Risk and Equilibrium: The Impact of Greil Marcus

Disturbed Wonder and Lost Voices

Few if any American cultural historians take the great deep American Breath like Greil Marcus. It’s the breath of Whitman, of Ginsberg, of Little Richard and Dylan and Aretha Franklin—in scope and risk, at least, if not their artistry or forms. Best known for his opinions on American popular music, Marcus’ own brand of artistry has always revealed a remarkable breadth of knowledge and a more important desire to find connections between disparate, even wholly disconnected voices. As storyteller, his frequent digressions deepen the plot; as critic, he combines academics with street-level description and a gift for conjuring scenes; as historian, he’s a brilliant synthesist.

With the re-release of his seminal work Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century, originally published in 1989, and the massive anthology he’s co-edited with Harvard professor Werner Sollors, A New Literary History of America, the impact of Marcus’ work is undeniable. In a PhD program somewhere, a drinking game has been formulated around his propensity for those digressive allusions, or maybe a MadLibs:

“Listening to ___(blues singer)_____’s mournful tune ‘______(rustic title)_____’, one hears the ___(hyperbolic gerund)__ of the ___(high fallutin’ academic jargon)___ in motion, and the voice of ____(tangential philosopher/pop culture figure)____”.

But the fact that one can parody Marcus’ style means that his voice is unique and compelling, and that he’s been at this business long enough to have influenced everything from Continuum Press’ 33 1/3 rock ‘n’ roll book series to websites like Pitchfork and the magazine you’re presently reading. He’s one of a handful of critics who have quite simply changed the way we think about popular culture.

Book: Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century

Author: Greil Marcus

Publisher: Belknap/Harvard (reprint)

Publication Date: 2009-11

Length: 482 pages

Format: Paperback

Price: $24.95

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/features_art/l/loss-listrictrace-cover.jpgWe are soon to be 40 years down the road from the famous opening line of his Rolling Stone review of Bob Dylan’s Self-Portrait: “What is this shit?” The brilliance of that salvo, off-set by ample white space, is the ambiguity of its stress. Which word should we land on? I hear the stress on “is”, emphasizing the imminence of the album, because for Marcus, the present moment speaks to the past, and the past speaks forward. As much as he delights in currying or curating historical moments—whether they be the hazy figures of Old Weird America, “The Last Sex Pistols Concert” in Lipstick Traces, post-punk blasts in Ranters and Crowd Pleasers, or his invaluable work editing the late Lester Bangs’ Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung—those moments are always talking to the present listener, to the person trying to figure out what it might have meant then and what it means now. What is this shit? Though that sentence’s anger and connection to Dylan’s attempt at career suicide gets the most attention these days, the entirety of that 1970 review prefigures the sense of profound, disturbed wonder in the best of Marcus’ criticism, beginning with Mystery Train, published in 1975, continuing through his recent book on American prophecy, The Shape of Things to Come and, one hopes, the promisingly-titled study of Van Morrison forthcoming this spring, When That Rough God Goes Riding.

Marcus’ interrogative spirit always meets its subjects on their own murky terms first, rather than shoe-horning them into categories of approval or disapproval. In an interview with Dave Weich, Marcus said in 2001 that he “doesn’t begin with ideas that are brought to bear on the artifact to see whether the artifact will measure up to them.” (“All These Inches Away from Where Greil Marcus Began”, Powells.com, 4 April 2001) That’s a crucial distinction in the world of criticism. One of the stories of postmodernism, particularly as it relates to the academic field, is the rise of criticism’s preeminence; with Barthes’ “death of the author” came the birth of the reader, especially well-educated readers, i.e., critics, who then promoted their standards. Ideologies, sometimes passing as trends, too often dictate the reception and success of a novel, film, or album. As Marcus illustrates in that same interview:

If you look at art criticism from the forties on and the whole notion of flatness as a value in painting, certain critics decided that painting should be this way, so they went looking for artists who either exemplified what they were looking for or who were reading what these critics were saying and were doing what they were told to do because they knew they’d get good reviews and their paintings would sell. It’s corrupt intellectually and it’s corrupt commercially.

