on authorship and authenticity: "It is not clear how many, if any, of these psalms David or his son Solomon actually wrote. Some scholars suggest the royals never dampened their nibs and that there was a host of Holy Ghost writers ... who cares? I didn't buy Leiber and Stoller ... they were just his songwriters ... I bought Elvis."

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7) U.S. Postal Service "1970s Celebrate the Century" stamps

Fifteen designs, every one ugly, and not one about anything worth remembering. "You mean," she said, "there was?"

8) "Doo Wop 50" produced by T.J. Lubinsky/WQED/Rhino Entertainment (PBS, airing in December)

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Last year, a high school teacher asked me to talk to her class about doo-wop. Drawing a blank on the concept, the students reacted tepidly to the bit of '50s-style harmonizing that opens Lauryn Hill's "Doo Wop (That Thing)," were tolerant of snatches of the Penguins' "Earth Angel" and the Five Satins' "In the Still of the Nite" and went absolutely crazy for the sequence in Floyd Mutrux's 1978 film "American Hot Wax" where the Planotones, standing in for the Del-Vikings, cut "Come Go With Me" in a studio crowded with fans, girlfriends and pizza delivery boys. I shudder to think what their reaction would have been if I'd hauled in this well-meant special, due soon enough on home video. Virtually every legend of the form living -- and more than a few not, by the evidence of the singing -- paraded out for the Greatest Hit: "Sincerely," "A Sunday Kind of Love," "There's a Moon Out Tonight," "The Great Pretender" and yes, "Earth Angel" and "Come Go With Me." But again and again the wine died on the vine; it was too late. It's not just love that, as so many of the old songs say, "makes the world go 'round" -- it's also age and death.

There were exceptions: Tony Pasalaqua of the Fascinators with "Oh Rose Marie," a grandfather still living off the memory of a girl he never got to kiss, but getting another chance as he sang; the Cadillacs' outrageous minstrel-show act for "Speedo"; the dignity of Arlene Smith of the Chantels, probably the greatest voice rock 'n' roll has turned up, with "Maybe." The tears on her face recalled producer George Goldner's account of how he got Smith's heart in the grooves: Cursing the teenager for her incompetence and stupidity until she would do anything to get away from this terrible man -- including, with all her defenses gone, singing the song one last time. Best of all was the bassman for the Marcels, kicking off "Blue Moon" with a perfectly controlled avalanche of syllables, none seeking a word, each a symbol of pleasure and escape. Among all the fat men crossing the stage, he was gaunt; his hair hung down in rings. Dark glasses covered his eyes; the curl of his mouth as he waited for his moments said he'd never tell half of what he knew. He could have been Richard Belzer, or Dennis Rodman, but he was Fred Johnson, on stage in Pittsburgh PA, his hometown.

9) Bob Neuwirth in "Hal Wilner's Harry Smith Project," Royal Festival Hall (London, July 2)

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For a mass tribute to the compiler of "The Anthology of American Folk Music," the old Dylan sidekick made a subtle shift in the lyrics of the impenetrable North Carolina ballad "I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground," from "I wish I was a lizard in the spring" to "I wish I was a lizard in your spring." Sort of changed the meaning -- or revealed it.

10) Mango boutique, Plaga de Carles Pi I Sunyer, Barcelona (Nov. 24)

Found archaeology: A smooth-faced model was featured on a poster on the outside wall of the shop. The poster was so big it completely covered a still-functioning doorway, secured by a heavy lock and chain -- which, appearing right in the middle of the model's cheek, made the whole tableau into a precise match for the most extreme examples of London punk style, as it was almost a quarter century ago. The signifiers of domination and escape, control and refusal, of hiding in plain sight, swirled in the twilight; no tagger could have produced anything half so suggestive.


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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