September 11, 2007
Into The Abyss
It sounded like a lot of fun wrecking the world.
It felt like freedom.
Greil Marcus: Lipstick Traces
It is probably time to look a little into Mr. Marcus’ antecedents. He was born in the summer of 1945 between VE and VJ day as he tells us. He was ten, then, in 1954-55 when Rock and Roll came into existence. He doesn’t seem to imply that he was particularly interested in records in the next decade that would have made him twenty in 1964-65. He would have been 15 to 20 from 1960-65 during which time he would have listened to the radio. He also seems to have been in Philadelphia at some time during that period when he attended a Bob Dylan concert. I haven’t read yet where he mentioned that he had a record collection during that period. He doesn’t seem to recall much from memory before 1965 with the possible exception of Bob Dylan.
One is forced to conclude then that most if not all his record lore was acquired between his twentieth and thirtieth years from 1965 to 1974-75. He began his career as a critic in 1966 when he went to work for Rolling Stone. He left that post a year later to write for Creem Magazine. His first book Mystery Train was published in 1975 so he should have acquired his lore over maybe eight years.
He should have been a sophomore in ’64 which means he should have graduated in’66 so his real record education would have been from ’66 to ’74. Not much time for someone posing as an expert in ’75.
He says he was born in San Francisco moving into Menlo Park in 1955 so that he went to Menlo Park-Atherton High. The area is one of the ritziest in the Bay Area. Atherton is top of the line for the Bay so his step-father must have been doing pretty well. In other words Mr. Marcus is a rich kid. I haven’t read exactly where he lived between 1948 when his mother remarried and 1955.
At any rate he comes from a very well to do background. After graduating from MPA he went over to Berkeley to attend UC. He was there for the whole Free Speech brouhaha. At some time after graduation from UC he returned to Berkeley to live which is his home base at the present time.
At the time he wrote Mystery Train I would question the depth and breadth of his knowledge.
He published Mystery Train at the last possible moment such a book could be published. From ’66 to ’75 those of us concerned with records were convinced that something monumental and earth shaking was happening. Wonderful theories of the music’s importance were spun of which Mystery Train is one. I think it probable that Mr. Marcus saw a string of such books rolling off his pen. A funny thing happened on the way to the forum however. Disco and Punk blew up the Rock monolith about the same year destroying the grandiose notions we were all believing in. All of a sudden as Mr. Marcus points out confidence was destroyed and survival became the issue. Mr. Marcus and his plans were thrown for a loop.
Not until 1989 did he find another tack to try to get back on track. In that year he published Lipstick Traces. Feeling that his first career had been blown out of the water by Punk he paid homage to it by concentrating on Johnny Rotten and the Sex Pistols. Broadening out some he incorporated the history of what he considered various Dada movements. His concern with Dada had found expression in Mystery Train so it was only necessary to relate Dada to Punk with which he had no trouble.
Since ’89 he has published a continuous series of books, the most recent being The Shape Of Things To Come.
I hesitate to do this but I feel the reader should know something of my credentials to give some basis for judging my criticism and analysis.
I’m about seven years older than Mr. Marcus having been born in 1938. I was therefore sixteen in 1954 which is more or less the cut off date for the beginning of Rock and Roll.
I grew up in Saginaw, Michigan. We were apparently out of the mainstream of Rock development. Even though we had a fairly large Black population there was no Rhythm And Blues or Black music on the local radio. There were only traditional music shows on radio in 1954 when Top Forty was in embryo. By ’55 and ’56 we had full fledged Top 40 and what a blast it was.
With Top 40 came Black artists like Bill Doggett, Fats Domino and Little Richard but they were a Top 40 sound whether they called it Rhythm And Blues or not. One could tune into Detroit for Black records but I didn’t know anyone who did. I tuned in a couple times but Black music per se repelled me.
I was in the class of ’56. The class of ’55 knew nothing of Rock and Roll at the time and very little of Top 40 radio. I was in a distinct minority in the class of ’56 who listened to Rock at all. The class of ’57 was the first class attuned to the music.
As to first R & R records, who knows? The early and mid-fifties were a blend of musics so I heard a fair amount of Swing. Anyone who traces Rock and Roll directly to Swing is dreaming. I know Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa and the Swing drummers. None of them had the R&R feel. Swing rhythm sections were miniscule compared to Rock which to my mind is a singer, lead guitar and a two or three piece rhythm section. Very faint resemblance to Swing.
When it became financially impossible for Big Band to survive I suppose the instrumental quartet was the next logical step which led to the Big Beat. Neither Elvis nor Sun had a Big Beat. He had rhythm but no beat; he was essentially a hillbilly singer doing fast songs which is how everyone thought of him. That’s what I heard and none of the people I knew would listen to him because he was a hillbilly. As far as I’m concerned the Big Beat was developed by Lonnie Donegan and that is where the English Beat groups come from. Lonnie’s early stuff was as much Rock as anything else although he was primarily a terrific Folk and Blues singers. Unparalleled. He was as good as Elvis but somewhat more traditional sounding than Presley. Elvis could really move you.
Elvis was virtually unknown in Saginaw before Heartbreak Hotel. I missed out on the Sun records by a day. The record store had returned them the day before I got there so I have all RCAs. I never knew anyone else who had heard of Elvis between the time I bought my 45s and Heartbreak Hotel.
