Illustration by Eleanor Davis
By Greil Marcus
It’s 2013, maybe 2014. You walk into one of the vinyl shops that are beginning to dot cheaper commercial neighborhoods—the Lower East Side in New York, Skid Row in Seattle, West Hollywood, maybe Stranded on Telegraph Avenue in Oakland. In a Used bin you find a twelve-inch disc with a blurry photo on the cover. You can see rope and some kind of machinery. You turn the sleeve over and on the back there’s a distorted but decodable picture: what seems to be an electric guitar with two leads attached, one taut, one loose, on a brown surface that might be a road. There are no words or even lettering on either side; the spine reads CHRISTIAN MARCLAY GUITAR DRAG NEON RECORDS. You pay $7.95—“It’s pristine,” says the guy at the counter—take it home, slit the shrink wrap, take out the record, put it on your turntable, info label side up: “Soundtrack from the video Guitar Drag, 2000. Recorded San Antonio, Texas, on November 18th, 1999. Released by Neon Records, Sweden 2006.” You cue it up and the tone arm slides right to the label. You adjust the weight and try again, with the same result: there are no grooves on the record. You turn it over, where the label again shows the blurry photo—now you can see the six tuning pegs of a guitar, a rope around the top of the neck, and a dirt road. 33rpm, it says. Now it plays.
At first there’s silence, then intermittent rumbling noises, scraping noises, the noise of something hollow. After a minute, you catch the high pings of a guitar being tuned, then feedback turning into a whine, bass strings being fingered, a quiet strum on the strings that echoes into more feedback, making a sound far too big for whatever it is you’re picturing as the action behind what you hear.
At two and a half minutes there’s the unmistakable sound of a car starting—the only unmistakable sound, it will turn out, that you’ll hear. Immediately a harsh noise kicks up, relentless, monochromatic; then a second noise, higher, then under the surface of the first two tones a bass counterpoint, so much bigger than the other sounds it almost drowns them out, then a treble sound raised over the others and held.
Another minute and a half is gone. The higher tone has shifted under the lower. The harsh noise has disappeared. Then the guitar begins to screech and reach; you can feel it trying to make a chord. There’s a bass rumble, then a scramble, the pace picking up: the simultaneous levels of sound are constantly changing position, fighting for primacy, bass versus treble, treble versus bass, scattered noise versus steady tone. You try to make a narrative out of it all, to see the music, because it is beginning to come across as some kind of music, going somewhere. Guitar Drag? For a moment you forget the label you read: maybe that’s the name of the band, a drone band like Th’ Faith Healers, with their mesmerizing thirty-two-minute “Everything, All at Once Forever,” which pretty much covers the territory. You hear the car engine again, revving up, increasing speed, until it vanishes under a furious sonic back-and-forth, yes no yes no yes no, that breaks any picture you were trying to make.
At seven minutes, the sound begins to fade, or seems to—the piece, or the documentary recording, or the computer manipulation, whatever it is you’re listening to, seems to assume a kind of shape. If you can’t find a story in the noise, or make one up, you can get used to the noise, stop hearing it, erase the story you can’t decode. The sound rises slightly, more modulated, less frantic, dissonant but with direction. Then the noise doubles into a high screech, then it narrows, so that there’s less to hear, and then you’re looking straight into a chainsaw, everything cut and torn apart, then quiet, an object being pulled through water or gravel, and then a surge of speed and volume, then the volume up and the speed down, a moment of suspense, a breath drawn, and at eleven minutes you don’t like where this is going.
Before that sensation can turn into a thought, the terrain the sound is making is invaded by the loud, focused sound of something boring into something else. Everything begins to break up. Even in the chaos you get used to it. The sound isn’t quieter but it seems to be. The boring noise recedes, replaced by a high scratch, the sound band narrowing even further as the car again picks up speed, even sounds, feels, as if it’s swerving from one side of the sound, or the road, to the other. With the screech constant, for the first time you begin to hear as if you’re listening from inside of the noise as it happens, as it is made, as it occurs—no epistemology rules any more than any sound does, but what you’re hearing is alive, trying to speak, trying to form a language.
You can distinguish three levels of sound. As at the start there is rumbling, feedback, but without a sense of movement, a slowing down, the sound narrowing from a dark mass to a single line drawn in pencil down a page. The sound holds, and, at just over fourteen minutes, it disappears.
Colson Whitehead’s novel John Henry Days centers on vastly different appearances of the ballad about the race between the great steel driver and the steam drill built to replace him, the story of how John Henry beat the machine at the cost of his own life: of how, as countless singers black and white have sung, from some time in the 1870s or the 1880s to this day, “he laid down his hammer and he died.” Parading through Whitehead’s pages are an unnamed singer searching the old song for new words, the Tin Pan Alley song plugger who at the start of the twentieth century becomes the first man to copyright it, a Mississippi blues singer recording it in Chicago in the 1930s, a crackhead singing it on the street in the 1990s. Alternating with their stories are the cynical adventures of a hack journalist named J., on a junket to Talcott, West Virginia, one of various places where the great race was supposed to have taken place in the years after the Civil War, now in 1996 celebrating the issue, right there in Talcott, of a thirty-two-cent first-class John Henry stamp. The town is celebrating the first annual John Henry Days festival. It’s going to put the town on the map.
