Real Life Rock Top 10


Greil Marcus
January 8, 2002 1:25AM (UTC)

1-2) "The Concert for New York City" (Columbia)

Aren't tribute albums terrible? From the Oct. 20 event where Sen. Hillary Clinton was booed and Melissa Etheridge wasn't, there are surprises. "Providing aid to New Yorkers victimized by the attack on September 11, 2001," Destiny's Child offers a "Gospel Medley" that kicks off with Beyoncé Knowles' revelatory proof that with melisma there is no beginning and no end. "Glopglopglopglopglopglopglopglopglop" is the closest I can get to the momentum she generates -- it sounds like she's gargling with olive oil. For God.

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With Mick Jagger and Keith Richards' "Salt of the Earth," the feeling is desperate in a contrived way, but still desperate; the rhythm is much richer than in the distracted version of the song the Stones left behind when they closed their 1968 "Rock and Roll Circus." Who can say that Jagger didn't mean it then, that "the faceless crowd/A swirling mass of gray and black and white" didn't look real to him, or that he doesn't mean it when he says that now the crowd does look real? To hear Richards change a line from "Let's drink to the good and the evil" to "the good not the evil" is stirring. Is it like Jagger changing "Let's spend the night together" to "Let's spend some time together" (or, as he has always insisted, "Let's spend some mmmugh together") for the Ed Sullivan Show? It's not completely different. Does that mean Jagger and Richards are practicing self-censorship? Or that as songs move through time and time works on songs, there is no reason for songs to stay the same?

3) Selby Tigers, "Charm City" (Hopeless)

You can learn a lot about a town by listening to what it doesn't show. You don't see what you hear on this disc while walking the streets in St. Paul, for example. You see the trees, the Mississippi, the houses -- you can even see the seasons change, but not a face that, like guitarist Arzu D2's voice, sends out Howard Devoto's 1977 Buzzcocks fuck you (from Manchester, the "Boredom" phrasing and snarl), Kathleen Hanna's 1991 Bikini Kill fuck you (from Olympia, the "Suck My Left One" disdain) and Penelope Houston's 1977 Avengers fuck you (from San Francisco, the "American in Me" glee). Here all that sounds as if it's in the St. Paul air. Plus you get Dave Gardner as Sammy G's bass, running rings around the songs as if he showed up from somewhere else and will be somewhere else tomorrow.

4) "Intimacy," directed by Patrice Chereau (Pathé)

In a ratty two-story apartment, you hear the Clash's "London Calling" in dank background; it feels old and undiminished. This is where a divorced man and a married woman meet once a week for anonymous sex. It's less graphic than real: grimy, clumsy, then achieving a drive it seems nothing could stop -- fucking that seems to exist outside of any movie. But as remarkable as the sex -- with an almost unbearably intense good-sex scene followed by an almost unbearably intense bad-sex scene -- is what happens when the man and the woman try to follow each other into the world at large: what happens when they come between each other. The lucidity of flesh turns into the incoherence of speech. They can't hear; you can't hear.

5) Sarah Dougher, "Keep Me," from "The Bluff" (Mr. Lady)

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Dougher's music on her own is different from the music she makes in the Portland trio Cadallaca because there's no back door in her own songs, no moment when they even suggest someone might be pulling your leg. (With Cadallaca, it's all back door -- the front door is when you figure they mean what they say.) Here the contrast between the measured pace of Dougher's singing and the get-it-over-with beat makes you want to get out of the way, but both doors are locked.

6) David Menconi, "Off the Record" (Writers Club Press/www.OffTheRecordBook.com)

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As a rise-and-fall-of-a-rock-band novel -- here about a Nirvana-like trio from Raleigh, N.C. -- "Off the Record" is distinguished by thrilling accounts of songs coming together and songs coming apart: Menconi, who writes for the News & Observer in Raleigh, can get music on the page. He can get his words off the page: A producer compares recording a note or a phrase at a time "to filming car wrecks by leaving cameras running on street corners." On signing with Gus DeGrande, the Don King of the music business: "Ken could only assume that, with Joseph Stalin and Colonel Tom Parker unavailable, Tommy had settled for the next worst thing." But then comes the first show of the band's tour behind their smash album, which the Kurt Cobain figure opens and closes with his version of the Sex Pistols' "Holiday in the Sun." Played once.

7) "Lesley Gore: It's Her Party," on "Biography" (A&E, Dec. 7)

When I tried to tell people how good this program was the day after it ran, everyone I spoke with had already seen it, sometime during the night. "I could have gone back to school," says the pre-Beatles hitmaker (four straight in the top five in 1963), "and become a lawyer or a doctor" -- that's not how the rock 'n' roll story goes, and this is a rock 'n' roll story. Quincy Jones is part of it, from "It's My Party," the No. 1 first record, to today, speaking as if this nice Jewish girl from Tenafly, N.J., is his god-daughter. The nice Jewish girl who could have become a lawyer gets cheated out of all her royalties. The girl who couldn't be stopped becomes a woman no one wants to hear. The edge in her voice -- no metaphor, but a physical grate, something that scratches at the listener -- and the real misery she put into high-school lyrics turn a teenage girl into Miss Lonelyhearts, as people with problems that cannot be solved write her for help. You can see it all in her face, now, and you break when she tells her sweetest, most hurtful story: that when her "You Don't Own Me" was used in the 1996 "First Wives Club," Gore would time her daily walks so she could pass by a theater where the movie was playing, so she could hear people singing the song as they came out.

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8) "Vanilla Sky," directed by Cameron Crowe (Dreamworks/Paramount)

What's most creepy about the scene where a hologram of John Coltrane plays at Tom Cruise's birthday party -- before the morally vacuous hero is sent on his journey of discovery -- is that you suspect whoever came up with the idea was wondering if he could afford something like that for his own birthday party. And now he can.

9) "There Is No Eye: Music for Photographs -- Recordings of Musicians Photographed by John Cohen" (Smithsonian Folkways)

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I shouldn't write about this, because I wrote the introduction to Cohen's photo collection, which carries the same title. But nobody else is. There is a lot here that shouldn't get lost -- but what, before now, was barely found is the great folklorist Alan Lomax's 1967 recording of "Love My Darling-O." Lomax's earlier field recording of the tune, as sung by a prisoner named James "Ironhead" Baker, is described as a "Negro version of a Scots ballad"; in Lomax's hands it's a dangerous song about adultery sung to the tune of "Which Side Are You On?" Lomax is partly Burl Ives here, part Jean Ritchie; his tone is plummy. But he lets the song take him, until he is as much the sort of coal miner or holiness church member he himself would record as he is a member of a collegiate folk trio with matching madras shirts. The mystery of his performance, its timelessness and its depth, is precisely its inauthenticity.

10) Overheard in a hospital waiting room (Palo Alto, Calif., Dec. 4)

"As a former Deadhead -- " "Is there really such a thing as a former Deadhead? Shouldn't it be recovering Deadhead?"


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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