Real Life Rock Top 10

Published January 10, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

1) Snakefarm. "Songs From My Funeral" (RCA)

For singer/guitarist Anna Domino and guitarist/programmer Michel Delory, the idea was irresistible: Take the most commonplace folk ballads in the American tradition -- all those deep, profound, death-soaked cornpone campfire singalongs from "John Henry" to "Tom Dooley" to "St. James Infirmary" to "Frankie and Johnny" to "The Streets of Laredo" to "House of the Rising Sun" -- and take them away. Not make them their own, but make them perfect, distant, beckoning, resistant, irresistible in and of themselves. Other versions, by the '20s and '30s singers brought together on Harry Smith's "Anthology of American Folk Music," by Bobby "Blue" Bland, the Kingston Trio, Bob Dylan, the Animals, or 100, 200 years' worth of street singers, might be convincing, down-home, inventive, scholarly, passionate, personal; for this project, every performance would be Garbo.

Domino's singing is cool, chilly, cold, funny and most of all unsurprised. She inhabits these songs -- with the words of most of them radically extended, rewritten or recombined from the countless variants of each (have you ever heard "Seventeen coal-black horses/Are hitched to a rubber-tired hack" in "St. James Infirmary"?) -- so completely you never question the techno aesthetic Delory has grafted onto them: electronic blips and beeps, a lot of wah-wah, the disembodiment of a drum machine and a synthesized chamber orchestra. Such effects are never effects at all, but merely the bleached, alkaline, Georgia O'Keeffe landscape in which the songs are now set. There's never a sense any song could have turned out any other way: Domino's beyond-the-grave tones are matter-of-fact.

According to one account, Frankie Baker shot Allen Britt in St. Louis on Oct. 15, 1899, and ever since, as was said of Abraham Lincoln after John Wilkes Booth shot him, they've belonged to the ages, or whoever wanted them. No one cared about the facts; the story had room in it, and so singers, composers, playwrights, painters all took their places in the tale, changing names, faces, races, time and place. On "Songs From My Funeral," the piece begins as if in some '50s nightclub in L.A., after hours, James Dean on the bongos, Chet Baker looking on, wondering whether to join in, wondering if he's Frankie or Johnny, wondering if he'd rather cheat and die or be wronged and kill. As Domino tells the story in this club -- like someone pulling petals off a daisy: he loves me, he loves me not -- it's a story everyone knows, something that happened back in the '20s, in New York, wasn't that it, Greenwich Village, didn't Edmund Wilson write something about this, something about him and Edna St. Vincent Millay? Or was it up in Harlem?

Domino is now coming out of "Anna Christie," and as she fills in the details, the very perfection of her face -- and, beneath the skin, the inhumanity perfection suggests -- sexualizes the legend in a wholly new way. Suddenly, as Domino recites the necessary opening lines, "Frankie and Johnny were lovers/Oh lordy how they could love," you see Frankie's hands all over Johnny, unbuttoning his new suit, Johnny's hands under Frankie's dress, right on the street. When Frankie sees Johnny with Alice Fry, your heart goes into your throat, just as Frankie's goes into hers: No, no, you say, it can't end this way! But she has to shoot him -- "Rooty toot toot," as Domino makes it happen, Frankie's last breath before she gives up her life to myth.

Something this complex, unhurried and seemingly uncontrived -- unfolded -- happens with almost every tune. You can't get close to the bottom of any of them, even though you may have heard these songs all your life; Domino has, after all, and she hasn't gotten to the bottom of any of them, just dropped the false bottom of overfamiliarity out of each. As a result the old music comes back to a listener not like a ghost from the past, begging to be remembered, but as if from the future, certain nothing we do can change anything.

2-8) "America Takes Command -- 1950s into the 1960s," in "The American Century Part II, 1950-2000," Whitney Museum of American Art, Lisa Phillips, chief curator (New York, through Feb. 13)

On the top floor, a moan from several galleries away took me to the section's "Culture Site," a collection of representative books, magazine covers, film stills and, in this moment, Hank Williams' 1950 "Ramblin' Man." Surrounded by ads for Cold War hysteria and the postwar boom, it sounded so old -- older than any other object present on any of the floors, except, in the "Monochromatic Abstraction" mezzanine, from 1966, Brice Marden's pea-soup, prairie-flat "Nebraska," which could have had a little radio playing the Bruce Springsteen song hidden behind it. Then Williams was followed by Muddy Waters' 1950 "Rollin' Stone," and then Elvis Presley's 1955 "Mystery Train." (Billboard for the whole "American Century Part II" show: Warhol's "Double Elvis" doubled, under the headline "GET HERE BEFORE ELVIS HAS LEFT THE BUILDING" -- shouldn't it be "leaves"?) Contextualized like this, "Mystery Train" sounded exactly like "Rollin' Stone" -- it was all in the rhythm, speeded up but also opened up -- until Elvis hit his high notes, and Williams was back in the saddle. Then Elvis laughed, and he was on his own.

The picture Williams had taken me away from was Wallace Berman's 1964 "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," a fierce collage with a lot of story-untold empty space: Muhammad Ali in a cap, shouting, looking just like Elijah Muhammad; three Rolling Stones, in dark cutouts; a figure I couldn't recognize except generically, a type-case of the American drifter-killer, flanked by two detectives; people with swastikas on their foreheads; naked white women, from a sex magazine, probably, though in this unstable setting they looked as if they were on their way to the gas chambers. It all fit with a poster for the 1954 radioactive-ants movie "THEM!" On the far left, a fleeing man looked exactly like Ronald Reagan; in the center, a speech balloon coming out of a woman's mouth read, "Kill one and two take its place!" Well, isn't that the American way? Buy one, get one free?

9) Handsome Family, "Odessa" (Carrot Top)

From 1994, this turned up in a bin: first, fully realized attempts by Chicagoans Brett and Rennie Sparks to transfer the fatalism of the old murder ballads into modern life. As in "Moving Furniture Around," a celebration of clinical depression.

10) Bobby Fuller Four "A New Shade of Blue" on "Boys Don't Cry" soundtrack (Koch)

The first sign the filmmakers are going to get Charles Starkweather country right comes right at the beginning, when Brandon and Candace, neither of whom will survive the film, pick each other up at a bar, and this gorgeous rockabilly crying song -- altogether forgotten until now, it seems to have been made to be forgotten -- is floating in the background. It was 1966, the Texas band had scored with "I Fought the Law," they filled up an album, this was on it, and then Fuller was found dead in an L.A. parking lot. Of "asphyxiation," the coroner ruled. Because someone had poured gasoline down Fuller's throat.

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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