PRINT September 1991


Greil Marcus' Real Life Rock

Greil Marcus is a contributing editor of Artforum.

  1. Gordon Burn: Alma Cogan

    (Secker & Warburg, U.K. Available from Reed Book Services, P.O. Box 5, Rushden, Northants. NN10 9YX, U.K., £16.49 postpaid; credit card #’s accepted).
    This first novel by a London journalist has an odd premise and a strangely naturalistic follow-through. Alma Cogan was Britain’s most popular female singer of the pre-Beatle ’50s; she died of cancer in 1966 at 34. But here, with Burn taking Cogan’s voice and writing in her first person, she has simply lived on in oblivion, in the nowhere of forgottenness Beatlemania would have ensured her in any case. In 1986, having had enough of it, she looks back and tells her story—and it’s an enchantment, full of rise-and-fall, name-dropping (“When Cary Grant. . .”), and reflection. The “chuckle in her voice” Cogan was loved for sounds throughout the monologue, though less comfortable sorts of laughter often drown it out; from the first page, you don’t need to have ever heard of Cogan to need to know what comes next. Burn’s real concern, though—I almost said “Cogan’s”—is not my-life but fame-death. Often the narrative, moving smoothly through an incident, tilts, tears, as Cogan, with perfect reserve, tries to explain: “To be the owner of a famous face, even in the days when mine was famous, in an age when the advertising and publicity industries were in their infancy, was an enlivening thing. You felt invigorated, extra-alive, knowing that you were out there somewhere, circulating, multiplying, reproducing, like a spore in the world, even when you were sleeping ....What’s happening [now] is like a real-life enactment of those television title sequences where an atomised image shinily reassembles itself, like an explosion in reverse.” This is spooky. It’s spookier, maybe, than the formal, bloody mystery that Burn has brought Cogan back from the dead to solve—and that turns out to be the kind of detective story one might write if one took Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle rather than the usual mean streets as a setting.

  2. Type O Negative: Slow, Deep and Hard (Roadrunner)

    Self-conscious heavy metal that matches its song titles (“Glass Walls of Limbo [Dance Mix] ,” “Prelude to Agony,” “The Misinterpretation of Silence and Its Disastrous Consequences”) only with the 12 minutes plus of “Unsuccessfully Coping with the Natural Beauty of Infidelity.” The singer’s self-hatred builds to a fury, a woman’s languorous moans wipe it away, the melody of “(I’m Not Your) Stepping Stone” refuses to die, but finally a pounding male chorus rides in for the rescue. “I know you’re fucking someone else,” the singer cries, and his brothers answer: “He knows you’re fucking. . .” “I know...” “He said he knows!” “I know!” “HE KNOWS!” She doesn’t care.

  3. Alexander “Skip” Spence: Oar (Sony Music Special Products reissue, 1969)

    Spence was the original drummer for the Jefferson Airplane, then leader and guitarist of Moby Grape, a band that dissolved when commercial hype destroyed its Haight-Ashbury cachet. After 22 years, Spence’s first and last solo album sounds like an autopsy performed on a bohemia that, if not quite dead, was ready to die—with the coroner in no better shape. Oar (with some numbers now extended and five cuts added) doesn’t equal the unholy horror of Dave Van Ronk’s 1966 MacDougal Street tribute, “Zen Koans Gonna Rise Again,” but Van Ronk was playing from at least a few steps away (“Enough time on that street would disintegrate anyone”), and Spence wasn’t.

  4. Michael Madsen: as Jimmy (Louise’s boyfriend) in Thelma and Louise (MGM/ Pathé)

    The best Elvis sighting of the season.

  5. Aaron Neville: Warm Your Heart (A&M)

    Lovely schlock, with a cover of Main Ingredient’s goopy “Everybody Plays the Fool” better than one of Randy Newman’s exquisite “Louisiana 1927,” probably because it gave Neville more to work with.

  6. X-ray Spex: Live at the Roxy Club (Receiver, U.K.)

    In 1977 in this London basement, teenage saxophonist Lora Logic meanders through Poly Styrene’s songs as if she’s never played before and probably won’t again. She drifts, but pushes the edges of the music into its center; she sounds at once completely lost and completely confident.

  7. Michael Mann, producer: Crime Story, 1986-88 (now running on USA cable)

    Chicago, 1963: cops track mobsters. As soon as a tune appears on the soundtrack—Bobby Bland, buried deep beneath nightclub noise for “I Pity the Fool,” or a killer twisting the dial to bring up just a primitive taste of Jimmy Reed’s “Bright Lights, Big City”—you believe the characters you’re watching are listening, and understanding every note.

  8. G-Clefs, Cleftones, Schoolboys, Students, etc.: Street Corner Serenade (Time-Life Music reissue, 1954-63)

    Doo-wop so self-referential (the Cellos’ “Rang Tang Ding Dong [I Am the Japanese Sandman]”), heedless (the Jewels’ “Hearts of Stone”), or confused (the Gladiolas’ “Little Darlin’ ”) that it never became classic, and now seems most of all unlikely.

  9. Siouxsie and the Banshees & Mecca Normal

    Siouxsie and the Banshees: “Overload,” from The Peel Sessions (Dutch East India reissue, 1978) and Mecca Normal: “Taking the Back Stairs,” from Water Cuts My Hands (K/Matador). With 12 years in the middle, the same shout at both ends.

  10. Mekons: The Curse of the Mekons (Blast First, U.K.) and Wallace Shawn: The Fever (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $8.95)

    Their 14 years as a transhistorical punk band have become the Mekons’ subject, but not in terms of career. Rather the Mekons’ subject is their quarrel with history, and their growing conviction that it means to leave them behind; Sally Timms, so quietly soulful she can make Rosanne Cash seem strident, sometimes makes this story feel fated, but it always hurts. In Wallace Shawn’s one-person perform-anywhere play, the subject is the impossibility of escaping from history, and there is no relief, no humor. There is simply the scream of a bourgeois sorcerer (to quote Marx, and the Mekons quoting Marshall Berman quoting Marx) who cannot get free of his magic, cannot break the contract that ties his comfort to torture, his priceless individuality to the facelessness of the poor, who must be made to “understand that the dreamers, the idealists, the ones who say that they love the poor, will all become vicious killers in the end, and the ones who claim they can create something better will always end up by creating something worse. The poor must understand these essential lessons, chapters from history. And if they don’t understand them, they must all be taken out and shot.”

    The Mekons are always exuberant, whistling in the dark, but this is tough stuff, no fun, sleepless nights: to be left behind by history is to have never existed at all. “Funeral,” about the collapse of Marxism—which on The Curse of the Mekons means any resistance to capitalism as the measure of all things—is “a dinosaur’s confession”: “This funeral is for the wrong corpse.” Shawn’s nameless tourist enjoying his cheap holiday in other people’s misery has a ticket to the funeral, but he doesn’t want to go: “Cowards who sit in lecture halls or the halls of state denouncing the crimes of the revolutionaries are not as admirable as the farmers and nuns who ran so swiftly into the wind.” Listen as you read, read as you listen, and you might be back in Bob Dylan’s “Memphis Blues Again”: “Now people just get uglier/And I have no sense of time.”