Real Life Rock Top 10

Published October 15, 2001 7:05PM (EDT)

1) Media crisis logos (Sept. 11-Oct. 7)

CNN: "America Under Attack," "Target: Terrorism"; MSNBC: "Attack on America," "America on Alert," "America Strikes Back"; Fox News: "America's New War," "America Strikes Back"; Newsweek: "War on Terror"; New York Times: "A Day of Terror," "After the Attacks," "A Nation Challenged"; the Onion, "Holy Fucking Shit."

2) New Order, "Get Ready" (London)

What a dull title. What a great record. When Ian Curtis of the dark-end-of-the-street Manchester combo Joy Division killed himself in 1980, guitarist Bernard Sumner, bassist Peter Hook and drummer Stephen Morris decided to "keep the band together." Instead of riding their already sainted name they changed it, added keyboard player Gillian Gilbert and set out to redefine dance music as a love unto death, as a merging of disco, romance and apocalypse. From "Temptation" through the seemingly countless remixes of "Bizarre Love Triangle" they soared through space and time. But that was all a long time ago.

"Get Ready" is an album of muscle, with Sumner's old guitar-as-bass sound underpinning rhythms that feel as untested as a new car. In the jumps and changes, though, are moments of beauty so full and yet hard to catch they are more ominous than promising, more fleeting than present. When you go back to find them again, you can't: The churning "Turn My Way" is less a composition, or a jam, than a glimpse into something that can't be described, only pointed to. The songs don't hold still, don't hold shape -- until "Rock the Shack," which is the romantic apocalypse banged out in a garage, the teenage musicians trying out their sneers and volume, imagining a battle of the bands with the Swingin' Medallions.

3) "Come Together: A Night for John Lennon" (TNT, Oct. 2)

Compared to this -- from Yolanda Adams plus 12th Beatle Billy Preston turning "Imagine" into a mugging to Dustin Hoffman's crinkly insecure-superstar grin -- the Sept. 21 "America: A Tribute to Heroes" telethon was "Sympathy for the Devil."

4) Macy Gray, "The Id" (Epic)

This is seductive, entrancing: a spangled and physical follow-up to Gray's one-woman soul explosion of the 1999 "On How Life Is." But that record communicated both mastery and desperation. Here the entitlement of the diva begins to sneak in -- no matter how threatening or weird "The Id" is, or self-consciously tries to be. There's a quality in Gray's music that's reminiscent of the heroine of Gayl Jones' stone-hard 1975 first novel, "Corregidora," about a mutilated blues singer -- it's in the constriction in Gray's throat, the sense of something essential always held back, something it would be death to reveal, something that's none of your business. It's that refusal to come across -- to offer the "I love you, I'm yours" that every real diva throws to her audience like a handful of petals -- that song after song pulls against the alienation of the role Gray is now playing, or anyway trying out.

5) Scott Leeper/Clear Ink, "Behind the Opera" (KDFC-FM, San Francisco, Oct. 4)

"... on 'Behind the Opera,'" intoned the familiarly concerned, therapeutic voice, promising folly, ruin and redemption. "Floria Tosca had it all: looks, fame and the love of painter and political activist Mario Cavaradossi. But ..." Wow, I thought, VH1 is franchising this stuff! I almost missed the first cut-in, a woman speaking with disdain: "She was convinced Mario was cheating on her. And ..." And then this guy with a gravelly voice came on: "First she sells herself to Police Chief Scarpia to save her boyfriend. Then she turns around and stabs the chief with a dinner knife! Not your classic career move." I couldn't wait for the rest -- which turned out to be "'Tosca.' Now at the San Francisco Opera."

6) Dr. Cornel West, "Sketches of My Culture" (Artemis)

Pictured on the front of his CD clutching a mike while emoting so deeply he may be slightly wrinkling his three-piece suit, the academic celebrity (that's not a description, that's his profession) raps: "In all modesty," one can read on his Web site, "this project constitutes a watershed moment in musical history." Better than his books.

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

It's not the Philip Marlowe meets postmodern architecture joke ("Frank Gehry has ruined my building!" cries the private eye. "He climbs the 13 chain-link steps to his work place," says the narrator fatalistically). It's not the rerun of the recent Los Angeles mayor's race, which pits a career criminal against a career cop. This time through, it's the obscure, perfectly tossed off Nervous Norvous reference, which is to the 1956 all-time car-crash song "Transfusion" (you can find it on the Rhino set "Hot Rods & Custom Classics: Cruisin' Songs & Highway Hits"): "Pass the chalice to me, Alice."

