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Last Refuge of a Rock Critic: A Bicentennial Search for Patriotism

Editors’ note, July 2, 2021: There was so much happening in New York City during the Bicentennial all those years ago that the Village Voice spread its coverage over two issues, spanning June 28 to July 12, 1976. The Big Apple was ready to party: King Kong had just left town and the Democrats were rolling in, preparing for their quadrennial convention two years after a Republican president — a liar, cheat, and bully who attempted to use his office to punish political and personal enemies — had resigned in disgrace. There was some sort of cosmic justice in Richard Nixon flaming out after winning re-election in a landslide but before he could preside over the Bicentennial, that nationwide celebration of American democracy’s survival after one civil war, two world conflicts, and countless cultural battles.

It was in the Spirit of ’76 that Greil Marcus, author of the previous year’s Mystery Train — a monumental collection of essays delving into the heart of rock ’n’ roll to reveal a luminous chunk of America’s soul — undertook a wide-ranging disquisition on the meaning of patriotism in the pages of the Village Voice. (Mark Alan Stamaty’s boisterous, labyrinthine cartoons added to the wild and woolly mood.) As they do in Mystery Train, Marcus’s references, digressions, and footnotes shoot off like fireworks. Radiant as a rocket’s red glare — think of Jimi Hendrix’s version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” aurally transmuting Francis Scott Key’s “bombs bursting in air” into bombs dropping on screaming Vietnam civilians — Marcus’s Voice article asks us to look at America’s full history, both glorious and savage. He finds beauty in “an essential harmony, a recognition of uniquely American things shared,” but also quotes Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, delivered shortly before the Civil War reached its bloody end. The president, who would be assassinated just 42 days later, was acknowledging that the carnage was penance for allowing slavery to have been a part of the nation’s founding. “Fondly do we hope — fervently do we pray — that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bond-men’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’ ”

Marcus also quotes W.E.B. DuBois from 1897, when America’s freed slaves were still waiting for the forty acres and a mule that had been promised to help them start new lives more than three decades earlier. “One ever feels his two-ness — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

And in typical Marcus fashion, we get a bonus line of dialogue from Claude Rains, in his role as Captain Renault in 1942’s Casablanca: “Well, Rick, you’re not only a sentimentalist, but you’ve become a patriot.” Marcus was in some ways less concerned with whether patriotism is truly “the last refuge of a scoundrel,” as Dr. Johnson so famously put it, than with the divisions that were fracturing the nation into the broken mirror we gaze further into today. “America may be breaking up into separate ‘patrimonies.’ The rise of ethnicity and cultural nationalism on all fronts suggests this; so does the widening split between cities and suburbs, between classes, sexes, races, religions, nationalities.”

In November 1972, shortly after he’d won re-election, Nixon — whose somber Quaker facade in public was belied by the profane conniver heard on the Watergate tapes — discussed cabinet changes with an adviser, noting that he might keep one lawyer on to be the “house Jew” and to “handle the Bicentennial and all that nonsense.” Such nasty cynicism has long permeated the political right — consider Coolidge’s desiccated view, “the business of America is business” — because it cannot reconcile lust for unfettered profit with government’s role of legislating for the common good. Marcus worked on Mystery Train as the Watergate scandal was unfolding. In his author’s note, he points out, “To do one’s most personal work in a time of public crisis is an honest, legitimate, paradoxically democratic act of common faith.” Although this book about the music that bound America together across generational, racial, class, and political divides was not published until 1975, Marcus signed his note with a precise date: “August 9, 1974.”

Certainly not coincidentally, that was the day Nixon resigned the presidency.

So, sometime this week, between helpings of apple pie and baseball games, take a few moments to revisit the 200th birthday of a great, if forever flawed, nation as seen through the typewriter of an ever-thoughtful writer grappling with the meaning of patriotism in these United States. Note how he praises conservative members of the House Judiciary Committee who voted for the impeachment of a conservative president whose lies, capriciousness, self-aggrandizement, and intimidation tactics they could no longer stomach: “They made distinct efforts to trace a line between their particular responsibilities and the founding of the country.”

My, how times have changed. —R.C. Baker

***

In America Even the Humblest Harmony Is an Incredible Dream

By Greil Marcus
July 12, 1976

…In America, the humblest harmony is still an incredible dream.
— Edmund Wilson, “Night Thoughts in Paris,” 1922 (1) 

“Rick, you’re not only a sentimentalist, but you’ve become a patriot!”
— Claude Rains to Humphrey Bogart, at the close of Casablanca, 1942 (2)

To claim patriotism in America, where the thing is so undefined, is to claim a very great deal. It is to claim, in one way or another, to embody the republic. So as I thought about what I might say regarding patriotism, which seemed to me an appropriate subject in a week that falls between the Fourth of July and the opening of the Democratic Convention, one conviction that took shape very early was that one could not claim to be a patriot and that anyone who does should be instantly suspected.

This no doubt sounds familiar — patriotism as “the last refuge of a scoundrel,” (3) as Dr. Johnson put it — but that is not at all what I mean to get at. Rather it is what I mean to get behind me, and to do that it’s necessary to deal at least briefly with the People’s Bicentennial Commission.

The PBC, organized by activist Jeremy Rifkin, presupposes to offer the real, people’s, revolutionary-at-its heart America, as opposed to the official America promulgated for Bicentennial purposes by various hucksters and governmental agencies. The PBC has received some media coverage for its “counterdemonstrations” held alongside various commemorative exercises and dress-up shows.

PBC members are self-described “New Patriots”; you can become a “New Patriot” simply by joining the PBC. According to the PBC line, America is divided into “Patriots” and “Tories” — in fact, all American history, and the American present, can be seen this way. “Patriots” past and present are those the PBC aligns on the side of social and economic justice, defined in the usual radical/liberal manner; Tories are all those who are perceived by the PBC to have resisted such goals. Thus Alexander Hamilton, despite his role in the Revolution, was really a “Tory,” as are Republicans, bankers, factory foremen, and mean high school principals (I’m not making this up).

This approach is indistinguishable from that of the American Legion. There’s nothing troublesome or ambiguous about PBC patriotism; all it takes is a correct stand on the issues, and maybe a membership card. What’s the PBC program? “Patriots” should publicly expose “Tories.” Political candidates should be forced to sign oaths affirming their loyalty to the creed of the revolution.

The PBC makes me think of James Mann of South Carolina, Walter Flowers of Alabama, and Caldwell Butler of Virginia, three conservative members of the House Judiciary Committee who were crucial to the successful impeachment votes against Richard Nixon. In PBC terms they are quite obvious “Tories”; in a PBC America is it irrelevant that in working out their decisions on impeachment they made distinct efforts to trace a line between their particular responsibilities and the founding of the country. (With Mann there was perhaps no “effort” — that line may have always been visible to him, as it clearly has been to, say, Sam Ervin and William O. Douglas.)

Though the PBC is not to be taken seriously (“Have your political club ask that the Declaration of Independence be displayed at the polling place, so that citizens may spend their time thinking about self-evident truths,” they suggest), the PBC mode of thought is to be taken seriously, if only because it is a mode liberals and radicals often fall into. These days especially, we want our political affairs simple, clean and above all pure. Politics may be many things but it is narcissism first and foremost, because there is more safety in the certainties of separation than in the contingencies of wholeness.

The belief that patriotism is a question of the correct stand on vital social and political issues is not only the most hollow but the most invidious version of the concept; it empties the concept of all possible meaning. The truth is that patriotism makes stranger bedfellows than politics.

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Rather than something that can be easily fixed on individuals for the asking or that adheres to issues because of their necessity, and rather than something that can be claimed, awarded, or withheld, patriotism in America is a conundrum. Most who consider themselves sophisticated in their politics think patriotism is something to outgrow, preferably by the age of 12; many more Americans of all sorts, as John Scholar has written, “are simply without patriotism.… They do not think unpatriotic thoughts, but they do not think patriotic thoughts either. The republic for them is a vague and distant thing.” Yet it seems to me that patriotism should be explored, evoked, doubted, acted, and written out. The language of patriotism needs to be retrieved, invented, nurtured, and spoken, but we should not be too quick to decide who is a patriot and who is not, nor be too careful about establishing standards for the virtuous to meet. It isn’t my purpose here to prove my patriotism to you nor to provide guidelines with which you can prove yours to yourself — should you wish to. Instead I simply want to make the idea real; and I will try to do that by focusing on two themes central to an understanding of the possibilities of the patriotic spirit in America: wholeness, or harmony, and division, separateness.

***

Three texts:

One ever feels his two-ness — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.
— W.E.B. Du Bois (4)

When I think of Greenwich Village, it is almost with tears. For there this battered battalion dress their guns against a whole nation… From the darkest corners of the country they have fled for comfort and asylum. You may think them feeble and ridiculous — but feebleness is always relative. It may require as much force of character and as much independent thought for one of these to leave his Kansas home and espouse the opinions of Freud as for Wagner to achieve new harmonies or Einstein to conceive a finite universe. The thought of them makes me respond with a sharp gust of sympathy, precisely because they are ridiculous and yet stand for something noble. And one is touched by something like reverence when one finds among this strange indifferent people, to whom the rest of the world is a newspaper story, history a tedious legend, and abstract thought a form of insanity, a man who really knows on what stage he is playing, for what drama he has been cast. By his realization he makes us realize, too, for what drama our setting is the setting: for the drama of humanity, in a sense, no setting can be trivial or mean. Gopher Prairie itself, in all its ludicrousness and futility when the human spirit rears itself there, has its importance and its dignity. 

And now that a breach has been made what a flood might sweep off the dam! — what a thundering torrent of energy, of enthusiasm, or life! Things are always beginning in America; we are always on the verge of great adventures. History seems to lie before us instead of behind.
— Edmund Wilson, “Night Thoughts in Paris,” The New Republic, March 12, 1922 (5)

…The patriot is one who is grateful for a legacy and recognizes that the legacy makes him a debtor. There is a whole way of being in the world, captured best by the word reverence, which defines life by its debts: One is what one owes, what one acknowledges as a rightful debt or obligation. The patriot moves within that mentality. The gift of land, people, language, gods, memories, and customs, which is the patrimony of the patriot, defines who he or she is. Patrimony is mixed with person; the two barely separable. The very tone and rhythm of a life, the shapes of perception, the texture of its hopes and fears goes from membership in a territorially rooted group. The conscious patriot is one who feels deeply indebted for these gifts, grateful to the people and places through which they come, and determined to defend the legacy against enemies and pass it unspoiled to those will come after. 

But… we are not taught to define our lives by our debts and legacies, but by our rights and opportunities. 
— John. J. Schaar, “The Case for Patriotism,” American Review 17, May 1973

I suggest that to truly “read” these passages, which is what I will be doing for the remainder of this piece, it’s necessary to pay as close attention to the voice of each writer as to his words. Du Bois, meditating on truths that predated his time and which he does not seem to expect to change, is stymied, perplexed, quietly angry, yet full of a sort of determination that perhaps suggests the bridging of gaps he is telling us cannot be bridged. Schaar, with his eyes on the past (not merely the American past, but the past per se, the past as something that constantly informs the present), speaks in tones of regret; his cadences are measured and restrained, and what is measured out is the pain of loss, the loss of the “way of being in the world” he is describing. All this is evident well before his final disclaimer: that we are not taught the rich and complex values that make patriotism possible but cheaper values that imply the separation of each man and woman from every other as the positive basis for American society.

But Schaar and Du Bois speak as realists; their words communicate an almost tragic refusal to grant a single assumption they do not see as justified by the disappointments and betrayals of the American story. They will not speak a word they cannot prove. But they will whisper. Wilson’s “in America, the humblest harmony is still an incredible dream” — and not harmony as consensus, or lack of crucial disagreement, but an essential harmony, a recognition of uniquely American things shared — is at the heart of what both men are saying. They are saying that whatever the American reality, or even the American fate, the possibilities of such harmony cannot be decently abandoned; that harmony is an absolute necessity if Americans are to keep the promises on which America was founded: the promises that flowed instantly from the original justification of America in 1776 as something new under the sun, and perhaps even the promises as they were reclaimed in 1865, with Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, when he incorporated the truth that the betrayal of those promises in fact preceded the promises themselves into the fabric of official American thought, where it has been officially buried ever since. (See box.)

To turn from the fundamental gloom of Du Bois and Schaar to late-night meditations of a young Edmund Wilson, thinking of America from a distance, where a good deal of the best of such thinking has been done, is a shock. One may have to read what he wrote carefully to appreciate how bizarre it is.

When I first came to Berkeley, in 1963, a campus veteran told me that Berkeley and Greenwich Village were the only places in America where a person could be really free. Wilson begins with this cozily embattled fallacy; a farther shore from the kind of patriotism Schaar speaks of can hardly be imagined. And yet — or perhaps, “and so” — Wilson then drives straight back into the “darkest corners” of the country, to what Fitzgerald called “the dark fields of the republic,” and embraces them with all the restraint of a Fourth of July orator. Suddenly he has delivered himself from the repression of the American present, as only the future is of any consequence. But there is the slightest hint of condescension in Wilson’s “Gopher Prairie itself” — and, perhaps in flight from doubts that not even the most visionary moment can banish, Wilson abandons the fatal pull of specifics for a virtual manifesto of American mysticism. It’s as if he is seeking, against the terrific odds he has been careful to establish in advance, to fix precisely those things Americans can recognize — those attributes by which they can recognize each other — the feeling that “things are always beginning in America,” blown up suddenly with exclamation points into images of a great dam breaking and a flood of — not ideas, not justice, not even freedom (which was what Wilson started with, but which is somehow no longer exactly the question) — “energy, of enthusiasm, of life!” And this is because what Wilson was working out of in Paris was not a “feeling,” but a leap of faith — a leap straight across what were to Lincoln the almost predestined American crimes and divisions, the crimes and divisions that were the source of Du Bois’s torment.

The desperation in Wilson’s voice is as palpable as the joy. A moment later in the essay he will pull back again; America will become a monster of banality. But he can’t quit with this. He returns as an American St. George come not to slay the dragon but magically to transform it. The passage continues: “Our enemy offers huger bulk than the enemy in Europe, but he is much less firmly rooted. Two generations might rout him. To arms then! Let me return; I shall not cease from mental fight nor shall my sword rest in my hand till intolerance has been stricken from the laws, till the time-clock has been beaten to a punch-bowl!”

In the great tradition of John Wesley Harding, who never made a foolish move, Wilson does not choose a foolish word. The struggle he is lining out is a matter of spiritual life or death for him, and — in the sense that a true patriot, one who truly perceives and accepts a patrimony, embodies the republic — for the country equally so. Thus Wilson’s language is overblown, with every pretension undercut by self-parody (“my sword” a seemingly absurd weapon for a “mental fight”; “till intolerance has been stricken from the laws” taken down a peg by “till the time clock has been beaten to a punch bowl”). Only with a frame of the ridiculous can Wilson get away with the absolute and discomforting seriousness of every word he is speaking. He is dedicating — like Lincoln in 1865, rededicating — himself, and his country, to the liberating destiny that his country, like no other before it, set out for itself; he recognizes and affirms that the republic, along with itself, invented a birthright each American would, in a way of his or her own determining, have to accept, as a burden, before he or she could fully claim to be American.

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This overblown way of speaking is the language, or a language, of American patriotism, and its affirmation also a settling of affairs. It sweeps right by Du Bois’s analysis of what cannot be resolved, even though Wilson’s words do not quite leave Du Bois’s statement of the facts out. “How far can love for my oppressed race accord with love for the oppressing country?” Du Bois wrote at another time. “And when these loyalties diverge, where shall my soul find refuge?” (7) Here and above, Du Bois speaks of black people, but the question he insists on contains all Americans who have been, and are, systematically refused America’s promises and excluded form its patrimony. That exclusion has been and is more widespread in terms of class than of race — and it is equally as subtle, as debilitating, and as resistant to fundamental change. As Du Bois would have said, the question of racial oppression is also a question of class. My attempt to follow the meaning of Du Bois’s idea applies, as metaphor, to Americans of all kinds who are excluded — and given that America was once known as “a good poor man’s country,” there are many whites who were included in the past who are excluded now.

Du Bois says that any resolution a black man or woman can make of Wilsons’s contradictions will by necessity be very different from and properly fall far short of, the glorious unity Wilson saw. The black American patrimony is separation and division; not simply because the “American” side is so full of horror and crime, but at least partly because it is so alive with promise. As Theodore Rosengarten’s All God’s Daughters, the life of Ned Cobb, a black Alabama sharecropper, makes clear, a full recognition of “the injustice of the laws” does not preclude the deepest recognition of that promise nor the determination to fulfill it precisely on its original, 200-year-old terms. But the laws refuse to recognize Cobb’s claim to his “American” patrimony, and without that double recognition Du Bois’s words hold.

It is very questionable whether the burden I spoke of Wilson accepting, or the debts and obligations of which Schaar writes, can be set forth by me, or anyone, as a necessary part of the patrimony of a black man or woman in America. Black men and women have made their own history in America, which America ignored or did not even see, and the evidence is strong today that it is in that specific history that black men and women are finding their patrimony — their debts, obligations, promises, possibilities — finding what it is they have to live up to, finding a way of being in the world. In Lincoln’s terms of crime and punishment, it is a measure of the price white Americans of any sort must pay for the forced odyssey of black people in America that a black American patrimony, which grows out of an altogether different kind of heroism and resourcefulness than white Americans draw on — different in kind and in quality — may not only be impossible for whites to connect to, but wrong for them to connect to. With Gayl Jones’s Corregidora, Lucille Clifton’s family memoir Generations (which begins with the story of Clifton’s great-great grandmother, born in Dahomey in 1822, brought to the New Orleans slave markets and made to walk to Virginia at the age of eight, whose message to her family, into this century, was “Get what you want, you from Dahomey, women”), Alice Walker’s The Third Life of Grange Copeland, or the film of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, a white American may feel that he or she is somehow violating these tales simply by responding to them. To say, this is part of my legacy, my patrimony, too, which is to say that the “American” patrimony is, or should be, that of a black man or woman is to go much farther than any white can decently go.

Because of such history, and because the language of patriotism in America has not flourished — because it is not easily spoken nor easily understood when it is spoken; because the “way of being in the world” of which Schaar writes is foreign to most of us, so foreign as to be hard to imagine clearly — ­America may be breaking up into separate “patrimonies.” The rise of ethnicity and cultural nationalism on all fronts suggests this; so does a widening split between cities and suburbs, between classes, sexes, races, religions, nationalities. I don’t mean such groupings are always in explicit conflict, but that people are locating their primary loyalties away from “America,” as a place, a society, a republic, an idea, a promise, whatever. Historian William Appleman Williams’s recent Bicentennial book, America Confronts a Revolutionary World, takes this movement apart to one conclusion: He argues that America can best be true to its best self by returning to the Articles of Confederation, and fragmenting, by secession (violently if need be; “I will meet you on the barricades,” he says) (8), into regional socialist republics. This is a bad moment in the work of a valuable historian. But there is some truth in the book — as a skewed metaphor for retreats from America that are already well advanced.

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It may be that this is not a problem to “solve” but a reality to accept or struggle against, on an individual level, at least in the beginning. Schaar writes of America, an invented political and moral society, as a place where patriotism is not simply a matter of inheritance or lack of it — in America, patriotism is an earned choice, an earned recognition. Wilson, 51 years earlier, agreed when he spoke as baldly as he dared of a “mental fight,” of a battle he would carry on, in American letters, as a critic and a reporter, to rout the enemy, to make the wisp of American harmony he glimpsed one night in Paris more real.

When we speak of patriotism in America we must recognize an inevitable division of self in the very act of speaking, and in that sense Du Bois’s statement can serve for anyone. America is big, conformist, monolithic, faceless, cruel, and its economic game is rigged. For any sense of freedom the first impulse is to separate oneself, either following the trail of countless American lone-wolfs, solitaries, and Ishmaels, or settling for the homogeneous familiarities and protections of “one’s own”: family, religion, nationality, race, region. Yet America is still astonishing — too big, too complex, and too various for any mind to take in, and in that astonishment, in the realization of an enormous place finally justified and held together by little more than a few phrases from an old document, comes the yearning to make America whole by seeing it clearly; by pursuing that patrimony, discovering it, retrieving it, inventing it, or simply affirming it. What is it that Americans share? In what images, of crime or beauty, do Americans uniquely recognize themselves as no others would, recognize that in an essential way they are linked, that they can carry on certain conversations about certain things that others could not or would not think to enter?

One probably cannot raise such questions without realizing that if they are asked with the utmost seriousness of intent there may be no encouraging answers. But one cannot wear such questions out either. Schaar’s statement, like Wilson’s, points toward a way of being in touch with America; com­bative, suspicious, and yet deeply accepting of something like a common fate, that cannot, and should not be avoided.

***

There are two ideas around which this piece revolves, no mat­ter how erratic the orbit has been.The first is the idea of the patriot as one who embodies the republic. This is not as grand or pretentious as it might seem. A civil rights worker linking people to the re­public by convincing them to vote is embodying the republic, in many ways. Many of those on the House Judiciary Committee, by what they said and the manner in which they said it, embodied the repub­lic, for a time. James Agee, writ­ing Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, embodied the republic, in all of its mystical and factual complexity. Those who honestly and visibly refuse to let the repub­lic stop short of itself embody it.

Visibly — publicly — is the key word. Wilson spoke almost mys­teriously of “a man who really knows on what stage he is playing, for what drama he has been cast,” who “by his realization… makes us realize, too, for what drama our setting is the setting.” To say that this can mean anything is to point to the strength of what Wilson said, not its weakness; Wilson himself took this conviction to its extreme only 21 years after he first set it down. He wrote of Lincoln, in “Eight Essays”: “It was as if he had not only foreseen the drama [of the war] but had seen all around it, with a kind of poetic objectivity, aware of the various points of view the world must take toward its protagonist. In the poem that Lincoln lived, Booth had been prepared for, too, and the tragic conclusion was necessary to justify all the rest. It was dramatically and mortally inevitable that this prophet who had overruled opposition and sent thousands of men to their deaths should finally attest his good faith by laying down his own life with theirs.” The patriot is a man or woman, who, in embodying the possibilities of American life, dramatizes them in view of others. That is both an instinct — the yearning for and affirmation of wholeness — and a role — the act of wholeness.

