Do politics rock?

Interrogation by Jason Gross (June 1997)

Anyone who has done any reading about music knows about the person responsible for MYSTERY TRAIN, LIPSTICK TRACES, DEAD ELVIS, THE DUSTBIN OF HISTORY, RANTERS AND CROWD PLEASERS and most recently INVISIBLE REPUBLIC. He's also edited a great collection of Lester Bangs writings (PSYCHOTIC REACTIONS) and the original collection of desert-island discs (STRANDED). Above all else, Greil Marcus' writing is compelling- a lot of times I've found his descriptions of a song he loves better than the song itself. Another striking quality about his work is his sense (and knowledge ) of history that he brings to his writing. In the space of a sentence, he can jump back and forth between a 'simple' rock song, French situationists, media theorists and an old ad and make the connections all make sense.

 One interesting thread that's been in his work has been the connections he's found between popular music/culture and revolutionaries/incindiaries. Though this aspect was touched on in his earlier works, it came out clearly in LIPSTICK TRACES and RANTERS. So, what is the connection here? Do politics and rock mix or are they just weird, distant bed-fellows? How have they effected each other? (by the way, Marcus describes his own political leanings as: 'from a left, new-deal tradition: no one in my family has ever voted republican')

ED NOTE: a theatrical adaptation of Greil Marcus'  Lipstick Traces opens in New York City on May 2nd and runs through June 10th at The Ohio Theatre  (66 Wooster St).  Tickets ($30) may be purchased by calling 800 965-4827 or on the web at

PSF: Before the first wave of rock and roll, do you find that there were any rebellious youth movements around connected to music?

 Albert Goldman, in his twisted neurotic way, made the argument that there was nothing new about rock and roll. In his words, it was 'a regurgitation of the swing era.' He was saying that EVERYTHING in rock and roll had been done before, as culture and as music. He was talking about the swing period where he grew up. He could have just as well been talking about the ragtime era or the jazz era in the '20s. He was saying that these were times when young people focused their energies and their aspirations and got much of their identity from popular singers and popular songs. It was a language between people. He said that the point wasn't to act like a kid, the point was to act like a sophisticated adult in New York. His argument was that this was good. He thought that teenagers wanting to act like teenagers was something worse. People who were older than teenagers were still maintaining the attributes of people who were younger and he thought this was disgusting.

 It was the years after the War in the late '40s and the early '50s when there was so much money floating around the American economy. In England, there was so little money that there was such a sense of betrayal and disappointment that they had won the War yet they had been ruined and impoverished that (for also different reasons in Germany and France) youth cults began to spring up. Sometimes they were organized around gangs or motorcycle clubs or schools. A culture where the notion that being young was a blessed state that you should affirm as being good in itself and you should try to hold on to because of its goodness for as long as you could began to emerge before there was anything identifiable as rock and roll, like Bill Haley or Elvis Presley. It was unformed, spectral. When rock and roll arrived and when you had two absolute symbolic teenagers suddenly appear in front of a nation (James Dean and Elvis Presley), everything fell into place. Then people had an image to connect to, to try to live up to, to imitate. That's when that connection was made. There wasn't at this time any sort of political rebellion unless you're looking at something like the Lettrist International, which started in '52 and which was definitely a political movement, a cultural movement and a youth movement.

 One of the popular novels in the '50s was a book called AUNTIE MAME by Patrick Dennis. It was about a guy growing up in the '20s and '30s. There's a wonderful chapter where he talks about how he and his friends are in college and they all worship Fred Astaire just like people would later worship Elvis Presley. They want to dress like him, talk like him, light cigarettes like him. They all walk around in this absolutely hilarious, unknowing parody of sophistication and adulthood. That's exactly what people in the '40s and particularly the '50s were not doing. They were not in any way imitating or acting out adulthood. They weren't like little girls putting on their mother's dresses, high heels and lipstick. The rebelliousness that was everywhere perceived and what has today become a cliche wasn't about politics.

It wasn't about changing society or addressing injustices. The rebelliousness was the insistence of young people of all kinds on autonomy, on being able to act as they wished for no particular reason and engage in play or delinquent activities that weren't going to lead into adulthood or jobs or family or responsibility. This was people living in a self-contained and seemingly autonomous realm of being. That was really something new. You could go back to find precurors like the zoot suit riots of the '40s. But as a whole culture, with movies, music, novels (to a lesser degree), modes of behavior and private languages, it really was something new.

