PRINT January 1994


Greil Marcus’ Real Life Rock

Greil Marcus is a contributing editor for Artforum. His “The Basement Tapes: ‘A Conspiracy,’” on Bob Dylan’s 1967 sessions with the Band, appears in the December issue of Mojo (U.K.).


    HI-FI SCI-FI (Chameleon). So smart and funny they could pass for American Kinks, this New Jersey guitar hand wears its heart on its collective sleeve with a shamelessness beyond any upstanding Englishperson. In “Work for Food” lead singer John Easdale, singing as himself, is pushing a shopping cart with everything he owns down the street (“The records never sold and that was that”); he tells you exactly what’s in it. He’s pathetic, a joke, not quite heartrending, and completely believable. It’s a great idea. But “Shadowless Heart” is a great song: slow, cool, disturbing, knowing, near death, like Social Distortion without the blood and guts—without the distortion. I play it over and over, and I still can’t tell: “You got a shadowless heart,” Easdale sings, but is that good or bad?

  2. JOHN IRVIN, director, SAM RESNICK and JOHN MCGRATH, writers

    Robin Hood (Fox Video). With Patrick Bergin underplaying the Errol Flynn in Robin and Uma Thurman playing Maid Marian as a swan—and featuring Jeff Nuttal, author of Bomb Culture and longtime mainstay of British bohemia, as Friar Tuck—this 1991 ambush of the Kevin Costner vehicle of the same year is sexy, wisecracking, deliriously hip, and a shock. Throughout the film, Saxon anticlericalism builds as a counter to Norman power (Tuck peddles holy relics—he’s got St. Peter’s finger—made out of chicken bones), eventually turning into outright paganism: the Merry Men invade the baron’s castle on All Fool’s Day, with Tuck as Lord of Misrule and everyone else costumed as animals, spirits, shamans, trees. Druidic ceremonies blast the Church like a hurricane blowing away a tract home.The Cross is toppled by the Golden Bough—and at the end, when Robin and Marian marry, it’s as king and queen of nothing so transitory as a manmade kingdom, but of the May.


    Pottymouth (Kill Rock Stars, 120 NE State, #418, Olympia, WA 98501). Three young American women have fun and experience, as the Slits once put it, and get more mileage out of the word “fuck” than the Mamas & the Papas did out of the word “yeah.” They’re so fast they burn up their own tracks, barely leaving a trace; it’s not individual tunes that stick in the mind but the thrill of making they all carry, sort of “Hey, Hey We’re the Monkees” armed with humor and obscenity.


    Jesus’ Son (HarperPerennial, $10). In these linked tales of losers circling around a bar so far below the normal economy that people try to pay with money they’ve copied on Xerox machines, the narrator sometimes notices too much: “seeds were moaning in the gardens” is supposed to be dope talking, but it’s Literature. Far more often, though, the holes that drugs and booze put in the narrator’s memory fill up with gestures that grow into acts that are recreated as compulsions, small pictures of fate. “The Vine had no jukebox, but a real stereo continually playing tunes of alcoholic self-pity and sentimental divorce”: using the cliché of the first description to disguise the unusualness of the second is real writing.


    Pussy Whipped (Kill Rock Stars). The original pointwomen (well, three women, one man) for riot grrrl, a movement now happily dismissed by the likes of Newsweek as last year’s fad (“Young feminists,” Jeff Giles wrote recently, “with RAPE and SLUT scrawled on their bellies”—sure sounds like a fad), prove they’ve only just begun to talk. They play the way good graffiti looks.


    “Mr. Jones,” on August and Everything After (DGC). “I want to be Bob Dylan!” Adam Duritz of Berkeley admits two-thirds of the way through this irresistibly desperate, demented song about stardom, a song that could be about almost anything else—the emotion is that loose, that confused. As for Mr. Jones, presumably the same one Dylan was after in “Ballad of a Thin Man,” he doesn’t seem like anyone to be trusted, though the singer does trust him, which means the trouble the music constantly suggests on this track ought to pay off elsewhere on the album, which it doesn’t.


    “Some Jingle Jangle Morning” (Kill Rock Stars). Airy, folky, but hard, too: a character out of one of Denis Johnson’s stories escapes from Johnson’s book, just like almost all the women in the book do, and then gives up on dope, as they probably don’t.


    Live at the Longbranch Saloon (Fan Club/New Rose, 25 rue du Général Leclerc, 94270 Le Kremlin Bicêtre, France). Mostly from a 1971 Berkeley show, back when Jonathan Richman wasn’t just odd but unbelievable: a pudgy world-class guitarist trumpeting naiveté as the fount of all values. The most perfect moment here, though, comes from a 1971 or ’72 show at Harvard. “I think this song is one of the worst songs that I’ve ever heard in my whole life,” guitarist John Felice says, introducing “Wake Up Sleepyheads.” “Thank you, John,” says Richman. “It’s really disgusting,” Felice continues, “and I really don’t want to play on it, but they’re making me.” “You like the chord changes,” Richman says. “I like the chord changes,” Felice admits, “but the words are horrible.” “That’s OK,” Richman finishes. “I sing the words, so it’s alright.” “But I hate the song—”


    White Country Blues (1926-1938): A Lighter Shade of Blue (Columbia/Legacy). Kicking off with “K.C. Blues” and “Cannon Ball Blues” (both 1929) by the uncanny West Virginia slide guitarist Hutchison, moving on to Charlie Poole with the North Carolina Ramblers’ “Leaving Home” (1926) and “If the River Was Whiskey” (1930), the first disc of this two-CD set is an almost perfect backdrop to Bob Dylan’s recent World Gone Wrong. The second disc is dead, but you won’t care.

  10. ROBERT ALTMAN, director, ALTMAN and FRANK BARHYDT, writers

    Short Cuts. Altman’s characters have sometimes taken his sneer away from him (McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Thieves Like Us, Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean), but the sneer does all the work in this film, though perhaps more economically than in the past. With Nashville Altman’s contempt for his material was so vast he had actors playing country singers write and perform their own songs; here he merely posits a nightclub with an all-black clientele (save for Tom Waits and a party that wanders in by accident) and an all-white jazz band, led by a white singer. Yes, it’s Annie Ross, who’s supposed to have seen better days, but the only thing phonier than her singing is her patter.