Real Life Rock Top 10

Published April 22, 2002 7:00PM (EDT)

1) Elvis Costello, "When I Was Cruel" (Island)

This always surprising work reaches into the netherworlds of such long-ago Costello compositions as "I Want You," "Pills and Soap" and "Green Shirt." More than that, it conjures up the displacement -- the weird sense of privileged resentment -- of the overlooked "My Dark Life," made in 1996 for the "X Files" tribute "Songs in the Key of X" (now included on the Rhino reissue of Costello's "All This Useless Beauty," from the same year). And with Steve Nieve, keyboards, and Pete Thomas, drums, "When I Was Cruel" is a redrawn breath of Costello's 1978 voice, the thuggishness thickened in the throat like a certain thickening of the body. The tunes are rough, hard, inventive, moving too fast: "Like a Jewish figure revolving on a music box." Really? Did I just hear that coming out of the song, or did I write it in myself?

The heart of the album -- across years of experiments, Costello's best since "All This Useless Beauty," if not far better -- may be "When I Was Cruel No. 2" ("When you were cruel?" cry the fans. "When weren't you?") The slow performance has the languid feel of post-"La Dolce Vita" movies, everybody passed out in their Pucci outfits and only the singer walking through the gilded room, deciding what to take. The music is built around a tiny sample "from a '60s italian pop record by the great singer, mina," repeated every six seconds: "Oh, no," she seems to be saying. It's an indelible bit of rhythmic punctuation, and like Eminem's use of Dido's "Thank You" in his "Stan" but infinitely more subtle, a commentary on the story the singer is telling, insisting on doubt, melodrama and bad news.

2) Christian Marclay, "Guitar Drag" in "Rock My World: Recent Art and the Memory of Rock 'n' Roll" (California College of Arts & Crafts Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, San Francisco, through May 11)

It's not clear from the works on display here -- grounded in their existence as visual or mixed-media works, rather than as visual referents to musical events, and thus combining into a much more successful show than any of its many forgotten rock 'n' art precursors -- whether "The Memory of Rock 'n' Roll" means the present-day memory of a finished thing or the memory the music carries within itself. That's especially true of turntablist and collage artist Marclay's video, made in Texas in 2000: 14 minutes of an electric guitar dragged behind a pickup truck. The guitar is attached to an amp in the truck bed, so that as it's scratched and battered over rocks, brush, road and dirt it howls with noise. Shot from a comfortable distance, then very closely, then too closely, as if you're only an inch from the action, the guitar is self-evidently a solid-body version of James Byrd Jr., as he was dragged to death by Texas racists in 1998. Part of what is horrible, and fascinating, about "Guitar Drag," though, is that most viewers will know that Byrd came to pieces, and the guitar doesn't. Long before the video is over, the guitar stops emitting sound; it loses its guitarness, and even its metaphor. It turns into stuff, junk, something someone tied to a truck for lack of anything better to do with it. Still, at the end, you wonder if it might be fixed -- and, if it could be, what it would sound like. People can be killed, Marclay's piece says; rock 'n' roll may be dead, which means you can't kill it.

3) Dirty Vegas, "Days Go By" (Capitol)

A sampler for a forthcoming album makes it plain that the way this modest piece of London dance music daft punks its way out of the Mitsubishi commercial where most Americans first heard it -- with a sense that, in the right car, on the right road, with this song on the radio, you really could disappear into an eternal pop memory, shared by all -- is in the electronically distorted vocal, reaching for what's already behind it. That is, an acoustic version of the song is a complete zero.

4) Paul Butterfield Band, "An Anthology: The Elektra Years" (Elektra)

1964-71, in no hurry. With heartbreakingly beautiful photos of handsome young men.

5) Paul Butterfield with the Band, "Mystery Train," from "The Last Waltz" (Rhino reissue)

From 1976, and inside the perfect count, faster than sound.

6) John Ashcroft & the Paul Shaffer Band, "Can't Buy Me Love" ("Late Night with David Letterman," CBS, April 9)

Ken Tucker writes: "Pressed by the host to sing his biggest hit, 'Let the Eagle Soar,' the Attorney General declined. Instead, Ashcroft -- who is, says one of his aides quoted in the April 15 New Yorker, 'in a great mood all the time these days' -- used his time to chat about why he'd just arrested lawyer Lynne Stewart (Letterman maintained a patriotic silence; the audience applauded), and then got behind the keyboard to assay a stiffly-pounded instrumental version of the Beatles hit. If he'd wanted to make extra-sure he'd never achieve a rhythm that might have tempted him to dance, which he believes is against his religion, he should have covered McCartney's more recent, Super Bowl stupor-inducing 'Freedom.' Or, to be on the safe side, simply arrested Paul."

7) "Secrets of Investing 2433" (unsolicited e-mail from, April 10)

It's in the quick setup, the whiplash turnaround:

"Are you angered by the mess in the Middle East? Feel helpless?

"Since you can't change the situation, at least find out how it can change the quality of your life for the better.

"Click in the link below to quickly take a look on how turmoil in the Middle East could affect US oil prices and how you can counteract it."

(But wait -- if "you can't change the situation," how can you counteract it? Or does the "it" refer to your quality of life? And what about the grammatical impossibility of "take a look on how"? Who wrote this? And from where?)

8) "Didn't Ask to Be Born" on "This American Life" (WBEZ/NPR, March 29)

After a divorce, Debra Gwartney moves to Oregon. Her two oldest daughters, Amanda and Stephanie, 14 and 13, pull away, hard, and take a long, hard fall. "When I first started getting into the punk rock scene in Portland," Amanda says, "I got into it purely for the angry, drunk violence aspect of it. That's what really spoke to me at first." About 50 minutes later, at the close of the program, host Ira Glass read the credits, ending up with thanks for funding from various sources, and especially "from the listeners of WBEZ Chicago, WBEZ management overseen by Tobey Malatia, who explains what attracted him to National Public Radio this way," and there was a cut right back to Amanda Gwartney: "I got into it purely for the angry, drunk violence aspect of it. That's what really spoke to me at first."

9) "Bandits," directed by Barry Levinson (MGM Home Video)

The songs Jim Steinman writes may sound phony on the radio, and worse at home; in the movies they march across the screen like rock gods. That was heroically true in Walter Hill's "Streets of Fire"; it's modestly true here. You believe Cate Blanchett's housewife mouthing along to Bonnie Tyler's "Holding Out for a Hero" while whipping up an elaborate dinner for her husband to be too busy to eat. You believe her even more when she apologizes to thief-on-the-run Bruce Willis for loving Tyler's "Total Eclipse of the Heart." "It's a sappy chick song," she says. "It's not sappy," he says, and you don't know whether to believe him. The line seems like a quick way into her pants, until he tops her with an all-time sappy guy song: his "Total Eclipse of the Heart," he says, is Michael Murphey's "Wildfire" -- which, fortunately for the viewer, Blanchette is spared. You don't see Willis getting lucky with that on the soundtrack.

10) Patti Smith, "Land (1975-2002)" (Arista)

With notes by Susan Sontag. "To the conquered!" she writes. Isn't that Ralph Nader's line? And where's "Pumping (My Heart)"?

Thanks to Howard Hampton and Cecily Marcus

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.

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