Real Life Rock Top 10 (9/9/2002)

1. Scott Ostler, “Insincerity taken to new levels” (San Francisco Chronicle, Aug. 31)
On baseball’s new labor-management agreement: “At the news conference, ever-hip Commissioner Bud Selig quoted the Beatles, saying of the negotiations, ‘It’s been a Long and Winding Road.’ And as the Beatles noted in that song, ‘We’ve seen this road before.’“Unfortunately, Selig did not quote from the Beatles’ tune ‘Money (That’s What I Want).'”

2. Holiday Inn School of Hospitality and Resort Management, University of Memphis (Aug. 16)
A blond woman approached the desk at this training hotel: “I’m checking out: Linda Evans.” “Linda Evans?” said a man standing next to her. “From Dynasty?” “A long time ago,” she said. “But I killed all my husbands.”

3. Here Is New York: A Democracy of Photographs, conceived and organized by Alice Rose George, Gilles Peress, Michael Shulan & Charles Traub (Scalo Books)
A compendium of more than 1,000 pictures drawn from the evolving downtown exhibition that, beginning about a week after last year’s terrorist attacks, opened itself to photographs from professionals and amateurs, until it seemed everyone in New York was taking part. Some 5,000 photos were scanned, filed and printed, and, within the limits of the makeshift space at 116 Prince Street, hung like laundry.

There is no telling what image will break down all defenses, erase the year’s time, open the hole in the ground and in your memory. For one person I know it was the man in a T-shirt that read “I’VE GONE TO PIECES,” the splayed fingers of his right hand over his face. For me it was a young woman holding an American flag during a vigil or memorial gathering in Washington Square Park: the flag as if billowed by no more than the expression on her face, some combination of stoicism, sadness and an absolute inability to read the future.

4. Sleater-Kinney, One Beat (Kill Rock Stars)
“Turn on the TV,” the second cut, “Far Away,” begins, and the singer does: From Portland, Oregon, she sees the World Trade Center, and then what’s left of it: nothing. But this opening moment doesn’t carry over into the rest of the song, and guitarist Corin Tucker’s high, hard shouts miss the moment even as she calls it up. Across the rest of the album, Tucker, guitarist Carrie Brownstein and drummer Janet Weiss seem to miss their targets, even if their targets are each other. What’s missing is a certain spark, that dimension of expectation and desire that previously made so many songs outrun themselves. Except perhaps in the rolling and rumbling choruses of “Light-Rail Coyote,” here the band is in front of its songs, looking back at finished things. Years after they appeared, “Dig Me Out,” “Little Mouth,” “Jenny” and “Was It a Lie?” are not finished things.

5. Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band, Compaq Center (San Jose, Aug. 27)
One of Springsteen’s talents is in bringing his biggest numbers down to earth. He opened with “The Rising,” which immediately set the show on a high plateau, looking down on the ruins of the World Trade Center, from the perspective of what writer Homi Bhabha named “the Unbuilt.” Much later, Springsteen introduced the band. “The Goddess of Love,” he said of his wife, singer and guitarist Patti Scialfa. “I like to call her mental Viagra. Come on up for the risin’,” he said.

6. Peter Wolf, “Growin’ Pain,” from “Sleepless” (Artemis)
Peter Wolf has been around long enough to show up in Robert Greenfield’s 1982 novel Temple, drunkenly fronting the J. Geils Band in a Cambridge club in the late ’60s and explaining the meaning of “L7″ to the hero. With J. Geils he went from blues and soul to the ’80s hits “Love Stinks” and “Centerfold”; on his own he married Faye Dunaway and made albums. None came close to the shuddering blasts of cold air that stormed all over the J. Geils Band’s 1970 cover of John Lee Hooker’s “Serve You Right to Suffer”–or the smile in “Love Stinks.”

“Growin’ Pain” has every year of that story in it–that story as ordinary life unmarked by stardom. It moves on a sharp, bouncing beat, but lost bets and blown chances pull against it, filling the tune with the likelihood that the dead ends of the lives chronicled in the song will never open onto any better road. Wolf gets stronger as the number goes on, but even as the sound rises he seems to sing more quietly, as if to offer old friends a respect the world they live in denies them.