Criticism of any kind can think too rigidly, too systematically; it inclines toward these attributes as naturally as the people who write it. Demanding its philosophies, its politics, its curfews—at the head of the table, criticism has the power to silence the geeky daughter, creation, smothering freedom and chance. Throughout his long career, Marcus has been a more deferential father; art and criticism may speak to each other, but in his work, art leads off, because art is the moment, the event, the voice closer to the edge of its own being.

If Marcus testifies with strong opinions, he rarely condemns. And that is the contradiction which has built his standing, a reputation which straddles almost without peer the isolationist academic and the informed popular, and which has come from long hours and many years of staring at and listening to literature, art, popular music and, most of all, his beloved America.

A Chorus of American Voices, By Choice and Decree

A Chorus of American Voices, By Choice and Decree

Like George Carlin used to say, “It’s a great country, but it’s a strange culture.”

…I hate America, Louis. I hate this country. It’s just big ideas, and stories, and people dying, and people like you. The white cracker who wrote the national anthem knew what he was doing. He set the word ‘free’ to a note so high nobody can reach it. …Nothing on earth sounds less like freedom to me. You come with me to room 1013 over at the hospital, I’ll show you America. Terminal, crazy and mean. — Belize, Angels in America: Perestroika

Room 1013 in New York Hospital in January of 1986 is occupied by Roy Cohn, the conservative “polestar of human evil” (as he’s described by another character in Tony Kushner’s play), a man of influence and wealth and history, a man unable to reconcile his private gay life with his public life as lawyer and stalwart of the Republican party, a man who is dying of AIDS but is officially being treated for “liver cancer”. These words above, Belize’s adhesion of all that is America to this man—we sense by play’s end that Belize might take them back. Like the rest of us, his beliefs have their provisional elements. But that stuff about the national anthem, big ideas and the sound of freedom? That stays.

For nearly all of the play, Kushner allows his characters to argue with each other and against themselves, allowing them to be gloriously wrong and right—even Cohn, on occasion—in the truest sense of the word “dialogue”; it’s a hallmark of his writing and of his approach to his subject, America, which he loves, like Marcus, for the imperfect lover it can be: self-deluding (like Cohn) yet capable of seeing through itself, plural yet exclusionary, gracious, vicious, inventive, placid and sometimes full of shit. Like George Carlin used to say, “It’s a great country, but it’s a strange culture,” the word “strange” vibrating out of his mouth like a warning.

Book: A New Literary History of America

Author: Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors

Publisher: Harvard University Press(original)

Publication Date: 2009-09

Length: 1,095 pages

Format: Hardcover

Price: $49.95

Image:http://images.popmatters.com/features_art/l/loss-newlithistory-cover.jpgWhatever its faults, A New Literary History of America tries to keep the dialogue going and avoids the temptation to rein in its subject too neatly or ease the strangeness out of American history. Not only does it stretch, appropriately, to America’s earliest pre-history—the first essay, by Toby Lester, examines the first appearance of “America” on a map—this enormous anthology stretches the definition of literary.

Among the more surprising entries are essays on Alcoholic Anonymous, the Winchester rifle and pro football. Such choices are defended in the volume’s Introduction as evidence of “how one got across what he or she meant to say to his or her fellow citizens”, a cut-throat whatever-it-takes methodology that shouldn’t seem surprising in today’s America. Basing their selections around voices which spoke in public of something new, or spoke in a new way about something old (and borrowed and yes, blue), and then charting the trajectories of those voices—how far they carried, and to whom—Marcus and Sollors emphasize the imperative outbursts of a country seeking to define itself, to know itself, after the fact of its invention. The political speeches, war memorials, comics, country songs and abolitionist pamphlets that stand side-by-side with Emerson, Whitman, Flannery O’Connor, Philip Roth and Toni Morrison only demonstrate the multi-layered, uncontrollable and competitive reality of American public speech. Theirs is a bracing, deeply rewarding approach, even if it’s not entirely unique.