The Beats don't figure into this- they don't really matter until the late '50s/60s. They came at a later youth culture from the side. The Beats were adults acting like adults but they were living according to a different code of values. There was nothing teenage, nothing juvenille, nothing naive or innocent about them at least in terms of their intentions and their self-conscious position.

PSF: Is it a contradiction that some of the main figures in rock and roll movement came from conservative, religious backgrounds?

 That's true except you have to see it in terms of mainstream (northern, urban) Amercia and the rural South. The people in the rural South didn't see themselves and weren't seen as the rest of the country as part of mainstream America. They were always considered (and they considered themselves) scorned outsiders- if they wanted to be 'in' they would have to fight their way there. The great emblematic song of Pentacostalism is 'The Great Speckled Bird.' In the song, the bird is this weird almost beautiful creature that everybody looks at like 'look at that freak, what is this?' They all turn away from it in disgust. The great speckled bird is the true believer, the Pentacostal Christian. So these people would say 'the world may consider us ugly and insane but we're on the true path.' So, to call these people conservative is to miss the point. They were outside. Any attempt by these people who didn't belong and weren't invited in to make a claim on the attention of the nation is going to be seen as a violation.

 Plus you've got the fact that Little Richard may have come from a very conservative church background but he was a raving queen. He was desperately trying to find an outlet for his homosexuality and his sense of style and his wish to strut in public. The great figures in the community for these people were the great politicans (like Huey Long) and the Pentacostal preacher, which was closer to home for them. He was the man who gets up before the congregation and sings at the top of his lung, stalks to and fro behind and in front of the altar and shakes his fist and makes a complete spectacle of himself. That's where people got a sense of feeling odd.

PSF: Do you find that this youth movement that grew up around rock and roll faltered after the late '50s?

 There was always an element of rock and roll that did want to grow up, go to nightclubs and get married and make their parents happy. Frankie Avalon was that sort. You also had people like Dion who came from a very lower-class Italian background and got himself into a gang and into heroin. When his rock and roll career collapsed, he found his way into Greenwich Village and the folk scene and followed a real twisting road.

It wasn't just the big guns being silenced (Presley, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard) but it had more to do with the audience. People like me and all the people I knew got a taste of something dangerous when rock and roll first really exploded. A lot of people thought 'now the world has changed, now it's different, we're different, we're different from our parents.' But by '58 or '59, the number one song was 'Tammy' by Debbie Reynolds. I remember at the time thinking 'this was all a trick that we played on ourselves. We only pretended that we were rebellious, that we were different, that we wanted something different.' In fact, deep down, what we really wanted was a lullaby. We wanted 'Tammy.' There's no question that the people who bought 'Tammy' were the same teenagers who were buying 'Hound Dog.' I remember at the time being very disappointed with that. I think that the great proportion of the audience was just in high school. When they graduated from high school, they put aside childish things to grow up.

So, it was a big shock to a lot of people when in '63 and '64, the story started up again. I don't think that most people ever expected that, in any fundamental way, rock and roll (music that affirmed meaninglessness and in that affirmation contained every conceivable kind of meaning) would ever be a part of their lives again. That's one of the reasons that people dove head-long into the Beatles. It wasn't just 13 or 14 year old girls that were part of the audience- it was also college students and other people.

PSF: How do think their cultural impact was different from the first wave of rock and roll?

 One thing was that the original figureheads weren't supposed to act very smart. They were supposed to be extraordinarily polite, as both Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis were, or they were supposed to be extrememly circumspect, as Chuck Berry was. If Berry, as a black man, said HALF of what he was thinking at any given moment, he might have been lynched. He probably should have been a hell of lot more careful than he was because the cops were always on him. He had already been in prison long before he had become a musician. He was arrested and held in jail overnight in Mississippi in the '50s. He supposedly looked at a white women 'the wrong way' after a concert- he might have winked at her, and she became hysterical and called the police. Chuck Berry was a handsome, smart, cool black man who, for white cops, was nothing but trouble.

 The only person of that first generation who could have started to act hip was Buddy Holly. He had married a Puerto Rican woman and moved to Greenwich Village and God knows what would have happened if Buddy Holly had lived.

The Beatles were the first group of people to come along who didn't pretend to be stupid. They acted and talked as intelligently as they actually were. They allowed the Rolling Stones to come along and then be as cool, as obnoxious, as bohemian, as 'fuck you,' as in-your-face as they wanted to be. It suddenly turned out that that you could act this way and not suddenly burst into flames. You could just get away with it.

