PRINT December 1995

Greil Marcus


Two moments stood above all others: hearing NEIL YOUNG’s “I’m the Ocean” for the first time (and then playing it as loudly as I could for the rest of the afternoon), and the scene in Crumb when R., explaining how in old American music he hears the purest, deepest struggle of human beings to confront the truth that “not to be born prevails over all meaning uttered in words” (Sophocles, not Crumb), puts on a treasured 78, lies back on a daybed, and lets a peace beyond dreams float across his face. He is listening to one GEECHIE WILEY sing and play a song called “Last Kind Word Blues.” Do you need anything more than the title to know that time stops here? Nothing is known about Wiley; as she sang, 65 years ago, she told you too much. Her man is about to leave to fight in Europe in the world war; she knows she’ll never see him again; she doesn’t know that in 11 years the next world war will begin—and yet, in some essential way, she does know. She asks for a last kind word before he goes; then she turns to stone. Young, as he promises, turns to water. With great good humor, a lot of bitterness, fabulous free-associating lyrics in perfect balance, and a melody that swirls like Ishmael’s whirlpool turning into a spout and coughing him up, Young brings Nietzschean ecstasy to the level of an Olds Cutlass and thus makes the latter sublime and the former absolutely real.


Pop music has become so segmented in terms of its distribution systems it’s relatively easy to avoid the irritants-unto-atrocities that in other times were as central to pop life as emanations from Delphi (which, I just realized, only 37 years late, is where the name Del-Fi—Ritchie Valens’ label—came from, so this metaphor isn’t even a metaphor). Think Blues Traveler is the band to vote Republican to? Find Elastica creepy? Rather watch Home Shopping Network than any video on MTV? Never turn on the stations that carry them, stick to those that don’t, boundaries will not be crossed, you’ll never be bothered. In 1995 only one artist rose above this antidemocratic fragmentation to scratch her fingernails down the blackboard of a whole nation—ALANIS MORISSETTE, with “You Oughta Know.” Next move, world domination: make it into a Coke commercial.

Greil Marcus is a contributing editor of Artforum. His most recent book is The Dustbin of History.