Real Life Rock Top 10

1) Natalie Merchant, The House Carpenter's Daughter (Myth America, P.O. Box 170, Bellows Falls, VT) The songs are from Fairport Convention, The Anthology of American Folk Music, protest-song handbooks, an 18th-century hymnal, a one-time Ithaca, New York, folk band called the Horseflies. With her thick, heavy voice, Merchant hangs over the tunes as if, in the infinitely suggestive words of so many other songs, she's letting her hair hang down, covering the songs in every meaning of the word. Fiddle from Judy Hyman (of the Horseflies) is the instrument that most often takes the lead, shaping the songs--"Down on Penny's Farm," a worker's complaint that Bob Dylan turned into "Maggie's Farm," is taken as a country stomp--but what Merchant does is plainly uncanny. "House Carpenter's Daughter": that makes Merchant the child abandoned when her mother left her carpenter husband for a demon lover, so Merchant sings these songs from the inside, from a distance, sneaking up behind them, looking up at them like a child, looking back at them like an old woman. A dance unreels like a memory more than an event; a story becomes not a memory but an account of an event that is sure to take place tomorrow.

You don't know where you are. "Which Side Are You On?" written by Florence Reece during a miner's strike in Harlan County, Kentucky, in 1932, doesn't come off like a protest song. Though the lyrics remain specific--"You'll either be a union man/Or a thug for J. H. Blair"--the setting of the song, the time and place it makes, is not. With a ghostly chorus--you can see the dead saying, I see living people--Merchant leads the performance as if into a battle that was lost before she was born, and that will be fought when she's gone. When she sings the Carter Family's "Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow," you're at the funeral, and then you're drunk at the wake. Each is less a memory or an event than a ceremony--as is almost every song here, high-stepping or barely moving at all.


2) Highlights from the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Museum (a.k.a. Rock Hall), #1 (Cleveland, Dec. 7) Poster for the fourth-to-last appearance of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J. P. "Big Bopper" Richardson:

Laramar Ballroom
Fort Dodge, Iowa
January 30, 1959

Dancing for Teenagers Only--Balcony Reserved for Adult Spectators


3-4-5) Ryan Adams, Love Is Hell, pt. 1, Love Is Hell, pt.2, LLOR N KCOR (Lost Highway) Adams seems to have stepped into the void left by the disappearance of the audience for Counting Crows, by far the best straight-ahead rock 'n' roll band of the last year. Unlike Counting Crows' Adam Duritz, whom San Francisco Chronicle critic Aidin Vaziri, reporting on a recent local show, described as "looking like a barefoot bus driver with an octopus strapped to his head," Adams appears to be a regular guy--sensitive, all heart, gets angry because he feels so much, but no serious hang-ups or a need to act out. Adams looks more like the successful nonentity John Mayer, for whom Counting Crows had to open on their last tour, or for that matter Josh Groban. And underneath his clatter and angst, what he has to offer is different mostly in style from what Clay Aiken and Ruben Studdard are selling.


6) Dixie Chicks, Top of the World Tour--Live (Open Wide/Columbia) One big grin. Not included: "My mother always said, when you can't say something nice, go to London and say it in front of 20,000 people"; "I Believe in Love."


7) Rock Hall Highlights, #2 (Cleveland, Dec. 7) Poster: along the top, "E. J. Recreation Center, Johnson, N.Y." Then: "Direct from Nashville, Tenn." Then, in enormous type: "HANK WILLIAMS." Details of lesser acts follow, culminating at the bottom, in the biggest letters save for the headliner's, with "CARL PERKINS 'Mr. Blue Suede Shoes.'" But Hank Williams died on New Year's Day, 1953, three years before Carl Perkins released "Blue Suede Shoes"--how could they be on the same bill? Because, just above "HANK WILLIAMS," in type so small it almost isn't there, you can just make out "Audrey (Mrs.)."


8) 24 (Fox, Dec. 9) When temporary Counter Terrorism Unit command Michelle Dessler (Reiko Aylesworth)--previously notable this year for an embarrassingly low-cut top and push-up bra--confronts apparent mole Gael (Jesse Borrego), it's in a head-on, full-face close-up, and suddenly you're seeing someone you haven't seen before. There was a toughness in the stillness of the moment; you could sense a real character beginning to emerge. Given the rhythm of the show, that means you have no idea where she'll go, or be taken.


9) Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros, "Redemption Song," video directed by Josh Cheuse (Epitaph) On a downtown New York street, a man spray-paints a memorial portrait of the onetime Clash frontman; the portrait of Strummer covers an entire wall. People of different ages gather to watch it go up, or gaze seriously as they pass by. Others pose in front of it, proudly, giggling, some as if they're humbly (Steve Buscemi) or defiantly (Jim Jarmusch, Cara Seymour) putting their handprints into the picture, joining it. At the end there's performance footage, just strong enough to make you say, Ah, shit.


10) Rock Hall Highlights, #3 (Cleveland, Dec.7) "Steven Tyler Bust. 1997. Fabricated by Kevin Yagher Productions"--in a Lucite cube, a replica of the Aerosmith singer with hair flying, eyes bulging, mouth all but swallowing the microphone clutched in disembodied hands. A visitor: "This is the best. I think this is what we all want for Steven Tyler: to have his head cut off and put in a box."

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