Real Life Rock Top 10


Greil Marcus
March 6, 2000 10:00PM (UTC)

March 6, 2000

1) Mary Lou Lord "Aim Low" on "Mary Lou Lord/Sean Na Na" (Kill Rock Stars)

After the who-cares kick of Janis "The Female Elvis" Martin's old rockabilly twirl "Bang Bang" and the shtick mournfulness of Lucinda Williams' "Hard Road" (could there be any other sort of road in a Williams song?), Lord ends her half of this EP with real indie soul music: a version of the Bevis Frond's pretty, painful account of someone afraid of the sound of her own voice, somehow combined with the momentum of Trisha Yearwood's "She's in Love With the Boy." That one song says "You got no target, it's impossible to miss it" and the other says "reach for the stars" turns out to have nothing to do with why both are good.

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2) Julien Temple, director "The Filth and the Fury" (Fine Line)

Temple, who made the much-fictionalized Sex Pistols film "The Great Rock 'n Roll Swindle" for impresario Malcolm McLaren in 1980, returns with a documentary for the surviving band members -- all of whom, for present-day interviews, are presented in silhouette, either because they don't want to look old or, as Temple has said, it makes them look like criminals. How cool. Like the opening Collapse of England montage, which is supposed to set the Pistols' eruption in a causative social context, the device is a distraction. As Johnny Rotten makes clear, he wasn't fighting unemployment or corruption or racism or Pink Floyd -- he was fighting resignation, in all its forms. He thinks he lost: "Yes, I can take on England," he says of himself and Sid Vicious. "But I couldn't take on one heroin addict."

"They are the antithesis of human existence," says a London council member. What comes across in the still-shocking, irreducible performance footage, often fitted to studio recordings, is Rotten's absolute seriousness -- the sense that he's on some suicidal mission, that he has no choice -- and the unprecedented, unfollowed power of the songs he used. Perhaps most riveting is a segment (shot in a small venue, from below the stage, in blue tint) of "God Save the Queen." Rotten is in a conventional, unripped suit jacket and bow tie. The clothes accentuate him not as a juvenile delinquent but as a speaker in the public square, dressed respectfully to address his fellow citizens -- with the rain of frogs that 16th century artists showed spewing from the mouth of the Antichrist now issuing from his. "At least when I die," guitarist Steve Jones says today, "they can say, I did something."

3-4) Will Oldham "Guarapero -- Lost Blues 2" (Drag City) and Byrds "Lover of the Bayou" on "(Unissued)" from "(Untitled)/(Unissued)" (Columbia Legacy)

Oldham, in Louisville in the 1990s, and Roger McGuinn, in Hollywood in 1970, heard something glamorous and unkillable in old American music. To Oldham, it might have been music that was altogether forgotten, so that to remember it would require a voice that could leave its body. To McGuinn, it was a Technicolor movie starring none other. "I'm the lover of the bayou!" he crows, making a complete fool of himself, except that the crossing rhythmic lines of a band exploding into a song -- the guitars, the voice and the leading harmonica pulling away from each other -- open the story to the point where you can see the singer turning into a Louisiana Paul Bunyan, striding from Lafayette to Baton Rouge in a single step.

Oldham sings like the kid McGuinn's hero took into the swamp to raise and then forgot. The way his voice cracks opens fissures of doubt in everything he says. At his most vehement he sounds the most frightened. "Johnny Ace was drunk, was fucked, was NOT ON STAGE" he insists of the spectral R&B singer who shot himself playing Russian roulette on Christmas Eve 1954 -- as if the fact that Ace did it in his dressing room is what's really important, though Oldham will never be able to explain why. Unless it's because he believes the old story that it was really Ace's label boss Don Robey who pulled the trigger.

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5) Milla Jovovich "Satellite of Love" on "The Million Dollar Hotel -- Music From the Motion Picture" (Interscope)

Intense, clumsy, convincing -- who'd have guessed that if you put the actress who wore the adhesive-tape dress in "The Fifth Element" behind an old Lou Reed song she'd sound just like Macy Gray?

6) David Thomas and Foreigners "Bay City" (Thirsty Ear)

Bay City -- a.k.a. Santa Monica -- was the nice little mob town where Raymond Chandler's private eye Philip Marlowe went to get beat up in the '40s. In Denmark, the brooding leader of Pere Ubu tries to walk its streets, but they might as well be water under his feet. Read "Farewell, My Lovely" instead.

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7-8) Beachwood Sparks "Beachwood Sparks" (Sub Pop) and Broken by Whispers "Trembling Blue Stars" (Sub Pop)

Sub Pop was once the arm the Seattle scene reached out to the rest of the world. By way of London and Los Angeles it's now offering two of the wimpiest records you'll ever hear -- or, if the times are better than this music is betting they are, won't. As a friend imagined the perfect James Taylor lyric back in the early '70s: "The wind blows/I fall down."

9) Steely Dan "Two Against Nature" (Giant)

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You might think it's against nature for Donald Fagen and Walter Becker to return with music precisely as airless as that offered on their last studio album, "Gaucho," which came out in 1980. But maybe inside the not-very-clever tunes is an argument: I'm Rip van Winkle! I slept for 20 years and missed nothing! As the more interesting Steely Dan "Timeline/Bio" wheel included in the press packet says of 1947, the year before Fagen's birth: "Charlie 'Bird' Parker records 'Klacktoveedsedsteen' for an obscure jazz label. This is the last significant work of the classic period. Nothing very important happens from this moment on."

10) On Feb. 21 at 63rd Street and College Avenue, Oakland, Calif.

"Heard anything important to you on the radio today?" asked a radio commercial. No: just "Morning Edition's" false concern, filmmakers bragging about how smart they are on "Fresh Air," no music worth the time it takes to change the station. Then at Royal Coffee, where neighbors' complaints have put severe limits on what employees can play, a shock: Etta James' fabulously girly 1963 "Two Sides to Every Story" ("There's always his side, and yours too!"), with the women in the shop singing under their breath to the frantic scratchy chorus. "They're always two sides to every story!" James shouts as her two backing singers, little devil and little angel perched on her shoulders, go "TWO SIDES!" and then swoon together into a sighing "Yeahhhhh" -- it just fades, slides, there's nothing like it -- when James meets a new guy. In the sister shop next door: Hank Williams' "I Saw the Light," the morning suddenly so unfixed you could imagine everyone in the place converting on the spot.

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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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