Greil Marcus and the Mad Parade
Going to the Source of Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century
Greil Marcus answered his phone just after 8am on a Monday morning with more energy than a preeminent rock critic should have. He was finishing up his new column for the online magazine Salon and is planning a visit to Austin this month to see a production called Lipstick Traces. The local theatre company Rude Mechanicals adapted Marcus' 1989 book of the same name into a play, and anyone who's ever delved into his books knows how daunting that must be. The West Coast-based Marcus comes from the senior ranks of rock criticism, as an editor at Rolling Stone when it mattered and later Creem magazine. His book Mystery Train is required reading in many college courses, and its discourses on music theory made not just rock & roll but rock criticism a force to reckon with. Later books like Invisible Republic, Dead Elvis, and Punkers, Ranters, and Crowd Pleasers (reissued as In the Fascist Bathroom) scrutinized Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley, and the rise of punk, and translated them into academic theory even a non-academic could understand. Marcus has a way of pulling together the most unlikely components into the most plausible results.
What I know about music theory could fit on the tip of Marcus' pen, but there you go. Greil Marcus, even more than Lester Bangs and Robert Christgau, galvanized me as a writer in my younger days. An online biography of Marcus notes that he "unleashed, for better or for worse, the fevered fancies of numberless rock scribes," and that would be an understatement. The way he deconstructed the Rolling Stones' Let It Bleed for Rolling Stone magazine made rock criticism every bit as salient as literary or social critique in my eyes. The way he explained punk seemed to do it for the world.
Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century was just the sort of Greil Marcus writing to pique another young, curious imagination. Rude Mechanicals' Shawn Sides was working at Garner & Smith Bookstore when she discovered the book. "It was my Bible," she says, no surprise to anyone who ever regarded punk as religion, "and I kept it with me." Kept it inside her, too, for when she and her fellow players in Rude Mechanicals were brainstorming ideas, she "threw it out on the table" for consideration and ended up directing Lipstick Traces. Her understanding of this book so dear to her heart paid off. Rock & roll has traditionally made better use of theatre than theatre has used rock & roll, but Sides' production of Lipstick Traces posits the irony of punk just where it belongs: onstage.
Austin Chronicle: What are you writing at the moment?
Greil Marcus: I started a new column for Salon, the Internet magazine. I was writing that.
AC: On music?
GM: Yes. I've done this column for a long time, called "Real Life Rock Top Ten," which I started in the Village Voice and then moved to ArtForum. It's 10 items that do or don't have to do with music, whether it's records or books or movies or commercials or whatever strikes me. I'm now doing that for Salon.
AC: What happened to ArtForum?
GM: I took a leave of absence to finish my last book. When I did, they farmed the column out to a different person every month, usually an artist or another critic. They decided they liked the big name doing it every month more than me doing it all the time.
AC: Salon is cooler than ArtForum anyway.
GM: I like the lead time of a few days rather than two months. A lot more fun that way.
AC: How did you come to find out about the Rude Mechanicals production?
GM: They contacted my agent for permission to do it. It turned out my agent's assistant had gone to college with Kirk Lynn, who runs the company and pretty much wrote the script, and told me he was a good guy. I got a little bit of information about the company, heard they did interesting stuff, so I said sure, go ahead.
When I met Shawn in Austin in March during South by Southwest, I told her I didn't want to approve anything, I didn't want to be consulted. I'd tell them how to spell people's names, but I wanted them to treat the book as raw material for whatever they wanted to do and let go. I wanted to see what they came up with. I haven't seen the production; I've just heard what people in New York have told me.
AC: There's a story that [critic] John Rockwell called you up on a cell phone backstage at the New York production.
GM: That's true. He called me the first night they did in it New York -- quite ecstatic, to put it mildly.
AC: I saw a rehearsal for it the other night and thought they've done a remarkable job of adapting that book [Lipstick Traces].
GM: I got the script before the New York shows but didn't read it until after the shows. I thought it was a wonderful job of, like you say, adapting the book, but there's a lot of stuff in the script that came solely out of the imagination of the people doing the show. I love the metaphors between things I had written about and somebody's love life. And that's mostly what the narrator is doing, I guess. I was just hoping to be surprised.
