TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT March 1994

TOP TEN

Greil Marcus' Real Life Rock

Greil Marcus is a contributing editor of Artforum. His “Jungle Music: The All-Time All-Star 1950s Rock ‘n’ Roll Movie” was recently collected in Mondo Elvis, edited by Richard Peabody and Lucinda Ebersole (St. Martin's Press).

  1. HEAVENS TO BETSY

    Calculated (Kill Rock Stars, 120 N.E. State Ave., #418, Olympia, WA 98501). This two-woman band (voice, guitar, bass, drums, or less) has been making extremist music about girlhood on stray singles and compilation-album cuts since 1991. For the first half of their own album they could be imitating themselves—looking for a subject, for a metaphor to burn the riot grrrl ideology out of singer Corin’s throat. But with the instrumental “Intermission,” everything changes. From there on everything hurts, and every note rings true, especially on “Donating My Body to Science,” which may be the coolest metaphor for sex in the history of riot grrrl, not to mention the history of Western civilization.

  2. BILLY RAY CYRUS

    “When I’m Gone,” from It Won’t Be the Last (Mercury). A completely convincing back-from-the-dead rewrite of “Are You Lonesome Tonight?,” apparently Boris Yeltsin’s favorite Elvis song. Will Boris cover this one? Has he already?

  3. JOHN ZORN

    “Never Again,” from Kristallnacht (Eva, c/o Wave, 6-2-27 Roppongi, Minato-Ku, Tokyo 106, Japan). For almost three minutes the sound of breaking glass is like a waterfall: that fast, that implacable. Then just the footsteps of someone running away; then Hebrew chanting; then a sort of Austro-Hungarian salon ensemble, discreetly summoning the dead soul of Central Europe. Despite the distant echoes, the true subject of this nearly 12-minute piece, recorded on 9 November 1992, seems as much the Germany of the present day as of 9 November 1938, when Nazis smashed the windows of Jewish shopkeepers all over the country. When the breaking glass comes back, and with it a mob unafraid of its own voice, you're sure of it. “Contains high frequency extremes, at the limits of human hearing & beyond, which may cause nausea, headaches & ringing in the ears,” Zorn warns. “Prolonged or repeated listening is not advisable.” Tell it to the thugs.

  4. ALISON KRAUSS & UNION STATION

    “Baby, Now That I’ve Found You,” at the Grand Ole Opry (TNN, 27 November 1993). A friend sent me a barely audible tape—Krauss’ shimmering, preternaturally delicate warble of a 1967 hit by the Foundations, a not-forgotten British/Caribbean pop group. Their interracial arms now reach from the Sex Pistols (who began rehearsing with the Foundations’ “Build Me Up Buttercup”) to the quiet queen of bluegrass, singing like extra virgin olive oil pours in sunlight. Miss Krauss, meet Mr. Rotten. Oh, you’ve already met?

  5. BOB DYLAN & MIKE KELLEY

    BOB DYLAN: notes to World Gone Wrong (Columbia), & MIKE KELLEY: Winter’s Stillness #1. Reading Dylan as he explicates his album’s old blues and Appalachian folk songs (on the ancient “Love Henry”: “Henry-modern corporate man off some foreign boat, unable to handle his psychosis’ responsible for organizing the Intelligensia, disarming the people, an infantile sensualist”), two thoughts struck me. First, by abandoning liner notes after his 1965 Highway 61 Revisited, Dylan invented rock criticism, or anyway called it into being, simply by making a vacuum for it to fill. Second, even today no critic would dare make half as much of a song as Dylan always has when he’s taken to putting them into other words.

    Since a verbal commentary would inevitably fall short of the one Dylan had already provided, I thought World Gone Wrong needed a visual commentary, by someone who could let the music spark a picture. Given the opportunity, I asked Mike Kelley; he demurred, suggesting Raymond Pettibone. But then, paging through Mike Kelley—Catholic Tastes, the catalogue Elisabeth Sussman edited for Kelley’s recent retrospective at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, I realized the picture was already there. Winter’s Stillness #1 is from 1985: a top border illustrates the title in Currier & Ives clichés; below it there’s a rough drawing of the map of the U.S.A. The top two-thirds are blank; then Kelley’s version of the Mason-Dixon line stretches from coast to coast, with the lower third of the country dark and dank, the word “Hillbillies” dripping excreta into a lake of slime. On that lake is a cabalistic symbol, seemingly named in Kelley’s caption, a pun on hillbilly cliché and on the title of the piece itself: “A NEW KIND OF STILL—IT DISTILLS PURE INBRED EVIL. THE FOUL-SMELLING MASH SINKS TO THE BOTTOM—FIRE-BREWED. DOWN HERE IT IS. UH UH.” If that doesn’t outdistance Dylan it sure as hell keeps up with him.

  6. FOLKES BROTHERS, LAUREL AITKEN, OWEN GRAY, THEOPHILUS BECKFORD, ET AL.

    Tougher Than Tough—The Story of Jamaican Music (Mango 4-CD reissue,1958–93). Sure, it’s all great. But the first disc, covering 1958 through 1967, has the aura of people waking from a four-century sleep to take back their island from Columbus and all who came after him; only their skin color has changed.

  7. ZZ TOP

    Antenna (RCA). REPAIRS COMPLETED. ROAD OPEN. SPEED LIMITS STRICTLY ENFORCED.

  8. ROCK AND ROLL HALL OF FAME

    induction ceremonies, Waldorf-Astoria Hotel Grand Ballroom (New York City, 19 January). Just think: in four years, Aerosmith will be eligible.

  9. IAN SOFTLEY, DIRECTOR

    Backbeat (Gramercy Films). As a movie about the Beatles in Hamburg in the very early ’60s, this is perfectly adequate. As a movie about the love affair between then-Beatle bass player Stuart Sutcliffe and Hamburg photographer Astrid Kirchherr, which is what Backbeat wants to be, it’s a blank. Sheryl Lee is wasted as Kirchherr; like her soulmates in Heavens to Betsy she goes to extremes or she goes nowhere, and her underwritten part gives her nowhere to go and nothing to do, save to sit around looking knowing and occasionally pull off her sweater.

    What’s most intriguing in Backbeat is its presentation of Kirchherr’s world, the world of the Hamburg Exis, or existentialists: a flamboyant, costumed, forbidding, sexually ambiguous haute bohemia. The question the film begs is where this supremely self-confident outsider milieu came from, given the suppression of bohemian cultures under the Nazis and the privations of the postwar period. Did Kirchherr and her friends hark back to the Weimar Dadaists, or did they come together in the same spirit as their peers in Paris, London, San Francisco, and New York? What were their resources—and how different, really, was Liverpool’s working-class beat-group scene, where Un Chien Andalou was as familiar as Jimmy Reed and Muddy Waters, from Hamburg’s bourgeois Beat scene, where Sartre was a hero and Chuck Berry arrived via Armed Forces Radio? Did worlds collide, or were they the same?

    At least in the Beatle literature, this is a question no one has asked, let alone answered. Stuart Sutcliffe died in 1961, but Astrid Kirchherr, now in her mid 50s, is still living in Hamburg; it's unlikely she's forgotten a thing.