If you sometimes wonder if we at MM read too much into rock music, then your minds will BOGGLE at what Greil Marcus brings to bear on his subject matter. Starting with the question, “what is the source of the ‘irreducible power’ of the Sex Pistols’ music?” he sweeps the reader along on a breakneck, century-spanning odyssey that takes in Dada, the Situationists, the Paris Commune of 1870, Saint-Just, and Mediaeval mystics like The Brethren Of The Free Spirit and the Gnostics.
Marcus sees Johnny Rotten as the latest incarnation of a cultural archetype: “the negationist” who rejects utterly his parent culture, makes impossible demands on life, and rejuvenates a moribund Art by exhibiting absolute contempt towards it. Art is the enemy, because it upholds the border between dreams and everyday life: it siphons off utopian idealism and petrifies it in objects, which themselves turn people into objects, passive consumers. Punk, Dada, the Paris uprisings of May ’68, were subversive because they exploded the gulf between art and lived experience.
Rather than tracing the genealogy of ideas, Marcus convenes a “conversation’ between figures, separated by decades, who have mostly never heard of each other. For Marcus, “serendipity is where you find it”: his special delight is in the metaphors that recur uncannily across the eras. He shows particular Pistols’ lyrics to be either borrowings or unaccountable echoes of earlier anarchist/nihilist catchphrases: “Cheap holiday in other people’s misery” originates in a Lettrist rant against tourism (capitalism’s latest means of accommodating and controlling people’s dreams). “I am an Antichrist”, he links with the celebrated 1950 incident where a group of neo-Dada pranksters entered Notre Dame during Easter Mass and, dressed as monks, delivered a sermon on the Death Of God to 10,000 strong congregation.
Another goodie is the fact that Nik Cohn, the first writer to celebrate pop as a GLORIOUS BURST OF INCOHERENT NOISE (“Awopbopaloobop”), turns out to be the son of Norman Cohn, historian of the apocalyptic anarcho-cults of the Middle Ages (The Pursuit Of The Millenium). And that Little Richard’s histrionic gibberish descends, via gospel, from the Gnostic incantations of the second century.
The Pistols’ rock wasn’t protest, didn’t present the “proper authorities” with a programme of demands: it was pure demand, blank and intransitive—“Don’t know what I want/But I know how to get it.” Rotten’s singing (like the sound poetry of Dada and Lettrism, or the Gnostics speaking-in-tongues) “dissolved the ideologies of left and right into glossolalia”: issued a “statement” that could be “understood but never explained”.
A key source for Marcus is Henri Lefebvre, Marxist ally of the Situationists, and his “Theory Of Moments”: the tiny epiphanies that explode through the “poverty of everyday life,” glimpses of a “totality” that’s been lost in the fragmentation of late 20th century capitalist life.
The Situationists caught, in the “self-destructive” nature of avant-garde poetry, glimpses of this lost utopia. Their project was to ‘realise poetry.” “The sort of moments eveyone once passed through without consciousness… now everyone would consciously create… ” Theirs was the impossible dream of living a life of unremitting bliss.
Of course, the idea vaporises the minute you think about it: it isn’t possible to be a social or even a human being, and live at a perpetual peak of word-less ecstasy.
Obviously, I’m a partisan of Marcus’ inflationary cause but, as far as I can see, Lipstick Traces (Secker and Warburg, £14.95) rarely oversteps the mark or taxes your credulity: punk did contain all these ancient and limitless longings, it did demand the world and, for a few vinyl moments, it did seem to have it (even if the world never knew).
Above all, Lipstick Traces exemplifies Marcus’ brilliance at bringing music to life: in punk’s case, conveying the sense of people seizing the moment. He makes me want to listen to records I’ve disregarded for years. If the book has a fault, it’s that the tone is elegiac, the implication being that punk still towers over all that came after it, and remains a reproach to an impoverished present.
Melody Maker, July 15, 1989 (with permission of the writer)