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The second idea is that of “a whole way of being in the world.” Schaar has defined it in the lines I quoted; I cannot really set it forth more fully without a long, close consideration of how specific indi­viduals, or a group of people, made their choices and lived their lives. It is both the treasure of patriotism and the key to it. It is a constant, renewing sensitivity to questions I asked earlier: What do Americans share, what is essential and unique, in their history, experience, fate? It is a state of mind that Edmund Wilson caught as well as anyone.

In Paris, in 1922, he began his meditation on America thinking of Futurism, “born in Italy, where the weight of the past lies heaviest.” “But I can scarcely adore the locomotive,” he wrote. ” I know it all too well.” He went on to wonder at his dreams of America, to criticize America as brutally as he could manage, to pull away, back and forth, back and forth, the double vision of the American pa­triot at work, searching for at least a night’s truce with itself. Wilson turned back finally to that image of the rails: “Where there is a petu­lance and a sadness in the piping of the French engines, I shall hear in the American ones an eagerness and a zest: They have elbow room here for their racing; they can drive on as far as they like; they have an unknown country to explore, a country that no one has ever heard of — What sort of men are these who live in nameless towns? At a distance, they seem, neither intelligent nor colorful nor fine — scarcely members of the same race as the beings who have built civilization. But I know that in the wide spaces of all that wilder­ness, in the life of that loose abun­dant world, for all the reign of mediocrity and the tyranny of in­tolerance, there is a new freshness and freedom to be brought to the function of mankind — the function which, in the long run, we shall never be able to get out of: staring out in wonder and dismay at the mysterious shapes of the world, either to ask ourselves what laws move them or, combining those shapes anew, to makeshift to create a nobler world in which our souls may find a home.”

Footnotes 

  1. In Keywords, Raymond Williams’s recent book on the etymology of fundamental con­temporary social concepts, the word “patriotism” is missing (so are “roots” and “fraternity”). But because I like Williams’s idea, if not his choices, I have pulled out words from the quotes I refer to that seem to me keys to an Ameri­can language of patriotism — words that in some way signify an aspect or element of “patriotism.” Here, the keywords are “humblest,” “harmony,” and “still.”
  2. Keyword: “sentimentalist.”
  3. Keyword: “refuge.”
  4. Virtually every word in this statement is a keyword. Still: “two-ness,” “souls,” “ideals,” “dogged,” “keeps it from.”
  5. Keywords: “tears,” “against,” “nation,” “corners,” “comfort,” “character,” “inde­pendent,” “home,” “espouse,” “new,” “harmonies,” “finite,” “sympathy,” “stand for,” “noble,” “reverence,” “indiffer­ent,” “history,” “legend,” “drama,” “spirit,” “dignity,” “enthusiasm,” “beginning,” “adventures.”
  6. Again, since essentially Schaar is writing a brief on the keywords of patriotism, only a few of the less obvious: “a whole way of being in the world,” “defines life by,” “one acknowledges,” “men­tality,” “tone,” “rhythm,” “shapes,” “texture,” “taught.” The grace and civility of Schaar’s writing tells one as much about patriotism as any of his words.
  7. Keywords: “how far,” “accord,” “loyalties,”
  8. Keyword: “I will meet you.”     ❖

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From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Girl Groups: How the Other Half Lived

Of all the genres of rock and roll, girl group rock (“group” is merely a con­vention — the operative word is “girl”) is the warmest, and probably the most affecting. The style flourished between 1958 and 1965, “bad” years of rock and roll; it went into eclipse when the Beatles invalidated its premises of contrivance and manipulation and the soul beat invalidated its sound. These days the soul beat is worn out and contrivance, never absent, has re­surfaced; so has the style. The Three De­grees, who first attracted attention in 1970 with a remake of the original girl group hit, the Chantels. “Maybe,” took over the charts last year with their traditionally submissive, pining, lovely “When Will I See You Again?” Bette Midler led cheers for the Shangri-las and the Crystals; Bonnie Raitt unearthed the Sensations’ “Let Me In.” David Johansen pledged his love to the Shangri-las, the Angels, the Cookies, and the Toys. Patti LaBelle and the Bluebells, notable 13 years ago for making the worst of all girl group records, “I Sold My Heart to the Junkman,” held on and grew up to become a good womans group. Barry White offered Love Unlimited. Bruce Springsteen swallowed the style whole and produced his magnificent anthem, the soon-to-be-released “Born to Run.” And the hit of the summer, the Beach Boys’ 1967 “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” is classic girl group rock if anything is. The style is stretching, and as happened 15 years ago, all of rock is more lively because of it.

Girl group rock does not, of course, take in all female rock and roll singers. Big Mama Thornton does not fit. Neither do Dionne Warwick, Jackie DeShannon, Aretha Franklin, Betty Wright, Jean Knight, Mary Wells, or even the Supremes. These singers are either too mature, too sophisticated, too assertive, or too classy; they lack the inno­cence, the inability to comprehend disaster and the need to replace disaster with para­dise, that is the essence of the style. Leslie Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me” fits, not be­cause it is part of this world view, but because it was very self-consciously an instance of girl group rock in rebellion against itself.

Which meant a producer playing tricks with the genre. This music is, first and foremost, producer’s music: He wrote or commissioned the songs and created the sound; all the lead singer had to do was win your heart. Almost none of the singers celebrated below prospered outside of the care of the one producer who developed their talents in the first place — the relationship was that dependent. Darlene Love, the finest, now earns a living backing up Sonny Bono. The astonishing Arlene Smith had more natural talent than any of them, yet she failed after leaving George Goldner; not even Phil Spector, who should have been perfect for her, could get Arlene the right sound. Girl group records were based in the relationship of a young girl and an older man (white, until Berry Gordy) who put her on a pedestal and held her in thrall; out of that relationship came some of the most urgent and intense rock and roll ever made.

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The songs most often celebrated a shad­owy male of wondrous attractiveness, and on a superficial level, such figures surely re­presented the producer’s or the lyricist’s fantasy of himself. (Girl group writers Carole King and Ellie Greenwich handled melodies, not words.) But the male hero was, on paper, a little too much. Without the passion of the girl singer to make him real, the boy became (as in Shadow Morton’s witless “The Boy,” which the Shangri-Las sang as if they were near death from bore­dom) a silly, overblown joke on the man who fantasized him — and not a hit, either. The boy came to life only if the girl singer breathed life into him. In the end, he was her creation, not the writer’s. The fantasy be­came not self-serving, but utopian.

In the early ’60s, tough male singers were in decline. Their replacements were as sen­sitive as they were unexciting; they made no demands because they spent all their time begging girls for sympathy. And so, in these years, not only were girl groups the most powerful female singers on the radio, they created the most powerful male figures in rock: the subjects of their songs. The fine, fine boy, the boy who’ll love walking in the rain, the leader of the pack, the angel baby. Eve’s ribs, every one of them.

Except in a couple of vaguely social pro­test Crystals lyrics, where we find the hero poor and downtrodden (a type who reap­pears in “Leader of the Pack” and is stood on his head in “The Boy From New York City” — where he he has grown up to be a pimp), the male of this vision simply is. He is so mythical that when the Crystals meet him in “Da Doo Ron Ron,” even though “he makes her heart stand still,” somebody else has to tell her “that his name was Bill” — he’s too cool to talk. Hair color, height, clothes, walk, and other conventional pop details are almost always missing — to the point where the following dialogue crops up in the Shan­gri-Las’ “Give Him a Great Big Kiss”: “What color are his eyes?/I don’t know, he’s always wearing shades.”

I suppose it represents some kind of death of innocence in the genre that “The Boy From New York City” is replete with the minutiae the other songs omit — on this disc we find out about everything right down to the contents of his wallet. Here, one might think, the girl has given up on the image of the boy and finally has to get down to business: survival in the urban Jungle.

Otherwise, the lyrics do little more than vary the Search for Perfect Love and the Attempt to Bring It Home to Meet Mom and Dad. Beyond this attractive and timeless theme, what were girl group records? Beau­tiful construction, rich immediate sound, unbelievable expressions of desire, and a staggering demand for life — all riding on the voice of a single girl driven by the voices or her sisters in the chorus.

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Here, then, is the best of girl group rock:

THE CHANTELS: “I Love You So” and “If You Try”

(1958 — “I Love You So” reached number 42 on the Billboard charts; “If You Try” was a cut from “The Chantels,” their LP on End) They were five young black girls from New York City, lead singer Arlene Smith was 14 years old. Their producer was George Goldner, who began his career in rock ‘n’ roll with the Crows’ “Gee” in 1954, and later made a pile off Frankie Lymon. Every record cut by Phil Spector goes straight back to him: “Without George Goldner,” Spector said. “there would have been no rock ‘n’ roll.” An exaggeration, but not by much. Goldner was the archetypal cigar-smoking Jewish businessman who took black singers off the street, hustled, bought, stole, pleaded, and hyped to put their records across and then left them behind. He died only a few years after Frankie Lymon; he died poor, still looking for one more hit.

He was a magnificent record producer The sound he and arranger Richard Barrett worked out for the Chantels was simple: one very steady drum beat; rolling piano triplets climbing up and falling away, over and over again; a little guitar; a virtually inaudible bass. In the nave, a pleading choir from four Chantels; at the pulpit, Arlene. And some­how, the sound was huge, overpowering, like Judgment Day.

1975 Village Voice article by Greil Marcus about Girl Groups

Goldner drove Arlene mercilessly. She would sing the songs he gave her and he would curse; she would sing again and he would scream and order her out of the studio. He kept at it until the tears were coming, until she was ready to do anything to get away from this terrible man, and then Goldner, fully aware that he had before him the greatest voice in rock ‘n’ roll, would turn his back, shrug his shoulders, and let her sing it one last time. And that was the take he was reaching for. Arlene, just a little girl really, scared, agonized, would sing for her life.

On “I Love You So,” the massed voices of the girls speak the title softly, fading the sound into the entry of an unbelievably full voice that repeats those four words with a power that is beyond any possible expecta­tion. Arlene dives headlong into the song, cries, weeps, struggles, and finds herself. As the song levels out, somewhere between heaven and earth, Arlene half-sings, half-­talks her way through one of the most erotic passages in rock ‘n’ roll, and she is sure of herself now: “Well, you know … how much I love you …” But the listener has never known anything like this. She envelops you, smothers you, hits an ending, drops down, and then flies all the way up again. The record fades and Arlene just has time to make her last class at junior high.

“If You Try” was her masterpiece. Again, an intro, this time with a piano really driving forward, Arlene catches the song when it’s already in flight and never lets go, calling out her message to all those lovers who might, if she can get through to them, avoid the mistake that has wrecked her life. By the time she reaches for and sails past the high note that forms the center of the song, she is singing her soul as she never will again. The Chantels are flowing, nothing can stop them, Arlene goes higher, and higher, and she’s gone.

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ROSIE & THE ORIGINALS: “Angel Baby”

(1960 — Number 5.) Formed in 1955, they came and they went. This one freak remake of “Earth Angel” took them to the top and that was enough to keep them going for five more years, when they finally gave up. Rosie had an eerie little-girl voice: she sounded as if at the age of eight she really had seen all there was to see. If she was ridiculous, she was ghostly, too. It worked — that pristine guitar intro, the famous off-key sax break that never really turns into a solo. Rosie pleading, Rosie loving, Rosie in a dream world all her own. Girls used to sing it at high school dances and everyone in the room instantly fell in love. “Angel Baby” still sounds like a visit from another planet.

THE SHIRELLES: “Tonight’s the Night”

(1960 — Number 39.) They were the real class of the girl groups. I once played “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” eight hours straight and the song just kept getting better; this too is a more than perfect record, perhaps the sexiest ever made. All you need is the title and some vague memory of the rise and fall of Shirley Allston’s singing to know what happens here. “I don’t know … well, I don’t know right now … well, I love him so …” One big question mark. Strings up, strings down, a faintly latin rhythm led by a few cracks on the guitar, stops, pauses, and you linger, waiting for Shirley to give in. Does she? It doesn’t matter.

CLAUDINE CLARK: “Party Lights”

(1962 — Number 5.) There’s nothing at all to this record after the first five seconds or so, but those five seconds have enough emotion packed into them to last the average rock ‘n’ roller a whole career (which is what they did for Claudine  — she never made the chart again). That beginning is The Party — ­house busting wide open, music sailing out the window, bottles and bodies and Buicks on the lawn, the good times rollin’ like they never did, and our girl is stuck right next door, imprisoned by her evil mother. “But mama, everybody in the Crowd is there!” Peeking through her window she can see that “they’re doing the Twist … the Mashed Potatoes!” (Must be her favorite.) Well, it doesn’t matter: she’s not getting out. But the way she wails in those first few moments is all that counts: “I see the party lights!”

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THE MARVELETTES: “Beachwood 4- 5789”

(1962 — Number 17.) Unlike the Supremes, this Motown group never made history, just a few wonderful records. This was the best: “Beachwood (note acute current surf music reference — that sold records) 4-5789, You can call me up and have a date, any old time.” Which is to say that Berry Gordy made a record that told any lonely boy what he dreamed was true — that there were girls out there who could be had for the asking. All over the country girls and boys picked up their phones and dialed, just to see what would happen, and what happened was that a lot of people had to get their numbers changed. That’s my idea of a rock and roll culture, if you can call it an idea.

THE CRYSTALS: “He’s Sure the Boy I Love”

(1962 — Number 11.) A dramatic fanfare. One long note on a saxophone, then a com­pletely confident female voice announcing over the rumble of too many drums: “I always dreamed the boy I loved would come along, and he’d be tall and handsome, rich and strong. Well, now that boy has come to me — but he sure ain’t the way I thought he’d be!” And so, the saga of Phil Spector began. In one swoop, pianos, more drums, more sax, the full assault, and, holding on to the explosion, the leader Darlene Love, so proud of herself and her boy she can’t hold back anything at all. No excuses, no regrets, all he’s got are unemployment checks, but she loves him, and you’d better believe it. The Crystals tossed out lines and Darlene threw them back with a smile that stretched all over America in 1962.

THE CRYSTALS: “Da Doo Ron Ron”

(1963 — Number 3.) Nothing like it any­where. Spector’s sound was meant to obli­terate everything in its path, to insure that nothing — not a headache, or bad breaks. or bad brakes — could compete with his record. This was not merely commercial, this was Spector’s aesthetic: he had created something beautiful and he wanted it to get the attention 1t deserved.

The hookline on “Da Doo Ron Ron” — ­more like a battering ram — has never been touched. A sax blares out a single note three times as the pressure builds, and then all is lost in an absolute cataclysm of sound and emotion. The record is three minutes of pure force; there is so much love in this record it sings all around you. Spector once said that some people — old rock ‘n’ roll singers — cut records; other people — like the Beatles — cut ideas. But “Da Doo Ron Ron,” he said, was both He added, with typical humility, that those artists who could make records and ideas would rule the world: making noise like this must have felt like that.

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THE CHIFFONS: “One Fine Day”

(1963 — Number 5.) A hit at the same time as “Da Doo Ron Ron,” and played one after the other they still make the best twosome in rock and roll. Carole King and Gerry Goffin wrote “One Fine Day”: you can hear King’s phrasing in every nuance of the singing. She might also be responsible for the stunning piano notes that kick the song off, disappear, and return to break the disc in half and carry it off. The piano on “One Fine Day” is life at its best, that’s all. And the theme is so simple: One fine day, everything will come true, and the girl who’s singing might even believe it, for a moment.

THE RONETTES: “Be My Baby” and “(The Best Part of) Breakin’ Up”

(1963 — Number 2 and Number 39.) “Be My Baby” is all momentum. You can hear where Dylan got the feel of “Like a Rolling Stone” and “One of Us Must Know.” Ronnie wasn’t the singer Darlene Love was (who is?), and the production is dominant, finally making Ronnie’s need all but superhuman. Brian Wilson’s favorite record, for any who still think “Pet Sounds” sprung full-blown from his head.

“(The Best Part of) Breakin’ Up” is all Ronnie: she’s saucy, teasing (she pauses in the middle of her plea to seduce her boy­friend) and her voice snaps like a whip. No heartbroken need-nymph this time, she knows how good she is; this girl is in complete control, because she knows the best part of breaking up is … what else?

DARLENE LOVE: “A Fine, Fine Boy”

(1963 — number 53.) Not a well known Spector record, but his best. Darlene never sounded more pleased with herself; there isn’t a hint of pain or longing anywhere on this disc. She’s got what she wants and she knows what it’s worth; after about 10 sec­onds, so do you, and you’ll never forget it. The verses sum up everything Spector want­ed to say about life (“He even takes me places and buys me things/But love is more important than a diamond ring”), but it’s the chorus that puts you away. The already fast tune picks up speed, churchbells ring (no metaphor), the whole record seems to physi­cally jump. Darlene shouts out the cues and merges with the Crystals for the response:
Oh, he’s got a sweet kiss and a true heart/And something tells me that we’ll never part/He’s got a sweet sweet kiss and true heart/And he’s fine, fine, fine/I know he’s — fine fine fine/ Let me tell you he’s — fine fine fine/ And he’s a — fine fine boy.” What could be better than having someone sing about you like that — unless it was having someone like that to sing about?

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LESLEY GORE: “You Don’t Own Me”

(1963 — Number 2). The opening, very dramatic: the Last Fight Between Boy and Girl. No compromising. Lesley lost her boy in “It’s My Party” and got him back with “Judy’s Turn to Cry,” but now, the final question: Is he worth it? Lesley did this number in the TAMI Show; these days when on screen Lesley is about to begin this song, just a hint of the melody, not a word, is enough to set the audience screaming, not just because it’s a feminist manifesto years before its time, but also because the crowd recognizes it as a truly great song. It’s not certain Lesley does — the movie version is sung with an uncertain little smirk (Don’t take this too seriously, boys, of course I’m yours), but she doesn’t drag it down. All those fine lines (“Don’t put me on display …” ), her last surge for youth and freedom as she speeds off into the night, tough enough to break her date if that’s what it takes, made it a harbinger of things to come, but no one has matched it yet.

DUSTY SPRINGFIELD: “Wishin’ and Hopin'”

(1964 — Number 6). Complete submis­sion — the other side of the girl group persona taken to its logical extreme. Wear your hair just for him; change your walk, talk, clothes, and whatever else you can think of; become a slave; you’ll love it. Dusty’s singing is very delicate, as if she’s afraid she’ll break; like Arlene, she’ll never get another chance; and she just wants to save us from her mis­takes.

THE RONETTES: “Walking in the Rain”

(1964 — Number 23). What a gorgeous re­cord. We learn a little more about The Boy — he needs more than a touch of sen­timent; he must be strong enough not to be embarrassed by romance. The lyric offers one of the great rock subversions of grammar: “Johnny? No, he’ll never do/Bobby? No, it isn’t him too.” It won Spector his only Grammy — for the thunderclaps.

DARLENE LOVE: “Christmas (Baby Please Corne Home)”

(1964 — from the LP, “A Christmas Gift for You from Phillies Records”.) All those songs of girls pining for Their Boy or The Boy were mere warm-ups for this aston­ishingly powerful record. As with “Da Doo Ron Ron,” Spector gives us not a moment’s peace; he crashes an entire orchestra into the very first notes,, then pulls it away for three stately bass patterns. The orchestra begins its charge back, and Darlene grabs the mike and screams, “CHRISTMAS!” like she’s announcing the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The intensity is overwhelming: she’ll die if her boy doesn’t make it home in time. She does everything she can do to make you believe her; there’s a sax break, and you need it to catch your breath; and then Darlene is pleading with even greater urgency, de­manding, insisting, begging, and the Crys­tals are right with her: “PLEASE (please) PLEASE! (please) PLEEEEEEEEZE­BABY PLEASE COME HOME!” And he never does and the record is over.

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***

Is there something that will wrap up the social, political, and sexual meaning of a girl group rock? I’m not sure there is. Every time I try to draw a lesson from these wonderful records, it seems to defraud them, to be beside the point. At least, my points are beside theirs. What do they all come to? I don’t know.

But I do know this. If you listen to the Shangri-Las’ “I Can Never Go Home Any­ more,” cut in 1965, you will find that the lead singer’s voice, from its tone to its phrasing, exactly matches, down to the most subtle inflection, the voice of Patty Hearst on the tapes she made with the SLA. ❖

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Elvis Presley as Moby Dick

Writer Greil Marcus, a passionate student of our nation’s past and a madman for rock ‘n’ roll music, has in Mystery Train: Images of America In Rock ‘n’ Roll Music (Dutton, $8.95), set out to define that heady space where our history and our art merge into a single, durable vision of our country — a vision that is capable of illuminating the deepest and darkest recesses of our collective democratic soul. Mystery Train is determinedly and proudly in the tradition of such ground­breaking works of American cultural criti­cism as Leslie Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel, D. H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature and F.O. Matthiessen’s American Renais­sance (the first two of which Marcus draws from in his work); as his predecessors sought to understand Poe’s nightmares or the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock in terms of our most substantial national myths, so Marcus attempts to place such songs as Randy Newman’s “Sail Away,” The Band’s “Across the Great Divide,” and Elvis Presley’s early efforts for Sam Phillips at Sun Records into the same broad cultural context.

Marcus believes that rock ‘n’ roll no more deserves to be pigeonholed as a transient manifestation of “youth” culture than Huckleberry Finn deserves to be thought of as an adventure tale for 10-year-old boys. To prove his case, he forces his chosen musicians to carry the weight of much of American history, literature, social thought, and even geography to see if they can do so without collapsing under the stress. To a great extent, Marcus’s heroes come through very nicely indeed, and Mystery Train, which runs the risk of reading like a literary man’s pretentious effort to rationalize his craving for pop, instead has a humbling effect. At the end of the book, we, like Marcus, appreciate that we have only begun to hear what the most popular music of our time is telling us.

