Real Life Rock Top 10

By Greil Marcus

Published February 5, 2001 8:55PM (EST)

1) Vladimir Mayakovsky/El Lissitzky, "For the Voice" (MIT Press)

In 1923, in Berlin, the futurist poet and the suprematist designer made a thrillingly Soviet book: poems that flew off the page as signs broke out of pictures and letters severed themselves from words, then regrouped in lines and paragraphs, so that each poem was forever in contest with itself, the ante upped every time you came back to the same black-and-red page. In this stunning edition, there are 5 1/4-inch-by-7 3/8-inch facsimiles of the original edition, in Russian and, translated by Peter France, English, plus "Voices of Revolution," a volume of critical essays edited by Patricia Railing.

You start with the noise the pictures make, and in that language nothing that follows really matches the second poem, with "beat out our march" pounding across two pages, the last two words standing up to a suprematist red square only by refusing to stay in formation. Then you start to read, and after the fourth poem, "Scum," the other voices in the book can feel silenced. "Give me a rich man," you can almost hear Mayakovsky chanting in his rumbling voice (as you can hear him for real in the 1914 and 1920 recordings collected on the anthology "lunapark 0,10" [Sub Rosa], "the fattest/the baldest./By the scruff of his neck I'll haul him/in front of the Famine Committee./Look." What you're now looking at is the cannibalism that swept through parts of the countryside during the civil war that followed the revolution. People posed for pictures of themselves with the remains of people they'd killed to eat; Mayakovsky doesn't flinch. Like a true early-20th century avant-gardist, he goes for the jugular: "Son?/Father?/Mother?/Daughter?/Whose turn." In London, he sees a banquet: "May/savages,/eaters of human flesh,/from the colonies come scavenging." He travels to Paris, Berlin, revolution following him across the map, and the curse on the bourgeois world begins to seem automatic, until he returns to Soviet Moscow: "May your fat steak be turned into scissors/and cut your stomach apart." In 1930, face to face with the murder of the revolution as since the first decade of the century he had written it out, he shot himself. He was 35.

In 1918 Mayakovsky and others had called for poets to take up brushes and paint whole towns. "This seemed to be utopian," El Lissitzky said in 1922, "and yet subsequently it came to pass." "You know, this is a most interesting piece of work," Lenin said of Mayakovsky's 1921 "150 Million." "A peculiar brand of Communism. It is hooligan Communism." But by the end of the decade Mayakovsky stood accused of bohemianism and social parasitism. In her essay "A Revolutionary Spirit," Railing quotes Russian critical theorist Ramon Jakobson's 1931 "On a Generation That Squandered Its Poets": "We strained toward the future too impetuously and avidly to leave any past behind us ... as for the future, it doesn't belong to us either. In a few decades we shall be cruelly labeled as products of the past millennium. All we had were compelling songs of the future; and suddenly these songs are no longer part of the dynamic of history."

Tall, robust, with a threatening shaven skull and even more threatening eyes, Mayakovsky entered legend as of part of the first crop of glamorous, inscrutable 20th century performers to be harvested young, joining in his own time Rudolph Valentino and Bix Beiderbecke, then as the years went on James Dean, Charlie Parker, Patsy Cline, Marilyn Monroe, Robert F. Kennedy, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain. But he was from another country, one that he partly invented and that in any case no longer exists. You look at "For the Voice" and struggle to believe its 1923 ever happened: that the book was ever published, made, thought up, even a notion abandoned as soon as it came into view. Even that stretches credulity. All that power, packed into a few small pages, a rebuke to the future we live in.

2) Butchies, "Butchies 3" (Mr. Lady)

A trio from Durham, N.C., that manages to combine vocal ache and prettiness, majestic chords and tiny drum sounds, "woo-hoo-hoos" and ugly stories, speed and what seems like a dead stop, until you realize they never stop moving.

