A mammoth debt encourages fear, which is never revolutionary; a high level of unemployment ensures a ready pool of strike breakers, translates the curse of a bad job into a blessing.

from greil marcus's lipstick traces: a secret history of the twentieth century. here’s its full context: 

“It was if Thatcher and Reagan had adopted a keynote of situationist theory: abundance is dangerous to power, and privation, if carefully managed, is safe. A mammoth debt encourages fear, which is never revolutionary; a high level of unemployment ensures a ready pool of strike breakers, translates the curse of a bad job into a blessing. ‘The transformation of the family man from a responsible member of society, interested in all public affairs, Hannah Arendt wrote in 1945 in 'Organized Guilt and the Universal Responsibility,’ 'to a "bourgeois” concerned only with his private existence and knowing no civic virtue, is an international modern phenomenon…Each time society, through unemployment, frustrates the small man in his normal functioning and normal self-respect, it trains him for that last stage in which he will willingly undertake any function, even that of hangman.' 

Arendt told a story: an SS member is recognized as a high-school classmate by a Jew upon the latter’s release from Buchenwald. The Jew stares at his former friend, and the SS man says: 'You must understand, I have five years of unemployment behind me. They can do anything they want with me.’“ [emphasis added by moi, cause that’s my favorite part]

Heart of Stone

Keith Richards © Henry Diltz
Courtesy of the photographer. Prints may be purchased through Morrison Hotel Gallery.

Keith Richards with James Fox

Little, Brown, October 2010. 576 pp.

The autobiography of Keith Richards—founding guitarist of the Rolling Stones, through the late 1960s and the 1970s at once a notorious and celebrated heroin addict and one of the most dynamic and least recognized songwriters of his time, today a long-married, deeply satisfied man, troubled, in his account, only by Mick Jagger’s disinclination to take the band on the road more than every half-decade or so—has received almost uniformly ecstatic reviews. At least for this reader there was something queer about the raves: the more a reviewer quoted, the less interesting the book seemed to be. Always, it seemed, blah blah blah quotes popped up in the notices. “I also felt I was doing it not to be a ‘pop star,’” as Richards says of why he took up heroin. “There was something I didn’t really like about that end of what I was doing, blah blah blah.”

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It all comes down to that urge to fascism — maybe a big word to use for art, but I think the right word — it comes down to that urge to fascism to know what’s best for people, to know that some people are of the best and some people are of the worst; the urge to separate the good from the bad and to praise oneself; to decide what covers on what books people ought to read, what songs people ought to be moved by, what art they ought to make, an urge that makes art into a set of laws that take away your freedom rather than a kind of activity that creates freedom or reveals it. It all comes down to the notion that, in the end, there is a social explanation for art, which is to say an explanation of what kind of art you should be ashamed of and what kind of art you should be proud of. It’s the reduction of the mystery of art, where it comes from, where it goes… 

In his fantastic SVA commencement address, cultural critic Greil Marcus addresses the recent Gatsby cover controversy and what it tells us about the perilous division between “high” and “low” culture. 

One soft infested summer/Me and Terry became friends/Trying in vain to breathe/The fire we was born in…/Remember all the movies, Terry/We’d go see/Trying to learn to walk like the heroes/We thought we had to be/Well after all this time/To find we’re just like all the rest/Stranded in the park/And forced to confess/To/Hiding on the backstreets/Hiding on the backstreets/Where we swore forever friends….

Those are a few lines from “Backstreets,” a song that begins with music so stately, so heartbreaking, that it might be the prelude to a rock & roll version of The Iliad. Once the piano and organ have established the theme the entire band comes and plays the theme again. There is an overwhelming sense of recognition: No, you’ve never heard anything like this before, but you understand it instantly, because this music — or Springsteen crying, singing wordlessly, moaning over the last guitar lines of “Born to Run,” or the astonishing chords that follow each verse of “Jungleland,” or the opening of “Thunder Road” — is what rock & roll is supposed to sound like.

Greil Marcus, from the original Rolling Stone review of Born to Run (Issue 197: October 9th, 1975)

Greil Marcus wrote the RS review of Born to Run when it was released and reading it makes my heart so happy, it finally puts into words some of the things that I feel about this incredible album and about Bruce in general. If you want to read the whole review, it is here. If you love that album it is definitely worth a read. 

Promised Land (Single)
  • Promised Land (Single)
  • Chuck Berry
  • The Chess 50th Anniversary Collection: Chuck Berry - His Best, Vol. 2

“Promised Land” by Chuck Berry

Chuck Berry wrote “Promised Land” in a prison cell, and I’m sure he must have remembered how apprehensive he’d felt when he was touring across a nation that was hostile to a black man singing Rock & Roll to white kids.  Greil Marcus passes along an interesting theory:

See, what that song is really about is the civil rights movement, the Freedom Riders, the way he plans the Po’ Boy’s bus route to avoid Rock Hill, that’s in South Carolina, a Klan town, then the bus breaks down in Birmingham, where the Klan blew up a church and killed four little girls, that was in 1963, ‘turned into a struggle,’ see?

