PRINT April 1997


Greil Marcus' Real Life Rock

Greil Marcus is a contributing editor of Artforum. His Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes will be published May 7 by Henry Holt.


    “Walking on Broken Glass,” from Diva (Arista, 1992). A decent hit the first time around, now resurfacing on the radio apparently in answer to some request from outer space, this is a perfect pop record, falling somewhere between Marc Cohn's “Silver Thunderbird” and Connie Francis’ “Lipstick on Your Collar”: a simple, increasingly impassioned arrangement that by the final chorus has all of its parts battling for the right to save the singer from the hell of her lost love. I don't think they do, though.


    Dig Me Out (Kill Rock Stars). Dense and crowded, even if new drummer Janet Weiss’ quickened beat lets the combo in on more conventional and more shapely rhythms than they’ve used before. Carrie Brownstein presses nagging guitar lines that match the nyah-nyah-nyahs of the counter-vocals she pits against Corin Tucker’s leads; as a one-woman chorus Brownstein is half imperious Greek, half impatient Shangri-La, but on “The Drama You’ve Been Craving” she steps out of the background and she and Tucker leap into nameless wildness. The pressure the band has used to shock small clubs around the country is there in “One More Hour,” “Turn It Up,” and “Not What You Want,” this time building from the inside, but pressure is far too one-dimensional a word to describe the attack that takes place in the last cut, “Jenny.” By the end there seems to be nothing standing, not even the singer, not in the desert she’s made of the house in which she began.


    rant on UFOs (Dennis Miller Live, HBO, January 31). “In 1947, something crashed in Roswell, New Mexico. Some believe four aliens were discovered at the site, and that their remains, as well as their flying saucer, are being held in an Air Force installation a hundred miles north of Las Vegas known as Area 51. Ufologists insist that the four aliens and their manager Brian Epstein . . . ”


    Blues Yodeler and Steel Guitar Wizard (Arhoolie Folklyric). 1930–37 recordings from a man who walked in the footsteps of Jimmie Rodgers (gone by 1933) and whose singing and lap slide guitar playing relaxed into a luxuriousness Rodgers himself could never afford.


    The Cheaters—The Walter Scott Murder (Tula Publishing, $10.95). In 1966 in St. Louis, Walter Scott sang the lead on the weirdly named Bob Kuban and the In-Men’s “The Cheater.” It reached #12 on the national charts, and though it was catchy, even bouncy, there was something insinuating about it too—something disturbing. “Watch out for the cheater,” Scott sang, and while the song played, cheaters seemed to be everywhere, sizing you up. The follow-up album died at #129. The In-Men broke up and went straight, Scott went solo, and nobody ever had another hit—until 1983, when Scott disappeared. Three years later, his body was pulled from a cistern on property owned by Scott’s wife’s new husband, a bullet in his back. What makes Priesmeyer’s ill-written account of this story compelling is not its irony (after years of the case against Scott’s accused killers going nowhere, Bob Kuban formed a band to play a benefit for Tim Braun’s campaign for County prosecutor; Braun won, and then won the case), but its griminess, its low-rent drift away from even small-time glitz and back to the world where ordinary people commit murder for ordinary reasons, to get what they want, right now.


    Baja Sessions (Reprise). Never mind small-time——playing the worst donkey-fuck emporium in Tijuana, lsaak would still give off the aura of lost millions.


    Jack’s Jack in the Box commercials (all networks). Dressed in floppy clothes like a ’90s Ozzie Nelson, the big white roundhead was everywhere as the year began, high-fiving with other dads at his kid’s football game, etc., but he only came clean at the gate of Colonel Sanders’ mansion, eager to get the Colonel (didn’t he die?) to taste-test his new Spicy Chicken Sandwich. “The Colonel says go away,” says a voice on the intercom, so Jack turns to go: “He says leave the sandwich.” So Jack leaves the bag and palms the food. “Psyche!” he says, just like a twelve-year-old who’s got it totally down, the smart-aleck comeback turning Jack’s huge, bland grin smug and even slightly sinister. This is real subliminal advertising; in the same way that Joe Camel is a penis, Jack is Bill Gates.


    “I Don’t Need No Doctor” (ABC Records, 1966/KPIX-FM, San Francisco). Running the dial on the car radio, about once a week I can’t believe my luck: tuning into the middle of this relentless, unanswerable plea to the gods of rhythm and love (“He gave me a medicated lotion/But it didn’t sooooooothe my emotion!”), and then Dr. Nancy Snyderman comes on announcing her medical advice show, sounding as if she knows perfectly well one potential patient is out of her reach.


    Yo Yo a Go Go (Yoyo). There’s good stuff on this double CD of live recordings from Yoyo’s 1994 Olympia punk fest—Heavens to Betsy’s primitive “Ax Men,” Mecca Normal’s scary “I Walk Alone”—but what moved me was a photo on the inside of the package. It shows Nikki McClure, dressed in a white shift and a funny hat, holding a big black guitar and squinting into the sun, Tae Won Yu of Kicking Giant, fingering his guitar and looking as at-home as anyone could, and Calvin Johnson of Beat Happening in shorts, staring off to one side. They’re in the middle of main street, part of a parade, thirty yards or so up from the Vernor’s float—and more than anything else I know, this picture of patient smiles captures punk: not as art or commerce but as appearance, as the pursuit of a public life on a human scale.


    20th Century Blues (RCA Victor). In the immortal words of Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood’s Glen or Glenda: “Bevare! Take care! Bevare!”