Purely by coincidence I followed Tony Judt’s Ill Fares the Land with Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces in my book list reading, I mean, as far as coincidences can be considered to happen with book lists. We all have our preferences and areas of interest. Even – especially? – with the books we read.
While wildly different in many aspects, these two books share what you might call an inciting incident. Ill Fares the Land is a lament for the loss of the post-World War II consensus of collective well-being, the welfare state as it was also known. Think an academic version of Harry’s Last Stand.
As the subtitle of Lipstick Traces suggests, A Secret History of the 20th-Century, Marcus’s book casts something of a wider net. In fact, all told, he covers terrain that touches upon the better part of a couple of millennia. You want early Christian mystics? Marcus’ll give you early Christian mystics. Carthars, The Brethren of the Free Spirit, the French Revolution, Marxism, all before touching down in the 20th-century.
But the two books converge on their jumping off point, the mid-to-late-1970s. For Judt, it was the rise of Anglo-American neoconservative movement, Thatcherism in Britain, Reaganism in the States. Marcus is a couple years earlier, the advent of punk rock, but the book heads off in its multitude of directions with the Sex Pistols final concert, capping off their first and only American tour in 1979 with a show in San Francisco. Marcus Greil was in attendance and it was a transformative moment for him.
The punk movement wasn’t about any real sense of rebellion or revolution. There was no answer to the question What Do We Want. Although, as it evolved some of the early pioneers, and I’m thinking largely of The Clash here, tried to make some sense of it, give it some political direction. A branch of punk became synonymous with anti-Thatcherism.
But for The Sex Pistols, The Ramones and hundreds if not thousands of other bands who came and went with one record, rebellion was impossible because there was nothing to rebel against. The whole rotten (ha, ha) edifice of post-war, post-60s society stunk to high heaven and needed to be knocked down, put out of its misery.
This was more a spirit of negation, as Marcus sees it. Denial. Something without existence. Contradiction. Refutation. Rebuttal.
What are you rebelling against, Johnny? Whadda got?
It is this force Lipstick Traces charts. A certain human impulse The Sex Pistols didn’t invent. They were just a manifestation of it. “A conflict,” Marcus writes in reference to the May 1968 student uprising in Paris May 1968, “between organized forces of orderly protest and the presence of dissolution.”
Much of the focus in Marcus’ book is taken up with his examination of the Dada movement, springing up into existence in reaction to the horrors of the first World War. In the beginning of the modern world, there was Dada. The old orderly world of the 19th-century, the logical outcome of the Age of Enlightment, was in the midst of illogically destroying itself to no particular end. There was no ‘good’ war to this, only senseless slaughter.
So if the world itself was senseless, without any meaning, why should art have to make any sense? The Dadaists cavorted up on stage, making no sense, at the Cabaret Voltaire, mocking the world as it went up in flames, hopefully to survive and dance on its grave. Talking about his own experience nearly 50 years after the Dadaists, 1964 at Berkeley during the Free Speech Movement, Marcus writes: “It was a period of doubt, chaos, anger, hesitation, confusion, and finally joy – that’s the word. Your own history was lying in pieces on the ground, and you had the choice of picking up the pieces or passing them by.”
Lipstick Traces unfolds like that, moving from era to era, epoch to epoch, back and forth throughout history, sometimes on the same page, trying to grab hold of that urge, that drive, that need to tear the whole fucker up, burn it down, bring it down. Whether or not it was in opposition to early religious doctrine, the ancien régime, World War I, World War II, post-war consumer society, seethed a powerful undercurrent of negation. “I wanna destroy passerby,” yelped Johnny Rotten.
Such fury doesn’t have much of a half-life. As Marcus notes, all these movements burned out quickly, disappearing without leaving much evidence behind. “Fugitive footnotes,” he suggests, “to a chronicle of possibility and failure.” All that remains are “unfinished stores, unfinished business.”
Dada collapsed and 40 years later up sprang the Letterist and Situationsist International. While they may not be well remembered, the uprisings they inspired and plugged into most certainly are. 1968 represented the high point “when everything seemed possible, everything was interesting.” All across the west, the status quo was being rocked, things were breaking apart. Hunter S. Thompson described it a few years later in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas:
It seems like a lifetime, or at least a Main Era — the kind of peak that never comes again. San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run… but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant…
There was madness in any direction, at any hour. You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning…
And that, I think, was the handle — that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply PREVAIL. There was no point in fighting — on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave…
So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high water mark — that place where the wave finally broke, and rolled back.
This, in many ways, represents the core idea of Greil Marcus’ Lipstick Traces. That one magic moment that seemed the world was about to change for the better. It didn’t, at least not then and there. 1968 brought Richard Nixon to power. Similarly, the impetus behind punk rock crashed and burned, and in its wake came Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.
Read (or scream) the lyrics to The Sex Pistols No Feelings and tell me they don’t sound like the anthem to our current neoconservative age. “I got no emotions for anybody else/You better understand I’m in love with myself/Myself, my beautiful self/A no feelings/A no feelings/A no feelings/For anybody else…”
Defenders of the welfare state like Tony Judt certainly admitted to the problems it faced in the 70s but there were fixes that could’ve been applied that weren’t tantamount to a full-fledged dismantling, its negation. That’s the problem with a complete gut. Without a plan how to rebuild, you never know what you’re going to get, and we’re left “damning the fact that the world is more like it is now than it ever was before…”
Malcolm McLaren, often thought of as the brains behind The Sex Pistols, was part of group called King Mob that, feeding off the unrest going on throughout western Europe in 1968, took to the streets of London rampaging against what Marcus describes as ‘the spectacle-commodity society’. One of the acts of vandalism created by this group was to graffiti the walls of the city. One particular piece of graffiti caught my attention.
I CAN’T BREATHE
I can’t breathe.
For those of us currently bemoaning ‘the fact that the world is more like it is now than it ever was before’, take heart. The spirit depicted in Lipstick Traces hasn’t died. It’s merely gone underground, waiting to burst up through the cracks of a dilapidated, tired structure.
— bookishly submitted by Cityslikr