Greil Marcus: Real Life Rock Top 10

Published January 24, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Jan. 24, 2000

1) Warren Zevon "Life'll Kill Ya" (Artemis)

The old rounder borrows his old melodies, his old ideas and kicks over his own rocking chair: "I Was in the House When the House Burned Down" is "Excitable Boy" with humor intact, but no longer a joke, because when the house burned down the singer found he had nowhere else to go; he still lives in the ashes. So he blows his horn, gets syncopation out of his guitar, passes it off to the drummer and steps up to the mike. As Zevon imagines himself back to the Crusades, back to Graceland ("He was an accident waiting to happen," he begins, speaking like a witness in court, a storm-warning guitar line hanging over his head. "Most accidents happen at home"), into the ground, the album takes on such a sweep that the house that burned down comes to seem less a place than Zevon's whole era, that time Billy Joel sings about in "We Didn't Start the Fire." Of course we did, Zevon says. Want a light?

2) John Carman "Mob Rule" (San Francisco Chronicle, Jan. 14)

"Saturday Night Live" ran a hysterical parody of "Sopranos" reviews on Jan. 15, but unlike most of the cream-in-their-jeans crowd -- TV critics who sounded like nothing so much as the swells who take Tony to their golf club and treat him like an exotic pet -- Carman has something to say. "There's a reason Tony can't find his bliss at home; at his strip-joint hangout; or in his psychoanalyst's office. He's a criminal; his life has rotted from the inside out." But that's just a warm-up. The code of the show is in its language, Carman writes, in all the variations of "fuck" except the one that takes a "Let's" in front of it: "The f-word as an adjective serves to demean the noun it modifies. As a nonsexual verb, it demeans the direct object. The language itself is life-negating, and the negation of life is the rampant disease corrupting Tony's two families, biological and criminal."

3) Etta James "A Sunday Kind of Love" on "Her Best" (Chess)

In 1960, "Miss Peaches" drifts around the old song as if it's "Since I Fell for You," as if she has all the time in the world.

4) Bonnie Raitt voted into Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in first year of eligibility

I was complaining about this to another music writer. "I think her body of work is superior to Ruth Brown's," he said of the R&B pioneer inducted in 1993. But neither Brown nor Raitt has a body of work. Brown had a string of singles, Raitt has a bunch of albums; you flip through them, looking for a moment when you say, yes, this made a difference. If you place Brown's 1949 "Teardrops from My Eyes" against, say, Raitt's 1989 "Nick of Time," you'll see that mannerism can never speak the language of style -- and that Raitt, in her honest, dedicated way as false a singer as Michael Bolton (who really does love "When a Man Loves a Woman," you know), is being honored for her class. In the Marxist sense.

5) Ed van der Elsken "Love on the Left Bank" (Dewi Lewis)

This legendary photo-novel, originally published in 1956, is set mostly in a small bar off St. Germain-des-Pris. It's the early '50s, and all the bohemian clichis are present -- sex, drugs, violence, poverty and bad art -- but also movement, tension, the unknown. Looking at the way people stand, shout or pass out, you can feel the blank sense of freedom that followed the war all over the West now compressed into this one shabby cafe and nobody there having the slightest idea what to do with it. Or almost nobody. At one table, a few youthful megalomaniacs -- among them Serge Berna, Michhle Bernstein and Jean-Michel Mension, who are visible here, and Guy Debord, who isn't -- were working on the problem. And you can feel that, too.

6) Nan Goldin "The Ballad of Sexual Dependency" (1976-92) in "The American Century Part II, 1950-2000," Whitney Museum of American Art, Lisa Phillips, chief curator (New York, through Feb. 13)

"Generation to generation, nothing changes in bohemia," Nik Cohn wrote in 1968; that may be its allure. In 690 slides, Goldin takes the baton from van der Elsken, and while there's more sex, drugs and violence here -- and, since the story goes on, death -- the weightlessness of the boys and girls in "Love on the Left Bank" is missing. That's because the revolution those people counted on had, by Goldin's time, come and gone. The people in van der Elsken's book went on to make history; Goldin and her friends are stranded outside of it. In such a setting, it's fascinating, and heartbreaking, to discover which songs on Goldin's soundtrack emerge to take new power from photos of deadened lovers and defiant casualties, and which are just wallpaper. The winners, somehow made pristine: Dionne Warwick's "Don't Make Me Over," Petula Clark's "Downtown" (equally alive as the liberation theme song in "Girl, Interrupted") and "All Tomorrow's Parties" by Nico with the Velvet Underground. The first is a warning, the second a celebration. The third is a funeral: Its strength is in its time shift, its elegy for what has not happened, its certainty that all tomorrow's parties have already taken place. And the last song is Dean Martin's "Memories Are Made of This" -- which, following slides of cemeteries, coffins and a crude painting on a door of skeletons fucking standing up, can never have sounded so rich.

7) Michael Lindsay-Hogg, director "Two of Us" (VH1, premiering Feb. 1)

A fantasy: In 1976, after years of estrangement, Paul McCartney and John Lennon meet at the Dakota in New York. They walk, they talk, finally they get out their guitars and then -- Yoko calls. From L.A. Where she's gone to sell a cow for half a million dollars.

8) Degrees of believability in Paul Thomas Anderson's "Magnolia" (New Line Films)

1. Fulfillment of Exodus 8:2. 2. Julianne Moore trying to kill herself because she feels so awful about being unfaithful to dying fossil Jason Robards. 3. The whole cast -- sentient, OD'd, in a coma, it doesn't matter -- reverently mouthing the words to Aimee Mann's "Wise Up."

9-10) Troxel vs. Granville before the Supreme Court, Jan. 12, and "Come Softly to Me: The Very Best of the Fleetwoods" (EMI)

If you followed the coverage of this case, re the right of grandparents "to visit with a child over the objection of parents who have not been shown to be unfit," as Linda Greenhouse put it in the New York Times, you might have noticed one of the plaintiffs: a bald, stocky, tight-lipped man in glasses, Gary Troxel, 60. It was in 1958 that he joined with Gretchen Christopher and Barbara Ellis at Olympia High School to form the Fleetwoods -- before Sleater-Kinney, the best band ever to come out of Olympia, Wash. Over the next three years, chasing "Come Softly to Me" to "Mr. Blue" to "(He's) The Great Impostor," they would take the most obvious and commonplace sentiments and, floating them through doo-wop patterns, put them out of reach. "I saw him at an oldies concert about five years ago," Charles Taylor says of Troxel. "The 'Fleetwoods' were on the bill. (I have no idea if the two women were the same.) I fully expected it to be another depressing act. And he was wonderful. The voice was the same, and suddenly I was looking at a middle-aged man for whom none of the uncertainty of those songs had ever been settled." On the evening news shows, Troxel -- whose son had killed himself in 1993, leaving two children with their mother, with whom Troxel and his wife were now in dispute -- looked bitter, as if he had settled all questions in his heart and knew no one would ever feel as he did, as if he had nothing to say to anyone.

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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