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Marcus has chosen to organize his book around a handful of artists who “share in their music and in their careers … a range and a depth that seem to crystallize naturally in visions and versions of America: its limits, openings, traps”; after giving Mystery Train a “backdrop” in the form of brief essays on two rock ‘n’ roll ancestors, “howling tomcat” Harmonica Frank (Marcus’s quintessential Huck) and bluesman Robert Johnson (his Ahab), he goes on to The Band, Sly Stone, and New­man, before wrapping up with his climactic (and lengthiest) section, “Elvis: Presliad.” Throughout Marcus writes in a forceful, enthusiastic, almost driven style — he grabs his subjects by the lapels and shakes them until their vital organs tumble out — and his frame of reference is so vast that he never runs out of connections worth making between the music he loves and just about anything else that matters in American art and life.

Marcus finds (brilliantly, I think) an aesthetic link between Music from Big Pink and Robert Altman’s film McCabe and Mrs. Miller; he traces the legend of Staggerlee beyond the music of Johnson and Stone to the lives and politics of Bobby Seale, Huey Newton, and Eldridge Cleaver — and then even further, into the black Superfly exploitation movies of the ’70s; Raymond Chandler is brought to bear on New­man, and all over the book there are whispers from Tocqueville, Perry Miller, and Scott Fitzgerald, not to mention graceful invocations of the Great Awakening, the Civil War, and the Gilded Age. It’s a measure of how long and rich a view Marcus takes of these musicians and, concurrently, a vindication of the value he places in their work, that it never becomes necessary to shove Water­gate or Vietnam into our faces to give the rock of Mystery Train its share of meaning.

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In all of his subjects, Marcus finds both a quest for that freedom that Americans regard as a birthright and a realization (tragically late in some cases) of the dread and terror that lie behind the face of that dream. Each of the book’s protagonists have, in their music, reinvented unique pieces of the American mythos that set them apart from each other (from The Band’s vision of a joint-stock American community to Newman’s synthesis of the Southern California polarities represented by the Beach Boys and Nath­anael West). In the end, it is only Elvis who can bind Marcus’s entire litany of images together.

That’s why the “Presliad” is the knockout section of the book; if Newman is, as the author indicates, his Bartleby, then Elvis is most certainly his Moby Dick. “Beside Elvis,” Marcus writes, “the other heroes of this book seem a little small-time. If they define different versions of America, Presley’s career almost has the scope to take America in.”

Marcus’s writing about Presley reaches a pitch of ecstasy, horror, and understanding that diminishes the prose of the book’s previous chapters as effectively as Elvis diminishes the subjects of those chapters. For Marcus, Elvis is the man who has best redeemed “the grandest fantasy of freedom,” but he has done so at the expense of resolving all the vital American tensions (“it is rather Lincolnesque; Elvis recognizes that the Civil War has never ended, and so he will perform The Union” ) — finally to end up in “a world that for all its openness … is aesthetically closed, where nothing is left to be mastered, where there is only more to accept.”

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It’s a frightening dramatization of the ultimate bankruptcy of what this country teaches us to live for. But even now, as Elvis goes through the motions in Vegas, Marcus catches flashes of hope: “And so Elvis Pres­ley’s career defines success in a democracy that can perhaps recognize itself best in its popular culture … success so grand and complete it is nearly impossible for him to perceive anything more worth striving for. But there is a horror to this utopia — and one might think that the great moments Elvis still finds are his refusal of all that he can have without struggling. Elvis proves then that the myth of supremacy for which his audience will settle cannot contain him … “

The electrifying beat of the “Pres­liad” aside, Mystery Train is not without its problems. Marcus has a tendency to repeat himself and to oversell a beloved song with superlatives; he has included some cutely labeled digressions that don’t successfully sidestep the fact that the book often doesn’t work as an organic piece of writing. (To his credit, however, he has thrown most of his more conventionally inbred rock criticism into the annotated discography that follows the main text.) At the most substantive level, he has neatly avoided taking on any American myths that might raise the disturbing, Fiedler-esque questions about our culture’s peculiar relationship to sex. I also wonder whether rock fans who are not well steeped in what universities call American Studies (which Marcus has taught at Berkeley ) are going to have a lot of fun with Mystery Train — the book isn’t written down to anyone — but maybe the very success of Marcus’s mission makes that beside the point. While our literature undoubtedly adds resonance to the best of our popular music, and vice versa, Mystery Train just as strongly suggests that, for many Americans, rock ‘n’ roll on its own, even when it’s heard in a cultural vacuum, may not be doing such a bad job of keeping our democratic vistas intact.

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Elvis Presley, Philosopher King

Elvis Presley is a supreme figure in American life, one whose presence, no mat­ter how banal or predictable, brooks no real comparisons. He is honored equally by long­-haired rock critics, middle-aged women, the city of Memphis (they finally found some­thing to name after him: a highway), and even a president. (Nixon had Elvis over to the White House once, and made him an honorary narcotics officer.) The cultural range of his music has expanded to the point where it includes not only the hits of the day, but also patriotic recitals, pure country gospel, and really dirty blues. Elvis has emerged as a great artist, a great rocker, a great purveyor of schlock, a great heartthrob, a great bore, a great symbol of potency, a great ham, a great nice person, and, yes, a great American.

Twenty-one years ago Elvis made his first records with Sam Phillips, on the little Sun label in Memphis, a pact was signed with Col. Tom Parker, shrewd country hustler; Elvis took off for RCA Victor, New York, and Hollywood. America has not been the same since. Elvis disappeared into an oblivion of respectability and security in the ’60s, lost in interchangeable movies and dull music; he staged a remarkable comeback as that de­cade ended, and now performs as the tran­scendental Sun King that Ralph Waldo Emerson only dreamed about — and as a giant contradiction.

Elvis gives us a massive road show musi­cal of opulent American mastery; his ver­sion of the winner-take-all fantasies that have kept the world lined up outside of the theatres that show American movies ever since the movies began. And of course we respond: a self-made man is rather boring, but a self-made king is something else. Dressed in blue, red, white, ultimately gold, with a Superman cape and covered with jewels no one can be sure are fake, Elvis might epitomize the worst of our culture — he is bragging, selfish, narcissistic, conde­scending, materialistic to the point of insan­ity. But there is no need to take that seriously, no need to take anything seriously. “Aw, shucks,” says the country boy; it is all a joke to him, his distance is in his humor, and he can exit from this America un­marked, unimpressed, and uninteresting.

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You can hear that distance, that refusal to really commit himself, in his worst music and in his best; if the throwaway is the source of most of what is pointless about Elvis, it is also at the heart of much of what is exciting and charismatic. It may be that he never took any of it seriously, just did his job and did it well, trying to enjoy himself and stay sane — save for those first Tennessee records, and that night, late in 1968, when his comeback was uncertain and he put a sear­ing, desperate kind of life into a few songs that cannot be found in any of his other music.

It was a staggering moment. A Christmas TV special had been decided on; a final dispute between Col. Parker (he wanted 20 Christmas songs and a tuxedo) and producer Steve Binder (he wanted a rough, fast, sexy show) had been settled; with Elvis’s help, Binder won. So there Elvis was, standing in a studio facing TV cameras and a live audi­ence for the first time in nearly a decade, finally stepping out from behind the wall of retainers and sycophants he had paid to hide him. And everyone was watching.

Sitting on the stage in black leather, surrounded by friends and a rough little combo, the crowd buzzing, he sang and talked and joked, and all the resentments he had hidden over the years began to pour out. He had always said yes, but this time he was saying no — not without humor, but almost with a wry bit of guilt, as if he had betrayed his talent and himself. He told the audience about a time back in ’55, when cops in Florida forced him to sing without moving; the story was hilarious, but there was some­thing in his voice that made very clear how much it had hurt. He jibed at the Beatles, denying that the heroes who had replaced him had produced anything he could not match, and then he proved it.

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Slow and steady, Elvis rocks into “One Night.” In Smiley Lewis’s original, it was about an orgy, called “One Night of Sin.” Elvis cleaned it up into a love story in 1958. But he is singing Lewis’s version, as he must have always wanted to. He falls in and out of the two songs, and suddenly the band rams hard at the music and Elvis lunges and eats it alive. No one has ever heard him sing like this. Shouting, crying, growling, lusting. Elvis takes his stand and the crowd takes theirs with him, cheering for what they had only hoped for. Elvis has gone beyond all their expectations, and his, and they don’t believe it. Every line is a thunderbolt. AW, YEAH! screams a pal — he has waited years for this moment, and as the song ends, Elvis floats like the master he is back into “One night, with you,” even allowing himself a little “Hot dog!” singing softly to himself.

It was the finest music of his life. If ever there was music that bleeds, this was it.

“One Night” catches a world of risk, will, passion, and natural nobility: something worth searching out within the America of mastery and easy splendor that may well be Elvis’s last word.

 

They called Elvis the Hillbilly Cat in the beginning: he came out of a stepchild culture that for all it shared with the rest of America had its own shape and integrity. It was, as southern chambers of commerce have never tired of saying, A Land of Contrasts. The fundamental contrast, of course, could not have been more obvious: black and white. Always at the root of southern fantasy, southern music, and southern politics, the black man was poised in the early ’50s for an overdue invasion of American life, in fan­tasy, music, and politics. As the north scur­ried to deal with him, the south would be pushed farther and farther into the weird­ness and madness its best artists had been trying to exorcise from the time of Poe on down. Its politics would dissolve into night­riding and hysteria: its fantasies would be dull for all their gaudy paranoia. Only the music would get away clean.

The north, powered by the Protestant ethic, had set men free by making them strangers: the poorman’s south Elvis knew took strength from community. This com­munity was based on a marginal economy that demanded cooperation, loyalty, and obedience for the achievement of anything resembling a good life; it was organized by religion, morals, and music. Music helped hold the community together, and carried the traditions and shared values that drama­tized a sense of place. Music gave pleasure, wisdom, and shelter.

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Music was also an escape from the com­munity, and music revealed its underside. There were always people who could not join the community, no matter how they might want to: tramps, whores, rounders, idiots, criminals. The most vital were singers; they bridged the gap between the community’s sentimentalized idea of itself, and the outside world and the forbidden; they were artists who could take the community beyond itself because they had the talent and the nerve to transcend it.

Jimmie Rodgers was one. He was every boy who ever ran away from home, hanging out in the railroad yards, bumming around with black minstrels, pushing out the limits of his life. He celebrated long tall mamas that rubbed his back and licked his neck just to cure the cough that killed him; he bragged about gun play on Beale Street; he sang real blues, played jazz with Louis Armstrong. There’s so much room in this country, he seemed to be saving, so many things to do — how could an honest man be satisfied to live within the frontiers he was born to?

 

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By the late ’40s and early ’50s, Hank Williams had inherited Jimmie Rodgers’s role as the central figure in country music, but he added an enormous reservation: that margin of loneliness in Rodgers’s America had grown into a world of utter tragedy. Williams sang for a community to which he could not belong; he sang to a God in whom he could not quite believe; even his many songs of good times and good lovin’ seemed unreal. He was a poet of limits, fear, and failure; he went as deeply into one dimension of the country world as anyone could, gave it beauty, gave it dignity. What was missing was that part of the hillbilly soul Rodgers had celebrated, something Williams’s music obscured — the feeling, summed up in a sentence by W. J. Cash from “The Mind of the South,” that “even the southern physical world was a kind of cosmic conspiracy against reality in favor of romance”; that even if Elvis’s south was filled with puritans, it was also filled with natural-born hedonists, and the same people were both.

Growing up in Hank Williams’s time, Elvis was attuned to the complexity of his inheri­tance; he was a dreamer, and he looked for ways to set himself apart. Always, Elvis felt he was different from, if not better than, those around him. He grew his sideburns long, acting out that sense of differentness, and was treated differently: in this case, he got himself kicked off the football team. High school classmates remember his determina­tion to break through as a country singer; with a little luck, they figured, he might even make it.

But you don’t make it in America waiting for someone to come along and sign you up. What links the greatest rock ‘n’ roll careers is a volcanic ambition, a lust for more than anyone has a right to expect; in some cases, a refusal to know when to quit or even rest. It is that bit of Ahab burning beneath the Huck Finn rags of “Freewheelin'” Bob Dylan, the arrogance 0f a country boy like Elvis sailing into Hollywood, ready for whatever kind of success America has to offer.

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Rock ‘n’ roll caught the defiantly unrealis­tic spirit of such ambition on records and gave it a form. Instead of a possibility within a music, it became the essence; it became, of all things, a tradition. And when that form itself had to deal with reality — which is to say, when its young audience began to grow up — the fantasy had become part of the reality that had to be dealt with; the rules of the game had changed a bit, and it was a better game. “Blue Suede Shoes” had grown directly into something as serious and com­plex, and yet still offhand, as the Rolling Stones’s “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” which asks the musical question, “Why are you stepping on my blue suede shoes?”

Echoing through all of rock ‘n’ roll is the simple demand for peace of mind and a good time. While the demand is easy to make, nothing is more complex than to try to make it real and live it out. It all sounds simple, obvious; but that one young man like Elvis could break through a world as hard as Hank Williams’s, and invent a new one to replace it, seems obvious only because we have inherited Elvis’s world, and live in it.

***

There are four of them in the little studio: Bill Black, the bass player; Scotty Moore, the guitarist; in the back, Sam Phillips, the producer; and the sexy young kid thumping his guitar as he sings, Elvis Presley, just 19. 1954.

The kid with the guitar is … unusual, but they’ve been trying to put something on the tape Sam keeps running back — a ballad, a hillbilly song, anything — and so far, well, it just doesn’t get it. The four men cool it for a moment, frustrated, talk music, blues, Cru­dup, ever hear that, who you kiddin’ man, dig this. The kid pulls his guitar up clowns a bit. He throws himself at a song. That’s all right, mama, that’s all right … eat shit. He doesn’t say that, naturally, but that’s what he’s found in the tone; his voice slides over the lines as the two musicians come in behind him, Scotty picking up the melody and the bassman slapping away at his axe with a drumstick. Phillips hears it, likes it, and makes up his mind.

They cut the song fast, put down their instruments, vaguely embarrassed at how far they went into the music. Sam plays back the tape. Man, they’ll run us outta town when they hear it, Scotty says; Elvis sings along with himself, joshing his performance. They all wonder, but not too much.

Get on home, now, Sam says. I gotta figure what to do with this. White jocks won’t touch it ’cause it’s nigger music and colored will pass ’cause it’s hillbilly. It sounds good, it sounds sweet, but maybe it’s just … too weird?

Sam Phillips released the record; what followed was the heyday of Sun Records and rockabilly music, a moment when boys were men and men were boys, when full-blown legends emerged that still walk the land.

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It was an explosion, and standing over it all was Elvis. In the single year he recorded for Sam Phillips, 10 sides were released; about half derived from country songs, the rest took off from blues. The blues especially have not dated at all. Not a note is false. Nothing is stylized. The music is clean, straight, open, and free. Rockabilly was a fast, aggressive music: simple, snappy drumming, sharp guitar licks, wild country boogie piano, the music of kids who come from all over the south to make records for Sam Phillips and his imitators. Rockabilly came and it went; there was never that much of it, and even including Elvis’s first Sun singles — all the rockabilly hits put together sold less than Fats Domino. But rockabilly fixed the image of rock and roll: the sexy, half-crazed fool standing on stage singing his guts out. It was the only style of rock and roll that proved white boys could do it all — that they could be as strange, as exciting, as scary, and as free as the black men who were suddenly walking America’s airwaves as if they owned them.

Elvis’s rockabilly (the blues of “That’s All Right” and “Mystery Train,” the country of “You’re A Heartbreaker,” and the others — ­the music he left behind when he moved to RCA) deserves close attention not simply because it represents all that Elvis and those he has sung for have lost — youthful exuber­ance, innocence, haven’t we tired of that story? — but because this is unquestionably great music. It is emotionally complex music that can return something new each time you listen to it. What I hear, most of the time, is the affection and respect Elvis felt for the limits and conventions of his family life, of his community, and ultimately of American life, captured in his country sides; and his refusal of those limits, of any limits, played out in his blues. This is a rhythm of acceptance and rebellion, lust and quietude, triviality and distinction. It can dramatize the rhythm of our own lives well enough.

Too much has been made of Elvis as “a white man who sang black music credibly,” as a singer who made black music accept­able to whites; this and too many whites trying to do the same thing have corrupted any sense of what Elvis did do, of what was at stake in his personal culture. Most white blues singing is singing at the blues; what comes out is either entirely fake, or has behind it the white impulse to become black: to ask for too much without offering anything in return.

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Real white blues singers make something new out of the blues, as Jimmie Rodgers, Dock Boggs, Elvis, and Bob Dylan have; or, they sing out of a deep feeling for the blues, but in a musical style that is not blues — not formally, anyway. For Elvis, the blues was a style of freedom, something he couldn’t get in his own home, full of roles to play and rules to break. In the beginning the blues was more than anything else a fantasy, an epic of struggle and pleasure, that he lived out, as he sang. Not a fantasy that went beneath the surface of his life, but one that soared right over it.

Singing in the ’50s, before blacks began to guard their culture with the jealousy it deserved, Elvis had no guilty dues to pay. Arthur Crudup complained his songs made a white man famous, and he had a right to complain, but mostly because he never got his royalties. Elvis sang “That’s All Right” and “My Baby Left Me” with more power, verve, and skill than Crudup did; his early records topped the rhythm-and-blues charts; but still the implication, always there when Crudup or Willie Mae Thornton (who made the first version of “Hound Dog”) looked out at the white world that penned them off from getting anything for themselves, is that Elvis would have been nothing without them, that he climbed to fame on their backs. It is probably time to say that this is nonsense; the mysteries of black and white in Ameri­can music are just not that simple. Elvis drew power from black culture, but he was not really imitating blacks; when he told Sam Phillips he didn’t sing like nobody, he told the truth. No white man had so deeply absorbed black music, and transformed it, since Jimmie Rodgers; instead of following Rodger’s musical style, as so many good white singers had, until it simply wore out, Elvis followed Rodgers’s musical strategy, and began the story all over again. His blues were a set of sexual adventures, and as a blues-singing swashbuckler, his style owed as much to Errol Flynn as to Arthur Crudup. It made sense to make movies out of it.

There is a deep need to see Elvis (or any part of American culture one cares about) starting out in a context of purity, outside of and in opposition to American life as most of us know it and live it. Even RCA first presented Elvis as “a folksinger,” and it is virtually a critical canon that Elvis’s folk purity, and therefore his talent was ruined by (a) his transmogrification from naive country boy into corrupt pop star (he sold his soul to Colonel Tom, or Parker just stole it) (b) Hollywood (c) the army (d) money and soft living (e) all of the above. But when Elvis left Memphis to confront a national audience as mysterious to him as he was to it, he had to define himself fully, and he did it by presenting his authentic multiplicity in music. I am, he announced, a house-rocker, a boy steeped in mother-love, a true son of the church, a matinee idol who’s only kidding, a man with too many rough edges for anyone ever to smooth away.

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Inevitably, his multiplicity opened up the possibility that he could be all things to all people, but his eagerness to prove it, with records like “Something for Everybody,” destroyed his ability to focus his talent. He wound up without a commitment to any musical style; his music lost that dramatic shape Sam Phillips helped give it. And his ambition, the source of so much of the intensity and emotion he put into his early music, plainly outstripped itself. Two years after making his first record he had won more than anyone knew was there; he had achieved a status that trivialized struggle and made will obsolescent. His success turned his life upside down; from this point on, he would have what he set out to get, but he’d have to reach for the energy and desire that made his triumph possible.

These days, Elvis is always singing. In his stage show documentary “Elvis On Tour,” we see him singing to himself, in limousines, backstage, running, walking, standing still, as his servant fits his cape to his shoulders, as he waits for his cue. He sings gospel music, mostly; in his private musical world, there is no distance at all from his deepest roots. Just as that personal culture of the Sun Records was long ago blown into something too big for Elvis to keep as his own, so the shared culture of country religion is now his private space within the greater America of which he has become a part.

And on stage? Well, there are those moments when Elvis Presley breaks through the public world he has made for himself, and only a fool or a liar would deny their power. Something entirely his, driven by two decades of history and myth, all-live-in-per­son, is transformed into an energy that is ecstatic — that is, to use the word in its old sense, illuminating. The overstated grandeur is suddenly authentic, and Elvis brings a thrill far beyond anything else in our culture.

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At his best Elvis not only embodies but personalizes so much of what is good about this place; a delight in sex that is sometimes simple, sometimes complex, but always open; a love of roots and a respect for the past; a rejection of the past and a demand for novelty; the kind of racial harmony that for Elvis, a white man, means a profound affinity with the most subtle nuances of black culture combined with an equally profound understanding of his own whiteness; a burn­ing desire to get rich, and to have fun, a natural affection for big cars, flashy clothes, for the symbols of status that give pleasure both as symbols, and on their own terms. He has long since become one of those symbols himself.

Elvis takes his strength from the liberating arrogance, pride, and the claim to be unique that grow out of a rich and commonplace understanding of what “democracy” and “equality” are all about: No man is better than I am. He takes his strength as well from the humility, the piety, and the open, self-ef­facing good humor that spring from the same source: I am better than no man. Elvis Presley’s career defines success in a democ­racy that can perhaps recognize itself best in its popular culture: No limits, success so grand and complete it is nearly impossible for him to perceive anything more worth striving for. But there is a horror to this utopia — and one might think that the great moments Elvis still finds are his refusal of all that he can have without struggling. Elvis proves then that the myth of supremacy for which his audience will settle cannot contain him; he is, these moments show, far greater than that.

All in all, there is only one remaining moment I want to see; one epiphany that would somehow bring his story home. Elvis would take the stage, as he always has; the roar of the audience would surround him, as it always will. After a time, he would begin a song by Bob Dylan. Singing slowly, Elvis would give it everything he has. “I must have been mad,” he would cry, “I didn’t know what I had — until I threw it all away.”

