Real Life Rock Top 10

Published October 17, 2000 7:10PM (EDT)

1) P.J. Harvey, "Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea" (Island)

There are dead spots: the helpless Patti Smith impersonation in "A Place Called Home," the dead-fish handshake Thom Yorke of Radiohead gives Harvey in their duet on "This Mess We're In." But with "Kamikaze" and "This Is Love," one number pounds on top of the other, thin sounds building until a wall you can't climb is staring you in the face. The plain fact that Harvey never uses all she has, never tells the secret, makes what she is willing to say a tease, a dare, a threat. But all of that seems far away on the first number, "Big Exit," which could have come off the Band's second album if she'd been around to play on it. Along with the hammering beat she gets on her guitar, the verses scratch at the memory, until finally the Band's basement-tapes, tall-tale "Yazoo Street Scandal" comes out of hiding. But the chorus is all Harvey, and Harvey in the air, circling the globe like Superman. "Baby, baby, ain't it true/I'm immortal/When I'm with you," she wails, not a crack or a tear in her tone, and, yes, she sounds like she has been here for a thousand years.

2) "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" returns to San Francisco 22 years after Kevin McCarthy is run down in the street screaming, "They're here! They're here!": Natalie Jeremijenko, "One Tree," at "Picturing the Genetic Revolution -- Paradise Now" (Exit Art, 548 Broadway, New York, through Oct. 28)

The installation ("Mixed Mediums Courtesy Postmasters"): eight putatively identical shrublike saplings in green containers. From explanatory material: "Cloning has made it possible to Xerox copy organic life and fundamentally confound traditional understanding of individualism and authenticity ... 'One Tree' is actually one hundred tree clones of a single tree micropropagated in culture. These clones were originally exhibited together as plantlets at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco, in 1999. This was the only time they were seen together. In the Spring of 2001, the clones will be planted in public sites throughout the San Francisco Bay Area, including Golden Gate Park, 220 private properties, San Francisco school district sites, Bay Area Rapid Transit stations, Yerba Buena Performing Arts Center, and Union Square. A selection of international sites are also being negotiated."

3) "Croupier"/"Sing-a-Long Sound of Music" (Waverly Theater, New York, Sept. 30)

Where the warning label on the marquee reads "PG," not "R."

4) David Margolick, "Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday, Cafi Society, and an Early Cry for Civil Rights" (Running Press)

With lyrics by Lewis Allen (aka Abel Meerpol, adoptive father of the sons of convicted atomic bomb spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg after the latters' execution), the anti-lynching song was both a hit and a scandal in 1939, when Holiday recorded it: "Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze/Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees." Margolick somehow fails to mention this early version, regarding a lynch frenzy in Vicksburg, Miss.: "From gamblers to negroes, from negroes to white citizens, and from these to strangers: till, dead men were seen literally dangling from the boughs of trees on every roadside; and in numbers almost sufficient, to rival the native Spanish moss of the country, as a drapery of the forest." -- Abraham Lincoln, "On the Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions," 1838

5) "Almost Famous," written and directed by Cameron Crowe (DreamWorks)

The scene in the movie where lightning hits the band's plane and guitarist Billy Crudup happily starts singing "Peggy Sue" is fine; so is the whole crew picking up "Tiny Dancer" on their bus. But the acting by heroes Patrick Fugit and Kate Hudson is excruciatingly self-conscious -- and so, in a way, is the script. That a midteen Cameron Crowe was able to chronicle the adventures of musicians so vividly that many of them refused to allow coverage by Rolling Stone unless Crowe was the writer is remarkable; the notion that Crowe did it by means of warts and all is absurd. Crowe's ability to convincingly portray rock stars as thoughtful, honest, fun-loving, caring, decent -- and nothing else -- had a great deal to do with changing the magazine he worked for from a journal that could throw the realities of Altamont in the faces of both its readers and its namesake to a magazine that would let cover boy Axl Rose pick his own writer and photographer. I don't doubt that Crowe wrote what he saw -- or, rather, that he wrote about what he found most real -- but there's more to reality than the belief that, as Anne Frank didn't put it, people are basically nice.

6) John Mellencamp, "Gambling Bar Room Blues," from "The Songs of Jimmie Rodgers -- A Tribute" (Egypt)

Top performances come from Dicky Betts, Iris DeMent and liner-notes essayist Bob Dylan (it's his label), but John Mellencamp is in another country, where the song is sung as if for the first time. To the inexhaustible melody of "St. James Infirmary," a road bum in a good mood revels in cynicism, in a belief life doesn't get any better than this even if anybody else would call this shit. With an amazingly loose, '20s street-blues arrangement and cracked fiddle from Miriam Sturm.

7) Tom Perrotta, "Joe College" (St. Martin's)

After the perfect-pitch "Election" (forget the bludgeoning movie version), this coming-of-age novel, set in 1982, is a trifle -- and no novelist, no matter what age he's coming of, can be allowed to present "If Ted and Nancy were a plausible couple, why not Polly and I?" as if it were English. Still, there are moments when the reflections of the working-class Jersey-Yalie narrator turn him into someone you'd like to meet: "I remember watching the debate between Reagan and Carter and feeling a huge abyss open up at my feet when the commentators began declaring Reagan the winner, even though he'd seemed to me to have performed a fairly plausible imitation of a twinkly-eyed village idiot. I wondered if it was Yale that had made me such a stranger to my own country or having smoked too much pot as a teenager. In any case, it was unnerving to find myself dwelling in a separate reality from the majority of my fellow citizens, my parents included. I was enough of a believer in democracy -- or maybe just safety in numbers -- to not be able to derive much comfort from the stubborn conviction that they were wrong and I was right."

8) Hooverphonic, "The Magnificent Tree" (Epic)

The insinuating, vaguely diseased moods that singer Lieske Sadonius brought this Belgian techno-exotica combo caught the nervousness that lay beneath the earliest Paris new wave movies. With Geike Arnaert in front, they've moved on to catch the very essence of the cheesiest "La Dolce Vita" knockoffs, which is to say Italian vacation films.

9) .  ARK, "Biotaylorism" at "Picturing the Genetic Revolution" (as above)

A hilariously detailed, deadpan video heralding the application of Frederick Taylor's principles of modern industrial organization to bioengineering -- but ending with a brief prescription for sabotage, notably sneaking into toy stores and attaching warning labels to Barbie dolls regarding the cosmetic and genetic surgery those adopting a Barbie self-image might face somewhere down the line.

10) Speaking of "Yazoo Street Scandal," a correspondent writes:

"I was playing some music for my 9-year-old daughter the other day: 'Lo and Behold,' 'Yazoo Street Scandal,' a few other lo-fi favorites. 'These sound like they were recorded in somebody's house,' she said. 'Yes,' I told her. 'A pink house. On a tape recorder. In the basement.' She pondered this and said, 'This music sounds so good. Why does Britney Spears spend so much money getting everything perfect-sounding in the studio?'"

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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