Real Life Rock Top 10

By Greil Marcus
Published April 8, 2002 9:00PM (EDT)

1) Cassandra Wilson, "Belly of the Sun" (Blue Note)

The great jazz singer recorded this album in a converted shack in her native Mississippi, not, as music business rumors have it, in a grave where a blues singer whose name no one can remember was buried before he was temporarily exhumed to allow for Wilson's makeshift studio. The extraordinary range of material includes, along with Wilson's own compositions, covers of songs made famous by the Band, Fred McDowell, Glen Campbell, James Taylor, Bob Dylan and Robert Johnson. Wilson's way with these numbers recalls nothing so much as Narcissus, gazing into a pool of water and falling in love with his reflection, and the result is the same: falling in.

2) Heather Nova, "South" (V2)

Seven years on from the still unsettlingly frank "Walk This World," there's a breathy shiver in Nova's voice, which otherwise is smooth enough for TV commercials, that shoots her into realms of uncertainty. The story she acts out is that of a woman who has constructed a life of propriety solely to allow her fantasies to take on flesh. As you pass her on the street, she knows you can't tell. Electricity comes off of her in waves, but you can't be sure she's where it's coming from. So you play the album again.

3) Puta-pons, "Return to Zero" (Vinahyde)

By way of Chicago in 2000, return to Liliput, anyway -- which in punk terms (Zurich noise, 1978-83) may amount to the same thing. Except on the stunningly fast ride of Shelly Kurzynski Villaseñor's guitar solo in "(You Need a) Shot in the Arm," which delivers it.

4/5) Eva Hesse, "Untitled 1970," in "Eva Hesse" (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, through May 19; Weisbaden Museum, Germany, June 15-Oct. 13) and "Eva Hesse," edited by Elisabeth Sussman (SFMOMA/Yale)

Also known as "Seven Poles," this work, coming at the very end of the exhibition, and of the German-American sculptor's short life, speaks in many voices. Seeming to bulge and swell, the yellowed, L-shaped wire-polyethylene-fiberglass constructions vary in height from 6 to 9 feet; they might have been inspired, Robin Clark writes in the catalog, by Olmec figurines or Jackson Pollock's 1952 "Blue Poles." As Elisabeth Sussman arranged it for the exhibition, working from photos of the piece in Hesse's studio, but not academically, allowing the poles their implicit freedom to move, the feet of most of the poles turn toward each other, and the thing looks like a version of Stonehenge, made out of Martians. Even as it played with eternity, it was laughing at itself.

6) Dickel Brothers, "The Recordings of the Dickel Brothers Volume Two" (Empty)

Fans of the "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack and its "Down From the Mountain" live follow-up can test their affection for old-time Appalachian string band music played by new-time people against this quintet -- who, unlike some of the Brother/Mountain performers, honor tradition and laugh off piety with equal rigorousness. Performances of songs recorded in the 1920s and '30s by such masters as Charlie Poole, Riley Puckett, Gid Tanner & the Skillet Lickers, Dick Justice and Earl Johnson's Clodhoppers are reminiscent of the early versions, but not exactly remakes. They seem to come from somewhere else, a place of greater delight and less guilt: present-day Portland, Ore., or at least Portland a couple of years ago, when this record was made. The dead-cat-swinging invention of the sound is caught best in the group's own liner notes, in their Story of the Band, which is certainly better than the Ramones': "It's been three and a half years since Matt and Clancy Dickel realized they were brothers. They wagered there were probably more knowing how Pa Dickel was such a, how shall we say it, free spirit. It wasn't long before they unearthed three more just from looking up Dickel in the phone book ... "

7) Van Morrison, "He Ain't Give You None," "Linden Arlen Stole the Highlights" and "Snow in San Anselmo" (KALX-FM, Berkeley, Calif., March 11)

The nearly hysterical blues monologue from "Blowin' Your Mind!" (1967) yielded to the painfully hesitating piano opening of the tune from "Veedon Fleece" (1974), which faded into the inconclusive weather report from "Hard Nose the Highway" (1973), raising the question of whether or not Morrison had, in fact, just died -- why else does anyone get three songs played in a row these days? I remembered the writer Jonathan Cott calling the beginning of "Linden Arden" a "prayer"; I realized that for all the times I'd played the cut in my own house, wanting nothing more than to get lost in its forest, I'd never listened to the words, which in a car came across directly. The story was about men sent to kill the man the song was named for, and how he killed them instead: At the foot of all the pre-Raphaelite sunbeams in the music, blood on the floor. I also realized how little distance separated "Linden Arden" from Elton John's "Your Song."

8) Neil Young, "Are You Passionate?" (Reprise)

Clink, clink, clink -- it might happen between Young and Booker T. Jones and Duck Dunn of Booker T. & the MGs onstage, but not in the studio. No wonder Crazy Horse had to come in and juice this long afternoon nap with nine minutes of "Goin' Home," by-the-numbers but still bottomless grunge. The Flight 93 song, "Let's Roll," starts off with chills down your spine, but they come from what you carry within yourself, not what the singer's giving out. This is no "Ohio"; by the second verse your mind is already wandering.

9) Rocket From the Tombs, "The Day the Earth Met Rocket From the Tombs: Live From Punk Ground Zero, Cleveland 1975" (Smog Veil/Hearthan)

Not to be confused with Rocket From the Crypt -- not in this life, not in the next -- the band that became Pere Ubu puts down demos, gets up on stage, throws what they have at the crowd to see if any of it will come back. This is part of the history of guitarist Peter Laughner, who died in 1977 at 24, used up by himself, a shocking legacy behind him: sounds no one else would ever make, from the jittery lead to "What Love Is" to the deliberate, suicidal cadence of "Ain't It Fun." Here you can't tell if Laughner's sardonic attitude is covering up the pain or if the pain is just there to root the attitude -- until he underlines breaks between verses with what can seem like four versions of himself, too many guitars speaking different languages and no translator needed, and you don't care. He hammers away at a fuzztone, again and again, convincing you he's said what he has to say, that he's used up the song. Then he steps into a stately, Clapton-like solo, and you can see him holding his instrument the way Errol Flynn held a sword.

10) Bruce Conner, "2002 B.C." (Available through the Michael Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles, (323) 658-8088, with a $50 donation to the UCLA Food Bank, the Los Angeles Free Clinic or the Venice Family Clinic)

This DVD collects eight 16mm films made by the San Francisco experimental artist, including the 1966 "Breakaway" with Toni Basil and the 1981 "Mea Culpa" for David Byrne and Brian Eno's "My Life in the Bush of Ghosts." But the time-stoppers are in the 1967 "White Rose," a seven-minute mystical documentary, scored to Miles Davis' "Sketches of Spain," about the removal of Jay DeFeo's huge painting "The Rose" from her San Francisco apartment, and two found-footage pieces on Conner's Kansas 1940s childhood, the 1976 "Take the 5:10 to Dreamland" and the 1977 "Valse Triste." From inside a high school science film, or a training film for animal husbandry majors, or a Chamber of Commerce promotional film, you see another movie beginning: David Lynch's "Blue Velvet." At the least, this is surely where Lynch saw it beginning. And that, for the few minutes these films last, is just the beginning.

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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