I never thought of Elvis as a Rock and Roller on those early records. There really was no Rock and Roll except for Bill Haley And The Comets and that stuff was really leadfooted. I didn’t really enjoy Rock Around The Clock and I never bought it. Elvis was just a hillbilly cat who could really sing a song. I knew from reading the labels that Arthur Crudup wrote That’s All Right Mama but that meant nothing to me. Who ever heard of Arthur Crudup?
I don’t understand why I don’t have Sun Presleys as I bought every Sun record as it came out. I had to have them special ordered as nobody wanted them but I was very familiar with the Sun sound. Not impossibly Sam Phillips had as much to do with Rock and Roll as anyone because all the records he produced had that forward leaning scudding way. You could have substituted Elvis for Johnny Cash on Get Rhythm and there wouldn’t have been much difference.
When Elvis left Sun his production values changed with the sound becoming flat footed and vertical rather than forward leaning. Elvis was always Elvis for me but I never had the incentive to buy his RCA produced 45s.
Some may say the music died with Buddy Holly’s plane crash but that is a gross exaggeration. Holly’s career was virtually over by February ’59. He was singing solo and fading fast. The Big Bopper was a no one who had one trash talking record while Richie Valens was as close to a zero as you can get.
Elvis was kept alive by RCA during his Army years but Little Richard was finished after Heebie Jeebies and Jerry Lee’s Rock career was stalled. High School Confidential was so-so. Jerry Lee’s marriage to his cousin may have put him in bad odor in some quarters but that was a fishing expedition to discredit him. Might have hurt his personal appearances but not his record sales, they were already down. To my mind Duane Eddy came out with Rebel Rouser on the heel of the plane crash and Rock and Roll bounced right along without missing a beat. Apparently not too many people remember the effect of Eddy and Rebel Rouser but it was the second kick in the pants after Presley. Kept us all going.
The big problem for Rock and Roll was Organized Crime. The Mafia and Chicago Outfit controlled Juke boxes. Those idiots determined that only their acts got on the Juke boxes. If you want a good representation of what the record industry was like check out the best Rock and Roll movie ever made- The Girl Can’t Help It. If you watch closely and pay attention you are being told exactly how it was.
An Outfit figure greatly resembling Al Capone, although the time period was long after Capone, controls the Juke boxes for the Outfit. That means the Juke boxes at least West of the Appalachians to the Coast. The Juke boxes in Saginaw were stocked by the Outfit that for all practical purposes controlled the town. All towns.
Girl Can’t Help It stars Jayne Mansfield and Tommy Ewell. Mansfield is the Mafia figure’s moll. He wants to make her a record star which he figures he can do because he controls the Juke boxes. All of ’em. But the Girl Can’t Sing. The producers are at their wits ends because they have to do something with her. They accidentally discover that she has this high pitched squeal. So, a la Tequila in which periodically the instrumental music stops and someone announces ‘Tequila’, at certain points in the record the music stops and Mansfield squeals. This is so captivating the record does become a hit.
Now, the movie highlights several Mafia acts like Teddy Randazzo and the Gum Drops that would never draw anyone into the theatres. Teddy didn’t even have an attractive high pitched squeal to go along with his great accordion playing. But as is usual with non-record types the belief is that if you can expose non-talent acts to enough people they will sell. So the Outfit did understand they needed some draws to get people in to expose the non-talent. Who are you going to go to? Well, Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran, Little Richard for starters. I went because of Gene Vincent.
The movie was released in ’58 so not many of us had ever actually seen any of these guys. The Mob had their draws but they wanted to showcase the Italian acts which they did. Gene Vincent was shot through the window of a recording studio for about half of Be Bop A Lula; Eddie Cochran did his Twenty Flight Rock shot off a TV set and Little Richard was shot through a crowd in a club about fifty feet away.
As I say if you pay attention you can get a very good idea of what was going on. Mansfield and Ewell were great but they were at the terminal point of their careers.
The early sixties were pretty duddy as far as I was concerned, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I was right, so I went back to my true love, Country and Western. As I noted in Part One I was drawn back into pop by my brother-in -law. As I said I then graduated from college in ’66 going up to Oregon from the Bay Area. It was there in ’67 that I opened a record store. From ’67 to ’80 I was a decent sized player in the record business. I thought I heard everything but I am always amazed at the records for which I have no recollection even seeing.
I was there when the first Rolling Stone came out. I don’t know where the magazine sold but it wasn’t Oregon. Pretty boring actually. Got worse as time went on and then it got Political.
I quit listening to records in 1980 when I closed my record store. Punk was too ridiculous to waste your time on although I do have two or three Disco records I value. Well, Rock and Roll was great while it lasted but it really did die in ’75. Not only Punk and Disco but the untalented Epigone came along. The splitting out of Heavy Metal as a genre didn’t help either. God! I know how Marcus felt. Everything just crashed to the ground.