8) Wedding Present, "Falling," from "hit parade 1" (First Warning, 1992)

Heard on Radio K, Minneapolis ("Real College Radio"): the occasionally necessary reminder that punk exists, as a principle of deconstruction from the inside of a sound. You can pick up a tune that's already something else, as with this originally delicate, elegant Julee Cruise number (lyrics by David Lynch, music by Angelo Badalamenti): one gorgeous ache. Or you can simply listen to "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and hear the principle applied not to an extant composition but to a whole music, a whole culture, a whole world. Drenched in "Twin Peaks" mysticism, "Falling" is about the acceptance of death, the death wish that's the real secret hidden in "Twin Peaks," but the prettiness of Cruise's singing, her restraint in the face of an absolute, allows you to forget what the music is saying. David Gedge's Velvet Underground riff repetition tribute band Wedding Present batters and smashes at the tune like thugs kicking a drunk on the street. They don't cover the tune, they cover the title: Everything in the music falls down, falls to ruin. How does the melody survive the wreckage? By using itself to rebuild the song.

9) Louis Menand, "Holden at Fifty" (New Yorker, Oct. 1)

"Once, you did ride a carousel. It seemed as though it would last forever," Menand concludes, trying to add a graceful, elegiac note to yet another of his screeds against youth culture and its diseased adult residue, nostalgia. But he can't get past received ideas: "You go to a dance where a new pop song is playing, and for the rest of your life hearing that song triggers the same emotion." Thoughtless and reductionist, assuming that pop songs are by definition so vapid they are incapable of acquiring new meaning, or revealing new tones in the face of new events, new times, changed listeners -- and assuming that any listener stupid enough to be caught by a song is incapable of thinking, or of responding to a changed world in a different way -- Menand only digs his hole deeper.

"It comes on the radio and you think, That's when things were truly fine. [Gentle Reader: Have you ever thought this?] You want to hear it again. You have become addicted. [This happens the first time you hear a song? That is, nostalgia, a.k.a. thatswhenthingsweretrulyfineism, is present as soon as a song appears? Or do you become addicted only after the song first appears on the radio? Discuss.] Youth culture acquires its poignancy through time, and so thoroughly you can barely see what it is in itself. [As opposed to real culture, which is transparent?] It's just, permanently, 'your song,' your story. When people who grew up in the nineteen-fifties give 'The Catcher in the Rye' to their kids [Gentle Readers of a Certain Age: Have you ever done this?], it's like showing them an old photo album: That's me.

"It isn't, of course," Menand finishes. "Maybe the nostalgia of youth culture is completely spurious. Maybe it invites you to indulge in bittersweet memories of a childhood you never had, an idyll of Beach Boys songs and cheeseburgers and convertibles and teenage crushes which has been constructed by pop songs and television shows and movies, and bears little or no relation to any experience of your own." But it's not the fault of, say, the Beach Boys' "I Get Around" -- which for California teenagers in 1964 did not construct but reported -- that Menand, an Easterner ("I transferred to Berkeley, didn't like it, went back," he says of his university days), apparently did not experience what the song describes, or that for more than a quarter of a century he has made a career out of writing as if he, unlike most people who have been young, has never been embarrassed.

10) Henry Flynt, "Picket Stockhausen Concert!" in "In The Spirit of Fluxus," ed. Janet Jenkins (Walker Art Center)

Regarding composer Karlheinz Stockhausen's Sept. 16 pronouncement in Hamburg that the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York City constituted "the greatest work of art for the whole cosmos": Sarah Vowell recalls that in 1964 Henry Flynt -- the musician/theorist who for two weeks replaced John Cale in the early Velvet Underground, and who in the 1968 Realists handbill "OVERTHROW THE HUMAN RACE!!" would call for, among other things, "Staring a thermonuclear 'spasm' war that will decisively transform human consciousness (and possibly biology)" -- issued a flier announcing a demonstration against an upcoming Stockhausen performance in New York. "Jazz [Black Music] is primitive ... barbaric ... beat and a few simple chords ... garbage [or words to that effect]," Flynt quoted a 1958 Stockhausen lecture at Harvard. Flynt attacked intellectuals who promoted "The Laws of Music" ("Common Practice Harmony, 12-Tone, and all the rest, not to mention Concert etiquette" -- "'Music Which Will Enoble You to Listen to It'" -- and condemned Stockhausen precisely for his talent: "He is a fountainhead of 'ideas' to shore up the doctrine of white plutocratic European art's supremacy." "BUT THERE IS ANOTHER KIND OF INTELLECTUAL," Flynt insisted: "Maybe they happen to like Bo Diddley or the Everly Brothers." He concluded: "STOCKHAUSEN-PATRICIAN 'THEORIST' OF WHITE SUPREMACY: GO TO HELL."

Henry Flynt, 2001: finally released 1970s recordings "Graduation and other new country & blues music" (Ampersand). The theory was alive; the music wasn't. Stockhausen, Sept. 19: "The journalist in Hamburg completely ripped my statements out of a context."

Thanks to Andrew Higgins.

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.

MORE FROM Greil Marcus

Related Topics ------------------------------------------