PRINT January 1995


Greil Marcus' Real Life Rock

Greil Marcus is a contributing editor of Artforum. His piece on Guy Debord is reprinted in the November World Art.


    Holy Soul Jelly Roll—Poems and Songs, 1949–1993 (Rhino Word Beat 4-CD box). I put this on out of curiosity; except for performances I had to repeat, I played it straight through to the end. It is, somehow, a monument without pretensions, a testament of ambition without hubris, a year’s worth of lectures on the origins of language without pedantry. Like a long singing from the Haftorah, the 63-minute-plus “Kaddish” only explodes at the end, shuddering toward a dissolution that, here, is the only way to wholeness. The previously unreleased version of “America,” live in Berkeley in 1956, changes the solemn heartbreaker of Ginsberg’s 1959 studio recording into a stand-up comedy routine not far from Richard Pryor—Live in Concert. The best album of 1994—no contest.

  2. HOLE

    Fillmore Auditorium, San Francisco (11 November). Fronting bass, drums, and lead guitar with her own guitar in her hands and one leg hoisted onto a monitor speaker, Courtney Love has a number she runs on the crowd between songs: a lot of casual-sounding talk about what she dislikes about the site of a given show, former sex partners (especially whoever might be present), a fair amount of undifferentiated loathing, and a few well-placed invocations of Kurt Cobain (“I wrote this with my husband”; “Will you just come back, dickhead!”). It’s a punk version, or her version, of “HELLO, SAN FRANCISCO!”—which you usually hear bellowed out at the Oakland Coliseum. But as a standard routine her words come off as detritus she happened to find onstage, and the fact that her music has the same offhand, let’s-get-it-over-with quality produces a strange effect. There are no divisions between patter and song, and rather than everything communicating like performance, nothing does. The shifts between talk and music, shifts that given the band’s precision timing you don’t have to notice, merely take a conversation to another level; the burr in Love’s voice is the same whether she’s insulting someone, negotiating the careful steps of her time-stopping “Asking for It,” or tossing off half of “Hungry like the Wolf.” The result reminded me more than anything of a recent all-acoustic, sit-down, nosmoking, mother-in-the-audience concert by Iris DeMent, baring her soul and everyone else’s with her “No Time to Cry,” reinventing country music by treating it like ordinary speech—except that Love was more believable.


    If You Ask Me (St. Martin’s, $20.95). Collected columns from Premiere on what really matters in the movies—the way clothes determine attitude, and vice versa. Too bad no music critics have figured out an equivalent approach, which allows for, or for that matter demands, the ability to comment on anything at any time—as when Gelman-Waxner blithely mentions, in the course of reviewing Ghost (or rather explaining the subtext of same to her seven-year-old), that “the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace in Yorba Linda, California, is spoken of as the entrance to the underworld in the Dead Sea Scrolls.”


    encounter (19 November). In the French quarter, a small combo was churning out a tepid version of very old style for the Grand Opening of a nondescript bar. The musicians spilled out into the street, so when the garbage truck came up Dumaine and tried to turn onto Chartres the driver found the way blocked. He blasted his horn—and then, as if he’d just noticed the awfulness of the noise he’d failed to silence, picked up the band’s half-dead riff and punched it out on the horn, once, twice, three times. He completed his turn and growled on down the street, still playing, leaving the band to its miseries.


    “Hillary’s Class” (PBS, 15 November). In this examination of the women of Wellesley ’69 and their devil’s choice between career and family, the ground opened up straight off, at commencement ceremonies 25 years ago. Republican Senator Edward Brooke of Massachusetts, the main speaker, had just concluded his remarks on student protest (“a perversion of democratic privilege”) when Hillary Rodham, the first Wellesley student ever chosen to address her own class, stepped up in turn. She put aside her speech and talked back: “As the French student wrote on the wall of the Sorbonne,” she said, “‘Demand the Impossible.’ We will settle for nothing less.” After the Republican victories of last November, Speaker-presumptive Newt Gingrich famously derided Hillary and Bill Clinton as “counterculture McGoverniks,” and the unusual suffix was meant for automatic, subconscious decoding: first back to beatnik, and from there to the source of that word in Sputnik, the first space satellite, launched by the Soviet Union in 1957, and thus the root translation—commie. But what Hillary Rodham quoted that day was Situationist graffiti, from the uprising of May ’68. That event has been written out of history, and so, many times, has Hillary Clinton, but I doubt we’ve heard the last from her.


    “Lake of Fire,” from MTV: Unplugged in New York (DGC): Almost every tune the band did this night sounded ancient, but none more so than this Meat Puppets number. With its lyric constructed like an authorless folk ballad—each line at once a literal non sequitur and a poetic link to any other—the out-of-nowhere reference to “the Fourth of July” suggested that here, as in “The Coo Coo,” in America the type case of this kind of song, the Fourth of July is a predestined date, waiting, deep in unknown traditions, to be found and used. In other words, the feeling the music gives off is that as a talisman the Fourth of July not only preceded the Declaration of Independence but called it into being.


    The New Book of Rock Lists (Fireside, $15). The table of contents includes 27 chapters, 533 subsections, and no page numbers. This is very avant-garde.


    Bright Red/Tightrope (Warner Bros.). The archness in her voice that since the 1983 United States has left her disembodied is gone. Now she sounds at home in her own skin—given the current state of the United States, not a moment too soon. You take your prophets where you find them, if you can find them.

  9. KABL-FM

    bus advertisement (Berkeley, 15 November). “BIG 98.1,” it read. “Biggest Hits of the ’70s. If Keith Richards Were Alive Today, He’d Be Listening to Us.” Could be; at the Voodoo Lounge show I saw, the best music of the night was Elmore James’ “Madison Blues”—the record, playing in the dead time between the opening act and the headliners.

  10. GUN N’ ROSES

    “Sympathy for the Devil,” in Interview with the Vampire (Geffen Pictures). At the film’s close, as a car speeds across the Golden Gate Bridge, this most menacing of all Rolling Stones songs comes on. It is the most menacing less because of its themes than because of the impossible certainty in Bill Wyman’s bass, taking your feet out from under you, hurling you toward a destination you can neither credit nor resist—I mean, it moves like nothing else. The performance is so rich Jean-Luc Godard could build an entire movie around the emergence of its arrangement (his 1968 Sympathy for the Devil has just been released on video by ABKCO). But here, at the end of a film that gets stronger—more menacing—as it goes on, instead of the thing itself there is, by Geffen Records’ own, a horrible imitation: generic, cloddish, ham-fisted and, in Axl Rose’s singing, hysterical, as if the end, the end of the vogue for his band, is all too plain. For the movie it’s a major false note: Lestat would have better taste.