Real Life Rock Top Ten

Ben Harper summons god and Johnny Rotten proves he's still the antichrist

1) John Mellencamp,Trouble No More(Columbia) Old songs, old singer, fresh sound: Mellencamp turns Dicky Do and the Don'ts' obscure 1959 doo-wop "Teardrops Will Fall" into stupendous backwoods rockabilly, with fiddle playing by Miriam Sturm that shoots up from inside the music like the wind Toni Marcus blew through Van Morrison's "Full Force Gale." Taken up in the last few years by David Johansen as well as the White Stripes, Son House's "Death Letter" is now some kind of subterranean pop hit; in Mellencamp's version there's a shift halfway through its six minutes--Michael Ramos's organ coming in to let you know that the reality of death is setting in, that the singer too is now sliding toward death--that is so sure, so unafraid of itself musically and so terrified of itself morally, that the song leaves the pop world and goes right back to the dead man who wrote it. And yet, with good covers of compositions by Robert Johnson, Hoagy Carmichael, or Willie Dixon flashing by, it's "To Washington"--a modest rewrite of "White House Blues," a 1926 Charley Poole number about the McKinley assassination--that may cut the deepest. The first verses, setting the scene of the last presidential election, seem timeless, as if they're taking place far in the past; the final verses, about the Iraq war, are the sort of protest lyrics that don't outlast the time it takes to sing them. But it's the melody, picked out on mandolin by Mike Wanchic--the traditional power of the melody, the way it anchors the theft of Florida in 2000 in a murder that took place in 1901--that makes the tune hurt, filling it with sadness, loss, betrayal, defeat.

 

2)Wisegirls, directed by David Anspaugh (Lions Gate) Made in 2001, starring Mira Sorvino, Melora Waters, and Mariah Carey as waitresses in a Staten Island mob joint, this film went straight to video. Is that because Carey is faster, more obscene, and tougher than any woman in The Sopranos?

 

3) William Burroughs,Junky: The 50th Anniversary Definitive Edition (Penguin) Modern pre-history from Burroughs in Mexico in about 1950, learning "the new hipster vocabulary" from "refugee" junkies: "'Cool' [is] an all-purpose word indicating anything you like or any situation that is not hot with the law. Conversely, anything you don't like is 'uncool.' From listening to these characters I got a picture of the situation in the U.S. A state of complete chaos where you never know who is who or where you stand."

 

4) Alan Garthright, "No-Fly List Ensnares Innocent Travelers" (San Francisco Chronicle, June 8) "In their efforts to prevent a repeat of the Sept. 11 tragedy, the U.S. government and the airline industry are relying on software so outdated it can't distinguish between the last name of Osama bin Laden and punk rocker Johnny Rotten Lydon... Many airlines rely on name-searching software derived from 'Soundex,' a 120-year-old indexing system first used in the 1880 census. It was designed to help census clerks quickly index and retrieve sound-alike surnames with different spellings--like 'Rogers' and 'Rodgers' or 'Somers' and 'Summers'--that would be scattered in an alphabetical list. Soundex gives each name a key using its first letter and dropping the vowels and giving number codes to similar sounding [consonants] (like 'S' and 'C'). The system gives the same code, L350, for 'Laden' and all similar-sounding names: Lydon, Lawton, and Leedham."

In other words, it's right on target for Antichrists.

 

5) The New Pornographers, Bimbo's (San Francisco, California; June 9) The songs--"It's Only Divine Right," "Letter from an Occupant"--were rockets. On "The Laws Have Changed," as Carl Newman boosted Neko Case's somersaulting lead singing with falsetto chirps, flags flew. The band--with keyboard player Blaine Thurier twirling his left arm when he just couldn't stop himself and Kurt Dahle smiling over the hardest bass drum sound you'll ever hear--was its own air raid siren, and the message was All Clear.

 

6) The Riverboat Gamblers,Something to Crow About (Gearhead) From Denton, Texas: Beatle-era punk--the Knickerbockers with "Lies," say--with a thrash follow-through, like the Descendants' "Weinerschnitzel." On "Ice Water" or "Catch Your Eye" they can make you believe the style was invented yesterday. That they take it all back on the last cut, with what starts off as a rewrite of Santo and Johnny's 1958 "Sleep Walk," only means they'll do slow dancing if you ask politely.

 

7) The Squids, Tracy Hall (Norwich, Vermont; May 30) The Magic Rat (Steve Weinstein) reports: "Prominently noted on poster advertising a benefit show: 'Alcohol and Smoke Free. Please bring a clean pair of shoes to protect the dance floor.'"

 

8) Ben Harper, "With My Own Two Hands" fromDiamonds on the Inside (Virgin) People used to attack Sting for his fake Jamaican accent; how does Harper get away with it? First by coming on like the god Denis Johnson said Bob Marley would turn into, then playing the Joan Osborne slob-like-the-rest-of-us Jesus.

 

9) Larry Clark,Punk Picasso(Luhring Augustine Gallery, New York, NY; through June 28) New York Eye (Emily Marcus) writes: "Clark made his name with the speed-freak photos in Tulsa in 1971 and the film Kids in 1995; his first gallery show in five years is a collection of mementos that illustrate his life with embarrassing intimacy. There's no wall text or labels for correspondence and talismans (for Roger Maris, Sonny Liston, Bruce Lee), for old records (Billie Holiday's Lady Sings the Blues, Bob Dylan's "George Jackson") both mounted and playing through the gallery speakers. A torn piece of paper with a quote from Blake shares space with a clipping about the execution of three Arkansas serial killers and shots of a young Clark and his Tulsa friends giving each other blow jobs and shooting up. What makes Clark's photos and films powerful is the clarity of his voyeurism: his palpable lust. On the walls, the uncoordinated elements of Clark as kid, family man, and shock-artist go a long way toward depicting the whole man--and still do little to lessen the primary affront of his work."

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