Mr. Marcus’ themes and direction remain the same from Mystery Train to The Shape Of Things To Come. His attitudes are controlled by his dual Israeli and American passports: his Semitism and anti-Semitism. These two citizenships coincide in his psyche with his twin racial concerns. The Israeli citizenship as Semitism and his American citizenship with anti-Semitism. Naturally his Israeli Semitism takes precedence in his loyalty over his American anti-Semitism. Americans are Nazis in his mind. As with Adam in the Garden of Paradise and God, the twin concepts exist side by side in his mind with Adam representing Semitism and God anti-Semitism. Thus his Jewish/Adamic/Israeli identity represents his absolute purity in his mind while America/God represent his foul or Devil side. He and his fellow Jews think that by trashing the Garden, Europe, Palestine, America or wherever they happen to reside that their ‘purity’ will triumph and they will be as they represent themselves: a Holy People suited to govern mankind, Judge-Penitents. That is what the eighteenth century messiah, Jacob Frank, meant by saying that if the Jews commited all the evil in their minds then this ‘purity’ will shine to light the way for the peoples. You don’t have to be Freud to know it ain’t going to work. Thus Mr. Marcus’ subliminal message is all good comes from Jewish musicians and all evil from American musicians. The Jewish Bob Dylan becomes his ultimate hero taking precedence over the American anti-hero, Elvis Presley.
That’s why in Lipstick Traces he juxtaposes the anti-hero Presley and the Jewish hero Isidore Isou.
Mr. Marcus scatters several clues throughout his work to hint at what he’s attempting. He mentions John Ford’s movie The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence and one of its morals a couple times concentrating on the movie’s stated notion that once an event becomes legendary even though the received version may be untrue people prefer the myth to the fact. There may be some truth to the notion although as Mr. Marcus explores the counter notion of detournement he gives us the means to strip such an ingrained notion from the story and turn it in any direction we want. Thus in the twenties the Judaeo-Communists on the one hand debunked American heroes and myths while at the same time detourning them so that Jefferson and Lincoln become founding members of Communism as Communism in turn becomes Twentieth Century Americanism. A neat trick that didn’t quite work.
Actually the two practices denote the transition from one religion to another which also lays bare Mr. Marcus’ intent. Thus in the first few centuries of the Piscean Age the Catholic Church detourned ancient Taurian and Arien religious sites by stripping them of their pagan connotations replacing the meaning with little balloons containing Christian messages. Eventually they replaced Arien temples with Piscean churches.
Jack Finney’s 1950’s novel The Invasion Of The Body Snatchers describes the same thing in which aliens while maintaining exact replicas of the bodies they take over inform the minds with entirely different content. Finney understood detournement completely long before Guy Debord had it figured out.
That is exactly what the Jews, who are attempting to replace Christianity are doing. Mr. Marcus mentions Philip Roth’s The Plot To Destroy America approvingly. Of course Mr. Marcus and Roth are both Jewish. In Roth’s detournement of American history he portrays the Jewish rescue of the true America, which the Jews in their wisdom created, from the Weird Old Americans who are trying to twist the Promised Land into some Nazi hate filled paranoid perversion of what one is led to believe was the American paradise Jews had created.
Roth chooses to recklessly defame Charles Lindhberg, a great and true American, but that is what detournement is all about. Thus on the one hand Roth detournes ‘Weird Old American’ heroes into villains while at the same time creating the myth of the Jewish saviors a la Liberty Valence.
The Jews then become the men who shot Liberty Valence thus destroying the Weird Old America while bringing into existence this Jewish paradise we enjoy today. Shut your mouth, you anti-Semite.
Why Liberty Valence?
Well, Liberty is the opposite of collectivity or the Jewish Law. He represents the sort of ‘rugged individualism’ that threatened Jewish collectivity or subordination to the Mosaic Law. Valence means valour, courage or valiance. That is, a man who has what it takes to stand out against the crowd or Mosaic Law. I’m sure it was an unintended compliment. No one of the collectivity has what it takes to stand up against him, not even the hero of the collectivity, John Wayne.
The legend that is so hard to kill is that Jimmie Stewart shot Liberty Valance down in a fair and square man to man fight. Actually Wayne is the agent of the collectivity who bushwhacked Liberty from a dark alley, Wayne and his Negro servitor and alter ego who tossed his rifle to him.
So this is the secret message of Lipstick Traces creating a legend and detourning existing beliefs that run counter to those of the collectivity. For that reason the branch of academic history known as American Studies has been captured by Jews who stand up laughingly epatering the Americans, debunking and detourning as they go.
I see where Mr. Marcus and a yoyo by the name of Todd Gitlin are joining forces to epater the Americans together. Ought to be funny if you’ve got the right sense of humor.
All the seeds of Mr. Marcus later work are apparent in his 1975 Mystery Train. One should examine Mr. Marcus construction of Train carefully.
He examines six recording stars. Two of which he calls ancestors and four ‘Inheritors.’ The six are Harmonica Frank, Robert Johnson, Dylan/The Band, Sly Stone, Randy Newman and Elvis Presley.
Out of the period of 1950-75 Mr. Marcus chooses a very personal list of bands. One would call the list debateable but there’s not much to debate. Whether they are supposed to be important or influential isn’t clear. Apart from Presley none of them were overwhelming important or influential. Pink Floyd, Grateful Dead, the Doors? No, they aren’t on board Mr. Marcus’ Mystery Train. So, what do we have?
The list is bracketed by two White performers, Harmonica Frank and Elvis Presley. Robert Johnson and Sly Stone are Black. Dylan/The Band are Jewish and Canadian while Robbie Robertson is mentioned as having a Jewish father. Thus Dylan/The Band and Randy Newman are two Jewish outfits. Two Whites, two Blacks, two Jews. Obviously we have an agenda here.
The two ancestors are questionable. I may have a vague memory of having heard the name Harmonica Frank but the man influenced absolutely no one. Technically he is no ancestor. His only connection with, say, Elvis, is that both were produced by Sam Phillips at Sun records. In that sense Harmonica Frank may be representative of what Phillips as a producer was trying to do but that represents Phillips and not Harmonica Frank.
