Real Life Rock Top 10

By Greil Marcus

Published October 1, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

1) Steve Weinstein, e-mail, Sept. 15

"Incredibly bad taste, or just another radio station on autopilot? Driving I-89 into Vermont today, I heard the local oldies outlet playing Petula Clark's 'Downtown.'"

2) Shangri-Las, "The Very Best Of" (Goldenlane)

The Sept. 17 edition of this column noted the striking present-day interview in the Aug. 27 A&E documentary "The Hitmakers: The Teens Who Stole Pop Music" with Mary L. Stokes -- in the mid-'60s, as Mary Weiss, the lead singer of the Shangri-Las. Stokes is now a project manager for Furniture Consultants in the Flatiron district of Manhattan. "I don't know why anyone would be interested in my experiences of September 11, 2001," she wrote me on Sept. 22 in response to a query. "So many people shared these experiences. I don't understand why anyone would care to hear my story." Maybe because Stokes writes in a voice you can hear echoing from the songs she sang, which people still carry with them.

"On the morning of September 11th I was downtown walking to a meeting a few blocks north of the Trade Center. As I crossed the street I heard a sound that I had never heard before. It was a jet airliner, lower than I have ever seen except for being on the parkway near LaGuardia when a plane comes in for a landing. It was so close to the surrounding buildings that everyone just stood still and stared, as the sound echoed off the stone walls. It all happened so fast. We watched the plane hit the first tower. At first everyone thought it was some kind of bizarre airline accident. There was so much debris spilling into the air, and fireballs exploding.

"I just stood there frozen in my tracks. I could not believe what I was seeing, and I kept pinching my cheek to wake up. (I have since heard this same reaction from many other people following this disaster.) I could not believe that there were 18 minutes between the first and second plane. It seemed to be a much shorter time. There were young women crying. I tried to console a few of them. Only when the second plane hit did everyone realize that New York was being attacked by terrorists. As I kept staring at the building, I was aware of many structural uprights now missing, and had a strong gut feeling to get out of the area. Another fireball shot out, and people started running. I held onto a street post in order not to be trampled by the crowd, then began walking uptown. There was no cell phone service. All the pay phones had long lines. There was no bus or subway service.

"While I continued walking, I heard a loud crack, turned around and saw one of the buildings coming down. People were crying, screaming and running everywhere. The cloud of debris from the collapse just missed me. I walked to my office uptown. Only when I saw my co-workers did I start to cry and shake.

"Everyone that I know is alive. Many people I know were not that fortunate. There are so many people dead. So many people hurting. So many businesses ruined. All of the people I speak to in New York are on some kind of roller coaster ride. It is so hard to focus on anything, much less conduct business. The nation is wounded, and it will take a very long time to heal. I know that America grew up on September 11, 2001. Where is our national security? How in the world could a plane ever fly directly over the Pentagon or White House?

"The fire department, police and EMS workers are so brave. No human being should ever have to see the things that these men and women have viewed during this catastrophe. They are extraordinary human beings.

"New York will never be the same. The United States will never be the same. For that matter I will never be the same person.

"We all want to go to sleep, and wake up and realize it's been a bad dream.

"It's not."

3) Karlheinz Stockhausen on art for art's sake (New York Times, Sept. 19)

"Mr. Stockhausen responded to a question about the attacks on the United States by saying: 'What happened there is -- they all have to rearrange their brains now -- is the greatest work of art ever. That characters can bring about in one act what we in music cannot dream of, that people practice madly for 10 years, completely, fanatically, for a concert and then die. That is the greatest work of art for the whole cosmos. I could not do that. Against that, we, composers, are nothing.'" Creepy, in its privilege, its insulation -- but not more so than novelist Rick Moody on the massacres as "a web of narratives" (Salon, Sept. 18) or critic John Leonard's insistence that no terrorist could possibly have a mind as interesting as that of a novelist writing about one (Salon, Sept. 21).

