PRINT February 1991


Greil Marcus

Greil Marcus has recently completed a book on Elvis Presley since his death. He is a contributing editor of Artforum.

  1. ZZ TOP

    “My Head’s in Mississippi,” Recycler (Warner Bros.). Mick Jagger may have achieved union with the map of the South in “Parachute Woman,” but Billy Gibbons, with his feet in Texas, is probably the first to eat it. The lurching beat and the voice he can’t quite pull out of his throat describe what it means to remember a ten-day drunk in the middle of another one: you see God in a toilet bowl. “I keep thinking ’bout that night in Memphis,” Gibbons testifies. “Lord, I thought I was in heaven / I keep thinking ’bout that night in Memphis /I thought I was in heaven / But I was stumblin’ through the parking lot / Of an invisible 7-Eleven.” This will have been up and down the charts by now, but it’ll be back.


    If Ever I Return, Pretty Peggy-O (Scribner’s, $17.95). A chilly, carefully paced murder mystery about the return of Vietnam ghosts to a small Tennessee town that seems to have spent the last twenty years looking over its shoulder. The story revolves around three kinds of music: the sheriff’s “internal Muzak,” the radio that plays in his head according to the clues everyday life kicks up; the hit parade of his Viet-vet deputy, mostly lurid sounds of Hendrix, the Doors; and the traditional Appalachian tunes of the famous-long-ago ’60s folksinger who’s lately moved into town. In every case, music is compulsively mnemonic, never utopian, enclosing, never liberating. The strands come together when, according to the archaic ballad “The Knoxville Girl,” a girl is found floating in the song’s river, and the sheriff’s radio turns on “Moody River,” sung by Pat Boone, “almost mindlessly cheerful,” the sheriff thinks, but then he’s not the DJ, just the receiver. Finally the killer comes back from the war: “Sex is good, but killing is better. You can remember killing clearer.” And music even more clearly than that.


    Vision Thing (Elektra). Gloom and doom from Leeds, England, with a brutal title song about George Bush and a hit, “More,” produced by notorious Meat Loaf-meister Jim Steinman: very pretentious, and convincing from beginning to end.


    “The Women They Sang About,” 28 November 1990 (CBS). Featuring Angela Bowie (“Angie,” Rolling Stones, 1973), Barbara Ann Rizzo (“Barbara Ann,” Regents, 1961, Beach Boys, 1965), Peggy Sue Rackham (“Peggy Sue,” Buddy Holly, 1957), and Donna Fox (“Donna,” Ritchie Valens, 1958). The Regents were present to sing “Barbara Ann” as its namesake danced with Geraldo, but the real action was with Fox. Geraldo asked her if it was true, as shown in the film La Bamba, that Valens wrote “Donna” for her because her father wouldn’t let her go out with a Hispanic. It was certainly true, Fox said: “My dad wasn’t a very nice man. I haven’t seen my father since I was 18. . . .I snuck out. I climbed out the window.” “Was your dad waiting for you?” “No, he was usually passed out.” No songs about that, then, but another exchange was mythical even if it happened, a novel in a day. When La Bamba was released, Rackham read in the paper that Fox lived in Sacramento, as does she. She called her up. “Are you the Donna in the song?” Oh no, thought Fox, who’d been inundated by calls from ’50s cultists, another one. “Yes,” she said. “Well,” said Rackham, “I’m Peggy Sue.”


    “Justify My Love” video plus interview with Madonna, 3 December 1990 (ABC). For all the press that show got, no one seems to have mentioned the most shocking moment: at the end of a Rock the Vote anticensorship commercial, Donny Osmond in an SS uniform, grinning madly.


    Enlightenment (Mercury). After twenty-five years his voice has turned thick; in another twenty-five it may still float, even if it’s on Van Morrison Sings John McCormack, who can be heard in . . .


    Miller’s Crossing (20th Century Fox). What lifts this academically severe version of Dashiell Hammett (Red Harvest, “The Big Knockover”) out of its homage is the face of Gabriel Byrne’s Irish gangster. He has the malevolent intelligence you once saw in Bob Dylan, a look—and it’s far too complex to be a single look—that Sting, Chuck D., Ice Cube, and Sinéad O’Connor will be working on for years.


    17 November 1990 (ABC). With Benjamin Horne briefly jailed for the murder of Laura Palmer (I still think he did it), his lawyer brother notices the cell’s metal bunk beds, thinks of the nice wooden bunks he once shared with Ben, then remembers something else from their bedroom: the two of them, 10 or 12, sitting wide-eyed in the dark as an older Louise Dombrowski danced for them with a flashlight, swaying magically to Angelo Badalamenti’s generically obvious version of the corniest piano-triplet doo-wop. The scene caught the feel of teenage sex you can find in fiction by Keith Abbott and Jill McCorkle and not often elsewhere: the mystery of an unfamiliar body, the other’s, yours, desire that breaks no rules because it dissolves them—desire that, unsatisfied, decades later, can make new sense as death. “I knew I was going to lie there with him on that sleeping bag and I was going to look through the slit in the drapes to that empty room, the windows there, beyond which the trees were lush and green,” McCorkle’s Kate remembers in Ferris Beach (Algonquin, 1990), prettifying, then not: “I was going to pretend that there was no day other than this one, no world beyond those trees; there was no future, no guarantee that I would turn sixteen, this was it.”

  9. PARIS

    The Devil Made Me Do It (Tommy Boy). A flat San Francisco rapper celebrated for his bring-back-the-Black-Panthers rhetoric (you won’t hear it anywhere else), his disc appropriately packaged with bios of Nat Turner, Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X, and Huey Newton, ignoring what Malcolm X found out about Elijah Muhammad and sadly noting that in 1989 Newton was murdered by “unknown assailants,” as opposed to the Oakland crack dealer who confessed to the killing. In other words, pop Stalinism, or the kind of revisionism you can find in most textbooks on American history.


    in Biology and Society 451: AIDS and Society, 6 December 1990 (Cornell University student union). Having taped “Justify My Love” off Nightline, the class ran the video nonstop as part of AIDS Awareness Week, handing out condoms to the hundreds who came to watch—most of whom, the Cornell Daily Sun reported, “laughed self-consciously.” One condemned the clip as “warped.” “’You should have to pay a quarter to see this video in an adult book store,’ said Alex C. Smith, ’92.” Wake up: Jesse Helms is not the enemy. The enemy is nice people you have to argue with.