PRINT January 1997


Greil Marcus' Real Life Rock

Greil Marcus is a contributing editor at Artforum.


    The Death of Frank Sinatra (Henry Holt, $22.50). Ventura’s third novel: a Las Vegas family detective story that’s nervous and delicate even in its most brutal scenes. The tale moves from the Bugsy Siegel days to the present, catching the emergence of a culture made out of mob murder, sex clubs, atom-bomb tests, the specter of JFK, and Dean Martin’s last drink. America’s highest ideals rest on the same moral plane as the grimiest sleaze, Showgirls’ Elizabeth Berkley mouthing phrases from Lincoln as she goes through the motions. Near the end of the book, Sinatra comes onstage, an old man, and makes a miracle: “Then on a high note the voice cracked, and for an instant the music soured, and the audience flinched as one person, but instead of retreating from that bad sound Sinatra leaned into it . . .” There’s the feeling that in the American desert two utopias were founded, two great, queer cities that in some irreducible way remain as they began, outside the law—the other place being Salt Lake City.


    “On the Outside,” from Songs in the Key of X: Music from and lnspired by the X Files (Warner Bros.). Her voice is slow, heavy, and subtle—conscious, not self-conscious, which is appropriate for this sliver of a really bad dream, the sort of dream that, when you wake, is about only one thing: your inability to remember anything but dread.

  3. SARGE

    Charcoal (Mud Records, 905 South Lynn St., Urbana, IL 61801). Women speak the harsh, desperate language of Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son in the songs of this Illinois punk trio (“I walked into the bar where you hung out/24 and I still hadn’t figured it out/Eight months pregnant and sick with all these lies”) but there’s a will to speak a more commonplace language in Elizabeth Elmore’s singing and guitar playing. There’s as much old Van Halen in her sound as Gang of Four.


    “The Sinister Urge” (Comedy Central). The film that the human and two robots are watching has something to do with ’50s smut peddlers and a mad killer on the loose. Everything is hesitant and stumbling and clumsy, to the point where a zero-IQ cop surveys a crime scene and says, “There is . . .” And with his pause seemingly a wait for someone, anyone, to throw him his next line, robot number one pipes up, perfectly matching Eric Burdon’s pause at the beginning of the Animals’ first big hit: “. . . a house, in New Orleans. . . .” “That’s why Ed Wood gets final cut,” says the other robot.


    “All Along the Watchtower,” from The Concert for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (Columbia). For the moment, the only licensed recorded proof that what Dylan and his shocker of a combo (Winston Watson, Tony Garnier, Bucky Baxter, John Jackson) were doing onstage in 1995 was more than an illusion; and, until they release Having a Rave Up with Bob Dylan, the only proof that reinventing yourself in your fifties as a lead guitarist embracing syncopation as the source of all values is a brilliant idea.


    Rockin’ on T.V. (Krazy Kat, UK). Like most rockabilly outfits without hits in their time, Larry and Lorrie don’t come near their pseudolegend. For that matter, Larry was a clod. These thirty-one 1957–61 transcriptions are just OK—until the Kids get to Buddy Holly’s “Oh Boy!” and the world blows up. Larry sings—and Lorrie hiccups into an orgasmic frenzy so absolute and unstoppable it can suck you into your speakers.


    Letters from the Avant Garde: Modern Graphic Design (Princeton Architectural Press, $24.95). Stationery, most of it from between the wars. The best of it is De Stijl with a Dada touch, as in the ’20s work of Piet Zwart, whose motto was, “The more uninteresting a letter, the more useful it is to the typographer.” It certainly sums up the letterhead he designed for the Netherlands Cable Works.


    A Ass Pocket Of Whiskey (Matador). Mississippi blues-man who makes John Lee Hooker sound like Kenneth Tynan gets together with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, who make Canned Heat sound like the Kronos Quartet. The results make Jon Spencer Blues Explosion records sound like Jon Spencer Blues Explosion records.


    Call the Doctor (Chainsaw, P.O. Box 1151, Olympia, WA 98507-1151). Then put this on; you’ll never hear the doctor call back, but by the time she does you won’t need her, or you’ll be beyond help. A punk breakout of unparalleled ferocity, body, and balance, and the best album of 1996.


    Europa de postguerra, 1945—1965. Art després del diluvi (Postwar Europe, 1945–1965. Art after the deluge), a documentary video included in “Europa de postguerra, 1945–1965. Art després del diluvi” (Fundació “la Caixa” and Televisió de Catalunya, Barcelona, 1995). All Genovès does is orchestrate stock footage from the postwar period—or rather she orchestrates the social war that followed the shooting war, using pop culture to undercut the authority and pomposity of official culture. Top of the pops: On The Ed Sullivan Show, Elvis Presley is performing “Hound Dog,” smiling through the tinny kinescope sound. Genovès cuts simultaneously into the hard fullness of the studio recording of “Hound Dog” and to footage of Soviet commissars filling a steep auditorium, wildly pounding their fists as if in a mad attempt to keep time. The line “You said that you was high class, well, that was just a lie” comes up; Genovès cuts to shots of Eisenhower, the Pope, de Gaulle. And then back to Elvis, who, mission accomplished, takes a bow.