4) "Mulholland Dr.," directed by David Lynch, written by Joyce Eliason and Lynch (Universal, opening Oct. 12)

Early in the picture, a movie director with a teen-theme project is running auditions, dressing sophisticated, tough-as-nails stars up in chiffon to lip-synch to Connie Stevens' 1960 "Sixteen Reasons" and Linda Scott's 1961 "I've Told Every Little Star." Though at this point "Mulholland Drive" still seems like a regular story with different characters, you already get the feeling that there's something off, that the pieces aren't fitting together: that there's more happening, more at stake, than what's on the screen would seem to justify.

How the pieces don't fit together is the story the film tells. In an astonishingly controlled, extremist performance, Naomi Watts (previous credits include "Children of the Corn IV") plays Betty Elms, a cute blonde from a small town in Ontario who arrives in Los Angeles with hopes of becoming an actress; how Elms leaves, or as who, if she leaves at all, is the mystery. At the start, she walks out of LAX with stars in her eyes. The shot is both iconic and clichéd, silly and scary, because the radiance in Watts' face, communicating the depth of her character's commitment, or insanity, pushes the shot almost into abstraction.

That's true for every scene Watts is in -- most shockingly, her first reading. We've just seen her stumble through the dumb soap-style script with mystery woman-cum-roommate Rita, played by Laura Harring; they can barely get through the lines for laughing at them. Elms shows up at the studio and is paired with a bored, middle-aged actor; within seconds, with the crew standing around and trying to pretend their eyes aren't bugging out of their sockets, Elms has taken the man to levels of sexual tension so delicate and intense you can barely stand to watch. Where did this come from? What's next?

It came from a cute blonde arriving at LAX with stars in her eyes and pages from "Hollywood Babylon" flying through her brain -- and what's next is a night at the Club Silencio. Rita wakes up at two in the morning speaking in Spanish; she wakes Betty, and insists they leave for what turns out to be an all-night lip-synch palace. The dank, rotting theater is pure Hollywood: street-level, scag Hollywood. A few junkies, alcoholics and other insomniacs dot the seats. A man appears and announces the concept -- everything is taped. But he and another man move so convincingly to the sounds behind them it's as if they've called them into being. The sense of displacement hits Elms like a disease: Suddenly she is shaking in her seat like a spiritualist's table, shaking as if her bones are about to come out of her mouth, her skinny body invaded, close to bursting. Rita holds her still, and then a honey-haired woman with yellow eye makeup comes onto the stage and begins to move her lips to Rebekah Del Rio's "Llorando," a transcendent Spanish version of Roy Orbison's "Crying." She will collapse before the song is over -- it goes on -- but by then the song has already done such damange to the women listening they don't even notice that she's on the floor.

5) "Leiber & Stoller Present the Spark Records Story" (Ace)

Try-anything Los Angeles R&B from 1954-55, when two East Coast Jews who thought they were black were writing, producing, hustling. Many treasures if you love the style, and lost classics even if you don't: the Honey Bears' fast and hard "One Bad Stud," Big Boy Groves & Band's "I Gotta New Car" -- until the bank takes it back. Disappointment: Gil Bernal's "King Solomon's Blues," just because it doesn't live up to its title. I think Taj Mahal's "The Celebrated Walking Blues," cut in the same town l2 years later, would, somehow.

6) Elizabeth Elmore, "You Blink," on the Elmore/Robert Nanna "Split EP" (Troubleman Unlimited)

"I knew enough to keep my mouth shut" -- from the leader of Sarge, her voice smaller than ever, its demands on the world as big.

