Greil Marcus

  • the rewards of giving.

    AT THE CAESARS TAHOE hotel in Lake Tahoe there’s a booth where you can cut a tape of yourself singing along to instrumental versions of your favorite songs. Naturally, the results are often pretty funny; the concession operator likes to make copies of performances that strike him as particularly ridiculous, and recently he passed a few of his anti–chart toppers on to a local radio show. The unqualified hit was some guy stretching his lungs to Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl.”

    Listening to it was unsettling. “Uptown Girl,” more or less a tribute to the Four Seasons (“Dawn,” “Rag Doll,” “Big Girls Don’t

  • Music

    BILLY BRAGG’S “Levi Stubbs’ Tears” (Go! 12-inch, U.K.) hits right away, with astonishing force: you don’t know whether to crawl into the speakers or run out of the room. Bragg is telling the story of a woman’s life, telling it fast. Disaster is loaded into the tale from the first line, and before forty seconds are out the chorus rises up and slams you back: “When the world falls apart, some things stay in place / Levi Stubbs’ tears / Run down his face."

    Levi Stubbs is the great lead singer of the Four Tops; it was he who sang “Reach Out I’ll Be There,” “Standing in the Shadows of Love,” “Bernadette,”

  • Greil Marcus on Music

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    The Mekons: currently six to ten members, including fiddler and accordionst. On stage they wear

    Cowboy hats and sig “Help Me Make It Through The Night” Found 1977, Leeds, England - first punk bank in town, now the

    last. First record: “Never Been in a Roit” (a violent lament). Leftist, feminist, clowning, alcolholic, crude: “Those

    who couldn't play tried to learn, and those who could tried to forget. Two and three original members remain; dozens

    have come and gone. Lacking anything that could be called a hit, their very persistence across a decade marginalizes

    them. As pop stars who never

  • Can we talk?

    THE MEKONS: CURRENTLY SIX TO ten members, including fiddler and accordionist. On stage they wear cowboy hats and sing “Help Me Make It through the Night.” Founded 1977, Leeds, England—first punk band in town, now the last. First record: ”Never Been in a Riot“ (a violent lament). Leftist, feminist, clowning, alcoholic, crude: ”Those who couldn’t play tried to learn, and those who could tried to forget.”

    Two or three original members remain; dozens have come and gone. Lacking anything that could be called a hit, their very persistence across a decade marginalizes them. As pop stars who never were,

  • Greil Marcus on Music

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    "I am holding in my hand a document which transcends and seals all the shame of this age and would in itself suffice to

    assign the currency stew that calls itself mankind a place of honor in a cosmic carrion pit:' wrote the Vienna critic

    Karl Kraus, in 1921, about an ad for a package tour to the battlefields of Verdun. Lately I think I know how he felt.

    There are some objects of criticism that are immune to criticism, before which criticism can only fall back in wonder

    and awe, disarmed and stupid, and such objects seem to come in packs. See one, and soon enough you're seeing them

    everywhere.

  • Music

    “I AM HOLDING IN MY hand a document which transcends and seals all the shame of this age and would in itself suffice to assign the currency stew that calls itself mankind a place of honor in a cosmic carrion pit,” wrote the Vienna critic Karl Kraus, in 1921, about an ad for a package tour to the battlefields of Verdun. Lately I think I know how he felt. There are some objects of criticism that are immune to criticism, before which criticism can only fall back in wonder and awe, disarmed and stupid, and such objects seem to come in packs. See one, and soon enough you’re seeing them everywhere.

  • Sonic Youth—under the counter, over the top.

    SONIC YOUTH TRIES TO START fires in a field of corn. Their name is pure corn; their new signature tune, “Expressway to Yr. Skull,” combines corny punk misogyny with ’60s psychedelia, and nothing could be cornier than that—when I first heard the song, the words drowned in nightclub acoustics, I thought it might be a cover of the Amboy Dukes’ 1968 Korn Klassic, “Journey to the Center of the Mind.” The way “Expressway” trails out of a noise rave-up with quiet feedback drifting into silence is as corny as the surge of suspense music when the detective stumbles on the body in a third-rate murder

  • The substance of nobody’s voice.

