Real Life Rock Top Ten

A Monthly Column of Everyday Culture and Found Objects

by Greil Marcus

(1–4) Gina Arnold, Exile in Guyville (Blooms­bury/33 1/3); Liz Phair, Exile in Guyville (Matador, 1993); Pussy Galore, Exile on Main Street (Shove, 1986); Rolling Stones, Exile on Main Street (Rolling Stones, 1972). Arnold is a wonderful writer: fearless, precise, full of doubt, never taking anything for granted. She’s one of the few people left on the planet who uses presently correctly, which can create its own thrill. Going back to Liz Phair’s once notorious, now often forgotten, absurdly in-your-face ambitious first album—“a story about a girl and a time and a place,” the indie-rock world of Wicker Park, in Chicago, in the early 1990s, but in Phair’s hands a story told with such heart that you need no such details to catch every shade of meaning and emotion—Arnold has written a book about the past (“when dinosaurs, as personified by Dinosaur Jr., ruled the earth”), its follies and crimes (“Every past is worth condemning,” Arnold quotes Nietzsche, and then puts the words to work), and the idea of an imagined community that the past leaves behind (“Often I think I am a better informed citizen of Middlemarch, Bartsetshire,” Arnold says, “than I am of San Francisco”). And it’s about what it means for a young woman to simultaneously take on both everyone in her town and take down the album that sums up everything that everyone in her town would like to sound like, look like, act like, be—to take down a whole way of being in the world. “At one point we had felt like misfits or we had felt like ‘others,’” Carrie Brownstein recently said of the time she shared with Phair—in her case, in her own indie-rock community, in Olympia, Washington. “It was supposed to be come one, come all, you know? Freaks gather round and we’ll provide you with shelter. And you get in these scenes and you realize, no, I’ve gone from one set of rules and regulations and codifications of how you should dress and what you should know to another… What should have been inclusive felt very exclusive… there were times when I felt very flummoxed by the rules, very alienated, and I was trying way too hard to figure out not just what band to like, but am I liking the right album from that band. And then, am I liking the right band member in that band? Am I liking the right song on the right record? Have I picked the right year to stop liking the band?”

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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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