7) Firesign Theater, "The Bride of Firesign" (Rhino)

The surrealists loved the Marx Brothers; the four Angelenos of the Firesign Theater are what the Marx Brothers might have been if they were art theorists, or what the surrealists might have been if they had an American sense of humor. In the late 1960s and early '70s, they made comedy records that exploded the genre, infinitely layered stacks of commercial noise, unproduced TV shows, old radio plays and real elections, moving so fast that a stray pun could open up an entire new subplot, or drop the bottom out of whatever plot you thought you were following. But it was the Vietnam War, Firesign member Peter Bergman once said, that was at the root of it all. Did he mean the group's instinct for confrontation, their understanding that they too were at war, at war against the war, with whatever weapons they had? Or did he mean the absurdity that comes with the most justifiable of wars along with the most criminal? After the disarmingly low-key "Just Folks ... A Firesign Chat" in 1977 -- an album that, like all of their true work, could take years to reveal itself -- the troupe went into the wilderness; they didn't pull themselves out of the swamp of self-parody until "Eat or Be Eaten" in 1985, and even that evaporated after a few plays. That they have now made a record that doesn't immediately explain itself may be a very bad sign.

8) Luna, "Going Home," from "Bewitched" (Elektra, 1994)

Michael J. Kramer writes from Chapel Hill: "I can't get the lyrics of this dumb Luna song out of my head: 'The Chrysler Building is talking to the Empire State; the Twin Towers are talking to each other; saying, "All is forgiven, I love her still"; and we're home, home, goin' home.' I don't quite know if it fits, but it was always in my head walking down toward the Knitting Factory with those two big towers hovering above, back when I was living in New York. And it's still in my head now."

9) "America: A Tribute to Heroes," telethon for families of Sept. 11 victims (Sept. 21, all networks)

On a very middle-aged, anti-rock 'n' roll show, Fred Durst of Limp Bizkit came across with Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here," as did guitarist Mike Campbell inside Tom Petty's "I Won't Back Down." Playing a pipe organ in the background as Eddie Vedder found his way into "Long Road" as if he didn't know everything the tune had to say, Neil Young looked so old you could imagine he'd crawled to the stage all the way from the Oklahoma Dust Bowl in the '30s -- though that was also the impression he gave onstage at Woodstock in 1969. But it was Wyclef Jean and the Dixie Chicks who hit the high notes. Natalie Maines has a gorgeous voice, but with the new "I Believe in Love" it was also questioning, wondering what its own beauty was worth. It was one voice carrying the whole of the country style from the 19th century into a present that no longer existed, bringing a momentary peace of mind into a present that was now all future. Jean caught the heart of "Redemption Song," Bob Marley's greatest composition; it's the melody that sweeps you up, because it's the melody that holds the song's immeasurable pain. But this night Jean also found the bravery in the music, and that became the music: the sense that to stand in public this night, in this way, for this purpose, might indeed be to risk your life.

Earlier, Jim Carrey spoke of evacuees in the World Trade Center carrying a woman in her wheelchair down flight after flight of stairs. "We found a courage," Carrey quoted one of them, "we didn't know we had." It was, Susan Sontag said in an ice-cold comment in the Sept. 24 New Yorker, "a morally neutral virtue." She was speaking of "an attack on the world's self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions" (some people can read minds, some people can't), stressing the courage of the attackers as opposed to those who, like American bombers over Iraq, or Belgrade or Kosovo, "kill from beyond the range of retaliation." Presumably she meant that courage can be put to the service of purposes morally good or morally evil -- as can sex, the accumulation of wealth, the equitable distribution of resources, or rhetorical eloquence. What virtue for Sontag would not be morally neutral? I can't read minds, but I'd bet on something like, you know, the literary imagination. Sept. 21 was just songs, rich and impoverished, dead and alive.

10) Cecily Marcus, report on United Airlines Flight 522 from Chicago to Buenos Aires (Sept. 16)

"On United's third day of flying after the attacks the movies showing were: 'Shrek,' 'Crocodile Dundee,' 'A Knight's Tale' and 'The Manchurian Candidate.' Can you believe that? I was too afraid to watch it."

Thanks to Andrew Hamlin and Gail Worley.

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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