PRINT November 1992


Greil Marcus' Real Life Rock

Greil Marcus is a contributing editor of Artforum.

  1. Lucious Curtis

    “High Lonesome Hill,” on the various-artists anthology Mississippi Blues—Library of Congress Recordings 1940–1942 (Travelin’ Man, c/o Interstate Music Ltd., P.O. Box 74, Crawley, West Sussex RH11 OLX, England). With the national music companies no longer digging up the South, folklorist John Lomax came to Natchez in 1940 to make field recordings. Among those whose songs he cut into his 12-inch acetates one Saturday was singer-guitarist Curtis, working with second guitarist Willie Ford. Curtis never recorded again, and if there is another country blues performance quite like “High Lonesome Hill” I haven’t heard it.

    The tone is light, melodic, the vocal sly. The two guitarists find the pulse they will push and twist through the long instrumental passages of this four-minute-31-second sun shower, and the dynamics of the instrumentation are completely open, the excitement jumping ahead thirty or fifty years to prophesy the Allman Brothers’ “Blue Sky” and R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion.” You can get lost in this music, wonder what became of Lucious Curtis. But it’s the opening lines of the song that echo—again with that glancing attack, yet delivering a statement so weighted it can make you wonder where Lucious Curtis came from. The first line is broken up with hesitations, the second line is rushed, and the third line is a deep breath:

    Babe, I went, and I stood up,
    on some high old lonesome hill
    Babe I went and I stood up on
    some high old lonesome hill
    And looked down on the
    house where I used to live

    These are the words of a man who has seen all around his life, and is about to tell you everything he’s seen.

  2. Alison Krauss & Union Station

    Every Time You Say Goodbye (Rounder). Bluegrass fiddler Krauss sings in a warble that sounds first of all small. A second listen turns plaintiveness into toughness, and after that—well, her voice becomes a thing of real complexity, to the point where you can locate the soul in “Who Can Blame You” in the way she communicates that she doesn’t believe a word she’s singing.

  3. Bill Buford

    Among the Thugs (Norton, 1992). This is a book about crowd violence and English football fans: a milieu that caught up American-in-Britain Buford for eight years. His conclusion is extreme: “This bored, empty, decadent generation consists of nothing more than what it appears to be. It is a lad culture without mastery, so deadened that it uses violence to wake itself up. It pricks itself so that it has feeling, burns its flesh so that it has smell.” Buford’s prose is almost unique these days: first-class, yet seemingly ordinary, straight, and never calling attention to itself (try reading P. J. O’Rourke after Buford—it can’t be done). The result is a noisy book about the fascist possibilities of Western democracy: “A crowd had been made by the people who had stepped into the street, and everyone was aware of what they had done; it was a creative act.” And what was created? “They were all strangers. This march was a march of strangers. More to the point: this march was a march. It recalled not football crowds, but demonstrations or protest rallies. You could see the surprise in the faces of the people near me; they had created something big, but weren’t sure how they’d done it.”

  4. Ramones

    “Poison Heart,” from Mondo Bizarro (Radioactive). The Ramones began as kings of irony, but Joey Ramone is most present when his heart is bleeding all over his sleeve. As on “Bonzo Goes to Bitburg”; the touching he-doesn’t-wanna-be-buried-in-a “Pet Sematary” (given Joey’s ruling pinhead persona, his fear is credible); and this ditty, all cornball angst and thrilling negative uplift.

  5. Hopey Glass

    “Great Lost Recordings,” in The Wire #102, September 1992 (c/o Back Issues, 45–46 Poland St., London W1V 3DF, £3 postpaid). Glass on “My Happiness,” Elvis’ first, for-his-mother recording, as it surfaced 37 years after the fact, and why no one paid attention: “Sung to Gladys or himself, or the young Gladys in himself, [it] says quiet gentleness can also be an unearthly force.” At full length, as Glass seeks to understand Elvis not as a rebel but as a mother, a cultural mother, this is the most sophisticated and risky music criticism I’ve read in a long time, and a match for William Carlos Williams on Abraham Lincoln: “The Great Rail-splitter’s ‘All I am or ever hope to be I owe to my angel mother’; the walking up and down in Springfield on the narrow walk between the two houses, day after day, with a neighbor’s baby, borrowed for the occasion, sleeping inside his cape on his shoulder to give him stability while thinking about coming speeches. . . . The least private would find a woman to caress him, a woman in an old shawl—with a great bearded face and a towering black hat above it, to give it unearthly reality.”

  6. Fred Bronson

    The Billboard Book of Number One Hits (Billboard/Watson-Guptill, 1992). The third edition (“Rock Around the Clock” through Vanessa Williams’ “Save the Best for Last”) of one of the most entertaining and informative books ever written about pop music. The format is strict—one page with pic per disc—and depending on whether he’s writing about one-hit wonders Maurice Williams & the Zodiacs or four-time chart-topper Roxette, Bronson can cram the whole of a singular career into less than 1,000 words or stretch a pointless one over several pages without ever seeming bored. Exasperated, that’s another story.

  7. Lynn Hope

    Morocco” (Saxophonograph reissue, 1950–55, Sweden). Hope—a.k.a. Al Hajj Abdulla Rasheed Ahmed—had a national hit in 1950 with “Tenderly,” a sweet, snazzy sax instrumental typical of his relaxed style. Though you can imagine Big Red Little in the audience, you don’t hear Hope’s faith in Islam in his music—he led the only all-Muslim band in the country, turban on his head, fezzes for the rest—you hear rhythm & blues on the verge of taking shape, and then taking one step back.

  8. Johnny Shines, HenryTownshend, Lonnie Pitchford, Honeyboy Edwards, Railroad Maintenance Crew, et al.

    Roots of Rhythm and Blues—A Tribute to the Robert Johnson Era (Columbia), and George Thorogood: “I’m a Steady Rollin’ Man,” from The Baddest of George Thorogood and the Destroyers (EMI). Proof of Robert Johnson’s genius: there’s more of his spirit in Thorogood’s trash bonus track for a greatest-hits package than there is in a reverent tribute by the Smithsonian Folklife Festival.

  9. Paul Schrader, writer and director

    Light Sleeper (Fine Line Features). Lousy as they almost always are, Schrader’s films almost always contain elements of obsession that cough up incidents so intense they all but come loose from their own movies. This time not even Michael Been’s obese soundtrack songs can filter what goes on in Dana Delany’s face. There’s a look in her eyes as she sits in bed with Willem Dafoe—a fluttering anticipation of ecstasy unto oblivion—that might have satisfied Louise Brooks. And too soon after that a look of such abasement and self-loathing even Brooks might have flinched at it.