And then, with love in his heart, he would laugh. ♦

This piece is condensed from a 25,000 word essay on Elvis Presley from “Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music,” to be published May 8 by E. P. Dutton and Company.

Categories
BOOKS ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives THE FRONT ARCHIVES

The Long Walk of the Situationist International

How Extreme Was It

— 1 —

I first became intrigued with the Situ­ationist International in 1979, when I strug­gled through “Le Bruit et la Fureur,” one of the anonymous lead articles in the first issue of the journal Internationale Situationniste. The writer reviewed the exploits of artistic rebels in the postwar West as if such matters had real political consequences, and then said this: “The rotten egg smell exuded by the idea of God envelops the mystical cretins of the American ‘Beat Generation,’ and is not even entirely absent from the declarations of the Angry Young Men… They have simply come to change their opinions about a few social conventions without even noticing the whole change of terrain of all cultural activ­ity so evident in every avant-garde tendency of this century. The Angry Young Men are in fact particularly reactionary in their attribution of a privileged, redemptive value to the practice of literature: they are defending a mystification that was denounced in Europe around 1920 and whose survival today is of greater counterrevolutionary significance than that of the British Crown.”

Mystical cretins… finally, I thought (for­getting the date of the publication before me), someone has cut through the suburban cul-de-sac that passed for cultural rebellion in the 1950s. But this wasn’t “finally” — it was 1958, in a sober, carefully printed magazine (oddly illustrated with captionless photos of women in bathing suits), in an article that concluded: “If we are not surrealists it is because we don’t want to be bored… Decrepit surrealism, raging and ill-informed youth, well-off adolescent rebels lacking perspective but far from lacking a cause — boredom is what they all have in common. The situationists will execute the judgment contemporary leisure is pronouncing against itself.”

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Strange stuff — almost mystifying for an American — but there was a power in the prose that was even more seductive than the hard-nosed dismissal of the Beat generation. This was the situationist style — what one commentator called “a rather irritating form of hermetic terrorism,” a judgment situ­ationist Raoul Vaneigem would quote with approval. Over the next decade it never really changed, but only became more seductive and more hard-nosed, because it discovered more seductive and hard-nosed opponents. Beginning with the notion that modern life was boring and therefore wrong, the situationists sought out every manifestation of alienation and domination and every man­ifestation of the opposition produced by al­ienation and domination. They turned out original analyses of the former (whether it was the Kennedy-era fallout shelter program in “The Geopolitics of Hibernation” — what a title! — or the Chinese cultural revolution in “The Explosion Point of Ideology in China”) and mercilessly criticized the timidity and limits of the latter. In every case they tried to link specifics to a totality — why was the world struggling to turn itself inside out, and how could it be made to do so? What were the real sources of revolution in postwar society, and how were they different from any that had come before?

The Situationist International Antho­logy contains pre-SI documents, 250 pages of material from the situationist journal, May 1968 documents, two filmscripts, and far more, stretching from 1953, four years before the Situationist International was formed, to 1971, a year before its formal dissolution. It is exhilarating to read this book — to confront a group that was determined to make enemies, burn bridges, deny itself the rewards of cele­brity, to find and maintain its own voice in a world where, it seemed, all other voices of cultural or political resistance were either cravenly compromised or so lacking in consciousness they did not even recognize their compromises.

— 2 —

The attack on the Beat Generation and the Angry Young Men — in 1958, it is worth remembering, considered in the English-­speaking world the very summa of “anti­-Establishment” negation — was an opening round in a struggle the situationists thought was already going on, and a move toward a situation they meant to construct. “Our ideas are in everyone’s mind,” they would say more than once over the next 10 years. They meant that their ideas for a different world were in everyone’s mind as desires, but not yet as ideas. Their project was to expose the empti­ness of everyday life in the modern world and to make the link between desire and idea real. They meant to make that link so real it would be acted upon by almost everyone, since in the modern world, in the affluent capitalist West and the bureaucratic state-capitalist East, the split between desire and idea was part of almost everyone’s life.

Throughout the next decade, the situationists argued that the alienation which in the 19th century was rooted in production had, in the 20th century, become rooted in consumption. Consumption had come to de­fine happiness and to suppress all other pos­sibilities of freedom and selfhood. Lenin had written that under communism everyone would become an employee of the state; that was no less capitalism than the Western ver­sion, in which everyone was first and fore­most a member of an economy based in com­modities. The cutting edge of the present-day contradiction — that place where the way of life almost everyone took for granted grated most harshly against what life promised and what it delivered — was as much leisure as work. This meant the concepts behind “cul­ture” were as much at stake as the ideas behind industry.

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Culture, the situationists thought, was “the Northwest Passage” to a superseding of the dominant society. This was where they started; this was the significance of their attack on the Beat generation. It was a means to a far more powerful attack on the nature of modern society itself: on the division of labor, the fragmentation of work and thought, the manner in which the material success of mod­ern life had leaped over all questions of the quality of life, in which “the struggle against poverty… [had] overshot its ultimate goal, the liberation of man from material cares,” and produced a world in which, “faced with the alternative of love or a garbage disposal unit, young people of all countries have chosen the garbage disposal unit.”

I have presented a bare outline of the situationist perspective, but perhaps more important for a reader in 1982 is the use the situationists made of that perspective. Un­like many with whom they shared certain notions — Norman Mailer, the Marxist soci­ologist Henri Lefebvre, the gauchiste review Socialisme ou Barbarie — the situationists were bent on discovering the absolute ability to criticize anyone, anywhere — without re­straint, without the pull of alliances, and without self-satisfaction. And they were bent on turning that criticism into events.

— 3 — 

The situationists thought of themselves as avant-garde revolutionaries, linked as clearly to dada as to Marx. One could trace them back to Saint-Just — the 22-year-old who ar­rived in Paris in 1789 with a blasphemous epic poem, Organt (an account of the raping of nuns and of endless sexual adventures), and became the coldest, most romantic, most brilliant, most tragic administrator of the Terror. Prosecutor of Louis XVI, he gave his head to the same guillotine a year later.

More directly, situationist thinking began in Paris in the early 1950s, when Guy Debord and a few other members of the Lettrist International — a group, known mostly to itself, which had split off from the Lettrists, a tiny, postwar neodada movement of anti-­art intellectuals and students — devoted themselves to dérives: to drifting through the city for days, weeks, even months at a time, looking for what they called the city’s psychogeography. They meant to find signs of what lettrist Ivan Chtcheglov called “forgot­ten desires” — images of play, eccentricity, secret rebellion, creativity, and negation. That led them into the Paris catacombs, where they sometimes spent the night. They looked for images of refusal, or for images society had itself refused, hidden, sup­pressed, or “recuperated” — images of refusal, nihilism, or freedom that society had taken back into itself, co-opted or rehabilitated, isolated or discredited. Rooted in similar but intellectually (and physically!) far more lim­ited surrealist expeditions of the 1920s, the dérives were a search, Guy Debord would write many years later, for the “supersession of art.” They were an attempt to fashion a new version of daily life — a new version of how people organized their wishes, pains, fears, hopes, ambitions, limits, social rela­tionships, and identities, a process that ordi­narily took place without consciousness.

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The few members of the grandiosely named Lettrist International wanted to re­shape daily life according to the desires dis­covered and affirmed by modern art. Dada, at the Cabaret Voltaire “a laboratory for the rehabilitation of everyday life” in which art as art was denounced and scattered, “wanted to suppress art without realizing it,” Debord wrote in 1967, in his book The Society of the Spectacle. “Surrealism wanted to realize art without suppressing it.” In other words, dada wanted to kill off the claim that art was superior to life and leave art for dead. Sur­realism wanted to turn the impulses that led one to create art into a recreation of life, but it also wanted to maintain the production of art works. Thus surrealism ended up as just another debilitated, gallery-bound art move­ment, a fate dada avoided at the price of being almost completely ignored. The Let­trist International thought art had to be both suppressed as separate, special activity, and turned into life. That was the meaning of supersession, and that was the meaning of a group giving itself up to the pull of the city. It was also the meaning of the LI’s attack on art as art. Debord produced a film without images; with the Danish painter Asger Jorn, he created a book “ ‘composed entirely of prefabricated elements,’ in which the writing on each page runs in all directions and the reciprocal relations of the phrases are in­variably uncompleted.” Not only was the book impossible to “read,” it featured a sand­paper jacket, so that when placed in a book­shelf it would eat other books.

In 1952, at the Ritz, the LI broke up a Charlie Chaplin press conference, part of the huge publicity campaign for Limelight. “We believe that the most urgent expression of freedom is the destruction of idols, especially when they present themselves in the name of freedom,” they explained. “The provocative tone of our leaflet was an attack against a unanimous, servile enthusiasm.” (Pro­vocative was perhaps not the word. “No More Flat Feet,” the leaflet Debord and others scattered in the Ritz, read: “Because you [Chaplin] identified yourself with the weak and the oppressed, to attack you was to strike the weak and the oppressed, but in the shadow of your rattan cane some could al­ready discern the policeman’s night­stick…”) The lettrist radicals practiced graffiti on the walls of Paris (one of their favorite mottoes, “Never work!,” would show up 15 years later during May 1968, and 13 years after that in Bow Wow Wow’s “W.O.R.K.,” written by Malcolm McLaren). They painted slogans on their ties, shoes, and pants, hoping to walk the streets as living examples of détournement — the diversion of an element of culture or everyday life (in this case, simply clothes) to a new and displacing purpose. The band “lived on the margins of the economy. It tended toward a role of pure consumption” — not of commodities, but “of time.”

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From On the Passage of a Few Persons Through a Rather Brief Period of Time, Debord’s 1959 film on the group:

Voice 1: That which was directly lived reappears frozen in the distance, fit into the tastes and illusions of an era carried away with it.

Voice 2: The appearance of events we have not made, that others have made against us, obliges us from now on to be aware of the passage of time, its results, the trans­formation of our own desires into events. What differentiates the past from the present is precisely its out-of-reach objectivity; there is no more should-be; being is so consumed that it has ceased to exist. The details are already lost in the dust of time. Who was afraid of life, afraid of the night, afraid of being taken, afraid of being kept?

Voice 3: That which should be abolished continues, and we continue to wear away with it. Once again the fatigue of so many nights passed in the same way. It is a walk that has lasted a long time.

Voice 1: Really hard to drink more.

This was the search for that Northwest Passage, that unmarked alleyway from the world as it appeared to the world as it had never been, but which the art of the 20th century had promised it could be: a promise shaped in countless images of freedom to experiment with life and of freedom from the banality and tyranny of bourgeois order and bureaucratic rule. Debord and the others tried to practice, he said, “a systematic ques­tioning of all the diversions and works of a society, a total critique of its idea of happiness.” “Our movement was not a literary school, a revitalization of expression, a mod­ernism,” a Lettrist International publication stated in 1955, after some years of the pure consumption of time, various manifestos, numerous jail sentences for drug possession and drunk driving, suicide attempts, and all­-night arguments. “We have the advantage of no longer expecting anything from known activities, known individuals, and known in­stitutions.”

They tried to practice a radical decondi­tioning: to demystify their environment and the expectations they had brought to it, to escape the possibility that they would them­selves recuperate their own gestures of re­fusal. The formation of the Situationist In­ternational — at first, in 1957, including 15 or 20 painters, writers, and architects from Eng­land, France, Algeria, Denmark, Holland, It­aly, and Germany — was based on the recog­nition that such a project, no matter bow poorly defined or mysterious, was either a revolutionary project or it was nothing. It was a recognition that the experiments of the dérives, the attempts to discover lost intima­tions of real life behind the perfectly com­posed face of modern society, had to be trans­formed into a general contestation of that society, or else dissolve in bohemian solipsism.

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— 4 —

Born in Paris in 1931, Guy Debord was from beginning to end at the center of the Situationist International, and the editor of its journal. The Society of the Spectacle, the concise and remarkably cant-free (or cant­-destroying, for that seems to be its effect) book of theory he published after 10 years of situationist activity, begins with these lines: “In societies where modern conditions of pro­duction prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Every­thing that was lived has moved away into a representation.” Determined to destroy the claims of 20th-century social organization, Debord was echoing the first sentence of Capital: “The wealth of societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails ap­pears as an ‘immense collection of com­modities.’ ” To complain, as French Marxist critics did, that Debord misses Marx’s quali­fication, “appears as,” is to miss Debord’s own apparent qualification, “presents itself as” — and to miss the point of situationist writing altogether. Debord’s qualification turned out not to be a qualification at all, but rather the basis of a theory in which a society organized as appearance can be disrupted on the field of appearance.

Debord argued that the commodity — now transmuted into “spectacle,” or seemingly natural, autonomous images communicated as the facts of life — had taken over the social function once fulfilled by religion and myth, and that appearances were now inseparable from the essential processes of alienation and domination in modern society. In 1651, the cover of Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan presented the manifestation of a nascent bour­geois domination: a picture of a gigantic sov­ereign being, whose body — the body politic­ — was made up of countless faceless citizens. This was presented as an entirely positive image, as a utopia. In 1967, International Situationniste #11 printed an almost identical image, “Portrait of Alienation”: countless Chinese performing a card trick which pro­duced the gigantic face of Mao Zedong.

If society is organized around consump­tion, one participates in social life as a con­sumer; the spectacle produces spectators, and thus protects itself from questioning. It induces passivity rather than action, con­templation rather than thinking, and a deg­radation of life into materialism. It is no matter that in advanced societies, material survival is not at issue (except for those who are kept poor in order to represent poverty and reassure the rest of the population that they should be satisfied). The “standard of survival,” like its twin, the “standard of boredom,” is raised but the nature of the standard does not change. Desires are de­graded or displaced into needs and maintained as needs. A project precisely the op­posite of that of modern art, from Lautréa­mont and Rimbaud to dada and surrealism, is fulfilled.

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The spectacle is not merely advertising, or propaganda, or television. It is a world. The spectacle as we experience it, but fail to perceive it, “is not a collection of images, but a social relationship between people, mediated by images.” In 1928 in One-Way Street, writing about German inflation, Walter Benjamin anticipated the argument: “The free­dom of conversation is being lost. If it was earlier a matter of course to take interest in one’s partner, this is now replaced by inquiry into the price of his shoes or his umbrella. Irresistibly intruding upon any convivial ex­change is the theme of the conditions of life, of money. What this theme involves is not so much the concerns and sorrows of individu­als, in which they might be able to help one another, as the overall picture. It is as if one were trapped in a theater and had to follow the events on the stage whether one wanted to or not, had to make them again and again, willingly or unwillingly, the subject of one’s thought and speech.” Raoul Vaneigem de­fined the terrain of values such a situation produced: “Rozanov’s definition of nihilism is the best: ‘The show is over. The audience get up to leave their seats. Time to collect their coats and go home. They turn around… No more coats and no more home.’ ” “The spectator feels at home nowhere,” Debord wrote, “because the spectacle is everywhere.”

The spectacle is “the diplomatic represen­tation of hierarchic society to itself, where all other expression is banned” — which is to say where all other expression makes no sense, appears as babble (this may be the ironic, protesting meaning of dada phonetic poems, in which words were reduced to sounds, and of lettrist poetry, in which sounds were re­duced to letters). The spectacle says “nothing more than ‘that which appears is good, that which is good appears.’ ” (In a crisis, or when the “standard of survival” falls, as in our own day, hierarchic society retreats, but main­tains its hegemony, the closing of questions. The spectacle “no longer promises any­thing,” Debord wrote in 1979, in a new pref­ace to the fourth Italian edition of his book. “It simply says, ‘It is so.’ ”) The spectacle organizes ordinary life (consider the following in terms of making love): “The alienation of the spectator to the profit of the con­templated object is expressed in the following way: the more he contemplates the less he lives; the more he accepts recognizing himself in the dominant images of need, the less he understands his own existence and his own desires. The externality of the spectacle in relation to the active man appears in the fact that his own gestures are no longer his but those of another who represents them to him.”

Debord summed it up this way: “The first phase of the domination of the economy over social life brought into the definition of all human realization the obvious degradation of being into having. The present phase of total occupation of social life by the accumulated results of the economy” — by spectacle­ — “leads to a generalized sliding of having into appearing.” We are twice removed from where we want to be, the situationists argued — yet each day still seems like a natu­ral fact.

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 — 5 —

This was the situationists’ account of what they, and everyone else, were up against. It was an argument from Marx’s 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, an argument that the “spectacle-commodity society,” within which one could make only meaningless choices and against which one could seemingly not intervene, had suc­ceeded in producing fundamental contradic­tions between what people accepted and what, in ways they could not understand, they wanted.

This was the precise opposite of social science, developed at precisely the time when the ideology of the end of ideology was con­quering the universities of the West. It was an argument about consciousness and false consciousness, not as the primary cause of domination but as its primary battleground.

If capitalism had shifted the terms of its organization from production to consump­tion, and its means of control from economic misery to false consciousness, then the task of would-be revolutionaries was to bring about a recognition of the life already lived by almost everyone. Foreclosing the construc­tion of one’s own life, advanced capitalism had made almost everyone a member of a new proletariat, and thus a potential revolutionary. Here again, the discovery of the source of revolution in what “modern art [had] sought and promise” served as the axis of the argument. Modern art, one could read in Internationale Situationniste #8, in January of 1963, had “made a clean sweep of all the values and rules of everyday behav­ior,” of unquestioned order and the “unani­mous, servile enthusiasm” Debord and his friends had thrown up at Chaplin; but that clean sweep had been isolated in museums. Modern revolutionary impulses had been separated from the world, but “just as in the nineteenth century revolutionary theory arose out of philosophy” — out of Marx’s dic­tum that philosophy, having interpreted the world, must set about changing it — now one had to look to the demands of art.

At the time of the Paris Commune in 1871, workers discussed matters that had previously been the exclusive province of philosophers — suggesting the possibility that philosophy could be realized in daily life. In the 20th century, with “survival” conquered as fact but maintained as ideology, the same logic meant that just as artists constructed a version of life in words, paint, or stone, men and women could themselves begin to con­struct their own lives out of desire. This desire, in scattered and barely noticed ways, was shaping the 20th century, or the super­seding of it (“Ours is the best effort so far toward getting out of the twentieth century,” an anonymous situationist wrote in 1963, in one of the most striking lines in the 12 issues of Internationale Situationniste). It was the desire more hidden, more overwhelmed and confused by spectacle, than any other. It had shaped the lettrist adventures. It was the Northwest Passage. If the spectacle was “both the result and the project of the exist­ing mode of production,” then the construc­tion of life as artists constructed art — in terms of what one made of friendship, love, sex, work, play, and suffering — was under­stood by the situationists as both the result and the project of revolution.

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— 6 —

To pursue this revolution, it was neces­sary to take all the partial and isolated inci­dents of resistance and refusal of things as they were, and then link them. It was neces­sary to discover and speak the language of these incidents, to do for signs of life what the Lettrist International had tried to do for the city’s signs of “forgotten desires.” This de­manded a theory of exemplary acts. Society was organized as appearance, and could be contested on the field of appearance; what mattered was the puncturing of ap­pearance — speech and action against the spectacle that was, suddenly, not babble, but understood. The situationist project, in this sense, was a quest for a new language of action. That quest resulted in the urgent, daring tone of even the lengthiest, most sol­emn essays in Internationale Situationniste — the sense of minds engaged, quickened be­yond rhetoric, by emerging social contradic­tions — and it resulted in such outrages as a six-word analysis of a leading French soci­ologist. (“M. GEORGES LAPASSADE,” announced almost a full page of I.S. #9, “EST UN CON.”) It led as well to a style of absurdity and play, and to an affirmation that contestation was fun: a good way to live. The situationists delighted in the discovery that dialectics caused society to produce not just contradictions but also endless self parodies. Their journal was filled with them — my favorite is a reproduction of an ad for the Peace o’ Mind Fallout Shelter Com­pany. And the comics that illustrated I.S. led to détournement of the putative heroes of everyday life. Characters out of Steve Canyon and True Romance were given new balloons, and made to speak passionately of revolution, alienation, and the lie of culture — as if even the most unlikely people actually cared about such things. In the pages of I.S., a kiss suggested not marriage but fantasies of liberation: a sigh for the Paris Commune.

The theory of exemplary acts and the quest for a new language of action also brought the situationists’ pursuit of ex­tremism into play. I.S #10, March 1966, on the Watts riots: “…all those who went so far as to recognize the ‘apparent justifications’ of the rage of the Los Angeles blacks… all those ‘theorists’ and ‘spokesmen’ of interna­tional Left, or rather of its nothingness, deplored the irresponsibility, the disorder, the looting (especially the fact that arms and alcohol were the first targets for plunder)… But who has defended the rioters of Los Angeles in the terms they deserve? We will.” The article continued: “The looting of the Watts district was the most direct realization of the distorted principle, ‘To each according to his false needs’… [but] real desires begin to be expressed in festival, in the potlatch of destruction… For the first time it is not poverty but material abundance which must be dominated [and of course it was the rela­tive “affluence” of the Watts rioters, at least as compared to black Americans in Harlem, that so mystified the observers of this first outbreak of violent black rage]… Comfort will never be comfortable enough for those who seek what is not on the market.”

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“The task of being more extremist than the SI falls to the SI itself,” the situationists said; that was the basis of the group’s con­tinuation. The situationists looked for ex­emplary acts which might reveal to spec­tators that that was all they were. They cited, celebrated, and analyzed incidents which dramatized the contradictions of modern so­ciety, and contained suggestions of what forms a real contestation of that society might take. Such acts included the Watts riots; the resistance of students and workers to the Chinese cultural revolution (a struggle, the situationists wrote, of “the official owners of the ideology against the majority of the owners of the apparatus of the economy and the state”); the burning of the Koran in the streets of Baghdad in 1959; the exposure of a site meant to house part of the British government in the event of nuclear war; the “kidnapping” of art works by Caracas stu­dents, who used them to demand the release of political prisoners; the Free Speech Move­ment in Berkeley in 1964; the situationist-­inspired disruption of classes taught by French cyberneticians in 1966 at Strasbourg, and by sociologists at Nanterre in 1967 and 1968; and the subversion of Berlin actor Wolfgang Neuss, who in 1963 “perpetrated a most suggestive act of sabotage… by placing a notice in the paper Der Abend giving away the identity of the killer in a television serial that had been keeping the masses in suspense for weeks.”