For that familiarity Marcus can only blame (or credit) himself: the anthology innervates on a macro scale the disparate voices his other books energize in comparative miniature. Sometimes this happens within a single essay, as in Bharati Mukherjee’s reflective entry on The Scarlet Letter; elsewhere, an idea lingers between essays on Herman Melville and Henry Roth, courses from the Declaration of Independence to Seneca Falls to Toni Morrison and back to Jean Toomer. Occasionally these travels are too disjointed: though the book is arranged chronologically, entries may be placed far earlier than one might expect as a result of the anthology’s interest in moments that changed what was to come. Springboards, if you will.

For instance, Andrea Most’s excellent assessment of the impact of Arthur Miller begins not in 1947 with the production of All My Sons, but in 1932, when Miller auditioned to sing on the radio. This means that you’ll likely read about the playwright 50 pages before reading the entry on Porgy and Bess, which appeared nearly a decade before any of Miller’s productions. By the end of Most’s essay, she’s zipped ahead to David Mamet and Kushner. (This is the volume’s only mention of Kushner. Inexcusable!) A New Literary History of America challenges not only its own structure, but aso our traditional view of history’s structure in order to emphasize the transmission, conscious or collectively unconscious, of ideas.

This is a Marcus tactic, and what draws ire from his critics. As postmodern strategy, allowing both temporality and simultaneity, it is the anthology’s secret weapon because, in fact, as you near the conclusion, you feel that a story has actually been told. The echoing impulses and philosophies come to a confluence, diverge, and then, in the book’s final pages, dash against the rocks with three simply-stated questions revolving around what feel like ancient promises.

A Levee, a Crane, and a Helicopter

‘Book under water’ (partial) by Thomas Roessler found on DoobyBrain.com

A Levee, a Crane, and a Helicopter

The subject, America—as it was meant to be, as the contract was drawn—is dead and gone.

Early in A New Literary History of America, we’re treated to obligatory passages on the Puritan covenant made with God whereby America is created, from scratch, as a promised land. Rife as that moment is with inconsistencies and outright lies, it’s a stunning and sober moment of self-creation, acknowledged by John Winthrop in 1630 when he said, “For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill; the eyes of all people are upon us”. The idea is carried forward by the out-of-thin-air legitimacy of the Declaration of Independence.

Always dwelling in a promise, however, is the threat of its failure, a fact we are reminded of by Emory Elliot’s foreboding portrait of the American jeremiad. The jeremiad warns us of what will happen if the promise of the nation fails, outlines how that failure is occurring today, who is at fault, and what can be done about it, and as Elliot notes, “the jeremiad has persisted because of its effectiveness in creating mythic imagery that inspires ideals and motivates action”. The early 19th-century black activist David Walker, Lincoln in his Second Inaugural, Martin Luther King Jr. and Ronald Reagan, to say nothing of poets and novelists and dramatists, have all relied on the jeremiad’s form.

Combine this with the Puritans’ view of the weather as a sign from God of their wickedness, and you end up 1,000 pages and 335 years later in the entry, “New Orleans Is Lost in the Flood”. There, then, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, US Senator Mary Landrieu recounts the failure of President Bush to adequately respond to the devastation in New Orleans and his administration’s subsequent, shocking display of disingenuous concern, her dismay exemplified by an anecdote about a levee, a crane, and a helicopter. Marcus and Sollors, writing together, then ask those three questions:

If, for that moment, New Orleans was the nation, did the nation still exist? If it did, did it deserve to? The community would flourish if its members “make others Condicions our owne rejoyce together, mourne together, labour, and suffer together,” John Winthrop told the nation… it would justly disappear if it did not. Did it?

