Real Life Rock Top 10


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Greil Marcus
July 16, 2001 9:26PM (UTC)

1) Unitas, "Porch Life" (No Idea)

They could have called it "Blood on Our Sleeves" -- on this rough set of songs about being fans in a band, everything is familiar, nothing fits and anything is an occasion for passion. "What's your favorite Uncle Tupelo song?" says the singer to you or the other three guys in the group; his is "Screen Door." (From "No Depression," 1990, Rockville Records -- the lyric sheet is footnoted to discographical information on the music everyone on the porch is talking about, that everyone loves, that everyone feels oppressed by.) The sound is tear-away; you can almost feel the pieces pulling apart. The band ram through their songs as if they don't want to give you time to talk about what's wrong with them, or for that matter what's right -- say, the fierce, double-back riff in "Unitas (Picks A) Fight Song" ("The only thing more boring than you is your audience" -- quick, think of a comeback for that). There's even a manifesto. "I'm not about to advocate forming a committee to go out and confiscate copies of Start Today and the Minor Threat discography, but it almost sounds like a good idea." The manifesto ends with a question: "'How is this a punk rock record?' If you don't know, I'm not telling." It's a punk rock record because the people who made it have been around the block too often to care whether they look cool this time around. Which doesn't answer the question of why this Gainesville band named itself after the quarterback for the Baltimore Colts.

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2) Clarence Ashley, "Greenback Dollar -- The Music of Clarence 'Tom' Ashley, 1928-1933" (County)

Ashley (1895-1967) was one of the greatest of the "old-timey" singers -- those who, in the first third of the 20th century, sang as if the new century was a trick that would disappear soon enough, as if only songs made long before you were born would hold your interest for more than a season. He was born Clarence and recorded under that name, but everyone knew him as Tom; when the bottom fell out of the old-timey market in the '30s, the recording artist Clarence Ashley disappeared and the performer Tom Ashley kept on. In 1960, at a fiddler's convention in North Carolina, he and guitarist Clint Howard and fiddler Fred Price were approached by folklorist Ralph Rinzler, who asked if they had knowledge of a Clarence Ashley, whose bottomless recordings of "Coo Coo Bird" (1929) and "House Carpenter" (1930) had been collected on Harry Smith's 1952 "Anthology of American Folk Music." "Clint Howard recalls the moment," one can read in the "Greenback Dollar" notes: "Fred and me had known Tom all our lives, but we just knew him as Tom. So I said, 'No, I don't. Do you know a Clarence Ashley, Tom?' Tom started to say, 'No,' but he had a second thought: 'Hell, I'm Clarence Ashley!'" As a public artist, he began a second life, but musically there was really no change from his first.

Even as a young man, Ashley had a squeaky, baffled old-codger's tone. He reveled in the deadpan mysteries of "Haunted Road Blues" and "Dark Holler." But those songs, like "Coo Coo Bird" and "House Carpenter," are the high culture of old-timey. On "Greenback Dollar," drawn from Ashley's various string bands as well as his solo recordings, low culture pulls harder: Hokum rules. Ashley performed in blackface on the minstrel-show, medicine-show circuit; you can hear the blackface snigger in Ashley's amazingly obscene "My Sweet Farm Girl," which gets both cunnilingus and analingus into a single verse. You can hear the common, secret culture of the south in Ashley's detailed versions of the true-crime ballads "Frankie Silvers," "Old John Hardy" and "Naomi Wise." And in an extremely vicious reading of "Little Sadie" you can hear a man who might have reason to forget his own name.

3) Julien Temple, on "The Great Rock 'n Roll Swindle" (1980) and "The Filth and the Fury" (2000), "Fresh Air" (NPR, July 3)

The director on why "Swindle" was just that -- his and Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren's attempt to force fans to confront their worship of idol-smashers -- and on how "Filth" was his attempt to give the surviving band members the chance to tell their own stories, all of them "scarred for life" by a process in which Temple was not innocent: helping to drag them through "the chemotherapy of fame."

4-7) David Gray, "Flesh" (EMI reissue, 1994), "Sell, Sell, Sell" (EMI reissue, 1996), "White Ladder" (ATO) and "Lost Songs" (ATO)

For those who think memoirs written by white people in their 50s or younger are true.

8) White Stripes, "White Blood Cells" (Sympathy for the Record Industry)

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As the disc unwinds, the smart, bashing punk offered by a Detroit ex-husband (guitar, vocals) and ex-wife (drums) opens into the near nursery rhyme of "We're Going to Be Friends" or the INXS slickness of "I Think I Smell a Rat." Maybe Jack and Meg White really do have sympathy for the record industry. But for the moment the heart of their music seems to be in "Offend in Every Way," a harsh, expert storm of old guitar riffs, old curses and the steady, disinterested beat of someone who sounds as if she learned the story in the womb. The sound starts in Memphis, where the music was recorded, and then heads for the hills.

9) Amir Bar-Lev, "Fighter," Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival (April 4)

After escaping the Nazis in his native Czechoslovakia, a man returns after the war to help remake his country. The Stalinist government sends him to prison, where every day loudspeakers blast "that optimistic socialist music" (period footage shows a robust, bright-faced young couple in traditional Czech dress dancing a traditional Czech dance; they look just like Ricky Martin and Britney Spears) -- "the kind of music my father always called organized farts."

10) Nick Hornby, "How to Be Good" (Riverhead)

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The narrator tells her husband of 20 years she's "been seeing someone."

"I'm presuming that you'll be moving out in the next couple of days," he says.

"The affair's over," she says. "As of this minute."

"I don't know about that," he says. "But I do know that no one asks Elvis Presley to play for nothing."


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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