Real Life Rock Top 10

A room of one's own: Edith Piaf's lyrics at the Hôtel de Ville, Paris
Jim Dankert

1) Johnny Cash with Joe Strummer, "Redemption Song," from Johnny Cash, Unearthed (American/Lost Highway) The title of this five-CD set--four discs of outtakes from the 1996-2003 "American Recordings" sessions, plus a best-of--is weird at best: Poor Johnny's less than three months in the ground and already they've dug him up? But from versions of "Big Iron" to "Salty Dog," from "The Banks of the Ohio" to "Chattanooga

Sugar Babe," songs find their ghost, and nowhere more than on Bob Marley's testament. The weight Cash brings to the very first lines, "Oh pirates, yes they rob I/ Sold I to the merchant ship"--a physical weight, a moral weight, the weight of age and debilitation--is so strong it floats the song as if it were itself a ship, sailing no earthly ocean. The reversal of what would be Cash's "me" for Marley's "I" makes a crack in the earth, a man stepping into another time, another place, entering fully into another history. Then Joe Strummer comes in, plainly nervous, rushing the words precisely as he does not on the shivering version of "Redemption Song" on his own posthumous release, Streetcore: He's tight, blank, and the performance never recovers. By the end it's all but dead--and those first moments will bring you back again and again, trying to make the recording come out differently. Five CDs don't come cheap, but the radio does, and a song like this is what the radio is for: to shock whoever's listening.


2) The Volebeats, Country Favorites (Turquoise Mountain) With tunes from famous country songwriters Roky Erickson, Abba, Serge Gainsbourg, and George Clinton, the York Brothers' sexy-then-and-sexy-now 1949 "Hamtramck Mama" plus six of their own songs, not a false note.


3) "Edith Piaf, la môme de Paris," Hôtel de Ville, Paris (through January 31, 2004) In a room where the walls are covered with song lyrics, words highlighted in lavender: "bleu," "mourir," "destin," "ciel," "rose," "non," "enfer," "lumière," "rue," "rêve," "pleurer," "coeur," "chagrin," "homme," "heureux," "amour," "ivresse."


4) Ida Lupino in Road House, directed by Jean Negulesco (1948) Playing a nightclub singer in a bar over a bowling alley, she talks her way through "One for My Baby" until it feels like a Shakespearean tragedy rendered by the Dead End Kids. "That's the best singing without a voice I've ever heard," says an astonished Celeste Holm.


5) Oliver Hall writes in about subliminal censorship (Nov. 4): "Something I overheard tonight at a coffee house: 'It's a race dog owner's worst dream, that the dog'll catch the white rabbit. The dog'll be destroyed, he'll never race again. Kurt Cobain caught the white rabbit, and he realized it wasn't all it was cracked up to be. And he shot himself.' I loved the odd lyrical way she put this--she'd just been gabbing about her anemia to an uninterested date--and hated what she said. It's been so odd watching Kurt Cobain's transformation over the past decade, from yelping sewer rat to cautionary tale; as I recall, for five years after he died, the only Nirvana songs you heard on the radio were 'All Apologies' and 'Come as You Are.' When I was sixteen some other teen broke into my house and stole all my Nirvana CDs. I replaced them when the insurance check came and was shocked to find the liner notes to Incesticide deleted, as I was shocked, watching the rerun of the band's first Saturday Night Live appearance, that the French kiss between Cobain and Krist Novoselic had been edited out of the end credits, and shocked every time I have to remind my friends of the Michael Jackson impersonator Nirvana sent up to accept their MTV award. Sometimes I feel like Charlton Heston in The Omega Man, the last person on earth, who knows every line of dialogue in Woodstock."


6) Grandpaboy, Dead Man Shake (Fat Possum) Fat Possum has branched out from old southern black men self-consciously playing blues to younger northern white men self-consciously playing self-conscious blues, as if it's, you know, all music, whatever that means. Jon Spencer is enough of a jerk to pull this off, but Paul Westerberg isn't.


7) store Featured items: "Self-Portrait Throw Blanket," "Masked & Anonymous Tee," "Jonny Rock 'I'll Be Your Baby Tonight' Corset."


8) John Humphrys, review of Lynne Truss's Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, The Sunday Times (London), Nov. 9 "Truss writes: 'The confusion of the possessive "its" (no apostrophe) with the contractive "it's" is an unequivocal sign of illiteracy and sets off a simple Pavlovian "kill" response in the average stickler.' I think she probably understates the case when she argues that people who persist in writing 'good food at it's best' deserve 'to be struck by lightning, hacked up on the spot and buried in an unmarked grave.' Lightning strikes are altogether too random. There should be a government task force with the single duty of rooting out such barbarians and burning them at the stake."


9) Brian Morton, A Window Across the River (Harcourt) From the author of The Dylanist, a quiet third novel about the revival of a love affair that by the end of the book will likely strike the reader as more of a mistake than its protagonists can bear to admit--and also a revival of so-called K-mart fiction, where brand names and pop songs, now taken out of Bobbie Ann Mason's mid-south and given a literary Manhattan twist, take over the imaginations of people who are trying to think. Here there's NYPD Blue, Mumia Abu-Jamal, and, in the 35-year-old heroine's panicked reaction to a doctor's recommendation that her last living relative be moved to a hospice, Christopher Hitchens attacking Mother Teresa "because some of the people she cared for in her hospice could have been cured" but for her belief "that it was best for them to die and go to heaven" ("I'm not thinking right, Nora thought. I shouldn't be thinking about Christopher Hitchens at a time like this") and not knowing "what irony was anymore--not since Alanis Morrissette put out that song 'Isn't It Ironic?' and all the reviewers pointed out that the things she was referring to as ironic, rain on your wedding day and so on, weren't actually ironic at all.

"Probably, she thought, I shouldn't be thinking about Alanis Morrissette right now.

"Alanis Morrissette and Christopher Hitchens.

"Together at last."


10) Atmosphere, Seven's Travels (Epitaph) Slug still wears his heart on his sleeve, and as smart noises and off-stage interjections come together as context, chorus, and audience, its beat is as true as it ever was. Especially on the gorgeous "Always Coming Back Home to You," an ending so emotionally clear it's no surprise Slug, Ant, and DJ Mr. Dibbs couldn't rest with it, adding a hidden track as if to take the edge off a language they're not altogether comfortable speaking.

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