Real Life Rock Top 10


Greil Marcus
November 13, 2001 4:04AM (UTC)

1) Beth Orton, "Stolen Car," from "Central Reservation" (Arista, 1999)

A guitar plays like a cello, straight through to the end, through feedback, as if nothing can change. That sense of rootedness, of permanence, drives this broken-voiced ballad of no way out. The woman who steps forth -- as opposed to the younger person who sings the smooth tunes that follow this opening cut -- is a familiar face in certain parts of London, Manchester, Birmingham, Coventry, Leeds. She's in her 40s, in her 50s, still beautiful, her face longer than it was, her eyes piercing, her jaw a warning. Like the heroine of Alison Fell's 1984 novel "Every Move You Make," she's been through feminism when it was a closed, even Stalinist movement; unlike the heroine of Rod Stewart's "You Wear It Well," the radical blues have left marks all over her. Now she lives alone. She teaches or runs a gallery or works in publishing. Everything she left behind, everything that left her behind, is in her voice, which says there was no other choice, and that it was a choice.

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2) Bob Giraldi, director, "Dinner Rush" (Worldwide)

Though it opens with a mob execution right in the street, within minutes the film is all laughs: In Tribeca, in a one-time trattoria that's now the latest genius-chef hot spot (the real Gigino, a trattoria on Greenwich St. between Duane and Reade), everything goes wrong. Taking time out to place one last ruinous bet, and taking time out from that to fuck the receptionist who the chef thinks is his girlfriend, the sous-chef is throwing the kitchen out of whack. A famous food critic arrives and raises her eyebrow in doubt while the chef panics. A gallery owner blows in with a huge party and within minutes has bugs crawling over everyone's flesh. The power goes out. Gangsters show up with no intention of leaving until the place is in their name. John Corbett (Sarah Jessica Parker's boyfriend in "Sex and the City") sits at the bar, amused at the human comedy -- and at some invisible point everything that was funny is suddenly not.

3) "Good Rockin' Tonight -- The Legacy of Sun Records" (London/Sire)

Aren't tribute albums terrible? Here, for a TV documentary, everyone from Paul McCartney to Bob Dylan to Sheryl Crow to Bryan Ferry add nothing to Memphis explosions, from Charlie Rich's deep "Who Will the Next Fool Be" to Warren Smith's dark-hollow "Red Cadillac and a Black Moustache" to Elvis' slow-walking "Don't Be Cruel" (yes, a Sun recording -- by Jerry Lee Lewis), while Johnny Hallyday and Elton John massacre Carl Perkins' "Blue Suede Shoes" and Lewis' "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On." Only one man escapes to tell the tale: Kid Rock, with the Howling Diablos of Detroit, leaping onto "Stick" McGhee and His Buddies' "Drinkin' Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee" (a hit on Atlantic in 1949, and a Lewis touchstone from that day to this) as if it's a horse he can ride all the way into the present, which he does, shouting "NO FLIES ON ME, SUCKERS!" all the way home.

4) Michael Guinzburg, "Top of the World, Ma!" (Cannongate)

Pure raunch -- which turns into pain and suffering, which turns into a reader's empathy for people you can hardly believe exist: Willem de Kooning cured of Alzheimer's by a miracle drug and fucking his brains back, a teenager cheating on her mother, a man with a world-historical case of acne, a young hustler chasing a rumor that Jackson Pollock ended his life as a pedophile and, near the end, a new board game, "The American Dream," where you win by parlaying immigrant identities and attendant handicaps into money -- that is, the American Dream. "Mariah's a Guatemalan midget with cooking skills but no English at Georgetown Law," says one player of her opponent, "and I'm a Lithuanian prostitute with AIDS just off the boat working in a Dunkin Donuts." No happy ending.

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5) Hissyfits, "Baby," on "Letters From Frank" (Top Quality Rock and Roll)

Standing out on a disappointing album from Brooklyn's sunniest, trashiest, most worried guitar-based rave-up girl group, a floater: A small voice that takes on deeper textures with every phrase, a simple pulse that goes in circles even as it rushes toward the finish line.

6) "'Give Me Your Hump!' -- The Unspeakable Terry Southern Record" (Koch/Paris)

It was a great idea, readings from the works of the late black humorist -- author of "Candy," "The Magic Christian," "Blue Movie" and "You're Too Hip, Baby," the perfect short story about a white man on the Paris jazz scene in the 1950s -- and the result is a dead fish. What comes off the page as unlikely, unstoppable -- No, he isn't going to go farther, is he? -- seems smugly obvious coming out of anyone's mouth. Marianne Faithfull, Michael O'Donoghue, Allen Ginsberg, Southern himself: They're too hip.