The editors reply to themselves, writing that “[Landrieu] had seen the country, and saw it disappear.” Their subject, America—as it was meant to be, as the contract was drawn—is dead and gone. What is left? The book’s final entry: Kara Walker’s text-collage pieces about the election of Barack Obama, the final panel a silhouetted image of a woman pouring ink—or leaves, or words—out of a garden sprinkling can. Somehow the images are both haunting and joyous.

The speaking of a now-ancient voice to the thousands ravaged by Hurricane Katrina and the millions witness to it from afar; the inclusion of a near-silent coda, the only words scrawled in handwriting or typed faintly, as if retrieved from elder documents; the challenge to the editors’ just-made proclamation about the country’s fate—that these complications should emerge from the mind of Marcus is no surprise. His stamp as editor is all over the volume, though he hardly intrudes; in fact, his essay on Melville is one of the book’s finest literary critiques. Sollors, too, contributes numerous superb entries, including a close reading of William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury.

But the pleasure of the volume, of course, is the massive collection of voices it brings together, subjects and authors both. Mary Gaitskill’s playful exploration of Norman Mailer gets it right at every turn, even as she interjects third-person memoir subtitled “Dream” and “Masturbation”. Ted Widmer’s three entries, covering Roger Williams, Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, collectively form the epitome of the book’s general tone: plain-stated, thoroughly researched and occasionally witty. Generally, the academics write creatively and the creative writers stay sober. Gish Jen and Walter Mosely shine; Sarah Vowell’s essay on Grant Wood’s American Gothic feels slight, cheeky; John Edgar Wideman, no surprise here, is brilliant in his investigation of invisibility and the 1901 novel The Marrow of Tradition, and along the way crafts one of the most stirring and accurate descriptions of the 9/11 terrorists I’ve ever read, casting them biblically as “those who believe they must gouge out America’s eyes to cure her blindness”.

When the volume’s essays don’t work, it’s largely due to the weakness or misapprehension of the subject as opposed to the writing. Michael Kimmage’s entry, “The Plight of Conservative Literature”, begins with that downright sexy, 1968 televised conflict between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley, though the event is less a springboard than a result of the conflicts tearing at the country. Kimmage’s true prototype of the conservative character turns out to be Whittaker Chambers’ 1952 autobiography Witness, a book that “set a crucial precedent for… conceptualizations of the conservative career”, one full of “self-styled martyrdom” as the protagonist attempts to adhere to and preserve a conservative ideology.

Likewise, David Thomson’s “Nevada Legalizes Gambling” begins too far off its own axis before settling into Dreiser and gambling as an element of 20th century American capitalist culture. Entries on Little Nemo in Slumberland and Richard Powers’ The Time of Our Singing (another entry written by Marcus) don’t do enough to connect their subjects to trends, futures, while the aforementioned essay on pro football and “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art”, which concerns Manny Farber, film critic, simply shrink in comparison to their neighboring subjects. In the case of the Farber essay, the neighbor is Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”.

Then there’s the question of what’s been left out, nearly impossible as it is to answer. We will all jockey for our favorites, especially when the scope is wide enough to include Superman and Mickey Mouse. But objectively I can complain that once Camille Paglia is done writing about Tennessee Williams, American theatre goes largely ignored. This omission excludes the development of responses to what was, yes, a largely European movement into the absurd, but responses that became uniquely American nonetheless, whether we’re talking about Edward Albee (mentioned once), the complication of the musical (Stephen Sondheim, also mentioned once), the rise of the American avant-garde (the Living Theatre, Robert Wilson, never mentioned) or the inventive work of a Kushner or Suzan Lori-Parks (who is mentioned once in an essay about Thomas Pynchon). Meanwhile the Billy Wilder film Some Like It Hot gets its own essay.

Theatre is not the only genre underrepresented. The anthology doesn’t quite seem to know what to make of television, really, and neither the rise of the Internet. And somehow Johnny Cash, Susan Sontag, Raymond Carver and all of punk slip through the cracks, while Hua Hsu’s essay details hip-hop’s colossal influence without mentioning Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash or Public Enemy.

