PRINT January 1991


Greil Marcus' Real Life Rock

Greil Marcus is a writer who lives in Berkeley. “Real Life Rock” appears monthly in Artforum.


    “Living to Tell: Madonna’s Resurrection of the Fleshly,” in Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, and Sexuality (University of Minnesota Press). McClary, a professor in the School of Music at the University of Minnesota, writes that her certification as a guardian of the highest and purest of Western art traditions demanded only a single sacrifice: “that I never ask what any of it means.” Thus McClary moves from female characters in 17th-century opera to Laurie Anderson as an apostate, but also as a teacher who’s found her own voice, a critic empowered by feminist theory and the thrill of fandom. “The strategies of Madonna’s songs are those of one who has radically conflicting subject positions—one who has been taught to cheer for resolutions in cultural narratives, but who also realizes that she is of the sort that typically gets purged for the sake of that resolution”—this is the ordinary language version of McClary’s formal, precisely musicological reading of the uncanny reversals and suspensions in Madonna’s “Live to Tell,” a reading as intense and lucid as the record itself.


    Heart Still Beating (Reprise/EG). A concert recorded in 1982 in Fréjus, France, by the remains of the best band of its time. Exquisite, though only fans will care; one day, some may even claim to have been there.


    The Complete Recordings (Columbia reissue, 1936–37); HINDU LOVE GODS (Warren Zevon with members of R.E.M.): “Travelin’ Riverside Blues,” from Hindu Love Gods (Reprise/Giant); LED ZEPPELIN: “Traveling Riverside Blues,” from Led Zeppelin (Atlantic four-CD reissue, 1969). Mississippi bluesman Robert Johnson finally made the pop charts last fall, 52 years after his death. The occasion was the release of a 41-track boxed set—marred by scholastic programming, dumbly cropped photos, erroneous lyric transcriptions, and an illiterate, coyly racist biographical essay by coproducer Stephen C. LaVere. Two noisy, scattershot versions of one of Johnson’s shapeliest songs—both natural singles—erase LaVere’s garbage with pop trash.


    Sunburn (Mammoth). A Boston trio (Freda Boner, drums; Juliana Hatfield, bass & vocals; John Strohm, guitar & vocals) that hints at the heedless negations of Minnesota’s Babes in Toyland, though ultimately Hatfield’s teenage voice shies away back to Clare Grogan of Altered Images, and Strohm’s plain-talk “Train” harks back much farther than that: “I know that train you’re riding on / It’s 16 coaches long / My baby’s on that train and gone.” It speaks perfectly to . . .


    “Steel Rails,” from I’ve Got That Old Feeling (Rounder). She’s a teenage bluegrass fiddler with hundreds of years in her throat. The voice is small, always reaching for melody, somehow always slow within quick tempos, but her knowledge doesn’t hold against . . .


    Interiors (Columbia). She may stand as the greatest of the Cash family. Seduced by rock ’n’ roll but unable to trust it, again and again she’s reembraced country, even waved at Las Vegas, but her touch betrays the fear that someday, in her career or in her private life, she could end up just like anybody else.


    Dreams Come True (Antone’s). Hot stuff from white Texas soul singers who define their genre at the ends of certain lines, where words fray into instinctive melisma; thick, weathered voices that go clear in moments of surprise; and, with Barton’s “Bad Thing,” a last-call rocker written by bassist Sarah Brown, the sound of a whip hitting flesh, mainly to keep time.

  8. MICK FLEETWOOD with Stephen Davis

    Fleetwood: My Life and Adventures in Fleetwood Mac (Morrow). For 23 years drummer for a group that today bears no resemblance to the drunken, obscene, blues-purist ensemble as which it began, Fleetwood’s pop history cum autobiography (“too stupid to do anything else”) is irrepressibly engaging and happily shallow—profoundly shallow, maybe. Fleetwood is ordinary and he treasures his ordinariness; his tale is shadowed by the early departures of his first three guitarists, all victims of one or another kind of madness. The term “deep blues” is rightly reserved for black artists, but Fleetwood Mac founder Peter Green—born Peter Greenbaum, a Jew who became a solitary, sackcloth Christian—deserves it as Duane Allman never did and Eric Clapton never has. Listening today, Green’s late-’60s Fleetwood Mac blues—more than any, “Love that Burns,” inspired by Chicago bluesman Otis Rush’s “Double Trouble” and perhaps outreaching it—are shockingly cruel, romance caught at just that pass where it turns into nihilism. Mick Fleetwood has played on a dozen memorable pop hits, but once he touched genius; his book is about how pleasant it is to be free of it.


    “Being boring,” from Behavior (EMI). Bohemian life as lived by British art students—very distant, flattened words, the joys of insularity, and the first true follow-up to the duo’s 1987 “Rent,” a tale of expensive male prostitution, though from which side you were never sure, as you’re not here.

  10. EDWIN HEAVEN writer & director

    trailer for 13th Annual Mill Valley Film Festival (Act One theater, Berkeley, 6 October 1990, preceding Henry & June). It was hilarious: a celebration of the Art of Film by means of an impossibly rushed montage of super-pretentious silent-movie clips. Oddly, the audience didn’t laugh. After the credits rolled, there was a final title card: “FREE JAMES BROWN!” The house roared as one, as if the director’s sole real homage was some kind of joke; then, when the last title to Henry & June came up, with the information that, after Paris, June Miller became a social worker, the crowd responded with the same mass titter. Talk about “High & Low”. . . .