Real Life Rock Top 10

Published February 3, 2003 8:00PM (EST)

1) White Stripes, "Elephant" (V2/Third Man)

Before my turntable broke (the vinyl version was all I could find), this sounded like the Detroit guitar-and-drums combo's "Rubber Soul" at least as much as Pussy Galore's "Pretty Fuck Look."

2) "The Murder of Emmett Till," directed by Stanley Nelson, written by Marcia A. Smith and narrated by Andre Braugher (PBS, Jan. 20)

This documentary on the 1955 lynching of a black 14-year-old Chicago boy near Money, Miss., opened with a lovely shot of the meandering Tallahatchie River -- where Till's body, weighted down with a cotton gin fan, was dumped after he was killed for supposedly whistling at a white man's wife. Later there were images of a bridge, and I couldn't help thinking of Bobbie Gentry's 1967 "Ode to Billy Joe." A girl tells the story of how her boyfriend, Billie Joe McAllister, jumped to his death from the Tallahatchie Bridge, into the Tallahatchie River -- and how, her family has heard, she and Billie Joe were seen throwing something from the same bridge, into the same river, just days before. What was it? Bobbie Gentry has never said, but isn't there a memory of Emmett Till's murder in whatever it was?

3) Lucinda Williams, "World Without Tears" (Lost Highway)

The first song, the modestly titled "Fruits of My Labors," begins with a shimmering, subtle progression played on a Leslie guitar. Then comes a slurred, dragging, unbelievably affected voice to tell you how deeply its owner feels: so deeply barely a single word is actually formed. Every little touch -- brushes on the snare, say -- is mixed up high, to let you know how carefully everything has been done. There is irony in "American Dream": Despite the title, the song is about how bad things (poverty, drug addiction -- because of Vietnam -- and black lung) take place in America. But the singer will press on. "Bay swee bay 'f's alla same," Williams promises, "tay th' glore en day ov' the fame." Not due til April, but why wait? It's not getting any better.

4) Robin Williams, "Live 2002" (Columbia)

Nowhere near the action of last year's HBO roller coaster, but it only takes him a few minutes to hit his stride -- with the tragedy of the Supreme Court's striking down the execution of the retarded. Here and there, glimpses of a man whose no could do more to change the country than any words from Tom Daschle, Joe Lieberman, Nancy Pelosi or John Edwards.

5) "Rolling Stones Live" (HBO, Jan. 19)

Mojave Sam (Howard Hampton) writes: "They've been worse. I thought of William Cody and his Wild West Show, fancifully reenacting Little Big Horn. Buffalo Bill preening in time-honorific Custer'd fashion, Sitting Bull on rhythm guitar (sporting traditional headdress, but what happened to his voice -- is it changing back?), Annie Oakley guesting on 'Honky Tonk Women,' etc.; I believe 'Can't You Hear Me Knocking' was their tribute to the building of the transcontinental railroad, in real time. In any case, they gave the people what they wanted, and no one was any the wiser." Except that on "Gimmie Shelter," backing singer Lisa Fisher, otherwise as florid as Patti LaBelle, looked Mick Jagger in the face and opened up the doors of the song.

6) Ann Charters, editor, "The Portable Sixties Reader" (Penguin)

At more than 600 pages, a definitively clueless anthology ending with bad poems about the deaths of the decade's top 10 dead people. Count down! Ten! Hemingway! Nine! Marilyn Monroe! Eight! John F. Kennedy! "When I woke up they'd stole a man away," says Eric von Schmidt -- hey, who's "they"? As Donovan used to say, "I really want to know," but never mind, Seven! Sylvia Plath! Six! Malcolm X! Five! Martin Luther King Jr.! Four! Robert F. Kennedy! Three! Neal Cassady! Two! Janis Joplin! And topping the chart: Jack Kerouac! With a straight obit from the Harvard Crimson! Solid! But Janis died in 1970. If she can get in, why not Jimi Hendrix? Captain Beefheart played a soprano sax solo for him the day his death was announced that said more than anything here.

7) Bonnie "Prince" Billy, "Master and Everyone" (Drag City)

In his current incarnation as Billy, Will Oldham looks like Nietzsche on the cover of this disc, and that's as far as it goes. What used to be Southern Gothic is now Southern hospitality -- depressed, but very polite.

8) Pretty Girls Make Graves, "Pretty Girls Make Graves" (Dim Mak)

Hot punk from Seattle -- and with every move in place, dispiritingly third-hand.

9) "Rude Mechanicals Financial Advisors answer the most frequently asked questions of investors and patrons alike," fund-raising letter (

After advising "FULL DIVESTMENT" from the stock market and the bond market ("As long as Pierce Brosnan is cast as James Bond in the 007 movies WE CANNOT RECOMMEND ANY BONDS whatsoever. Madonna is doing the theme song for the new movie. Have some self-respect") and answering "Is ART really a sound investment?" with a definite yes ("If you had given Emily Dickinson five dollars in 1864, your investment would now be worth more than 'this new Value in the Soul -- Supremest Earthly Sum'"), the Austin theater group concludes with a set of irrefutable graphs: "Verizon stock value over the past five years vs. Patrons of Rude Mechs Spiritual Satisfaction," "ImClone stock value over the past five years vs. Rude Mechs Artistic Growth," "WorldCom Market Valuation vs. Increase in Overall Artistic Fulfillment brought to Patrons of Rude Mechs," and, bringing it all back home:

10) Helen Thomas at White House press briefing, Jan. 6

In his 1972 study "The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution," Christopher Hill, poring through the annals of the 16th and 17th centuries, tried to reconstruct the beginnings of a heresy that by the 1650s was making itself known across England. There would be a document noting that a certain craftsperson had questioned the divinity of Jesus; 20 years later there would be a record of a woman denying the need to work. Across a page or so, a dozen examples of seemingly stray people claiming that all true spirits were god and that all authority was false took on a huge charge, less from the power of any given fragment than from one's sense of how much was missing between the fragments. Reading the transcript of the exchange between 82-year-old Hearst News Services columnist Helen Thomas and White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, what was so shocking was not what she said, but, given the socialization produced by the news writing and even editorial writing in the likes of the New York Times, how bizarre it seemed -- because in the context of contemporary political discourse Thomas spoke not as a reporter but precisely as a heretic:

Thomas: At the earlier briefing, Ari, you said that the president deplored the taking of innocent lives. Does that apply to all innocent lives in the world? And I have a follow-up.

Fleischer: I refer specifically to a horrible terrorist attack on Tel Aviv that killed scores and wounded hundreds. And the president, as he said in his statement yesterday, deplores in the strongest terms the taking of those lives and the wounding of those people, innocents in Israel.

T: My follow-up is, why does he want to drop bombs on innocent Iraqis?

F: Helen, the question is how to protect Americans, and our allies and friends --

Thomas and Fleischer went back and forth in several more exchanges. The president is only interested in defense against Iraq, Fleischer reiterated.

T: And he thinks they are a threat to us?

F: There is no question that the president thinks that Iraq is a threat to the United States.

T: The Iraqi people?

F: The Iraqi people are represented by their government. If there was regime change, the Iraqi --

T: So they will be vulnerable?

F: Actually, the president has made it very clear that he has no dispute with the people of Iraq. That's why the American policy remains a policy of regime change. There is no question the people of Iraq --

T: That's a decision for them to make, isn't it? It's their country.

F: Helen, if you think the people of Iraq are in a position to dictate who their dictator is, I don't think that has been what history has shown.

T: I think many countries' people don't have the decision -- including us.

Thanks to Chris Walters.

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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