Riff Raff

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)

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