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7) A friend who works in theater writes:

"I just finished teaching a class as a 'guest artist' at the local hoity-toity private school, which is trying to fashion itself into an arts magnet. I asked the students to pick a question they wanted to explore, and they picked (drumroll) 'What is love?' and I thought Oh God no. They are so completely surrounded by money and the 'correct' answers and the giant stick that their whole world has up its ass. It's hard to feel sorry for them, but still there's a lot of pressure to be perfect or they will not be 'invited back' -- and the school has had a rash of suicides. Two of my students were on suicide watch and had to leave rehearsal early every day to go to counseling. The students spent three-quarters of the class trying to do things 'right' and giving very safe answers and doing safe things and they're all incredibly bright -- maniacally so.

"They each came up with 10 things they always wanted to do on stage. As soon as the lists were made they asked 'We're not really going to do this, are we?' but you could immediately see them thinking 'Oh my God, we actually could do this stuff.' They ended up smashing guitars and screaming the lyrics to 'Wish You Were Here' and banging the gazillion dollar baby grand for all they were worth. Dogs were coming on stage running all over, one kid tried unsuccessfully to vomit, and at the end they had a giant food fight with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and just generally acted their age as hard as they could. The audience was all dressed in fancy black dresses and suits and after the curtain call the students spontaneously charged into the audience and started sliming them with peanut butter and jelly. It was god-awful, but they made a little Cabaret Voltaire for themselves and I got to watch them let themselves be 15 for half an hour.

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"It's sad to know that's probably the extent of it. They wouldn't wash the peanut butter off -- they were still running around all slimy when I left half an hour later. I'm pretty sure I'm 'not invited back.'"

8) David Lynch/Angelo Badalamenti, "Mulholland Drive" (BMG/Milan)

This is not like the movie. There is no imperative to keep you interested, entertained or following the story. Rather there is so much silence on this soundtrack album, or waiting, that you can forget you are listening to anything, so that when the sound comes back -- creeps back, usually -- you don't know where you are. In the movie you always know right where you are -- Hollywood, which, as one viewer put it, signifies the real message of the movie: Stay away.

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9) Bertha Lee, "Mind Reader Blues" (1934), from "Screamin' and Hollerin' the Blues: The Worlds of Charley Patton" (Revenant, 1929-34)

This amazing set -- a tribute both to records as repositories of national memory and to records as fetish objects -- is just what it says it is. Patton, the central progenitor of Mississippi Delta blues, recorded in Wisconsin and New York in six different sessions, under different names, in different styles, traveling and performing with different compatriots; the seven CDs here, presented in the form of an album of 78s, with the equivalent of two full-length books, collections of original advertisements and record labels and much, much more, present the full results of each recording session, whether by Patton or others, so that in fact not only the will of a single performer but the air he breathed is captured whole.

Part of that air is the very last performance from Patton's last session, from his wife Bertha Lee. You stick the word "blues" onto the right phrase and it's as if you've never heard the phrase before, and that's what happens here (Mike Watt of the Minutemen: "A good title is worth a thousand lyrics"). A woman with an undistinguished voice and an ordinary sense of timing starts out with the claim that she can read her man's mind; she proceeds to do it with no more emotion than you'd expect her to use on the dishes -- maybe less. "Baby, I can see/Just what's on your mind" -- what spouse can't do that? But you don't live every minute of the day with that kind of knowledge -- or do you? "Well, I'm worried now/ But I won't be worried long," Lee ends her song; usually the words mean the singer's life is about to end. It's only death that takes care away. But in this moment it isn't her trouble that's on her mind.

10) Street scene, Canal & Bourbon streets, New Orleans (Nov. 3)

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Next to a mailbox, a young woman with a baby on her hip was wearing a black T-shirt with a homemade "EVIL" spelled out in silver sequins; a middle-aged woman with three young children was shaking a white bucket and chanting 'Help our church, help our church': A huge man walked by in a black-and-silver T-shirt with 'Good/Evil' running over a picture of a man in a cowl; on the back of the mailbox, under the headline 'RESISTANCE IS FERTILE,' was a poster picturing a young Hispanic/Indian woman with a baby at her breast and a rifle on her back, the logo 'Crimethinc.' and a text: 'The greatest illusionist spectacle in the world no longer enchants us. We are certain that communities of joy will emerge from our struggle. Here and now. And for the first time, life will triumph over death.' Looming over it all, a billboard: 'LARRY FLYNT'S HUSTLER CLUB. TWO GIRLS FOR EVERY GUY.'"


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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