PRINT February 1995


Greil Marcus

Greil Marcus’ Im faschistischen Badezimmer: Punk unter Reagan, Thatcher und Kohl—1977 bis 1994 was recently published by Rogner & Bernhard, Hamburg.


    The Long Black Veil (RCA)


    She Walks These Hills: A Novel of Suspense (Scribner’s, $21) and CHIEFTANS: The Long Black Veil (RCA). Both album and detective take their title from “Long Black Veil,” a 1959 Lefty Frizzell hit revived by the Band for their first album—an “instant folk song,” as co-composer Danny Dill described it, because it had the feel of a 200-year-old Appalachian ballad. On the latest version of the tribute album (you recruit the stars and back them up yourself), the song is the best thing Mick Jagger has put his name to in years. It’s also the ghost in McCrumb’s third “ballad book,” the key less to her murders than to the mystery of the Tennessee mountains, where old crimes cling to the hills like smoke. Along the way, the Chieftains loosen up their revered Irish traditionalism, drawing luminous, self-realizing performances from Mark Knopfler (a wistful “Lily of the West”), Sinéad O’Connor (“The Foggy Dew” and “He Moved through the Fair”), and Tom Jones (“Tennessee Waltz/Tennessee Mazurka”)—and McCrumb, writing long before the fact, throws the national orgy of pious incredulity over Susan Smith’s killing of her children into ordinary light. In McCrumb’s pages, both the song and her characters let a reader understand that what most distinguished Smith from the countless other Americans who each year kill their children was her use of her crime momentarily to become, before the whole country, what she must have felt herself to be: a star, her own abandoned child.


    Rope-a-Dope (Homestead). Tim Harris (bass) and Tara Key (guitar) can’t sing—not in the time-honored rock ‘n’ roll tradition of can’t sing, but can’t sing the way normally proportioned human beings, which they are, can’t kiss their elbows. Yet every time you’re about to give up on this music, Key summons a passage on her instrument that does sing: a twist around a corner that a second before wasn’t there, a breakaway.


    John Heartfield—AIZ: Arbeiter-Illustrierte Zeitung/Volks Illustrierte 1930–38 (Kent, $85). Two-hundred-and-thirty-seven antifascist photomontages—for all the good they did the first time around, a language worth relearning.


    Highway 61 Revisited (Arena Television/BBC, UK, 1993). Part of a “Tales of Rock ‘n’ Roll” series so far unseen in the U.S., this documentary focuses on one of Bob Dylan’s most inspired recordings and the spine-of-the-nation highway it’s named for. There are surprises everywhere: Dylan’s great “Blind Willie McTell” orchestrates footage of the Civil Rights Movement, a specter dissolving the words of heroes; a rough, clanking piano demo of “Like a Rolling Stone” turns into the anthem everyone knows as New York City looms up; and on Dylan’s old buddy John Bucklen’s high school tapes, Bucklen and then—Bobby Zimmerman talk into the tape recorder self-consciously, as if they know someday we’ll be listening, judging whether Dylan’s claim that Johnny Cash is more boring than dirt, or that Elvis was a thief, sounds sincere (not completely). Dylan hammers out Little Richard’s “Jenny, Jenny” on the piano. He sings “Little Richard ”—the song. His song. Good, too.


    “Out of Body, Out of Mind,” Lingua Franca (November/December 1994). “From the fact that we cannot make sense of something it does not follow that it makes no sense. We know that consciousness exists and that it is robustly natural, though we cannot in Black Veil principle produce the theory that would make its nature manifest. There is thus nothing mysterious about the existence of the mystery.” A philosophy professor at Rutgers, McGinn has been named a “New Mysterian”—a member of a minischool of mind-body theory named for ? and the Mysterians, who in 1966 forever altered the consciousness of all too many people with their immortal “96 Tears.” “What difference has being a mysterian made to my life?” McGinn asks, and answers: “It has released me from the uncomfortable sensation that philosophical problems have always stimulated in me—the feeling that reality is inherently preposterous, ill-formed, bizarre.” Rudy Martinez, a.k.a. ?, who after an eight-year hiatus is again performing under his philosophical name, with the original Mysterians, should be proud.

  7. JUNED

    Juned (Up). Four women from Seattle stick an old picture of ugly transvestites on their CD sleeve, then combine folkish, borne-upon-the-winds vocals with an attack that veers from the relentless to the casually experimental. The sense that they could go anywhere pops up again and again, but for the time being they just go from one place to another.


    A Secret Life (Island). Her much anticipated collaboration with Angelo Badalamenti, and the perfect accompaniment to her recent autobiography: the tone of exasperated, imperious noblesse oblige is the same.


    “Living on Disability—The Upward Climb of Down Syndrome, ” Voice Literary Supplement (December 1994). English professors Lyon and Bérubé’s breathtaking comment on their Down’s syndrome son: “In the end, he’s both like and unlike everyone else—part body, part discourse, part counterdiscourse.” It’s a stunning example of why so many find this sort of critical writing—flipping buzzwords like card tricks—an occasion for mirth, if not disgust.


    Girls Town (or The Innocent and the Damned), 1959, on Mystery Science Theater 3000 (16 December 1994, Comedy Central). The setting: a prison farm run by nuns. The star: Mamie Van Doren. The human and the two robots who trade wise-cracks about the movies they watch in the MST 3000 screening room might as well be lobbing spitballs for all the mileage they’re getting out of this one—until escapee Cathy Crosby is caught, and boyfriend Paul Anka has to convince her to go back to the nuns without scratching her, or their, eyes out. “I’ll visit you, ” says Paul. Cathy manages a weak smile. “You tell me what your favorite song is,” Paul says, “and I’ll come up and sing it to you.” From the peanut gallery: “You know White Light/White Heat’?”

    Greil Marcus’ Im faschistischen Badezimmer: Punk Under Reagan, Thatcher und Kohl—1977 bis 1994 _was recently published by Rogner & Bernhard, Harnburg.