Discover more from Greil Marcus / Letter in the Ether
The 'Days Between Stations' columns, Interview magazine 1992-2008: Wanted for wailing
Recently, one rock critic was talking to another rock critic about their disappointment over a new book by a third critic. “I don’t think he likes rock ‘n’ roll very much,” said the first critic. “What in the world Is that supposed to mean?” I asked the second critic, who was telling me this story—I’ve known the third critic, the author, for nearly thirty years, and if he doesn’t like rock ‘n’ roll it doesn’t exist. “Oh, you know,” said the second critic, “guitars.”
Now, this is commonplace: the idea that rock ‘n’ roll is guitars, which really means white guys with guitars. The notion is so antiquated and yet persistent (last fall, a Van Halen greatest-hits album leaped to the top of the charts in a single bound) that it’s one reason the very term rock ‘n’ roll now sounds old-fashioned and narrow, like a special-interest group or a private club.
Or like some arcane form of folk music. That’s what I hear in the second Counting Crows album, Recovering the Satellites (DGC), another late-1996 single-bound Number One, and in what may be the last Nirvana album, the live From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah (DGC). The Counting Crows record has been dismissed as one big whine about the miseries of stardom, while the Nirvana release has been celebrated as more or less the same thing. But both sound like the work not of whiners but of true believers: believers, to take a phrase from Robert Palmer’s Rock & Roll: An Unruly History, in “The Church of the Sonic Guitar.” Recovering the Satellites is a confused, passionate story about having all your dreams come true; From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah is a complex, sardonic story about the notion that a rock ‘n’ roll song can say anything. The guitars that dominate both records are old-fashioned; so is the romanticism.
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From “School” to “Blew,” Kurt Cobain grinds sound out of his guitar so that every shaped note seems surrounded by a cloud of dust and detritus. It’s the sound of hard work. Even sped up a bit from their recorded versions for onstage performance, the songs feel slowed down. There’s a great quest underway here—a quest to discover whether the joke that rock ‘n’ roll had become by the late ’80s or early ’90s was ultimately on those who scorned it or on those who embraced it despite itself, because they could speak no other language—and that quest will take as long as it takes. “Polly” lasts less than two-and-a-half minutes, but it also lasts forever: Polly—tied up, raped, and tortured—never gets out of the room she’s been stashed in. With wild flurries of broken chords and incomplete phrases, Cobain can suck the air out of the room in which you’re listening, yet his uniqueness as a guitarist was in his ability to meander around paths that to anyone else would have been self-evidently straight and narrow, to get lost in a space that, as he defines it, seems to lack even the room in which to move.
Techno and ambient meander, too, of course, but on the paths they trace there are no rooms, no fixed spaces, no locked doors, just an endless, circular hallway many stones above the ground, or under it. There are no bodies in the music, only specters. But the guitar is a kind of body—in a certain way it doesn’t talk as much as take up space—and Cobain plays it as if it were something that could die, though it doesn’t. As one has to hear it now, From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah would seem to be about a specter, but ultimately it is all body. Sorry, Kurt, death didn’t do it. In this music there is still nowhere to run and nowhere to hide. It’s all about as up-to-date as a James Dean movie, and as queerly resistant—to time, maturity, death again. Yes, guitars: When Cobain’s sound can no longer get across, it won’t matter that the Pet Shop Boys are as rock ‘n’ roll as Nirvana. Neither will sound like more than a whine.
Well, at least Kurt Cobain paid for his success; all Counting Crows’ Adam Duritz does is count his money and run around with actresses. So goes the critical buzz; but really, people ought to stop reviewing lyric sheets. “Angels of the Silences” may not sound like more than a whine in a few months, but as soon as it appeared on the radio it ran past everything around it. Unlike songs by Jewel, Garbage, or No Doubt, it didn’t take the time to preen—it was in a hurry. Again it was all about guitars: the sort of momentum only guitars can generate.
Since 1993, when Counting Crows hit with “Mr. Jones,” Duritz has been on the air singing about wanting to be a star, even though, as “Mr. Jones” made absolutely clear, he didn’t know why and he didn’t know how. Now, after the six million copies his band’s debut album sold, he is a star, and he still doesn’t know why and he doesn’t know how. Unquestionably, on a lyric sheet, this is not very interesting. But what is interesting is why “Mr. Jones” is still on the radio after all this time, and why nothing else on the charts has the spark of Duritz’s new songs. “Mr. Jones” is still on the radio because you can’t get to the bottom of it—of the rhythms in its guitars. The embarrassed sneer of the singer is directed only at himself, and the guitars mirror his expression, cutting back and forth against each other, a riff just barely peeking above the beat to tease and mock before disappearing, almost before you can register it. The next time the song comes up you’ll be waiting for that moment and you might even miss it; still, as a specter, it will now be the whole song for you.
That’s another thing about guitars: As they can be bodies, they can also be ghosts. Duritz’s uniqueness as a singer is in the way he talks to himself, as if there is no audience, as if the friends and enemies and lovers in his songs are at best distant memories and at worst figments of his imagination. On Recovering the Satellites, as on “Mr. Jones,” this sense of abstraction, of sounds vanishing unheard, upends the music. It’s spooky. He sings about hearing himself on the radio, just as in “Mr. Jones” he dreams about it. Someone tells him everybody loves him, just as in “Mr. Jones” he sounded like an idiot wishing everybody would—a happy idiot. Now he sounds like a person who’s figured out the concept has no meaning.
Recovering the Satellites is a vanishing act; From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah, the legacy of one who took himself away, could not be more physically present. They both sound odd, like throwbacks, as if they know rock ‘n’ roll has made no progress since 1956, and as if they don’t care.
Originally published in Interview Magazine, February 1997