PRINT December 1994


Greil Marcus' Real Life Rock

Greil Marcus is a contributing editor of Artforum.

  1. Stuart Davis

    The Back Room, 1913, and Thomas Hart Benton: House in Cubist Landscape, ca. 1915–20, in “American Art, 1900–1940: A History Reconsidered” (San Jose Museum of Art, through October 1995). Drawn from the vaults of New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, this survey show is full of surprises; these paintings leap out. In Davis’ dank barroom hideaway there’s a lone drummer standing in for a band, one couple dancing, others immobilized. Their roughed-out faces could be prototypes for the 1933 Charles Laughton classic The Island of Lost Souls (“Are we not men?”). It looks like a place you’d likely never get into—an aura of pleasure earned, bled for, rises out of the frame. The piece is just around a turn from Benton’s watercolor, which is as white as Davis’ sanctuary is black. Here is an Appalachian pastoral upended by shapes impossible in nature, trees and fields and rivers now a jumble of Cubist blocks; an arch into the sky could be two tree trunks fallen against each other or a direct route to a Primitive Baptist heaven. It’s as if the liquid bodies and landscapes of Benton’s later, celebratory Americana represented not only freedom but an attempt to escape the violence implicit in a once trendy, momentarily irresistible style. Soundtracks: for Davis, Memphis Jug Band, “Turpentine Blues” (1927), on Memphis Jug Band—Volume One (JSP/UK); for Benton, Carter Family, My Clinch Mountain Home—Their Complete Victor Recordings, 1928–1929 (Rounder).

  2. R.E.M.

    “Wall of Death,” on Beat the Retreat—Songs by Richard Thompson, a tribute album (Capitol). On Richard and Linda Thompson’s 1982 Shoot Out the Lights and ever since, I’d heard “Wall of Death” (collected on Watching the Dark—The History of Richard Thompson, Rykodisc) as an affirmation by then-Sufi Thompson of some sort of Islamic trial by endurance: you know, they hang you on the wall of death in the morning when it’s 120 degrees and if you’re still alive by sundown your heart is true. Thompson’s guitar and the wispy vocals were suggestive before they were anything else; the only lines I ever caught were “I’ll take my chances on the wall of death” and “Beware of the bearded lady,” which meant who knew what. But on R.E.M.’s magic carpet of a cover version, with steel guitar making the strange familiar and Michael Stipe wanting everything and as close to being scared of nothing as he’ll ever be, I found myself looking down from the ride and discovered that the song is about a carnival attraction. O.K., so you knew it all the time—but I still believe that if musicians cover songs by recutting them, listeners cover songs by mishearing them.

  3. Jimi Hendrix

    Woodstock (MCA). Astonishing. Everyone’s heard of it, but for 25 years only the 30,000 or so who were left to sit out the festival’s finest hour—63 minutes—actually heard it. Fifteen minutes into the performance, it seems impossible he could go farther than “Hear My Train A Comin’,” but about halfway through, with “Voodoo Child (Slight Return),” the fervor and drive of Hendrix’s playing goes over some edge, and it’s as if he caught a glimpse of where his train was going. Whether he did or not, you do.

  4. Spice 1

    “Strap on the Side” (Jive). This is a mean, ugly Oakland rap about a big gun and using it; running in the background, sometimes alongside, is a meandering, intensely melodic, conversation-with-the-mirror reverie that, while reinforcing the threat of the dominant speech with its words, in its tone falls just short of calling the song’s own bluff.

  5. The Cranberries

    No Need to Argue (Island). The confidence that can come from even a rather bland top ten hit like “Linger” has changed Dolores O’Riordan’s voice. Now it’s more ordinary, idiosyncratic, Irish, bitter, and most of all unpredictable.

  6. Quentin Tarantino, Lawrence Bender, and Karyn Rachtman, Executive Album Producers

    Pulp Fiction—Music from the Motion Picture (MCA). The music here comes off much weirder than it does in the movie, mainly because concept albums based in second-rate California surf instrumentals are uncommon these days. Dick Dale & His Del-Tones’ 1963 “Misirlou” is relatively well-known, but the likes of the Revels’ 1964 “Comanche” or the Tornadoes’ 1962 “Bustin’ Surfboards” are completely obscure. This stuff appeared right about the time Pulp Fiction director Tarantino was born, and disappeared soon afterward. On disc it’s close to a foreign language, and also completely bracing; as a frame its very nearly heroic reach for a decent riff makes Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man” feel like deep soul (it is) and Urge Overkill’s “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon,” their two-year-old cover of a 27-year-old Neil Diamond hit, sound like Elvis fighting over the song with the grittiest white street singer, Joe Grushecky in his Iron City Houserocker days, maybe—like heaven on the run from hell.

  7. Kurt Schwitters

    Ursonate (WERGO Schallplatten GmbH, Mainz, Germany). The sound of a very old radio playing a very old record (on this CD, you can hear the original shellac discs spinning): the legendary sound-poetry epic, here 41 minutes 29 seconds, by the legendary German Dada Merz-man, only recently discovered, and recorded in . . . nobody knows. The piece sounds overwhelmingly influenced by the far shorter letter-sound poems of Schwitters’ 1920s Dada comrade Raoul Hausmann, except that the only Hausmann recordings one has to go on were made in the ’50s and the sonically more ambitious Schwitters, also Hausmann’s postwar partner, died in 1948. For the moment, let the puzzle rest with this: if you could stick your head all the way into the big end of one of the giant ear horns that served as amplifiers on the earliest phonographs, it’s the blips and rushes of its ocean you might hear in Ursonate.

  8. Colin Escott with George Merritt and William MacEwen

    Hank Williams: The Biography (Little, Brown, $22.95). In earlier books on Sun Records, Escott wrote with a dogged academicism; now he’s found both his style and his heart. Avoiding the Hunter Thompson–like sensationalism of Chet Flippo’s harrowing 1981 Your Cheatin’ Heart, Escott facing down a figure who on the terms of conventional biography is a specter behind scandal and who yet remains “almost desperately real through his music”—ends up in a graveyard far more awful. “There’s the notion that the writer or poet calms his troublous soul by reducing it to rhyme,” Escott finishes, ready to seal the case he’s made. “For Hank Williams, though, as he pulled off his boots and eased himself gingerly onto his bed, the little verses scratched out in his untutored spidery handwriting almost certainly offered no relief at all.”

  9. Tom Jones

    The Lead and How to Swing It (Interscope). He’s 54; his last hit came in 1988, with “Kiss,” and he still hasn’t gotten over Prince. He has gotten better—on Yaz’s “Situation,” madly so.

  10. Sheryl Crow

    Tuesday Night Music Club (A&M). It’s fine for her to rip off Stealers Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle with You” for “All I Wanna Do”—Stealers Wheel is thankfully long gone. But since Ricki Lee Jones is very much around, it seems premature for someone to make the top ten by absconding with her entire act.