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What the Fuck Is Greil Marcus Writing About on Page 2 of the New York Times' Arts Section Every Monday? The first of the year saw Berkeley's Greil Marcus debuting a new column in the New York Times. Marcus is the longtime rock critic, author (Mystery Train, Lipstick Traces), and writer on art, American studies, and various odd corners of pop culture. His column, One Step Back, began in the Times' Living Arts section Jan. 5. The subjects have been dizzyingly broad: the malevolence in the work of J.T. Walsh (a nice tribute just weeks before the character actor's unexpected death); the fractured sonic constructions of DJ Shadow; a strange Minneapolis art installation that attempts to re-create the feel of a fleabag hotel; a 1903 advertisement for a Rexall drugs elixir for a supposed disease called "Americanitis." And throughout, of course, the Marcusian tics that amuse his partisans and annoy his detractors: a fondness for slashing, searching connections between disparate times, people, eras, schools of thought; twisted, abstract takes on the smallest of objects or ideas; reverberating examples of the shuddering insecurities and traumas beneath the American psyche; and digressions on the nature of pop music. The column took a strange turn even by Marcus' standards with three missives that began in February, however. The first was a chat with Pere Ubu's David Thomas; the next continued with Thomas and then suddenly veered into an inquiry into the Jim Jarmusch movie Dead Man; the third segued Thomas out and riffed on Dead Man again. As columns in daily newspapers go, it was a fairly unusual, impressionistic sequence. When Riff Raff checked in with Marcus recently, the writer protested that the Thomas-Dead Man series wasn't that odd; Thomas' strange way of telling stories, he said, seemed to him to have echoes in Jarmusch's, so the transition made sense. The Times column, he said, came about after an editor expressed a desire to have a weekly voice mulling over pop culture; he has a one-year agreement to provide a weekly piece on a topic of his choosing. To concentrate on it, he gave up most of his other regular writing chores, most notably his 7-year-old Real Life Rock Top 10 column in Artforum; Days Between Stations, his monthly contribution to Interview, has been cut back to six times a year. Those keeping track will note that Marcus has also written columns over the years for Rolling Stone (books), Politicks (film), The Village Voice (music), New West and then California (music and books), and, back in the day, the S.F. mag called City (TV). Marcus said he finds the new endeavor both challenging and refreshing. He's never done a weekly column before; he also noted that the Times is a rather more high-profile forum for his work than he's previously had. It's also obviated the routine of friends and acquaintances saying they can't read his work: "Now, if they want to find it, they can't use that excuse," he said drily. And the subject for the column? "I can write about anything I want that has to do with arts or culture," he said. "I don't have to tell them ahead of time or clear anything with anyone. And the editing has been great. It's very light and always to the point." Thus far, he likes it: "It's very nice to do it in a paper that everyone can read," he reiterated. "It's delightful to write something and have it in print just a few days later. I'm having a great time; I hope they like it at the other end." (B.W.)

Re-Load, Rinse, Repeat The enormous crane-mounted spotlight aimed at a third-floor window at Hamilton Baker Square last Saturday looked like a cyclopean robot. Inside the South of Market sound stage, where an MTV crew was broadcasting a live show called Metallica: Reload, Rehearse, Request, the blinding rays of that light were supposed to hide the fact that the set was a stage, but a pair of windmill propellers flanking the band gave away that game. The idea for the show was a good one as far as self-promotional MTV specials go: Metallica would play a few songs from their most recent album, Re-Load, and then honor requests for songs that people actually wanted to hear. The 200-plus assembled were mostly either members of the Metallica fan club or contest winners jittery with the potent mix of being part of an exclusive Metallica event and the possibility of being on television. They sat on crates close to the band, or were sprinkled around some perimeter bleachers to fill in the long camera shots with enthusiastic fist-pumps. (Even the trolley cameraman flashed the devil sign.) The show began with a mercifully short acoustic set. (James Hetfield maintained that his guitar was an electric and therefore not "Metallica unplugged," but the man doth protest too much.) It got better when the band went electric; given a live performance setting, Metallica can even make stinkers like Re-Load's "Devil's Dance" sound heavy. The event was just like an actual band rehearsal, except for the six cameras, the MC (a cheerleading Matt Pinfield), the regularly scheduled breaks, and the several dozen easily riled hangers-on. Riff Raff thought the whole request process might be a sham -- are a bunch of global superstars really going to go back into the catalog and do "Metal Militia" from Kill 'Em All? Indeed, the band ignored calls for crowd-pleasers like "Enter Sandman" and "Battery," from Master of Puppets. What may or may not have been the day's one moment of spontaneity came when Metallica asked a lean, muscle-shirted young fan to step up and sing "Creeping Death." He sang it with enough passion and skill that it seemed more than a little suspicious to us. But hey, in the end Riff Raff bought it. It felt true, and by the implicit logic of the medium, if it was on TV, it must be so. (Paul Kimball)

