Greil Marcus

  • James Dean: American Icon

    Why settle for mystery (East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause) when for a few dollars more you can have mystification—this book? Like Prince with his ejaculating guitar at the climax of Purple Rain, David Dalton doesn’t so much write purple prose as squirt it: “It was the home where Jimmy was never quite at home; the orphan abandoned by his mother, deserted by his father, and, like Oedipus. . . .” “The constellation of these infirmities was to become, however, the stigmata of his star. He was, like Cain. . . . ”

    It’s a grand tradition. Not long after lincoln was shot, a book skipping over the Great

  • NUMBER ONE WITH A BULLET

    THE LATE LESTER BANGS on the 1976 “Second Annual Rock Music Awards” telecast, hosted by Alice Cooper and Diana Ross:

    The highlight of the evening was the Public Service Award. Alice complained that “rock music personalities are foremost and basically people—contrary to rumour. People with the same dreams, desires and feelings as everyone else. They’re ambitious but they’re not selfish or self involved—but caring! . . . and I can’t read this card. Their careers are time consuming, but they still invest whatever time they have in . . . ” Diana: “—what we in this industry are most proud of—the Public

  • The Rap Attack: African Jive to New York Hip-Hop

    Of all the books generated by hip-hop this is the first to address rap music and music-as art. That says a good deal about the dynamics of fads, the power of internal colonialism, and the practice of rock criticism. Still, worthy as Britisher David Toop’s efforts are, his sensibility and his methods remain elementary. A clumsy writer, Toop spends a good bit of his text detailing rap antecedents: the praise songs of African griots, Afro-American “dozens,” Jamaican dub and DJing—even lily-white Cliff Richard’s bongo solo on the UK Shadows’ 1960 version of “Apache.” But because Toop can’t really

  • Correspondence Art: Source Book for the Network of International Postal Art Activity

    Edited by Michael Crane and Mary Stofflet, San Francisco: Contemporary Arts Press, 1984, 522 pp., ca. 200 black and white illustrations, $15.95 paper.

    There are lots of examples of and comment on the organized neo-Dada mail art movement (mid ’50s-1981) in this volume including a few Dada precursors, but not Raoul Hausmann’s 1921 postcard to Tristan Tzara, where he decorated a face with uncouth phrases. You can buy it today as a postcard of the postcard and send it yourself— after six decades it still retains a certain violence. The stuff collected in Correspondence Art doesn’t; to use the words

  • Return Engagement: Faces to Remember—Then & Now

    The selling point here is that fashion cameraman Horst will “go back” and shoot bygone movie queens “as they are today”—as if he had shot them when they were. The problem is not even that the selling point is misleading—the Then pictures are almost exclusively not by Horst—but that those selected (from Museum of Modern Art files, Watters’ collection, etc.) don’t come close to telling the present-day viewer why so many of these women (74 of them, including Janet Gaynor, Fay Wray, Barbara Stanwyck, and Mary Astor) were so luminous on the screen. As for the Now pictures, most of the time we seem

  • Forbidden Dreams

    Shutterbug and would-be mise en scénariste Rebecca Blake did the Helmut Newton knock-offs for Eyes of Laura Mars, the Faye Dunaway movie of some years back. Now she has her own big book of glitzy femme “fantasies” (so promoted, but then what’s David Led dick doing here with his “concept”?). Result: “forbidden dreams” so bland all 40-plus female models look alike. Given that the sexy-violence-without-sex concept is really Newton’s, it’s fair that Blakes pictures make his work seem as compassionate as Lewis Hine’s—and Marc Behm’s Nazi-porn read like Céline, and Chanel’s “Share the Fantasy” TV

  • CORRUPTING THE ABSOLUTE

    SUE GOT OFF WORK and drifted down the midway in a wet heat, past the American-flag petunia gardens. Screamers rammed circles in the Whirl-A-Gig cars, pasted in stand-up Roll-A-Turn cages by their own gravity. They whistled and moved in droves behind raw hot dogs. At night she lay in the top bunk naked with the lights off. Fan on full aimed at her crotch while janitors lounged in front of the garages watching the rows of windows. Rod Stewart, scratchy and loud, combed his hair in a thousand ways and came out looking just the same.1

    That paragraph is the last of three in a Jayne Anne Phillips story

  • Our Lives and Our Children

    Our Lives and Our Children: Photographs Taken Near the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant, by Robert Adams, Millerton, N.Y.: Aperture, 1984, 96 pp., 74 black and white photographs.