Thus when Phillips decided to produce Presley he used the same musical tenets or ‘ear.’ Elvis was very fortunate to have Phillips to hear his talent and draw him out. Without Phillips there would never have been an Elvis Presley other than this guy driving a truck.
As far as ‘White’ ancestors go Phillips would have been more appropriate than Frank. I suppose what I am saying is that I find Mr. Marcus either too shallow or too tendentious.
Mr. Marcus doesn’t use a Jewish ancestor but as a Black ancestor he chooses Robert Johnson. As he states there were no Robert Johnson recordings available for anyone to hear before the 1960 Columbia release. Huddie ‘Leadbelly’ Ledbettor would have been a much more influential ancestor. Not only had his recordings been continuously available but his songs formed a staple for Folk artists from the post-war years on. His Good Night Irene and Midnight Special were ten times more influential than anything Robert Johnson ever wrote, a hundred times…heck, a thousand times, more. Johnson’s songs began to appear by other artists only in late sixties.
Mr. Marcus’ enthusiasm for Johnson’s lyrics is absolutely inexplicable. He quotes the following as an example of Johnson’s genius:
Me and the devil, was walking side by side
Oooo, me and the devil was walking side by side.
I’m going to beat my woman until I get satisfied.
Pretty choice stuff, huh? I’m surprised the ladies haven’t boycotted both Johnson and Mr. Marcus’ Mystery Train.
Nevertheless his choice of Johnson seems arbitrary at the best and tendentious at the worst.
I presume he chose the Band because of their association with Bob Dylan. Mr. Marcus definitely sets Dylan up as the greatest of the era replacing Presley. This is patently ridiculous.
His final paragraph detournes Elvis in favor of Dylan. Bear in mind that in 1975 Elvis still had two years to live so Mr. Marcus may be understood to be addressing Presley indirectly:
All in all there is one remaining moment I want to see; One epiphany that would somehow bring his (Elvis’) 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.
That’s a pretty tale. As a detournement the kingof rock n’ roll passes the scepter to Dylan. While as a hypnotic suggestion to the living Elvis Mr. Marcus is attempting to bring his dream to come to pass. We’ll never know if it would have worked but it was the traditional Judaeo-Freudian method.
Thus the two sections on Harmonica Frank and Elvis are slurs on Mr. Marcus’ concept of The Weird Old America. That title of another of his books is itself a detournement of America.
For the last few years I have been wavering but after reading Mr. Marcus’ ideas on Dylan I have probably irrevocably turned against him. To write of the Band is to write of Dylan. Dylan would always have been Dylan but the Band would never have been anything without Dylan. The Band probably stands to Dylan as Presley does to Sam Phillips.
The first two Band LPs are the result of direct contact with Dylan in the sessions that resulted in the basement tapes. With the separation from Dylan the effect wore off with the Band returning to their R & R roots. At their peak they were no Doors or Led Zeppelin. Like Dylan I find them unlistenable today.
Mr. Marcus wrote a two or three hundred page essay on Dylan’s Like A Rolling Stone which he seems to consider the greatest song ever written. He perversely refuses to accept the song for what it is- a hymn to ingratitude. In the song Dylan clearly resents his dependence on Joan Baez for his early success. He, in fact, used her but now in his pride of success he spurns her from him- with his foot so to speak. A real ingrate as a matter of fact.
Mr. Marcus reproduces the lyrics in their entirety as a preface to the book. I’m not going to do the same here but Like A Rolling Stone is in a genre of Dylan songs that can be defined only as mocking or ‘hate songs.’ Along with Rolling Stone one can include Positively Fourth Street, Please, Crawl Out Your Window, Ballad Of A Thin Man, Desolation Row and any number of others. Sooner Or Later, One Of Us Must Know.
Again with Dylan the tone of his voice is more important than the words. For me I responded to the pain and anger in his voice that seemed to reflect my own experiences and which I interpreted in my own way. The same attitude would be reflected differently by the baby boomers born in the early fifties. As noted they came along at the time of Mystery Train’s writing to shatter Mr. Marcus immediate dream of a Rock And Roll Czardom.
One presumes that the song Mr. Marcus wanted Presley to sing in order to detourne himself in favor of Bob Dylan ‘with love in his heart and a laugh’ thus allowing one religious idol to replace another was ‘Like A Rolling Stone.’
Unfortunately due to Mr. Marcus’ interpretation I now see ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ as an actual hymn of hate scorning and mocking Joan Baez. Throughout Bob Dylan’s career he had the habit of purloining things of others…said the Joker to the Thief. In Minneapolis and Colorado he actually stole records from other people. His excuse was that he really needed them. In New york he lifted the arrangement of a song of Dave Von Ronk’s and recorded it without permission. He had a ‘good excuse’ for that too. He needed it.
Perhaps his greatest theft was of the career of Joan Baez. Baez out of a generous heart used her influence and reputation to gain acceptance for the caterwauling Dylan. He couldn’t admit this theft without exposing himself as an ingrate subject to the scorn of the Folk community of Greenwich Village. This may possibly be the secret meaning of Positively Fourth Street in which he seems to heap scorn on the whole Folk community.
Mr. Marcus is especially impressed with the disgustingly hateful lines:
Ain’t it hard
When you discover that
He really wasn’t
Where It’s at
After he took from you everything
He could steal?
