Real Life Rock Top Ten

A Monthly Column
of Everyday Culture
and Found Objects

by Greil Marcus

(1) Pearl Jam and Sleater-Kinney, “Rockin’ in the Free World,” Tampa, Florida, 2003 (YouTube). This is no all-star jam. This is rock ’n’ roll celebrating the human spirit, a good song, and itself. It’s two bands touring together, but now one band, six men, three women, Janet Weiss hammering stand-up percussion next to Jack Irons’s drums, Carrie Brownstein facing off with Stone Gossard, Mike McCready soloing joyously while Corin Tucker and Eddie Vedder throw verses back and forth as if each is the other’s all-time teen dream and they’re going to make this senior prom last forever, even if the Neil Young number they’re dancing to is really Carrie’s bucket of blood.

(2) Stanley Crouch, Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker (HarperCollins). There’s a moment in this stirring book when Crouch, homing in on the first Joe Louis–Max Schmeling fight, in 1936, links the three minutes of a prizefight round to the three minutes of one side of “a 78-rpm record, all a jazz band needed to make a complete musical statement.” It’s part of a plain and poetic argument about the effect of recording technology on both fighting and jazz. It’s part of a rewriting of the legacy of Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion, and of how he “almost instigated an interior ethnic riot” when “he chose to go through Harlem bragging about how much money he’d won by betting on the German.” Page by page, the book is unpredictable before it’s anything else. It ends in 1940, with Parker taking his first steps in New York, still a teenager, but the sense of an odyssey completed, the wind of history at one man’s back as he begins to blow it out ahead of himself, is overwhelming.

(3) Rosanne Cash, The River and the Thread (Blue Note). A soul-music travelogue, taking in Memphis, Faulkner, Dockery Farms, the Civil War, Robert Johnson’s gravesite, Bobbie Gentry’s Tallahatchie Bridge, and Money, Mississippi, the town where Emmett Till was lynched and thrown into the river that runs under the bridge. You don’t have to hear any of that; the words don’t point to places on a map. What you hear is time passing.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Greil Marcus is the author of Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century, Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music, and The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy and the American Voice, and other books. His column, Real Life Rock Top Ten, runs monthly in the Believer.

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