PRINT December 1992


Greil Marcus' Real Life Rock

Greil Marcus is a contributing editor of Artforum. He wrote the foreward to the new edition of Alexander Trocchi's Cain's Book (Grove Weidenfeld).

  1. Sinéad O’Connor

    War,“ on Saturday Night Live (NBC, October 3). For the record: live TV, O’Connor in a long formal gown, Star of David necklace, nose stud, chanting her rewrite of Bob Marley’s ”War“ a cappella, her face shifting by imperceptible degrees from saint to thug, rat to Hedy Lamarr. Then for the last line, ”The victory of good over evil,“ she produces a picture of Pope John Paul II, rips it into pieces: ”Fight the real enemy!“ On audiotape, no visuals, it’s so suggestive: ”Good . . . over evil," then just switch, switch, the sound loud in its oddity.

    This was a classic media shock. Even if you were with her all the way—after the fact—you had to realize that someone this intransigent will sooner or later put you on the other side. And if the act itself seems cheap, a setup, self-aggrandizing, ask yourself this: given the chance to say what I wanted to the whole country, would I have had the nerve?

  2. Bob Marley & the Wailers

    “War” (1976), on the 4-CD Bob Marley reissue Songs of Freedom (Tuff Gong). Originally the highlight of the mostly boilerplate LP Rastaman Vibration, and in fact Marley’s rewrite of a speech delivered in California in 1968 by Haile Selassie—then still Emperor of Ethiopia, and also “King of Kings, Lord of Lords, the Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah.” With Aston “Familyman” Barrett leading the way with bass notes more • ominously confident than anyone’s found since, and a chorus of closely gathered horns following at a distance, the speech is turned into music, and the politics changed from one man’s statement into a common rite.

  3. Darcey Steinke

    Suicide Blonde (Atlantic Monthly Press, $19). Very catchy jacket: nude blonde woman on rumpled bed lights cigarette. There’s not a moment in this increasingly tense short novel when the first-person narrator the cover girl’s standing in for is half so cool. As with most bohemias, punk slowly devolved toward oblivion and small-time criminal trade; set in San Francisco bad-news neighborhoods, this report on that milieu escapes the confines of genre. Near the end there’s a voyeuristic scene so fast, blunt, and cruel that when you’re told “her eyes were dead” there’s no surface to go beneath; Steinke works with blood, sweat, and semen, not metaphors.

  4. Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine

    at the Quake, San Francisco (October 6). Singer/guitarist Jim Bob and lead guitarist Fruitbat play with tapes carrying synthesized orchestrations that are at once huge and conveniently sized: they seem to fill a room precisely. That’s because lead actor Jim Bob’s physical and vocal timing is perfect, yet still comes off as no less spontaneous than any other rock performer’s moves. The drama, though, is unique. Fruitbat plays bemused sidekick—but after a few tunes his Faith No More T-shirt no longer seems to refer to that band. Jim Bob might be playing someone dying of AIDS who’s just realized Judgment Day is a con. Tall, thin, beaky, wearing a shirt covered with cartoon faces of the Big Bad Wolf, with just a buzz of brown hair save for a foot-long forelock he can shake for emphasis, Jim Bob has as evil a grin as you’ll ever see, and this night the music was so thrilling he only had to use it once.

  5. Bushwick Bill

    Little Big Man (Rap-A-Lot). To be young, four feet two inches tall, black, and conscious—a solo shot by the lead bad dream of Houston’s Geto Boys. “Where I’m from is a modern-day motherfuckin’ Vietnam,” he says plainly; movie suspense music keeps you hooked as crossing vocals trade violent fantasies and laments over how little is left of a chance for a decent life. The two sides come together with a true-crime track: “Ever So Clear,” the tale of how Bushwick, drunk on Everclear, tried to force his girlfriend to shoot him. She missed his brain but took an eye.

  6. Brenda Kahn

    Epiphany in Brooklyn (Chaos/Columbia). So you’re at this party and this woman with great legs has you backed into a corner with how much she’s talking, she’s smart, she’s really smart, she’s so smart and she talks so fast she sucks the air right out of the room. You were having fun till that happened.

  7. Beat Happening and Roger Korman

    You Turn Me On (Sub Pop/K Records), and Roger Corman, director: Teenage Caveman (Columbia TriStar video, $9.95). Yea, verily, and how weird. T’was with producer Jerry Dennon of Beat Happening’s own Great . Northwest that English pop star Ian Whitcomb recorded his horrible 1965 international smash “You Turn Me On.” Thus you can chalk up Beat Happening’s new album title—anomalous for this doggedly we’re-flat-and-we’re-proud trio—to cultural memory. But it’s unlikely their Olympia, Washington, hometown provides the connections that would have tipped them off that their tune “Teenage Caveman” would hit the stores the same season as the reissue of its namesake: an unbelievable 1958 oedipal drama starring a loin-clothed Robert Vaughn and a lot of dinosaurs. That convergence you have to credit to serendipity, or the fact that Beat Happening singer Heather Lewis’ heart is always in the right place. For more information, see Beat Happening 1983–85 (K/Feel Good All Over, Box 8428, Chicago, IL 60614), Jamboree (Sub Pop/K, 1988), and Dreamy (Sub Pop, 1991).

  8. Peter Gabriel

    When he’s on—as with “Come Talk To Me,” with Sinéad O’Connor making trouble in the background—he’s beginning to sound like Richard Harris looks.

  9. Dave Morey

    “10 at 10,” KFOG-FM 104.5, San Francisco (September 23). Running since 1982, Morey’s every-weekday show contextualizes “ten great songs from one great year” by combining often forgotten hits with audio documentary far richer than radio news ever offered in its own time. Morey creates the instant history the radio should have delivered, and the results are often startling, as with his Barry Goldwater montage from the 1964 election. He opened with a soundbite from Goldwater’s speech accepting the Republican nomination, cut to the candidate’s response to a student’s question about avoiding war (“Peace through strength”), to the Goldwater slogan that made so many people nervous, “IN YOUR HEART YOU KNOW HE’S RIGHT”—and then, with no pause whatsoever, Morey hit you in the face with the brittle opening chords of the Rolling Stones’ “Not Fade Away,” the Buddy Holly cover that introduced them to the U.S.A. Bomp budda BAH—it was no contest. This was a discourse contradiction, a discourse warp; the previous forms of speech disappeared, were rendered incomprehensible, turned into babble by the emotional clarity of a few harsh seconds of true rock ’n’ roll—a language that didn’t translate back. That this event—this imaginary event?—was anything but inevitable was proven by Morey’s next segue, into the Temptations’ “The Way You Do the Things You Do.” It made no breach; it translated into the political speech around it with ease.