Some of these actions led nowhere; some, like the assaults on the cyberneticians and sociologists, led to May 1968, where the idea of general contestation on the plane of ap­pearances was realized.

The situationist idea was to prevent the recuperation of such incidents by making theory out of them. Once the speech of the spectacle no longer held a monopoly, it would be heard as babble — as mystification ex­posed. Those who took part in wildcat strikes or practiced cultural sabotage, the situationists argued, acted out of boredom, rage, disgust — out of an inchoate but inescapable perception that they were not free and, worse, could not form a real image of free­dom. Yet there were tentative images of free­dom being shaped, which, if made into theory, could allow people to understand and maintain their own actions. Out of this, a real image of freedom would appear, and it would dominate: the state and society would begin to dissolve. Resistance to that dissolution would be stillborn, because workers, soldiers, and bureaucrats would act on new possi­bilities of freedom no less than anyone else­ — they would join in a general wildcat strike that would end only when society was reconstructed on new terms. When the theory matched the pieces of practice from which the theory was derived, the world would change.

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— 7 — 

The situationist program — as opposed to the situationist project, the situationist practice — came down to Lautréamont and work­ers’ councils. On one side, the avant-garde saint of negation, who had written that poetry “must be made by all”; on the other, the self-starting, self-managing organs of di­rect democracy that had appeared in almost every revolutionary moment of the 20th cen­tury, bypassing the state and allowing for complete participation (the soviets of Petro­grad in 1905 and 1917, the German Räte of 1919, the anarchist collectives of Barcelona in 1936, the Hungarian councils of 1956). Be­tween those poles, the situationists thought, one would find the liberation of everyday life, the part of experience that was omitted from the history books.

These were the situationist touchstones — and, oddly, they were left unexamined. The situationists’ use of workers’ councils re­minds me of those moments in D.W. Grif­fith’s Abraham Lincoln when, stumped by how to get out of a scene, he simply had Walter Huston gaze heavenward and utter the magic words, “The Union!” It is true that the direct democracy of workers’ councils — ­where anyone was allowed to speak, where representation was kept to a minimum and delegates were recallable at any moment — was anathema both to the Bolsheviks and to the Right. It may also have been only the crisis of a revolutionary situation that pro­duced the energy necessary to sustain council politics. The situationists wrote that no one had tried to find out how people had actually lived during those brief moments when revo­lutionary contestation had found its form — a form that would shape the new society — but they did not try either. They spoke endlessly about “everyday life,” but ignored work that examined it both politically and in its smallest details (James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Foucault’s Madness and Civilization, the books of the Annale school, Walter Benjamin’s One-Way Street and A Berlin Chronicle, the writing of Larissa Reissner, a Pravda correspondent who covered Weimar Germany), and pro­duced nothing to match it.

But if Lautréamont, workers’ councils, and everyday life were more signposts than true elements of a theory, they worked as signposts. The very distance of such images from the world as it was conventionally un­derstood helped expose what that the world con­cealed. What appeared between the signposts of Lautréamont and workers’ councils was the possibility of critique.

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Pursued without compromise or self-censorship, that critique liberated the situ­ationists from the reassurances of ideology as surely as the experiments of the Lettrist In­ternational had liberated its members from the seductions of the bourgeois art world. It opened up a space of freedom, and was a necessary preface to the new language of action the situationists were after. A single example will do: the situationist analysis of Vietnam, published in I.S. #11 in March 1967 — almost frightening in its prescience, and perhaps even more frightening in its clarity.

“It is obviously impossible to seek, at the moment, a revolutionary solution to the Vietnam war,” said the anonymous writer. “It is first of all necessary to put an end to the American aggression in order to allow the real social struggle in Vietnam to develop in a natural way; that is to say, to allow the Vietnamese workers and peasants to re­discover their enemies at home; the bureau­cracy of the North and all the propertied and ruling strata of the South. The withdrawal of the Americans will mean that the Stalinist bureaucracy will immediately seize control of the whole country: this is the unavoidable conclusion. Because the invaders cannot in­definitely sustain their aggression; ever since Talleyrand it has been a commonplace that one can do anything with a bayonet except sit on it. The point, therefore, is not to give unconditional (or even conditional) support to the Vietcong, but to struggle consistently and without any concessions against Ameri­can imperialism… The Vietnam war is rooted in America and it is from there that it must be rooted out.” This was a long way from the situationists’ rejection of the Beat generation, but the road had been a straight one.

If the situationists were fooled, it was only by themselves; they were not fooled by the world. They understood, as no one else of their time did, why major events — May 1968, the Free Speech Movement, or, for that mat­ter, Malcolm McLaren’s experiment with what Simon Frith has called the politiciza­tion of consumption — arise out of what are, seemingly, the most trivial provocations and the most banal repressions. They understood why the smallest incidents can lead, with astonishing speed, to a reopening of all ques­tions. Specific, localized explanations tied to economic crises and political contexts never work, because the reason such events de­veloped as they did was what the situationists said it was: people were bored, they were not free, they did not know how to say so. Given the chance, they would say so. People could not form a real image of freedom, and they would seize any opportunity that made the construction of such an image possible.

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— 8 — 

Leaving the 20th Century, edited and translated by former British situationist Christopher Gray, published only in the UK and long out of print, was until Ken Knabb’s book the best representation of situationist writing in English, and it was not good. Translations were messy and inaccurate, the selection of articles erratic and confusing, the commentary often mushy.

With the exception of a good edition of The Society of the Spectacle put out by Black & Red of Detroit in 1977, other situ­ationist work in English was far worse. A few pieces — “The Decline and Fall of the Specta­cle-Commodity Society” (on Watts), “On the Poverty of Student Life” (the SI’s most fa­mous publication, which caused a scandal in France in 1966 and prefigured the May 1968 revolt), “The Beginning of an Era” (on May 1968) — appeared as smudgy, sometimes gruesomely typeset and translated pamphlets. Most were put out by the short­-lived British or American sections of the SI, or by small situationist-inspired groups in New York or Berkeley.

The situationist journal, and the situ­ationist books as they were originally pub­lished in Paris, could not have been more different. Wonderfully illustrated with photos, comics, reproductions of advertise­ments, drawings, and maps, Internationale Situationniste had an elegant, straight­forward design: flat, cool, and direct. It made a simple point: what we have written is meant seriously and should be read seriously.

The Situationist International Anthology does not present the complete text of the situationist journal, and it has no illustrations. But the translations are clear and readable — sometimes too literal, sometimes inspired. Entirely self-published, the anthology is a better job of book-making than most of the books published today by com­mercial houses. There are virtually no typos; it is well indexed, briefly but usefully an­notated, and the design, binding, and print­ing are all first class.

In other words, Knabb has, unlike most other publishers of situationist material in English, taken the material seriously, and allowed it to speak with something like its original authority. One can follow the devel­opment of a group of writers which devoted itself to living up to one of its original prescriptions: “The task of an avant-garde is to keep abreast of reality.”

The situationist journal was never copyrighted. Rather, it bore this legend: “All the texts published in International Situationniste may be freely reproduced, trans­lated, or adapted, even without indication of origin.” Knabb’s book carries an equivalent notation.

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— 9 — 

The role of the Situationist International, its members wrote, was not to act as any sort of vanguard party. The situationists “had to know how to wait,” and to be ready to disap­pear in a common festival of revolt. Their job was not to “build” the SI, as the job of a Trotskyist or Bolshevik militant is to build his or her organization, trimming all thoughts and all pronouncements to that goal, careful not to offend anyone who might be seduced or recruited. Their job was to think and speak as clearly as possible — not to get people to listen to speeches, they said, but to get people to think for themselves.

Rather than expanding their group, the situationists worked to make it smaller, ex­pelling careerist, backsliding, or art-as-poli­tics (as opposed to politics-as-art) members almost from the day the group was formed. By the time of the May 1968 revolt, the Situationist International was composed mostly of Parisians hardly more numerous­ — perhaps less numerous — than those who walked the streets as the Lettrist Interna­tional. Behind them they had 11 numbers of their journal, more than a decade of fitting theory to fragments of practice, and the scan­dals of Strasbourg and Nanterre, both of which gained them a far wider audience than they had ever had before. And so, in May, they made a difference. They defined the mood and the spirit of the event: almost all of the most memorable graffiti from that explosion came, as inspiration or simply quota­tion, from situationist books and essays. “Those who talk about revolution and class struggle, without understanding what is subversive about love and positive in the refusal of constraints,” ran one apparently spontaneous slogan, in fact a quote from Raoul Vaneigem, “such people have corpses in their mouths.”

At the liberated Sorbonne and later in their own Council for Maintaining the Oc­cupations, the situationists struggled against reformism, working to define the most radi­cal possibilities of the May revolt — “[This] is now a revolutionary movement,” read their “Address to All Workers” of May 30, 1968, “a movement which lacks nothing but the con­sciousness of what it has already done in order to triumph” — which meant, in the end, that the situationists would leave behind the most radical definition of the failure of that revolt. It was an event the situationists had constructed, in the pages of their journal, long before it took place. One can look back to January 1963 and read in I.S. #8: “We will only organize the detonation.

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— 10 — 

What to make of this strange mix of post-surrealist ideas about art, Marxian concepts of alienation, an attempt to recover a forgot­ten revolutionary tradition, millenarianism, and plain refusal of the world combined with a desire to smash it? Nothing, perhaps. The Situationist International cannot even be justified by piggy-backing it onto official his­tory, onto May 1968, not because that revolt failed, but because it disappeared. If 300 books on May 1968 were published within a year of the event, as I.S. #12 trumpeted, how many were published in the years to follow? If the situationist idea of general contestation was realized in May 1968, the idea also re­alized its limits. The theory of the exemplary act — and May was one great, complex, momentarily controlling exemplary act —­ may have gone as far as such a theory or such an act can go.

What one can make of the material in the Situationist International Anthology is perhaps this: out of the goals and the perspectives the situationists defined for themselves came a critique so strong it forces one to try to understand its sources and its shape, no matter how much of it one might see through. In an attack on the Situationist International published in 1978, Jean Barrot wrote that it had wound up “being used as literature.” This is undoubtedly true, and it is as well a rather bizarre dismissal of the way in which people might use literature. “An author who teaches a writer nothing,” Walter Benjamin wrote in “The Author as Pro­ducer,” “teaches nobody anything. The de­termining factor is the exemplary character of a production that enables it, first, to lead other producers to this production, and secondly to present them with an improved apparatus for their use. And this apparatus is better to the degree that it leads consumers to production, in short that it is capable of making co-workers out of readers or spectators.” The fact is that the writing in the Situationist International Anthology makes almost all present-day political and aesthetic thinking seem cowardly, self-protecting, careerist, and satisfied. The book is a means to the recovery of ambition. ❖

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Lester Bangs’s Naked Grunge

I’ll Be Your Mirror

Here’s one way of explaining what Lester Bangs did. You could locate him according to the same vectors that diced up Mark David Chapman’s identity, and finally re­duced him to killing a Beatle — a murder he mistook for a suicide. But instead of being victimized by the dislocations of self that take shape as pop fandom, Lester wrote about them, and turned expressing them into one life-affirming shitstorm.

From 1969 up to his death at 33, five years ago, Lester expressed many things: anomie, hostility, gleeful scorn, a love-hate relationship with excess, pratfalls of the heart, intimations of grace. He did so in a style that ran from the shock of great graffi­ti to pages so receptive to each new turn of thought and emotion that articulating those turns became an act of compassion.

Most of his work, though not all, took the form of writing about rock and roll records. Partly because that got him labeled a “rock writer,” and partly because he constantly overstepped the boundaries of being one, his huge achievement was also fugitive. He was banging away in the cellar of journalism, let alone literature. Lester was exiled by Jann Wenner from the review section of that great iconoclastic publication Rolling Stone for, according to Greil Marcus, “disrespect toward musicians.” Scribbling for the Voice, his major outlet after moving to New York in 1977 — from Detroit, where he had creat­ed a vortex of unrequited turbulence in the stillborn mid-’70s music scene at Creem magazine — was as close to a respectable fo­rum as he got.

No doubt that bedeviled him: no writer who cares about his or her work wants it to stand forever on such slippery ground. But given how much Lester’s writing was not only a response to pop culture but an enactment of it, the mongrel circumstances of his work may have been appropriate. To have him between hard covers and claimed for literature, as he is in Marcus’s anthology Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, is a satisfying validation and a major event. On the other hand, even when the selection is as conscientious and astute as Marcus’s, such a presentation is also a diminishment. It can’t duplicate experiencing Lester’s work as a swarm of contingent, one-shot respons­es — as immediate in its improvised rudeness as the music he loved.

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Another thing about Lester: Lester pro­duced. Marcus mentions assembling five million words of published and unpublished essays, reviews, polemics, fantasies, screeds. The total output may be considerably larger. Any corpus that size is going to include dull writing; Lester committed some. The amaz­ing part is how much is magnificent. My first reaction to the table of contents was to remember a dozen or a hundred extraordinary pieces left out, which is said in sympa­thy with what Marcus was up against.

There’s still an awkwardness about calling any critic a great writer. Writing about the popular arts can at least feel more central to one’s culture than the literary kind. The way records and movies and TV jell social life — ­the way people use them to jerry-build rea­sons to believe — means that writers almost can’t help broaching and, if they’re good, illuminating politics, class, democracy, capi­talism, fucking, whatever.

That’s the intellectual defense — where you’d start from to evaluate most of the best pop critics, most of whom also understand that pop culture is a dialogue, not a canon, and put their personalities as much as their intellects on the line, in their responses. The intellectual defense, however, has next to nothing to do with Lester. Whatever value his work had as cultural analysis, or cultural history, was by inference only, as witness­ing, not exegesis. If he’d lived a little more vicariously, he’d be alive today.

I don’t think it occurred to him that a critic couldn’t be a great writer. He was writing about the life around him, and in him, and rock and roll was the best refractor for it. What Lester never bothered to argue, but simply embodied, was that for this society the flotsam and effluvia of pop were spiritual determinants. The map shows a land of a million chapels, all spackled up differently from the bones of Saint Crud’s left little finger.

So Lester testified. “If love is truly going out of fashion forever, which I do not be­lieve, then along with our nurtured indiffer­ence to each other will be an even more contemptuous indifference to each other’s objects of reverence. I thought it was Iggy Stooge, you thought it was Joni Mitchell or whoever else seemed to speak for your private, entirely circumscribed situation’s many pains and few ecstasies. We will con­tinue to fragment in this manner, because solipsism holds all the cards at present; it is a king whose domain engulfs even Elvis’s. But I will guarantee you one thing: we will never again agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis.”

Lester was a religious writer — the pop era’s first, and most likely the pop era’s only. But conventional literary pigeonhol­ing, even assuming it could accept that Les­ter took all this grunge seriously, would never know what to make of the fact that he knew it was grunge; he recognized that finding one’s teleology in the fried cross-circuits of pop was such an absurd endeavor that farting in church was one of the votive offer­ings. Or: HAW HAW HAW, as Lester used to transcribe said recognition.

Anyone in love knows that the deepest bonds are schizophrenic — you ping-pong from worship to jeering like the number-­bubbles that bat around when they pick this week’s Lotto. Lester’s all was predicated on the notion that pop, as a relationship, was just that volatile and close. The bumptiousness, which is simply immediacy, is much of what literature has lost even for those who’ve plighted their troth to it.

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Pop came about, in part, as a quasi-acci­dental substitute for social verities whose authority had ebbed more than the people running the store suspected. Because pop was still part of the store, whatever emo­tional truths you latched onto in it came fractured and distorted, cheek by jowl with all sorts of inane vacuity — sometimes closer. In fact, the mix itself took pride of place among the emotional truths.

Lester didn’t make the choice of reveling in the mix. It just didn’t occur to him to leave it out of his transcription of what life felt like. His appreciation of grunge was of­ten farcical — the mark of a sensible man. Marcus reprints one typical Creem review — ­of a long-forgotten ’70s goon-rock band —  which is mostly devoted to gleefully tracing one band member’s face, through all the permutations of rock posturing, back to “that same dork … that used to sit in the seat right in front of you in Driver Train­ing.” (He only gets around to wondering what the band sounds like in the last para­graph, and answers himself, “Great!” — his equivalent, at the time, for asking who gave a fuck.) He got the kind of laughter that racks you as unexpectedly as vomiting, but sure feels like an improvement on it.

Lester’s appreciation of grunge was never camp. Partly, he saw the way it dealt in stuff art wasn’t supposed to as an enlivening yawp, one his own career participated in. Partly, he saw that it reached back, in suit­ably half-assed fashion, to simulate the primitive: If we couldn’t have blood knowl­edge, we could have howling electronic grunge knowledge. Mainly, though, grunge was what had best expressed his experience and answered his cravings as a teen in one of those completely atrocious California suburbs of nowhere that come on a little like Los Olvidados on an allowance, the last qualifier removing any potential for cathar­sis and dumping you flat-out instead in a moronic torpor to which no music speaks so aptly and indeed avidly as the Count Five’s “Psychotic Reaction” or the Music Ma­chine’s “Talk Talk,” two of the classier, be­lieve it or not, of Lester’s submental So-Cal garage-band faves.

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They answered some of his cravings, I should say. His other cravings were an­swered by putting on Coltrane real loud and declaiming “Howl” in his bedroom. It takes something like the equivalent of genius in personality to grow up without denying ei­ther legacy.

Lester ennobled the ludicrous inner life of pop fans by telling the truth about it — by discerning that inner lives, and not music, were what pop music was about. But the most difficult quality to communicate about his writing is how whole-souled it was. Ev­erything that affected him — and he believed that what affected people at the lowest and most embarrassing levels was as worthy of consideration as whatever evoked their highest conceptions and hopes — was en­gaged in passionate earnest with the whole self. Lester once wrote a piece, not reprinted by Marcus, about the British band the Au Pairs, caught up in humane admiration for the women’s gutsiness, and heartfelt, mov­ing wishes for an era not of genders but of human beings. Then he cut it all off with the declaration that now he was going to go jerk off to Celebrity Skin. It was brave; you were face to face with the page. For Lester, it was nothing special — wasn’t that what writers were for?

Lester was unable to confine himself within the essay, the review — even journal­ism. It’s revelatory to turn from his first piece on Iggy and the Stooges, “Of Pop and Pies and Fun,” near the beginning of Psychotic Reaptions, to “Women on Top,” a previously unpublished fragment near the end. The first is earnest and perceptive, but too much of it is written in the deadly, sono­rous — and in this case, almost eloquently inappropriate — style of the jazz critics Les­ter emulated early on. The second, composed 11 years later, may be the most ex­treme foray into language he ever made.

He sat down to write a book proposal­ — the subtitle is “Ten Post-Lib Role Models for the Eighties.” But within a dozen sen­tences, having typed the name “Andy War­hol” and leaped from that to Amos ‘n’ Andy, he’s off on an entirely subterranean, private goof, making characters from Warhol’s Fac­tory tell shaggy-dog stories in brain-fried King Fish accents: “iz jazz cummon cartessy but diz iz alzo drue dat daffrunt sexshinz av de town gut dawfrint moo-rayze n moadez a be-in an karyin yosevz psnly oi jiz woke awraiown in MAN MOI AWN BAZNAZ … ” A goof the piece stays; but as a tran­scription of the stumblebum rhythms of junkie talk, not to mention an excavation from the bottom of the mine shaft of the national idiom, it’s almost on a par with the broken English of the great closing passages of Naked Lunch.

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The genesis of “Women on Top” suggests other ways Lester looked for more. His brain, and his files, teemed with ideas and beginnings for books, treatises, manifestos; none completed, I suspect because he de­spaired of finding a single framework that would somehow say it all. Even his pub­lished work pushed the outside of the enve­lope. Psychotic Reactions moves from a pre­ponderance of casual music reviews and interviews from Lester’s early career to an equal preponderance of crammed, sweeping sieges on meaning. “The White Noise Su­premacists,” his epic essay/report/castigation/soul-searching of punk racism, is one such siege; “New Year’s Eve,” packing a decade of personalized social history into a basically frivolous Voice assignment, may be an even better example of Lester always trying to say it all.

But even when writing about music prop­er, Lester’s dynamic was to veer off into fantasy, imaginary dialogues and encoun­ters, whole scenes which anthropomor­phized pop-figure public images into the presences they had become in his mind. Lester, deciding the reason he can’t stand Jethro Tull is that they remind him of Viet­namese folk music, jets off to war-torn Sai­gon for confirmation, and gives us Thieu declaring, “I’m no folkie.” When he tried fiction outright, it was shaped by the same impulse. Marcus reprints an imaginary ac­count of the real-life affair behind the song “Maggie May” which is oddly, credibly, poi­gnant — and also so slanderous the proper names had to be omitted and a legal dis­claimer inserted, after the book was in proof.

Lester’s hyperactive expansions were nev­er just jokes. (You laughed your head off.) They were true imaginative renderings of the emotional reality of pop culture — a hu­man relationship, not an aesthetic one, for all that the other person involved is entirely in your own head. Lester took the extrapola­tions and identifications and daydreams whose real significance is normally denied by their expression in trivializing fan-mag drivel — My Dream Date With Phil Col­lins — and found what exists there, in differ­ent versions, for each member of the audi­ence: his own Yoknapatawpha County.

Lester wrote many heartfelt tributes to the artists who had given him reasons to believe. Some, like the essay on Van Morri­son’s Astral Weeks included in the antholo­gy, are quite beautiful. At other times, as Marcus notes, awe — or gratitude — tied his tongue. Still, he never succumbed to Chap­man’s fallacy, because what gave Lester hope was that men and women as bamboo­zled as himself had yet been able to produce such stuff.