To a racist DJ deciding whether or not to play this single when it came out in 1964, “Promised Land” must have sounded like an uncomplicated road song, but if you knew what the score was in those days you knew this song was a lot more than that.  That’s what early Rock & Roll was all about.  You can try and censor artists all you want, but they’ll subvert you at every turn.

If The Godfather had succeeded merely as a genre classic, it would have been a very different movie—the response it provides changes how we see and understand it. Like “Back Stabbers,” it matters, has its particular meanings, partly because it was a hit. Without massive public response, we would not even get close to two crucial democratic questions, questions worth asking about any interesting work of popular culture: How far can this work take its audience? How far can its audience go with it? Only works that can’t be ignored—liking them is hardly the point—raise such questions and bring them to life. In one way or another, we are all affected by hits, and are forced to define ourselves in terms of our response to them, just as we are all, for good or ill, affected by the romantic heroism of the Westerns, and not neccesarily by, say, the chaotic heroism of Orson Welles’ movies. Certainly we are caught up in those things that impelled Welles, but his version of them, the shape of his vision, has not inevitably become part of us; we don’t have to live in the world as he tried to define it, as we helplessly live out and respond to the nostalgia of John Ford or Howard Hawks. The life of a whole generation is authentically quickened and brightened by the Beatles, but it is not disturbed and sharpened by Randy Newman. The point is not that it would be “good for people” if the radio were playing “Sail Away” all day long, but that such exposure might be the only way to find out how strong the song really is.
—  Greil Marcus in Mystery Train offering the best defense of poptimism ever written.
Cherry Bomb

on Ellen Willis’s escape from the music ghetto.

© Nona Willis Aronowitz 2011
Courtesy of University of Minnesota Press
Ellen Willis
Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music

University of Minnesota Press, May 2011. 272 pp.

For a universal language, music can feel downright limiting sometimes. When I was 26 and reviewing records for Time Out New York (the weekly magazine’s pop section was then in its golden age) and The Advocate (the gay one) and a few smaller rags besides, my then boyfriend, a noise guitarist, bought me a copy of the writings of Lester Bangs. “You can’t be a rock critic without reading this,” he decreed.

I had never meant to become a rock critic — my bandmate and I moved to Philadelphia after college, and when I presented myself to the alt-weekly there as an aspiring political journalist, the editor-in-chief zeroed in on the two record reviews in my file of clips and shunted me over to the music section. In the four years since that development, I had read Greil Marcus’s (no relation) marvelous postpunk reviews, collected as In the Fascist Bathroom, and not much other music journalism at all. It seemed to me that most contemporary rock magazines were propagating an artless scorecard-genealogy version of criticism, treating music in isolation from other art, culture, and political realities. And I had certainly never read Bangs, whose irascible, rambling rock-crit from the 1970s many considered to be classic examples of the genre. I gave him a solid try, but every page I opened to just turned me off. This was the canon? If all those dudes at Rolling Stone and Spin were taking their cues from a nihilistic, homophobic, apolitical speed freak, it was no wonder the whole game left me cold.

Shortly afterward, I visited the apartment of a friend of a friend, an older critic of some renown, to take a bunch of old jazz cassettes off his hands. He asked me what I wrote. Mostly record reviews now, I told him, but I planned to expand my purview, write more about politics, teenagers, women…

The critic gave a small snort. “Good luck getting out of the music ghetto,” he said.

His tone spooked me. I took my plastic spork and started digging an escape tunnel right then. That tunnel led to the writing of my first book, Girls to the Front, a history of Riot Grrrl, a feminist movement of young women. It always gets shelved in the music section.

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Gut begonnen #9

Ronald Reagan und Margaret Thatcher sind namentlich genannte Hauptfiguren dieses Buches; nicht so Helmut Kohl. Aber ich finde, daß ihm im Untertitel ein Platz neben seinen ehemaligen Arbeitskollegen zusteht, weil er Reagan, Thatcher, Papst Paul II. und vielen anderen mit großem Eifer zur Hand gegangen ist, als es galt, den Westen in jenes Leichentuch zu hüllen, das wegzuschreien die meisten der in diesem Buch behandelten Künstler angetreten sind.

Greil Marcus: Im faschistischen Badezimmer. Punk unter Reagan, Thatcher und Kohl - 1977 bis 1994. Rogner & Bernhard, Hamburg (1994).

You invent yourself to the point of stupidity … and you do it for money, renown, to lift yourself up, to escape the life you were born to, to escape the poverty, the racism, the killing strictures of a life that you were raised to accept as fate, to make yourself a new person not only in the eyes of the world, but finally in your own eyes too… You don’t have to go back to the prison of fate, that you can once again experience the satisfaction that only art, only the act of putting something new into the world, can bring.

“…if any individual of our time can be said to have changed the world, Elvis Presley is the one. In his wake more than music is different. Nothing and no one looks or sounds the same. His music was the most liberating event of our era because it taught us new possibilities of feeling and perception, new modes of action and appearance, and because it reminded us not only of his greatness, but of our own potential.”
-Greil Marcus
From his book, Mystery Train, 1975