PRINT March 1992


Greil Marcus' Real Life Rock

Greil Marcus is a contributing editor of Artforum.

  1. Eleventh Dream Day

    Lived to Tell (Atlantic). Last April in these pages this fourth album from a Chicago four-piece seemed like a strong record; now it seems to cut loose from its time. And yet it is also exactly of its time: in its bitter, shamed embrace of exile and retreat, nailed again and again by Janet Beveridge Bean’s loud, stoic drumming—she’s learned something from Maureen Tucker, and something from Al Jackson. I come back to “It’s Not My World” every week or so, when there’s a need to redeem the ugliness of the news, to hide in the sound to be stretched out on Rick Rizzo’s long, tensed guitar passages as if they were a rack. Slipping into the lyrics that establish the song as just a set of stray fragments about how people are failing, are falling through the cracks, are finding that all doors open onto blank walls, you hit a chorus with no narrative connection to the bar talk you’ve been overhearing, but an absolute spiritual connection. The lyric jumps from third person to first, the singing is no longer conversational but stately, heavily cadenced, a curse read from some ruined pulpit: “Over and over / By and by / Living by habits / To get by,” the chorus begins, two people singing, but separately, as if they’ll never meet, don’t need to, don’t want to. “The world might be changing / Outside my door / But that’s not my world / Anymore.”

  2. Gordon Legge

    The Shoe (Polygon, 22 George Square, Edinburgh, Scotland, £7.95 paper, 1989). An expert, naturalistic novel about fandom as everyday life, nearly all of it: a few friends and their music in a nowhere town between Glasgow and Edinburgh. In their early 20s, querulous, trying to fend off cynicism and resignation, without real money or work, they talk about the radio, records, the pop press. They talk so intensely that if Jesus and Mary Chain’s “Never Understand” is “the spirit of the good,” another disk reflects the human spirit as cesspool. For all that’s shared, though—the attempt to act out in public the extreme feelings music provokes—fandom finally leaves each person a solitary, ruler of the kingdom of one’s own taste, and prisoner of it too. “I played Slippery People and Lady Marmalade three times each,” one character says to another. “The thing that bugs me about listening to my records is that nobody ever sees me when I’m that happy, and if they did they wouldn’t understand.”

  3. Gabriel Sibusi

    “Call Me Mister!,” from Flying Rock—South African Rock ’n Roll, 1950–1962 (Global Village cassette). An anthology of black South Africans reworking Elvis, Gene Vincent, the Drifters, Buddy Holly, etc., and surprising partly because it so precisely parallels the efforts of second-rank white American performers to do the same thing—from hopeless shouts of “Rog, rog, rog, everybody rog” (King’s Brothers’ “Zulu Rock”) to highly individualized attempts to shift steel-guitar phrasing into rockabilly (the Bogard Brothers’ “She Keeps on Knocking”). But Sibusi’s testament, recorded in the early ’60s, works on another level. As on a lot of the cuts, the instrumentation is only strummed acoustic guitar. The insinuating melody anticipates Desmond Dekker and the Aces’ 1969 reggae hit “Israelites” even as the vocal can recall New Orleans bluesman Rabbit Brown’s 1927 attack on “The Sinking of the Titanic” a smoldering, gloating attack, because the Titanic advertised itself as for Caucasians only. Sibusi’s subject is race, and the Titanic of his own country, and though he sings from the shadows, his bare affirmation today reverberates so powerfully you hope he’s alive to feel it: “I will never be as ashamed as much / As you think.”

  4. Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine

    101 Dalmatians (Chrysalis).This first album by two former London buskers is the noisiest and smartest record I’ve heard since early Wire—and more hysterical, in both senses of the word. It begins slowly; after five cuts the subject matter burns off its satire (“A Perfect Day to Drop the Bomb”) and the singing, or ranting, or insane critical recycling of pop references, leaves the world behind. Chuck Berry’s “Memphis” is smeared into “Long distance information get me Jesus on the line,” there’s a dialogue sample from (I think) Stan Freberg’s 1960 “The Old Payola Roll Blues,” and then a quote from Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message” so bloody and convincing (“DON’T / PUSH ME / ’CAUSE—”) you can’t believe the disk keeps spinning. I hope these guys stay healthy; they could change a lot.

