Real Life Rock Top 10

Ten observations on pop and its discontents, from the noted author and critic.

Published June 12, 2000 7:10PM (EDT)

1 & 2) Aislers Set, "the last march" (Slumberland) & Young Marble Giants, "Salad Days" (Vinyl Japan)

Those who know the Young Marble Giants of Cardiff, Wales -- including Courtney Love, who covered their "Credit in the Straight World" on Hole's "Live Through This" -- treasure the minimalist three-piece's 1980 "Colossal Youth" as proof that punk meant cutting back to essentials, including, one would think from the sound of the thing, stuff like furniture, heat, more than one change of clothes. The 1979 demos collected on "Salad Days" -- "recorded in the rundown heart of student bedsit land" -- prove something else: that to pull off a concept that strict you need perfect execution.

Alison Stratton's ultracool YMG vocals might have been picked up from the screen -- from Anna Karina in '60s Godard movies. The Bay Area combo Aislers Set catch the same casual vehemence, the sense that while you can read your fate in dust motes you can also sweep them up. Recorded "either in Amy's garage or Wyatt and Alicia's living room," they make dream pop feel as easy to make as a can of soup, and as dangerous: Watch that jagged edge. A woman singing, "I cut my teeth on dirty looks" isn't what you're supposed to find in dream pop, but here the line goes by like a smile: Watch those smiles.

3) "Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock 'n' Roll" (A&E, June 18, available on home video in July)

Directed by Morgan Neville, written by Peter Guralnick, narrated by Billy Bob Thornton, this 90-minute documentary again and again trumpets the magical ear of the great Memphis producer and Sun Records founder -- but the words that explain how Phillips captured varieties of American speech at their fullest, through such mediums as Howlin' Wolf, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Junior Parker, Pat Hare and countless more, don't make it into the film. Instead there are the results, and wonder.

Visiting the ruins of the penitentiary where, at the age of 17, in 1943, he was sent to serve 99 years for rape, Johnny Bragg of the Prisonaires -- the group he formed in prison -- describes the genesis of his lovely R&B hit "Just Walking in the Rain." Now he's very old, nattily dressed, and, talking about what it meant to glimpse the rain from the inside, he begins to sing. He's absolutely glorious. The song expands, taking in anyone's aspirations for what they can never have. "I always had hope," Bragg says. "Of getting out. You know why? I was innocent." Phillips got him down on tape in 1953, 10 years into the 24 Bragg would eventually serve.

Shaking their heads in awe are, most notably, R&B singer Roscoe Gordon (Phillips "could reach the soul of man through that board"), Sun producer Jack Clement ("He scares the heck out of some people. He's telling you something, and you know he's full of ... prunes, but it's profound, whatever it is. He can have you believe in something and you know it's not true. For a while") and Memphis musician Jim Dickinson. With typical eloquence he sums up Phillips' achievement by describing a 1954 show at Memphis' Overton Park Shell, where with one "Ellis Presley," billed below country ham Slim Whitman, the crowd found itself faced with the future. "It forced the listener to make a choice, simply to accept it or reject it, if nothing else. What followed that choice was freedom, because of course that's what follows a choice."

4) Sonya Hunter, "Finders Keepers" (Innerstate)

Good title for an album of mostly other people's songs, but Hunter doesn't get to keep them: She's a terrible singer. Except on Jeb Nichols' "GTO," where the hot '60s Pontiac is celebrated as if it were a horse in the Virginia mountains in 1885.

5) Tarbox Ramblers, "Third Jinx Blues" on "Tarbox Ramblers" (Rounder Select)

Ordinarily the folkies at Rounder can't tell a rock 'n' roll band from a tree, but this Boston four-piece can play from the shadows. A wrong-side-of-the-bed blues catches the mood of a man who wants only to tell the world the bad news, but who refuses to be rushed. It's like Canned Heat or the Beat Farmers at their best; it's so good you wonder why the group fills up the rest of its album with old-timey warhorses (to the point of piling "Jack of Diamonds" on "The Cuckoo" -- they're the same song) that at best are B-plus college papers and at worst copied off the Internet, if not old Kaleidoscope albums.

6) David Johansen, "David Johansen and the Harry Smiths" (Chesky)

Johansen, aka the dread Buster Poindexter, equates shtick with being, and on this dive into prewar blues the shtick is that to sing very old songs you must sound as if you are very old. There are Amos 'n' Andy vocals, and despite his many protestations, I don't believe Johansen has ever been to Memphis. But on Rabbit Brown's ineffable 1927 "James Alley Blues" he gets lost in the song. Covering Bob Dylan's "World Gone Wrong" rewrite "Delia," Johansen seems sorrier about what happens there than anyone before him.

7) Bob Dylan, "Blowin' in the Wind (live)" on "The Best of Bob Dylan, Volume 2" (Sony UK)

A friend in 1963, when we first heard this song: "Kinda ersatz." He meant it was written by the times, not by anyone in particular. But in this seven-minute, undated 1990s "field recording" -- right out of the crowd, like a bootleg -- the song is less a message than an occasion for music, with a lot of guitar. The song itself is now blowing in the wind, and has long ago blown away from its author; on this night people have momentarily attached themselves to it, the author with little more claim to the composition than the audience. The confidence and condescension of a younger man -- Don't you get it? -- have turned into the regret of an older one. The song is no oldie, though. Singing alongside Dylan, Charlie Sexton and Larry Campbell take the tune to a new, higher register, and suddenly "Blowin' in the Wind" is not only an occasion for music, not when it's daring the future to shut it up.

8) Stanley Booth, "The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones" (A Cappella Books)

The 1984 epic on the epic year 1969, back in print. From the new afterword: "The last time I heard the Stones, I went in like a civilian, with a ticket. Inside the entrance just past the ticket-taker a girl was passing out applications for Rolling Stones Visa and MasterCards with the tongue logo. I had a vision of NATO leasing the tongue to put on helicopters, tanks, bombs. In the sixties we believed in a myth -- that music had the power to change people's lives. Today people believe in a myth -- that music is just entertainment."

9) The Haggard, "A Bike City Called Greasy" (Mr. Lady)

Two women from Portland, Ore. -- guitarist Emily Kingan and drummer sts -- playing what is by now very formal hardcore, but with monsters-from-the-deep mythical undertones: in the sound of the voices, not the words they use.

10) Dusty (Sarah Dougher), "Cadallaca Meet the Backstreet Boys" (Puncture #46)

Bumped from their date at a Portland studio by the BBs, the women in the punk trio "started conjecturing about their sexuality in song form, penning the bluesy number 'One Night with a Backstreet Boy,'" available soon or never as a hidden track on the next Sleater-Kinney single ("pending outcome of slander suit").

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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