Real Life Rock Top 10

Telluride Diary, the Wallflowers and Springsteen; 10 observations on pop and its discontents by the noted author and critic.

By Greil Marcus
September 18, 2000 11:21PM (UTC)
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1 & 2) Telluride Film Festival Diary: "Shadow of the Vampire," written and directed by E. Elias Merhige (Sept. 1), and Boomtown Rats, "I Don't Like Mondays" (Columbia, 1979)

Everybody loves vampire movies; let's just say that with this, on the making of F.W. Murnau's 1922 "Nosferatu," you get more than you bargain for. It's a comedy with a terrible payoff. I walked out of the theater thrilled, queasy, wondering what art is worth and how much an artist -- in this case, not Merhige but John Malkovich's appallingly convincing Murnau -- can charge for it. I went down a stairway into a basement sandwich joint where "I Don't Like Mondays" was playing, and though there was nothing in the place for sale I wanted, I couldn't leave. That record all about a girl shooting up her high school just made me smile. Those big, dripping piano notes, that effete Bob Geldof delivery, punk as "You Can't Always Get What You Want" -- both the movie and the song were asking the same questions, but, just as the movie was made to ensure you couldn't answer them, the song did.


3) Wallflowers, "Breach" (Interscope)

The tunes on this follow-up to the huge "Bringing Down the Horse" flow along without stumbling, Jakob Dylan's voice at once hoarse and smooth. But there are lines that don't fit -- don't fit here and wouldn't fit in anyone else's music: "Look at you with your worn out shoes/Living proof that evolution is through" is intriguing, not that I have a clue what it means, but "Sam Cooke didn't know what I know" -- Dylan's teeth clench on the line, as if he'd rather he didn't know but, given that his sound is all fatalism, he has no choice. Moral: This record is far more hoarse than smooth.

4) Bratmobile, "Ladies, Women and Girls" (Lookout!)


"I'm old, and Croatian," Allison Wolfe, singer for this Olympia, Wash., trio, said from the stage of the Fillmore in San Francisco in June. Since they started out in 1991 the Bratmobile women have learned nothing (or cast off all superfluous knowledge); they still come off as if they just now realized that systemic oppression and bad manners deserve the same nyah-nyah-nyah.

5) Jackie Leven, "You've Lost That Loving Feeling," on "Defending Ancient Springs" (Valley Entertainment)

Leven is a bland, poetic singer -- singing at the words, not through them -- but with Pere Ubu's David Thomas playing Little Bobby Hatfield to Leven's Big Bill Medley, the old Righteous Brothers classic is twisted from plea to complaint. Won't mean a thing to anyone not already seduced by Thomas' Gyro Gearloose-as-Nobel Peace Prize winner act (where, as on his "Meadville," a cover of "Can't Help Falling in Love" fits right in with a lecture on Charles Fort), but he's so -- monkey time.


6) "Badlands: A Tribute to Bruce Springsteen's 'Nebraska'" (Sub Pop sampler)

The complete set isn't due till November, but there's no need to wait on this shocking discovery by bighearted and/or leftist singers: The 1982 Springsteen album had social content! So it's cool to sing the songs! But the performances are square. Chrissie Hynde might be up to the dead-man-talking inhabitation of teen mass murderer Charles Starkweather on the title song -- but not by treating it as a prayer. Billy Bragg wants you to know that Woody Guthrie could have written "Mansion on the Hill." Ani DiFranco comes up with an interesting entree into "Used Cars," singing as if through a string and a tin can, but she's all smugness for the last, kiss-my-ass-goodbye line. Aimee Mann and Michael Penn (who proves definitively that Mann did not marry him for his voice) are predictably pleased with themselves for "Reason to Believe"; the results are unspeakable. But look, Bruce is a bighearted, leftist kind of guy, usually ready to pay tribute to people who deserve it: Why isn't he here, taking on "State Trooper" or "Open All Night" as if he didn't get them right the first time around? That's what he does on his own stage.


7) James Lee Burke, "Purple Cane Road" (Doubleday)

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of current fiction is the way President Clinton is beginning to make his way into it. It may be some time before anyone goes beneath Philip Roth's dazzling surface skating in "The Human Stain," but Burke has nothing to apologize for. Here the Bayou crime novelist comes up with one Belmont Pugh, governor of Louisiana. As he runs for a second term, word gets out that he's both a drunk and the father of twins -- by his mulatto mistress. He appears on TV to beg forgiveness; the Jimmy Swaggart move doesn't work. So he steps up at a Fourth of July rally: "His face was solemn, his voice unctuous. 'I know y'all heered a lot of stories about your governor,' he said. 'I won't try to fool you. They grieve me deeply. I'm talking heartfelt pain.'" Pugh pauses: "'But I'm here to tell you right now ... that anytime, anywhere, anybody ...' He shook his head from side to side for emphasis, his voice wadding in his throat as if he were about to strangle on his own emotions. 'I mean anybody sets a trap for Belmont Pugh with whiskey and women ...' His body was squatted now, his face breaking into a grin as wide as an ax blade. 'Then by God they'll catch him every time!'" He's "reelected in a landslide," of course; more to the point, it's Burke's version of Clinton not as Swaggart but as Earl Long, Huey's damned, heroic brother.

8) Rick Shea, "Sawbones" (Wagon Wheels/AIM)


As dirt-eating country troubadours go, Shea is notably plummy, but here and there the beat slows and the sky clouds over. Best number: Don Wayne and Bill Anderson's casually vengeful "Saginaw, Michigan," which would die if the singer showed his hand a note too soon.

9) Regarding a Sept. 4 item on Nell Dunn's "Up the Junction," about working-class women in London in the early '60s, Mark Sinker writes from the U.K.:

"I still own my mum's 1966 Pan paperback edition, complete with pulp cover painting of a blonde girl in jeans and leather. The blurb says that, yes, 'In 1959, Nell Dunn, then 23 and newly married, crossed the bridge from fashionable Chelsea and bought a tiny house in Battersea ...' -- and the stories were first published in the New Statesman, so must have been written pre-Beatles. But what always fascinated me (since the early '80s, newly arrived in London) was the sense the book captured of London (and thus the UK as a whole) as a series of landlocked villages, mutually invisible to one another. Colin McInnes's Soho is a galaxy away from Dunn's Clapham. I think that a great deal of this UK somnolence survived the Beatles upsurge, which really operated globally rather than locally -- like bombsites, some bits of the city remained quite undisturbed into the mid-'70s. (Jon Savage is good on this in 'England's Dreaming': Steve Jones and John Lydon, from West and North London respectively, are all but foreigners to each other.) South of the Thames really only woke up with punk and after: Squeeze actually wrote a song called 'Up the Junction' (and mined similarly landlocked/timelocked lives, in some ways). There was a TV drama and a 1967 or 1968 film, directed by Ken Loach (soundtrack by Manfred Mann), by which time the datedness was showing badly: They tried to update it, and it comes across as Boulting Brothers meets 'Day of the Triffids.' The scene that lingers is set high in a ruined building with the wall blown out, looking out over a luridly painted cityscape."


10) Telluride Diary: Paul Schrader (Sept. 2)

The director as ontologist: "Once you go back to 1974, nothing else matters." Even if he was talking about his movie "Forever Mine."

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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