Real Life Rock Top 10

Britney Spears rockets through "SNL," U2's the Edge sings for Stephen Hawking and Clinton makes a connection between Republicans and Islamicists.

By Greil Marcus
Published February 11, 2002 8:00PM (EST)

1) A.J. Albany, "Low Down," in Tin House (Winter 2002)

The music issue of this adventurous literary magazine leads off with the extraordinary memoir of a now 40-year-old woman who grew up as the daughter of Los Angeles jazz pianist Joe Albany ("Albany's jumbled, idiosyncratic sense of time is almost all his own, and his solos are cliff-hanger explorations," Richard Cook and Brian Morton write in "The Penguin Guide to Jazz") and Sheila Boucher ("She was responsible for some of the best parts in Howl, something Ginsberg confessed to my father years after the fact," Albany writes). Both were heroin addicts; Boucher was a prostitute who walked out when Albany was 6. "They were both bright and talented," Albany says in her first published writing, "but always competing to see who could fall the furthest and the fastest down the ladder to hell. I have a photo of myself at one and a half years old, with my very pregnant mother. When I asked her about the fate of the baby, she was dismissive and said that had definitely been some john's kid, who she ended up selling to a wealthy doctor and his wife in Bel Air." Out of this Albany recreates a landscape, that of her childhood and of the smalltime L.A. jazz junkie, where misery is a faraway sound floating above a voice speaking in tones of affection, terror, rage, love and, most of all, a hipster's defiance.

Not a word is pushed. Albany goes back to the fleabag hotel where she and her father lived when she was 7. Her best friend there was a 9-year-old named LaPrez. "One night LaPrez came to our room and asked my dad if he could give him some help with his mother. When he opened the door to the room, she was sitting straight up in her Murphy bed, eyes wide and staring at us, scarf still tied around her arm. She was blue, dead at least an hour. In the hotel lobby, there was a TV set that three of the resident rummies had total control over, twenty-four hours a day; usually horse races or cop shows were on, but for this one fucked-up night, they sat us down on their smelly old-man sofa and let us watch cartoons." Throughout, Albany pins her parents' crimes against her; when she forgives them, one by one -- or, really, brushes them off, with a gesture that seems to freeze in the air -- you believe her.

Nothing else in Tin House touches Albany, though in the course of a piece on Brian Wilson built around the l966 John Frankenheimer movie "Seconds" Andrew Hultkrans comes up with one of the two or three best lines in the history of rock criticism ("Nietzsche would have hated Pet Sounds") and Robert Politio's proposal that Bob Dylan's shadow career on bootlegs is richer than his official career on Columbia albums needs at least 100 pages, not 10 (the idea that the traditional ballads collected on the bootleg "Golden Vanity" might be more truly Dylan's music than, say, "Memphis Blues Again" is intriguing, but would anyone seek out Dylan's bottomless versions of "When First Unto This Country" or "Trail of the Buffalo" without having heard "Memphis Blues Again" first?). More characteristic are Shusha Guppy's deadly "La Chanson Frangaise" and Lawrence Joseph's "The Music Is: The Deep Roots of Detroit R&B," an unbelievably pedestrian essay that only occasionally rises to the level of soppiness. But unless Amy Jo Albany writes a book this is the only place you can hear her.

2) Britney Spears on "Saturday Night Live" (NBC, Feb. 2)

In her second turn as host she was smart, funny, shameless and fast -- a step ahead of anyone around her. Playing a Barbie daughter, the latest third of Gemini's Twin or a doper Hampshire College student who can hold smoke in her lungs for six and a half minutes, she was closer to Jean Harlow or Uma Thurman than the body-snatched performer the world has grown to love and fear; as her own musical guest her IQ seemed to drop 100 points as soon as she opened her mouth to sing.

3) Cat Power, "Come on in My Kitchen," on Sonic Youth curated "All Tomorrow's Parties 1.1" (ATP)

The Robert Johnson composition -- from 1936, not 1932, as it says here -- is one of the most delicate and unusual of all country blues pieces, and performers take it up at their peril ("The Best of Johnny Winter" includes a particularly ham-handed example from 1973). Chan Marshall sucks the song into her own drifting, solipsistic notion of the blues, and the tune emerges stripped of any association with the past, sounding more like a white, middle-class young woman embellishing her troubles in a very good writers-workshop story story than a story once told by an itinerant young black man. You can hear that as a travesty, or you can just get lost.

4) Katha Pollitt, "$hotgun Weddings," The Nation (Feb. 4)

After considering federal and state projects to push poor women with children into marriage -- everything from $100 a month welfare bonuses to propaganda campaigns to "huge funding of faith-based marriage preparation courses" to "fatherhood intervention programs" -- the colmnist and divorced single mother asks herself what it would take for her "to marry against my own inclination in order to make America great again." Answer: "If the government brings Otis Redding back to life and books him to sing at my wedding, I will marry the Devil himself. And if the Devil is unavailable, my ex-husband says he's ready."

