Real Life Rock Top 10

Special Dead People Edition!

Published June 25, 2001 7:01PM (EDT)

1) Baz Luhrmann, director, Luhrmann and Craig Pierce, writers, "Moulin Rouge" (20th Century Fox)

Part "Showgirls," part Dennis Potter's "Lipstick on Your Collar," this delirious musical has the courage of its own ridiculousness. It never goes soft, never backs away from its commitment to the constantly trumpeted "bohemian revolution," presented as a new religion of art, love and to thine own self be true, in practice a proof that you can get away with anything so long as you never admit there's anything the least bit odd about what you're doing. After half an hour, the appearance of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" in a 1900 Paris chorus line or "The hills are alive with the sound of music" as avant-garde poetry is so liberating, so obliterative of a century's worth of cultural piety, that you start rewriting the movie to fit your own heart. I couldn't understand why doomed lovers Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman were duetting on David Bowie's "Heroes" when they could have been singing "That's My Desire" -- a scandal in 1947, when it was first recorded ("To spend one night with you" is the opening line), then turned into a dream by countless East Coast vocal groups in the 1950s, most indelibly by Dion and the Belmonts.

2) Bobbettes, "The Best of the Bobbettes" (Crash)

In 1957 five young girls from P.S. 109 in New York wrote a song about their cool principal: "Mr. Lee" was a top 10 hit. Still, the edge in the swift, gleeful piece of street doo-wop -- jailbait lusting after a grown-up authority figure -- made sense of the 1960 follow-up: "I Shot Mr. Lee." The girls didn't say why; they didn't have to. By this time the Bobbettes were barely into their midteens.

Heard today, "I Shot Mr. Lee" ("Ah, shot him in the head, boom boom") is totally wild. It's funny; it's almost believable. The surprise is that a group as one-hit marginal as the Bobbettes can so easily sustain a collection of more than 30 tracks: the slow, gorgeous "The Dream," which bridges the gap between the Chantels' "Maybe" and Rosie and the Originals' "Angel Baby"; the witty "Rock & Ree-Ah-Zole (The Teenage Talk)"; the "Party Lights"-like tragedy of "Mama Papa," where the singer turns on the TV only to see her boyfriend dancing on "American Bandstand" -- with someone else.

3) Rennie Sparks, "Evil" (Black Hole Press)

Despite the accurate jacket description of Sparks as "lyricist for the gothic country duo the Handsome Family," her short stories are unspectacularly prosaic accounts of angry, isolated, confused young women and the trouble they get into. They live on the rotting edges of a big city; everyone seems to know someone who's been murdered. The notion of any of Sparks' characters growing up is where the tension comes from: that is, you can't imagine it. One who's on her way is the narrator of "4-Piece Dinette Set $799.99": "I'm a good worker at least no worse than the rest, except for Post-its. I like to steal them. Everyday I grab a pad or two off someone's desk as I head out to my car. Driving back to the city, I toss Post-its out my car window and watch them through the rearview mirror, skidding and rolling in the dirt. I don't know why I do it. I guess I don't really want to know why."

4) Ben Harper, blurb for "Avalon Blues: A Tribute to the Music of Mississippi John Hurt" (Vanguard)

"If it wasn't for Mississippi John Hurt, I would not be making music at all," he says. It's always a good idea to put the blame on someone who isn't around to defend himself.

5) Kelly Vance, review of Herschell Gordon Lewis' 1968 "She-Devils on Wheels" (East Bay Express, June 15)

"It has everything you look for in a drive-in movie: cheap production values, rotten acting, stupid writing, inept direction -- the works. Think 'Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!' In fact, take practically any biker flick you have ever seen and turn it up a notch on the Dumb-O-Meter. This film defines the word 'nadir.' And yet, somehow, abstract concepts appear much more clearly when glimpsed from the rock-bottom of human experience."