AC: The last part of it is astonishing as a performance and I only saw the rehearsal. No costumes, lights, props -- I guess they're not able to use the Sex Pistols' music, but I love the way they use Jonathan Richman's "Roadrunner."
GM: I made a soundtrack album for Lipstick Traces that was released in England and Europe, and I wasn't able to get permission to use Sex Pistols material. And when that happened I thought, the hell with it. So what. Everybody knows that stuff and even if they don't, it's very available. Most of what was on the soundtrack was very hard to find, very obscure, so I don't know if that's a hole for them or not.
There were a couple of tracks that I wanted that, if I couldn't get, I wasn't going to do it. One was a particular version of "Roadrunner" I really love, the Beserkley one, not the Cale-produced version. This one doesn't have the Velvet Underground influence, and is looser and much more ridiculous and stirring and heroic, I think. So I hope that's the one they're using.
AC: One of the reasons I am sitting here doing this interview is because of something you wrote years and years ago about the Rolling Stones and Let It Bleed. Reading that was like being hit in the head with an anvil for me. You talked about the Stones the way my professor father talked about Shakespeare. It was a new world for me. There was you and there was Lester Bangs -- and it was like you "gave permission" for me to throw myself into the pursuit of rock & roll, the way you wrote about it. Like "I was right! Somebody else understands this!"
GM: I know that feeling of confirmation, of comradeship. That was, at that point, the best piece I'd ever written and still a piece I look back on and say, "Gee, I got it right."
Lester was always a great inspiration to me, not that I ever wrote like him, but whenever I would feel dull and stupid and helpless I would pull out something he had written and read it and get that same sense of permission that you're talking about. That it's okay to be ridiculous, that it's okay not to know what you're talking about but to see how far you can push an idea or a sentence. It would break things open just about every time.
AC: I knew Lester when he lived here in Austin in 1979. I met him through Ed Ward and would meet John Morthland not long after. It was like you all were my Rolling Stone gods. And it was all because of punk that we got to meet. Punk was amazing, it was fashion, music, politics. -- And every few years it's back. What makes it so resilient?
GM: I learned something about punk and what you talk about, how it's never gone away, and it certainly hasn't. Over 10 years ago, a friend was in the little town of Andalusia in a cafe. There were these three kids hanging around a jukebox, playing a Sex Pistols record over and over. They could tell she wasn't Spanish and asked her if she was American and could she translate the song into Spanish.
So she translated "God Save the Queen" for them and said, "Why do you want me to do this?"
"We're "punkies,'" they said. "We're the only punkies here. This is what we know about and care about, but we don't know what it says."
She ended up translating all the Sex Pistols songs for them. They ended up dressing in a way that got them shunned from the religious village, that led them to investigate the political, social, and artistic history of their area and rediscover anarchist traditions. To form a band that never really happened, to end up writing manifestos about the world they wanted to live in. She wrote about this in a wonderful piece called "Punk in a Small Spanish Town."
What struck me was, here are these people stumbling on punk like a pottery shard with a letter visible, one letter. But there's something tremendously alluring, what word was it part of, what was the sentence. -- What happened was that on the basis of a song they didn't understand, they recapitulated the whole story of punk. Every time it's raised its head it's led people to discover the untold stories about where they came from, who they are, and what formed them.
What I understood from that is that punk has never revived, it's always rediscovered. It's like it's always there, you just have to stumble on the right rock and fall down in the right way. When you get up, you see your life a little differently.
On the back of a little label Kill Rock Stars Records was a logo that said, "Olympia, Washington, birthplace of rock." I thought, what?? Before punk, the only band that ever came out of Olympia were the Fleetwoods, you know, "Come Softly to Me." Not the birthplace of rock.
I stared at it for a while, then I understood it: Rock & roll can be born anywhere at any time, for the first time. It doesn't matter who came before, it doesn't matter who comes after. That's really the spirit of punk.
Lester wrote a wonderful piece called "Who Stole Punk?" It starts off with Richard Hell claiming Malcolm MacLaren stole punk from him. Lester goes back and ends up somewhere with Lady Godiva, but he took it back at least that far.
