Greil Marcus: Real Life Rock Top 10

The "Seinfeld" stamp, "Careless Love," Wire's arty punk revival and more.

Published May 15, 2000 3:30PM (EDT)

May 15, 2000

1) The Holy Childhood, "Up With What I'm Down With" (Gern Blandsten,
P.O. Box 356, River Edge, NJ 07661)

There's a cracked vision in this sprawling music -- some drunk in his
20s conducting the Band with a few female friends to loosen the
choruses, maybe -- that reaches a pitch of experience and desire so
expansive the whole thing seems to have been recorded outdoors.

2) Richard Belzer as detective John Munch, "Law and Order: Special Victims
Unit" (May 5)

For once, no joke, no conspiracy mongering, just a case that sucks him
in and breaks over his head, leaving his nihilism boiled down to the
coldest professionalism, rewriting his ruined skin, wire glasses and
dark beady eyes into the most complete deadpan imaginable, so that the
suspect has two choices: fall into the black hole of this man's face, or
confess, fast.

3) Wire at Great American Music Hall, San Francisco (May 2)

Formed in 1976, they were from the start the most severely arty of all
British punk bands, and it was their severity that saved them: their
pursuit, it always seemed -- as over the decades Colin Newman, Robert
Gotobed, B.C. Gilbert and Graham Lewis went their own ways and
reformed, dumping an all-but-unsolvable confusion of LPs and CDs off the
charts -- of form before and after anything else. Despite Newman's
cutting accent ("London suburban art-school sarcastic," according to
critic Jon Savage), or the fact that in 1991, lacking Gotobed, the group
recorded as Wir, their humor was all in their melodies, playing against
the sense of espionage in their lyrics, against the harsh, absolutely
self-contained bass drums guitars rhythms of their ridiculously brief
songs. In a word, they were perfect.

For the sold-out first show of an eight-date American tour they were
instantly up to speed: terrifically loud but precise, with Newman's
staccato delivery for "Pink Flag" letting every word stand out clearly.
They were pure punk in shape and attack -- punk as wish, as what it
could be, as an ideal -- but without any baggage as to clothes,
attitude, history. Never big stars, they carried nothing more than their
old or young-looking selves and their sound onto the stage. Nothing was
mythicized; nothing happening in the music referred to anything that
wasn't present, except to the degree that the music referred to, or in
its way reformed, the world at large. Expressions were dour. Movement
was minimal. The four played as if they had invented punk -- or had stumbled
upon it the day before, as if their project was so conceptual it was
completed before it was begun. Doubt and nervousness underlay every
tune. The cryptic invitations of the words suggested code. That made the
momentary release of the melodies in the likes of "Dot Dash" or "French
Film (Blurred)" unbearably pleasurable, because even as you felt the
Pleasure, you felt it being taken away.

Remaining tour dates: May 15, Irving Plaza, New York; May 26-28,
the Garage, London.

4) Wire, "Third Day"

Five indistinct rehearsal cuts recorded last fall. Forget the "first
edition: 1 of 1,000" printed, not stamped, on the sleeve (as I read it,
that means there can be 1,000 first editions of limitless pressings each)
and look for "On Returning (1977-1979)" (Retro/EMI, 1989), "Behind the
Curtain: Early Versions 1977 & 1978" (EMI, 1995), "Chairs Missing"
(Harvest/EMI, 1978, their best) and "Document & Eyewitness" (Rough
Trade, 1981), in whatever configurations you might find, plus Ian
Penman's fine "Flies in the Ointment" in the March issue of the Wire.

5) Richard Shindell, "Somewhere Near Patterson" (Signature)

I bought this glossy folk recording because of a fulsome New York Times
review ("What does it mean to say a singer-songwriter is the best?")
trumpeting "the vocal equivalent of Shaker furniture." Bet you didn't
know "Shaker" was a synonym for "florid."

6) Ben Shahn, Farm Security Administration photo Oct. 1935

From the FSA home page, go
from Subject Index to United States-West Virginia-Welch, from there to
United States-West Virginia-Scotts Run, from there to No. 30, and you'll
Shahn's picture
of a businessman or government man -- dressed in
fedora and three-piece suit -- sitting in a clearing next to a very
handsome guitarist: "Love oh, love, oh keerless love," someone wrote
down, attempting to capture the player's mountain dialect. His
expression is at once wistful and impassioned, and his face is delicate,
almost effete -- there's nothing of the weathering of Appalachia in his
features -- which only makes the caption more odd: "Doped singer 
relief investigator reported a number of dope cases at Scotts Run." No
audio, but listen to Lead Belly's 1935 recording of "Careless Love" (on
"Midnight Special," Rounder) if you want to hear the morphine -- in the
song, if not the singer.

7) North Mississippi Allstars, "Shake Hands With Shorty" (Tone-Cool)

In this juke joint, the old -- sometimes very old -- blues are part of
the atmosphere. With the guitars, even a mandolin and a washboard,
buzzing off the walls, you don't have to notice that the vocals are
stuck in neutral, or if you do you can tune them out.

8) U. S. Postal Service, "1990s
Celebrate the Century"

Sure, if you really want your letters celebrating cellphones and SUVs,
virtual reality, computer art, "Titanic" ("A James
Cameron Film" -- did they, which is to say we, have to pay extra to say
that?) and a visual and conceptual vagueness that beggars the
imagination: Take "New Baseball Records," which neither on the front of
the stamp nor the explanatory back bothers to say what the records are
or who set them. As for the "Seinfeld" number: no Elaine crawling out of
somebody's bed, just -- a doorway.

9) Belle and Sebastian, "Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a
Peasant" (Matador)

Myself, I'd prefer they walked like an Egyptian -- at least they
couldn't maintain their coy folk melodies, their arch pre-Raphaelite
narratives, if they had to do it at right angles.

10) Merce Cunningham Dance Company, "Interscape," with music by John
Cage ("One 8") and décor and costumes by Robert Rauschenberg (Zellerbach
Hall, Berkeley, Calif., May 3)

After his molecules-in-motion pointillist backdrop for a dance set to
Morton Feldman's 1958 "Summerscape," for the new "Interscape"
Rauschenberg offered a typically bullshit collage -- disassociated
images that connected to nothing, generated no tension, merely sat on
their screen mute and still. In place of his "Summerscape" leotards,
which in their lightness left the illusion of nakedness, he came up with
outfits decorated with more meaningless images. It didn't matter. The
music was rendered on what one might call a distressed cello (all
scratching and dying chords, like John Cale's viola at the end of the
Velvet Underground's "Heroin") and broken -- or, somehow, extended -- by
long periods of silence, in which the dancers continued to move without
hesitation, in the same stutter-step they used with the cello. The
effect was no sense of mime, but an unnatural suspension of one element
of life, which made life itself feel like a construct, invention or
accident. At the end, Cunningham came out for a bow, appearing as the
complete happy bohemian: Carl Sandburg mop of white hair, dark coat,
dark shirt and striped baggy pants he might have bought off a village
fool somewhere in central Europe in 1547.

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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