Real Life Rock Top 10

By Greil Marcus
Published June 10, 2002 8:00PM (EDT)

1) Elvis Costello & the Impostors, Berkeley Community Theatre (May 23)

He played for well over two hours, and he needed the time. With original London Attractions Steve Nieve on keyboards and Pete Thomas on drums, plus Davey Faragher, a bassist from California, Costello looked sleek and ready, his voice was seamless and for more than half of the show little came across whole. "When I Was Cruel No. 2" and "Dust," terrific songs from last month's album, "When I Was Cruel," lost shape to visual fussiness, missed connections between musicians, lazy rhythms. New tunes "15 Petals" and "Spooky Girlfriend," along with "Man Out of Time," "Clowntime Is Over," "High Fidelity" and others of the older songs Costello chose lack shape as compositions, and the quartet had none to give them. Endings were often pointlessly extended with parodic extravaganzas; Costello played to the crowd, asking for singalongs or eliciting the slow, barely-on-the-beat clapping that has as much to do with music or performance as the Wave does with baseball. ("I liked it better when he was an angry young man and acted as if the audience wasn't there," said a friend.) As if searching for the spines of the songs, Costello's tone turned into a bleat.

With three sets of encores, everything changed. There was no "Alison," no "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes." There was, first, the new "Alibi." It went on and on, rebuilt from the ground up with radical shifts in pacing, silences yielding to shattered guitar notes, pantomime as words dropped out of the song or reached their limits. "Stop me if you've heard this but," Costello added to the recorded version, like a sadist who is also a flagellant: "Papa's got a brand new/ Alibi." That last word began to work as the clincher of any argument, a one-word summation of the human condition. As the song stretched, so did the idea.

"Lipstick Vogue" has been a heart attack on stage since 1978, but the lines "Sometimes I almost feel/ Just like a human being" always stop the song dead even as it rushes on. Regardless of his demeanor, weight, hair, Costello has always been able to put that version of the human condition -- feeling almost human -- across, and its sulfurous residue carried over into the new "Episode of Blonde," made into a stand-up comedy act, the sung parts breaking off for something close to a Lord Buckley routine with vaudeville moves and Nieve, his hair flying in full Professor mode, playing his theremin like a wah-wah pedal. Again, the performance seemed impossibly long. Not too long, but as if the recorded version was merely a template of what the song could be onstage, where there was room to move, to disappear, to come back as somebody else.

The finale was "I Want You," first heard on the 1986 album "Blood & Chocolate." It's Costello's epic, a template for so much more, including the best songs on "When I Was Cruel," but more than anything an irreducible thing in itself. The piece is all darkness, threat, death and punishment -- suddenly, that was the human condition, and no breath of any other air could make it into the music, or out of it. Now the silences in the performance were black holes, sucking in any intimations of only-kidding, of take-it-back. The jagged guitar notes that figured in "Alibi" were bigger, more unstable -- huge discords calling up Neil Young's improvised soundtrack to Jim Jarmusch's "Dead Man." I cannot get to the bottom of this, Costello seemed to say with every two lines, but will not stop trying.

There was no bottom; there simply came a point where, for the moment, there was nothing more to say. Filing out music: Roy Orbison, "It's Over."

2-4), DJ Shadow, "Live From Austin" (Mothers Milk, 1999), DJ Shadow with Cut Chemist, "Brainfreeze" aka "Dance the Slurp" (Pirateria Fonografica, 1999) and "The Private Press" (MCA)

"Live From Austin": scratching. "Brainfreeze": humor. "The Private Press": vision, by means of a ready-made remake of "Dead Man's Curve."

5) Bryan Ferry, "Frantic" (Virgin)

At first the latest solo album by the great fan-as-artist feels tired. By comparison to Ferry's outrageous version of Bob Dylan's "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" on "These Foolish Things" in 1973 (an album that also featured a hysterical take on Lesley Gore's "It's My Party"), new covers of Dylan's too-familiar "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" and "Don't Think Twice" seem pro forma. It can take a while to catch how noisy, how vulgar the strings and harmonica make "Baby Blue," or how cutting the instrumentation on "Don't Think Twice" to piano reaffirms what the song really is: a melody. Then a few seconds of "Ja Nun Hons Pris," credited to Richard the Lion-Hearted and sung by soprano Mary Nelson, opens onto the gorgeous "A Fool for Love," where Ferry takes the king's cloak and nobody cares. After which "One Way Love" -- a melancholy, utterly obscure single by the Drifters in 1964, slightly more prominent that same year in a bouncy version by the Paris ye-ye singer Ria Bartok -- is the sun coming out.

6) Kills, "Black Rooster" (Dim Mak EP)

Press release: "A smoking 23 yr old American girl, a 'don't look at me' London boy with a thousand yard stare" -- and both of them with a thousand pounds of attitude worn like a slip. You might hear the Kinks or the Rolling Stones from 1964, Blondie's "Rip Her to Shreds" from 1976, X's "Los Angeles" from 1980, but that doesn't mean the Kills duo have heard them; they sound as if they're starting from scratch. There's a fierce guitar undertow on "Cat Claw" and a crunch in the male-female singing on "Dropout Boogie." Not to mention "Gum," a monologue.

7/8) "CQ," written and directed by Roman Coppola (MGM and Outrider), plus coming attraction

The best thing about this preening vanity project was a trailer for Jonathan Parker's "Bartleby," starring Crispin Glover. From "Back to the Future" to "River's Edge" to "Dead Man," Glover developed a persona of passive loathing at once so weird and recognizable it verged on obscenity -- but here he seems to have put everything he has into the barely different ways his precise, bland office worker can quietly deliver a five-word anarchist manifesto, "I would prefer not to." Too bad Herman Melville isn't around to hear him.

9) American Hi-Fi, Berkeley Community Theatre (May 23)

"Robert Johnson sang primitive blues about women," the producer Frank Driggs wrote in 1961 in the notes to "Robert Johnson: King of the Delta Blues Singers," and the manner in which the words fell together made them toll like a bell. Opening for Elvis Costello, this self-proclaimed "rock 'n' roll band from Boston!" sang whiny songs about girlfriends.

10) Joel Selvin, "A Life With Rock Royalty," obituary for Sharon Sheeley (San Francisco Chronicle, June 2)

Sheeley wrote Ricky Nelson's 1958 "Poor Little Fool," his first No. 1 hit; with Jackie DeShannon she wrote the Fleetwoods' delicate 1961 "(He's) The Great Impostor." She died May 18 at 62. In 1959 she wrote "Somethin' Else" with Eddie Cochran, the most handsome of early white rock 'n' roll singers and, according to Nik Cohn's founding pop history "Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom," the most perfect. Sheeley was also Cochran's fiancé, injured in England along with Gene Vincent in the 1959 car crash that took Cochran's life. "Although Sheeley lived 42 more years, she never got over Eddie," writes Selvin, author of "Ricky Nelson: Idol for a Generation" and the unforgiving "Summer of Love." "She was never able to stay with another man for long. Cochran loomed over her life. She will be buried in a plot next to him."

"'Poor Little Fool' provided a modest annual stipend," Selvin concluded. "She lived quietly with her grown son, across the street from her sister. She entertained visitors with hilarious anecdotes and reminiscences, peppered with sly humor and innuendo. Sheeley was the original Riot Grrrl, even if those in her debt never knew. One young music business secretary sighed to Sheeley about Cochran's good looks a few years ago. 'Honey,' Sheeley said, 'you should have seen him when he was breathing.'"

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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