“The secret history of…” (interview excerpt)

SR: So for you, it was really the Sex Pistols that turned your head around. In Lipstick Traces, you write about your experience of the Winterland concert: their last ever performance, unless we count the cash-from-nostalgia-for-chaos reunion tours. It’s this incredibly vivid description of how they inflame you in a way you weren’t prepared for: you felt murderous, like you wanted to stomp people.

GM: I remember Lester reacting to reading that. Not in Lipstick Traces, obviously, which came out after he died. I think I wrote about it in a letter at that the time. I told him about all this and he told someone else and then the story came back to me. He was really shocked and upset to hear me say these things, because he always thought of me as this very mild and kind person. And I thought “God, Lester, how naïve can you be?” Not about me, but about anybody. Anybody has feelings in them that are suppressed, and when they come out, they can come out in a terrible, damaging way, or in a liberating way.

And in Lipstick Traces, I spent five hundred fucking pages trying to make this case, that the Sex Pistols had an entire tradition—an unspoken, unheard, invisible tradition—behind them. They were the avant-garde taking its revenge on the 20th century, and saying, “Now, you’re going to have to listen to us whether you like it or not.” All of these artists and polemicists and critics, whether it was Richard Huelsenbeck or Guy Debord, all of them were saying, “You can’t ignore us any longer, we’ve found our voice.” And Johnny Rotten doesn’t know or doesn’t care, he’s speaking for himself, but all those voices are in there. And I’m hearing something I’ve never heard before. And I don’t know what this is. I’m so moved by it, so transported by it. I just wanted to hear more, and I’m afraid of what “more” might be. That’s a great feeling, you know, to be afraid to turn on the radio, afraid to walk into a record store. Because it’s going to do something to you, and you don’t know what that’s going to be.

SR: Lipstick Traces is subtitled A Secret History of the Twentieth Century. The term “secret history” has become something of a publishing world cliché: I’ve lost count of the number of times it’s appeared in a book’s subtitle. But your use of it is the first I can recall. Did you come up with the expression?

GM: Actually, it’s an old term. It usually refers to spycraft. There are many, many books written before Lipstick Traces with titles like The Secret History of World War II. But it always means something very specific: espionage. And usually the espionage history of World War II: how we broke the Nazi codes. So, in that sense, it’s a very traditional term. I don’t use it in that way; I don’t know if I was even consciously alluding to that kind of secret history. But it just seemed like the right way to put it.

Myths and Depths: Greil Marcus talks to Simon Reynolds (Part 3), Los Angeles Review of Books, May 11, 2002

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