How does it feel?
How does it feel to be on your own
No direction home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone.
Dylan has identified the person he is speaking to as ‘Miss Lowly’ who went to a fine school and here he says that he has stolen everything from her that he can steal and then he taunts her as though he had reduced her to his condition when he first arrived in New York City. ‘How does it feel to be on your own with no direction home like a complete unknown?’
Yes. It must have been terrifying for Dylan to arrive in New York City as a complete unknown with no understanding of how to get started, homeless and starving. Dylan solved his problem by scrounging lodging and his next meal. He just moved in on people, ate their food, read their books, listened to their records, picked their minds, stole from them everything he could steal and then turned his back on them. Cut them cold. Scorned them as in Positively Fourth St. Well, all right. OK. But I don’t find it as admirable as Mr. Marcus does. As I say I never really thought of Like A Rolling Stone deeply before reading Bob Dylan At The Crossroads. (Robert Johnson again. Is Mr. Marcus suggesting that Dylan sold his soul to the Devil?) but now that I have I am appalled at the coarseness of actually composing a song about your perfidy and advertising it to the world.
If Mr. Marcus had handed Presley the song saying this is going to be what you’ll sing next, Presley who had perfect musical sense would have said: ‘Not on your life, Baby Blue.’
No laugh and a shrug from the King.
After Dylan/The Band Mr. Marcus moves on to Sly Stone. Sly was not a major talent. He had a couple fair R&B songs bordering on open racism. Sinking rapidly beneath drugs Sly Stone rapidly sunk his career.
Moving next to Randy Newman I must confess that Mr. Marcus has lost me. Perhaps he is trying to help the career of a fellow Semite along. Got me. Newman’s songs were always repulsive to me and Mr. Marcus’ quotes merely make them more repellent. Gee, I wonder why Elvis never sang ‘Short People?’
And then of course we come to what Mr. Marcus intends as his piece de resistance of criticism, Elvis himself. This piece is a regular tear down job.
Mr. Marcus was a trifle too young during the late forties and first half of the fifties to understand the situation. During those years the musical culture was in the hands of Jews and Italians. New York’s Tin Pan Alley from the twenties on had controlled American popular music. The clubs in which artists performed were all mobbed up as all the artists were mobbed up will they nil they. Thus nobody got through who wasn’t thoroughly vetted.
On the fringes one had areas of Black musicians who were outside the scope of popular music hence not worried about. At the same time one had Hillbilly music that was so despised that proper Whites retched at the mere mention of it and that is no exaggeration. Concomitant with Hillbilly although culturally acceptable was Folk music. Postwar from 1946 to 1964 in my estimation Folk was the only listenable pop musical expression. Unfortunately Folk music was in the hands of the Reds making it culturally suspect.
During the twenties and thirties Tin Pan Alley songs were vital enough to satisfy the nation’s listening ear although there were those who complained about it. Whatever had worked for Tin Pan Alley between the wars the ethic had worn too thin between ’46 and ’54. The music was so godawful and stiff that few could listen to it especially the young. Into the Jewish vacuum stepped the Black and Hillbilly songwriters and performers. While Hank Williams may have slipped slightly over the line of pop his songs were welcomed with open arms by pop cover artists. At that time there was no shame in covering a song made popular by another artist, even as the original version was still moving up the charts.
A golden time was created for unvetted performers and songwriters to step into the vacuum. While Eddie Fisher, Ezio Pinza and Mario Lanza and a stable of Italian pop singers attempted to hold the Tin Pan Alley fort Black street singers were emerging as Doo Wop groups while in Memphis Sam Phillips was developing the distinctive Sun Sound of which Elvis was the cornerstone. Elvis and his songs were completely unvetted by Tin Pan Alley and the Mob. As far as I’m concerned Presley’s breakthrough was such a fortunate concatenation of circumstances as to be miraculous. There are few times when things work out so perfectly for all concerned from Sam Phillips to Elvis to Colonel Parker and RCA. While Elvis was the transcendant talent he was only a component in the Elvis Presley success story. He had the good sense to stick to singing while he had the good fortune to be associated with managers of talent, circumspection, genius and above average integrity. So rare as to be almost unbelievable.
Phillips brought the talent to the surface that anyone else would have overlooked. A shy retiring Elvis given the opportunity dug deep to release the inner singer to become a polished singer almost immediately- in fact immediately. All of his Sun singles are absolutely stunning. There was no reason not to be swept off your feet from the first note of That’s All Right Mama.
Elvis’ genius was that he handled songs in a perfect blend of hillbilly and pop. He may have used some songs written by Blacks but there was no Black singer that could possibly have made of those songs what Elvis did.
Greil Marcus, Guralnick and others seem to be of the opinion that something went wrong with Elvis. Nothing went wrong with Elvis; he had the perfect career from his first single to his death in 1977. He was unable to withstand the pressures of his unparalled success. Unable to move in public because of his fans he was virtually under house arrest. For crying out loud, the guy couldn’t even go to McDonald’s. On top of that he aroused the anger and enmity of the ‘greatest generation’, the Mob and if Mr. Marcus is any example, the Jews. I’m sure he had difficulty just staying alive.
