Real Life Rock Top 10

By Greil Marcus
Published August 7, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

1) "Forever Mine," written and directed by Paul Schrader (Telluride Film Festival, Sept. 1-4)

In this deliriously romantic version of "The Count of Monte Cristo," it's 1973 at a glamorous Florida resort. Catching a glimpse of Gretchen Mol stepping out of the surf like Botticelli's Venus -- all she's missing is the shell -- cabana boy Joseph Fiennes knows his life will never be real without her. Soon he's talked her into bed, and it was like the discovery of gold for both of them, but she's only been married eight months and the pain of what she's done is ripping her apart. "Stop talking like an adult," Fiennes says oddly. "Tell me why." "Why what?" Mol says. "What do you think?" Fiennes says. "Why do birds sing so gay? Why does the rain fall from up above? Why did you get married?" -- and the old words from Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers' "Why Do Fools Fall in Love" slip in and out of Fiennes' speech as if he thought up the words on the spot. Because of many kinds of misfortune, the film is slated for a Nov. 4 showing on the Starz cable channel rather than a theatrical release; until distribution catches up with the picture the Telluride screenings will be the only chance to see it on a screen as big as its reach.

2) Trailer Bride at the Great American Music Hall (San Francisco, July 28)

At the head of America's least obvious country band, Melissa Swingle could have escaped from a 1936 Walker Evans photograph; she doesn't make eye contact. For that matter, she looks at the floor, as if she has something to say but doesn't want to have to stand up in front of people to get it across. In tune with her sardonic, self-effacing waitress' I get off at 10 and then I go home drawl, she offers a few splayed-leg dance steps in lieu of arm gestures or head fakes. "Whine de Lune," the band called its album; that's the sound Swingle, who plays everything but drums and bass, gets from a saw while guitarist Scott Goolsby, carrying what could be 8 inches of pompadour, puts hard, dead-cowboy notes in the air and then makes them dissolve, so slowly it's as if you could watch it happen, and so definitively it's hard to believe you heard what you heard.

3) MasterCard commercial

Cognitive dissonance sighting, as reported by Charlie Largent: "Various 'Priceless' descriptions of family bonding ('For everything else there's MasterCard'), all set to the tune of 'Lolita's Theme' from the 1962 Kubrick film ... "

4) Salon's Table Talk (July 27)

Hazel Shade: "I keep thinking that Lorillard and Brown & Williamson, et al., should simply start a cigarette campaign like the Apple and the Gap khaki ads. Think of it, a sexy picture of every interesting person since the inception of photography: 'Bob Dylan smoked.' 'FDR smoked.' 'Albert Einstein smoked.' 'Greta Garbo smoked.' 'Miles Davis smoked.' 'Albert Camus smoked.' Wouldn't it be great?"

William Ham: "A few years ago, I wanted to pitch the American Psychiatric Association an ad featuring that classic picture of Lou Reed with the Iron Crosses shaved into his tonsure with the legend 'Lou Reed Had Shock Treatment.' I really think it could have touched off an electrode renaissance."

5) CBS Radio News (July 27)

For a spot on Federal District Judge Marilyn Hall Patel's decision, later stayed, mandating suspension of Napster operations, an interviewer found guitarist G.E. Smith, late of the "Saturday Night Live" band and Bob Dylan's "Never Ending Tour" and famed for his ability to combine obsequiousness with self-glorification: "It costs money to get our product out there," Smith said, then complaining that people take it off the Net for nothing and "it's not fair." As if anyone would pay money for a record because his name was on it -- with Napster he might get heard by accident. So score one for the judge.

6) Reni Magritte, "La lectrice soumise" (The Subjugated Reader), 1928, in "Magritte" (San Francisco Museum of Art, through Sept. 5)

Very vulgar, with heavy lines and none of the stylized stillness of a typical Magritte: a woman with dark hair, brown eyes, thick eyebrows, yellowish skin, gray sweater, black skirt, seated against a blue background and holding a book. The shock and horror on her face, her bugged-out eyes, make you wonder: Why didn't Alfred Hitchcock buy this and use it as his logo?

7) Onedia, "Steel Rod EP" (Jagjaguwar)

A Brooklyn combo with an avant-garde rep leaves no hint of it here, and leaves little enough of an impression with the five songs listed. It's the untitled hidden track, which pops up less than a minute after the official program ends, that pulls you in: a trash rehearsal, a 15-minute organ riff the rest of the band takes up as the meaning of life for lack of any better suggestion. Not the sort of thing one can publicly release these days, and not in any way distinctive, just what thousands of bands have done for 50 years when a lack of inspiration struck them, as complete a version of What Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time as you'll find anywhere.

8 & 9 John Fahey, "How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life" (Drag City Books) and "The Essential Bill Monroe & the Monroe Brothers" (RCA)

In his recent collection of stories the experimental guitarist recalls the day in the mid-'50s that a record on the radio changed -- or, maybe, took -- his life: "Then I heard this horrible, crazy sound. And I felt this insane, mad feeling ... I went limp. I almost fell off the sofa. My mouth fell open. My eyes widened and expanded. I found myself hyperventilating. When it was over I tried to get up and go and get a paper bag to restore the correct balance of power between oxygen and carbon monoxide. I screamed for help but nobody was around and nobody came. I was drenched with sweat. It was like I had woken up to a new and thrilling and exciting horror movie." The disc that occasioned this response -- and Fahey is just warming up; wait 'til he gets to the record store -- was Bill Monroe and His Bluegrass Boys' 1941 cover of Jimmie Rodgers' 1930 "Blue Yodel No. 7." Play it now: Can you hear what a teenager heard one day when he, oh, had the flu or something, if he isn't making the whole thing up? Enough to keep you listening. There's something off about the rhythm, something somehow not right.

10) "Bob Dylan: The American Troubadour," directed by Stephen Crisman, written by Ben Robbins (A&E, Aug. 13)

This two-hour documentary is a thrilling exercise in the legal doctrine of fair use. With no permissions forthcoming for any material controlled by its subject, let alone a contemporary interview, the drama proceeds according to occasional fragments of old recorded Q&A's, enough panning of still photos to make you think the career in question predated the invention of motion pictures, never more than a single chorus of any given song and a great deal of time devoted to the pronouncements of not very many talking heads, during which Todd Gitlin, in the '60s a head of Students for a Democratic Society and currently a sociology professor at NYU, emerges as his generation's David Halberstam. Around the edges are traces of an untold story: A circa-1958 tape of Dylan's Hibbing, Minn., high-school combo the Golden Chords harmonizing on a piece of original doo-wop ("I'll be true, I love you, yes I do" -- after a moment it sounds more like Fargo's Bobby Vee's earliest Buddy Holly imitations) is really not that far from the 1967 Basement Tapes Dylan tune "Dontcha Tell Henry" as performed now by Levon Helm of the Band. At 60 he's been through cancer and looks it. He sounds it: His barely audible rasp, mandolin clutched to his chest, calls up a simple music that will outlive its singers, not that people like Helm or Dylan seem likely to grant that death's mortgage on their bodies ought to take priority over the music's on their souls.

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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