Sleepless will get momentary attention for Mick Jagger’s “You’re So Vain”-style vocal on the banal “Nothing But the Wheel” or Steve Earle’s cowboy shtick on “Some Things You Don’t Want to Know.” But this song may keep coming back.

7. Robert Greenfield, S.T.P.–A Journey Through America with the Rolling Stones (Da Capo)
A reissue of the 1974 account of the Rolling Stones’ 1972 return to the U.S.A.–with tickets, at least in San Francisco, to make amends for the 1969 horror at Altamont, a flat $5. This is the same tour followed in Robert Frank’s film Cocksucker Blues–named for the song Mick Jagger sings as the picture begins–and Greenfield’s book exposed how much of the movie was staged, and how much of the tour, crowded with celebrities from Truman Capote to Marisa Berenson to Dick Cavett and other rock gods, was not. Again and again the book took its readers into dark rooms, then woke them up in time to make the bus–or would have, had the book had readers. In 1974 it was, as Greenfield notes in a new foreword, “the very first full-length book ever published about the rock ‘n’ roll tour. Those times being what they were, though, no one expected those who loved the Stones to rush out and buy this volume. They were too busy getting high and listening to Exile on Main Street. Which is why only fifteen hundred hardback copies and thirty-five hundred trade paperback copies were ever printed.” It entered oblivion as a classic.

Today the book is confusing. What Greenfield describes is happening so fast no sense of in-the-past holds; the action seems to be taking place in the present moment. And then, on the last page, with the tour running into the next year: “Michael Jagger had his whole life in front of him, with several already left behind. The Stones would go on as long as he needed them to… For Jagger was a young man, just thirty.” At this point the book falls on the reader like a building, carrying all the weight of what the Rolling Stones so purposefully accomplished in the few years before Greenfield drew what he seems to have suspected might not have been an arbitrary line, along with the weight of what they didn’t bother to do in the many years that, now, bring us to the band’s latest swing through the economy.

8. Dixie Chicks, Home (Open Wide/Columbia)
With all the publicity about rebel girls with big smiles taking on the Nashville machine and taking country music back where it belongs, you expect more than… dobros.

9. Hall Johnson Choir, “St. Louis Blues,” from Walk Right In–When the Sun Goes Down: The Secret History of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Vol. 1 (Bluebird/RCA)
There are endless riches in archivist Colin Escott’s new excavations in the Bluebird and RCA vaults, and imaginative, non-canonical programming: here the classically trained baritone Paul Robeson’s 1926 “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” the Carter Family’s 1930 “Worried Man Blues” and Mississippi blues singer Robert Petway’s unnervingly simple 1941 “Catfish Blues” seem to come from the same radio station. But there is an odd displacement in “St. Louis Blues,” the last cut: 20 professional male and female voices with a repertoire of spirituals recording in Hollywood in 1939 and here led by an exuberant woman singing as if from the soundtrack of Vincente Minnelli’s 1943 all-black musical Cabin in the Sky. It might take only a moment to realize that Ike and Tina Turner’s 1966 “River Deep, Mountain High” is a rewrite, and that its producer and co-writer Phil Spector had to have heard the Hall Robinson Choir–and that when he took Ike and Tina into Gold Star Studios in Hollywood his goal was to top it. Which he did.

10. 24 Hour Party People, directed by Michael Winterbottom (United Artists)
Manchester, England, late ’70s: There are passages in this droll dramatization of a long episode in pop history that show Joy Division finding their sound, then what seem like huge crowds in tiny nightclubs finding and losing themselves in the now stark, now all but dreamed songs, and they are the most powerful and mysterious musical sequences I’ve ever seen on film. Actor Sean Harris looks little like Joy Division singer Ian Curtis, but the nervousness of his dancing–a trance you wouldn’t want to enter and may barely stand to watch–makes David Byrne in Stop Making Sense look like Daffy Duck. Harris’ Curtis is on to something, he hasn’t decided whether he can say what it is, when he hangs himself the movie goes from Olympus to a parking lot, and you no more than the people in the movie will believe that neither you nor they will ever make it back.

Salon, September 9, 2002

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s