Real Life Rock Top 10

By Greil Marcus
July 11, 2000 1:27AM (UTC)
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1) Ace Atkins, "Leavin' Trunk Blues: A Nick Travers Mystery" (Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's)

Following last year's "Crossroads Blues," in which Travers, a white Tulane musicologist, uncovered both a cache of unreleased Robert Johnson recordings and the murders behind them, this tale of an aging Chicago gangster who uses the street name "Stagger Lee," a long-dead South Side record producer named Billy Lyons and a forgotten singer rotting in jail takes time to escape the corniness of its premises. When it does it's because Atkins gets inside his detective's skin as a trespasser: "Why," Travers hears Johnson asking him in a dream, "do you believe in a world that doesn't believe in you?" "I don't want to be in no paper," Ruby Walker tells the professor -- also a former New Orleans Saint and sometime blues harmonica player -- when he interviews her in prison, and she doesn't mean the newspapers. As the book grinds to its end and the bodies pile up, you realize that all the investigator can do is hope someone else will pull the trigger, not because he can't but because it's not his story to end.

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2) Amanda Ghost, "Ghost Stories" (Warner Bros.)

"Welcome to my filthy mind," Ghost says to introduce herself, and she sounds like she's singing from the basement of a nightclub long after whoever locked up thought it was empty -- but then she changes her clothes and gets all wistful instead. The result is a really great Spice Girls album.

3) Siniad O'Connor, "Faith and Courage" (Atlantic)

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Ever since "Mandinka," O'Connor has worked hard to disguise the fact that she can sing rock 'n' roll like she's cracking a whip. There are moments of that here on "Daddy I'm Fine," a fast pop autobiography in which O'Connor celebrates her teenage hairstyles, boot styles and what it felt like to "wanna fuck every man in sight." Otherwise this highly praised comeback is all sanctimony, albeit cosmic sanctimony.

4) Sarah Vowell, "On patriotism and 'The Patriot,'" open letters July 4)

"I think about the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution all the time. Mainly because I watch a lot of TV. I keep a small, 95-cent copy of the two documents handy so that I can fact-check the constitutional interpretations in the shows of David E. Kelley and Aaron Sorkin. In my little booklet, the Declaration and the Constitution are separated by only a blank half-page. I forget that there are eleven years between them, eleven years of war and the whole Articles of Confederation debacle. In my head, the two documents are like the A-side and B-side of the greatest single ever released, recorded in one great drunken night."

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5/6) Colson Whitehead, "The Intuitionist" (Anchor) and Bob Dylan, "I'll Keep It With Mine," from "The Bootleg Series, Volumes 1-3 [rare & unreleased] 1961-1991" (Columbia)

Dylan's weary 1966 piano demo is about whether or not to get on a train; Whitehead's novel is a metaphysical mystery about elevator inspection; and these lines, from Whitehead's gnostic textbook "'Theoretical Elevators, Volume Two,' by James Fulton," could have been written to translate the song: "You are standing on a train platform. A fear of missing the train, a slavery to time, has provided ten minutes before the train leaves. There is so much you have never said to your companion and so little time to articulate it. The years have accreted around the simple words and there would have been ample time to speak them had not the years intervened and secreted them. The conductor paces up and down the platform and wonders why you do not speak. You are a blight on his platform and timetable. Speak, find the words, the train is warming towards departure."

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7) "Germaine Krull -- Photographer of Modernity," at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (through July 30)

In Munich and Berlin, Krull (1897-1985) staged incandescent nude lesbian tableaux and angled new buildings as godheads. But her most striking pictures are of friends and associates, notably "S.M. Eisenstein (1930)," cropped so that only below the chin is there any air, the rest of the face overwhelming the frame, allowing the filmmaker's big, beady eyes to leave the present-day viewer an impression of the sexually repressed madman, the Ed Gein, the Jason whose hockey mask is his own face; "Etude (1931 -- portrait of Wanda Hubbell)," stunning both because Hubbell is so beautiful and because, tears on her face, eyes down, she has lent herself to a generic portrait of the film actress, not remotely mistakable for anything else, that is, a real person; and "Walter Benjamin (1926)," where, despite a reddish-brown tint added to the critic's mustache, light seems to glow behind this black-and-white image, in the long and tousled hair, until you see a Jewish Elvis, if not a 1920s Lou Reed.

8) America, "Highway: 30 Years of America" (Rhino)

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"Spanning three decades and nearly all of America's 23 albums," says the press release, "Highway contains 64 tracks in a three-CD boxed set that features the classic rock staples 'A Horse With No Name,' 'Sister Golden Hair,' and 'Ventura Highway,'" and, if one is writing on Independence Day as Gerry Beckley and Dewey Bunnell are performing at Wellesby Park in Sunrise, Fla., one must ask two questions: What does it say about this country that this group has gotten away with recording 23 albums? And, to paraphrase Walter Benjamin, could even the dead listen to 64 straight America songs?

9/10) Dave Alvin, "Public Domain" (Hightone), and John Lee Hooker, "The Unknown John Lee Hooker: 1949 Recordings" (Flyright)

Rockabilly rootsman Alvin bids for the ultimate Americana album, with fabulous colored old photos (a black cowboy in what looks to be a sheep herd's worth of chaps) and a matching set of p.d. hits: "Shenandoah," a variant of Mississippi bluesman Tommy Johnson's "Maggie Campbell," "Railroad Bill," "Delia," "East Virginia." Just over half a century ago, in Detroit, Hooker -- a variant of whom appears in "Leavin' Trunk Blues" as Elmore King -- did something similar, responding to a Czech cartoonist and record collector's wish for the old country stuff no one wanted to hear anymore with solo versions of "Two White Horses," "Rabbit on the Log," "Six Little Puppies and Twelve Shaggy Hounds," "John Henry," "Jack O'Diamonds," the ancient ring shout "Old Blind Barnabus" and a variant of what would become "Mystery Train." The difference absolute. Alvin sings every commonplace tune in a plummy, unquestioning manner that suspends whatever is uncertain, unfinished or threatening about any of the unkillable songs; Hooker addresses artifacts of the local culture of his Mississippi childhood, which were in fact emblems of a vernacular national culture, as if they threaten him directly, and as if he has the ability to stare them down and wait them out. The whole point of commonplace music is to take up a song everyone knows, that everyone is sick of, that everyone was born sick of, and then to sing it and make it be heard as if the singer is creating the song on the spot, drawing on familiarity and dissolving it in the same motion. Alvin does the opposite. He sings like the musical director of a summer camp; he's going to teach you these songs, and exactly how to sing them. Hooker's the guy telling ghost stories after lights-out, stories so laconically offhand you can never get them just right when you try to tell them to somebody else.


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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