    The factory at Rocky Flats, near Denver, makes plutonium triggers for nuclear weapons. Robert Adams sums up his pictures of Rocky Flats residents—people of all ages, many in family groups, all shot outdoors, especially in shopping malls—with the idea that one can gain the will to challenge power “after we have noticed the individuals with whom we live. How mysteriously absolute each is. How many achieve, in moments of

  • SHORT CUT, FAST LANE

    WALTER HILL TIPS HIS HAND early in Streets of Fire, and what makes the movie special is that you can’t follow it. In a precredit sequence the hero—Michael Paré, too cute to live save for a certain humanizing pudginess—takes a switchblade away from a hoodlum and then slaps his face half a dozen times. The scene moves so fast you’re not sure what’s happened. This must have been the effect Hill was after, because he has Paré close the knife and toss it back to the punk: “Here, try it again.” Not knowing what to do, as baffled as the viewer—still, his gang’s at his back, he’s got to do something—the

  • THE DEAD AND THE QUICK

    THE LAST SUPPER

    Over the past month, avoiding Elvis Presley—you remember him—required some fancy footwork. All stops were pulled for his would-have-been 50th birthday (January 8): A Golden Celebration, RCA’s six-LP set of mostly unreleased material; eight conventional reissues; an up-to-date MTV video for the rerelease of “BIue Suede Shoes”; HBO’s “Elvis: One Night with You,” 52 uncut minutes of raise-the-dead jam sessions originally taped for the 1968 comeback TV special; an hourlong tribute on “Entertainment Tonight.” Plus a proclamation from the president: “America’s future rests in a thousand

  • Alfred Jarry, Edward Hopper, Hip Hop, The Life and Times of Little Richard, and Partners

    THE Q.L.P. SERIES WANTED a Hopper book to go with its 60 other titles; thus this respectable survey, which against Gail Levin’s far more inclusive Edward Hopper: The Art and the Artist (1981) and Edward Hopper As Illustrator (1979) is close to mere commodity.

    Two distant but related points might be made. The heavily coated paper of The Art and the Artist gives the color reproductions an almost Kodachrome sheen, utterly distorting Hopper’s use of light rather than perspective to catch spatial and emotional depth; the duller paper in the new book preserves the flatness of the pictures. The way the

  • The 60s Without Apology, Telex Iran, Unsung Heroes of Rock ‘n’ Roll, and Wired

    JUDY JACKLIN, JOHN BELUSHI’S WIDOW, chose Bob Woodward, a writer without a sense of humor, to memorialize her husband, who had his moments. Woodward found a few good stories, such as how Columbia turned the Belushi/Dan Aykroyd vehicle Neighbors, one of the great turkeys of our time, into a marginal money-maker; it’s not enough to make your day. A man who refuses to speculate, charting the disintegration of a man who refused to think, Woodward can testify only to the meticulousness of his research; the reader is left to ask the questions—or rather, dulled by the legal-archives research to the

  • LITTLE RICHARD FROM A TO ZEEZA

    PUNCHING BUTTONS on the car radio not long ago, I lucked into the opening piano notes of Little Richard’s “Good Golly Miss Molly.” It was more than a surprise: contemporary radio is so demographically formatted that anything out of place is a shock. I thought of hearing Richard’s “True Fine Mama” a few months before—but then I was on the freeway, and I could let fly. Here I was at an intersection, and impulse meant sudden death for the woman crossing in front of me. I drove home slowly—the connecting road is a speed trap—and played “Ready Teddy” fifteen times in a row.

