Real Life Rock Top 10

By Greil Marcus

Published February 20, 2001 8:53PM (EST)

1) Ja Rule, "Put It on Me" (Murder Inc./Def Jam)

Something like Barry White without the subtlety, this inescapable radio hit reaches depths of degradation most gangsta music never hints at. More tuneless than Fred Schneider of the B-52's but in his way just as fey, Ja Rule slobbers as females swirl around him like a harem, melismatizing their brains out, their sound so far removed from actual human sexual response it becomes the vocal equivalent of breast implants.

2) Bryan Ferry, "Where or When" and "Falling in Love Again," from "As Time Goes By" (Virgin, 1999), also included on Ferry's "Slave to Love -- The Best of the Ballads" (Virgin, 2000)

Of the standards that make up "As Time Goes By," it's "I'm in the Mood for Love" that's in the air today, thanks to the film of almost the same name. But these are the heartbreakers. Despite the between-the-wars tuxedos 'n' long dresses art on the CD insert, the material doesn't signify the old glam rocker's progression to a more mature, reflective -- that is, decadent -- state of mind. If anything, the demands Ferry is making on his music are more extreme than ever. Here the songs are tragic: It's impossible to imagine they've ever been sung with such delicacy, with such an awareness that the slightest false move would break them. The sensibility might have first surfaced on Ferry's cover of John Lennon's "Jealous Guy" (included on "Slave to Love"), cut just after Lennon's murder, but that recording now sounds merely personal compared with songs that, as Ferry sings them, seem to bleed all across the changing map of 20th century Europe. "Where or When" (1937) opens with a theme that suggests nothing so much as a Berlin cabaret where the bohemians who've been there every night for 15 years accept that the Nazis aren't going away, and make their peace. The singer, though, won't give up, so he imagines himself into the future, turning into Cary Grant in "Notorious" -- meeting the same enemy around the next turn, but with the odds changed. "Falling in Love Again" (1930) is if anything more blasted; Ferry could have retitled the tune "Slitting My Wrists Again" and you wouldn't even notice. He might be picturing Gabriel Byrne in "Miller's Crossing," as Byrne realizes that no matter what good he does for others, no matter whom he loves or who loves him, the story will shut him out.

3) Twin Princess, "The Complete Recordings" (Hidden Agenda/Parasol)

An arty duo from Seattle -- arty right down to their not-weird version of Frank and Nancy Sinatra's 1967 "Somethin' Stupid" -- but with enough charm to make you want to walk through the galleries where the stuff is playing. No. 1 this week: "Deep Sleep," repetition as its own reward. Moving up: "Gimme a Kiss."

4) The Incredible Moses Leroy, "Electric Pocket Radio" (Artemis)

Long ago, a big, sloppy-looking man called Larry "Wildman" Fischer used to stand on street corners in Berkeley and Los Angeles and importune passersby: "Hey, you want to hear a new-type song for a dime?" If you said yes, something indescribable came out: flat and toneless, but weird enough (Fischer's sidewalk hit was about his mother committing him to a mental hospital) and sweet enough to make you wonder -- and, if not cough up another dime, hang around to listen if anyone else did. In 1968, during his freak-show period, Frank Zappa put out a Wildman Fischer double LP on his Bizarre label; it got great reviews. A follow-up did not; outsider artists are supposed to temporarily overcome their psychoses, not have careers.

Ron Fountenberry of San Diego -- who as a performer takes the name of his great-grandfather Moses Leroy (1900-90), a Houston civil rights activist who, from the '30s to his death, spoke, sued, demonstrated and finally, in his last years, as a voter registrar, sat behind a desk to change his city and his country -- stands somewhere between Larry Fischer and Brian Wilson. You can't tell the studio genius from the kid fooling around in his bedroom. Leroy's cutting and pasting, as unpretentious as a strip mall, results in songs that throw you off: sunny, disconcerting, glowing with the smiles of benign phantoms. Absolutely nothing seems to be at stake in this music other than amusement. Leroy works at it, and singer Camilla, taking a number every few tracks, gets to enjoy it. You take Leroy's radio out of your pocket whenever you remember it's there, to see what's on; always, it's something you've almost heard before.

5) Bastard Sons of Johnny Cash, "Walk Alone" (Ultimatum)

More from San Diego: for getting away with (or licensing) the name, the phrase "dead soldier" and the hearty male chorus on "Texas Sun" -- which might remind you of the beginning of the cattle drive in "Red River," when Howard Hawks cuts from one cowboy face to another, and you know that whatever's coming next, it won't be as good.

6/7) Taj Mahal, "Taj Mahal" (Columbia Legacy, recorded 1967)

When you listen to "Rising Sons Featuring Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder" (Columbia Legacy), a collection of unreleased demos recorded in Los Angeles in 1964, you can't believe Taj (né Henry Fredericks) ever made it to "Taj Mahal" -- even if it took three years and a trip around the block. The country blues from the earlier sessions are as dead as the dog the man pokes with a stick in Bruce Springsteen's "Reason to Believe" ("Like if he stood there long enough/That dog'd get up and run"). On "Taj Mahal," the former member of the Pioneer Valley Folklore Society and the rest of, as the New York Times embarrassed its members into saying, Mr. Mahal's band, with Cooder still in tow, took momentary title to songs that had been sung by hundreds before them. Hammering his harmonica, Taj pulls Sonny Boy Williamson's "Checkin' Up on My Baby" inside out -- that's where she is, right inside the song! -- and on the long stroll he takes through "The Celebrated Walking Blues" he suspends the more than three decades between its first recording and his own, between the more than three decades since his recording was first heard and today. "Heh-heh," he says, in what might be the most lascivious half-second in blues, until a few minutes later, when he says it again: This, you're sure, is the sound everyone who came before was looking for, and that everyone, Taj included, has been looking for since. The big, bulging notes on his slide guitar flap in the air like wash on a line, then billow up in the wind of Cooder's mandolin; the rhythm makes all the time in the world, and when the recording ends, you know the song doesn't.

8) Levon Helm & the Barn Burners at Biscuits and Blues (San Francisco, Feb. 6)

They went into Muddy Waters' "I'm Ready." "They're using that in Viagra commercials now," said Maria Muldaur, leaning across the table. You've seen it: guy prancing around his apartment, dressing sharp, because now the song doesn't mean he's ready ready ready to fuck. It means he's ready ready ready to see the doctor to talk about why he can't.

9) Taj Mahal, "The Celebrated Walking Blues," on "Taj Mahal" (Columbia Legacy)

Not that Viagra wasn't already in the song, or anyway its ancestors: "Got to go to Memphis, baby/To have my hambone boiled/You know I done laid around here in Clarksdale, baby, until my/Little old hambone was spoiled." And if that doesn't work, you go see the gypsy. That always works. And always costs.

10) Nick Bromell, "Tomorrow Never Knows -- Rock and Psychedelics in the 1960s" (University of Chicago Press)

A short, passionate study written from inside the story it tells, and less about drugs, perhaps, than the way adherents of a music and a culture came to recognize that the ground beneath their feet had turned into air. Bromwell, a professor of English at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, sums up in a passage of surpassing cruelty: "Just four years earlier, yeah, yeah, yeah, they were taking to the dance floor because something was happening. Now they found that they could not, after all, escape from history. Nor could they make it. How, except with 'Tombstone Blues' or 'Yer Blues,' could they name this condition -- one in which the earth's most privileged cohort was also powerless, radicalized for nothing, fated to wait for decades on the watchtower, listening to the wind rise and watching the approach of two riders who knew their destiny yet would never, it seems, arrive?"

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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