Real Life Rock Top 10

By Greil Marcus

Published November 13, 2000 3:49PM (EST)

1) Ethan and Joel Coen, "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" (Touchstone Films, due for release Dec. 21)

Three white prisoners escape from a Mississippi chain gang in the middle of the Depression and run straight into a series of blackouts about old-time music -- starting when they stop their jalopy to pick up a young black man in suit and tie, bluesman Tommy Johnson, fresh from selling his soul to the devil for guitar prowess and ready to rock. Unlike the younger Robert Johnson, Tommy Johnson ("Cool Drink of Water Blues," 1928, though here he's given Skip James' music to play) actually bragged of the transaction. (What could be cooler?) When in the Coen brothers' version he's seized by the Ku Klux Klan for ritual sacrifice, he figures it's just payback coming sooner than he bargained for.

It's a scene that recalls "The Birth of a Nation," but it's so culturally blasphemous there are really no precedents for it. In a clearing in the dead of night, hundreds of Klansmen in pure white robes whirl about like a college marching band at halftime, executing lightning moves as if they were born to them. They come to rest in formation, facing a red-robed Grand Master. Johnson is brought before him -- and then, from a high platform, from inside the Master's mask, issues the most horrifying, the most full-bodied, the most perfect rendition of the ancient plea "Oh Death" ("Won't you spare me over for another year?") imaginable. As the long, tangled song goes on, with no accompaniment but the audience, the victim and the night, a lynching becomes a philosophy lesson -- and the slapstick escape that follows takes off none of the chill.

2) "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack (Mercury)

Typically, the dynamism of the film doesn't translate into disembodied recordings -- if, as with the torrential "Man of Constant Sorrow" the cons-plus-Johnson cut in a radio station, it's even the same recording. Pick to click, among the modern re-creations by the likes of Ralph Stanley, Alison Krauss, Gillian Welch, Emmylou Harris, the Cox Family and the Whites: running under the titles, Harry McClintock's 1928 version of the hobo jungle anthem "The Big Rock Candy Mountain."

3) Nov. 8, From the Ether:

A friend writes: "I went to sleep when the networks called Florida for Bush, woke up 90 minutes or so later to see they were recalling it again, down to 500 votes at that point -- and, shortly, someone cut to a shot of an Elvis impersonator (in black street clothes, but with the sideburns/hair/aviator glasses), presumably in Nashville, clasping his hands in silent prayer. It was that kind of night."

4) Al Gore, Huntington, W.Va., Nov. 4

Lest we forget, as we will, at the close of the campaign, with Gore taking up George W. Bush's truthful but (simply because of, in Bush's mouth, the accidental nature of its truthfulness) bizarre claim that "The people in Washington want to treat Social Security like it's some federal program," Gore finally hit the note that had eluded him for so long: "It wasn't a slip of the tongue. It was an expression of ingrained hostility, a preference on the other side for a dog-eat-dog, every-person-for-himself mentality that --" And here the words vanish into the next four years.

5) Bono, "Foreword" in "Q Dylan" (Q Magazine, UK)

"The best way to serve the age is to betray it," Bono says of Bob Dylan, quoting Brendan Keneally from "The Book of Judas." He goes on: "The anachronism, really, is the '60s. For the rest of his life he's been howling from some sort of past that we seem to have forgotten but must not. That's it for me. He keeps undermining our urge to look into the future."

6) Richard Carlin and Bob Carlin, "Southern Exposure: The Story of Southern Music in Words and Pictures" (Billboard Books)

Mostly pictures, from the 1850s to the 1950s -- pictures of musicians who made the music that in the 1920s was already the last word of another world. It's the real world of "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" -- especially on the cover, in a shot also reproduced inside. The photo is mottled, degenerating: It shows a dashingly handsome, dark-haired man with dark, hooded eyes looking you in the face under a broad-brimmed hat. Foulard tie, jacket, vest, watch chain: holding his five-string banjo, he is the dandy, the woman stealer. You wake up next to him and he's already gone. In Warren Smith's irresistibly slow, beckoning 1957 rockabilly tune he's the man with a "Red Cadillac and a Black Moustache," but all through Lee Smith's 1992 novel "The Devil's Dream," back from her to the Carter Family in 1940, forward again to Bob Dylan's 1992 "Good As I Been to You," he's Black Jack Davey. Given what stories, regrets, laments, fond memories or erotic dreams he might have left behind in Hope, Ark., where he stands as his picture is taken, sometime in the 1890s, he is also Bill Clinton.

7/8) Kasimir Malevich, "Dynamic Suprematism," 1915/16, and Bill Woodrow, "Twin-Tub with Guitar," 1981, at the Tate Modern (London, to January)

In a huge, insistently conceptual long walk through 20th century art, these pieces jumped out. In the Manifesto Room of the "History/Memory/Society" sector, the old broadsides covering the walls shout and stamp their feet, announcing Futurism, the Bauhaus, Kandinsky's New Theater, Suprematism itself, while off in a corner Wyndham Lewis is Blasting England to bits. Among a few other paintings is the Malevich, a tilted but upright triangle; it's quiet, modest. From somewhere in Russia it pulls all the noisy declarations of the future into its own abstraction and silences them. In its abstraction, the piece at least seems to speak clearly -- about the ease of remaking and rearranging the world, its constituent elements of life. If you keep looking, though, the triangle begins to look like a figure, an idea, a person, someone with a name. With the bars and squares that score the triangle now arms, eyes and hats, the figure gestures. It is now obese, absurd, threatening, its identity so obvious: Alfred Jarry's loathed and loved Pere Ubu, in Jarry's own woodcuts the same shape, the same fascist trod across whatever might be in his way -- and now, with Ubu on the march into the New Day, somehow morally cleansed.

Ivan Chtcheglov, 1953, "Formulary for a New Urbanism": "Given the choice of love or a garbage disposal unit, young people all over the world have chosen the garbage disposal." Not so fast, says Bill Woodrow, born 1948 in the U.K., in his own room in the "Still Life/Object/Real Life" sector. For his piece he'd cut the outline of an electric guitar out of the grimy metal casing of a post-war Hotpoint washing machine but not removed it, so the two remain attached like a parasitic twin still part of its host. The curators comment: "The sculpture wittily combines two potent symbols of Western consumerism." Not so fast: Why not art out of functionalism, or the art hiding in objects of utility, the desire hiding in need? Woodrow himself: "The guitar was a pop icon and the washing machine was an everyday, domestic item. So it was bringing the two things together like a slice of life." Not so fast: Why not the urge to create sneaking out of the wish for comfort, and superseding it? There's no trouble imagining this as Pete Townshend's diddley bow, his first guitar.

9) Middle-aged man shaking a cardboard coffee cup full of change like maracas (6th Avenue and 13th Street, New York, Nov. 5)

He was hammering out a tremendously effective R&B number that sounded halfway between anyone's "C.C. Rider" and almost anything by Bo Diddley, and it wasn't until I'd added my change to his and was halfway down the block that the song revealed itself out of its own beat: Elvis Presley's first record, "That's All Right."

10) Pere Ubu 25th Anniversary Tour (Knitting Factory, New York, Oct. 14)

"The long slide into weirdness and decay," leader David Thomas announced. When synth player Robert Wheeler moved his hands over his two homemade theremins -- to play the theremin you can't look like anything but someone casting spells -- the small pieces of metal seemed less like musical instruments than UFOs, and the high-pitched sounds coming from them, drifting through the rest of the music like swamp gas, nothing but the cries of the creatures trapped inside. Like any number of people other than myself must feel as I write, the day after the election.

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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