PRINT Summer 1987



IN COLLEGE, I LEARNED ABOUT Plato’s ideal Forms, and mused that if there were Forms of justice, eros, agape, and the like, there really ought to be a Form of rock ’n’ roll—an Essence, preexisting what we benighted prisoners of Plato’s cave of illusion ’n’ reality called the music’s “form” and certainly outlasting it. I didn’t have to think too long to be convinced. Transposed into the vulgate, this was an argument rock ’n’ roll had been making about itself from Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven” to the Showmen’s “It Will Stand,” and on, and on. If these people were reaching for something, even if they couldn’t grasp it, wasn’t that proof it was there?

Faith in such a notion may explain why I never went on to logic class but I thought of it again recently, reading Bill Flanagan’s Written in My Soul, a book of interviews with rock songwriters. “The only thing that rock & roll did not get from country and blues was a sense of consequences,” Flanagan says to Neil Young. “In country and blues, if you raised hell on Saturday night, you were gonna feel real bad on Sunday morning when you dragged yourself to church.” “That’s right,” says Young. “Rock & roll is reckless abandon. Rock & roll is the cause of country and blues. Country and blues came first, but somehow rock & roll’s place in the chain of events is dispersed”—and what an amazing remark that is! Young is saying that while as forms blues and country preceded rock ’n’roll, as spirit rock ’n’ roll preceded blues and country, which came forth precisely to control that spirit. Penned in and locked up, the spirit achieved shape, emerged as form, and thus revealed the existence of the Form itself.

Among other things, Young’s line can undercut one’s fear of the current wave of rock censorship—the actions of Tipper Gore’s PMRC, the banning of many lps and rock magazines from chain stores, major labels pressuring their acts to dispense with certain cover art and lyrics. Official government action would be another story—and since Tipper Gore’s husband is running for president, and the FCC is cracking down, we may get it yet. But no matter how disgusting, corporate censorship is part of the marketplace in which rock ’n’ roll has chosen to take its stand, and citizens’ groups denouncing songs they don’t like as depraved are engaging in public speech no less than the performers they might prefer to have locked up.

The opposition itself may not be bad for the music. Rock ’n’ roll thrived in the ’50s, when censorship was taken for granted; restrictions and limits, out in the open, can lead the music to reinvent itself, to discover secret languages, to come up with a communication that doesn’t bounce off a listener’s head but burrows into it. Certainly, if there is a Form of rock ’n’ roll—if the Showmen were right in 1961, and Neil Young is right today—this is what ought to happen. The real problem may be harder to escape than social or even political censorship: self-censorship. As the late Alexander Trocchi once wrote: “We have to attack the ‘enemy’ at his base, within ourselves.”

Self-censorship is never simply a response to outside pressure. One kind of self-censorship has to do with what Eric Alliez and Michel Feher call “the luster of capital,” with the alienation of the artist from the commodity he or she produces, and another is rooted in the artist’s need to trap a spirit in a form, to make a wish obey rules supposedly guaranteeing its realization. The Sex Pistols were a reaction against the first sort of self-censorship, which by 1976, when they appeared, had almost completely taken over rock ’n’ roll; Pussy Galore, a new punk band from New York, may be working in reaction to the second.

“New punk band” sounds like an oxymoron. After more than ten years, punk has become an old story—a collection of received ideas, borrowed attitudes, stale gestures. If you say no enough times, you’re saying yes. When I first saw a Pussy Galore record I laughed at the title, groovy hate fuck—big deal. I was in the studio of a college radio station, and the program director had written play/don’t play instructions on the jacket: “Pretty good ‘I hate everything’ stuff, can air last cut (instrumental).” A few weeks later I heard “Cunt Tease” on the radio, from the same record, and on the same station that had tried to restrict airplay to the instrumental. The song made you notice it: lead singer Jon Spencer pressing the theme, guitarist Julia Cafritz chiming in after every verse with a delighted “FUCK YOU!”—a delight in the chance to say the words, and mean them. The tune was ugly, and it was funny.

“What do you do?” a 60ish businessman asked me. “I’m a rock critic,” I said. “My son’s in a punk band,” he said, throwing his arms wide: “‘Fuckfuckfuckfuckfuck.’” And that’s what Pussy Galore say. By now such spew ought to be a harmless cliché, but somehow it isn’t, not as Pussy Galore use it. What you hear on their records—on groovy (Shove), on the recent Pussy Gold 5000 ep (Buy Our Records), on the group’s cassette rerecording of the whole of the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street (the first before-the-fact answer record, issued in response to Sonic Youth’s oft-proclaimed intention of rerecording the Beatles’ “white album”)—is a search for the utterly heedless. You hear, if not Neil Youngs reckless abandon, an argument that today reckless abandon has to be searched for.

Pussy Galore are two women and three men. They scream at each other—on songs, between songs, as numbers begin wrong and end off the mark. Listening to their shouts and curses, some seemingly desperate to achieve form, others seemingly as driven to throw it off (it’s as if you were listening to a rehearsal tape they forgot to erase), you can imagine that you’re hearing the first steps of a definite project: an attack on self-censorship with the crudest tools. The project is the attempt by a small group of people to discover what it is they most want to say. How do you do that? Well, you can start by trying to expose your own self-censoring impulse. What is it that I think I most don’t want to say? What would happen if I said it? What would happen if I got it across? I don’t know, you don’t know—let’s try it.

It’s all in the tone, what happens: in the singers’ tone of voice, in the tone of the band’s playing, in the huge, corrosive growl from the guitar that ambushes Cafritz the moment she begins “Spin Out” on Pussy Gold 5000, a sound that comes out of nowhere and goes back where it came from as soon as you register it. In a punk context, where the certainty that everything is permitted has come to mean that nothing is true, once-forbidden words, now commonplace and meaningless, regain the power they had when they were used only in oaths, when they were rightly afraid of them. They begin to recover their forbidden content, their forbidden spirit—and that spirit is no less forbidding today than it ever was. The words cut; the tone hurts; both thrill. They go far enough to put you in Tipper Gore’s shoes. As a listener, no matter how enlightened, you’re forced to ask: Should this be allowed?

For Pussy Galore, the creation of a musical incident strong enough to raise such a question may be merely a means to the discovery of what it is they want to say—and there’s no way of knowing if they’ll ever make that discovery, or if it’ll be worth hearing about if they do. For the moment, their no remains a no, and it will do. When rock ’n’ roll no longer produces a version of itself worth banning, none of it will be worth listening to.

Greil Marcus is working on a book on radical currents in 20th-century culture. An excerpt from it appears in the June number of New Formations (London and New York). His music column appears monthly in Artforum.