6) Chris Walters, "The Ghost of Jim Thompson Stalks L.A.," collage of title and excerpt from letter from Bonnie Bakley to Robert Blake before the signing of a prenuptial agreement in October 2000 (letter from New York Daily News, May 9)

"I think psychologically it helps me get even with mankind," Bakley wrote to her soon-to-be husband and, after Bakley's unsolved shooting May 5, widower (he went back to the restaurant where the two had had dinner to get his gun, Blake told police, then returned to his car and found her dead) of her life as a grifter. "My father tried to get fresh with me when I was seven, while my mother was in the hospital having Joey [her brother]. He died before I could grow up and kill him."

7) KFRC-FM (San Francisco, June 17)

"Father's Day Superset," featuring Marvin Gaye, who on April 1, 1984, gave his father the ultimate Father's Day present. On the air, Bob Dylan immediately followed, though not with "Highway 61 Revisited," which begins, "God said to Abraham, kill me a son -- "

8) Joy Division, "Les Bains Douches 18 December 1979" (Factory)

The severe, serious, nevertheless thrilling sound of young men walking all night in the Manchester rain -- thrilling because, in the course of that long walk, anyone can find out what he really wants, anyone can fall behind, anything can happen -- as captured mostly at what sounds like a very underattended show in Paris. As with other severe, serious post-Sex Pistols groups -- Wire, the Cure -- there's the chilly feel of postwar espionage films, the voices of people who have no idea how they found themselves in jeopardy, let alone how to get out. There's no balance in the performance, no obvious match between Ian Curtis' singing, Peter Hook's bass, Bernard Albrecht's guitar and Stephen Morris' drums: As soon as you think of the Velvet Underground you think of the Doors, and then realize that, compared with this band, they were all about order.

The most brutal and beautiful numbers here are taken from January 1980 live recordings in Holland. "Digital" is too strong, too hard, too much; on "Atmosphere," the distant, silent-movie organ sound that would give the band that went on as New Order, after Curtis' suicide on May 18, 1980, a claim to the deepest dives of the new decade and, along with Foreigner's "I Want to Know What Love Is," its best singles: "Temptation" and "Bizarre Love Triangle." Joy Division's second, 1980 album was called "Closer"; this could have been called "Close Enough."

9) Eddie Cochran, "The Town Hall Party TV Shows 1959" (Rockstar Records video, P.O. Box 22, Woodford Green, Essex, 1G8, 0EH, U.K.)

The rocker remembered in his own country mostly for "Summertime Blues," and beloved in the U.K. because he toured there and died there (in a car crash in 1960), appears on a Los Angeles country music show with his band Dick D'Agostin & the Swingers, who are much better than their name. Seemingly taking his visual cues from Edd "Kookie" Byrnes of the L.A. private eye hit "77 Sunset Strip," Cochran is short, compact, well-dressed and absurdly good-looking, his pompadour so big and glossy it just begs for Byrnes to show up and lend Eddie his comb. But he doesn't need it until "Money Honey," the second-to-last song of the night. Cochran is singing, playing guitar, chewing gum and rotating his shoulders all at the same time, and every element seems necessary for the spell he casts. "Whenever we put this on," said the counterman at Down Home Music in El Cerrito, Calif., as he and everyone else in the place tried to keep doing what they'd been doing, "I never get any work done. I might as well take the rest of the day off."

10) Roger McGuinn, "Treasures From the Folk Den" (Appleseed)

Given McGuinn's startlingly warm, open work on old American music with Jeff Tweedy and Jay Bennett of Wilco (see "The Harry Smith Connection"), this should have been, as Dikembe Mutombo recently put it, a walk in the cake. Thanks to contributions by worn-out Judy Collins, Joan Baez, Odetta, Jean Ritchie and Josh White Jr., the result is an earnest workshop, with the main lesson being How Not to Do It. This comes courtesy of excruciating performances in which Pete Seeger, who for six decades has accepted that he cannot sing blues, does. "I realize I'm used to slightly different chords," he says in the most refined voice imaginable. "They're not logical chords."

By 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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