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To him, that meant they’d been touched by grace; it also meant that they could let grace down, or just be full of shit. Midway through one of Lester’s celebrated battle­-royal interviews in Creem with the mid-’70s Lou Reed, several of which Marcus in­cludes — bitch Lou, acrid with fatigued iro­nies, baiting, parrying, waylaying; engorged Lester lunging, demanding; both men drunk on their ass — the avatar says, defending Bowie, “David wrote some really great songs.” “Aw c’mon!” Lester hollers back, “anybody can write great songs! Sam the Sham wrote great songs! Did David ever write anything better than ‘Woolly Bully’?”

It’s a pitched moment — suddenly they’re cellmates, or married, or maybe the lover and the cuckold: any two people in a rela­tionship whose intimacy is a given, not a choice. It’s also a defenseless moment — the voice of an obsession that no longer cares what it says so long as it arrives at what it believes. And it’s also an uproarious mo­ment — Sam the Sham! Of course he belongs there.

The other thing about Lester’s pieces on Lou, and a lot of his other hectoring, ob­sessed pieces besides — though few other of his subjects let him do the hectoring in per­son — is that they’re scary. Lester obviously hung on to who he was a lot better than Mark Chapman did. But he was still con­fronting, quite consciously and doggedly, for the sake of truth, the identical risky duet of the psyche — how much we let our pop he­roes put names and labels to our private stance, style, morals, fundament. To feel de­fined, and worse, betrayed (and some of Lester’s greatest writing was his most un­fair, pillorying some former Great One who’d turned his or her back on grace) by people who are, after all, not your cellmate, or spouse, or cuckolder, is to court the psy­chotic. But Lester never seemed more hero­ic, or public-spirited, than when he’d lay out how much they’d gotten to him. “I would suck Lou Reed’s cock,” Lester the con­firmed heterosexual wrote, and there wasn’t any embarrassment in it, because he didn’t believe his human dignity was compromised by such a statement.

It was never just for the sake of his partic­ular inner drama that Lester felt let down or pissed off by his avatars, but for a cause — a hard one to define without sounding too bald, which Lester chanced when he called it “the war for the preservation of the heart” (it’s much less sententious in context, because so plainly felt, no mere generality). He was old-fashioned about responsibility, believed in things like compacts; he knew how urgent were the promises these people dealt in. That understanding is the touchstone of one of his best-remembered pieces, an obit­uary for his friend Peter Laughner, who “killed himself for something torn T-shirts represented in the battle fires of his ripped emotions.” Lester knew that was pathetic and hideous; he was right to think it still mattered.

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Lester craved beauty — believed in it, unaffectedly, as an absolute. Hence his love not only for Van Morrison but for the early Eno, later to become a fit subject for war-of-­the-heart rancor. Both examples suggest how much he only trusted beauty when it was also absolutist — invented solely out of the nonnegotiable demands of an entirely individual grip on wonder, without regard or recourse to the conventional claptrap signifiers that pass for beauty. But his deeper precondition, as ever, was that the music materialize emotions which might otherwise have had no witness; given his time, it’s no surprise that he was best known instead for being; and, may even have been most valu­able as the champion of elemental racket. (Note: “Grunge” and “elemental racket” are not the same thing, though the overlap between them is made clear by the wonderful, hilarious old-geezer monologue on the lost glory of the Count Five which gives Psychotic Reactions its title.)

Lester was the first to crow over what real rock fans always knew. Just like those ’50s fogeys and their modern descendants have always said, and as the music’s prissier de­fenders have been at such pains to deny, it was racket. Messy, unsoothing racket. As usual, there’s an intellectual defense. Lester revered artists of acute intelligence, acutely intelligent instinct, or plain nonspecific acuteness, like the “Sister Ray” Lou, or Iggy, or the Ramones, who used elemental racket purposefully, to get at elemental things. He also saw that valuing it was the hidden link between the most feckless garage guitar-bashing and the avant-garde titans, from Albert Ayler to antititan Arto Lindsay. But as usual, the intellectual de­fense won’t do. Lester loved racket because it was racket: ”illiterate chaos gradually tak­ing shape as a uniquely personal style,” he wrote early on of Iggy, maybe too elegantly; “horrible noise” he summed it up.

He was right again — nothing’s so galvan­ic. It has to do with tracking down the spiro­chete in the blood, the bacilli rubbed into the vaccination. No stimulus like racket to animate you up onto the sensation of ramparts. It feels surgical. Contrary to what parents used to say, racket doesn’t give you a lobotomy; it apostrophizes, and treats, your feeling that you’ve already had one. Energizing the negative is the polite way of describing this. “The yowlings of missing links around the purple fire” was one of Lester’s many ways.

***

Partly because of the distance imposed by hard covers, Psychotic Reactions and Car­buretor Dung makes it possible to see the larger patterns and congruences of Lester’s work. I’d say that 98 per cent of what Mar­cus has done is first-rate. One flaw is that no accounting is given of the cutting and reshaping Marcus performed on some choices, which was most likely necessary — particu­larly with the unpublished stuff, an elucida­tor’s nightmare — but which should still have been acknowledged right up front.

An early section devoted to Lester’s work on Creem, which he all but invented in the early ’70s, feels scattershot. As Marcus sug­gests, Lester’s creativity at Creem wasn’t just a matter of doing great pieces, but of making exhilarated use of the magazine’s whole apparatus, from headings and picture captions to replies to reader mail, to purvey a gestalt. Creem was Lester’s own Exploding Plastic Inevitable. Selecting only the Creem work that can stand on its own loses the effect of swarm, and maybe there wasn’t any way around that — though I’d have liked to see some of the picture captions and replies to readers.

The anthology is designed to make visible a series of trajectories, most notably Lester’s evolution from chaotically irreverent, anything-goes debunker and joker at Creem to increasingly open and adamant moralist (and debunker, and joker) later on — plainly a development, not a change. What Lester paradoxically always looked for in extremes was the corrective balance. Pissing on every­thing, sending it up, boosting nihilistic rage, were unquestionably the most ethical and sane contributions a moralist could make to the prepunk ’70s. But once Johnny Rotten had appeared to take over that job, and the battle had been joined in both senses, it was a gesture of optimism to argue about values and thrash out doubts. Lester’s concern for the punks was tender — a lot of his dreams, which like most good ones had begun with nightmares for honesty’s sake, were bound up with them. By the end, though he didn’t indulge in recriminations, he knew that punk had gone down the toilet like everything else; that made the search for values still more urgent, unmediated even by mu­sic, and utterly solitary.

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The book also enables you to see Lester’s own literary lineage much more clearly: Ginsberg’s long line, and telegraphic modern resurrection of forceful early-English rhythms. Burroughs’s inspired stand-up routines and disease-telethon dada. Some Mailer in the happiness of plunging into thickets of contradiction, and finding one’s way out by inventiveness and will. The gath­ering-up of emotional textures into bunchings of pure compassion that moved him in Tennessee Williams. Not to mention a style of unfolding, gravely enunciatory plain speech, which sounds Lincolnesque but has a more likely origin in Lester’s having gone to elementary school back when kids still had to recite the Pledge of Allegiance every morning.

The most common take on Lester’s lan­guage was that he found the equivalent in writing for the dynamics of rock and roll; there’s jazz in it too, in the improvisation of solos over a progression which itself mu­tates in response to them. The freight of second thoughts and recollections and asides which Lester was able to add to the main line of his ongoing reaction has the effect not of dispersion but of tributaries running into a river, adding their push to the current. Still, Lester never seemed to be working out a conceit; all his best moments felt blurted, pure serendipity. Here’s one modest example, found at random not only by me but I suspect by Lester (he was writ­ing during the Iranian hostage crisis): “Two nights ago my friend John Morthland was over and we talked about Teheran and the future of this embassy we live in.” The shift to metaphor is quiet — blink and you’ll miss it; the effect reverberates. Lester discovered shit like that all the time.

Probably the most astonishing piece in the book — not only for itself, but for its demonstration of the escalating quality, even from the most chorelike start, of Les­ter’s imagination — began life as background notes for a review of Peter Guralnick’s book Lost Highway. Lester’s just plugging away at first, sorting out impressions. Soon he be­comes engrossed, ruminating on Sam Phil­lips as shaman, conformity and rebellion, the discovery of America. Then something triggers a recollection of Geraldo Rivera de­manding, on TV, that Elvis’s body be ex­humed to check for traces of drugs; Lester loathes Geraldo, and so imagines that his real craving is to make off with the actual half-digested pills from Elvis’s decomposing insides. That brings to mind the Golden Bough legends of primitives ingesting the best qualities of their enemies by eating them — the perfect metaphor for tabloid necrophilia, and he doesn’t even have to say so.

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But it’s too late to stop now. Either Lester or Lester-as-Geraldo, it’s hard to tell which, swallows the pills; suddenly he is speaking as Elvis, feeling out his new identity. The rant is knockabout abusive and funny (“Guess I could get one of my rifles off the shelf and shoot out a few TV picture tubes. Lemme get the TV Guide and see who’s on I wanna shoot”). But then it climbs into pitches of dread made tangible (“I can’t eat. I can’t sleep. I can’t get high”). The piece just keeps on mushrooming until it explodes as a half-comprehending scream of stop eat­ing me that finally stands as the deepest, most heartbreaking rendition of that poor lost dumb slob, P.F.C. Jesus H. Presley, ever caught in words. Its source, its absolutely necessary beginning, is as a ghoulish, dopey sick joke. And yet these crass, grotesque, and driven pages deserve permanent en­shrining in our literature. Of course Lester could never get it printed.

Psychotic Reactions shows the freewheel­ing nature of Lester’s responsiveness, how many polyglot things fed his preoccupations. A long account of the Clash on tour in England reels in an encounter with a handi­capped woman in an airport, Lester’s read­ing at the moment (The War Against the Jews), snippets of road life, how Lester’s dressed, William Blake, how Teds dress, etc., into a pilgrim’s progress that really is about nothing but the Clash, and their im­pact on him. Yet Psychotic Reactions also shows the unsuspected extent to which his mind kept revolving around the same few preoccupations, or maybe just one: the fight with death.

Death could be literal, or death could be figurative — it’s typical of how Lester’s mind worked that he saw no distinction, and had only one vocabulary for both. His belief in sexual union as the rebuttal to it could be literal or figurative; even when figurative, it was no metaphor. It all came down to Les­ter’s words for how he felt when first seeing Elvis on stage: “an erection of the heart.” A world is in that phrase; a lot of writers would have retired on it. Lester was just being descriptive, and moved on.

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His own end centers all melancholy on wondering what more he might have done. Marcus disputes the theory that he’d have quit writing about music. My bet is the shift was quite probable, partly because a big chunk of what motivated Lester was the belief that there was an audience out there that felt as he did, and that belief was get­ting harder to sustain, at least about rock and roll. People hadn’t just stopped looking to the music for reasons to believe; what appalled and frightened Lester was that in the main they seemed to feel no need to compensate for it elsewhere. His conception of his work’s worth, as of the records he loved, was that it was an offering, part of a communal back-and-forth. He was willing to be a crank, but had a horror of being one in a vacuum; that was too much like solipsism, always one of his words for death.

But his writing up to that point, as repre­sented in Psychotic Reactions, also feels like there’s nothing more to add to it. My own belief is that Lester saw this as his appren­ticeship; the task of defining one’s world, and establishing the terms of one’s identity, that precedes the foray into creation. Mar­cus reports that he was about to leave, ro­mantic in earnest to the last, for Mexico, there to get down to work on the big book of his life. You can’t know whether to mourn or marvel that this magnificent body of work, as far as he was concerned, had only cleared the decks so that he could begin.

One other thing: Practically every past and serving rock critic in the country — in­cluding yours truly — is listed in the book’s acknowledgments. Some are weighty names, at least in our benighted guild; some of the others make everything you’ve heard about rock critics sound true. We aren’t a bunch much given to fellow-feeling, or for that matter activity. But this once, we all came out of our Grub Street holes, blinking like bats from how white the page is. Everyone wanted to stick in two cents — the big guns and the jerkoffs, and the crowd in between. It’s the guild’s testimony, for whatever it’s worth: we will never again agree on anything as we agreed on Lester.

PSYCHOTIC REACTIONS AND CARBURETOR DUNG
By Lester Bangs
Edited by Greil Marcus
Knopf, $19.95

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES

Robert Johnson: The Sound and the Fury

An early member of the 27 Club, blues master Robert Johnson has been an object of veneration among such rock luminaries as Eric Clapton and Keith Richards since 16 of the roughly three dozen recordings he made in makeshift studios in the 1930s appeared on a 1961 compilation album, Robert Johnson: King of the Delta Blues Singers. “Poor Bob” — as the singer, guitarist, and harmonica player referred to himself on “Cross Road Blues” — has also been the subject of numerous biographies, of which Bruce Conforth and Gayle Dean Wardlow’s Up Jumped the Devil is the latest.

Looking to get past the tale of Johnson (1911–1938) selling his soul to the devil at a Mississippi crossroads in order to master the guitar, the authors have tracked down birth certificates, land deeds, medical records, and other documentation of the musician’s actual life. They recount interviews with Johnson’s contemporaries and family members, and dive into all manner of books and articles to convey the poverty and racism through which Johnson persevered to become a performer whose dynamic guitar playing and beguiling vocals could make a juke joint jump or turn a house party solemn. The authors give a sense of Johnson’s power with a quote from an occasional collaborator, Johnny Shines: “One time in Saint Louis we were playing one of the songs that Robert would like to play with someone once in a great while, ‘Come on in My Kitchen.’ He was playing very slow and passionately, and when we quit, I noticed no one was saying anything. Then I realized they were crying — both men and women.”

Jimmy Page once said, “The music of Robert Johnson has inspired a million riffs. The myth of Robert Johnson has inspired a million dreams.” In the winter of 1986, Village Voice contributor Greil Marcus related his own first encounter with the legendary musician: “Robert Johnson’s music talked to me as the voice of a new world, where everything was at stake, and nothing was resolved. Every choice was open, made real — what hap­pened was up to me.”

If Conforth and Wardlow’s book looks to sculpt an accurate portrait out of a fog of poorly kept records and embellished memories, Marcus, in his essay below, gets at the poetry of pain, grace, and joy that has kept Robert Johnson alive long after his one-score-and-seven years on this Earth had ended. —R.C. Baker

When You Walk in the Room

Almost exactly 50 years ago, in late November 1936, a 25- year-old blues singer from Mississippi made his first records in San Antonio, Tex­as: among them “Terraplane Blues,” “Come on in My Kitchen,” “Walking Blues,” “If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day.” In January 1970, just a month after Altamont, the all-day Rolling Stones rock festival, where I’d witnessed the worst violence I’d ever seen in the flesh, I walked into a record store, not looking for anything in particular; I just wanted to buy a record. I flipped through the blues rack and saw the name Rob­ert Johnson. It didn’t mean much to me; I’d noticed it as a songwriting credit on Cream LPs, for tunes called “Crossroads” and “Four Until Late.” The previous fall, I’d watched the Rolling Stones play a pristine version of “Love in Vain,” a track on their then new Let It Bleed, but I hadn’t known it was Johnson’s — for rea­sons I’ve never figured out, they credited it to someone called “Woody Payne.”

I was just starting out as a rock critic, though after Altamont I felt a hundred years old; I thought I ought to know where Cream songs came from, so I bought the Robert Johnson album, King of the Delta Blues Sing­ers. It was one of those moments when you get your life changed — like picking a college course that leads you to think for the first time, or walking thoughtlessly into a room and falling in love. I took the record home and put it on: I knew nothing about country blues. I knew almost nothing about the Deep South in the ’30s — I’d never even read Faulkner. All I had were memories of Life magazine photos of lynchings, Richard Wright’s autobiography, the autobi­ography of one of the Scottsboro Boys (both mediated through the ever-chang­ing Communist Party line on the “race question”). All I had, really, was a liberal upbringing, a lot of socialist realism. I brought virtually no context to the record. I simply took it home, put it on, and had my life changed.

I heard a sound I’d never heard before, but which, for some reason, I connected to. It was what Edmund Wilson called “the shock of recognition” — and for me, the “shock” has always been the realiza­tion that you have recognized something nothing could have led you to expect to recognize. The question turns out to be not what-makes-the-music-great, but why you recognized its greatness when, all things considered, you shouldn’t have understood it at all, or even stumbled upon it in the first place. I’ve been mar­ried for 20 years; sometimes, like anyone married that long, I wonder what my life would have been like if, on a certain meaningless day, I hadn’t walked into a certain meaningless room. Sometimes I think my life would be more or less the same; sometimes I think I wouldn’t have a life at all. I feel the same way about Robert Johnson. And it’s this sort of con­nection I want to talk about.

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Predictably, playing the Robert John­son album, I didn’t like his 1936 version of “Crossroads” as much as Cream’s 1968 version. Cream’s version was a firestorm; this was too quiet. As the album played, I read the liner notes. This is how they began: “Robert Johnson is little, very lit­tle more than a name on aging index cards and a few dusty master records in the files of a phonograph company that no longer exists.”

Those lines were poetry to me. I still think the cadence of the prose is pure poetry — the movement from “little, very little” to “no longer exists.” I turned the record over and stopped dead with “Stones in My Passway”; my nice living room was suddenly invaded by absolute terror. To get away from what was hap­pening, I read on: “Robert Johnson ap­peared and disappeared, in much the same fashion as a sheet of newspaper twisting and twirling down a dark and windy midnight street.” This wasn’t po­etry — it was corny — but it reminded me of the cover of Camus’s The Rebel, a picture that has stayed with me with far greater force than almost anything in the book itself. The cover showed a sheet of newspaper, with headlines in half a dozen languages, all carrying reports of revolution, upheaval, blowing down the street to nowhere. The Paris Commune of 1871, the Berlin revolution of 1918, Barcelona in 1936 — all events expelled from history by those with the power to get history written, published, taught, and censored, the incidents appearing, when they ap­peared in the record at all, like a list of perversions in a sex manual about healthy married life. What I’m trying to say is that I experienced those words on the Robert Johnson album, and Robert Johnson’s music, as an invasion of a world I had taken for granted — of an ur­ban, modern, white, middle-class, educat­ed reality I had taken as complete and finished, as a natural fact.

Robert Johnson‘s music was a rent in that reality, a violent rip, a negation, a no. I suddenly realized that I was sick of rock ’n’ roll; sick, after Altamont, of what it could do and what it had already produced. Altamont showed me blood, and death. I’d seen people beaten to the ground with lead-weighted sticks, seen naked people with their teeth knocked out, and I’d left the place only to hear on the radio that, as I’d stood behind the stage on top of a van to hear the Rolling Stones, a young black man had been knifed, kicked, and bludgeoned to death. There was death in Robert Johnson’s songs — but it always stopped short, stopped short at the point of choice. As I listened, full of ugly memories, Robert Johnson’s music talked to me as the voice of a new world, where everything was at stake, and nothing was resolved. Every choice was open, made real — what hap­pened was up to me.

Now, this was not socialist realism, or even liberal realism, which says that all people are products of great historical forces in a world they never made: that all people are sociology. Robert Johnson’s music wasn’t just a rent in the bourgeois life I’d lived; it was a rent in the theories of the leftists who’d fought against that life, who reached their high point in the ’30s, at the very moment Johnson was singing. The bourgeois view of the world said people like Robert Johnson didn’t count; the socialist realist view of the world said that he’d been made not to count, and that if by some miracle he’d made his voice heard, it was as the voice of the irrepressible will of the people — in other words, as sociology; as an individ­ual, he didn’t even exist. But this wasn’t what I heard. I heard a particular person, someone no sociological construct could have predicted, or even allowed for. Years later I would read Albert Murray’s comments on Bessie Smith — he said, more or less, that writers have tried to tie the expressive power of Bessie Smith’s music to the pain and suffering of black people in America, and then he wondered why, if this were so, 400 years of slavery and oppression, of pain and suffering, had not produced another Bessie Smith. Albert Murray, a black writer, was trying to rescue Bessie Smith from socialist re­alism; he was trying to grant her the subjectivity, the autonomy, that in the Unit­ed States is automatically granted any white artist. She was, Murray was saying, a genius. And, as Freud said, everyone knows genius is incomprehensible. Com­ing from the premier 20th century advo­cate of rationalism, that is saying something.

I wasn’t ready to deal with this — this sort of autonomy. Instead I tried to un­derstand the form — the genre, the sociol­ogy. I became obsessed with Mississippi Delta country blues — primitive blues, it was called in the notes to the Robert Johnson album. I learned a lot about it. I bought everything I could find. I learned about the first country blues performers to record, men much older than Robert Johnson: Charlie Patton, Son House, Willie Brown, Skip James, Garfield Akers. I heard a music that was rich, fierce, funny, and bitter. But I kept lis­tening to Robert Johnson, and what I learned still didn’t touch what he was doing.

I learned that blues had come into be­ing — was invented, was discovered, I don’t know the right word — around 1900, probably in the Mississippi Delta; wher­ever it came from, the sound was soon heard across the South. Everyone, black and white, who heard this new sound — ­all those with enough education to write down their thoughts on what they heard — said the same thing. It didn’t matter if it was some benevolent rich white woman or W.C. Handy of Mem­phis, who later named himself “the Fa­ther of the Blues.” They all had the same reaction, used the same words: “Weird.” “Strange.” “Eerie.” “Unearthly.” “Devil­ish.” “Terrifying.” “Not of this world.”

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The blues was something new. Just as Robert Johnson’s music had made a breach in my white, middle-class, modern world, around 1900 blues had made a breach in the known world of southern blacks. It wasn’t like the old field hollers, work songs, animal fables, ring shouts, gospel music, though musicologists have traced the lines back so that you’d think a breach had never been made. A leads to B and B leads to C, and who can deny it? But the testimony of those who were there is what counts — and what those who were there said was that they’d nev­er heard anything like this before, and they weren’t sure they ever wanted to hear it again. A white woman heard her teenage maid moaning to herself as she folded laundry — whatever the song was about, if it was a song, it wasn’t about laundry. W.C. Handy was waiting for a train late one night; two men sat down beside him and began to play; later he wondered if it hadn’t been a dream.

