PRINT April 1992


Greil Marcus' Real Life Rock

Greil Marcus is a contributing editor to Artforum. His most recent book, Dead Elvis, received a Ralph J. Gleason Music Book Award earlier this year; several chapters were originally published in Artforum.

  1. Vulgar Boatmen: Please Panic (Caroline/Safehouse)

    I left town two days after first playing this light, irreducible set of songs about falling into ordinary love affairs and getting into your car and driving away; for four days “Calling Upstairs,” “You Don’t Love Me Yet,” “You’re the One,” and “Allison Says” drew in Buddy Holly’s “Well All Right,” the Young Marble Giants, John Cale, the Fleetwoods, General Johnson and beach music, and spun them all off. The numbers played so casually in my head, the drift of one tune breaking off only to be picked up by the melody of another, and the songs seemed not made but found—but if it were that easy the songs would be faceless, and the people in them come to life as soon as they’re named. More next month.

  2. Malcolm McLaren, director: The Ghosts of Oxford Street, 25 December 1991 (BBC4, UK)

    This TV fantasia (with Happy Mondays, Sinead O’Connor, Shane McGowan, and others) was conceived by McLaren in art school in the ’60s, and its nostalgia is less for the London shopping street than for the idea of the film itself. Planned as a history of the street, it is realized as a Christmas special, with McLaren as Anticlaus. But while he appears all over the place—as Fagin, as interlocutor, as a little (bad) boy—he may be most present in Tom Jones’ Gordon Selfridge, the American entrepreneur who drew a million people to his great Oxford Street department store in the week it opened in 1909. It’s funny to have “Selfridge” cover Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want)” before the fact, though the joke goes on too long without getting any better. But then McLaren explains how Selfridge looted his own company, how at 84 he was forced out, how every day he returned to stand in front of his store in shabby clothes, wondering, like any shopper, at the marvel he’d built. With real heart, Jones sings “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” and the scene runs aways from its story, and into McLaren’s: the agony of victory, the thrill of defeat.

  3. Wedding Present: Seamonsters (RCA)

    As always, as a guitarist David Gedge of Leeds seeks that faraway margin where repetition doesn’t repeat but doubles back on itself, when sound turns into a snake, swallows its own tail, and comes out the other end, the listener still looking in the wrong direction. But as a singer he now refuses to budge: his voice is rough, pebbled, grinding, all fatalism. He pulls against his own music; he loses.

  4. Digital Underground: “No Nose Job,” on Sons of the P. (Tommy Boy)

    Oakland rapper Eddie Humphrey III has a lot of people bouncing around in his voice, among them a stunned ’50s hipster and Alfred E. Neuman—but instead of big ears he’s got a big nose. He insists on its social function in the context of stardom: trimming the bone for better video presence really means “bailing out of the community and place where you come from.” Is that why so many faces on MTV seem to come from nowhere?

  5. Burning Spear: Marcus Garvey/Garvey’s Ghost (Mango CD reissue, 1976)

    As a tribute to the founder of the Jamaican/American Back-to-Africa Movement—Garvey was born in 1887 and died in 1940; I don’t know why the set proclaims “SPECIAL RELEASE TO CELEBRATE THE 100TH ANNIVERSARY OF MARCUS GARVEY’S BIRTH”—the first disk, with Winston Rodney’s singing, convinces you he’s still dead. The second, the coolest dub album ever made, is proof he’s still waiting.

  6. Scarface of the Geto Boys: Mr. Scarface Is Back (Rap-A-Lot/Priority)

    Houston gangster rap: sex ’n’ death as rape ’n’ murder. It’s ugly, even evil, disgusting—yet pushed to such extremes of cynicism, self-loathing, and shame that hesitation rises up in the midst of every act.

  7. All-Star Band with Special Musical Guest Bob Dylan

    “Like a Rolling Stone,” Late Night with David Letterman 10th Anniversary Special, February 6 (NBC). Carole King, piano, lit up the screen; guitarist Chrissie Hynde and organist Paul Shaffer played their instruments for percussion; after standing in for the devil in the film Crossroads, guitarist Steve Vai looked thrilled to have God on his side; and Dylan was merely along for the ride that, by this time, in these hands, the song could produce of itself.

  8. Londonbeat: “I’ve Been Thinking About You” (Radioactive/RCA)

    A multicultural groove patched together from a little-note South African rhythm guitar, a guitar solo left over from Marty Robbins’ “El Paso,” and a vocal that might as well be by Billy Ocean—the sound the Fine Young Cannibals would be making, if they were still making sound.

  9. Harry Connick, Jr.: “The Star-Spangled Banner,” at the Superbowl, January 26 (CBS)

    His hair was raised so high he looked like he was wearing the Statue of Liberty on his head. Too bad it wasn’t last year; he could have tied a yellow ribbon around his neck.

  10. Elvis Presley: Collectors Gold (RCA 3-CD set, 1960-69)

    This set of rehearsals and outtakes has been rightfully dismissed, but it has its moments, and the most suggestive comes with a warm-up for “Going Home,” a throwaway ballad from 1968. “PAPA OO MAU MAU papa oo luau mau papa oo mau mau,” Elvis announces. “Be talkin’ in unknown tongues here in a minute.” Before the band can stop him he slides into a distant second of “I Got a Woman,” and you can imagine he is going to take the song home, back to the glossolalia from which both he and it came, the primal swamp of deliverance and revelation—Well, of course not.