PRINT April 1991


Greil Marcus' Real Life Rock

Greil Marcus is a contributing editor of Artforum.

  1. Pamela Page and Patrick Montgomery: Rock and Roll the Early Days (Archive Films, 1985, running occasionally on VH-1)

    Of all the documentaries on the subject—each one picking up much of the same stock footage of Elvis, of DJs breaking barbaric records on the air or White Citizens Council spokesmen denouncing animal music—none touches this one. That may be because it focuses so sharply on block artists and dancing. White zoot-suiters turn “Roll Over Beethoven” into Roll Over Isaac Newton; then black teenagers rise out of their seats in some Tropicana hotel ballroom and explode into a kicking line that’s plainly not of this world—not this world, anyway. Clips of a shockingly cloddish Bill Haley are cut away into performances by Little Richard, Fats Domino, the Treniers—and Bo Diddley, who even in this company seems most of all strange, the Alien King. Poker-faced, riding that underwater guitar sound that simply does not connect to anyone else’s rhythms, he negates the genre even as it’s forming. He’s at once primeval, inescapably African, and almost formally avant-garde, anticipating and then leaping past the Fluxus music of the years to come and back to Dada, which in certain moments thought it was African too. Throughout the production there’s a controlling sense of novelty coming off the singers and dancers—the bounce of the new, an apprehension of the never before. It’s so strong that, as you watch, it can produce an unwanted corollary: never again.

  2. Eleventh Dream Day: Lived To Tell (Atlantic)

    Made by a four-piece Chicago band, this is a record to get lost in, with vocal action that’s hard to catch hovering over grinding, growling guitar noise like a heat mirage on a highway no one’s driven for years. Guitarist Rick Rizzo does most of the singing, but it’s drummer Janet Bean, rushing in at the end of a verse like Exene Cervenka ambushing John Doe in X, who nails song after song. Words emerge in fragments in a seamless aural setting; the whole, once you glimpse it, is exhilarating and bleak, the exhilaration of people saying what they mean even if they wish they could talk about something other than their fear of loss, defeat, and hiding. The music holds an inner drama, summed up in lines by Bean: “There’s this thing, lately/Where the sound of tearing fabric/Is louder than the traffic.”

  3. a-ha: East of the Sun, West of the Moon (Warner Bros.)

    Meaningless pop songs from a Swedish boy group.

  4. Book of Love: Candy Carol (Sire)

    Dreamy, mysterious pop songs from a New York girl group. More or less meaningless, though not, were it to hit the radio, the muscular dance track “Quiver,” as in “She/Makes me. . . .”

  5. Randy Newman: “Lines in the Sand” (Reprise)

    Not for sale, distributed only to DJs, and no surprise most didn’t play it. Against the piety of “Voices That Care,” the Hollywood tribute-to-the-troops number (they should have called it “We Are the War”), this was an elegy in advance: a cold, defeatist funeral march.

  6. Sport: Skels Life #10 (Mystery Fez, 14 Orient Rd., Mastic Beach, N.Y. 11951, $1)

    Skels is a decent rock ’n’ roll outfit but Skels Life is a great rock ’n’ roll comic book, a 12-page collage of ’60s underground styles, pornography, and male girdle ads that usually operates on the level of Jess’s ’50s Dick Tracy revisions. I keep coming back to one of the artworks that beat out Sport’s latest bid for a government grant: Sinéad O’Connor as painted by “Walter Keen.”

  7. Bob Marley & the Wailers: Talkin’ Blues (Tuff Gong/ Island)

    An impeccable live set cut in 1973; when Marley sings “I remember/On the slave ship,” “the mystic chords of memory” is no metaphor.

  8. Rolling Stones: “Gimmie Shelter” (as licensed for a PSA for the American Red Cross)

    What a fine conceit: a paramedic squad as a band, with, among others, Paul Shaffer “on keys” (at a blood-drive computer) and Carly Simon “on lead,” heroically guiding some kids to safety with the same expression of celebrity noblesse oblige that Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin spent a whole film critiquing with the 1972 Letter to Jane: Investigation of a Still. It's no use saying the song deserves better; a commercial for home insurance would be better.

  9. R.E.M.: “I Walked with a Zombie,” from Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye—A Tribute to Roky Erickson (Sire)

    This is a metaphor—for R.E.M. It’s also their best recording.

  10. Richard Huelsenbeck: Memoirs of a Dada Drummer, edited by Hans J. Kleinschmidt (University of California Press)

    Richard Huelsenbeck: Memoirs of a Dada Drummer, edited by Hans J. Kleinschmidt (University of California Press reissue, 1974, $12.95).

    Huelsenbeck (1892-1974) was the Dada African (also a bourgeois German medical student), pounding his big drum and chanting “Negro poems” on the stage of the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich in 1916. Perhaps because he wasn’t an artist but a noisemaker, a troublemaker, Herr Bad News, he became Dada’s most unapologetic chronicler and least evasive storyteller. Top tale in Memoirs: Richard meets a girl from a nice family who appreciates his promising future but not the embarrassing stuff he does on stage—in other words, she won’t sleep with him unless he agrees to give up Dada. He’s in agony, he feels the zeitgeist in his heart every night in the cabaret. On the other hand. . . . Thus he gives in—but, as he would later write, “Dada was a creature which stood head and shoulders above all present,” and when the big night comes he turns up impotent. So he went back to the nightclub.