I could go on forever nitpicking like this, and the futility of that gesture is the last line of defense for A New Literary History of America, as it is for nearly any massive anthology. This is a heavy book; you could really hurt someone, or yourself, with it. Maybe it’s best to accept its faults and back off, for what we discover in reading compendiums like these is not simply a portrait of the past, but a testament to the present moment’s point of view, the witness-perspective looking backward to answer David Byrne’s question, “How did I get here?” sometimes overtly, sometimes not, and more often than not, A New Literary History of America offers compelling reasons.

Lipstick Traces and Rare Confusions

‘Bleeding Book’ (partial) from Minispace.com

Lipstick Traces and Rare Confusions

the book’s scope disorients, its pace exhausts, and it has pissed off a few punks who think Marcus fails in his attempt to tell ‘the story of punk’. Since he never attempts that, he doesn’t fail at it.

“Leave this off your fucking charts!” – – song of the same name, from Fear of a Black Planet, Public Enemy

“My insides feel queer an’ I’m in a rare confusion…. I can’t tell where all this talk is leadin’, sir.”– Netley, From Hell, Ch. 4: “What doth the Lord require of thee?”

At the above moment in Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s dense and awesome graphic novel, the man who is about to become Jack the Ripper has been leading his rather dim-witted coachman, Netley, on a tour of London architectural landmarks for the better part of the day, rambling on about William Hawksmoor, the goddess Diana, and William Blake. Another William, Gull, spreads the map of London before his exasperated soon-to-be-accomplice and forces the poor man to draw in the lines between their stops. A pentacle emerges. Gull sees in the pattern the occult power of the Sun gods, whose grasp and restrictions on female divinity must be maintained; lady liberty has won too many battles in this late 19TH century moment, and Gull will cement a threatened male hierarchy, he hopes, by killing London prostitutes. Netley recoils, and Gull pursues him: “Our story’s written, Netley, inked in blood long dry…engraved in stone.”

A secret pattern, what’s been there all along: that is what Marcus seeks to expose in Lipstick Traces. The pattern perceived by Marcus has caused in some the same reaction Gull’s pattern does in Netley, who vomits in the street; the book’s scope disorients, its pace exhausts, and it has pissed off a few punks who think Marcus fails in his attempt to tell ‘the story of punk’. Since he never attempts that, he doesn’t fail at it. (And pause for a moment on the disgusting and despairing anti-punk idea that punk should be told as a hegemonic, singular narrative, a late-night commercial for all your favorite punk hits! Spirit of ’77!) The locus of Lipstick Traces is not the Sex Pistols or their first single, “Anarchy in the U.K.”, as a 1989 review of the original edition in The Nation claimed, anymore than it is dada, the lettrists, the situationists, Charley Starkweather, Michael Jackson, Guy Debord, Isidore Isou or Catherine Deneuve. Instead Marcus ruminates about just what it says on the tin: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century, which is to say, a history of modernity, capitalism and consumerism and their attempted negations: anarchy, protest and social revolution. Or, as Marcus puts it:

The history of the twentieth century was to be the account of the creation of reality through its erasure: through killing people, through the extermination of subjective objects, of realized or potential individuals as forests to be cleared.

To explore this erasure, Marcus skims over the question of what punk is—less a formal genre than a social instance and set of ideas, “a moment in time that took shape as a language anticipating its own destruction”—to the question of why it felt and can still feel “like the greatest thing you ever heard”. Still, the answer helps elucidate the form, that moment and its ideas, and the histories of resistance.

So, it’s like this: faced with the perception that the world is not as you want it to be, that it’s unjust, cruel, deadly, or just boring, you can either try to change the world or go to another world, which is death. Life, love or leave it! Apathy is just being dead while you’re still alive. Changing the world, well, that’s a task of many methods; one is to level the world, flatten or burn it, turn it into compost so that something new can be made. Anything other than annihilation won’t clean the slate thoroughly enough.

