PRINT May 1991


Greil Marcus’ Real Life Rock

Greil Marcus’ “Social History als Schlatter” appears in the current issue of Texte zur Kunst. He is a contributing editor of Artforum.


    at the Grammy Awards (CBS, 20 February). Thirty years after arriving in New York from Minnesota, Bob Dylan stepped forward to be honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award. The blanket of acceptance that had been draped over the show was so heavy the WAR SUCKS T-shirt New Kid on the Block Donnie Wahlberg wore to the American Music Awards a few weeks earlier would have been forbidden here; maybe that’s why Dylan sang “Masters of War,” and maybe that’s why he disguised it, smearing the verses into one long word. If you caught on to the number, the lyrics did emerge—“And I’ll stand o’er your grave/’Til I’m sure that you’re dead”—but lyrics were not the point. What was was the ride Dylan and his band gave them. With hats pulled down and dressed dark, looking and moving like Chicago hipsters from the end of the ’50s, guitarists Cesar Diaz and John Jackson, bassist Tony Garnier, and drummer Ian Wallace went after the song as if it was theirs as much as Dylan’s: a chance at revenge, excitement, pleasure. You couldn’t tell one from the other, and why bother?

    With this career performance behind him, Dylan took his trophy from a beaming Jack Nicholson; he squinted, as if looking for his mother, who was in the audience. “Well,” he said, “my daddy, he didn’t leave me much, you know, he was a very simple man, but what he tell me was this, he did say, son, he said”—there was a long pause, nervous laughter from the crowd—“he say, you know it’s possible to become so defiled in this world that your own mother and father will abandon you and if that happens, God will always believe in your ability to mend your own ways.”

    Then he walked off. He had managed to get in and out without thanking anybody, and this night it really did seem as if he owed nobody anything.


    “Highwire” (Rolling Stones Records). There’s a helplessly celebratory cast to the flabby, crowded, let’s-hope-for-the-best closing choruses of this Desert Storm disc, but the action is up front, in the open sound that drives the versus (built around “Get up, stand up” and “Catch a fire,” old revolutionary phrases from Bob Marley and the Wailers), in the amazingly cynical snap Mick Jagger uses to break up every line. Recorded just before the air war began, hitting the radio just as the ground war was ending, the song's timing made it simultaneously moot and dangerous: it came off as a cheap exploitation of the last war and a set-up for the next one.


    MCMXC a.D. (Charisma). For the nearly 12 minutes of “Principles of Lust,” which includes the worldwide Gregorian chant-hit “Sadeness,” probably the best heavy-breathing number since Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg’s 1969 “Je t’aime (moi non plus)”—which enjoyed a certain revival after Gainsbourg’s March 2 death in Paris, though Conservative leader Jacques Chirac said it was Gainsbourg’s song “Harley-Davidson” that was “engraved on my heart.”

  4. OLIVER STONE, dir.

    The Doors (Tri-Star). Nothing could be easier than to write this movie off, but there are currents of empathy at work throughout that bring you face to face with “the ’60s” as a true curse: no grand, simple, romantic time to sell to present-day teenagers as a nice place to visit, but a time that, even as it came forth, people sensed they could never really inhabit, and also never leave. Stone catches this displacement in the concert sequences near the end of the Doors’ career. He makes a terrific noise out of instruments, fans, booze, nudity, fire, feedback, and history, but as he moves the show on he makes the sound stop. All you can fix on is Val Kilmer’s Jim Morrison, in a moment of complete suspension, caught between wondering how he got where he is and accepting that he can’t go forward and he can’t go back. It may not be the story the band set out to tell, but it’s what the movie has done to


    The Doors (Elektra, 1967). It didn’t cost much to listen to “Take It As It Comes” (“Time to laugh/Time to die,” etc.), “The Crystal Ship,” or the last, quiet minute of “The End” when they were new, but now you can hear an ugly momentum in the music, the music’s urge to catch up with the people who made it. Forget the soundtrack album, forget best-of’s and greatest hits; this is all you need, and, maybe, all there ever was.


    Very, Very Powerful Motor (Pop-Llama). Unreconstructed punk with a lot of melody, no apologies (though there is a tune called “Apologies,” along with“Trouble Sleeping,” “What To Expect,” “I Won’t Regret,” and “I Guess”), and Kim Warnick, for whom singing flat is just a form of realism.


    Mall (Poly-Gram). Where you don’t pick up pennies because you don’t want anyone to think you have to.

  8. H. L. GOODALL, JR.

    Living in the Rock N Roll Mystery—Reading Context, Self, and Others as Clues (Southern Illinois University Press, $26.50). An argument that “interpretive ethnography is to cultural studies what rock n roll is to social life,” though the real questions here have to do with what “rock n roll” is, and the balance between social life and one’s own life, finally unshareable no matter how loudly one shouts the awful facts. “In addition to the lives we lead we also live lives we don’t lead,” Goodall says; now on stage with his band, now following realtors around as they inspect properties, he makes himself his own test case, switching sides as self and other, musician and fan, detective and dupe, social scientist and impostor.


    Encyclopedia of Southern Culture. vols. 1–4 (Anchor, $15.95 each). Speaking of impostors. . . .


    Tonite Let’s All Make Love In London (See for Miles reissue, 1968). To end our mini-’60s survey, this weird artifact: the augmented soundtrack to a forgotten Swinging London movie by Peter Whitehead. Pink Floyd offers nearly half an hour of intriguingly vague psychedelic music; one Vashti sings bits of the charmingly innocent “Winter Is Blue”; and various people talk about various aspects of the New World, from Edna O’Brien on sex to Mick Jagger on his plans to go into politics to Michael Caine and Lee Marvin (what’s he doing here?) on miniskirts: Marvin is pro, Caine is con. It’s a lot of fun, and pathetically trivial: people trying to describe the enormous energies of change and having a hard time thinking of anything to say. But then you run into White-head’s 1990 liner notes: “Never forget that what that time meant to the people who were responsible for creating that whole period and mood . . . was the love of freedom, in the profound sense, the hatred of fascism, in every sense. . . . ” He goes on: “It was a time of anarchy, yes, but also a time of sowing . . . seeds of hope and the future. Those seeds are continuously sprouting in the most unexpected places, and there are a lot of them still under the soil. . . . Keep an eye on those verges at the side of the concrete road. . . . those margins at the side of that colossal text, that thrust of rationality and falsification. . . . Be ready when it comes—the flood—Salome dancing again—the demise of history.”

    I found it hard to gainsay a word; I put the disc back on and tried to make it give up even a hint of what Whitehead was talking about. It didn’t. Someone was crazy, but I don’t know who.