  5. Nirvana

    Bleach (Sub Pop, 1989). A close call between this debut lp and the chart-topping Nevermind, but here there’s less of a stagger, more inexplicable leaps. And whatever Nevermind has, it doesn’t have anybody ending a song called “School” with terrorized shouts of “NO RECESS! NO RECESS!” And neither does anything else in the history of rock ’n’ roll.

  6. Lou Reed

    guitar solo, “Magic and Loss: The Summation,” on Magic and Loss (Sire). The talk-singing is no more pungent than elsewhere on this elegy, the lyrics are sticky (“There’s a bit of magic in everything / And some loss to even things out”), but there’s also a rising, hovering fuzztone that—to paraphrase Skip James on himself—has been and gone from places most music never gets to.

  7. Termites

    Do the Rock Steady (Heartbeat reissue, 1967). With this on you could do it underwater.

  8. Bob Seger

    “Like a Ruck,” in a commercial for Chevy trucks (NFL playoffs, NBC and CBS, December and January). I’m not sure why the running of this 1986 single over glowing slo-mo shots of blue-collar folk sweating, hugging, and high-fiving is so much more depressing than anything else of its kind. It’s not simply the use of Seger’s “I was 18, didn’t have a care, workin’ for peanuts” reverie to drive home the message that in hard times, low wages + uncomplaining labor = patriotism—or “TRAVAIL, FAMILLE, PATRIE,” as the Gang of Four put it on the cover of A Brief History of the Twentieth Century, reproducing a coin from Vichy France. It may have more to do with the fact that Seger sings so insistently in the first person. This is a voice you don’t often hear in commercials, the soulfully privileged “I”—though when you come down to it, it’s unclear whether it’s the worker or the truck that’s singing.

  9. Little Jack Melody with His Young Turks

    On the Blank Generation (Four Dots Records, P.O. Box 233, Denton, TX 76202). There are moments here—mainly in “Happily Ever After (West of Eden),” a nightclub fantasia in which Frank Sinatra is both Adam and Eve and gives birth to all culture—where this would-be Weimar combo (banjo, harmonium, tuba) actually comes close to its ambition of realizing George Grosz in sound. But you probably wouldn’t want to make too much of it.

  10. Nedra Olds-Neal and Michael Brooks,

    producers: The Words and Music of World War II (Columbia/Legacy double CD). This two-hour 23-minute documentary includes the expected words—excerpts from speeches by FDR, Neville Chamberlain, Churchill, plus copious Edward R. Murrow broadcasts and Axis propaganda from Tokyo Rose and Lord Haw-Haw. The shock is in the songs, from “Remember Pearl Harbor” (“We’ll die for liberty”) to “Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio” to “The Deepest Shelter in Town” to “Wonder When My Baby’s Coming Home” —if you ever wondered if rock ’n’ roll was really necessary, the answer is here. Save for a few numbers by the black, a capella Golden Gate Quartet (especially “Comin’ in on a Wing and a Prayer,” seemingly based on Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean”), there is not simply an absence but a negation of any true emotion, be it fear, pride, anger, excitement, love, pain. The exclusion of subjectivity is too complete to be explained by the propaganda needs of the Home Front the Home Front didn’t need a version of “When the Lights Go On Again” that makes Barry Manilow sound like James Brown. After two hours, it’s hard to feel anything but disgust, and confusion: how could any country win a war on music like this?

    But the narration—credited to Michael Brooks, script, and Gary Nunn, commentary—has all along been shifting, from stalwart to acrid, embattled to cynical. As General MacArthur announces the Japanese surrender, it shifts once again, into the real, which in the context that has been created is weird beyond weird: “The ghastly death and destruction, the broken promises, the men and the women physically and mentally destroyed by the war do not concern us here. For this is a fairy tale, and fairy tales must end happily. So let us relive that build up to everlasting love, peace, and happiness, in the bright new world of 1945.” And then into one Ginny Simms belting out “I’m Gonna Love That Guy.” And then enter the Firesign Theater.