Negation and Nihilism

Negation and Nihilism

Johnny Rotten, Marcus writes, was a “medium” through whom the voices of men like Guy deBord, John of Leydon, and the Brethren of the Free Spirit “began to talk to each other, and the noise they made was what one heard.”

Simplistic as this explanation is, it begins to sketch the distinctions and limitations of Marcus’ subjects around the crucial notions of negation and nihilism, of social change and self-interest. “When the nihilist,” Marcus says early on, “pulls the trigger, turns on the gas, sets the fire, hits the veins, the world ends”, even if it doesn’t for everyone else. Negation, on the other hand, “is always political: it assumes the existence of other people, calls them into being”. The danger is not just that negation can be taken for nihilism—it often is by the consumerist world it threatens—but that negation can slip, transform, stumble into nihilism.

The lesser dangers are failure, regret, sentimentality. This is the secret history of the 20th century; when the numerous groups Marcus explores in depth—the dadaists, lettrists, situationists—created and latched onto “moments in which the world seem[ed] to change”, but were unable to make that change last. Seeking a string of moments, they ended up with snippets. The culprits, he suggests, are not just the overarching villains of Capitalism, Consumerism and Culture, but the solipsism and narcissism which plagued these groups: the individualism that could not balance itself with progressive social action and careened, often quite entertainingly, into futility and despair. Still, their ideas floated on.

Punk, then, is an historical moment when these furtive checks came to be cashed. The difference was in the milieu of the times, the pop culture of rock ‘n’ roll that punk wanted to destroy, like Dada wanted to destroy art. Poised in the moment, Johnny Rotten could have changed the world. If, as Philip Roth says in his novel The Plot Against America, “The terror of the unforeseen is what the science of history hides, turning a disaster into an epic,” then that science hides the joy, too, the sheer power of What If? What will happen when thousands gather at a wall, and what will happen after they do? The confluence of tradition and the unforeseen explains why the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the U.K.” was so powerful, so dangerous: Johnny Rotten, Marcus writes, was a “medium” through whom the voices of men like Guy deBord, John of Leydon, and the Brethren of the Free Spirit “began to talk to each other, and the noise they made was what one heard”. He goes on:

An unknown tradition of old pronouncements, poems and events, a secret history of ancient wishes and defeats, came to bear on Johnny Rotten’s voice—and because this tradition lacked both cultural sanction and political legitimacy, because this history was comprised of only unfinished, unsatisfied stories, it carried tremendous force.

But by the time punk opens its beautifully ugly and safety-pinned lips, what situationist guru Guy Debord called the “spectacle” was a tremendous force too, and, as Marcus says, “like a piece of avant-garde performance art, the spectacle dramatized an ideology of freedom”. It was more than capable of absorbing the body blows from punk and transforming it into a freedom-product to be consumed; henceforth, My Chemical Romance’s awful cover of “Desolation Row”. In Marcus’ rather devastating estimation, the tradition of the dadaists through the situationists wanted to run the world off art in order to make it art; by their standards, they failed. The punk tradition was never more than art—glorious, stirring art, but always bound by its own language—and so by dadaist and situationist standards, it, too, failed. As Marcus puts it, referring to the dadaists’ Cabaret Voltaire of Zurich in 1916, “a nightclub act… asked for the world, for a moment got it, then got another nightclub”. Perhaps a House of Blues.

Anyone interested in the dada movement should read this book; the historiographic context Marcus gives to the experiments of, in particular, Hugo Ball and Richard Huelsenbeck extend far beyond the typical Art 101 lessons. But it is the situationists and Guy Debord, growing out of the lettrist movement of Isidore Isou and prefiguring the social movements of the ’60s that receive most of Marcus’ attention, and here he provides an invaluable service. The language of the situationists became so pervasive, appearing again and again in anti-social protests, the hippie movement—essentially, in any underground sub-culture—that it was easy to forget them. They are the epitome of a critical Marcus trope, that of the idea floating downstream while its author drowns. Their detourne technique can be seen in the decidedly political use of clipart in David Rees’ Get Your War On comic strip, and heard in the mashup music trend of the past decade.

