PRINT January 1998


Greil Marcus' Real Life Rock

Greil Marcus is a contributing editor of Artforum. His “Mangiafucco” about the exhibition “Arnold Böcklin/Giorgio de Chirico/Max Ernst: Eine Reise ins Ungewisse” (Kunsthaus Zurich) appears in the catalogue of the same name.

  1. Roger McGuinn, Jeff Tweedy, Jay Bennett:

    at “Revelations of Tradition: Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music and Its Legacy” (Wolf Trap, Vienna, VA, October 25, 1997). To close a rather stereotypical folk revue, the former leader of the Byrds and two members of Wilco found the heart of Dock Boggs’ implacable “Sugar Baby” in an instant; with Tweedy singing and McGuinn getting a pulse on his acoustic twelve-string, it was as if the song had caught them, not the other way around. After a warm McGuinn vocal on “Springfield Mountain” (“1761,” McGuinn said; “the first indigenous folk ballad to gain national currency,” Alan Lomax writes), Tweedy took up Richard “Rabbit” Brown’s “James Alley Blues.” The Boggs and Brown originals, both dating to 1927, are among the most determined and idiosyncratic recordings ever made in this country; they ought to be uncoverable, and as far as I know up to this night they were. Tweedy's simple audaciousness in taking them on was admirable enough; to hear him make them his own, without apparent reach or guile, casually shifting lyrics to his liking, ignoring the hellfire of Boggs’ cadence or Brown’s flatly untouchable orchestration in favor of his own rhythms, his own pace, was like a dream, and it came off as a feat about as remarkable as collecting the mail.

  2. Uncle Tupelo:

    “I Wish My Baby Was Born,” from March 16–20, 1992 (Rockville). On record, the only Jeff Tweedy performance that comes close to the haunts at Wolf Trap he grasped like brothers.

  3. The Doors:

    Box Set (Elektra 4-CD). Hard, cruel, ridiculous, mostly unreleased, with a cold, thrilling “Crystal Ship” from a crummy 1967 nightclub tape and 1965 demo of “Hello, I Love You” that proves the awful no. 1 hit actually began life as a decent song.

  4. Adam Green:

    Adam Green’s Book of Hollow Days (Kensington Books). New Year’s Day to New Year’s Eve with Chicago’s sourest cartoonist. Stops dead on Father’s Day—Joseph: “Now Jesus, you be home by nine.” “Shut up! You're not my real dad!”

  5. Bardo Pond:

    Lapsed (Matador). The Cowboy Junkies pull a Heaven’s Gate and then realize the only way to communicate from the other side is with forty-seven minutes of unrelieved feedback, fuzztone, and moaning; for the first time, they sound alive.

  6. George Garrett:

    The King of Babylon Shall Not Come Against You (Harcourt Brace). Early in the first Clinton administration, a reporter goes home to Paradise Springs, Florida, to write a book about an inexplicable local sex-and-gospel double killing. It took place as Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis and must somehow be the other side of the ’68 coin. That the premise makes sense neither at the beginning nor the end of Garrett’s novel doesn’t stop him from letting a zoo of characters rant and cogitate their way through the mysteries of history and time. The Paradise Springs librarian was three in 1968, but what interests her is the way in her life “1968” might as well have been 1776: “Even though most of the cultural icons and artifacts of 1968, trash as well as treasure, persistently, indeed relentlessly continue to exist, and not in an antiquarian sense either, even so, it is surprising to contemplate a time when these things began and were new,” she says. “I find it difficult to unlearn and imagine a world in which pop culture was not always at the very center of things.” Along with many others she proves that the true curse of pop-cultural time is not transience, but permanence.

  7. Scott Ellis, Director:

    1776 (Roundabout Theater, New York City, October 15). At the end of the musical all the singing members of the Continental Congress step up to sign the Declaration of Independence, and the Liberty Bell begins to toll. You expect an air of celebration, Ben Franklin pumping his fists and hissing “Yes!”—anything but the suspension and terror of a small band of men suddenly face to face with the history they’ve just made.

  8. Darcey Steinke:

    Jesus Saves (Atlantic Monthly Press). And Elvis rapes little girls.

  9. Barry Levinson, Producer:

    “Blood Ties,” Homicide: Life on the Street (NBC, October 17, 24, 31). This odd three-part teleplay about the murder of a young Haitian woman employed by a rich Baltimore family was all wrapped in a parable—the parable of Bob Dylan’s 1963 “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.” It was William Zantzinger, explains James Earl Jones, playing a millionaire businessman and community activist: Zantzinger, a rich man’s son who at a Baltimore society ball thirty-four years ago casually beat a black barmaid to death with a cane, a crime for which he received six months in jail and a $500 fine—and who was last heard from in 1991, extorting rents from the black tenants of hovels he did not even own. “In the courtroom of honor, the judge pounded his gavel, to show that all’s equal and that the courts are on the level,” Jones as guilty father quoted Dylan’s song after his son confessed. “‘The ladder of law has no top and no bottom,’” Jones went on, as if to say—what? That finally we too can get away with murder? Time flipped, history shrunk, and the song, read out so eloquently, only got bigger.

  10. Portishead:

    Portishead (Go! Beat). Famous last words again.