What was this? Robert Johnson at­tracted international attention in his life­time; Melody Maker ran a short item about him, bemoaning the fact that his record company wasn’t known for en­couraging protest songs. Obviously, blues was full of pain and suffering; therefore at its heart it had to be a protest against white oppression. On the page, that wasn’t hard to understand — why was the sound so hard to understand?

It was hard to understand because blues was not music born of oppres­sion, but of freedom. It was not a protest against “conditions” — ­against racism, lynching, sharecrop­ping, and worse — it was, like The Sound and the Fury, a protest against life.

Blues was invented by one of the first generations of black Americans not to be born slaves — to be born with the freedom of movement that from the time of Dan­iel Boone had been enshrined as the first principle of American life. They were among the first Afro-Americans to escape of their own free will the ties of home­town, home plantation, family, church — and, most important, work. The black church as well as white sheriffs pushed them back — and they pushed back against the black church no less than against white sheriffs. No, they said, I do what I like.

A whole new, common language grew up around that negation, that affirma­tion — “No, I do what I like.” It was a shared language of guitar riffs and lyric phrases (“My black mama’s face shines like the sun,” “The sun gonna shine in my back door someday,” “Minutes seem like hours, hours seem just like days”), a set of fragments reaching for some all-encompassing blues parable that every blues singer presented in pieces. You could say, as Peter Guralnick has, that the tradition itself, not the individual artist, was the poet, and the tradition grew up as a poetic opposition to playing by the rules. In that sense, of course, blues was a protest, but blues singers didn’t see it that way. They considered themselves free men, as good as anybody, better than most — if not better than most, freer than most. Their music was made out of a conviction that, like all Americans, they were masters of their own lives — or should be. When they ran into the limits of that mastery — the in­ability to hold a woman, to keep a dollar in hand, to live without fear — they found themselves face-to-face not merely with the particular racial, economic, or social conditions of the Deep South in the ’20s or ’30s, but with the facts of life. Those facts could be summed up in one: men and women are not at home in this world. It was the same fact that Herman Mel­ville had discovered in Moby Dick, that Faulkner was raging against in The Sound and the Fury, that the writers of Greek tragedies had chewed over more than 2000 years before. That was why, to those who heard it around 1900, the sound was strange, scary, confusing: the new blues singers were singing about things people had never wanted to talk about. For the first time, they were acting like free people, and running into the wall that separates desire from its realization.

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It took me a long time to understand this — or to believe it. For a long time, what I heard in Mississippi country blues, and always most intensely in Rob­ert Johnson, was a contradiction: the mu­sic reached me directly, went straight to the heart, seemed to call forth responses from the blood; but at the same time that music was impossibly distant, odd, and old. For black people in the ’20s and ’30s the Mississippi Delta was full of horses and wagons and ruled by peonage. There weren’t any telephones and there weren’t any toilets. No one was allowed to vote, and most couldn’t even dream of learning to read and write. The first contact most of these people would have with a world outside the one into which they were born was when their sons were drafted to fight in World War II — and many of their sons were given farm deferments, arranged by white landowners partly to in­sure that they never would see a world outside the one into which they were born.

But I’ve fallen back into sociology — the opposite of what I’m trying to talk about. I’m trying to talk about a different sort of distance, a different sort of oldness, a different sort of oddness. I was raised on The Twilight Zone TV show — Mississip­pi blues was twilight zone stuff. The sing­ers, recorded in their twenties and thir­ties, seemed in their voices to have been old before they were born. Robert John­son was a ghost — out of a past I had never expected to confront, he was years ahead of me every time I listened to his music, waiting for me to catch up.

I am writing about Robert Johnson be­cause if any of the things I have been saying are true, they are overwhelmingly, titanically more true of him and his mu­sic than they are of any other Mississippi blues singer one might mention. Once one has been through the tradition, many of the great singers and most of the countless minor ones — and scores of black men made records in the South in the ’20s and ’30s — recede into that tradi­tion: the tradition speaks for them: this means they become sociological. Their music makes sense sociologically — and after that, it may not make any other kind of sense, or, more important, make non-sense out of whatever preconcep­tions a listener might bring to it. Charlie Patton, considered the founder of Missis­sippi Delta blues, sounds like a founder. Son House sounds like an exponent. Skip James and Tommy Johnson, both of them with highly developed individual styles, sound like eccentrics, like isolates within a tradition itself isolated from the American mainstream, be it political or artistic, where history is supposedly made.

Now, compared to Skip James or Tom­my Johnson, Robert Johnson does not sound particularly individualistic. Com­pared to them, he sounds very tradition­al — and also as if the tradition, this par­ticular social/economic/religious/aesthetic happenstance, is meaningless, as if it had never existed. In his music you seem to hear what everyone else was reaching for, what everyone else was try­ing to say, what no one else could touch, what no one else could put into words, into the twist of a vocal, the curl of a guitar line — or for that matter into the momentum of a passage of prose, the scene of a play, the detail of a painting. Robert Johnson takes the tradition as a given, in the same way we take it as a given that people we meet will speak, eat, and sleep, and then goes beyond the tradition to such an extent that the concepts of speech, eating, and sleeping lose their meanings, or acquire entirely new ones.

Robert Johnson, his music says, worked and lived with a deeper autono­my than any other bluesman, all of whom came forth to affirm autonomy. He made his music against the limits of that au­tonomy, limits he discovered and made real, and he did so with more ferocity, and more tenderness, than any other bluesman, all of whom encountered simi­lar limits. The difference is this: all the other bluesmen dealt with that problem within the bounds of the tradition, within the bounds of the form of Mississippi Delta blues, speaking that common lan­guage. If the tradition allowed them to refuse the limits on their life, they ac­cepted the limited power of the tradition to deal with those limits, to make sense of them.

Robert Johnson did not do this. As an individual, sparked by the blues tradition to want more out of life than he might have otherwise demanded, he refused to accept the limits of the blues tradition itself — a tradition that, as an aesthetic form, at once inspired and limited his ability to make demands on life, to pro­test it. It’s said that when he started out he was a pest, a teenager making noise at houseparties and juke joints, a complete incompetent on the guitar, a joke. Then he went away, and a year later came back, still demanding that Son House and Willie Brown give him a chance to play in public. They laughed at him and left the room; he started to play. They turned around — and what they heard sounded as strange to them as the first blues had sounded decades before. It was like Vasily Rozanov’s metaphor for nihil­ism: “The show is over. The audience get up to leave their seats. Time to collect their coats and go home. They turn round… No more coats and no more home.” Right there, in the heart of the tradition, in the sociology of its everyday life, no one knew what was going on.

Blues was Robert Johnson’s lan­guage. It’s unclear whether he could read or write, but if he could, it was at a rudimentary level; blues was his only chance at self-expression, or making a mark on the world, of leaving it even slightly dif­ferent than he had found it. He mastered the tradition — he formally extended its guitar language, formally raised the level of song composition, deepened its formal possibilities for vocal strength and delica­cy. Yet he also found the tradition inade­quate — and you can hear this in his greatest songs, in “Stones in My Pass­way,” “Hellhound on My Trail,” “Come on in My Kitchen,” “Traveling River­side Blues.” The tension of wanting to say more than the tradition can allow explodes the tradition. “Stones in My Passway” and “Hellhound” do not sound like any other blues. It doesn’t matter how well any musicologist can trace their melodies or their lyrics back to any other performers. You run into a wall of emo­tional, aesthetic fact: sociology can ex­plain the Mississippi Delta blues, but it cannot explain Robert Johnson any more than 400 years of pain and suffering can produce two Bessie Smiths.

Most traditions of any sort decay, fall into ruin, wear out. It’s rare to see, to hear, any tradition actually be explod­ed — to be taken to a critical mass of pos­sibility and desire and then be destroyed. That’s what happens in Robert Johnson’s last recordings, made in 1937, the year before he died. It seems impossible that there could be any Mississippi blues after those last recordings — and, in a way, there weren’t. Nothing new; just refine­ments, revivals, footnotes. Many of Johnson’s more conventional compositions­ — “Sweet Home Chicago,” “Dust My Broom,” “Crossroads” — became blues and then rock ’n’ roll standards in the years and decades after Robert Johnson’s death; it’s interesting that almost no one has even tried to make a new version of “Stones in My Passway” or “Hellhound on My Trail.”

Once it’s really heard, Robert John­son’s music takes shape as a mystery — and, confronted with a mystery, the hu­man impulse is to try and solve it. Robert Johnson is no longer a name on an index card; since King of the Delta Blues Sing­ers was released, 25 years ago, almost every fact one might care to know about him has been discovered. There are enough facts for a full biography; not long ago there was mostly legend, tall tales, superstition. And yet Robert John­son’s music has not been reduced, has not been contained, has not been made sense of, not one bit. You hear a man going farther than he could ever have been ex­pected to go — even if you know nothing of the particular limits of Mississippi blues, you can hear those limits being smashed, or hear a man fall back violent­ly before them. What you hear is a strug­gle more extreme, and more fully shaped, than you can accept. So you begin to ask: what would it mean to want that much? What would it mean to lose that much?

Carlos Fuentes once spoke about the difference between literature that can be contained within the bounds of sociology and ethnography and literature that can­not. “Perhaps Babbitt and Main Street could only have been written by a per­fectly determined North American writer born in Sauk Center, Minnesota, in the year of grace 1885,” Fuentes said of Sin­clair Lewis. “But Absalom, Absalom!, Light in August or The Sound and the Fury could, in their mythic essence, have been told by a wise savage in central Africa, an ancient guardian of memory in the Himalayas, an amnesiac demon, or a re­morseful god.” Sam Charters, one of the first to write in detail about Mississippi blues, once wrote that only a black man living in the Mississippi Delta in the first third of the century could possibly un­derstand what Son House meant when he sang, “My black mama’s face shines like the sun.” Maybe that is true, in the same way that Fuentes’s words about Sinclair Lewis may be true. But nothing similar could ever be true about Robert Johnson, just as one does not have to be anything like Faulkner to understand what he wrote.

For all this, Robert Johnson remains a figure in a story that, as it is usually told, is already completed: that is, he is a so­ciological exemplar of an ethnographic cultural incident that makes complete sense within the bounds of American so­ciocultural ethnography. No one talks about Melville, Hawthorne, Emerson (or even D.W. Griffith, John Ford, and Howard Hawks) this way. They are discussed as people who took on the world and, for whatever reasons, made some­thing of it; what they made of it is what gets discussed, and discussed in the most wide-ranging way, connected to and informing anything that might connect to or inform it. Such talk makes their work richer, and the world richer, more inter­esting. But there are few American black artists discussed in these terms, and no blues singers. Formal objections are easy — how can you compare a handful of two-and-a-half-minute songs to Mel­ville’s books, or just Moby Dick? Can you actually say that there is a labyrinth as deep, as complex, in “Stones in My Pass­way” as in The Sound and the Fury? Maybe not. But one can say that Robert Johnson went as far, went far enough that the question becomes not how he got there, but what goes on there. ■

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Rock Death in the ’70s: A Sweepstakes

I think it was about five years ago that I noticed the term “survivor” had become the cant word of the seventies. The word used to denote one who lived through a concrete threat to life — a fire, a natural disaster, a plane crash. (You know the old joke: A plane from Texas crashed in Mexico. Where do they bury the survivors? Ha, ha, ha. They don’t bury survivors!) As a description of one’s identity, the word fit only one who had undergone conditions at once so harrowing and so remarkable that it could be said with some certainty that the experience had marked — indeed shaped, or reshaped — the individual’s personality irrevocably, to the point where everything else — parentage, intelligence, vocation, etc. — became secondary. Thus the word could be applied fairly to many victims of concentration camps (though not, say, to the Japanese victims of internment in the U.S. during the Second World War, since the threat of violent death was not present, and starvation conditions did not exist), to certain political prisoners, victims of torture, and to some who had escaped famine, epidemics, or wars (though the word would not automatically apply to soldiers: One might say, “He survived the Battle of the Bulge,” but one would not , when asked to sum up such a person, respond, “Oh, he’s a survivor”). The term implied no particular approbation, let alone celebration. It was a statement of fact, suggesting not moral neutrality but a moral limbo.

Today all of this has changed. “Survivor,” perhaps first corrupted as a reference to those who had taken part in some of the willful adventures of the 1960s, now applies to anyone who has persevered, or rather continued, any form of activity, including breathing, for almost any amount of time. One who keeps his or her job for a couple of years is “a survivor.” A couple who have celebrated a fifth anniversary are “survivors.” An actor or actress who, though without a role, can still get booked onto the Carson show once a year is “a survivor,” and will be identified as such within five minutes of conversation (“You’re a real survivor, Elizabeth Ashley!” “You’re a survivor yourself, Johnny!”) Anyone, in fact, who is not legally dead is a “survivor” — and those who are legally dead, but later turn up among the living, are preeminent survivors.

It must be emphasized that the word now definitely does imply praise, and that (paradoxically, one would think) it has been severed from authentic contexts of will and endurance altogether. Indeed, the world has acquired certain class-bound, Social-Darwinist, and racist tones. It is applied to virtually any white, middle-class person, regardless of lack of achievement or lack of hardship, but is almost never used anymore to designate one who has suffered real adversity, and surmounted it. To use the word in such an old-fashioned manner would recall its original moral connotations — the suggestion that the word “survivor” bespoke a world in which morality had been defeated, suspended, or destroyed — and the ’70s use of the word has subverted the reality of morality: the sense that one’s life is a product of choices made within a hard context of conditions that one does not choose and probably cannot change, and that the proper response to such a fact is struggle.

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The ’70s version of “survival” trivializes struggle, mocks it. As Bruno Bettelheim wrote in 1976, in an attack on Lina Wertmuller’s Seven Beauties and Terrence Des Pres’s much-touted The Survivor (a study of Nazi concentration camps), the present-day celebration of “survival” is a self-justification for those who today do not wish to consider the problems [the camps] posed, and instead settle for a completely empty “survivorship.” Survival is elevated above all other values: “Survival is all, it does not matter how, why, what for.” Bettelheim might have been writing in a dead language; use of the term multiplied exponentially after his article appeared.

I became especially interested in the new application of the word in rock and roll, because it appeared everywhere: as a justification for empty characters, washed-up careers, third-rate LPs, fake comebacks, burnt-out brain-pans. (This is not even to mention the use of the word in current fiction, where it became a surefire way to make vaguely neurotic, white, middle-class protagonists seem heroic in their depression, inadequacy, and cowardice.) I grew obsessed with the phenomenon — it seemed to me to speak for everything empty, tawdry, and stupid about the decade, for every cheat, for every failure of nerve. I couldn’t get away from the word; week after week, it arrived in the mail. Grank Funk’s Survival. The Rolling Stones’ “Soul Survivor.” Barry Mann’s Survivor. Cindy Bullens’s “Sur­vivor” (a great recording, and ruined!). Eric Burdon’s Survivor. Gloria Gaynor’s cheesy “I Will Survive.” Adam Faith’s I Survive. Randy Bachman’s Survivor. Georgie Fame’s Survival. Lynyrd Sky­nyrd’s Street Survivors (the only band made to pay for the conceit). Just a couple of weeks ago, the Wailers’ Survival. Every time, an artist covering him or herself with glory (just as novelists continued to cele­brate their hapless autobiographical char­acters and their lack of anything worth saying). So I railed against it all; I wrote about the word every time I came across it, tried to kill it.

Like Bettelheim, whose efforts were far more prescient and more probing than mine, I got nowhere. The word, or its perversion, gathered momentum, and it gathers momentum still. Look through this issue of The Village Voice, and you will find it; look through next week’s, and you will find it again.

And so, as an envoi to the ’70s, I decided there was only one appropriate gesture: a piece about those who were not survivors. If the concept cannot be discredited per­haps it can be turned back on itself.

So let us get down to bones and teeth.

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One might think the enormous toll the rock and roll life has taken in the last decade gives the rock use of “survivor” some credence: when so many have fallen, to continue must be a real accomplish­ment. But this is not true — what we’re faced with is still a replacement of values and standards by a fraud on both. To perform in the context of the death of one’s fellows may be an act of nerve or per­severance, worthy qualities both, although it’s more likely a refusal to surrender pos­sibilities of financial reward and personal adulation. But in any case such a per­formance accomplishes nothing and says nothing by itself. The word “survivor” is used to hide these truths, and to hide the banality, falsity, stupidity, and enervation of what a performer’s perseverance may actually produce. When Brian Wilson made his famous “return” in 1976, he received unanimous acclaim as a survivor (of, it turned out, himself); that made it almost incumbent upon fans and writers not to examine what he had returned with too closely: survival, dayenu. Today, when writers and fans call Neil Young “a sur­vivor” they didn’t even know they’re insult­ing him, because Neil Young, so obsessed with rock death, is performing to tell us that survival is never enough.

When rock and rollers call themselves “survivors,” it is because they want the attention and approval the term now brings, or because they want to distract us from the question of whether or not their work is worthy of attention or approval. It is no homage: anyone can wear the crown of survivor, and by so doing mock those who are not around to wear it, and tacitly devalue whatever they might have left behind.

If this were not reason enough for an anomalous gesture — a study of rock death — the evidence is piling up that such a gesture might not be without its com­mercial possibilities. It was only a few months ago, after all, that a promoter­ — probably the same one who appears in the last verse of “Highway 61 Revisited” — ­suggested that he and I collaborate on a book about “all the people in rock and roll who had ever died.” It was just weeks after that that I received a new book called Those Who Died Young, which grants almost the same status to the likes of James Dean and Brian Jones as your aver­age survivorship journalist might bestow on James Taylor. Given the obscenity of the survivorship cult, then, why not an equal, no, a further obscenity: why merely make a study of rock deaths when one could rank them? If, as the just-issued Jimi Hendrix Christmas EP (heard “Little Drummer Boy” yet?) indicates, necrophagy in rock is a tradition at least as honorable as that of the survivor’s greatest hits album, do not the dead deserve an accounting at least as irreproachable as the survivors receive with each week’s edi­tion of Billboard?

Rock deaths, therefore, have been rated on a tripartite scale: Nonsurvivor’s con­tribution to rock and roll up to time of death; contribution nonsurvivor would have made in the time after death had death not occurred before the allotted three-­score and ten; and manner of death. Up to 10 points could be scored in each category. Points were awarded generously in the first category; strictly in the second. Cal­culations in the third category were by their very nature somewhat subjective. Information, almost all of it taken from news clippings, was always sketchy; cor­oners are prone to attribute the mysterious death of any long-haired person to “drugs.” Factors taken into account in­cluded respect for tradition, degree of choice, imagination, degree of violence, drama, uniqueness, appropriateness, and divine intervention. Death by travel, a genuine risk of rock life, rated fairly high. Death by heroin, on the other hand, rated low — it has been called “the common cold of rock death” — save when special circum­stances were involved, such as murder. Death by heroin onstage (see Stephen Holden’s rock death novel, Triple Plati­num), as opposed to death by heroin in a cheap room with a chenille bedspread and, outside the window, a neon sign flashing “HOTEL,” would have scored well, but no such incident has been recorded.

Blues, gospel, country, and authentic folk performers were not included in these calculations unless they had some direct connection to rock and roll, like a hit. Mere influence on rock and roll was not sufficient to bring these people the finan­cial rewards generally available to (if not always secured by) rock and roll performers, and thus it has been decided to withhold the concomitant lack of respect. As for the symbols, RD stands for Rock Death; PC, Past Contribution; FC, Future Contribution; M, Manner of Rock Death; and T, Total Score. Rock Deaths are rated in ascending order — but only for suspense.

Have a nice day.