His goal was the movies. Thus his singing style changed to fit the venue. As much as I loved the Sun Elvis there is no possible way he could have continued in the same vein and sustained popularity for twenty some odd years. The new Elvis of Heartbreak Hotel and the early RCA years lost me as a record buyer. Still, as Dr. Hook sang: Elvis, he’s a hero, he’s a superstar…. as a hero Elvis always retained my loyalty.
While the Army seemed a disaster, his tour of duty may have been fortuitous for his career. The Army allowed the excitement to abate even as anticipation increased but when he returned it was as a return with a different feel. His style once again changed from the early RCA years. Listening to those old Mario Lanza and Ezio Pinza records inspired him to sing operatic C&W. Rather startling to my ear but with sure musical sensibility it worked for Elvis.
And then his popularity was so immense that he was able to star in two to three movies a year with all of them being money makers. The songs may have been less than memorable but he had to reach a mass audience for which popular music allowed of no vocal eccentricities. His fan base was strong enough and his talent great enough to sustain his popularity through a couple dozen movies that were frequently scorned and mocked but as Mr. Marcus generously points out they offered something that set them apart.
As all things must his movie career passed its ethic and cannily realizing it Elvis moved on. Thus in 1968 he produced a special that catapulted him back to the top of the musical scene. Even Mr. Marcus was overwhelmed by the ’68 transition from movie star back to recording master.
Nor did Elvis stop there but went on to a musical triumph that dwarfed anything that had gone before it including Frank Sinatra’s whole career- that was the satellite transmission form Hawaii to the whole world, the entire planet, simultaneously. The whole world tuned in to Elvis at one time. The equivalent of several hundred Woodstocks and something that has never been equaled by any other performer or groups of performers.
So, what did go wrong? Elvis had an unimaginably perfect career. The tragedy is that the enormous pressures were too great for this amazingly centered performer. It took a lot to beat him down.
Now, Elvis had a popularity that Bob Dylan couldn’t even dream about. Dylan could sing cranky little songs of hatred and viciousness such as Like A Rolling Stone to the ‘abused, confused, misused strung out ones and worse’ but Elvis couldn’t sing such viciousness to a worldwide audience. Imagine Elvis Live from Hawaii singing to a mob of adoring women lines like this:
Gone to the finest school alright Miss Lowly but you know you only used to get
Juiced in it.
Nobody’s ever taught you to live out on the street
And now you’re gonna
Have to get
Used to it.
You say you never
With the mystery tramp but now you
He’s not selling any
As you stare into the vacuum
Of his eyes
Do you want to
Make a deal?
How does it feel?
How does it feel?
To be on your own
With no direction home
A complete unknown…
Pardon me, I’m laughing so hard at the image I’m falling out of my chair. Oops, there I go.
I’m back. Didn’t hurt myself.
So, anyway I consider Mr. Marcus’ whole critique so skewed as to be vitiated. It would take a whole lot of love in Elvis heart to make such a musical gaffe, blowing his career in one misguided song and then say: ‘I didn’t know what I had until I till I threw it all away.’ Sorry Greil, Bob Dylan is actually a minor talent. Let us not forget that he once opened a show for the Rolling Stones.
There was a long hiatus of fourteen years between Mystery Train and the appearance of Lipstick Traces in 1989. During that period one assumes that Mr. Marcus had ‘no direction home.’ How the elements that make up Lipstick Traces formed is open to conjecture. He attributes his direction to one John Rockwell on the dedication page. His style was also apparently heavily influenced by the Firesign Theatre hence the herky jerky, jumpy non-sequitur style. The Firesign Theatre was one of the great recording acts of the late 60s and the 70s, still going too. They have continued to release CDs on into their old age, such as it is, but, as I say, I stopped listening to anything after 1980.
As the Firesign is essential to Mr. Marcus I suspect there is loads of humor in Traces that I’m not getting. Hard enough to make those difficult jumps. Juxtaposing Presley and Isou wasn’t even a jump, it was a gap.
John Rockwell was some sort of music critic at the NYT so not exactly the sort of influence one would want. As Mr. Marcus would have been already familiar with the Frankfurt School of which he is a continuator and mentions Dada in Mystery Train one imagines that critic Rockwell pushed him in the direction of the Presley lookalike Isidore Isou and incidents like the rather obscure Invasion of Notre Dame. Mr. Marcus was five at the time of the Invasion; one doubts he remembers it. Thus, perhaps Mr. Rockwell directed his eyes to the morgue of intriguing but all but forgotten news clippings with which he would have been familiar. Thus Mr. Marcus found the Lettrist/Situationist International.
The Paris disturbance following on the heels of the Free Speech brouhaha would then have given him a focal point. It appears that at some point Mr. Marcus met Debord becoming very well acquainted with the old drunk and pervert, as it were, a disciple. When Debord shot himself through the heart in 1994 as with Drs. Mabuse and Baum Debord’s soul apparently entered Mr. Marcus’ body so that he appears to have assumed leadership of the SI.
Traumatized by the Punkers who he gives credit for bringing down Rock he also became fascinated with Johnny Rotten and the Sex Pistols as well as several other Punk units. Personally I have always thought Punk was absolutely useless hence I find Mr. Marcus’ fascination with this sub-marginal trash actually objectionable. While his subjects knew that they were nothing and sought to be everything the means they chose to raise their chances of becoming something were ill advised.
However as Mr. Marcus integrates them into the Dada/Lettrist/Situationist program it may be worth considering at least Johnny Rotten and the Sex Pistols who according to Mr. Marcus are an outgrowth of the SI.