Here's where the Beats come in- they had already infiltrated contemporary culture and made themselves felt. The British are people who read ON THE ROAD, an utterly romantic piece of shit as far as I'm concered though it influenced many people. That's the difference there. This difference leads to a perception of rebellion and ultimately to a real affirmation and acting out of rebellion. That line was pretty easy to trace and pretty direct.

PSF: As the '60s progressed and the bands and political movements around it got more radical, did you think that their politics were sincere or meaningful at all? You've said that you thought that Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman were phonies.

 I always thought of Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman as careerists and people who wanted to be pop stars. They wanted attention. They wanted people to admire them, to look up to them and get lots of pretty girls to fuck. I'm not putting down those things as motives but when you say 'I'm only here to change the world,' then you have a right to be criticized. The Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan didn't say 'I'm here to change the world and if I get benefits on the side, I won't turn them down.' I also thought that Rubin and Hoffman had the most puerile ideas- they weren't interesting and they weren't good at what they did. If I had liked them as people or found their ideas inspiring, I might think differently.

When the bands became 'political,' they never did become political. Instead, individuals in certain groups began acting as whole people. Whole people have political dimensions. They can get outraged at things and they're moved by other things. They talk with their friends about these things and if they have a public forum, they speak publicly about these things. That doesn't make that the whole of their lives but any real person who's living in the real world is going to be energized by a political situation or disgusted with those same things. They're going to react with a sense of confirmation or exclusion at that political event.

 That's what people began to do. They were doing this within the protection of a culture that seemed autonomous. It gave them the permission and the strength to do that. When everyone around you is taking drugs, having sex and espousing extreme political opinions, then it seems like the natural way to live. So just as you say 'why shouldn't I take this LSD?' you also say 'why shouldn't I say what I think of the Vietnam War?' That was something absolutely new. People didn't do that before.

In 1956, Elvis Presley didn't exactly endorse a presidential candidate but bizarrely, when he was asked who he was going to vote for, he said he was going to vote for Adelai Stevenson. They shut him up really quickly. They didn't want to alienate anybody plus this is a good American boy who's supposed to sing songs and NOT have opinions. You might think that it's odd that Elvis Presley would vote for the egghead govenor of Illinois but (white) people in Mississippi didn't vote for Republicans then- it wouldn't have occured to them. Stevenson carried Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina and that was about it.

PSF: How do you see that the radical movement, along with the music, changing once the Nixon administration came into power?

 The Nixon administrations saw as one of its missions to wipe out and destroy dissent in whatever form it occured. It affected music in two ways. First, it made some people more combative (i.e. the Jefferson Airplane, the Byrds, David Crosby). Ultimately, the world of pop music responded like the rest of the world, which is to say that after Jackson State and Kent State, people got really scared. They found out that you could really get killed by doing this stuff at any time. They began to back off and they began to shut up. What broke the anti-war movement was that. That was a self-betrayal analagous (in my mind) to teenagers waking up one day and saying 'we really do like 'Tammy' better than Arlene Smith (the Chantels).' When people found out that you could die from this, they backed off. It was a lack of a sense of history, intellegence and nerve for people to go into a battle against their own government with the illusion that nobody was going to get hurt.

PSF: A few years after this disillusion, the punk movement came along. What do you see as its legacy and how it also became a unique youth movement?

 I don't know how to put it or position it. I don't know if punk started out as a rejection of pop music or life in the UK at that time. Certainly, as soon as it started, as soon as the Sex Pistols began to perform as a public outrage and even before they released their first record, a whole conflict of symbolism immediately gathered and was drawn to what they were doing. None of this was accidental because Malcolm McLaren and Jamie Reid, who were the real college-educated Col. Parkers of this movement, had a Situationist background and were schooled in a haphazard way in nihilist European art politics going all the way back to the 19th century. They knew that architecture could be as repressive as a law (that would) put people in jail for criticizing the government. They believed that the music that people heard every day had as much of an effect on how people thought of themselves as anything people learned in school. They saw records as a way to disrupt the assumptions that people didn't question, that people used to hold themselves together. This is to say that these were the assumptions that held society together. I don't think they saw records, performances and songs as a way to change the world as such. It was more of a theft- 'let's set off a bomb and see what happens.'

Within that perspective, everything was a target. Pink Floyd are no more or no less the enemy than the government. That's the mindset here. This was utterly true for Johnny Rotten as someone who really schooled himself on James Joyce and Graham Greene and his sense of being an outsider because he was Irish and being just astonishingly smart and vehement and impatient. For the other people in the band, I don't think it was ever anything more than a chance to be in a band in the beginning and later what an absolute thrill it was to tell society to go fuck itself. By the time the band was really making records, they were all understanding (except maybe Sid Vicious) what it's about and what it's for. It was a chance, if not to change society, to live a life that you would never expect to live within society. That's not a life of money and fame and girls. That's a life of feeling free and complete and alive. From that, anything can flow.

