Punk and the Long-Distance Critic

Greil Marcus’s Ranters & Crowd Pleasers: Punk in Pop Music, 1977-92 is a personal but accurate introductory text to the underground music that formed the primary basis of my musical education and perhaps yours. The book starts off to the foreboding tune of Let It Bleed, “the last music of the sixties” and an accurate foreteller of the gloom, aimlessness, and decay in the long years before punk broke. Running through the rest of this collection of articles (mostly from the Village Voice, New West, and Artforum), you’ll find most of the usual suspects of the time, many seen through the prisms of the manifold Marcusian obsessions: the record, the song, the line, the word that defines an era, a moral, a moment, an emotion; intellectuals who play music (Gang of Four, the Mekons); pantheonic figures who manipulate the music to their own ends (Joe Strummer, Elvis Costello, Bruce Springsteen [?]); the idea of the “secret history” that is told when a music dies or is suppressed but pops up unbidden a decade later and a continent away. Marcus went to Berkeley in the 60s, where he met a pudgy would-be megalomaniac named Jann Wenner. Marcus was Rolling Stone’s first record-review editor and responsible for much of the lucidity that came out of its first years, a prodigious legacy. His luminous and revealing Mystery Train was published in 1975; since then he’s embarked on ever more ambitious projects, culminating in the Finnegans Wake-ish Lipstick Traces, a sort of unified theory of secret histories. In the meantime, the national music magazines have become so chock-full of highly moral, deeply felt, and pristinely written criticism that there’s just no room for Marcus in them. He now writes his regular column for Artforum and a new one for Interview, edged out of the mainstream by the same forces the music he writes about was.

Hitsville Answers Your Cable Questions

TCI, the company that oversees us Chicago Cable subscribers, says that the reconfiguration of the channel lineup won’t begin until April 1, but it’s actually already started. Two weeks ago the Jukebox Network, Hitsville’s only source of 2 Live Crew videos, disappeared, replaced by interesting but unintelligible things going on in Korean. TCI’s Richard Coats explains that the Box is now on channel 63. (The preview guide still says channel 43, though.) MTV, currently on 41, will be moving to channel 61. VH-1, for some reason, will stay at channel 40. Since I had Coats on the line, I asked a couple of questions that had been bugging me. Why does VH-1 cut off so abruptly every afternoon, replaced by the Comedy Channel, for instance? Turns out that Viacom, parent of MTV, VH-1, and Nickelodeon, wanted their new all-comedy channel on the air as well. “We said great,” Coats says. “And what do you want to take off so we have room for it, and can we direct the complaints about it to you?” The company ended up sacrificing half of VH-1’s hours to promote their stupid comedy channel. In a few years, Hitsville predicts, cable will consist of C-Span, the Home Shopping Network, and 58 other channels of stand-up. There’s far too much comedy on cable, and not enough humor.

I also asked Coats why a subscriber can’t say, Hey, give me a 24-hour VH-1 and no Vision channel, for chrissakes. His answer: the distribution cables are “maxed out,” and just don’t have room to send out the additional channel. One other thing: Why is Chicago Cable’s transmittal of broadcast channels so crummy in Lakeview? It should be perfect, he replied. Check your connections: if the ghosts on NBC and CBS are still there, call service.

Yet More on the Grammys

Eric Clapton’s sweep of the six top Grammy awards was indeed rare: He’s now in a select group that includes multiple quintuple winner Stevie Wonder, Simon and Garfunkel (five for Bridge Over Troubled Water in 1970), Michael Jackson (eight for Thriller in ’83), Quincy Jones in 1990 (six for Back on the Block), and–ahem–Christopher Cross (five for his eponymous debut in ’80). We have this sort of information at our fingertips here at Hitsville World HQ. Here’s a question for you: What’s the dumbest best-new-artist Grammy ever? The Swingle Singers in 1963? Men at Work in 1982? “Boogie Oogie Oogie” auteurs A Taste of Honey in 1978? The envelope, please. It’s the Starland Vocal Band, creators of “Afternoon Delight” and the best new artist of 1976!…David Rothschild, New City’s weekly Raw Material columnist, moves to the Trib’s Home Front local music column this week. Home Front was begun by free-lancer Mark Caro, now a Trib staffer and working with Kidnews; of late it had been the rather less interested work of one Mary Stevens and should improve now. Raw Material, meanwhile, is being taken over by Ben Kim, a new New City staffer who seems to have something to say and the chops to say it. His first effort was about all-rap WJPC, a splendid subject for an inaugural column. If you still have the February 23 Village Voice around, look for Kim’s Voice-ified but personal and cogent meditation on Ice Cube’s The Predator….Bash & Pop, the new band fronted by the Replacements’ Tommy Stinson, had a show scheduled for Lounge. Ax on March 20. It was canceled. Why? Apparently Warner Brothers didn’t want it competing with other shows by the Poster Children and Pure the same night.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Chris Duffey.