PRINT Summer 1994


Greil Marcus' Real Life Rock

Greil Marcus is a contributing editor of Artforum.


    “When We Were Good: Class and Culture in the Folk Music Revival,” in Transforming Tradition, ed. Neil V. Rosenberg (University of Illinois Press, $29.95). Starting with the Kingston Trio’s long-scorned 1958 #1 hit “Tom Dooley” and ending with the “national seance” of the 1963 Newport Folk Festival, this plainspoken essay rewrites history with music, and vice versa. Diffusing a perfectly sketched generic, white, middle-class, suburban, postwar upbringing across the whole spectrum of American legend and experience, Cantwell pours old wine into a cruet that suddenly gleams with transparency: “the revival made the romantic claim of folk culture—oral, immediate, traditional, idiomatic, communal, a culture of characters, of rights, obligations, and beliefs, against a centrist, specialist, impersonal, technocratic culture . . . of types, functions, jobs, and goals.”

    As Cantwell begins to trace the roles played by his characters—those figures dancing on the surface of “Tom Dooley,” or hiding in its grooves—he makes the wine new. Surrounding the youthful folk acolytes of the late ’50s and early ’60s he finds the outlaw Tom Dula (who murdered his exlover, Laura Foster, in North Carolina in 1866) and Dr. Tom Dooley (an American doctor whose work in Laos inspired the Peace Corps), Wild Bill Hickock and Clint Eastwood (early on, as a TV cowboy), Appalachian ballad singers of the ’20s and Paris existentialists of the ’40s, Dr. Spock and John Lomax, Doc Watson and the Coasters, Ichabod Crane and Laura Ingalls Wilder, Robin Hood and Theodore Roosevelt, Marlon Brando and of course James Dean—who, rather miraculously, Cantwell makes new along with everybody else, precisely by introducing him to everybody else. Tom Joad and Leatherstocking, Nicholas Ray (director of Rebel without a Cause, but also “closely associated as a radio producer in the 1940s with the left-wing folksong movement in New York”) and Willa Cather, New Deal populists and blackface minstrels: all of them, in Dean’s hesitant speech and broken, then furious gestures, make a seance of their own. The only problem with this generous essay is that it is available only in the sort of overpriced volume most libraries can no longer afford, and no paperback is planned. Short of an essay collection by Cantwell —the author of Bluegrass Breakdown: The Making of the Old Southern Sound (1984, Da Capo) and the recent Ethnomimesis: Folklife and the Representation of Culture (University of North Carolina Press)—pray for remaindering.


    imaginary friend (elektra). “Psychedelic” is the only word for this obsessive hand, led by the buried but mesmerizing vocals of one Roxanne. Using repetition, distance, and the sort of indecipherable echoes that still make Moby Grape’s “Indifference” feel unstable, the group works with negative space, creating it, filling it, then leaving it empty again. The sound can suggest George Grosz, Otto Dix—you sense an outraged innocence beneath a veneer of cynicism. The hand bets the farm on the last cut, “everything, all at once, forever” (the complete lyric): for 19 minutes 58 sec- onds they try to turn bad news into transcendence, and the fact that the change never comes sustains the meandering, patient, fed-up performance to the end. It’s a false ending, though: after 12 minutes 25 seconds of silence, your CD player visibly counting backward to keep you from removing the disc, the song returns for another 7 minutes 35 seconds. This is a little boring.


    “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” live on Fresh Air (National Public Radio, 13 April). “In England it’s a football song,” he said, after singing his heart out.


    Wolf Whistle (Algonquin, $16.95). A novel based on the 1955 Mississippi lynching of Emmett Till—but here, amateur bluesmen getting drunk in the morning and lining out old Robert Johnson songs recede in the face of Moby Dick rising out of dryland. Dead, Emmett Till turns into Pip the cabin boy, comes hack to life “dressed in a heavy garment of fish and turtles,” then dies for good; entering a courtroom to testify before an all-white jury, a black witness sees the whiteness of the whale—as Thomas Hobbes put it in 1651, Leviathan, or the Matter, Forme and Power of a Commonwealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil.


    My Life (Warner Bros.). In DeMent’s voice you can hear bluegrass, old-time country music, and the physical and moral tiredness of some of the people Bobbie Ann Mason writes about. In her own songs you can’t always tell if DeMent is parodying clichés, exploiting them, or caught by them, but then she takes something extra from a too-familiar image, or dances over a line anyone could have produced, and she’s gone.

  6. HOLE

    “Credit in the Straight World,” from Live through This (DGC). Good luck.

  7. HOLE

    “Credit in the Straight World,” from Live through This (DGC). Good luck.


    DJ Red Alert’s Propmaster Dancehall Show (Epic Street). A compilation of delirious, irresistible tracks—the collection all but drowns in its own fluids with Patra’s “Love All the Men”—pretending it’s the best radio show in the world, heading your way from KISS-FM, New York. Too bad it’s not.


    What a Carve Up! (Viking, UK, £9.99). In this black comedy about the evil of Thatcherism, so extreme even Elvis Costello might be caught up short, cutbacks in funding for the Underground lead to hideously overcrowded cars and disastrous service failures. A train stops dead in a tunnel; then the lights go out. The air turns unbreathable. “I could sense fear, now, fear all around me whereas before there had only been boredom and discomfort,” the narrator says. “There was desperation in the air, and before it proved contagious I decided to beat a retreat, as far as possible, into the privacy of my own mind. To start with, I tried telling myself that the situation could be worse: hut there were surprisingly few scenarios which bore this out—a rat on the loose in the carriage, perhaps, or a husker spontaneously . . . treating us all to a few rousing choruses of ‘Imagine.’ No, I would have to try harder than that. . . .”

  10. NKOTB

    Face the Music (Columbia). The presentation is all shame and guilt—for more than ten years, NKOTB were New Kids on the Block. They aren’t giving the money back, but Danny Wood now looks exactly like Erik Menendez.

  11. Pearl Jam

    on Saturday Night Live (NBC, 16 April). On April 8, the day Kurt Cobain’s suicide was announced, there seemed to he as much Pearl Jam on the radio as Nirvana; given the solemnity always present in Eddie Vedder’s singing, every song sounded like a eulogy. Still,that was no preparation for the wake the hand staged little more than a week later. On a program that takes Nirvana’s audience as a given, but which over the course of two shows had found no way even to mention Cobain’s death, Pearl Jam began with the unreleased “Not for You.” It was an extraordinary number—led by the most rudimentary up-and-down guitar riff by Vedder, and only for a moment raised into the realm of myth by a modal passage from guitarist Stone Gossarda song at once ordinary and mysterious, elemental and twisted, quiet and full of alarms, elegiac and damning. later the group moved on to “Rearviewmirror,” then closed, after another break for moronic skits, with “Daughter.” Pointedly pulling hack his jacket to display a K on his T-shirt, Vedder ended the tune with a few lines from Neil Young’s Rust Never Sleeps—the album Cobain quoted in the suicide note his widow, Courtney Love, had publically denounced as “like a letter to the fuckin editor.”

    She was right. One of the horrors of the event, a small horror, maybe, but a horror nonetheless, was that a man who could speak so freely in his own songs could not in the end find his own words, or make someone else’s words (“It’s better to burn out than to fade away”) sound like his own. Yet when Vedder sang, as if the thought or the quote had just occurred to him, “Hey, hey, my, my, rock and roll can never die” (the line has carried unpleasant ironies since Young first offered it; once again, as always, it had to fight off an audience’s idiot whoops), Vedder could not have appeared more completely himself: a fan surprised to find himself on a stage but ready to push his chance to the limit.