Real Life Rock Top 10

By Greil Marcus
January 23, 2001 1:48AM (UTC)
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1) Don Asmussen, "San Francisco Comic Strip": "This Week: President-Elect George W. Bush's Cabinet Nominees" (San Francisco Chronicle, Jan. 14)

For the first panel, a Chronicle front page: "ASHCROFT: 'I'LL ALLOW BLACK ABORTIONS.' Bush's Attorney General Nominee Meets Halfway: Nominee's openness to compromise shows that Bush's promise of a new era of bipartisanship is heartfelt."

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2 & 3) Snoop Dogg, "County Blues," from "Dead Man Walking" (Death Row) and Honeyboy Edwards, "Mississippi Delta Bluesman" (Smithsonian Folkways)

"The county gives plenty blues" -- in a piece on police harassment with vocal and harmonica samples that put it right back in the South of 70 years ago, the man with the smooth, trickster drawl walks the rhythm slowly down the street, looking back and forth to see which direction his ancestors are coming from. "They got me wearing county blues," sings an old man again and again, as women's voices swirl around his like caressing hands, like snakes. "They got me wearing/ Penitentiary shoes." As for Edwards, who as a young man hung around with Robert Johnson, this handsome reissue of a 1979 session is proof the country blues can be as dull as anything else.

4) Pere Ubu, "The Shape of Things" (Hearthen, available through Ubutique)

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Recorded from the crowd at the Mistake in Cleveland on April 7, 1976 -- when guitarist Peter Laughner, who would soon leave both the band and his life behind, steps out of the first number, "Heart of Darkness," you understand why people who knew him still testify he heard things they never would. Just as memorable, though, are the two poseurs in the audience trying on British accents: "Band seems to be lacking a bit of energy this evening." "Bit of something." They're so callow, and it's easy to laugh -- but then, you wouldn't have known it was a historic night, either. Where are they now?

5) Atmosphere, "Ford One" & "Ford Two" (Fat Beats, vinyl only; 9 Debrosses St., New York, NY 10013/Rhymesayers Entertainment, POB 80075, Minneapolis, MN 55408)

A set of raps and dubs from Slug, a Midwesterner who shares Eminem's accent but moves as slowly as the Detroiter moves fast. The hard, cold, northern Minnesota autobiography "Nothing But Sunshine" isn't that far in mood from the Barbarians' 1966 "Moulty," which you can find on the original "Nuggets" collection; until, with a sucker of a fan stuck in the throat of a sardonic, bitter man who's been fooled too many times, Slug starts warbling the Temptations' "My Girl" ("I've got sunshine/On a cloudy day ..."), and no better than you might. The intrusion of the sound of ordinary life into the performance is as startling as it is when the woman starts telling her story in the middle of Human League's "Don't You Want Me."

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6) Robert Storr, "Gerhard Richter: October 18, 1977" (Museum of Modern Art)

As I write, one-time Frankfurt revolutionary Joschka Fischer, now Germany's foreign minister, is testifying in the trial of one-time Red Army Faction member Hans-Joachim Klein, who is accused of complicity in the murder of three people in a terrorist raid on an OPEC meeting in 1975. Not long after, three of Klein's comrades -- Ulrike Meinhof in 1976, Andreas Baader and Gudrun Ensslin on Oct. 18, 1977 -- were found dead in their cells in the maximum-security prison that had been built to house them. Richter's 1988 paintings of images of the Baader-Meinhof Gang alive and dead -- crepuscular, black-white-gray underwater paintings derived from news photos -- seem exploitative in the MOMA exhibit (which closes Jan. 30) this book explores; as big as 6 feet by 7 feet, they seem like absolute appropriations of another's being, like grave-robbing. This doesn't belong to you, you want to say to the artist -- it doesn't belong to me. The display is indecent. But what about the indecency of how these people were treated in life, deprived of sleep, subjected to constant white noise, all the forms of torture that leave no marks? Well, what about it? That's not the question; that's just to use word magic on the walls. But in the book, you can look into the pictures. Just as the paintings themselves took their subjects over, in book-size reproductions they seem to capture real people, people retreating from the artist's eye as from yours.

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The most modest, unsensational painting in the exhibit -- Baader's phonograph, with an LP on it, though in the painting there's no hope of identifying the record -- is the most arty of the pictures on the page. But if you dismiss it you'll miss the book's most interesting footnote: "An inspection [of the original prints] involving careful scrutiny with a high-powered microscope as well as computer-enhanced re-imaging" revealed "that the record on the turntable in Baader's cell was Eric Clapton's 1974 release 'There's One in Every Crowd.'" Storr goes on to relate the music and lyrics to the event, but the event doesn't bring the born-dead music to life.

7) Caroline Sullivan, "Bye Bye Baby: My Tragic Love Affair With the Bay City Rollers" (Bloomsbury USA)

There were many 1977s, of course; this unapologetic fan's memoir by a nice Jewish girl from New Jersey is powered by one question: Will the author, pushing 20 in those days, ever lose her virginity? To one of them? Halfway through the book it seems she does. Seventy pages later it seems she didn't. I think she did, but I wouldn't bet the farm on it.

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8) Dean Santomieri, "crude rotation" (Archipelago, chefboy@LMI.net or archipelago@foundrysite.com)

Musique concrète, beginning with echoes of marching music so faded they might be from the First World War.

9) Kelly Harrell, "The Cuckoo She's a Fine Bird," from "Kelly Harrell: Complete Recorded Works in Chronological Order, Volume 2, 1926-1929" (Document)

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For perhaps the most commonplace of all Appalachian ballads, a normally canny Virginia singer offers a primitive, self-effacing vocal orchestrated between verses not by mountain fiddle but Central European nightclub violin. Plus a real cuckoo clock. You want weird, this is weird.

10) "The First Family's Holiday Gift to America: A Personal Tour of the White House" (Fox, Dec. 15)

Bill Clinton walks you into his Music Room, set up both for playing and remembering. On a wall there's a picture of him jamming with Kenny G, a poker hand's worth of gold "Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow" discs from Fleetwood Mac, and Herman Leonard jazz photos, lovingly described, including the famous one of tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon wreathed in smoke. There's Elvis onstage, pensive off it, and on a shelf a ceramic version waving from a pink Cadillac. Last shot before the tour moves on: a litter of saxophones, real and jewelry size, brass, gold and silver, scattered randomly, like junk for the country to throw out.


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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