AC: I saw the Sex Pistols in San Antonio at Randy's Rodeo. It was a real cowboy joint with real cowboys hanging around. I was pretty close to Sid when he started swinging his bass but the thing is, I remember less of the music than the atmosphere, which was almost electrically charged.
GM: And that's what MacLaren was looking for, provocation on that tour. The only straight rock & roll hall was San Francisco, where I saw them. The atmosphere was so heavy that night, heavy like weather, it weighed down. I remember hearing "God Save the Queen" and not hearing more than half a dozen words and not caring. I just knew there was something different going on here that was new to me. I had no idea where it came from, no idea what it was about, but I wanted to know.
But wanting to know didn't mean let me figure out the words. You know that incredible line in "God Save the Queen": "God save history, God save your mad parade." The idea of history as a "mad parade" is astonishing. I never heard the words, I read about them somewhere. Then I listened to the record to see if the words were really in it.
AC: And they are.
GM: Yeah, they are. But what I'm saying is, I understood the negation, the disillusion, the destruction of all received ideas of how to view the world in that song without hearing the words by which this was explained.
AC: Lately, as I write checks out for bills and stuff, I keep looking at the year and thinking what an absolutely amazing time this is to be in, at the turn of the century. Music seems to be ruled by whatever the blip on the radar screen is at the moment. How does a band like, say, the Rolling Stones fit in?
GM: I don't think they do.
AC: At all?
GM: At all. It's not that they're too old -- there are plenty of people as old or older playing who continue to make fascinating music. The Rolling Stones are just a franchise now. The band is like a corporate spinoff of the franchise. When you see these billboards they've put up of models they've hired to pretend they're in a Stones audience going mad with delight, they're all in their 20s because you're not supposed to suggest that there's anything involved with the past here.
Then the band comes out with different props every tour and the band plays songs that when they were written and originally performed not only were about the world but took place in the world and affected the world. They changed the way people thought about themselves, the way they lived their lives. They increased the suffering people had to endure or they relieved it. They made the world even uglier than it seemed or they made it or they gave some sense, like we were talking about before, that you are not alone in this, that people were in it together.
When I last saw them [Voodoo Lounge Tour], they were godawful. They had lost their rhythm. There was a stiffness in their rhythm they couldn't get out of. It was arthritic, not in the sense that Keith can't move his fingers hard enough anymore, but that they don't swing. It's a factor of going through the motions and not giving a damn.
They are playing to the degree that the songs are recognizable but not being heard. You know how an audience starts yelling and cheering when a band plays a hit because they recognize that song. That's the event: the recognition. Occasionally, they make stabs at rejoining the world. The song they did about the Gulf War was not terrible, kind of interesting. But it's just going through the motions.
Here's another thing. I won't go to shows costing $50, $75, $100, $150. I think it's disgraceful, disgusting.
AC: That's pretty much every major tour these days.
GM: Yeah, well, I think it's abominable. I mean, it never occurred to me when the Jacksons were charging $30 for the Victory Tour that that would become the norm and considered reasonable. You have to think about who is squeezed out of this. Who can't even think about going to bands. Can't even contemplate it.
AC: I'd rather see a club gig than a tour show anyway. I find the vitality of a club show is that ground zero level. It's that primal grabbing of the soul that's so immediate.
GM: It's corny to say it, but you're right. I dragged my daughter to the Sex Pistols reunion tour and it was just awful. In a hideous outdoor shed and the place was not remotely full. They played very well and it was very dead.
It struck me that if they had played a smaller place, a club, a joint, a place with walls and low ceiling, it might have been different. I got a letter not long after from a friend in Australia where they played exactly that sort of place. It was like watching something all over from the beginning, that scariness and fervor.
AC: Did you feel like you'd been cheated?
GM: No, because I knew what I was getting into. I was going to see the reunion of a band that had gotten together again to make money. I didn't begrudge them the money and I was happy to give them mine. They had done great things for the world and my life in particular. I was very happy.
Lipstick Traces will run Sep 9-Oct 2 at The Off Center, 2211-A Hidalgo. Call 476-RUDE.