PRINT February 1993


Greil Marcus' Real Life Rock

Greil Marcus is a contributing editor of Artforum

  1. Jonathan Richman

    I, Jonathan (Rounder). Good news: from the premier regressive in pop music, his best album since the ’77 Rock ’n’ Roll with the Modern Lovers. The sound is living room pristine, the technique a wave at second-rank ’50s rockabilly and particularly unaccomplished ’20s country blues, and the instrumentation is extant, barely: that is, Richman and friends can make a guitar, tambourine, and handclaps feel like a whole band. Material includes a rediscovery of surf music (“Grunion Run”), a rewrite of “Gypsy Woman” into “I Was Dancing in the Lesbian Bar” (“Well, the first bar, things were stop and stare/But in this bar, things were laissez-faire”—he pronounces it two different ways, both correct), a heartwarming tribute to the Velvet Underground (“America at its best”—now that Richman’s transcended his influences he can wallow in them), and the hysterical “Rooming House on Venice Beach.” Starting with a normal beat, Richman is soon falling over himself with the gross hippiness of the place; he sings as if he still can’t believe he was ever there. “The ancient world was at my reach,” he chants, but he means people who were ’60s relics long about, oh, 1970: “The ancient drunk guys/Passing the cup,” or “The weirdo weird guys/Passing the hat.” As social history this ranks with the fabled “Dodge Veg-O-Matic,” the Modern Lovers’ number about the worst car ever made. Bad news: title is sort of dumb.

  2. Bob Dylan

    Good As I Been to You (Columbia). Solo versions of very old ballads and prewar blues standards—“other people’s songs,” but these songs are as much Dylan’s as anyone else’s, and he sings them with an authority equal to that he brought to Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” in 1962. The authority is not the same, though; there’s more freedom in it now. “Little Maggie” is always played for its melody, but Dylan goes for its drama, the drama of a weak, scared man in love with an unfaithful drunk. The music is cut up, stretched, snapped back: each line opens with a stop, and at its end just fades out. The more historical numbers—18th- and 19th-century tales of, to be blunt, imperialist class war and primitive capitalist exploitation—are personalized, Dylan inhabiting the first-person narratives as if he lived them twice. It’s only after a time, when the melancholy and bitterness seem too great for one voice, that you hear them as history, as more than one man’s plight. Finally all of the story is shared, the singer only its mouthpiece, medium for private miseries within the great sweep of disaster; these songs are yours as much as anyone else’s. As for the guile, the slyness, the pleasing cynicism in the singer’s voice—he gets to keep that.

  3. Bikini Kill

    Bikini Kill (kill rock stars 12“ e.p, 120 State Ave. NE, #418, Olympia, WA 98501). Singer Kathleen Hanna on her influences: ”Fourteen women in Montreal.“ This disc—the first generally available release from this hard, cruelly funny band—offers five rumbling tales of sex and violence, plus the live ”Thurston Hearts The Who," in which roiling noise accompanies the onstage reading of a review Bikini Kill didn’t like. Sounds stupid, but it’s like a house burning down.

  4. Gabriel Yared

    music in The Lover, dir. Jean-Jacques Annaud (MGM). In the sex scenes, which are severe and modest, avoiding both high theater and porn pomp, Yared’ssynthesized soundtrack produces depth: the epic passion Annaud can’t show. The music is mechanical, slowed down Clash of the Titans stuff.

  5. Dada

    “Dizz Knee Land” (I.R.S.). “I just ran away from home,” begins a laconic, bored voice. “Now I’m going to Disneyland. . . .” It seems little remembered that when Ronald Reagan left the White House, he had it in mind to set a plant in the crowd of reporters lined up to shout at him as he boarded the helicopter. “What are you going to do now?” the plant was supposed to yell, and of course Reagan would flash the grin: “I’m going to Disneyland.” Hey, it was an easy 50 grand—but killjoys like James Baker squelched the move as “unpresidential,” not understanding that Ronald Reagan took power from the great cliché, hiding in its light.