After the failure of the 1968 disturbance in Paris Debord’s SI seems to have become truly international what with Greil Marcus in the US and people like Malcom McLaren and Jamie Reid in England. God only knows how many covert cells there were and what looneys they were allied with.
McLaren and Reid were casting about for some way to epater the bourgeois when McLaren had an interview with the New York Dolls. From them he conceived the notion that no talent was needed at all to become a rock band. One only needed the ability to make noise. Fortunately for Reid and McLaren there were myriads of young losers who felt the same way. One only had to pick and choose the most likely candidates on a cosmetic basis and give their repertoire a Situationist slant. You know, create a situation.
Mr. Marcus wonders from where the musical infuences for the Punkers came. I have to say that their inspiration was largely Bob Dylan. Johnny Rotten (ne Lydon) was born in 1956 so in 1975 he was twenty years old. The Punks then would have been eighteen to twenty-five. A primary influence on them would have been Bob Dylan. Dylan’s first records give the impression of an untutored musician. The stuff was just noisy. He could neither sing nor play.
The mean streak that Mr. Marcus finds so attractive in Like A Rolling Stone runs throughout the corpus. As much as I hate to admit it that hateful mocking derisive attitude is the essence of Dylan’s style. After having Mr. Marcus point this out to me so unmistakably I’m having to rearrange my memories of Bob to change their faces and give them all brand new names. I’m having to become a revisionist of my own history.
While Dylan is a real cultural name dropper so that he gives the impression of being learned, he isn’t. Chronicles proved that. His criticisms of society are merely emotional rants rather than informed or intellectual critiques. That he could wing tripe like Masters of War past what must have been a fairly sophisticated Folk crowd is truly phenomenal. Or, maybe I was wrong about them too.
At any rate the Punkers were merely unhappy with their teenage angst. I can assure you that I and my age cohort were too. If the right social environment had been provided perhaps we would have responded in the same way.
Johnny Rotten could not have had many of the thoughts Mr. Marcus attributes to him, the kid was only nineteen, so one must believe that McLaren and Reid filled in the blanks with Situationese and Rotten rearranged the words. While McLaren and Reid may have turned a few dollars from the act it is difficult to see what else they accomplished.
Society was developing rapidly without their help. The band Devo released their significant LP Are We Not Men? A. We Are Devo that quite clearly reflected the direction in which society was headed.
The amazing thing is that Mr. Marcus can discuss these insignificant nits at such length and with such seriousness. His long discussion of Johnathon Richman’s ‘Roadrunner’ was entirely uncalled for. Neither Richman nor his song had any influence in record circles. The record wasn’t even available for sale.
As Mr. Marcus neither owns up to being in the SI or gives any idea of the direction of the SI and ‘revolutionary’ groups I find that his book while full of interesting details is pointless. I have read the thing five or six times for this review. I have given the book more thought than it deserves. If the intent is a sly joke I don’t find it very funny. If the intent is to recruit members for the SI I find nothing agreable in the organization. I remain unrecruited. As a collection of non-sequiturs I find the book actually unreadable.
If Mr. Marcus modeled himself on the Firesign Theatre his choice was admirable but his execution was execrable. As a historian I’m afraid I would have to grade him below a C. Perhaps the quality of the book is best expressed by the cover.
Why is he nothing when he should be everything?
End Of Review
September 1, 2007
Lipstick Traces: Greil Marcus
Escape From Reality
by R.E. Prindle
One gathers the impression from Mr. Marcus’ work that all his characters are in an extreme flight from reality. This would be equally true of the historical movements he describes of the Begins and Beguines and Free Spirit. His conception of the Free Spirit is a downright denial of reality and a full scale unlimited retreat into fantasy. Coinciding with this is an impossible demand for absolute freedom. The freedom of the Free Spirits, the Dadaist/Lettrist/Situationists and indeed, the Jews in general, is a freedom that requires passive objects- in other words Masters and Slaves. The freedom of the Free Spirits that on one level demanded unlimited sexual gratification for men at the same time required the abuse and degradation of women. Indeed, the image of a woman having sex with ten different men in succession is sexual abuse of a major kind that must irreparably damage the psyche of the woman.
I return again to the striking images of the insane asylum or Maison de Sante of Poe’s The System Of Dr. Tarr And Professor Fether. There is a great similarity in that story between the inmates seizing control of the asylum and the present situation in which all the disaffected factions such as homosexuals, Jews, Blacks and whatever have turned society on its head suppressing the asylum attendants or establishing an order in their own favor.
As I read Mr. Marcus’ remarkable book there is no one loonier than Guy Debord and the Lettrist/Situationist International. Both he and Isou are busy inventing systems that have no relationship to a just or benevolent society.
Their purpose while framed in grandiose proclamations of ‘changing society for a better world’ merely mask a desire of revolution for revolution’s sake as with the 1968 Paris disturbance that seems to have been meant only to ‘epater le bourgeoisie.’ To sow discord for the sole purpose of giving meaning to Debord’s life, to make him feel that indeed he was a Mastermind and powerful individual.
How the Situationist International meshed with the Frankfurt School for the furtherance of the Jewish Revolution is predictably left unexamined by Mr. Marcus. By the early fifties the Institute For Social Research was once again headquartered in Europe. Herbert Marcuse had been left behind in the US where he took up residence at UC- San Diego translating the claptrap of Adorno and others into English.
