PRINT November 1993


Greil Marcus’ Real Life Rock

Greil Marcus is a contributing editor of Artforum. Lipstick Traces, a soundtrack album for his book of the same name, was recently released in the U.K. and Europe by Rough Trade Records.

  1. Otis Spann

    “Hotel Lorraine” and “Blues for Martin Luther King,” from the anthology Rare Chicago Blues, 1962–1968 (Bullseye Blues/Rounder). “On the fourth of April/In the year nineteen and sixty-eight/Yes! On the fourth of April. . . .” It’s the next day, in a storefront church on 43rd Street in Chicago, the day after Martin Luther King was shot. Outside, the riots are beginning: “The world was all up in flames.” Accompanied only by drummer S. P. Leary and some shouting from Muddy Waters, blues pianist Otis Spann is bringing the day into focus. He pulls his words out of the air: his piano opens “Hotel Lorraine” with the same unanswerable sense of foreboding he and others had found ten years before in Little Walter’s “Blue and Lonesome.” God is judging us as we speak, the sound says—so speak truly.

    “Blues for Martin Luther King” was issued as a single on the Cry label. with profits going to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; “Hotel Lorraine” remained unreleased until it appeared on a little-heard blues collection in 1977, seven years after Spann’s death, at age 40. His voice is now desperate, now stoic; his piano traces familiar blues runs with such passion it’s as if the blues came into being exactly in anticipation of the need to answer to this event. For this is no representation, not even a version: this is the event itself, a voice in a room made of walls that may not last the day. A quarter-century later, the performances reach out of the past like the hand that comes out of the ground at the end of Carrie.

  2. Pearl Jam

    “Crazy Mary,” on Sweet Relief—A Benefit for Victoria Williams (Chaos/Columbia). Singer-songwriter Williams has MS and no health insurance. Thus this tribute album, featuring more or less neo-folk-rock folk from the Waterboys to Michelle Shocked to Evan Dando to Matthew Sweet, and like a lot of the singers, Williams’ songs have a fussiness about them—they’re self-conscious, self-referential, often calling attention to themselves. That’s as true of “Tarbelly and Featherfoot” (done here by Lou Reed) as of “Crazy Mary,” which comes on like a college-class short story inspired by Winesburg, Ohio. But when Eddie Vedder wraps his voice around the chorus—the more melody this guy has to work with the tougher he gets—an ominousness rises out of the piece, and it begins to suggest something altogether more vulgar, and deeper: the last page of “The Lottery,” maybe.

  3. J. T. Brown

    saxophone solo on Elmore James’ “Madison Blues,” on the anthology Blues Masters, Volume 6: Blues Originals (Rhino). It’s Chicago again, 1960, and Brown is barely in the band—his long, lazy notes float so freely on clouds of happiness and pleasure he’s barely on the record.

  4. Adam Green

    What Were You in a Previous Life? (Thunder’s Mouth Press, $7.95). Cartoons kin to Matt Groening’s “Life in Hell” strip, but less detailed, more blank (“Yet Another Cartoon That Fails to Address Class Struggle”), with pretty much three stock characters: office-worker male, office-worker female, plus cat as living non sequitur. You have to be there.

  5. Lisa Germano

    Happiness (Capitol). A lot of melody, a lot of dissonance—the fiddle player in John Mellencamp’s band gets her own thick, sensuous sound, drawing out her vocals with a tone that falls somewhere between sleep, a drawl, and a drunk. Having lowered expectations, she produces surprises all over the place: her “Sycophant” is the return of the Raincoats (whose post-punk gem Odyshape will be reissued next year on DGC), and her cover of “These Boots are Made for Walkin’” is better than Amy Tan’s.

  6. Moby Grape

    “Big,” on Vintage—The Very Best of Moby Grape (Columbia Legacy reissue, 1968). Compiler Bob Irwin has done a magnificent job reconstructing the leavings of this doomed band, which in the great days of the San Francisco Sound shared little with the Grateful Dead, the Jefferson Airplane, or the Quicksilver Messenger Service other than a couple of stages and a certain feel for the Old West—though by looking at people on the streets of the Haight in 1967 you couldn’t tell if their Old West came from the Gold Rush or Have Gun, Will Travel. Well, you can tell now, listening to this previously unheard, broken ramble: they go right back to the days of ’49 and don’t even try to make it home.

  7. Hanif Kureishi

    Writer and director: London Kills Me (New Line Cinema Home Video), and Cornershop: Elvis Sex-Change (W111JA ep, 130 Talbot Rd., London W11 1JA, England). Screenwriter (My Beautiful Laundrette) and novelist (The Buddha of Suburbia) Kureishi released his first film last year—the tale of a loose band of misfits a couple of hours away from homelessness and a few days away from suicide. London Kills Me was mercilessly savaged by British critics, but it’s hard to see why: not only is each character distinct, he or she makes claims on your attention at different times, and by the end of the movie the guy who at first seemed too stupid to bother with is more interesting than anybody else. A poor neighborhood where the mix of food smells is as confusing as the mix of languages on the street is captured with affection and a keen sense of the place as a dead end: the film almost asks you to feel superior to both its people and its milieu, but never does so itself, whether you do or not. Cornershop’s songs (including “Hanif Kureishi Scene”) are the tunes the people in London Kills Me would come up with if they weren’t too busy getting lost in Billy Liar or trying to escape from it. They’re all blocked gestures and creative exhaustion, stumbling stabs at anger or love. It’s music completely defined by its limits, and touching for just that quality.

  8. Cannanes

    “Frightening Thing” (K Records, Box 7154, Olympia, WA 98507). Sunny, guiltless girl-boy punk from Australia, with good teenage advice on the sleeve and an even better instruction on the label: “PLAY LOUD & LEAVE THE ROOM.”

  9. Firesign Theater

    Shoes for Industry!—The Best of the Firesign Theater (Columbia Legacy reissue, 1967–75). If you’ve lost your old lps by the best comedy group in the history of the phonograph record, this is a road back to a rather more convincing account of ’60s liberation than can be found in books. If you’ve never heard the most effective surrealists in the history of Dada, this is the place to start. But Peter Bergman, David Ossman, Phil Proctor, and Phil Austin are still around—why did they ever stop? “Our best albums,” Bergman told Steve Simels, who wrote the notes to this set, “had a theme underneath them—the War. And when the War was over, we lost our theme.” “There was something about the Eighties—the anti-surrealist politics of the Eighties—that was wrong for the Firesign Theater,” says Ossman. The group promises a new record, The Illusion of Unity, in 1994: “Sure enough,” Bergman says, “when we kicked the fascists out of office it was time for the Firesign Theater to come back.” If the record is any good the return of the Firesign Theater won’t make up for all of Bill Clinton’s failings, but it’ll make up for some of them.