From that, you get the Clash, an ideological band which really did have political positions. They went out and named the villians and wore political slogans on their clothes (which I think is hilarious in a way but they were great looking costumes). The funny thing about the Clash is that they turned lines that Johnny Rotten threw out in interviews into songs. They worked with received ideas and they were authentically changed by those second-hand ideas. Joe Strummer might have started out mouthing ideological slogans because it seemed like a good idea. But he began to think about the things he was singing and I think he actually decided they were true and they actually got him thinking.

Then of course by the time you get to the mid '70s in England, the Beats are really a pervasive influence, William Burroughs and Kerouac in particular. That sense of autonomy and nihilist rebellion, saying 'the dominant society is a bunch of boring old shits and we are true and verile,' is really strong. The angelization of the heroin addict is very strong. There's a lot of parallel with that scene.

PSF: How did the UK punk scene compare with the one that was going on in the States? Didn't it have any significance itself as a movement?

 With the exception of Pere Ubu, I never found the U.S. punk movement all that interesting. I think X was a great band but if they came out of any tradition at all, if they tell a story, it's an L.A. story. In a way, it's a story that's already been told. You find all of X in film noir and Raymond Chandler.

Pere Ubu was in essence a bunch of European aesthetes who happened to find themselves in Cleveland and said 'my God, what the fuck are we doing here?' It's like they suddenly woke up and said 'Toto, I don't think we're in Paris anymore. We're in Cleveland. Holy shit!' So they created their own bohemian community and their own bohemian traditions and heros, among them Alfred Jarry, and went on from there. They were a great band in '75 and they're a great band today. David Thomas said an interesting thing a few years ago. When they put out Story of My Life, there were quotes from the band members and he said 'people always ask why we're doing this.' He had a wonderful analogy. He said 'it's kind of like people who became Communists in the '30s. Even when you find out that the theory is wrong, that the victory will never come, you don't give up on it. It's changed you. You're stuck. You really have nothing left to do with your life. You still believe in it and you have no choice.' I thought that was both wonderfully humorous and incredibly moving.

Charolette Pressler was Peter Laughner's wife. He was the mad fool of the Cleveland punk movement- the person that everyone knew was the true genius and the person that nobody could stand to be around. She wrote a wonderful memoir about the beginning of the Cleveland scene, which was very much an art scene. People were putting together their own bohemia out of second and third and fourth hand fragments, picked up from weirdo high school teachers and local libraries and MAD magazine. She said that these people were very self conscious. They were intentionally trying to find a way to get outside of society.

They all had to make the decision not to go to college because they knew that if they went, the world would open up to them. The temptation to follow a career that had already cut its path would be irresistible. The chance of doing the work that you realize at the age of 16 that you had to do would be lost forever. So these middle class people whose parents could easily send them to college and were smart enough to go there just said 'no, I can't do this.' That's very moving too because that's very different from the English punk movement or the Beatles or Rolling Stones , all of whom had the chance to go to art college- this is where you put people who are real smart, sensitive juvenile delinquents in England. That's where you expose them to the whole tradition of the avant-garde in the hopes that maybe they'll become decent commercial designers. Art college has always been the great spawning ground for British rock and roll bands, except for Mick Jagger who went to the London School of Economics, a real college.

PSF: So you don't see the New York punk scene as having any significance then?

 I don't think there's any question that for over twenty years the Ramones have inspired countless people to do all kinds of things. They inspired the Sex Pistols and the Clash. I didn't like them. I always thought they were a bunch of twits. As one of the guys in Gang of Four put it 'these guys must be really thick.' Gang of Four LOVED the Ramones. They just actually believed that you get past the parody/stupidity and find the real stupidity. Television was an arty version of the Grateful Dead. To me, it was just a new form of rock and roll. It was all just a downtown New York bohemian scene. It was a local story. I still believe that. This was local music as far as I was concerned. I don't believe that the reason that punk came to life again and again all over the world is due to anything that happened in New York. It was because of the glimpse of possibility that people got out of the Sex Pistols or the Adverts or X-Ray Spex. These were bands where the most unlikely people suddenly appeared in public and said 'I can say anything I want,' which is the most liberating thing in the world to do. I don't think you ever saw that in New York. What New York said was 'you can become a heroin addict and become cooler than anybody else and you can play guitar and be a real poet, and we obviously know that being a poet is the best thing in the world to be.'

