Real Life Rock Top Ten

A Monthly Column
of Everyday Culture
and Found Objects

by Greil Marcus

(1/2) Stephen Burt, Belmont: Poems (Graywolf Press) and Breaking Circus, “Driving the Dynamite Truck” (Homestead, 1986). “Yes, another / poem about flowers and kids,” Burt says early on in this collection, but the ruling themes are age and how to stave off cowardice—how to keep rage alive. “We have task force reports, // but no tasks, and no force” could be a sentimental definition of poetry as such, but that’s not how it works here. Rather, it’s a question: of course we have tasks, of course we have force, but what are they, and where is it? “You realize that you have become the person you are— / not who you were, not who you want to be, / but something to close to them, in exactly the way / the new low-intensity streetlights come close to the moon.” It may all come to a head in two poems that could not be more different: the searing, all-but-evaporating “There,” which can leave you stranded in abstraction and disconnection, and “In Memory of the Rock Band Breaking Circus.” “We barely remember you in Minnesota we love // our affable Replacements,” Burt, late of Macalester College, in St.Paul, writes of a mid-’80s Chicago and Minneapolis group—but Breaking Circus played “as if you knew you had to get across / your warnings against all our lives as fast / as practicable before roommate or friend / could get up from a couch to turn them off.” It’s that “them” that sticks: it’s the warnings that had to be turned off, not merely a record. And while it’s impossible to hear the band’s “(Knife in the) Marathon” today on its own terms, “Driving the Dynamite Truck” remains a weirdly balanced paean to destruction: a clipped, spoken vocal over a melody that comments on itself, a harsh, seemingly one-dimensional pulse that as it moves across the minutes picks up the back-and-forth dynamics of a Gang of Four record from five years before. There’s no warmth, no flattery of the players or whoever might be listening.

(3) David Lynch, The Big Dream (Sacred Bones). On Lynch’s first album, Crazy Clown Time, you were listening to an old man who never got over high school—who could never get his pornographic fantasies of Sue and Darlene and Diane out of his head. Here the voice is more that of an old codger unwilling to bring anything into too tight a focus, and the record rides on its music. “The most significant event of the twentieth century?” Kristine McKenna asked Lynch back in the twentieth century. “The birth of rock ’n’ roll,” he said, and now, in a different language than he spoke in Blue Velvet or Wild at Heart or Twin Peaks, he’s taking his place in that story. Like Nina Simone and the Stooges before him, he goes up against Bob Dylan’s deadly “Ballad of Hollis Brown” as if it were a test, and from the first two words you know you’re hearing about a real person, even if Dylan made him up.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Greil Marcus is the author of Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century, Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music, and The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy and the American Voice, and other books. His column, Real Life Rock Top Ten, runs monthly in the Believer.

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