PRINT May 1992


Greil Marcus

Greil Marcus’ “Sixty-eight Eight-sixed” appears in the first number of the journal Common Knowledge, published by Oxford University Press. He is a contributing editor of Artforum.


    DominaDea (RecDec Distribution, Zurich, Switzerland). Magda Vogel sings in Spanish, English, Italian, French, and Dada. The whole brings up the spirit of a dubbed 1930s Czech spy movie, or the enchanting, disturbing tones of Ildiko Enyedi’s 1989 My 20th Century, a film from Hungary—borders slipping around a center hard with consequence and danger. This precise, experimental quartet, which can ride a good beat when it finds one, shares a field with Pulnȯc; as Central Europe returns to history, a new music is perhaps a half-step ahead.


    Last Sessions, 1933 (Rounder). “The Father of Country Music”—and the first great white bluesman—made these recordings just days before his death from tuberculosis, and in moments they are wrenching, with no parallels I know of. On “Blue Yodel No. 12,” Rodgers fades the word “home” in the line “I know she’s never coming home.” He’s trying to disguise the rasp in his chest, but his technique and his commitment to the song are such that he produces something very different: an instant of absolute blues, where a certain word, a certain signifier, is so hurtful it can’t be borne. The conventional blues device is to drop the word and play up its absence on guitar. Rodgers lets the word surface—and then, as if by hoodoo, he makes it disappear.

    With “Yodeling My Way Back Home” he can make nothing disappear. His wails build between the verses, until very soon he is plainly going too far. Neither his formal structures nor his persona can contain the fear and acceptance in the death sound he’s making. It’s not easy to listen to; the vibrations of his voice unbalance the room. It’s like the last shots of F. W. Murnau’s Tabu, with Matahi swimming to his death against the tides, chasing the skiff that has taken Reri—which, as Pauline Kael has written, “is headed for nothing so commonplace as land.”


    Way Past Cool, a novel (Farrar Straus Giroux). In Oakland, “the Friends”—a tiny gang of 12- and 13-year-old black boys—try to create comradeship and enforce decency on their few blocks of turf, in “a blind fight for a freedom they knew existed but saw only as secondhand shadows behind a TV screen. It was like the ancient cartoon where a starving wolf tried to eat a picture of a Thanksgiving turkey.” The threat of murder and the temptation of addiction, of oblivion, are constants; no one has any reason to expect to grow up. Again and again, you have to remind yourself how young the characters are. From the kids to the 16-year-old dope dealer who functions as the devil to his tortured bodyguard—the real focus of the story—each can believe he’s seen or done too much for adulthood to promise any mysteries. Not having enough to eat is a leitmotiv, and so is the closed nature of the society the Friends inhabit, where “San Francisco” and “cable cars” are references to another planet. As are stray mentions of Oakland’s rap heroes. Hammer, Too Short—their hits have been sucked out of this vacuum, leaving only a vague sound of mockery, an Oakland without music.


    Please Panic (Caroline/Safehouse). The insinuating power of this combo has a lot to do with the lightness with which it approaches almost every tune—and the nearly subliminal weight provided by Helen Kirklin’s viola. Just as central is an odd sense of distance. The emotional economy is almost always teenage—the people in the songs react with the confusion, woundedness, and pride of teenagers—but the guitarist and lead singer, Robert Ray, is the 48-year-old director of film and media studies at the University of Florida. He doesn’t remember, and he doesn’t relive. Like the couple in Almost Grown, a TV series of a few years back where the same actors played themselves from their teenage 1960s to their middle-aged ’80s in constant flashbacks and flashforwards, Ray feels for the contours of the present and discovers an unresolved past.


    Turning Point (Profile). Old-fashioned reggae, full of petty musical theft, heart-stopping dub piano, lunatic dance-hall rock, strange effects (what is that chirping bird doing on “Lipstick”?), and, on the back cover, an outfit that could bring back the zoot suit.


    “Then There Were Two?,” review of unreleased Bill Clinton video (LA Weekly, March 20–26). “The next church is Union Missionary Baptist on Chicago’s Westside. . .with a congregation that is black working class and poor and that practices religious rituals not far removed from the members’ Mississippi roots. The music, though, is pure Chicago: organ, piano, electric guitar, and drum kit. . . .‘The church is not a place for saints, but for sinners,’ [Clinton] begins, ‘but all of us are called to do the Lord’s work.’ Amens echo again—and the organ and drums, too; apparently, they will accompany Clinton throughout. . . .He omits his statistics on rising income inequality and conveys their sense in short rhythmical sentences: ‘It is honestly true, more people are working harder for less.’ He cites experiments in tenant-managed projects, model schools, community development banks. After each, he says ‘If it can be so, why can’t it be so everywhere else?’ The drums roll, the guitar and organ riff for a second, the amens rise. ‘We are tired of being divided by race!’ (Music and amens.) ‘We are tired of being divided by gender!’ (Music and amens.) ‘We are tired of being divided by income!’ (Music and amens.) And then, raising his voice, he closes with scriptural passages about faith and redemption; he shouts it over the music and the congregation’s own shouts, and he leaves the crowd in ecstasy.”

  7. PiL

    That What Is Not (Virgin). With the Sex Pistols, as a great ranter John Lydon was also a great singer; grabbing words with his teeth, he twisted them into new shapes before he swallowed them. But for years now he’s merely chanted, forcing his lyrics and his bands into the same square boxes. Here there are hints of jailbreak by both the musicians and Lydon himself. Sometimes it almost seems as if you’re listening to a real person.


    “Reverence”/ “Heat” (Blanco y Negro/Warner Music, UK). The top spin is a dull grind on hero fetishism (“I want to die like JFK,” etc.); the buried cut breaks in all directions with the wah-wah of the gods.


    Nymphs (DGC). Hellfire from Los Angeles. In concept.


    Texas Funeral (Fist Puppet/Cargo reissue, 1985). A guy who’s been listening to too much Beat Farmers breaks into a radio station just over the Mexican border and turns on the transmitter, but he’s deep in his second bottle and he can’t keep the microphone in focus. “Officer,” he warbles from his “Texas Jailcell” (along with the title cut there’s also “Texas Cyclone,” “Texas Wine,” “Texas Polka,” and so on), “this Indian says he needs some sexual healing.” Play this next time somebody brings up the Cowboy Junkies; it’ll drive them right out of the room.