Real Life Rock Top 10

Eminem, Don Henley, Dusty Springfield and the Sex Pistols


Greil Marcus
May 30, 2000 10:46PM (UTC)

1) Eminem, "The Marshall Mathers LP" (Interscope)

Why is he so much more believable, funnier, scarier and for that matter whiter -- a realistic voice -- on Dr. Dre's "2001" than on his own record?

2) John Gutmann, "The Photography of John Gutmann: Culture Shock" (Merrell Publishers)

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Gutmann (1905-98) left Germany for San Francisco in 1933, and thereafter let the California light bleach the irony out of his avant-garde eye even as what the native-born took for granted remained thrilling and odd to him. He moved around his new city like Robert Frank with a sense of humor. He loved signs, especially crowded, overwritten signs -- the 1938 "Yes, Columbus Did Discover America" (a sedan screaming from "AND HOW THESE COYOTES HOWL" on the hood to "THE TRUTH MARCHES ON" on a back fender) or the 1988 "Che Guevara, Malcolm X, Rosa Luxemburg, et al. at the 'Militant Forum' Bookshop" -- that communicate like citizens driven mad by their times. There are fabulous shots of Count Basie Band dancers, women on the street, repeated intimations of leftist culture as a Theosophical cult: The past in the pictures dares you to imagine the world has changed. "Exposi of NAZI AGENTS in San Francisco" reads a poster advertising a Jan. 30, 1938, meeting at Eagles Hall -- who was there, who was exposed, where are they now?

3) Berkeley Liberation Radio, 104.1 FM (May 11, 8.30 a.m.)

Sometimes you can pick up this pirate station, sometimes you can't. This day the radio seemed to stick on a faraway soul production, though it was more like an emanation: The style was 30 years ago, but the feeling was as old as the world. As if from the top of a mountain, a man chanted: "Why does my heart/Feel so bad?/Why does my soul/Feel so bad?" A highly pitched orchestration bridged the distance between him and the woman who shared the song. A specter of exile and banishment overwhelmed any sense of genre. The woman departed for the desert, the man floated off his mountain top and disappeared.

The record ended -- or rather fell into a long, staticky silence. Transfixed, I drove around in circles for the next half hour, trying to stay within range, hoping for someone to I.D. the tune, through a couple of minutes of a Noam Chomsky lecture on the U.S. as the Great Satan, more silence, Metallica from "S&M," more silence, more Chomsky, the civil-rights movement jailhouse anthem "Ain' Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me 'Round," more silence, then Chomsky dithering over the introduction of another lecture only to be cut off cold by the 9 a.m. DJ, one "Sunny Day." That strange soul record, it turned out, was Moby, who dies on my stereo and gets me on the radio every time.

4) "Forever Dusty: Homage to an Icon -- A Tribute to Dusty Springfield" (R&D)

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A set that soars when people you may not have heard of sing songs you may not have heard. It begins with the Laura Love Band's stultifying note-for-note version of "Son of a Preacher Man" -- and then dives into street-level pop heaven with "What's It Gonna Be" by the Butchies, catches SONiA's cool and dreamy "I Just Don't Know What to Do with Myself," lets you imagine yourself on the disc with Lord Douglas Phillips and Gretchen Phillips' utterly straight, guileless, nearly karaoke "Yesterday When I Was Young" and former Gang of Four bassist Sara Lee's absolutely karaoke "I Only Want to Be with You." Best of all might be Jennifer Kimball's "Chained to a Memory," where every note seems pressed down like a dead flower in a book of bad poems.

5) Mary Gaitskill, "Folk Song 1999" (www.nerve.com)

Gaitskill starts this short story with news items, as if the daily paper is where you can now find the everyday perversity, the gothic portents, of the old ballads: here a murderer on a talk show with relatives of his victims, turtles stolen from a zoo, a woman aiming for the record books with a thousand-man gang bang. By the end, she turns into "John Henry," the folk hero who died in a race with a machine. She's no Tralala; she's going to win, but while she won't fuck herself to death, she may erase herself. Or she may simply be acting out a drama that was already in some versions of "John Henry," say J. E. Mainer's Mountaineers' "John Henry Was a Little Boy," collected on the new "Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, Volume Four": "John Henry had a lovely little woman/Her name was Polly Ann/John Henry got sick and he had to go home/But his Polly drove steel like a man/Polly drove steel like a man (Some woman, boys!)"

6) Don Henley, "Inside Job" (Warner Bros.)

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While it's well known that as one gets older, one tends to find changes in the world at large unsettling, confusing, fucking irritating, a rebuke to one's very existence, it's generally not a good idea to make a career out of saying so.

7) "The Filth and the Fury -- A Sex Pistols Film" soundtrack (Virgin)

Everything of the pit (and I don't mean the mosh pit) you can hear in the theater -- the unknowable, the unspeakable -- is translated into clean speech by the magic of digital housekeeping. The sound isn't bad, it's evil.

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8 & 9) Rian Malan, "In the Jungle" (Rolling Stone, May 25, www.rollingstone.com) and Solomon Linda's Original Evening Birds, "Mbube" on "Mbube Roots -- Zulu Classical Music from South Africa, 1930s-1960s" (Rounder)

From Malan, the capitalist odyssey of a 1939 song its creator sold for "about one pound cash" and which to this day has made tens of millions for others: the song generations of campers know as "Wimoweh." In the annals of theft and fraud that make up at least half the story of popular music, what's astonishing is not that Linda (1909-62) reaped so little, but that, today, his family receives anything at all; what's uncanny is that the Evening Birds' dignified, stately original is instantly recognizable as "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," the cheesy 1961 No. 1 by the Tokens. I heard it three times in one day recently; the voices on the verses are still embarrassing, but after Malan's piece, the chorus sounded glorious.

10) "Her Bright Smile Haunts Me Still -- The Warner Collection, Volume I" (Appleseed, www.appleseedrec.com)

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There is old and there is old. On this 58-cut anthology of field recordings made between 1935 and 1966 by folklorists Frank and Ann Warner, you sometimes hear the sound of people living in an old-fashioned manner -- living according to a frame of reference that is at once familiar and defunct, like an old brand of soda pop, or for that matter the term "soda pop." When "Yankee" John Galusha of New York sings "Days of 49," though, you are in another world, just a few years after the Gold Rush; when Lee Monroe Presnell of North Carolina sings "Farewell to Old Bedford" and the plain but undeniably mystical "Sometimes in This Country," you hear the society that was here before the Founding Fathers met to turn it into a nation.


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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