    Well, it’s an old story. It almost hides the true horror of the “I’m Going to Disneyland” buy, as the likes of Joe Montana rush off the field after winning a national championship, all pumped up to say the right thing when the plant gives out with “Whaddaya gonna do now?” The horror is in the way Disney now nails down rights to what had previously been understood as subjective responses to unrepeatable moments. The little exchange of set phrases, accompanied by the exchange of a large but not that large amount of money (the real payoff is in being selected to say the magic words), signals the ability of a corporation to completely commodify individual emotion—to destroy, symbolically, any realm of privacy.

    Dada, an L.A. trio whose sound is as dulled as its singer’s tone, forces the Disney conspiracy to accept the subjectivity it means to deny. The song turns “Disneyland” (the “Dizz Knee Land” titling obviously meant to protect Dada from Disney’s notorious trademark cops) into a perfect blank: the place you go when you can’t think of anything else to do, when you haven’t got the energy to choose one road over another. “I just crashed my car again/Now I’m. . . . ” “I just robbed a grocery store. . . . ” “I just tossed a fifth of gin. . . . ” The song was released late in 1992, and by now people ought to be singing it on Main Street.

  6. Television fairy

    serendipitous Beatle night, U.S. TV, 4 December 1992. If you ever get the feelingthat there is a momentum, or inertia, in our more or less official cultural industries to fix a single point of reference, this evening—or rather simply a single 10-11 P.M. slot would have done for proof. On CNN, Larry King: “Good lineup next week—Mark David Chapman, who assassinated John Lennon 12 years ago, is with us next week!” But switch to ABC, to Barbara Walters and 20/20, and Chapman was already there, his devil-made-me-do-it responses intercut with home movies of John and Yoko mugging and trying to look gay. Click to NBC, and there’s Linda McCartney, explaining that fans resent her even now for taking their Paul away and, my god, enough of that, zip zip zip and here’s the Disney Channel, “The Making of Sgt. Pepper.” It was enough to make you wish the Beatles had never been—but the next night Disney was running A Hard Day’s Night. In that magical scene when the foursome escape their evil manager and settle in at a nightclub, with the dark mood of “Don’t Bother Me” in the background, you got to see Ringo and the tall, beaky blond guy invent the Pogo, and for an instant there was a sense that all was right with the world: that Barbara Walters and Larry King would end up in the same hell as Mark Chapman.

  7. Nirvana

    “In Bloom” video, dir. Kevin Kerslake (DGC). For a tune about people who don’t understand what they’re listening to, three early-’60s nerds appear on some local imitation Ed Sullivan Show. (The costumes are fabulous: drummer David Grohl’s short-hair wig looks like it’s made out of carpet remnant.) As they dribble out ’ the song, they change into pinheads in dresses, trashing the set and the music, then back again. It’s geeks to freaks—Tod Browning’s Freaks. As Kurt Cobain writes in the notes to Incesticide (DGC), a collection of fugitive Nirvana recordings, “If any of you in any way hate homosexuals, people of different color, or women, please do this one favor for us—leave us the fuck alone! Don’t come to our shows and don’t buy our records.”

  8. Kathleen H.

    “RockStar” (Kill Rock Stars Wordcore, 1023 S. Adams, #418, Olympia, WA 98501). A woman in the audience hears Prince’s “Sister” and goes home to make a spoken-word 45 about the same story—incest from her side. Her boyfriend, listening, throws up.

  9. Hal Hartley, writer,director, coproducer

    Simple Men (Fine Line Features). In a roadhouse, three people high-step to Sonic Youth’s “Kool Thing” as two others appear to waltz to it. Then a cut to the next scene: hours later, everybody drunk and delving into the Madonna mystery, weighty issues of control, gender, domination, how to avoid passing out (“Hey,” one person says, “I thought we were talking about music”), until finally it is resolved that, yes, Madonna is the owner and producer of her own self, product, image, body, signifier, and then a killjoy asks, “What about the audience?” Answer: “Well, what about it?”

  10. Bob Dylan

    “Froggie Went A-Courtin,’” on Good As I Been to You. If it seems as if this little children’s ditty doesn’t fit with the accounts of betrayal and loss that make up the rest of the album, listen again. Especially to the last two verses, when the wedding party ends in the massacre of the bride and groom.