    IN STAN RIDGWAY’S SONGS, the man who’s speaking suggests a character who uses his voice mainly to talk to himself. At first he can sound like a jerk: it’s easy to imagine a life for him, a life reduced to a series of meaningless transactions. Even the most commonplace exchange taxes his ability to say what he means, so even “yes” or “no” comes out off-key, dubious, too eager to please. Maybe he has a job, so he says what he has to say to his boss and the people he has to work with; maybe he has a wife, so he says what he has to say to her. He buys what he has to buy when he has to buy something,

  • blowing in the wind or facing into it, writing a song or crafting a career—for example, Bob Dylan.

    IN 1984, IN HIS BOOK book Rock Stars, Timothy White made the heretical statement that the music of Bob Dylan was ultimately less significant than Gene Vincent’s “Be-Bop-a-Lula.” Dylan’s songs were “of the ’time-and-place’ stripe,” White said, while “Be-Bop-a-Lula” existed on its “own terms. . . . It is an emotion preserved in song, unconditional, wholly without boundaries!’ Dylan’s songs were themselves boundaries, and together they simply made a map; they told a certain generation, a certain pop audience, where it was. Once that audience vanished, the songs would go with it. In 1969, Nik Cohn

  • The Cowboy Philosopher

    SUNRISE

    Late in 1978, a record by four post-Sex Pistols bands from Manchester, England, arrived in the mail; inside the sleeve was a perforated sheet of four stickers. One, titled “The Return of the Durutti Column 1967” (the Durutti Column was one of the bands), caught my eye: a cartoon credited to “Situationist Group,” made from a movie still of two mounted cowboys and comic-strip speech balloons filled with dialogue in French. I couldn’t read French, neither “Durutti Column” nor “Situationist Group” meant anything to me, but I was somehow taken with the thing–with its dreamtime, deadpan

  • In the kingdom of the invisible.

    ON KING OF AMERICA (Columbia) Elvis Costello moves through a world made out of old pop songs, postcards of the royal family, waiting rooms, cocktail lounges, alcoholics’ bed-sitters, and half-remembered friends, lovers, chance acquaintances—it’s a world of detritus. Within a single tune the time frame may range from the ’40s to the present, but it never holds still; time folds in on itself. A reference to Madonna’s “Material Girl” can sound as dated, as faded, as one to “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.”

    In the same way, the stories Costello is telling move from England to America and back again; each

  • The Clash find the sound of silence. Plus the 1985 Top Ten.

    “LONDON’S BURNING WITH BOREDOM NOW!” So screamed Joe Strummer for the Clash in 1977; if the fire was inside whoever might respond, the punk project was to feed the fire into the open air. But that was a long time ago. “This Is England”—like the rest of the new Clash album, Cut the Crap (Epic)—seems to be set in a riot; not the idealized “White riot/Wanna riot of my own” Strummer was singing about in ’77, simply one of those white-on-black riots that are necessary anomalies in Margaret Thatcher’s New Britain. As the strict redivision of English society into capitalist and serving classes proceeds,

  • heart from the heartland.

    THERE’S NOTHING FORMALLY adventurous about the music on John Cougar Mellencamp’s Scarecrow (Riga/Polygram). Every note or riff has been played countless times before, for decades—it’s the most commonplace sort of rock roll. Heard next to an early Rolling Stones track, almost any Motown classic, the Who’s “Behind Blue Eyes,“ or mid- ’60s garage-hand discs like the Music Machine’s brutal “Talk Talk,” the links are obvious. But it’s just as obvious that the sound Mellencamp has gotten out of his band is a sound he’s worked for, that can now do exactly what he wants it to do, that can tell him what

  • Dada/Dimensions

    Dada/Dimensions, ed. Stephen C. Foster (Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1985), 292 pages, 72 black and white illustrations.