Reading of the situationists, however, makes it increasingly more difficult to not gape at their Euro-centrist visions (the dadaists, too); they saw abundance as the coming reality for all, and one has to wonder how their belief that “modern poverty [is] a poverty of passion” might have changed if they’d spent time in South Africa, or Haiti, or the slums of their own countries. The Situationist International’s happy response to the 1965 Watts riots in Los Angeles seems, even to the ear of an American not yet born then, deliriously off-target and myopic (they saw it as an attack on abundance, claimed that it was the “first rebellion in history to justify itself with the argument that there was no air conditioning during a heatwave”; the 34 dead would disagree).

“Where there was fire, we carried gasoline,” claims Debord, but their gasoline was pamphlets which would have burned just as easily. Their intellectual escapism, dilettantism, and disregard for political body counts is partly what makes punk such an exciting potentiality: though it committed the same sins, unlike most of the Situationist International’s activities until the May 1968 riots in Paris, punk made you sweat and, as Marcus makes it clear, there were times when, onstage, Johnny Rotten looked like he could be devoured by the crowd. Their precursors aimed pop guns; punks carried loaded revolvers.

Like A New Literary History of America, Marcus’ landmark resists easy categorizations of its subjects, possesses levity and wit, and juxtaposes incredibly disparate voices—Michel Mourre in “The Assault on Notre-Dame” and the story of Johannes Baader are particularly fascinating, to say nothing of Marcus’ take on the influence of Gnosticism, the heresy of the Free Spirit, the explosion of the Michael Jackson phenomenon and, some 30 years earlier, the four-man singing group The Orioles. As with the anthology, I can’t help but think of what’s been left out of Lipstick Traces, particularly the questions of otherness raised only tangentially by the book, typified by the qualms I have above with the situationists. The misogyny and racism in punk, the responses to each as typified by afro-punk and the riot grrl movement of the ’90s, and the lumbering advancements of capitalism and the American spectacle since the book’s publication in 1989—the text is unaltered, and only the Works Cited and Sighted, a boon of any book by Marcus, whose endnotes are meticulous—all but demand a sequel more focused than Ranters and Crowd Pleasers, the 1993 collection of essays that touched on some of these issues.

What’s clear, though, in terms of Marcus’ work, is this: more than Mystery Train, itself a thoroughly engrossing mélange, Lipstick Traces is the book wherein Marcus found his voice and methodology. Describing the Mekons’ “The Building” in the epilogue, he all but spells out the organization behind this book and those to come: “The primitivism of the music dissolves the temporal claims of the story”, he writes, “and simultaneously subsumes its detail, assumes all of its debts”. History, in his hands, is always temporal and simultaneous, whether the subject is primitive, ancient, modern or postmodern. Earlier in the book, he says, “…I wanted to shape the story so that every fragment, every voice would speak in judgment of every other, even if the people behind each voice had never heard of the others, especially if they hadn’t…”.

Ultimately this is a reconciliation of structuralist and post-structuralist claims. Understanding history in its context is crucial, but risks emphasizing only disconnections and telling only the dead tale; sensing the connections in what Alan Moore in From Hell calls the architecture of history is crucial, too, but must beware of crossing the line into false cause-and-effect. Though his imagination may overreach, his sentences may befuddle, his aims may elude his means (but not often), Marcus as a critic, historian and essayist continues to be at the vanguard of his field precisely because of his ability to find the balance between these approaches, between mystery and proposition, between a yarn and an epic, between yearning and compromise—an equilibrium which gives voice to the present moment of our looking back.

RATING 8 / 10
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