Greil Marcus, author of Mystery Train, widely acclaimed as the best book ever written about America as seen through its music, began work on this new book out of a fascination with the Sex Pistols: that scandalous antimusical group, invented in London in 1975 and dead within two years, which sparked the emergence of the culture called punk. “I am an antichrist!” shouted singer Johnny Rotten—where in the world of pop music did that come from? Looking for an answer, with a high sense of the drama of the journey, Marcus takes us down the dark paths of counterhistory, a route of blasphemy, adventure, and surprise.
This is no mere search for cultural antecedents. Instead, what Marcus so brilliantly shows is that various kinds of angry, absolute demands—demands on society, art, and all the governing structures of everyday life—seem to be coded in phrases, images, and actions passed on invisibly, but inevitably, by people quite unaware of each other. Marcus lets us hear strange yet familiar voices: of such heretics as the Brethren of the Free Spirit in medieval Europe and the Ranters in seventeenth-century England; the dadaists in Zurich in 1916 and Berlin in 1918, wearing death masks, chanting glossolalia; one Michel Mourre, who in 1950 took over Easter Mass at Notre-Dame to proclaim the death of God; the Lettrist International and the Situationist International, small groups of Paris—based artists and writers surrounding Guy Debord, who produced blank-screen films, prophetic graffiti, and perhaps the most provocative social criticism of the 1950s and ’60s; the rioting students and workers of May ’68, scrawling cryptic slogans on city walls and bringing France to a halt; the Sex Pistols in London, recording the savage “Anarchy in the U.K.” and “God Save the Queen.”
Although the Sex Pistols shape the beginning and the end of the story, Lipstick Traces is not a book about music; it is about a common voice, discovered and transmitted in many forms. Working from scores of previously unexamined and untranslated essays, manifestos, and filmscripts, from old photographs, dada sound poetry, punk songs, collages, and classic texts from Marx to Henri Lefebvre, Marcus takes us deep behind the acknowledged events of our era, into a hidden tradition of moments that would seem imaginary except for the fact that they are real: a tradition of shared utopias, solitary refusals, impossible demands, and unexplained disappearances. Written with grace and force, humor and an insistent sense of tragedy and danger, Lipstick Traces tells a story as disruptive and compelling as the century itself.
A coruscatingly original piece of work, vibrant with the energy of the bizarre happenings it maps out.
That Marcus can kick off and end his exhaustive, but always clear-headed, cross-epochal trek with the Sex Pistols—and make it all cohere—is but one indication of how fully he meshes the academy and the gutter.
Lipstick Traces has the energy of its obsessions, and it snares you in the manner of those intense, questing and often stoned sessions of intellectual debate you may have experienced in your college years. It was destined, in other words, to achieve cult status.
In 1989, Harvard University Press published Lipstick Traces, the second book by the American writer and critic Greil Marcus. It was a dazzling creation, mapping out an untold 'secret history' which connected the Sex Pistols, the Dadaists, the Parisian événements of 1968, that legendary subversive clique the Situationist International and an Anabaptist revolt in 16th-century Germany, led by a notorious libertine named John of Leyden. Among the book's most ardent fans, it sparked real epiphanies… It stands as a singularly idiosyncratic product of a genre-cum-tradition rooted in the business of writing about musicians and the whirl of ideas that once surrounded them… [Marcus] manages some of the finest music writing ever to make it on to the page… My 20-year-old copy of Lipstick Traces is the one book I would save from my proverbial burning house.
For anybody who wants to go deeper into the ontology of an idea that animates a kind of music, or is illuminated by that music, read Greil Marcus's Lipstick Traces, just reissued in an expanded edition for the book's twentieth anniversary. I often say that Traces is the best book ever written about music, even though it's not actually about music: it is about the life of an idea.
I first read Lipstick Traces as a penniless traveler, hiding in the bathroom of a late-night express train from Cologne to Berlin. My paranoia was considerably eased as I delved into the lives of various misfits and aesthetic revolutionaries throughout the twentieth century. As dawn broke and the train pulled into the station, I disembarked, feeling not shell-shocked from the conductor's repeated passes to my stall, but decidedly refreshed.
The 'secret' of Marcus's history is its poetry…widely separated persons and events call out to each other and 'connect' precisely because so many of ordinary history's causal and syntactic arrangements have been positively negated.
Greil Marcus has developed an ability to discern an art movement, or an entire country, lurking inside a song.
Probably the most astute critic of American popular culture since Edmund Wilson.
- 496 pages
- 6-3/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Belknap Press
From this author
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