Swing! Time At a panel discussion at the San Francisco Bay Area Book Fest last November, V. Vale, founder of the Search & Destroy zine and later the line of RE/Search (now V/Search) books, and Henry Rollins, former Black Flag singer and founder of 2.13.61 Publications, were given the laborious task of interviewing one another about the trials of DIY publishing. Toward the end of the hour, Rollins asked what projects Vale had in the works; the San Franciscan mentioned an upcoming V/Search book on swing. "Like jazz?" asked an incredulous Rollins. Vale nodded. Rollins' brow crinkled. "The [current] movement was started by a bunch of old punks," explained Vale. That didn't ring any bells either. Testimony regarding the kinship between modern-day swing dancing and the slam dancing of yesteryear left Rollins even more perplexed. It was as if he hadn't even heard of Swingers, much less Royal Crown Revue. Thankfully, Vale had ... though just barely. Vale admits that he came to swing late in life. Big Bad Voodoo Daddy's appearance in Swingers was his first exposure; then he saw the group perform live at Bimbo's in November of '96 with the New Morty Show. His second show was Lee Press-On & the Nails at Cafe Du Nord. "The dancing was really wild," says Vale. "I knew I had found something that I could get into ... I like to call it retro-roots culture reclamation." Vale took pictures and launched a yearlong project that has resulted in Swing! The New Retro Renaissance. The 224-page book includes over 30 interviews, with sections on vintage cars, films, clothes, dancing, zines, and two handy A-Z guides on current and pioneering swing acts. Vale says that while New Yorkers like to claim they start everything, there is no denying that the Swing Movement is a West Coast phenomenon, so it's unsurprising that much of the research for Swing! took place in our own back yard. Local swing mavericks Lavay Smith & Her Red Hot Skillet Lickers, the Rhumba Bums, Mr. Lucky, New Morty Show, and Lee Press-On & the Nails; promoters August Ragone, Tracy Dick, Spencer, and Slimm and Sunny Buick; the dance team Work That Skirt; and nightclub owners from the DeLuxe, Du Nord, Bimbo's, and the Hi-Ball all appear in features alongside outlying acts like Royal Crown Revue, Sam Butera, and Big Sandy. "This book is trying to be a swing bible of sorts," says Vale. "It'll probably fall short." At the very least, it's a damn good primer. Street date for Swing! The New Retro Renaissance is May 3; a book-release party will be held at Bimbo's 365 Club on May 12 where Vale will be sporting a spiffy new tie clip in the shape of a rifle. (S.T.)

Hot Fudge Spundae Last month the people over at Spundae productions marked five years of DJ parties in San Francisco; but the celebration is far from over. Next up: a full-length mix-CD produced, recorded, and released by their own newly finalized label. The venture began a year ago on a trial basis with the release of "Essence," a 12-inch single by Atax. Kelly Edwards, founder and promoter for both entities, feels that a record company is the logical next step for a production company. "It began as a market study of clubs in Europe," says Edwards. "Ministry of Sound in London made a transition into records and we model ourselves after European clubs like them. It seemed a natural thing to do." The Atax release enabled Spundae to test the market for home-grown dance releases. It also allowed them to make mistakes early on before going ahead with full-length CDs. "It was tough to get this up and running," says Edwards. "I didn't know anything about the record business or getting licensing for music used by DJs. I owe a lot to the Hardkiss Brothers [the local DJs] for giving me a ton of advice." Spundae's first full release, a mix CD by Minnesota immigrant DJ Jerry Bonham, will be released March 31. "We chose Jerry Bonham for the first CD because we wanted it to showcase local DJs and after 21 years of hard work he deserves the recognition," he says. The release will mark not only the first in a series of mix-CDs by local DJs but also the first by a club-cum-label in North America. "European clubs have done this for a while but this is the first for a North American club," says Edwards. (R.A.)

"There's nothing wrong with being fat is there? No!": Robert Arriaga (R.A.), Johnny DiPaola (J.D.P.), Karl D. Esturbense (K.D.E.), Jeff Stark (J.S.), Silke Tudor (S.T.), Heather Wisner (H.W.), and Bill Wyman (B.W.). Send Bay Area music news, band stories, or petty gripes to jstark@sfweekly.com, or mail it to Riff Raff, c/o SF Weekly.

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Jeff Stark

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Silke Tudor

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Heather Wisner

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Bill Wyman

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Johnny DiPaola

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Robert Arriaga

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Karl D. Esturbense

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