PRINT September 2012

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David Frankel on Greil Marcus’s “The Cowboy Philosopher”

Two pages from Artforum 24, no. 7 (March 1986). Greil Marcus, “The Cowboy Philosopher.”

I GREW UP IN THE BRITISH ISLES, and my ninth birthday fell a couple of weeks after the English release of “Please Please Me,” the Beatles’ second single and first big hit, in January 1963, so I make no apologies for saying: For my generation, rock music was a basic and crucial condition of life. It communicated on a level that simultaneously bypassed critical thought (I did say I was nine, I think?) and then, as we passed through our teens, was peculiarly, infinitely subject to it, or what passed for it in our developing minds. Today, listening to music I’ve known for up to and over five decades, I surprisingly often still find myself saying, Oh, what a wonderful musician, and spinning off into pondering what makes me think so. There may, however, be more primary questions: Am I just too nostalgic to let go? Or do we all somehow, as relative infants, have the insight and knowledge to recognize wonderful singing, playing, and songwriting when we hear them? Or does some art so remake critical criteria that it emerges at the top of them—do I think John Lennon’s singing is godlike because it taught me that it was? Because my idea of godlike singing hangs on John Lennon?

For many years now—at least since I read his book Mystery Train, buying it when it first appeared, in 1975—my fondest guide in thinking about things like this, and about music generally, has been Greil Marcus, a contributing editor of Artforum who began to write a column here in 1983, which I was lucky enough to be assigned to edit. (The magazine had only two editors at the time; Marcus didn’t have much choice.) I’m quite sure working on that column and reading much else by its author over the years have permeated my responses and my ear: Only after describing Lennon’s singing as “godlike” just now, for instance, did I remember hearing Marcus call it that once on the radio. That Marcus is among America’s best critics of popular music I doubt anyone will argue, but in this Artforum issue on media—and music is among those forms of art and culture acutely affected by changing technologies, in its systems of delivery and reception and inevitably in its substance—the writing of his that comes back to me isn’t one of his columns and is only in part about music: “The Cowboy Philosopher,” an essay he published here in March 1986 and later greatly developed into one of his most fertile books, Lipstick Traces (1989).

As “The Cowboy Philosopher” begins, Marcus receives a record in the mail, a sampler of songs by four bands from Manchester, England. Tucked into the sleeve is a sheet of stickers; one of those stickers is a cartoon—two cowboys on horseback, riding along, chatting in French. “What is it that you do, exactly?” asks the one in the white hat (my translation). “Reification,” replies the cowboy in black. “I see, a very serious job, with heavy books and lots of papers on a big table.” “No, I take walks. Mostly I take walks.”

Today, a good number of readers may pick up on the combination of French, reification, and taking walks and guess that this rock band’s sticker had something to do with the Situationist International, the political and avant-gardist group of the 1960s and a few years to either side of them that centered around the theorist Guy Debord, author of a book not exactly widely read but nonetheless surely influential: The Society of the Spectacle (1967). The cowboy’s “walks,” of course, are the Situationists’ dérives, or “drifts,” their “organized group wanderings through urban terrain,” Marcus would write in 1986, “meant to escape, and to provoke the state of mind necessary to contest, modern structures of reification as embodied in dominant architecture, city planning, and the passive habits and routines such structures enforced.” When Marcus opened his mail in 1978, though, the links between the Manchester music scene and the Situationists were unknown to him, as was the Situationist International itself. He further claims in the essay to have spoken no French at the time—he didn’t know what the sticker said. Even so, he kept it, and eventually started to research it. The result, eight years later, was “The Cowboy Philosopher.”

The text sets out to track the two cowboys before and after their ride through Manchester. The range of reference is catholic: The trail moves logically enough from the ambit of the Situationists and their predecessors, the Lettrists, into the student riots and workers’ strikes in France in 1968, then emerges more unexpectedly into punk and post-punk, T-shirts, postcards, cartoons, and eventually back onto a university campus, now in California. By the time Marcus came to write Lipstick Traces, the cowboys had become bit players and the sweep was enormously wider. Beginning with an account of the Sex Pistols, the writing ran from original research into the Situationists, through the location of precursors of punk negation in both medieval heresies and Dada, to the saddest, most loving reading of a doo-wop song by the Orioles you could hope to read.

Lipstick Traces is a highly individual kind of history, part scholarly study, part free association. The ties in “The Cowboy Philosopher” are more concrete. What both texts promote, though, is a vision of how a moment of art or culture—a printed cartoon, a rock performance—opens out to the world, to past, present, and future. Reading Marcus, we glimpse these moments and the media that carry them as passing points in an enormous network of connection, whether actual, possible, or sympathetic—points where widely distributed meanings are briefly funneled, focused, and brought together. And these networks give weight to the points within them—the T-shirts, the theoretical manifestos, the rock ’n’ roll songs—or suggest why they already have weight, as some do through a pure experiential thrill you can recognize even if you’re nine.

David Frankel, a contributing editor of Artforum, was a senior editor of the magazine from 1985 until 1995.