    Not long ago most Dada scholarship in English rehashed “the roots of Surrealism,” centered strictly on Paris, showered praise or blame on poet-publicist Tristan Tzara, and that was that. Today an interested reader will quickly discover that Hugo Ball was its founder, Richard Huelsenbeck its tribune, Raoul Hausmann and Hannah Höch its most explosive artists. Zurich, where Dada started, and Berlin, where it ended, have all but squeezed Paris off the map. That one Dada

  • Beyond the grave, rock critic Theodor Adorno meets the Mekons.

    IN MINIMA MORALIA (1951), which may be the gloomiest book ever written, Theodor Adorno described social totality as a system that “would suffer nothing to remain outside it,” and then went on to prove that nothing did—save perhaps the hopelessly feeble impulse to remain outside. All people, he insisted, generals and civilians alike, had become objects of history. There was no chance left to be a subject of history—to subjectively make it. Philosophy, once “the teaching of the good life,” had turned into pure method; there was no longer any good life to be taught, only production to be increased

  • Starlust: The Secret Life of Fans.

    By Fred and Judy Vermorel, London: Comet/W.H. Allen (44 Hill Street, London W1X 8LB), 253 pp.

    THIS BOOK IS “at first glance full of the fantasies of maniacs,” Pete Townshend says in his introduction to Starlust, an enthralling, sometimes sickening compendium of interviews, diaries, and fan letters to pop stars—at last glance, too. Anyone who has ever been a true fan of any pop figure will find a queasy self-recognition here. Starlust is about commonplace responses to singers, but it can speak for the sphere of film stars or even authors. The book never loses its maniacal tinge. After a hundred

  • The new pop mainstream. One star per customer.

    ROCK ’N’ ROLL, AS ANYONE will tell you these days, is now simply “mainstream music”—pervasive and aggressively empty, the sound of the current sound, referring to nothing but its own success, its own meaningless triumph. For the first time, rock ’n’ roll really is everywhere: Madonna’s wedding or Bruce’s tour are hard newsbreaks. Old hits spout ad-agency lyrics every time you hit the dial or change the channel. With Michael Jackson’s purchase of Beatle copyrights, Beatle music may soon be run through a commercial revival that will definitively erase whatever mnemonic power the songs still retain.

  • The Slits, 1977: why they still don't make sense.

    IN LONDON RECENTLY A FRIEND pulled out a few bootleg records of old London punk music. I’d heard them before, and forgotten them: Siouxsie and the Banshees demos from late 1977, Slits sessions from about the same time. Days earlier I’d seen Siouxsie’s face on wall posters all over Florence—today she’s an international name. If the Slits are still on a wall somewhere it’s only as graffiti no one has bothered to cover up.

    The music my friend was playing seemed to make almost every record released since 1977 sound like a cover-up. The Banshees cuts drove toward a refusal never suggested on their

  • Charles Manson, Elvis Costello, and the LA sign system.

    IN BRET EASTON ELLIS’ recent novel, Less Than Zero, rich kids in last year’s Los Angeles do what the Manson family did on the same terrain in 1969. Swimming in dope, they watch murder ’n’ castration films (Manson had them made), engage in gang rape, fetishize corpses: when the kids find a dead boy in an alley everybody goes to gawk, and someone sticks a cigarette between the blue lips. Leaving a party where a 12-year-old girl tied to a bed is being shot up and used, the narrator, Clay, remembers "a party that somehow got out of hand.”

    A young girl from San Diego who had been at the party had been

  • From Sam Cooke in Heaven

    IT WAS JANUARY 1963. He was just 32, he was at the peak of his career, the songs came like water, and the radio turned water into wine. There was nothing he couldn’t do but live out the next two years.

    He had come into Miami to play a date at the Harlem Square Club, a big place holding more than 2000 people. About halfway through the third set—somewhere around 2 A.M., perhaps—he eased out of “Somebody Have Mercy,” a rewrite of a number that was already old when Blind Lemon Jefferson recorded it in 1927 as “Match Box Blues.” The guitarist hit a minor chord—a naked sound, nothing near it but the