PRINT March 1995


Greil Marcus' Top Ten

Greil Marcus is a contributing editor of Artforum. He recently waited five months to get paid for an article he wrote for Vibe.


    Now That I’ve Found You—A Collection (Rounder, 1987–94). Going pop, bluegrass thrush opens up far more roads than she found on her most luminous recording, which isn’t even here. Some performances are from her own records, some are more inaccessible: covers of the Beatles’ “I Will, ” and of Autry Inman’s room-spinning “I Don’t Believe You’ve Met My Baby.” Krauss makes you hope you never will.


    American Studies (Houghton Mifflin, $21.95). In this unmannered novel, a 62-year-old man, Reeve, lies in a hospital bed, having been beaten nearly to death by a boy he’d picked up. He thinks about his old professor, one Tom Slater—a figure Merlis has based on F. O. Matthiessen, Harvard teacher, communist, homosexual, suicide, and author in 1941 of the classic American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman, though here the book is called The Invincible City. All that Slater wanted from life—from love and politics made inseparable—is summed up in his affection for Whitman’s magic word “camerado.” As Reeve thinks through the past, he nails its every vanity—of the left, the university, the famous book, of the closeted professor and his salon of golden youths. But no matter how distant, or evanescent, or false, the image of utopia the long-dead professor raised before his eyes cannot be erased: “The seminar above all, that famous seminar of his, that he first had the audacity to call ‘American Studies.’ Nowadays that means dissertations on ‘Gilligan’s Island.’ But that wasn’t what Tom meant at all. . . . For him there were, perhaps, three hundred Americans in as many years. They dwelt together in a tiny village, Cambridge/Concord/Mannahatta, Puritans and Transcendentalists exchanging good mornings, and Walt Whitman peeping in the windows. . . . He had made a little country of his own. . . . As Jefferson thought it would take a millennium to settle the continent, so we thought it would take forever just to cut a few paths through the forest primeval of nineteenth-century letters. . . . Even I felt, with Tom and his real students, like a conquistador, staking my claim on the imagined America that lived in that little room.”

    For Reeve, this memory, as metaphor, can give meaning to any incident of sex or history, or can take away whatever meaning he might have found in such incidents: can find them wanting. And this is the meaning of his life. It’s a terrible paradox, the essential paradox of art and criticism, and I have never seen it rendered with such flesh and spirit, in such a good story.


    To Bring You My Love (Island). On her best album she rides a broomstick she hasn’t used before: a thick, heavy, pansexual voice. On “I Think I’m a Mother” it can feel like a man’s. The music is forbidding—dare you enter these portals?—but while the sound is never transparent, sometimes Harvey seems to sing through herself, and then the sound is opaque, almost open, ivory.


    Who’s That Knocking at My Door? (1968, Warner Home Video). First feature for both Scorsese and Harvey Keitel, and the most violent sequences are typically shot silent but scored with a song—the Channels’ slow doo-wop “The Closer You Are,” say. At first this seems to make no sense: what’s on the screen is a rape, physically vicious but emotionally even more so. It’s as if the woman is against all reason holding onto the perfect promises the Channels made, that she thought the guy with her made—until, finally, long before the rape is over, she lets those promises go. Then, on the soundtrack, the song begins to break up, to shred.


    Personal Best (Chainsaw/Candy Ass, P.O. Box 42600, Portland, OR 97242). Fast, prickly, with screams ambushing lilts and an ineradicable feel for the beat in tunes that seem made to disguise it. A press release brags that this female four-piece “only play all ages shows and queer bars,” but they could play anywhere they want.


    The Wolf That House Built (Okeh/Epic). Little Axe is a group led by singer/ guitarist Skip McDonald, Wolf is Chester Burnett, house is the music, and too often in this collage all is indistinct. There are small moments of sampled vision: the surging rhythm that begins with a brakeman announcing “All aboard, all aboard, ” which itself kicks up the riff Robert Johnson used to open “Preaching Blues,” which never sounded so cool as it does here.


    Future Gods of Rock (Sector 2). The bassist quit for a group called Jesus Christ Superfly. He was smart.


    “ClinTonic” (ca. 1870–1935, on display at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, 97 Orchard St., N.Y.C.). Raspberry soda bottle discovered at the site in 1993. Shouldn’t this be in the White House? Maybe there’s a drop left.


    Whispering Pines (Mississippi, $29.95). Color photographs of a Mississippi bar—often, shots of mementos stored in cigar boxes, with one item sneaking out, a yellowed news clipping, likely from the late ’50s, possibly from the early ’60s: “Singer Charged in Mississippi—Negro Rock and Roll Star Denies He Asked For Date From Girl.” “Charles ‘Chuck’ Berry” has been “jailed without bond” and transferred from the police station to the county jail “for his own safety”; a “20-year-old girl” is “near hysteria” after the incident; the dateline is Meridian, from where, in June 1964, came the news of the disappearance of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, and later the news of the discovery of their bodies.


    “Two Highways,” from Two Highways (Rounder, 1989). Her most luminous recording. I think.