Real Life Rock Top 10


Greil Marcus
March 20, 2001 1:59AM (UTC)

1/2) "The Sopranos," Alan Coulter, director; David Chase, writer; Kathryn Dayak, music editor (HBO, March 2); and "Peter Gunn: 'Death House Testament' and 'Skin Deep'" (Rhino Video)

As orchestration for the FBI bugging scheme that dominated this season's first episode, the combination of the "Peter Gunn" theme -- from the 1958-61 private-eye TV series; Henry Mancini won the 1958 album of the year Grammy for his soundtrack -- and the Police's 1983 "Every Breath You Take" was quite brilliant. Too brilliant -- the stalker-quiet second song's creeping out of the car-chase noise of the first, so that both seemed to have precisely the same beat, was uncanny, but once, not three times. It got me wondering how "Peter Gunn" itself might play today. It was the opposite of "The Sopranos" -- the least nervous crime show imaginable, despite the fact that when Gunn got beat up, which happened at least once every half-hour, he got completely stomped.

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Craig Stevens, who died last year at 81, played the hipster detective as a slightly more Jewish version of Cary Grant in "North by Northwest"; Herschel Bernardi played Lt. Jacoby as a very Jewish version of Tonto. Ethnically, only the villains were straight -- and, at best, or worst, straight out of film noir slime. In "Death House Testament," directed by series creator Blake Edwards, the alcoholic mob croaker Dr. Alford could be moonlighting from "Kiss Me Deadly"; the camera is so tight on his face as he puts Gunn out you can feel his sweat dripping through the screen. When Gunn tries to escape from Alford's clinic, Stevens gets as close to Raymond Chandler forcing Philip Marlowe to stand up ("'Okey, Marlowe,' I said between my teeth. '... You've been shot full of hop and kept under it until you're as crazy as two waltzing mice. And what does it amount to? Routine. Now let's see you do something really tough, like putting your pants on'") as any movie actor -- and once Stevens' version of Marlowe gets his pants back on and can act cool again, he doesn't even need the best lines. "Please, give me an excuse," he says, holding a gun on Alford and his boss. "No, thanks," the doctor says, "I'm drinking." Gunn doesn't even offer a comeback. He just smiles. He's a watcher, a listener, wary but amused, not a talker. The '50s were psychoanalysis central; you can't imagine Stevens taking Tony Soprano's place in Dr. Melfi's office, but you can see him taking hers.

3) Book of Love, "Boy" from "I Touch Roses -- The Best of the Book of Love" (Reprise)

"Uh-huh." "Uh-huh." "Uh-huh." In 1986 it sounded like Trio's "Da Da Da," but without apology; today it sounds like a conversation. It was not much more than an opening bid from a three-woman, one-man modern-world synth 'n' harmony outfit that never made a bad record.

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4/5) Low, "Things We Lost in the Fire" (Kranky) and Peter S. Scholtes, "Hey, We're in Duluth," Minneapolis City Pages (Feb. 7)

"When they found your body/Giant Xs on your eyes/And your half of the ransom," Alan Sparhawk sings in "Sunflower," "The weather hadn't changed" -- I made the last line up, but it wouldn't be out of place. From Duluth, where 42 years ago Bob Dylan stood in the audience at the National Guard Armory as Buddy Holly played his third-to-last show, this notoriously unhurried trio captures the insignificance of human desire as opposed to the fact of a Minnesota winter even as they suggest they might prefer that the weather never change at all. Or, as Scholtes puts it in his Minneapolis visitor's piece on "the emerging sense among Duluthians of an emerging sensibility among Duluthians" -- that is, signs of a termite culture going public -- "if there is one certainty at the heart of Duluth's mystique it is Lake Superior. The lake is always there and it is always cold. It will always be there and it will always be cold. Nothing about the physical landscape of the lake's corner should make a visit this spring more pressing than one the next."