3) Paul McCartney, "Liverpool Sound Collage" (Capitol)

In the footsteps of Walter Ruttmann's 1930 Berlin "Weekend" (covered here Aug. 21, 2000), for the Peter Blake show "About Collage," at the Liverpool Tate through March 4, the Cute One excavated his old town according to noise-music experiments the mop-tops first pursued in 1968 with "Revolution 9." The difference for these pieces, made to play in the exhibition space, is that the 1965-69 voices of the Beatles McCartney mixes into his own ambient street recordings sound only vaguely familiar. John, Paul, George and Ringo sound not only as if they came from these streets but as if they went back to them, to live.

4) E-Trade Super Bowl Halftime Show (CBS, Jan. 28)

As Aerosmith and 'N Sync ran onto the field for their all-star revue, soon to be completed by neo-soul queen Mary J. Blige, rapper Nelly and Britney Spears as Miss American Fuck, the sound system pumped out the first chord each of "Start Me Up" and "Hard Day's Night." Never mind the parade of the Lines 'Round My Eyes Are Protected by a Copyright Law gestures of the former or the animatronic Michael Jackson moves and constipated singing of the latter: According to the script viewers were supposed to follow, Aerosmith are the Rolling Stones and 'N Sync are the Beatles. Don't like it? Hey, as they say in D.C., get over it. Justin Timberlake says the Beatles were once dismissed as a "boy band," too. Paul McCartney doesn't remember that, but he's 58 years old, and probably doesn't remember what he's doing in his own living room.

5) Tim Easton, "The Truth About Us" (New West)

The insert to this singer-songwriter's much-praised step away from alt-country shows a guy lolling on a couch, his eyes cast and an arm raised toward what must be light streaming in through a window. He never gets up, though.

6) Aislers Set, "Attraction Action Reaction"/"Clouds Will Clear" (Suicide Squeeze)

It's the B-side of this 7-inch single from the cool, calm and collected Bay Area quintet that's the charmer: a woman warbling about getting someone's attention, and so simply you all but tune out. And then an even simpler but much deeper guitar part lets you feel how her heart beats when she gets what she wants. Plus the best label name of the season.

7) Jon Langford, "PainTings" at Other Music (New York, Dec. 6, 2000)

The paintings hung on the walls of this avant-garde record store were part of Langford's long-running "Death of Country Music" series, many of them renderings of Hank Williams, but the one that stood out bore no musician's name. With talismans of doom scattered inside the frame -- a skull, a Masonic eye -- for "Forgotten Cowboy Singer" Langford recast an old publicity still, adding to the would-be star's 10-gallon hat, western shirt, huge guitar and bigger smile a blindfold over his eyes. The plumminess of the pose made the picture as Langford finished it very creepy: This cowboy didn't know that he couldn't see, let alone that now, likely half a century after his photo was taken, he was dead.

8) Richard Pryor, " . . . And It's Deep, Too! The Complete Warner Bros. Recordings, 1968-1992" (Warner Archive/Rhino)

What's most shocking about listening to the nine CDs in this set straight through, which is easy to do, is that by the time Pryor gets to the incident where he set himself on fire free-basing, on the 1982 "Live on the Sunset Strip," he's turned into the same character he pinned so mercilessly on "That Nigger's Crazy" 12 years before: the one who, in "Wino & Junkie," can barely talk.

9) Object in Cluttered NPR Studio (New York, Dec. 15, 2000)

In an apartment rigged up for remotes but with so much stuff piled so randomly you half-expected someone to come in, announce a pledge drive and start selling every cracked book and discarded piece of clothing, stood an Elvis figure I'd never seen before: lithe, gold lamé, holding a mike stand, frozen in mid-jump-step, sly grin on its face, mounted on a silver base. I pushed a button marked "Demo"; the Elvis began to dance, fast, and a loud, powerful "Hound Dog" came roaring out of a hidden speaker. "It's a telephone," said an engineer passing by -- "Elvis Presley Telephone," to be precise, courtesy Telemania, division of Tilbor-Hetman Enterprises. "That's what it does instead of ringing."

10) George W. Bush's Inaugural Cowboy Boots (Jan. 20, all networks)

Black, with "GWB" engraved on the sides and the presidential seal imprinted on the front -- which is to say that in his personal appropriation of the symbols of the presidency, Bush made it clear he is not president merely in the constitutional sense but also in a corporate sense. The presidency is a logo, and he owns it.

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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