5) North Mississippi Allstars, "51 Phantom" (Tone-Cool)

On the rough blues trio's debut album "Shake Hands With Shorty" there was casual proof that a hundred years had not begun to exhaust "Casey Jones," but here old-time seems to mean the '60s. The cover shows a Highway 51 sign, but from the embarrassingly poor lurch into the Allman Brothers' "Blue Sky" in "Lord Have Mercy" to the cover-band Hendrixisms of "Circle in the Sky," this band is running on fumes.

6) Never Mind Bono at the World Economic Forum in New York, Here's the Edge at "The Future of Theoretical Physics and Cosmology" in Cambridge (Jan. 11)

Real Life Rock science correspondent Steve Weinstein: "The Edge was seen chatting with astrophysicist Sir Martin Rees following Rees's talk at the recent 60th birthday party for Stephen Hawking at Cambridge University. Hawking is known as the Keith Richards of theoretical physicists, and indeed remarked to one bystander that despite his recent brush with death while speeding in his new wheelchair, he 'wasn't lookin too good but [he] was feelin' real well.'

"The Edge has recently been collaborating with Hawking on a bold new idea intended to make sense of the ill-defined Euclidean path integral that plays a central role in Hawking's 'no-boundary' proposal for the initial state of the universe. Later in the evening, the U2 guitarist was spotted with cosmologist Neil Turok in the VIP 'behind Hawking' area, with a rare view of the screen on which Hawking's communications appear. The Edge reportedly needled Turok for stealing U2's 'Unforgettable Fire'' title for his recent paper with Khoury, Ovurt and Steinhardt on what they call 'The Ekpyrotic ("out of fire") Universe.'

"The evening concluded with a song to Hawking written by general relativity expert Bernard Carr, and performed by Hawking's students and The Edge (vocals, not guitar). This was the high point of the evening to that moment, but it was eclipsed by the appearance of a Marilyn Monroe impersonator and then the Can-Can Dancers, six women in 'Moulin Rouge' costumes displaying what some characterized as 'a lot of leg.'"

7) Jim Roll, "Inhabiting the Ball" (Telegraph Company)

With an album sponsored by the literary journal McSweeney's, the Ann Arbor singer offers educated folk music. The music is precious before it's anything else: the whole affair exists in quotation marks. The gimmick is that eight of 13 songs feature lyrics by novelists Rick Moody or Denis Johnson, the most interesting being Johnson's version of a 19th century murder ballad, "Handsome Daniel." I've never heard Johnson sing, but I have seen him with a knife sticking out of his head in the movie of his "Jesus' Son," and I'd bet he could put more into this song than the person who's singing it now.

8) Bill Keller, "Enron for Dummies," New York Times (Jan. 26)

"How cool was Enron? About two years ago a Fortune writer likened utilities and energy companies to 'a bunch of old fogies and their wives shuffling around halfheartedly to the not-so-stirring sounds of Guy Lombardo ... Suddenly young Elvis comes crashing through the skylight.' In this metaphor, the guy in the skin-tight-gold-lamé suit was Enron. The writer left out the part where Elvis eats himself to death."

9) Bill Clinton, "Globalization," Zellerbach Hall, University of California at Berkeley (Jan. 29)

The opening theme music was about 30 seconds of James Taylor crooning Stephen Foster's "Hard Times," but the real music came from the speaker. There was a slide in Clinton's talk that is never present when he's using a teleprompter; here, for a well-organized, detailed, quietly passionate speech, which no doubt he's given many times but seemed made up on the spot, he wasn't even using notes. The rhythm was that of a man at ease with himself and not at ease with the world, which made it possible for him, unlike his replacement, to speak as if the world was real, and not a construct of publicity. "You've seen him on television, you know what he thinks, he's a serious person," Clinton said of Osama bin Laden. "'Don't tell me about my common humanity, the only thing that matters about me is my difference,'" he said, characterizing bin Laden and others who work from a position of absolute truth.

It was only a small step from one tribe of true believers to another: "I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't experienced it," Clinton said of the refusal of the Republican Party, from Jan. 20, 1993 to Jan. 20, 2001, to accept the legitimacy of his presidency. The parallel drawn between Republicans and Islamicists -- between those who know the world is theirs by right, and not yours -- was unspoken, and unmissable.

10) Mary Chapin Carpenter and Anne Lamott, Royce Hall, UCLA (Jan. 26)

Both gave the adoring audience "the same glow of buoyant optimism," Marc Weingarten reported in the Los Angeles Times. "However," as Howard Hampton noted, "the DJ Shadow/Philip Roth show was postponed on account of darkness."

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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