PRINT February 1992


Greil Marcus' Real Life Rock

Greil Marcus is a contributing editor of Artforum. His book Lipstick Traces, 1989, was recently published by Leonardo editore, Milan, as Tracce di rossetto.

  1. Otis Rush

    “Double Trouble” (1958), on Groaning the Blues (Flywright LP, UK) or 1956–58: His Original Cobra Recordings (Flywright CD, UK). A year or so ago you could have heard Rush’s song as a personal statement or a Chicago blues classic, but not today. Now, bad times have expanded the music, blown it up: there are countless people traversing its two and a half minutes, and they grow smaller, more indistinct, as Rush’s voice gets bigger and his guitar moves like a virus. Sagging horns bring images of men and women walking the streets with their shoulders slumped; in the slow, hesitating drift of the main theme to the end of each chord progression, you can almost hear feet shuffling. “Some of this generation is millionaires,” Rush sings in bitter wonder, breaking the last word into three parts. “million-air-es,” making it fit the rhythm, but also making the word strange. The horns, guitar, and piano converge on the beat in a fury, but only for a phrase; then they separate, muted. as if they have nothing to say to each other. From line to line rage turns into embarrassment, oppression into shame. “You laughed at me walkin’, baby,” Rush shouts, then steps back like Paul Muni in I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang dropping into the shadows of the film’s last shot, the voice quiet now: “But I have no place to go / Bad luck and trouble have taken me / I have no money to show.” By this time there is no place in the city the music doesn’t touch, or anyway no closed door it isn’t knocking on.

  2. Gambang Kromong Slendang Betawi

    “Stambul Bila,” from Music of Indonesia 3: Music from the Outskirts of Jakarta (Smithsonian Folkways/Rounder). Nine minutes and 12 contemporary seconds in which you might imagine anything from a late-’30s Southeast Asian jazz band that got it all wrong to a troupe of original Dadaists who recorded underwater. At first the apparent complete disassociation between the drums, flute, stringed instruments, male singer, and female singer is funny; then boring; then it begins to make sense, and then you just barely miss the connection, just as Sydney Greenstreet puts the wrong piece of paper into Hugo Ball’s pocket in the weird nightclub of this song.

  3. Kid Bailey, Tommy Johnson, Bukka White, Willie Brown, Ishmon Bracey, Louise Johnson, Son House, and Bertha Lee

    Masters of the Delta Blues—The Friends of Charlie Patton (Yazoo reissue, late 1920s/early 1930s). Twenty-three cuts—and with both founder Patton (as a singer) and legatee Robert Johnson absent, this may still be the best country blues anthology ever assembled. The two guitars (House and Patton or Brown) on Son House’s original “Walking Blues” sound as clearly in the guitar line snaking behind John Mellencamp’s vocal in his new “Get a Leg Up” as they do in Johnson’s he-must-have-threehands playing: there’s no distance from here to there. But on some tunes—Kid Bailey’s whispery “Rowdy Blues,” anything by Tommy Johnson—music that in fact opened into the future, into our present, seems to close in on itself, to shut its own door. The echo that remains leaves you wondering: if these dead people are in some way my ancestors, who am I?

  4. Henri Lefebvre

    Critique of Everyday Life—Volume One (1947/1958), translated by John Moore (Verso, $39.95). In English for the first time (the 1971 Everyday Life in the Modern World was a tepid finale by comparison), this seductive, noisy, always querulous, always open text had its roots in the ’20s, in Marxism and Surrealism—which is to say that Marx is the judge, alienation is the crime, the commodity is the defense, Surrealism is the prosecutor, and you are both the victim and the accused.

  5. Howlin’ Wolf

    The Chess Box (Chess/MCA 3-CD reissue, 1951–73). A good sampler of the work of one of the major American artists of the postwar period, but the revelation of the digital transfer, which dulls the edge of guitarist Willie Johnson, is to foreground Hubert Sumlin, who replaced Johnson in 1954 as one of the great mysteries of the blues. Huge sheets of sound break off the performances like sheets of ice breaking off an iceberg; on the way to the sea they change into sheets of glass and the sea turns into pavement. The man behind Robbie Robertson’s most explosive music, from Ronnie Hawkins’ 1963 “Who Do You Love” to Bob Dylan’s 1966 “Albert Hall” version of “Ballad of a Thin Man,” Sumlin doesn’t seem to know where the beat is, or need to know. He’s an abstractionist; he could have played with Pollock.

  6. Chuck Berry, the Willows, Betty Boo, et al.

    Music from the Film “A Rage in Harlem” (Sire). Except for Robin Givens the movie’s a dud, and the music drowned out by gunfire and heavy breathing. But here new LaVern Baker bumps old Lloyd Price, Johnny Ace pleads for deliverance from Bo Diddley, James Brown meets Tommy Johnson in the form of Howlin’ Wolf, and it’s too badthere isn’t at least some Robin Givens dialogue. . . .

  7. FSK

    “Hitler Lives,” from Son of Kraut (Sub Up Records, Jahnstrasse 6, 8000 Munich 5, Germany). Founded in 1980, FSK now resembles the Mekons with a lot more yodeling and a frame of reference that frequently tunes into Armed Forces Radio. “Hitler Lives” was an AFR hit in 1947, a warning that the ideas had to be buried with the man; today, as HITLER LEBT! is proud graffiti and purification follows unification, FSK’s cool, country rendition is almost wistful, until it turns into a rave-up.

  8. Wir and Kevin S. Eden

    Wir: The First Letter (Mute/Electra), and Kevin S. Eden: Wire ...everybody loves a history (SAF Publishing Ltd., 123 Conway Gardens, Wembley, Middx. HA9 8TR, UK, £9.95 paper, available through See Hear. 59 E. 7th St., NYC, NY 10003). On disc, England’s original art punk band loses a letter, a member (Robert Gotobed, one of the all-time punk names, even if it was real), and comes back to life, unpredictable and nervy; on endless interviews, punctuated with photos of them dressing up like Sydney Greenstreet’s contact in the Cabaret Voltaire in 1916, they sound like anybody else.

  9. Clash

    Clash on Broadway (Epic/Legacy 3-CD reissue, 1977–82). From “White Riot” to “Ghetto Defendant,” it takes them five years to get from Rasta London to the Paris Commune. It’s an interesting trip.

  10. Daniel M. Pinkwater

    Young Adults (Tor paperback reissue, 1982/85, $3.99). This really is a “young adult novel”—in which five high school washouts reform as the Wild Dada Ducks, levy fines on each other for such crimes as uttering the word “life-style,” and foment a prank that leads to the election of the school’s least-known student to all student offices, his transformation into a dictator with absolute power, and the defeat of Dada by Heroic Realism. In other words, a parable of the 1918 Berlin Dada club as a crucible for Nazism.