RD PC FC M T
Miss Chrissie, age unknown, 1972, formerly of the GTOs, Frank Zappa–backed “groupie-rock” band, hero­in. 1 0 1 2
Vinnie Taylor, 25, 1974, Sha Na Na guitarist, drugs. 1 1 1 3
Tommy Bolin, 25, 1977, former Deep Purple and James Gang guitarist, drugs. 3 0 1 4
Brian Cole, 28, 1972, former Association vocalist, heroin o.d. 3 0 1 4
Rich Evers, 31, 1978, Carole King songwriter, cocaine o.d. a 2 1 2 5
Scott Quick, 26, 1976, Sammy Hagar band guitarist, “drug seizure.” 2 2 1 5
Tim Buckley, 28, 1975, singer-songwriter, accidental heroin o.d. b 1 0 4 5
Jimmy McCulloch, 26, 1979, former Wings guitarist, drugs 3 2 1 6
Ross Bagdasarian, 52, 1972, Chipmunks creator and multivocalist, natural causes. 3 0 4 7
Billy Murcia, New York Dolls drummer, age unknown, 1972, drugs 3 3 1 7
Lowell George, 34, former leader of Little Feat, drugs. 4 2 1 7
Mike Patto, 36, 1979, former Spooky Tooth, Boxer, and Patto vocalist, throat cancer. 2 1 4 7
Gene Davis, 58, 1970, Fats Domino band member, car crash. 1 1 6 8
Terry Kath, 31, 1978, Chicago guitarist, Russian roulette. c 1 1 6 8
Bill Chase, 39, 1974, leader of Chase, “jazz-rock” band the members of which wore long-hair wigs, plane crash. d 0 0 8 8
Van McCoy, producer, songwriter, and solo artist (“The Hustle”),
age unknown, 1979, natural causes.
3 1 4 8
Phil Reed, age unknown, 1976, Flo and Eddie guitarist, probable suicide in leap from hotel window. e 1 1 7 9
Don Robey, 71, 1974, head of r&b and gospel labels Duke and Peacock, natural causes. f 8 0 1 9
Ron “Pig Pen” McKernan, 27, 1973, Grateful Dead organist and vocalist, cirrhosis. 3 1 5 9
Cass Elliott, 32, 1974, former Mamas and the Papas vocalist, choked to death on sandwich, inhaled vomit. 3 1 5 9
Stacy Sutherland, 31, 1978, former 13th Floor Elevators guitarist, shot to death. 3 0 7 10
Charlie “The Redman” Freeman, 31, 1973, legendary Memphis rocker (see Stanley Booth’s “Blues for the Redman”) and Dixie Flyers guitarist, drug and alcohol abuse. 5 3 2 10
People’s Temple Band, 1978, suicide/murder, in concert, with audience, by cyanide. 1 1 8 10
Pete Ham, 28, 1975, former Badfinger singer, suicide by hanging. 2 0 8 10
Donny Hathaway, 39, 1979, songwriter, singer and piano player, defenestration. 2 2 7 11
John Rostill, age unknown, 1974, former Shadows guitarist (not an original member), electrocuted in studio by guitar. 1 1 9 11
Bobby Darin, 37, 1974, heart failure during surgery. 5 1 5 11
Mal Evans, 40, 1976, “Sixth Beatle” (road manager), shot to death by Los Angeles police (“justifiable homicide”) while preparing memoirs. g 3 1 7 11
Billy Stewart, 32, 1970; vocalist (“Summertime”), car crash. 3 2 6 11
Tom Wilson, 47, 1978, former CBS producer (“Like a Rolling Stone,” “rock” version of “Sounds of Silence,” etc.), heart attack. h 6 1 4 11
Chris Bell, 27, 1979, of Big Star, car crash. 3 2 6 11
Rick Garberson, age unknown, 1979, Bizzaros drummer, carbon monoxide poisoning. 3 3 5 11
Clarence White, 29, 1973, former Byrds and Burrito Brothers guitarist, car crash. 3 3 6 12
Graham Bond, 37, 1974, legendary British bandleader, later with Ginger Baker’s Air Force, fell or threw self under subway train. 4 1 7 12
Pete Meader, 35, 1978, first manager of the Who, Mod crusader and philosopher, pill o.d. probable suicide. i 4 0 8 12
Paul Kossoff, 25, 1976, former Free and Back Street Crawler guitarist, heart and kidney failure. j 3 2 8 13
Nick Drake, 26, 1974 singer-songwriter, accidental overdose of Elavil. (PC and FC ratings by Ed Ward.) 4 5 4 13
Peter Laughner, 24, 1977, Pere Ubu founder, alcoholism. 5 5 3 13
Florence Ballard, 32, 1972, former member of the Supremes, coronary thrombosis while on welfare. 6 0 7 13
Danny Whitten, 29, 1972, Crazy Horse guitarist, heroin. 7 5 4 13
Junior Parker, 44, 1971, r&b pioneer (“Mystery Train,” “Feelin’ Good,” “Driving Wheel”) heart. 7 2 4 13
Rory Storm, 32, 1972, former leader of the Hurricanes, Ringo Starr’s pre-Beatles band, double suicide with mother. k 3 0 10 13
Jim Croce, 30, 1973, plane crash. 3 3 8 14
Robbie McIntosh, 24, 1974, Average White Band drummer, heroin o.d. at the hands of another, manslaughter conviction obtained. l 3 3 8 14
Freddy King, 42, 1976, bluesman (“Hideaway”), heart and ulcers. 6 4 4 14
Jimmy Reed, 50, 1976, r&b legend, natural causes with alcohol abuse. 8 1 5 14
Ray Jackson, 31, 1972, Stax songwriter (author of “If Loving You Is Wrong”), producer, and piano player. 5 4 5 14
Berry Oakley, 24, 1972, Allman Brothers Band bassist, motorcycle crash. m 4 3 7 14
Bobby Ramirez, 23, 1970, White Trash drummer, beaten to death in Chicago bar because of his long hair. 2 2 10 14
Slim Harpo, 45, 1979, r&b singer (“Baby, Scratch My Back”), heart attack. 6 4 4 14
Lowman Pauling, age unknown, 1973, former leader, guitarist, and writer (“Dedicated to the One I Love”) of the “5” Royales, natural causes presumed. 8 2 4 14
Marc Bolan, 29, 1977, former leader of Tyrannosaurus Rex, later T. Rex, car crash. 5 3 6 14
Les Harvey, 23 or 25, 1972, Stone the Crows guitarist, electrocuted onstage by microphone. 2 3 10 15
Al Wilson, 27, 1970, Canned Heat singer and writer (“On the Road Again,” “Going Up the Country”), probable suicide by sleeping pills. 7 3 5 15
Keith Relf, 33, 1976, former Yardbirds lead singer, electrocuted by guitar at home. 7 0 9 16
Phil Ochs, 35, 1976, suicide by hanging. 5 3 8 16
Cassie Gaines, 29, 1977, Lynyrd Skynyrd backing vocalist, plane crash. 3 5 8 16
George Goldner, 52, 1970, founding rock producer (Crows, Frankie Lymon, Chantels, Red Bird label), heart. 10 2 4 16
Tammi Terrell, 24, 1970, Motown vocalist solo and with Marvin Gaye, death officially attributed to brain tumor. n 6 0 4/10 10/16
John Ritchie (Sid Vicious), 21, 1979, former Sex Pistols bassist, death attributed to heroin o.d. o 5 1 1/10 7/16
Keith Moon, 31, 1978, Who drummer, accidental overdose of sedatives. 10 3 4 17
Jim Morrison, 27, 1971, Doors lead singer, “drowned in bathtub in Paris.” p 7 4 6 17
King Curtis, 37, 1971, stabbed to death. 6 4 7 17
Clyde McPhatter, 38, 1972, former lead vocalist of the Dominoes and Drifters, solo performer, liver, kidney, and heart disease with alcoholism. 10 2 5 17
Steve Gaines, 28, 1977, Lynyrd Skynyrd guitarist, plane crash. 4 6 8 18
Janis Joplin, 27, 1970, heroin o.d. 10 7 1 18
Sandy Denny, 31, 1978, former Fairport Convention and Fotheringay lead vocalist (also guitar and drums), cerebral hemorrhage after fall downstairs. q 9 5 6 20
Al Jackson, Jr., 39, Hi and former Stax drummer, shot to death 8 6 7 21
Gram Parsons, 27, 1973, country-rock pioneer (International Submarine Band, Flying Burrito Brothers), drugs. r 7 7 7 21
Paul Williams, 34, 1973, former Temptations vocalist, shot to death. s 8 3 8/10 19/21
Elvis Presley, 42, 1977, multiple drug abuse after lifetime of professed clean living. t 10 7 5 22
Duane Allman, 24, 1971, sessionman and Allman Brothers Band guitarist, motorcycle crash. 9 8 6 23
Ronnie Van Zant, 28, 1977, Lynyrd Skynyrd lead vocalist and writer, plane crash. 6 9 8 25
Jimi Hendrix, 24, 1970, inhalation of vomit after use of sedatives, complications due to poor emergency treatment. 10 10 5 25

Thus, rock death in the ’70s. If no one matched the all-time scores of Buddy Holly (10-8-8) or Sam Cooke (10-9-8), there was at least no dearth of attempts. Rock death made the decade what it was: without plenty of nonsurvivors as a yardstick, survivors and their chroniclers (for, after all, when one praises another as “a survivor,” the praise rebounds upon oneself) would have no standard against which to measure themselves. It shows no disrespect to those who are gone, then, to give ourselves a little pat on the back for having outlasted them; by so doing, we help keep them dead.

a. One M point added for oddity.

b. Involuntary manslaughter conviction obtained; three M points added.

c. As the means to the very first rock death, that of Johnny Ace in 1954 (see Don Robey), Russian roulette is worth eight M points. As Kath’s questionable rock status had the effect of demythicizing the act, however, he is docked two points.

d. Though, as with Terry Kath, Chase’s questionable rock status has the effect of diminishing the overall impact of the plane crash rock death, and would thus warrant a two-point reduction in the M score, he has been awarded two M points for appropriateness, which make up the difference: the plane that did him in was making a Vegas run.

e. First known instance of musician-as-TV-set rock death.

f. It has long been rumored that rather than shooting himself while playing Russian roulette, Johnny Ace was in fact shot by Robey. Were this provable, it would affect Robey’s score, though it has been impossible to determine in precisely what manner. It should be noted that while death by natural causes before the age of 70 is worth four M points, it is worth one M point thereafter.

g. Two PC points added for Beatle association.

h. Two PC points added for Dylan association.

i. Two M points added for appropriateness, given centrality of pills to Mod lifestyle.

j. Died once previously: in 1975, but was revived after 35 minutes. Four M points added for necrophilia.

k. Two PC points added for Beatle association.

l. Two M points added for Cher involvement.

m. One M. point added for augmentation of minor tradition of Allman Brothers rock death, which began the previous year.

n. According to widespread belief, Terrell’s brain damage really resulted from a beating by one of any number of famous entertainment figures. Deduct six M points for disbelief in this explanation.

o. Ritchie/Vicious’s death is rumored to have resulted from a hot shot, i.e. murder. Deduct nine M points for disbelief in latter explanation.

p. Should it be established that, as has long been rumored, Morrison is still alive, he would either gain four or lose six M points, but since it’s impossible to determine which, these factors have not been taken into account.

q. Two M points added for uniqueness.

r. Body stolen and burned in desert. Add six M points for melodrama.

s. Add two M points for belief in Mob involvement.

t. Four M points added for shock value.

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Patti Smith Exposes Herself

The first question about Horses, Patti Smith’s debut album, might be called the Janis question — it comes up whenever a particularly exciting performer has fashioned a distinctive style, attracted a fierce public following, and then steps into a studio for the first time. Either the style informs the record, or the process of making a record causes the performer to alter the style, the result being, more often than not, a garish parody that is forced, hysterical, or both. In that case, the record can be counted on to provide a spurious, instant satisfaction; about a month later, it drops dead. Cheap thrills.

What has happened in Patti Smith’s case is something else again. She had made an authentic record that is in no way merely a transcript once-removed of her live show. The record not only captures Smith whole, it offers shadows, perspectives, and shadings that few of her fans could have caught before. The band has improved enormously (especially Lenny Kaye, who as a rhythm guitarist carries the group); the sound Smith has been working out over the past few months is no different than it has been, simply much stronger and more pointed. John Cale’s production is evident only when you think about how easily someone else could have botched this job. Cale is anonymous, the creator of the album only in the sense that he presumably created the psychological space in which it was possible perhaps, obvious, for Smith and her band to get their music out of their heads onto tape. The music is thin, clean, and brittle: good 1964 rock and roll (see the “Nuggets” collection Kaye produced for Elektra) with a ’70s gloss. It’s what they wanted, one assumes, but not necessarily what anyone but Cale would have known how to get them. One thing that does not come cheap these days is convincing primitivism.

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But if the disc captures Smith, it also exposes her. Those new shadows and perspectives that come off the record add power to her music, but they also, after a few listenings, begin to undermine its incantatory momentum. The concepts that lie behind Smith’s performance — her version of rock and roll raves, the New York avant-garde, surrealist imagery and aesthetic strategy, the beatnik hipster pose, the dark night of the street punk soul, and so on — emerge more clearly with each playing, until they turn into shtick.

Which is to say that after a time one hears points of reference more clearly than a point of view. The brutal, physical details of the self-mutilation in Smith’s most ambitious number, “Horses,” take one right back to the terminal violence best represented by Buñuel and Dali’s “Un Chien Andalou” — you might even think that on some level the horses of the title are the same horses that were stuffed into Dali’s piano. But the sheer surrealistic classicism of Smith’s violence song — after a bit of it seems like a matter of artistic formality — finally makes one doubt that Smith has really thought about why Buñuel centered his film around a shot of himself holding a razor over a women’s eye and an immediately following shot of the eye sliced open; if that was a tradition Smith is trying to understand or a posture she wants to imitate.

For Smith’s posture ultimately seems an end in itself. The success of the album in putting Smith across isolates what she is putting across — raising, and begging, questions of depth, substance, and the like. If the concepts, sources, and references in her lyrics and in her singing overwhelm the music, and the singing as singing, then, if her record shrinks over the next month or so, it will not be because the music has diminished in power, as one keeps playing the record, as happens when a style is forced; it will be because her concepts wore out. If you’re going to mess around with the kind of stuff Buñuel, Dali, and Rimbaud were putting out, you have to come up with a lot more than an homage.

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That said, there is much on Horses that gets home free. “Gloria” takes the listener past its hopelessly tough-chick spoken intro into a realm that shows Patti Smith at her best, all fury and desire. The double-tracked chants and vocals on “Horses,” where Smith sounds with no self-con­sciousness like two very different people telling very different stories, are hypnotic. The stron­gest piece on Horses, though, is “Free Money,” a nice, straightfor­ward rock and roll song about someone with nothing who wants everything. Here, it all comes to­gether: Smith as a writer, singer, poetry reader; and the musicians playing for their lives. The cut opens with Kaye chording lightly, all understated menace, remind­ing one perhaps of the way Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young opened “Southern Man.” Then Smith drives the band forward, the pace picks up, and the music takes shape somewhere between the sound of the early Stones and the one-time-only Hackamore Brick. Smith soars, as she does nowhere else on the album, till the momentum is unbreakable, and then pulls out like a pilot buzzing the house of her ex-lover.

I love “Free Money,” and I have no doubt I always will. The rest of the album is attractive, but it breaks too easily into its parts under the attention it demands. It seems, in the end, an “art statement,” which is to say, more a comment on an aesthetic than an aesthetic in action. That, of course, may come.

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Real Life Rock Top 10: Special Protest Edition!

1. Algiers, “Cleveland,” from The Underside of Power (Matador)

The band originated in Atlanta; on its second album everything is inflamed, and “Cleveland” opens in a storm of noise, one made up as much by distant voices as weather. Inside the storm is the late gospel singer James Cleveland, singing “Peace Be Still.” He’s like a mountain; he’s one person the song is named for. His voice is big, commanding, and when Algiers’ Franklin Fisher takes the song it’s hard to tell where one voice leaves off and the other begins. There’s no sense of one person passing some greater song to another. The voice is everything: huge, flailing, blocked, crashing through all barriers. It’s like Paul Robeson who still has all his old Clash albums.

In this maelstrom — the pieces of it so loud and unstable there’s no center — you might think of Tamir Rice, the twelve-year-old shot to death by a white police officer in a Cleveland park in 2014. His name isn’t mentioned, but he’s invoked by Fisher as he begins to sing: “I never saw your face/But I can tell you’re there.”

“We’re coming back,” insists the chorus. Two and a half minutes into the song, sounds of people crying, wailing, sounds of fear, of separation, of death, seem to have replaced whatever instruments or machines are making the fundamental noise, but in fact they have only joined it — and Fisher rides over the clamor like some kind of judge. “It’s been the same evil power since in ’63,” he says cryptically. Names begin to flash up, as if they’re being chiseled into the statue of the song. Some you might recognize, others you almost certainly won’t, but every one is that of a black American whose death was written off as suicide or overdose, sometimes in jail, whether their families feared murder and a cover-up or not.

These are people, Algiers are saying, who need to be memorialized in a song this big, this good — so that after ten, twenty, a hundred years, when they and the song too have been completely forgotten, “Cleveland” will be found again. People will be attracted to it, to the terror in it, the refusal, the life. They won’t know the referents in the words, and they won’t need to, but they will want to know everything about the song, to understand why it’s so powerful, so they will try to find out what it is, where it came from, and who the people whose names appear actually were. Who was Sandra Bland? Who was Andre Jones? Who was Roosevelt Pernell? People will, in their way, want to join this community of the dead, because a community of the dead can also be a community of the future.

2. Shannon McArdle, “Country Music,” from A Touch of Class (Shandelion)

If you’d read Michael Robbins’s poem in the New Yorker in 2014, you might not have known that a modest, painfully nostalgic guitar solo was already running between the lines. McArdle, once of the Mendoza Line, erases Robbins’s sardonic loser’s digs (bless me, he says to Jesus, “I’ll make us both famous”) as if every thought in the song is one she’s had a thousand times before.

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3–4. Jim Dooley, Red Set: A History of Gang of Four (Repeater), and Cam Cobb, What’s Big and Purple and Lives in the Ocean? The Moby Grape Story (Jawbone) 

 The Dooley takes up 432 pages, features no less than three pictures of the author posing with his subjects, two of the shots so dark the figures could be almost anybody, and no index. It’s interesting. The Cobb is an A+ production. Not only is there an index, the sixteen pages of well-printed black-and-white and color illustrations are balanced in an excellent design. It’s also stupefying. Cobb imagines Moby Grape bassist Bob Mosley rising, along with the other members of the once-great, now-fallen band — the finest band to emerge from the San Francisco Sound, only to implode the night of the release party for its first album in 1967 — to fly to New York for a reunion session four years later: Four years that feel like forty. It’s first-class:

He nods at the bartender.

“What’ll it be?” the bartender asks.

“A beer.”

“What kind?”

“Any kind. I don’t care.”

The bartender removes a bottle, opens it, and pours the beer into a glass.

“Here,” he says, handing the glass to the man with blond hair.

The traveler raises his glass. ‘Thanks,” he says, before taking a gulp.

There’s a brief silence.

“I’m John Smith,” the bartender says, holding out his hand.

“Bob Mosley,” the traveler replies.  

“Is this your first time heading to New York?” the bartender asks…

5. Deaf Wish, Lithium Zion (Sub Pop)

From Melbourne, they have the courage of their convictions: that early Sonic Youth was it. The sound is compressed, claustrophobic, as if the studio had a ceiling that lowered as the songs were played.

6. Barbara Dane and the Chambers Brothers, “It Isn’t Nice” (1966), from Hot Jazz, Cool Blues & Hard Hitting Songs (Smithsonian Folkways) 

I heard this on the radio a few months ago. I couldn’t imagine what it was: some kind of doo-wop gospel protest song? I called the radio station. The DJ said it was Barbara Dane. I remembered her from anti-war rallies in Berkeley in the Sixties: humorless, hortatory, giving speeches in songs. This turned out to have been written in 1964 by the Berkeley folk singer Malvina Reynolds, sparked by the Sheraton Palace Hotel sit-in that year — part of a wave of occupations attacking racist hiring practices that also targeted auto dealers and the Bank of America. The first lines of the song start right in the lobby: “It isn’t nice, to block the doorways/It isn’t nice, to go to jail/There are nicer ways to do it/But the nice ways always fail” — Reynolds had been part of the action, which didn’t fail.

The song is music before it’s anything else. It opens with a lovely, evocative folk guitar figure by Willie Chambers, one of the four who began in Mississippi in the early fifties; by 1965 they were singing backup on an early version of Bob Dylan’s “Tombstone Blues,” and in 1968 would take over the new FM rock radio format with the furiously authoritative eleven-minute “Time Has Come Today.” Dane is anonymous and forthright: She means to get it across that what she’s advocating isn’t obvious, that the argument the song is making is a choice. And then she begins to wail, not like a jazz or blues singer, not like a gospel singer, but like Dion in “Lovers Who Wander.” You can tell she isn’t entirely comfortable with the style, and that’s what gives her performance its pathos — this is another choice, another struggle. It moved me: the way it takes all of Dane’s concentration to let go, to let her vowels fragment as she sings the word mind in “If that’s freedom’s price/We don’t mind,” and she somehow also sings over it at the same time. More than half a century later, the performance can put you on the spot: wondering what the music is, wondering where you are in the song.

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7. Neko Case, Hell-on (Anti-) 

When I last saw her with the New Pornographers she never seemed to get a purchase on a song, and she doesn’t come close here.

8. James Williamson, “Last Night a Record Changed My Life,” Mojo  (July)

The founding Stooges guitarist is a teenager, having trouble at home, and his West Point father hates rock ’n’ roll, so his mother sends him to an Army psychiatrist, who hospitalizes him; when he shows another patient his switchblade he ends up in the psych ward. He asks his mother to bring him his Bob Dylan albums. “So here I am,” he remembers, “and I laid that needle down on The Times They Are A-Changin’ and you could just see the horror, and the unsettling effect that it had on the people in there, until eventually they wouldn’t let me play it anymore! That sort of made it crystal clear to me about the impact of this guy, and how much that voice and that message would polarise people, and unify people in my age group.”

9. The Beat, Here We Go Love (Here We Go/Megaforce) 

Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger broke up the band in 1983; now they both lead their own versions. Here Wakeling still reaches for what he can’t quite grasp, and ends up with more than most people even want. There’s nothing here to match “Save It for Later,” but a whole album of “Tenderness” is nothing to apologize for. With “The Love You Give” you hear the beat the group named itself for; “If Killing Worked” (“It would have worked by now”), a dance of flow and release, gives a special pleasure as you wait for the horns you just know are coming in, almost right now.

10. Pussy Riot, “Policeman Enters the Game,” World Cup Finals, Moscow (July 15)

With France leading Croatia 2-1, four members of the performance collective — three women, one man — ran onto the field. Each was dressed as a police officer: the late poet Dimitry Prigov’s “heavenly policeman,” the “carrier of the heavenly nationhood.” They had issued a manifesto stating the reasons and the purposes of their action, and a list of demands, starting with “Let all political prisoners free” and ending with “Turn the earthly policeman” — who “imprisons people for ‘reposts’ and ‘likes’ ” and “enters the game not caring about the rules” and “breaks our world apart” — “into the heavenly policeman.” Veronika Nikulshina and Kylian Mbappe of France high-fived with both hands: “I think I brought luck to his team,” she said later.

A furious Croatian dragged Pyotr Verzilov off the field; his team lost 4-2. A video of the interrogation that followed — all four were sentenced to fifteen days in jail — featured the displacing drama of an unseen cop shouting at Verzilov and one of the women, who looked more like real police than he sounded, as he wished out loud “that it was 1937,” when he could have taken them to the basement and had them shot. Someone will make up a World Cup trading card of Nikulshina and Mbappe touching hands and they’ll both carry it in their wallets the rest of their lives, with the man who stood in front of tanks after the Tiananmen Square massacre on the back.

Thanks to Brian Schill