PRINT April 1994


Greil Marcus' Real Life Rock

Greil Marcus is a contributing editor of Artforum. His Ranters & Crowd Pleasers: Punk in Pop Music, 1977-92 has just been published in paper by Anchor, New York.


    “Rebel Rebel,” on Traffic from Paradise (Geffen). One of the really great David Bowie songs, brought to life with the intimacy of two people off in the bathroom halfway through a concert, fixing their makeup and talking their heads off.


    The Vee-Jay Story (Vee-Jay 3- CD reissue, 1953–65). An imaginatively programmed assemblage of gritty, close-to-the-ground smashes and obscurities from the black-owned Chicago label that in 1963 brought America the Beatles (“Please Please Me” fell short of the charts; “From Me to You” struggled to #116) and went belly up three years later. For the paranoid inside story of the emergence and ruin of this pioneering company, see Joseph C. Smith’s novel The Day the Music Died, from 1981; for the prosaic version, in which genius and genre coexisted in a state of exquisite tension, listen to the alcoholic prophecies of Jimmy Reed’s primitive “High & Lonesome,” the doo-wop swoon of the El Dorados’ “At My Front Door,” the doom-struck pop rhythms of Dee Clark’s “Your Friends,” and the overwhelming emotional striptease of Little Richard’s greatest blues, “I Don’t Know What You’ve Got But It’s Got Me.” The year is 1965; Richard, wailing, testifying, madly gesticulating, is the genius; an unknown Jimi Hendrix, on guitar, is the genre. And two years later they’d changed places.


    Naked. This portrait of rape in present-day London may be a parable of the ruins of Thatcherism, but there are older echoes. Charming scum Johnny (David Thewlis) might be a time-traveler from the plague years; he seems almost to rot as the movie goes on. His exgirlfriend Louise (Lesley Sharp) has the sort of deep, heavy face that pretty much left the screen when talkies arrived. She can recall Gloria Swanson, or even Albert Dieudonné in Abel Gance’s Napoléon. Still, no-future is what the film is always about: erasing the future as it comes into being, registering what’s being left behind and letting it go. Desperate for company, a guard in an empty deluxe office building takes a homeless Johnny inside and guides him through the place; he clears locks with some sort of post-Modern security wand, a black baton with a white tip. “What’s that,” says Johnny, “a Dadaist nun?”


    Atget Paris (Hazan, Paris, and Gingko Press, 24 10th St., #E–G, Santa Rosa, CA 95401, $55). Atget was a real street photographer—that is, he took pictures of streets, not of “street life”—and from the 1890s to about 1914 he mapped the Paris that had escaped the enormous hands of Baron Haussmann, from the Pont Neuf in the 1st arrondissement to the falling-down shacks at the farthest edges of the 20th. People who know—Louis Chevalier, for one, in his 1977 The Assassination of Paris—will tell you that Atget’s city was destroyed in our own time, and that to reach for the smoky auras captured in the 840 photos collected here is sheer romanticism, no matter how seemingly familiar a lot of Atget’s streets still look. Well, give it a test. Unlike so many other Atget volumes, this is no coffee table book. At 5 1/2 by 7 5/8 by 2 1/2 inches, it’s like an elegant brick; you can hold it in your hand, using the pictures as a map of the city, following where they lead, and see if the city is still there.


    Infamous Angel (Warner Bros.) & BRATMOBILE: The Real Janelle (Kill Rock Stars). The future of the past—the past being, respectively, the catch and curl of Dolly Parton’s voice in “My Blue Ridge Mountain Boy” and the unaccompanied mountain ballads she harks back to, and the glee and resentment of old Blondie records like “Rip Her to Shreds” and old Au Pairs records like “It’s Obvious.” Plus just a hint of “Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow.”


    The Real Janelle (Kill Rock Stars) & IRIS DEMENT: Infamous Angel (Warner Bros.). The future of the past—the past being, respectively, the catch and curl of Dolly Parton’s voice in “My Blue Ridge Mountain Boy” and the unaccompanied mountain ballads she harks back to, and the glee and resentment of old Blondie records like “Rip Her to Shreds” and old Au Pairs records like “It’s Obvious.” Plus just a hint of “Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow.”


    “Waiting on Elvis, 1956,” in Sweet Nothings: An Anthology of Rock and Roll in American Poetry, ed. Jim Elledge (Indiana University Press, $12.95). Set in a café in Charlotte called Chuck’s (“I was 26 married but still/waiting tables”), written in 1987, and the most convincing Elvis-Clinton sighting yet: “I slapped at him a little saying, You/sure are the one aren’t you feeling my face burn but/he was the kind of boy even meanness turned sweet in/his mouth./Smiled at me and said, Yeah honey I guess I sure am.”

  8. BAND

    “Remedy,” on The Tonight Show (NBC, 22 February). With drummer Levon Helm, organist Garth Hudson, and bassist Rick Danko accompanied by new guitarist, pianist, second drummer, and a four-man Tonight Show horn section, they were better than on their recent Jericho—John Hiatt’s “Buffalo River Home,” from his Perfectly Good Guitar, is probably a better Band imitation than anything on Helm & Co.’s first album since guitarist Robbie Robertson left and pianist Richard Manuel killed himself. But this night there was a spark in the sound, muscle and play—and a definite, appropriate ordinariness. In 1968, when these men first announced themselves as The Band, the emphasis seemed to be on the “The,” as a statement of arrogance, which they proceeded to live up to. Now both capital letters might as well be gone. With a pretty good Diet Coke commercial based on “The Weight” running on TV, they played, sang, and carried themselves with a humility so complete it might not support any name at all.


    “My Sister” (Mammoth). Nancy Kerrigan’s soul sister,anyway.


    “I Won’t Back Down” (MCA, 1989). How long before people here and there will be able to hear this without thinking of Dr. David Gunn, shot to death last year as he arrived for work at a Pensacola abortion clinic? Not long before, Gunn, armed with a cassette machine, faced a crowd of protesters and blared the song right at them—not only because its message was right, you might imagine, but because the song made him feel more alive. Listening to it today, joined to the history it helped make, you can hear Petty take what on paper is no more than an exercise in the obvious past itself, or vice versa.