Real Life Rock Top 10

Published March 20, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

1) Ernest C. Withers "Pictures Tell the Story" (Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, Va.)

In this companion volume to the exhibition running through May 7 -- the first collection of work by a Memphis, Tenn., photographer best known for his 1950s shots of Memphis musicians looking as if they own the world -- the most notable pictures are from the civil rights movement. There is "'Tent City' Family," from Tennessee in 1960, evicted from their home for voting; the smile in the father's eyes is devastating in its pride. There is the well-dressed young protester carrying a sign reading, "Communist Can Eat Here Why Can't We?" There is "First Day of Memphis Integration," 1961, three young children looking out a car window, one of them a girl of perhaps 7 with eyes so bright you can't believe the future she sees isn't real, and a scared woman in the front seat covering her face. There is a filthy toilet, a sink and a rotting wall, an image so stark, ugly and composed you can read it as an art photograph aestheticizing squalor until you read the caption: "Boarding House Bathroom from Which James Earl Ray Shot Dr. King, 422 South Main Street." And there is King's funeral procession, moving down Main Street in Memphis, past the State Theater advertising "ELVIS PRESLEY AT HIS BEST: 'STAY AWAY JOE.'"

Despite the fact that Withers' 1956 and '57 photos of the Hillbilly Cat smiling backstage with B.B. King and Brook Benton are pictures of brotherhood, this is the most complete image there is of the irrelevance, and the silence, of Presley. After that, the shot of the Bobby Bland band onstage in about 1950 -- in essayist Daniel Wolff's description, traveling "in a one two three beat from Bland to his hot guitarist to the blissful young sax player, with a final rim shot provided by the portrait of W.C. Handy on the wall behind" -- is a relief you may think you have no right to feel.

2) Cadallaca "Out West" (Kill Rock Stars)

In this side project, organist "Dusty" (Sarah Dougher of the Lookers), guitarist "Kissy" (Corin Tucker of Sleater-Kinney) and drummer "STS" (Junior of the Lookers) nail what Lesley "You Don't Own Me" (But) "That's the Way Boys Are" Gore would have done in 1980 if she'd blown off her age and formed a punk band with ? and the Mysterians. That is, as Kissy she'd get all Frankie and Johnny on her cheating lover ("Out West"), but dropping Frankie's regrets for Mili Avital's "I never loved you anyway" in "Dead Man"; as Dusty she'd sing about sex in a car to the one she did it with so that the bad memory will last longer for the other person than for her.

3) Cat Power "The Covers Record" (Matador)

Chan Marshall is precious and arty. She can also make "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" sound like a version of "Boys Don't Cry" and Moby Grape's 1967 walk down Haight Street, "Naked If I Want To," feel as if it's chiseled on a tombstone. Which it probably is, somewhere.

4) Sarge "Distant" (Mud)

Last words from the defunct Illinois punk quartet, with both new tunes ("Detroit Star-lite") and live old ones ("Fast Girls") jumping with singer/writer/guitarist Elizabeth Elmore's singular leaps from desperation to amusement to confusion to gritting her teeth. Plus a "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'" that should have been recorded as karaoke, not in a studio with horns.

5) Robert Frank "US 285 (1956)" outside "Walker Evans" (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, through May 14)

The comprehensive retrospective of the Evans photographs -- the first, it said there -- was in truth pretty skimpy and suffered from overfamiliarity. The countless outtakes from the 1936 Alabama work known from Evans' and James Agee's "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" were completely ignored in favor of the official images. Making a stronger claim, in a lead-in gallery devoted to photographs that influenced Evans and were inspired by him, was a single picture from Robert Frank's 1958 collection "The Americans," the most ordinary and mythic shot imaginable, just a flat road in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere, white line down the middle, one black car approaching. Evans' comments on the piece, from "1958 US Camera Annual," more or less a Theory of the Springsteen Road Song, appeared next to it: "In this picture, you instantly find the continent. The whole page is haunted with American scale and space, which the mind fills in quite automatically -- though possibly with memories of negation or violence or of exhaustion with thoughts of bad cooking, extremes of heat and cold, law enforcement, and the chance to work hard in a filling station."

A few lines from Ishmael Reed's 1972 novel "Mumbo Jumbo" should have been there, too: "'Deluxe Ice Cream, Coffee, 1 cent Pies, Cakes, Tobacco, Hot Dogs and Highways,'" says a Haitian to 1920s Harlem hoodoo detectives PaPa LaBas and Black Herman. "'Highways leading to nowhere. Highways leading to somewhere. Highways the [U.S. Marines'] Occupation used to speed along in their automobiles, killing dogs, pigs and cattle belonging to the poor people. What IS the American fetish about highways?' 'They want to get somewhere,' LaBas offers. 'Because something is after them,' Black Herman adds. 'But what is after them?' 'They are after themselves. They call it destiny. Progress. We call it Haints.'"

6) "Rock Style" (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

A Tommy Hilfiger production, with co-sponsorship from Condi Nast and Estie Lauder, it made you feel like you'd dreamed your way into a Vanity Fair ad supplement and would never wake up.

7) Randy Weeks "Madeline" on "Madeline" (Hightone)

The composer of Lucinda Williams' "Can't Let Go" digs himself into a very dark, very convincing seduction song in a town where there's nothing else to do. Weeks' voice isn't strong enough to make the recording stand up for long, but while it lasts there's a cruel, alluring shadow of Larry Clark's "Tulsa" in the background.

8) Hillary Clinton at Riverside Church, New York (March 5)

What's disarming about Hillary Clinton is the way she stands up in front of a crowd and speaks at length in paragraphs, without notes, without seeming to have memorized anything, simply as if she knows her own mind. She's that organized and that fierce. But this day, addressing the not-guilty verdict in the trial of the police who shot Amadou Diallo without mentioning it, she was, one by one, reading the sort of words ("To hunker down instead of reaching out. To shut doors instead of opening them.") nobody speaks without counting the cost of each.

9) Chlok Sevigny Gets Lucky in Love in "If These Walls Could Talk 2" (HBO, March 5)

After getting HIV in "Kids" the first time she has sex, V.D. in "The Last Days of Disco" the first time she has sex, falling in love with a man who turns out to be a woman and then gets shot in front of her in "Boys Don't Cry," it's about time. Interesting music, too -- faraway, smoky soul -- as opposed to the horrifying washing-machine melodies of the Ellen DeGeneres/Sharon Stone episode.

10) Washington Phillips "I Had a Good Father and Mother" on "Storefront and Streetcorner Gospel (1927-1929)" (Document, Austria)

A heavy-set, unsmiling man in his 30s, Phillips had a sense of humor ("Denomination Blues," a deadpan account of the endless antipathies Christian orders find in a message of love). He played, and was apparently the only person ever to record with, the dolceola, a kind of dulcimer that sounded like an electric zither run through a Leslie speaker cabinet, showing you a heaven populated by ghosts. In 1929, at his last recording session, just a year before he was committed to the insane asylum where he would spend the few years that remained of his life, he sang the saddest song in the world, thanking his parents for putting him on the right path. You listen and you know the world is poorer because he is not in it.

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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