As a continuator of the Frankfurt School then Mr. Marcus provides a link between the Dadaists of 1916, The Frankfurt School of 1923 and the postwar Lettrist/Situationist International.
Thus as Debord replaced Isou in ’57-’58 the path then led into the so-called Free Speech Movement at UC- Berkeley and spreading from there to US campuses during the decade of the sixties linking up with the Cultural Revolution of Mao that made 1968 such a significant year not only in Paris but worldwide.
Mr. Marcus gives us a stirring account of his peripheral involvement in the Free Speech Movement of Berkeley of which he seems to be very proud. While he doesn’t inform us that he himself was a chief in any committees of public safety or actually involved in any sit-ins with consequent arrest he was present at several large rallies and assemblies in which as he tells us he cheered lustily.
He seems to be convinced that the cause of ‘freedom’ was thereby greatly advanced. If so, one asks, ‘freedom’ for whom? As in Poe’s Maison De Sante for the inmates as opposed to the guards obviously. The inmates won their freedom from the asylum administrators and guards by capturing and imprisoning them. Thus as Paul Simon has been known to chant: One man’s ceiling is another man’s floor. Oh, yes, indeed!
Now, Mr. Marcus’ works are sprinkled with images and metaphors drawn from the act of fellatio. While I have drawn my conclusions on the matter I leave it to the reader to draw theirs. No matter what happens then the issue at hand is of a not so subconscious sexual nature. Ultimately Mr. Marcus’ ‘total freedom’ gets down to the unlimited sexual gratification of an elite.
In pre-Revolutionary France this elite was the hereditary aristocracy. Their victims were drawn from the ‘lower orders’. For a fair example of how that aristocracy conducted itself it is only necessary to turn the pages of the works of the Marquis de Sade which Mr. Marcus undoubtedly has.
I hope I won’t offend if I say that what the Revolutionaries want is purely to displace the old elite and substitute themselves if for no other reason than to be able to gratify their sexual fantasies.
There have been several sex havens in the twentieth century where Western men could go to gratify these illicit passions. One need only mention Marrakesh, Tangiers, Thailand and locations where one can or could get all the dope one wanted, young girls and boys whose bodies could be violated at will for the appropriate price. One man’s ceiling is another man’s floor. One’s sexual passions can only be gratified on someone else’s body. That is what makes de Sade’s writings so terrifying.
While these sexual retreats are balms for perverted souls it is damned inconvenient to have to go so far at such great expense for such transient pleasures that require constant renewal. What to do? Why create possibilities closer to home of course.
Thus one has women lured from far away with false promises, to be installed in brothels in your home town. Or local girls plied with drugs until they will do anything you want. Better still are the hypnotic drugs, but I don’t have to go into detail on the date rape drugs.
Or, better yet, train whole generations to perverted sexual practices in the public schools from kindergarten up. Catch the little bastards at five and fill their brains with sexual filth in the name of mental health and sexual liberation.
This stuff isn’t new but what is new is its public nature and audacity. There have been small scale attempts to train men and women to gratify an elite. The Geishas of Japan are a famous example. And then there were the Irish slave women and mulattoes of the West Indies brought up to gratify the sexual needs of the planter elite with no unpleasant frictions.
One man’s ceiling is another man’s floor. Full freedom for the elite is complete slavery for the majority. If Huxley’s gammas are needed they will be created, for elites need gammas.
The elite has even cleverly arranged matters so that they can train five year old little boys and girls to be buggers and whores. In control of the mainstream media they plump continuously for ‘freedom’ from ‘Puritanical strictures.’ They demand sex ‘education’ in the name of developing the full ‘human’ potential of the little buggers.
The law is perverted for the purpose. While the concept of the Law may be sacred, laws created by a minority for their convenience aren’t. As in the sixties when civil disobedience was a sacred duty it is now no less a sacred duty to disobey these laws that benefit the few to the injury of all. The principle of Law will not be violated anymore now than it was in the sixties. That was when Greil Marcus was in the bleachers of Freedom howling his lungs out.
Well, so Guy Debord somehow brought this civil disturbance in France in 1968 to fruition or so he claimed and believed. As Mr. Marcus justly points out President De Gaulle lamented the fact that the entire disturbance was caused by a few malcontents. The ‘freedom’ of Debord and the French Situationists meant the disruption if not the destruction of the lives and happiness of those who were trying to create a better civilization. But, and this is a key point, in order to do so they had to work. Debord’s key slogan was ‘ne travaille jamais’. Never work- suck off the productive.
This is where I disagree with Mr. Marcus, I don’t find the attitude admirable. One again asks the question who is the new elite that will replace the pre-Revolutionary elite? One asks for whose benefit was the babel of languages introduced in that ancient never never land or multi-culturalism into today’s Europe and America? There’s the real question Mr. Marcus isn’t critiquing. When the old world is destroyed who will rule the new order? Who will be masters and who will be the slaves? Where will the new Law and laws come from? Ah, Mr. Marcus, write a new book and tell us.
I don’t think we’ll be hearing from Mr. Marcus on that issue soon even though I am eager.
So, by 1968 the inmates were well on the way to being in charge of the asylum trying to get outside their clothes rather than in them. As I noted earlier Mr. Marcus begins his story at the end. I will now continue, taking the head of the ouroboros and place its tail in its mouth. We proceed to the first chapter of Mr. Marcus’ book, Lipstick Traces and the last part of my review.