    Those records were released

  • BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: IN YOUR HEART YOU KNOW HE'S RIGHT

    America’s future rests in a thousand dreams inside your hearts. It rests in the message of hope in songs of a man so many young Americans admire: New Jersey’s own Bruce Springsteen. And helping you make those dreams come true is what this job of mine is all about.

    —Ronald Reagan,

    September 19, 1984.

    THERE’S A LINE FROM a Bruce Springsteen song so fierce I’ve never been able to get past it: “Take a knife and cut this pain from my heart.” I hear “The Promised Land” on the radio, instinctively turn up the sound, forget what’s coming—and once that red moment arrives, whatever follows only chases its

  • GONE WITH THE WIND

    Seventeen is a made-for/rejected-by-PBS documentary by Joel DeMott and Jeff Kreines about working class high school seniors in Muncie, Indiana. Casual dope-smoking, a pervasive sense of no future, black boys with white girlfriends, and a lot of obscenity all the more obscene for its casualness are what got the film excluded from PBS’ “Middletown” series, but that is not what interested me.

    The most striking scenes in Seventeen grow out of an ordinary party. It’s held in the house where Lynn Massie—white, 17, and the central figure in the film—lives with her parents and two brothers. The hand-held

  • JACKSONISM

    IN 1982, ELIZABETH TAYLOR FILED suit to stop the airing of an unauthorized telefilm about her life. “I am my own industry,” she said. “I am my own commodity.” A hundred and fifteen years before, Karl Marx had anticipated this bizarre invocation in “The Fetishism of the Commodity and its Secret,” the most bizarrely titled section of Das Kapital. He wrote:

    A commodity appears at first sight an extremely obvious, trivial thing. But its analysis brings out that it is a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties. . . . It is absolutely clear that, by his activity,

  • FREE SPEECH

    CYNDI LAUPER'S “GIRLS JUST WANT to Have Fun” was the across-the-board hit of the new year—if you haven’t heard it you don’t own a radio. The day after Lauper sang it on “Late Night with David Letterman” a woman in San Francisco called up her favorite FM station to complain. “I had the TV on and I just drifted off, you know? And then, oh, it was hours later, there was this, this noise. I mean, that woman woke me up out of a sound sleep!”

    If Cyndi Lauper accomplishes nothing else in the years to come, she can savor that moment. It calls for headlines:

    TOP FORTY SONGBIRD REALIZES AMBITIONS OF MODERN

  • WILLIAM EGGLESTON’S VIEW OF GRACELAND: THE ABSENCE OF ELVIS

    IN 1957, AT 22 the most famous man in America (save for President Eisenhower and General Douglas MacArthur, who had won their glory in other times and with whom he was in only metaphysical competition), Elvis Presley bought Graceland, a postbellum (1939) white-columned mansion in Memphis, Tennessee. With his mother (until her death in 1958), his father, his grandmother, various cousins, his paid friends and hangers-on, his teenage ward who became his wife (until their separation in 1972), his daughter, and finally his girlfriend (“Fiancée!” she insisted, too late), he lived there until his death

  • NEVER TOO LATE

    IN LATE AUGUST, 1948, a bizarre, almost silent record began playing on Maryland “race music” stations; soon it spread up and down the East Coast and across the country. It seemed to come out of the ether, not so much carried by the airwaves as floating upon them, and no one knew what to make of it—except that it stopped time, and stopped hearts. It was “It’s Too Soon to Know,” the first single by the Orioles, five black men from Baltimore, led by a 23-year-old truck driver who called himself Sonny Til.

    Though Til continued to perform almost until his death in December, 1981, the Orioles disappeared

  • EXECUTIONER’S SONG

    CLICK CLICK. CLICK CLICK. There’s a bloodlessness to the punctuating handclaps on Elvis Costello’s “Pills and Soap” that is almost entirely self-effacing—an odd detail for a song about fascism in Margaret Thatcher’s United Kingdom, after five years still on track as harbinger for Ronald Reagan’s United States. But perhaps not so odd when fascism is denied its image-bound, pornographic dimensions and represented on the level Hannah Arendt brought into view in 1945, with “Organized Guilt and Universal Responsibility”:

    The transformation of the family man from a responsible member of society,