Discover more from Greil Marcus / Letter in the Ether
The 'Days Between Stations' columns, Interview magazine 1992-2008: The outside-in of punk and the inside-out of jazz
Two recent books that couldn’t be more different open the question of how writing gets to music and how music turns into writing.
Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk (Grove Press)—New York punk, that is—assembles a coherent historical narrative. The book starts in 1965 with the birth of the Velvet Underground and ends in 1992 with the death of New York Dolls drummer Jerry Nolan, also a Heartbreaker—and that’s what the book’s last pages are.
Please Kill Me is a scenester’s paradise, four-hundred pages of person-to-person, “I was there” testimony fabulously edited for speed and irony. It calls up Edie, Jean Stein and George Plimpton’s book about Edie Sedgwick, but it’s much richer. For one thing, almost every speaker, which is to say almost every character, stakes his or her own claim on the story. Once past the section on the Velvet Underground, it’s not just people talking about someone else or basking in someone else’s junkie pallor, but people talking so animatedly about their own junk days you can feel people being drawn to them. A lot of Edie was about people covering up; in Please Kill Me, you rarely, if ever, get the feeling anyone is protecting a reputation or holding back. Here’s Punk magazine writer Pam Brown, bringing back the late ’70s:
One night after the Ramones played the 82 Club, I was walking back to the Ramones’ loft at four in the morning, and this Cadillac pulls up next to me and this guy says, ‘I’ll give you fifty dollars for a blow job.’
I thought, Wow, fifty dollars!
I was so desperate for money all the time. I was living with Joey Ramone at Arturo’s, and we were living on cereal and cream-cheese-and-tomato sandwiches—that was pretty much what we lived on. So when the guy propositioned me—it was something I’d always wanted to do, a lot of women have that fantasy—I was just drunk enough to do it.
So I said, ‘Okay.’ Then I hopped in the car.
It was so EASY. The guy liked it so much he called me afterward, and he was my one customer.
A while after that I started hanging out with this real pimp. He was so scary to me. I’d get in his car—he had these girlfriends and heroin—and we’d go up to the scariest places and hang around. To me that was the ultimate—I was so scared to go to Harlem, but it was so cool, and I could snort heroin and coke all night for free. It was the greatest.
Page to page, day to day, Please Kill Me is about the ordinary life of people whose lives are organized by a certain strain of pop music. As a book about music, it’s all outside-in, and the in is spectral. People have no inner lives here, and except in the rarest moments, music is more a rumor passing from one person to another than an event that can be recalled. And that seems neither here nor there, really; if Please Kill Me cannot present the treasure it says its story is about, you don’t doubt that the treasure is real. The energy people bring to their accounts of the lives they led is undeniable; how could the secret behind that energy be false? An insular, self-perpetuating little pop world comes together, people discover they can live in it, and somehow, somewhere, a music gets made. It’s what people talk about, what drives sex and justifies drugs, what makes stupidity seem beatific and tawdry lives heroic.
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Geoff Dyer’s book But Beautiful (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) is music from the inside out. He begins his portraits of seven jazz musicians (Lester Young, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Ben Webster, Charles Mingus, Chet Baker, and Art Pepper) with the unknowable, the indescribable—the musician’s sound, his touch, the special way that, on a familiar standard, he is present or absent. Then, as a writer, Dyer pulls himself inside out. Rather than moving on to metaphorical fancies or musicological exegesis, he uses the music as a basis for what appears to be biography. That is, he draws on records, photographs, “well-known or even legendary episodes: Chet Baker getting his teeth knocked out, for example,” or even, occasionally, a legitimate source—an autobiography, an essay, an article, a document (transcripts from Lester Young’s court-martial). But nothing appears in any one of Dyer’s portraits unless it matches what Dyer hears in his subject’s music and extends it, twists it, translates it into another language, so you, the reader, can imagine that you are hearing it on the page.
Psychoanalysts are talking about But Beautiful because of Dyer’s apparent ability to write from inside other people’s skin. Beginning with the skeleton—or the clothes?—of real events, Dyer imagines his way into the inner lives of people whose music, he believes, was the most direct and mysterious account possible of such lives. Like music, his prose takes on so much momentum that you utterly forget to wonder if what you’re reading about happened, if the dialogue you’re hearing was ever spoken. Thelonious Monk walks into a motel in Delaware looking for a glass of water and the world blows up; whether or not it happened, or happened as Dyer renders it, the event is now something you’ll likely be unable to give up until you bring it to bear on the relevant music and that music finally dissolves the event.
The giddiness and glee over heroin in Please Kill Me is replaced by a sense of small-time tragedy in But Beautiful, because the book takes place where both the pleasure and the pain are, because the book can orchestrate silence as well as noise. Writing on Chet Baker—once the ingenue of jazz, then its lizard-faced junkie poster boy—Dyer, seeking that place where all art begins, can make a complete fool of himself: “He could only play with such tenderness because he’d never known real tenderness in his life.” And Dyer can get to places few writers on music know exist—“He was the opposite of his friend Art, who put everything of himself into everything he played: Chet put nothing of himself into his music and that’s what lent his playing his pathos. The music he played felt abandoned by him.”
“His friend Art”—I’d read that passage four times before I caught the pun, which Dyer may never have placed there. But the book is so driven by its need to get close to the art that sparked it you can find the like of that phrase all across it, hidden on any given page. Here there is no scene, only a music that begins in solipsism and refuses it. In Please Kill Me there is not even isolation, at least until the last pages. And yet all you had to do to prove that there is an irreducible music at the core of the book that denies the reality of inner lives was to catch Nike’s “Search and Destroy” commercial during the Olympics: a montage of violent sports images running over a twenty-three-year-old Stooges song that the world outside of the one Please Kill Me describes hasn’t begun to catch up with.
Originally published in Interview Magazine, October 1996