Real Life Rock Top 10

By Greil Marcus

Published April 3, 2001 2:04AM (EDT)

1/2) Linda Gail Lewis, "The Devil, Me, and Jerry Lee" (Longstreet) & Van Morrison/Linda Gail Lewis, "You Win Again" (Mercury)

If you're sick of the broken-arm school of memoir writing, in which self-criticism is magically transformed into self-congratulation -- Adair Lara's "Hold Me Close, Let Me Go: A Mother, a Daughter, and an Adolescence Survived" is a recent example -- this frank ("It's a miracle we're not all more fucked up than we are"), funny ("Jerry Lee would probably not do a double take if he were seated at the Last Supper"), fatalistic ("In Ferriday I could have married a cousin and not even known it") and short (166 pages with big print) look back by Jerry Lee Lewis' little sister is like a good drink at the end of a long day. She can tell a story; she can get out of the way and let a story tell itself. "When I was very young, my mother was always commenting about what pretty little hands I had," she says. "I think it finally got to the point where [older sister] Frankie Jean really had heard enough about my beautiful hands, so naturally, she took me over to the oven and helped me to place them directly on the hot grates inside" -- it's that "to" in "helped me to place them," slowing the description, making it more formal, that makes the moment perfect.

It's too bad Van Morrison doesn't know how to get out of the way. He hooked up with Linda Gail at a Jerry Lee convention (she was performing, he was there as a fan) -- but mainly, it seems, to walk all over her. For the blues and rockabilly standards on "You Win Again," he's like the husband at a party telling everyone how great his wife is and then finishing every sentence she tries to start. Maybe someone -- Elvis Costello? Laurie Anderson? Peter Guralnick? -- will hear how good this woman is, as quick and economical as a singer as she is on the page, and find her the time and place to make her own record.

3) Shaver, "The Earth Rolls On" (New West)

From 1993, with the undeniable "Tramp on Your Street," Shaver was country singer and writer Billy Joe Shaver and his guitarist son Eddy; the younger Shaver died of a drug overdose on New Year's Eve. He was a serious guitar player, and on "Evergreen Fields" he ran loose. He counts off the "We Will Now Tell the Terrible Tale" beat, then opens up a solo that gets out of the terrible tale alive, and makes you want to hear it again.

4) "Hellhound on My Trail -- Songs of Robert Johnson" (Telarc)

Despite notes from Lawrence Cohn, who knows whereof he speaks, this tribute album, a set of tunes written by the '30s bluesman and performed by David Honeyboy Edwards, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, Pinetop Perkins, Keith Brown, Robert Jr. Lockwood, Robert "Victim of Love" Palmer and more, more, more, starts dull and gets worse until, with Eric Gales' "Me and the Devil Blues," it gets to horrible -- plummy, empty, incompetent, glib. Like "Louie Louie," "Dust My Broom" is hard to ruin; Joe Louis Walker pulls it off. Chris Thomas King, who played the older Mississippi singer Tommy Johnson in "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" is a highlight, and he's just OK. The only real exception is Susan Tedeschi, who offers a spare, distracted, Trailer Bride-style version of "Walking Blues" -- you can see right through her shift, just because it has been washed so many times. You realize what the difference is: She's singing the song as if what happens in it happened to her.

5) "The Early Blues Roots of Bob Dylan" (Catfish)

The tribute album backward -- assembling the originals, the set makes the present-day man pay homage to his forebears, whether he wants to or not. But Bob Dylan is not at issue -- right off, with the Mississippi Sheiks' 1931 "I've Got Blood in My Eyes for You," you hear how completely 62 years later he entered the song and changed it from the inside out. The structure remains the same; only the soul is different. Rather, it's the wide range of the compiler's ear -- picking up Booker T. Sapps' obscure "Po' Lazarus," Will Bennett following the melody of "Railroad Bill" in 1929 like a man going downstream in a canoe, the Rev. J.C. Burnett chanting "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" in a black church in 1928 -- that makes you realize what an undiscovered country remains to be found. When, just before the end, in the Parchman Farm Penitentiary in Mississippi in 1939, Bukka White begins to hammer the high, ringing chords of "Po' Boy," his voice an eternal whine, as if he knows this is the only way to get God's ear, you reach that country, and you can't believe you have to leave. You can; he couldn't.

6) Maria Muldaur, "Richland Woman Blues" (Stony Plain)

Yet another sort of tribute album -- the quilting-bee version, when friends and neighbors gather to help stitch up the music. Some of the same people from the Robert Johnson session, as if in another life (Taj Mahal, huge and ancient on "Soul of a Man"; Alvin Youngblood Hart, terrific adding scratches and scrapes to "I'm Going Back Home"), some of the same songs as the Dylan collection (Lead Belly's "Grasshoppers in My Pillow") and, as Muldaur's voice gets bigger and bigger for Memphis Minnie's "In My Girlish Days," as big, it seems for a few minutes, as Bessie Smith's, a sound that could not be less girlish.

7) 16 Horsepower, "Hoarse" (Checkered Past)

A live recording of original-sin rock from a Denver quartet that can separate the wheat from the chaff, especially when leader David Eugene Edwards straps on his banjo. Unfriendly, unforgiving -- their version of "Bad Moon Rising" makes the Creedence Clearwater original seem like an open question.

8) Julie Lasky, "Some People Can't Surf -- The Graphic Design of Art Chantry" (Chronicle Books)

The most striking pictures in this handsome, well-written appreciation of the work of the former Seattle punk poster artist (whose own "Instant Litter" collection appeared in 1985) might be those of Chantry and Sir Francis Chantry -- real separated-at-birth stuff, except that one was born in 1954 and the other in 1781.

9) Jon Carroll, "The Faith-Based Presidency" (San Francisco Chronicle, Feb. 22,, then go to archives)

The moderate way to dissent from Bush's presidency is to complain that he acts as if he had been elected in a landslide, rather than not elected at all. Like Thomas Friedman's March 13 New York Times column on faith-based air-traffic control, Carroll's picture of the unreality of present-day governance is a ghost story: "We now have a faith-based presidency. We need to have faith that we have a president. We have a person in the White House who is called the president, but it is hard to imagine him doing the job. Faith is the evidence of things not seen. We do not see him working, and yet we believe he is. We do not see him thinking, and yet we believe he is. We believe he is in charge. Our rational minds may waver. Always there is doubt. It is the challenge of the faith-based path to move beyond doubt. We cannot reason ourselves closer to the reality of the Bush presidency ... we have the faith and he has the presidency."

10) Heike Baranowsky, "Auto Scope" in "010101: Art in Technological Times" (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, through July 8)

In a not-overburdened show of ambiences, recombinations, scans and a photo maze was this video, shot from a vehicle traversing the periphery of Paris and projected in four identical feeds. Speeding along, the assembled double-double images collapse into each other, so that each image is a mirror of itself -- when trees come into the field of vision, the city becomes a series of Rorschach blots. There are moments of color, of ads and the bodies they feature, but mostly it's road, walls, apartment buildings, factories, overcast. "This is Paris?" someone in the room said. "It looks like Poland."

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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