Real Life Rock (11/89)


1. Elvis Costello, “Tramp the Dirt Down” (Greek Theatre, Berkeley, September 15)
Who else could toss off cheap Reagan jokes (“Do you really think it was only last week he needed brain surgery?”) without cheapening a song about—well, there’s no word equivalent to “regicide” for elected rulers (“You can change the names if you like”), so “regicide” will have to do. Taken far beyond its recorded version, the tune was vicious and sensual; the next day, when Reagan appeared in every paper with his head half-shaved, he somehow looked like Zippy the Pinhead—who once shared a White House bed with Ron and Nancy, Ron questioning him about the fall of Yugoslavia to the Neosurrealists in 1963.

2. Public Enemy, Protocols of the Elders of Zion (unreleased)
Controversial, of course; disturbing (samples from Steely Dan’s “Pretzel Logic,” the Shoah soundtrack, tapes of Bitburg conferences); and, given the powers that be, not commercial, not even record­able, altogether apocryphal, but nevertheless anguished, passionate, shot through with rage and ambiguity. Face it: it doesn’t matter if these artists don’t always know what they’re talking about, though few have the right to gainsay tracks like “Socialism of Fools/Fools of Socialism,” “Peace Ship,” or Professor Griff’s 11-minute silent rap over a Dr. Seuss LP, “How the Jews Stole Christmas.” Their business isn’t answering questions, it’s raising them. As they say in “Little Flower,” every few lines cut up with pieces of an old Father Coughlin broadcast: “He may he right/He may be wrong/I just want to bang the gong.”

3. Charlotte Greig, Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow—Girl Groups From the 50s On (Virago/Random House, $14.95)
She gets Arlene Smith of the Chantels right, brings her to life, and anyone who does is halfway home, even if the road goes all the way to Salt-n-­Pepa. She covers the hits, but also scores of strange obscurities, and always with spirit. The “songs are a fascinating and accurate expression of the changing aspirations and preoccupations of women over three decades [and] for that reason I have given the song lyrics more space than is usually accorded them,” Greig writes in an untypically dry passage. then pulling the string: “The other reason I have quoted so extensively from them is because I like them.”

4. Neil Young, “Rockin’ in the Free World,” on Satur­day Night Live (September 30)
SNL bandleader G. E. Smith can play anything and communicate nothing; on guitar, Young raised the rock Smith belongs under.5. Mick Jones, video for “I Just Wanna Hold” (Atlan­tic)
Close as anyone has come to the good feeling of Van Halen’s video for “Jump.”

6. Phil Phillips With the Twilights, “Sea of Love” (1959), in Sea of Love (Universal)
Why is Al Pacino so freaked to find this in Ellen Barkin’s record collection? Didn’t he see Diner? She got it in the divorce.

7. Jonathan Richman, “Closer,” from Jonathan Rich­man (Rounder)
Lousy album, lousy song, except for one line: “Meanwhile, back in the bed…”

8. Bruce A and the Secular Atavists, “Tougher Than Jesus” (street flier, Box 1776 Station A, Vancouver, B.C., Canada V6C 2P7)
A Jehovah’s Witnesses-style comic strip about “the weird Asian Death Cult!!” of a “SAVIOR ON A STICK.” Also a band, offering “a cassette that will show the path of light and truth.”

9. Jefferson Airplane, “Planes,” from Jefferson Airplane (Epic)
The FAA is investigating.

10. Howard Hampton, “Chinese Radiation,” in Artpaper, September (110 North 4th St. #303, Minneapo­lis, MN 55401)
An essay on music as memory, taking in Tiananmen Square, student leader Chai Ling’s elegy, and coverage of the event in the Western media (“That couldn’t happen here go the reassuring passwords: the massacre or the uprising?”), Charlie Haden’s 1969 Liberation Music Orchestra LP, Pere Ubu’s 1989 Cloudland (“deadpan and mercurial… a fire at your house viewed from a distant ridge”), and surrealist Rene Magritte’s 1929 On the Threshold of Liberty, “where we remain. The cannon has not fired, the panels have not fallen, what is on the other side is either our collective mystery or our collective amnesia.”

Village Voice, November 1989

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