PRINT November 1990


Greil Marcus’ Real Life Rock

Greil Marcus’s most recent book is Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century, just published in paperback by Harvard University Press. He is a contributing editor of Artforum.

  1. W. T. LHAMON, JR.

    Deliberate Speed—The Origins of a Cultural Style in the American 1950s (Smithsonian Institution Press, $19.95). Lhamon’s thesis that the American ’50s were culturally rich is not so novel as it might have been when he began his book, ten years ago, but his set pieces are shockingly original. On Chuck Berry’s “Promised Land,” for instance, heard since 1964 as Berry’s “poor boy’s” happy odyssey from Virginia to California—“but that,” Lhamon says, “is its minstrel mask.” Noting that the song was written in prison, Lhomon redescribes it—so vividly and with such historical detail you could say he reinscribes it—as a coded but insistently specific parable of the early civil rights movement, reconnecting Rock Hill, South Carolina, to the Freedom Rides, Birmingham to its bombed church, and the poor boy’s “broke down” Greyhound to the Freedom Riders’ torched bus. Safe in Los Angeles, the singer calls home, Tidewater 4–1009: “He achieves the promised land only after a hell of a trip; everyone the poor boy cares about is still in hell.”

  2. LUTHER CAMPBELL AND 2 LIVE CREW: “Banned in the U.S.A.” (Luke/Atlantic).

    Bruce Springsteen got as much as he gave when he let the former Luke Skyywalker (the name banned by George Lucas, not the sheriff of Broward County, Florida, or thefederal judiciary) redo his “Born in the U.S.A.” for this celebration of free speech. Not only is it as stirring as the first version, it replaces the dead patriotism that fans from Ronald Reagan to millions of audience fist-thrusters loaded onto the song with the ironies Springsteen wrote but could never get heard.

  3. FASTBACKS: “In the Summer” et al. (No Threes/Steve Priest Fan Club, Box 23184, Seattle, WA 98102, $3)

    A band that’s wandered for nearly a decade in the pop wilderness plays like it’s ready for another thirty. For two numbers the wilderness is all you hear—doubt, fatigue, and holding back—and then comes “Everything That I Don’t Need,” written by guitarist Kurt Bloch, sung by Kim Warnick. In the ep’s sleeve photos, both of them look too old and beaten for the glory of this small refusal: rock simple, rock treasure.


    “Gesture Politics,” in New Statesman & Society (vol. 3 no. 103, June 1, Foundation House, Perseverance Works, 38 Kingsland Rd., London E2 8D0). On Jan Budaj, a Slovakian “stoker-intellectual” from Bratislava, who “spent the seventies pursuing a cultural civil war against the Communist regime. . . . Drawing on such sources as Conceptual Art, Duchamp and Dada, Budaj set out to demonstrate the lies on which Communist ‘reality’ was built. He hung his own renegade version of the conventional slogan-ridden red banner on a prominent public building in Bratislava: it bore the obligatory red star and a completely meaningless jumble of letters, and the success with which it proved its point could be counted through the many weeks that passed before the authorities recognized it as a fake. . . . He produced highly realistic official posters advertising cultural events which could never happen in Bratislava—a concert by Abba and Bob Dylan, or the coming of Ingmar Bergman’s latest film. Box offices were inundated.”

  5. LONNIE MACK: “Stop,” from Live!—Attack of the Killer V (Alligator)

    Mack—a 49-year-old guitarist with a Flying V Gibson—once told a story about a mouse that crossed his stage in the middle of a tune; when Mack hit his “highest, most soulful note,” he said, the mouse dropped dead, and on those terms this nine-minute blues is a massacre: loud no matter how low you play it, containing an irreducible quietness no matter how high you crank it up.

  6. ALLAN MOYLE, WRITER AND DIRECTOR: Pump Up the Volume (New Line Cinema)

    The full weight of this film about a teenager’s pirate radio station is the realization that the obscene idiosyncrasy of his nightly broadcasts is utterly right and proper, the First Amendment alive to itself, and under the law today completely impossible (as it wouldn’t have been during the early Reagan years, when free-market libertarians were running the FCC). Always threatening to turn into an already-made lousy movie—Footloose, Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, Network, Heathersit never does, thanks mostly to Christian Slater. In the end it can leave a smile on your lips and pain in your heart.

  7. GANG OF FOUR: “Money Talks” (Scarlett, U.K.)

    The Leeds postpunk band, reformed as a gang of two: singer Jon King and guitarist Andy Gill, plus hired musicians and vocalist Louise Goffin, daughter of Brill Building songwriters (“Will You Love Me Tomorrow”) Gerry Goffin and Carole King. The music takes its cue from King’s deeply layered sleeve collage on Pax Americana, which borrows as surely from Art & Language as from London’s Imperial War Museum and recent news photos of George Bush and Manuel Noriega—who appear here as twins, their arms raised together in comradeship.

  8. BIRNEY IMES: Juke Joint (University Press of Mississippi, $39.95)

    These blazing pictures of crudely, seriously decorated black bars and nightclubs in the Mississippi Delta may be the first successful transference of Walker Evans’ style to color photography. Imes’ use of red yellow and blue is as extreme and unnatural as Evans’ somber framing, and as convincing. You page through the book spellbound, dizzy with its light; then you go into it again and again, picking out the ads made into art, the slogans of good times and gentility (“BE NICE OR LEAVE—THANK YOU”). Docked a notch for a cretinous introduction by novelist Richard Ford.

  9. ERIC BOGOSIAN: “Benefit,” from Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll (SBK)

    The record of the performance piece: cheap shots, but with a We-Are-the-Worlder U.K. rocker on a talk show condemning drugs while stoned out of his mind, worth a few bucks.


    The Independent Group: Postwar Britain and the Aesthetics of Plenty (MIT Press, $50, catalogue of exhibition: 4 November–13 January 1991, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; 6 February–21 April, University Art Museum, Berkeley; 8 June–18 August, Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Hanover, N.H.) Given that the Independent Group—Richard Hamilton, Reyner Banham, Lawrence Alloway, Eduardo Paolozzi, Peter and Alison Smithson, and a few more—brought Futurism and Dada into British art schools, thus inspiring everyone from John Lennon to Johnny Rotten, it’s odd that pop music is hardly mentioned in this book. In another sense it’s not surprising: the IG was always engaged in a kind of slumming, a condescension carried through and confessed to in these pages. “We deliberately crossed up the borders of fine and popular art,” Alloway says, but Peter Smithson is more honest: “‘isn’t that a handsome picture or a handsome layout which I could parody for a fine art picture?’” The collage work of the IG was never so free as Kenneth Halliwell and Joe Orton’s brutal alterations of library books, which sent them to prison. Finally the group’s embrace of the popular emerges less as appropriation than as droit du seigneur. Pick to click: from the 1956 “This Is Tomorrow” show, Banham’s still-thrilling dada poem “Marriage of Two Minds,” even if they were divorced in advance.