Real Life Rock Top 10 (07/16/03)

1. Patti Smith at Martin Luther King Jr. Park, Berkeley (June 15) 
Smith and Boots Riley of the Coup were performing in support of International A.N.S.W.E.R., a group affiliated with the Workers World Party, the left-fascist sect that uses Ramsey Clark as its dummy and the Palestinian Intifada as its true cause. It being Father’s Day, Smith dedicated “People Have the Power” to her father. He was gone, she said—but there was still Ralph Nader, “father to us all.” Or, as Paul Berman, author of the recent Terror and Liberalism, wrote two days earlier in Salon of the Nader cult, “I interpret the Green Party as a movement of the middle and upper-middle class, as actually having a certain satisfaction with the way things are—which is to say, the reason you should vote for the Greens is because you want to feel the excitement of political engagement, the adventure of it, but you don’t really care what it’s going to mean for other people if the Republicans get elected.” You’re voting not as a member of a polity, where each citizen is presumed tied to every other; you’re voting to place yourself above not only your fellow citizens, but above the democratic ritual that presumes to make a republic. You’re voting to affirm your own purity—like voting Republican, as Krist Novolesic put it when Nirvana was first accused of selling out, “so you can get tax breaks. Now that’s sold out.”

2. Bob Dylan in Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle (Sony Pictures)
Widmerpool (a.k.a. Ken Tucker) writes in: “Not on the KICK-ASS soundtrack album to this KICK-ASS movie—who needs him there, when you’ve got Nickelback and Kid Rock collaborating on a KICK-ASS version of Elton’s ‘Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting’? No, Dylan sneaks in during the scene in which a KICK-ASS Drew Barrymore gathers her belongings to leave Angel headquarters, and we clearly see that one of her few cherished possessions is a vinyl copy of Bringing It All Back Home. So the real mystery of the movie is, who wanted that product placement in a film filled with shots plugging Cingular Wireless and Body By Demi? My guess? Crispin Glover had been using the album on the set to get himself in the mood to play a bitter, religion-warped mute, and director McG did what he does best, which is stealing cultural totems and reducing them to throwaway junk-jokes that make the viewer feel as though the ASS of anything in life that matters has been KICKED.”

3. Trailer Bride, Hope Is a Thing With Feathers (Bloodshot) 
When Melissa Swingle, leader of this country band, plays her saw, it sounds like a theremin. Brief snatches of psychedelic guitar by Tim Barnes are like an opening into another world. As on the modest, painful 1999 Whine de Lune and the 2001 High Seas, Swingle is laconically miserable. But she no longer sounds convinced she’s saying anything anyone needs to hear.

4. Liz Phair, “H.W.C.” on Liz Phair (Capitol)
When in the only tune here that raises itself above water Phair puts what might as well be spam porn (you know: “OUR SLUTS CAN’T WAIT TO DRINK YOUR HOT WHITE CUM”) on top of candy-cane sound, it’s like watching Barbies fucking. You can call that radical displacement, or you can call it spam.

5. DJ Shadow, Diminishing Returns Party Pak (bootleg) 
For the second of two discs drawn from BBC jockey John Peel’s March 29 show: a 40-minute collage of apparent examples of 1965-73 California pop, Fairport Convention-style folk rock, and British post-Beatle-isms. It’s all so stylistically third-hand and discographically obscure that you imagine only Shadow can still name the tunes—even if anyone can hear the desire and idealism that seem coded in their forms.

6. David Carr, “Major Stars Not So Crucial as Concept Trumps Celebrity” (New York Times, June 23 
“Musical stardom has always been a very calculated affair,” Carr writes. “Elvis might have been just another hillbilly if it were not for Col.Tom Parker.” It’s been true for decades that white male Southerners are the last class one can denigrate in polite company, but would this sneer have appeared in the New York Times if Alabamian Howell Raines were still the editor?

7. Jeff Tamarkin, Got a Revolution! The Turbulent Flight of Jefferson Airplane (Atria)
“Moby Grape chugged along only for a couple of years before circumstances did the band in.” From the Whatever school of rock history.

8. & 9. Sly and the Family Stone, “Thank You for Talkin’ to Me Africa” (1971) on The Essential Sly and the Family Stone (Epic Legacy) and Skip James, “Cypress Grove Blues” on She Lyin’ (Genes, 1964) or Complete 1931 Recordings in Chronological Order (Document) 
The Mississippi bluesman and the San Francisco dandy, speaking the same language: the high, faraway moan of one man calling out from the dead, telling the other not to join him.
10. Penelope Houston, “The American in Me” and “Scum” at “Stand Up and Be Counted: Howard Dean Declaration Celebration Party” (Hyatt Regency Hotel, San Francisco, June 23—go to )
In 1977 “The American in Me” was the torn flag flown by the Avengers, the best punk band in San Francisco and probably the nation. With a teenage Houston at the mic, you can hear the song on Died for Your Sins(Lookout!). It’s scabrous, self-loathing, crude, undeniable, a thing in itself, with “Kennedy was murdered by the FBI!” slamming into “It’s the American in me that makes me watch TV!” as if one was the other. Twenty-six years later, Houston, now a folk singer, was asked to sing “The American in Me” by a Dean worker she met at a protest against the new FCC regulations on media consolidation. Performing with guitarist Pat Johnson, she dropped the Kennedy line: “Here I am at a presidential rally singing about the assassination of a president—what if something happened to Dean later? How would that feel? It’s all red, white, and blue—mostly white and blue—and I’ve got this inverted soundbite about Kennedy.” She also left out a verse about live television coverage of the Symbionese Liberation Army hideout burning to the ground in Los Angeles in 1974: “It seemed dated—but it’s happening now more than ever. People numbed by an image. An image seen over and over until it becomes meaningless.” But this night “The American in Me” was a statement of pride—with “Scum,” from Houston’s 1999 Tongue (Reprise—included on Houston’s Eighteen Stories Down retrospective, available here), dedicated to the man Howard Dean hopes to oppose.

City Pages, July 16, 2003

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