PRINT November 1991


Greil Marcus' Real Life Rock

Greil Marcus is a contributing editor of Artforum and the author of Dead Elvis: A Chronicle of a Cultural Obsession, published this month by Doubleday.

  1. John Lee Hooker: “I Cover the Waterfront,” from Mr. Lucky (Charisma/Point Blank)

    At 74, the bluesman records with devotees gathered at his feet (here, Keith Richards, Albert Collins, Robert Cray, Johnny Winter, etc.), but he is not relaxed. With “I Cover the Waterfront” (not the standard, not exactly even a song), he takes the title phrase and for six minutes drifts through it, now a night watchman, now a night crawler. Booker T. Jones quietly vamps on organ, Van Morrison flicks brittle notes off a guitar, and Hooker seems to hold still, hovering over the docks and the water; there’s great calm in his voice, and certain death. It’s as if he died a long time ago, long since came to terms with that fact, but wants another look.

  2. James Carr and the Commitments

    James Carr: “The Dark End of the Street,” on You Got My Mind Messed Up (Goldwax/Vivid Sound reissue, 1966, Japan), and the Commitments: “The Dark End of the Street,” in The Commitments, directed by Alan Parker (20th Century Fox). Carr was only about 24 when he recorded this ballad about adultery that makes “(If Loving You Is Wrong) I Don’t Want to Be Right” seem like Whitney Houston material—but he sounded much older, or maybe ageless. He’s been called “The World’s Greatest Soul Singer,” but if his style is the essence of the genre he’s also defined by it, and never escapes it. There’s terrible fright when he almost stops “The Dark End of the Street” to call out, “They gonna find us, they gonna find us,” but then he’s rescued by the very classicism of his own performance.

    A quarter-century later the tune shows up in a movie about a fictional, present-day white Dublin band, a bunch of kids who want to play soul music—to carry the torch of freedom it once symbolized—or maybe just get heard, get around. So the musicians, backup singers, and lead singer Andrew Strong, 16 (looking 30, sounding 24?), haul the song onto the stage of their first-ever gig as if it’s a dead man’s corpse and it’s up to them to bury it, hide it, or bring it back to life. They’re amateurs, we’ve seen that their passion most often produces only bum notes, but this time Strong gets his hands around the dead man’s throat and begins to strangle air into him. Not even a memory of Carr’s restraint, his knowledge, remains in the song; the people on the screen seem to get bigger as the music seems to rise in volume. The performance is crude, noisy, sweaty, confused, a mess, and there were tears on my face before it was half through.

  3. Duncan Browne: Give Me Take You (Immediate/Sony Music Special Products reissue, 1968)

    Pre-Raphaelite rock, and one of a kind.

  4. Geto Boys: We Can’t Be Stopped (RAP-A-Lot/Priority)

    The Geffen label dropped this Houston outfit’s first disk for excessive violence, misogyny, and necrophilia, and there’s plenty of ho’-bitch spew on number two. But spinning hard at the center, so hard it throws off almost everything else, is “Mind Playing Tricks on Me,” something between a bad dream and a reverie—the sort of confession that has to be made to the whole world, never to a friend, because a friend might see you differently but the world won’t see you at all. Socially sanctioned (or anyway genre sanctioned) rage dissolves into a doubt that has no support outside of its own reality, its own vertigo; it calls up shades of empathy and regret that vanish before they can be named. Plus there’s “Trophy,” an anti-Grammy rant that scores with Elvis’ award for “Most Appearances Made After Death.” He can’t be present, “due to illness,” so accepting instead is—the Grateful Dead.

  5. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: “Out in the Cold” (MCA)

    You need ten random seconds on the radio to know you have to hear it again, two or three the next time around to know that you are. It’s nothing new: Petty’s been a hit machine since 1977, playing a loner sensitive enough to whine about being tough. Save for those rare exceptions when his songs are about someone else (“American Girl,” “Refugee”), his music has zero content, just rockabilly formalism. All that’s formally different this time is the breakup of the number by drums, not guitar—and yet the urgency is unstoppable. It’s by the book but it can sound like Petty’s got the only copy.

  6. Private Joke: “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” on All Things Considered (National Public Radio, August 29)

    As sung by Mikhail Gorbachev with postcoup lyrics, the closing shouts of “Hey, I’m back! I’m back!” echoing as if no one is listening.

  7. Negativland: “U2” (SST)

    The California collage unit makes fun of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” and so comprehensively you might begin to feel sorry for Bono. Among numerous interjections and found aural objects, the hook is a sample of D.J. Casey Kasem chirping “That’s the letter U—and the numeral two!” so many times he turns into Mr. Rogers. Squelched just weeks after release by U2’s label—if the band has a sense of humor they’ll put it out themselves.

  8. Van Morrison: Hymns to the Silence (Polydor)

    An ambitious career survey by means of 21 new songs, and finally flat, too clean, well-crafted, and lifeless. But there are moments, as when Morrison chants “Take me back” five times, and then, with complete disregard for rhythm or timing, caring for nothing but bitterness and exile, just says what he means: “To when the world made more sense.”

  9. Avengers: The Avengers (Target Video, 1978—try used-video or -music stores)

    The tape is dim and smudgy, the right tone for eight live shots from San Francisco’s best punk band. Target gets a little arty with “Car Crash,” intercutting a lot of stock car-crash footage and a highway patrolman setting up a roadblock. It takes a few seconds to realize it’s Ronald Reagan—in 1964, in Don Siegel’s version of The Killers, in his last and best role, as Mr. Big.