PRINT February 1998


Greil Marcus’ Real Life Rock

Greil Marcus is a contributing editor of Artforum.


    “You’re a Better Man Than I” on BBC Sessions (Warner Archives). In HBO’s recent Don King biopic, the Yardbirds’ British—blues version of Bo Diddley’s “I’m a Man” was used without a cut to orchestrate a restaging of the historic 1974 Ali-Foreman fight in Zaire. It was a reminder that nothing in rock ‘n’ roll can outrun that particular recording, a hit in October 1965, just two months before the band cut a live radio session and, for one performance anyway, topped themselves with a rather clumsily written antiwar, antiracism protest song. “You’re a Better Man Than I” was always the Yardbirds’ most heartfelt and formally experimental number; here, with a wash of feedback threatening to upend the piece just as the band heads into the last chorus before the instrumental break, the music is plainly terrifying, and so exciting you might have to play it over and over just to make sure you heard what you heard.


    “Big Big Lights” on Free to Fight #1 (Candy-Ass, P.O. Box 42383, Portland, OR 97242). A 7-inch disc plus a 12-page booklet on “Girls Fighting Girls,” with instructions, reflections, and letters, including one on the Spice Girls’ “Girl Power”: “Girlism is the step back to the sixties . . . As long as women think they are free to do whatever they want there’s no reason to start a revolt against our men-oriented systems.” Sleater-Kinney’s contribution features a vocal that’s extremist even by Corin Tucker’s standards—a vocal so consumed, so nearly a body in jeopardy, that you can sense it beginning to break up. B-side highlight: “Everyday,” a roundelay of overlaid voices that starts with “Every second a woman is called stupid, fat, crazy, a whore” and ends with “Every 15 seconds, a woman fights back . . . ”

  3. IVY

    Apartment Life (Atlantic). A trio led by chanteuse Dominique Durand that with light echoes of Nico lives up to a terrific album title. The more you listen, the more bite you feel, as if you’re slowly realizing that the glossy shampoo commercial you’re watching on TV is made out of a cut-up of Godard’s My Life to Live.


    Melrose Place (Fox, November 24, 1997). Dr. Brett Cooper, who has a real serial girlfriend-in-a-coma problem, attends comatose Megan. “Music can get through where nothing else can,” Coop says over Megan. “I’m betting you love Joni Mitchell as much as I do.” He slips a CD into a boom box, and as the camera comes in close on Megan’s face you can barely hear “Big Yellow Taxi.” “I’m awake! I’m awake!” screamed a sympathetic viewer. “Just turn off that horrible music!”


    “Rising Sun” on The Cocktail Combos (Capitol 3-CD reissue). R&B pianist Brown is a swaggering presence at shows around Berkeley and Oakland these days. In Los Angeles in 1948 he sang like an opium eater sleeping in the grooves of his own 78s, his dreams too sensual to allow a hurried word, and there’s no sound quite like it anywhere.

  6. X

    Beyond & Back—The X Anthology (Elektra 2-CD reissue). Punk looking for the heart of Raymond Chandler’s LA, and finding it—and also finding pure rock in the twelve-second guitar and bass intro to the 1982 “The Have Nots,” as perfect as the ten-second piano intro to the Falcons’ 1959 “You’re So Fine,” but with so much more jump.

  7. 44 LONG

    Collect Them All (Schizophrenic). Brian Berg is at home in Richard Manuel territory—think of “Whispering Pines” on The Band but more often he and his Portland bandmates are cowboys seeking a Western. They get it in “Undertaker” (“I lost my faith,” Berg testifies, as if all good stories start right here), which could have inspired Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man if it isn’t the other way around.


    Lucky You (Knopf). Centering on two poisonous Florida losers who form their own Aryan militia, the White Rebel Brotherhood—which they soon discover is also the name of a mostly black hip-hop band beloved by half the people they meet, most notably their kidnap victim, Amber Bernstein, a Hooters waitress who keeps asking them what they think of WRB’s “Nut Cutting Bitch,” her favorite song.


    “Louisiana Highway 1: Images” (Louisiana State Museum, Presbytere, New Orleans, through May 24, 1998). From composition to printing LaBauve is a stunningly dull photographer, but in this gallery of roadside shots one stood out, oddness poking through the obviousness: a ruined bar, half-reclaimed by the wild growth around it and dominated by a huge ad, almost a mural, for Old Milwaukee Beer. It was testament to how quickly time can pass, with a beer that didn’t even come on the market until the ’70s appearing as far gone as a brand name in a WPA photo by Walker Evans.


    Peace and Noise (Arista). With an album dedicated to personal losses behind her, here Smith steps out as a universal mother of death, mourning among others Ginsberg, Burroughs, massacred Tibetans, the Heaven’s Gate crew, and with such self—importance you get the feeling a death doesn’t really count until Smith has blessed it. And yet “Last Call,” the Heaven’s Gate number, has murmurs of danger; the 10:34 “Memento Mori” touches the Rolling Stones’ “Goin’ Home” and catches the momentum of a Jim Morrison rant. What remains is Smith’s ability to get lost in a piece of music without losing it, to momentarily change into a strange woman before once again taking her shape as a saint.