6) Johnny Dowd, "Temporary Shelter" (Koch)

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Featuring mover Dowd and hair-salon proprietor Kim Sherwood-Caso of Ithaca, N.Y., this is the bad conscience of country music as surely as the sheriff in Jim Thompson's "The Killer Inside Me" is John Wayne's -- though the people in Dowd's songs are more like Thompson's most humiliated characters, and in their most profound moments of embarrassment. With Sherwood-Caso's voice going far past the song in "Hell or High Water" and Dowd's guitar scraping the paint off its darkest corners, or in the bad hotel room called up by the unclean '50s white jazz in "Cradle to the Grave," it's the sound of "the joke's on me" -- the somehow pristine sound of even that kind of joke failing to get a laugh out of the crowd.

7) "When Brendan Met Trudy," directed by Kieron J. Walsh, written by Roddy Doyle (Collins Avenue/Deadly Films 2)

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As culture -- as the picture it draws of what it means to live happily, almost fully, in a funhouse of representations -- the writing in this movie is as sexy as the smile in Flora Montgomery's eyes. "He makes movies," Montgomery's young thief says to her warden, describing her young schoolteacher boyfriend, and he does: home movies, as scripted by Godard, Iggy Pop, Kevin Spacey, Jean-Claude Van Damme starring in "Remedial Action." As when he runs into one of his teenage students, whose names he can never remember, in a supermarket. "Dylan," the boy reminds him, as his parents beam at the one remaining sign of a hipness long since erased by the class system. "Mr. -- Tambourine Man," the teacher says, having already forgotten the student's name again but translating the reference into a bigger story. The kid has no idea what he's talking about.

8) Saks Fifth Avenue, "Caribbean Lifestyles -- Live a Little Volume 2" (Sony Special Products)

An in-store giveaway CD: 12 Caribbean lifestyles, but only one of them offered by an actual Caribbean, Ini Kamoze of Jamaica, which I guess makes him the poster and the likes of Men at Work ("Down Under"), Blondie ("The Tide Is High") and Mungo Jerry ("In the Summertime") travel agents. There are the unavoidable tourist-trap disasters (Bobby Bloom's "Montego Bay," Buster Poindexter's "Hot, Hot, Hot") but also that moment when the tropical storm breaks into a sky unlike any you've seen before. I mean, nothing with Johnny Nash's "I Can See Clearly Now" on it is a waste of money, and this one's free, at least if you buy something else.

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9) Corrs, "Breathless" (Atlantic)

Surveys show most Americans aren't getting enough fluff in their diet. This radio hit, up there with Maxine Nightingale's "Right Back Where We Started From," so good on the team bus in the 1977 hockey movie "Slap Shot," is the perfect cure. Already in heavy rotation on Patrick Bateman's Walkman.

10) "Pola X," directed by Léos Carax (Arena Films)

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Based on Herman Melville's "Pierre, or the Ambiguities," about a young man and a young woman, Isabelle, who appears out of nowhere and claims to be his sister, set in contemporary France, and, as the lives of the two become ever more entwined, starring Guillaume Depardieu as Kurt Cobain. Pierre leaves comfort, mother and fiancée behind and with Isabelle finds a hiding place in an abandoned Paris factory that's been taken over by a terrorist cell-cum-noise music orchestra (music provided by Scott Walker, one-time member of Righteous Brothers imitation the Walker Brothers, in later years a Jacques Brel disciple). Already famous as someone he isn't -- as "Aladin," pseudonymous author of a cult novel -- Pierre hunches over his desk in his bare room, scribbling endless pages in red ink. Desperate for a publisher and an advance, he appears as himself on a literary talk show; when he freezes up in terror at the interviewer's asking him who he really is, he becomes the person hiding in so many Nirvana songs, able to speak only through the screams of the choruses, retreating into the near silence of the verses almost instantly. "Impostor!" someone shouts from the studio audience. It's the shout Cobain always heard, just as the publisher's response Pierre's new manuscript finally receives -- "A raving morass ... reeks of plagiarism" -- is the judgment Cobain always pronounced on his own work. It can't be an accident that Depardieu, who begins the film cleanshaven, with neatly trimmed blond hair, looks just like Cobain by the end (a wig and a fake beard, Depardieu says) -- or that he exits the plot in the back of a police van, a shot that all too closely echoes the famous photo of Cobain in an ambulance in Rome, Courtney Love looking at the camera with her face a smear of determination and fear. I have the feeling that even if Cobain were still alive, he would have entered the vocabulary of other people's work just as fiercely as he has as a dead man.


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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