PSF: After the first wave of punk died out, did you find that were other political movements building up around music or rock in particular?

 I don't see a literal connections between bands and youth movements or songs and political activity. Both are forms of discourse, both are different forms of conversation. They inform each other but in ways that are not obvious and in ways that can only be teased out or imagined or churned into stories. I don't have anything say to about, for instance, the connection between the Gang of Four or the Mekons and what they were doing and their effect on what people might be doing politically. If anything, the effect is the other way around because these bands came out of a tremendously politicized milieu where feminism, gay rights, skinheads beating up and killing non-whites was their frame of reference, their everyday life. To make music that in some way didn't incorporate that would be to deny your own experience and knowledge and the things that got you excited, angry or happy or allowed you to make friends. The lines between what you could say in a song and what you said to people you cared about had long since been smashed by Bob Dylan. If you look at the most politicized music that the Mekons made, like Fear And Whiskey or Edge of the World, the music is a lament for a battle that's been lost. This is not rallying troops or defining good. This is the kind of art that's often been made after the defeat of a revolt or a rebellion. This is music made as the Mekons understood it in the shadow of fascism. The same with Elvis Costello's music.

 Now if that music goes out into the world and hits peoples' heart or makes people think the political situation that they perceive isn't as locked in as it appears to be, or if it just makes them think more deeply, the consequences of that can lead in any direction. The Weathermen actually used pop songs as part of their metaphors (they named themselves after a Dylan song). They went underground and set off bombs in strategic places to make sure people wouldn't get killed and they got publicity and made people see that the government is really not in control. Then a few of them got killed making bombs and they thought that maybe their strategy wasn't good after all because 'gosh, you can get hurt making bombs.' This is the same with 'Tammy' and Kent State- this is the naivete that beggars all understanding. It had nothing to do with the validity of the strategy- it was 'golly, we can get hurt. Better change our strategy.' Their manifesto announcing their new strategy was called NEW MORNING, after a Dylan album. One of the songs in their songbook was an adaptation of 'Bad Moon Rising'- the only change was 'better get your shit together' instead of 'better get your things together.' You can say that there's a connection between the Weathermen and pop music but I don't think there's a connection at all. I think the connection is utterly meaningless, trivial and exploitive on the part of the Weathermen. It was just a way to look 'with it.' It's a direct connection but, I think, a meaningless one. The connections between Elvis Presley, Jim Jones and David Koresh are much more interesting.

PSF: Do you see that a lot of rock has been lost its rebellious nature as its been used so much in commercials and elswhere?

 That depends on your point of view. I think in those places where real rock and roll persists, it might be just as much as threat as it ever was in a way that's mysterious and hard to track. Sleater-Kinney is as inspiring, dangerous and troublesome as any band we've ever seen. What the consequences of their music are going to be is impossible to say.

You're talking about a perception where you say 'this doesn't seem like a threat- it's part of mainstream culture.' Bill Clinton gets inaugurated and Bob Dylan and Aretha Franklin show up to perform. Every old rock and roll song is turned into a commercial and rewritten. It's everywhree you look. I don't believe that for a minute. I don't believe that any bite has gone out of 'Gimmie Shelter' or 'Ready Teddy.' I don't believe that 'Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On' has any less power to change anyone who's heard it for the first time today than it did in 1957.

PSF: Do you find that songs with implicit or explicit political statements make a stronger case or point? For instance, how would you compare Elvis Costello's music with Woody Guthrie's in this context?

 Woody Guthrie had a sign on his guitar that said 'this machine kills fascists.' That's just the kind of connection between music and politics that I'm arguing against. It wasn't a machine and it didn't kill fascists. It made Woody Guthrie and the people who listened to him feel noble. I'm not saying that he wasn't against fascism but to say that you could defeat it by singing songs is not helpful in the war against fascism.

 The original title of Armed Forces was Emotional Fascism. Elvis Costello was making a very, very complex and sophisticated argument with that record in the words that he wrote and in the way that he sang them. He was saying fascism is the dominant mode of political behavior in the West today and it has seeped down to our everyday lives. If fascism now pervades our everday lives and our interactions with each other, our whole understanding of social intercourse supports and ultimately affirms fascism. This makes it a more interesting and less fixed statement.

 Woody Guthrie says 'sing my songs and defeat fascism.' Elvis Costello says 'fascism exists- look around you.' Is that a stronger political statement? I don't know. It doesn't tell you what to do or promise any results. It's a stronger STATEMENT but I don't if it's a stronger political statement.

Also see Greil Marcus' official website

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