PRINT March 1991


Greil Marcus' Real Life Rock

Greil Marcus is a contributing editor of Artforum.

  1. Various radio stations

    formation violation, January 15. After so many years devoted to erasing the notion that in the mix of radio sounds one might expect a subject, it was a shock on this strange, suspended day to find the medium talking to you in a a kind of celebration of dread. No matter what button you pushed you were faced with the same conversation, the pressure (drop of Edwin Starr’s “War,” or Bruce Springsteen’s cover of it or Freda Payne’s “Bring the Boys Home,” Country Joe and Fish’s “I feel-Like-I’m-Fixin to Die Rag,” Gang of Four’s “I Love a Man in a Uniform,” Creedance Clearwater’s “Bad Moon Rising,” Peter Gabriel’s “Here Comes the Flood,” an unidentified woman’s “Will Jesus Wash the Blood from Your Hands,” the Beatles’ “I Wanna Be Your Man” (relief, violation of the new format within the old format; it felt fabulous). Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War” and Plastic Ono Band’s “Give Peace a Chance” seemed thin and arch, too far above the mess of confused, violently random emotion, morally insulated (though not so much as Sean Lennon and Lenny Kravitz’s Peace Choir smile-button video for their new version of the tune, so removed from fear its basic message might have been that Cyndi Lauper found a way to get back on MTV). Cutting through the many voices, even those of songs only playing with your head—Elvis Costello’s “(What’s So Funny ’bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” maybe, or Metallica’s “One,” or Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman” (“Your military arms,” so softly, “your petrochemical arms”)—was the Pogues’ “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda.” It’s a long, slow, unbearably bitter first-person account of a mutilated Australian soldier who came home from Gallipoli; Shane MacGowan collapses 70 years to make the man explain why he wishes he hadn’t come back, self-hate and wonderment dripping from every line. When the war began the next day HBO had Top Gun scheduled and the radio was back to normal.

  2. Ed Sanders

    The Family—The Manson Group and Its Aftermath (Signet/NAL reissue, 1971). Twenty-two years later it still sits there, right in the middle of the Beach Boys’ 20/20, “Never Learn Not to Love.” “A disturbing lyric and an hypnotic sound,” read the liner notes to the CD reissue. No kidding: credited to Dennis Wilson, in truth the song was written by Charles Manson. He titled it “Cease To Exist,” and that’s what it says, even now. Even now: “Out there somewhere,” Sanders says at the end of this extensively updated edition of one of the few great books on and from the ’60s, “are the scattered handful of foreheads with faint fading X’s. . . . ” If that doesn’t make your flesh creep maybe the book won’t scare you. Here sex can seem uglier than murder, murder more casual than sex, sex so often ritual, dog blood, poured on copulating bodies a logical extension of the standard Family initiation or its everyday, California, do-your-own-thing version of Adamite and Free Spirit beliefs and practices that went back almost a thousand years. Even without the material on the Process Church of the Final Judgment and the Solar Lodge of the Ordo Templi Orientis, removed after the first edition because of lawsuits (but that’s what libraries are for), Sanders’ narrative casts a spell so strong it can suck in almost anything. I saw the Shangri-las in a TV nostalgia clip doing “Give Him a Great Big Kiss” and in their blithe teenage nihilism they could have been from Manson’s harem; I heard Neil Young singing about an old man with a kind voice and wild eyes in “Mansion on the Hill”—the one with the creaky psychedelic music drifting out of the windows—and who else could it be? “He was different,” Young remembered a few years ago. “Something about him that’s . . . I can’t forget it. I don’t know what you would call it, but I wouldn’t want to call it anything in an interview.”

  3. Tony Scherman

    “The Hell-hound’s Trail—Following Robert Johnson” (Musician, January, #33 Commercial St., Gloucester, Mass., 10930). The best result of the botched release of Johnson’s Complete Recordings is this set of interviews with 11 contemporary musicians on the ’30s country bluesman. Vernon Reid presses the tension between the existential the thrill of the unexplainable, Ry Cooder impossibility (“It is very hard to to . . . I don’t play Robert Johnson’s music, ’cause I just can’t get in the door”), Jim Dickinson talks about madness, and Billy Gibbons about “why the Mississippi Delta blues—the work of just a few people, who were black, illiterate, who were from a whole other world than urban people in the ’90s—can still affect us so deeply”: because “there was no reason, ethnically or politically, or spiritually for these guys to hold back.”

  4. Chumbawamba

    “Ulrike,” from Slap! (Agit-Prop). As a reggae horn section kicks up dust, a duet from beyond the grave: a pseudo-Meinhof, insisting in a clear, unsolemn pop voice that she’s not sorry (“Don’t think I walked into banks to stand in the queue”—Raymond Chandler wouldn't have minded having written that); then Elvis, not pseudo but sampled (credited as a band member doubling on Quaaludes and Placydil), aiming “Can’t help Falling in Love” right back.

  5. David Lee Roth

    A Little Ain’t Enough (Warner Bros.). It’s been seven years since “Jump” but he can still rewrite “Back Door Man” and call it “Hammerhead Shark.”

  6. Blue Sky Boys

    “Where the Soul of Man Never Dies,” from Something Got a Hold of Me—A Treasury of Sacred Music (RCA reissue, 1936). This modest white-gospel embrace of the unknowable says it’s the Holy Land; Sam Phillips once said it was Howlin’ Wolf.

  7. Sydney Youngblood

    Sydney Youngblood (Arista). The shift from the classically arranged soul misery of “I’d Rather Go Blind” to the dance of hooks in the following “Sit and Wait” indicates this young singer could take Roland Gift’s place in fine Young Cannibals if he had to, but he won’t have to.

  8. Robert Klein

    “Fabulous 50’s,” from Child of the 50’s (Rhino reissue, 1973) The comic throws every trick of the genre into this doo-wop parody, and every one shines, especially the recitation, “And so/I wrote a letter/To Joe McCarthy/In the sky”—“Joe McCarthy/In the Sky,” echoes the falsetto chorus—“I said, ‘My teacher is a Communist. . . . ’”

  9. California State Department of Motor Vehicles

    radio public-service announcement (1991). 800 number to call for newly mandated training required for minor’s motorcycle operator’s license: 227-4337—or, as the ad put it, “CCR-IDER.” And you thought bureaucrats couldn’t sing the blues.

  10. Ice Cube

    “Dead Homiez,” from Kill at Will (Priority). In naked mourning, the L.A. rapper gives up his armed ’n’ dangerous pose to wear his heart on his sleeve—the sleeve of his DEAD HOMIEZ T-shirt, which can be yours for only $12.95. Add $3 for shipping and handling.