Also in Talcott is Pamela Street, there to sell the town the contents of her late father’s John Henry Museum, which filled her family’s apartment in Harlem, a museum containing hundreds of recordings of the song, every sheet music version, lawn jockeys, paintings, theatrical programs and costumes, even five spikes a salesman claimed came from the Big Bend tunnel in Talcott, the very spot where John Henry stood side by side with the steam drill and a pistol shot sent them off. Her father bought all five—“the new school clothes could wait”—and hung them over the mantel. To a little girl they were five scary, threatening fingers: “a railroad hand,” a dead man’s hand, reaching out to grab her in the night. She hates everything about John Henry: her father’s obsession took away her childhood. But in spite of herself, she knows everything about John Henry.
She and J. approach the Talcott John Henry: a statue of a hugely muscled black man, stripped to the waist, with a hammer in his hands. They read the plaque: “This statue was erected in 1972 by a group of people with the same determination as the one it honors”—the Talcott Ruritan Club. In Whitehead’s novel, every time anyone confronts the song—a folklorist in the 1920s, seeking to prove the legend true or false, a little girl on Striver’s Row in Harlem in the 1950s, cheating on her piano lessons with what her outraged mother calls gutter music—they are, in their own way, singing it, and so Whitehead imagines the Talcott sculptor: “The artist was forced to rely on what the story worked on his brain. He looked at the footprint left in his psyche by the steeldriver’s great strides and tried to reconstruct what such a man might look like.”
“You see those dents in the statue?” Pamela says to J. “People come around and use it for target practice. One time they chained the statue to a pickup and dragged it off the pedestal down the road there. Then the statue fell off and they drove off so they found it next day just lying in the road.” “Probably not much to do here on a Saturday night,” says J.
This isn’t merely a story. The novel is made of accumulating detail, Whitehead researching down more than a century and then imagining every setting, every character’s milieu, what a room looks like, how people talk there, what they wear, what the air is like. But there are also coded, hidden details, and this—“One time they chained the statue to a pickup and dragged it off the pedestal down the road”—is one of them. It’s an illustration of the twists and tangles folk songs take as they emerge from real life, live on in the imaginative life of generations of singers and dancers, and then as the songs are pulled back into real, lived life, until you can’t tell the song from the events behind it and in front of it, the real from the imaginative—when you can’t tell if an event caused the song or the song caused the event. Here, the tale of people chaining the statue to a pickup truck and dragging it off of its pedestal is an inescapable, folk-fictional version of an actual historical event. For a novel published in 2001, there is no way that this is not a version of the murder of James Byrd, Jr., in Jasper, Texas, on June 7, 1998.
Byrd was forty-nine and black. He was walking home from a party. Three white men in a Ford pickup—John King, Russell Brewer, and Shawn Berry—offered him a ride. He climbed in. They drove off, pulled off the road out of sight, stopped, pulled him out, beat him, chained him by his ankles to the truck, and dragged him to death. When they finally dumped the body at the gate of a local black cemetery, there was no head and no right arm. Investigators determined that Byrd had tried to keep his head off the ground until the driver swerved and smashed him into a culvert. King and Brewer were both white supremacists—King had a tattoo of a black man hanging from a tree. Berry was sentenced to life; Brewer and King were sentenced to death. Brewer was executed in 2011.
In John Henry Days, and in history, this event can be seen—heard—as an unsinging of “John Henry,” with the black man stripped of his hammer, chained to the steam drill, and pulled through the tunnel like a coal car. It’s an argument that any lynching of a black American is an unsinging of “John Henry.” And it’s an argument that the song itself—whether called “John Henry,” “The Death of John Henry,” “Nine Pound Hammer,” “More About John Henry,” “New Railroad,” or “Spike Driver Blues”—is a symbolic unsinging of any and every lynching of a black person, an affirmation of the power of a single African American to deny and defeat the white power set against him, even if it costs him his life, but not his dignity, with the song rolling down the decades from the 1920s, when it was first recorded, taken up by Uncle Dave Macon, Mississippi John Hurt, Paul Robeson, the Monroe Brothers, Woody Guthrie, in the present day by Bruce Springsteen, the Los Angeles techno duo Snakefarm, the Boston bluegrass combo Crooked Still, and, taking John Henry from a factless past into the historical present, the British punk singer Jon Langford. Christian Marclay’s “Guitar Drag,” emerging out of this complex of real and imaginary situations, is another version of this version of the song.
Born in 1955 in California, raised in Switzerland, Marclay is best known for The Clock, first shown in 2010: his twenty-four-hour, minute-by-minute video collage of clips from thousands of movies that, playing only in real time—when you enter the viewing space in a gallery or a museum at 10:13 a.m., it’s 10:13 a.m. on the screen—creates a picture of an entire, mythic day. With hundreds of projects behind him, Marclay is an inveterate visual and sound artist who has always worked with musical themes, at first taking commercial albums and fitting them with new covers and labels, breaking and reassembling LPs and fitting the pieces of different records together into one that would actually play, redesigning, deforming, and distorting every kind of musical instrument or sound equipment, even scouring cities to photograph music-themed signs, advertisements, tattoos, and sound holes in walls and elevators. He is an omnivorous assemblage artist drawn to destruction: everything in his work is about taking something out of one context and putting it into another, or recognizing the way in which an object has lost its original, seemingly defining context and occupied another, so that every element of a construction, or deconstruction, begins to tell a story it never told before—but, the feeling is, a story it always wanted to tell.
Marclay’s real life as an artist began in 1977, when, attending the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston, he found a children’s Batman record in the street, run over but still intact. It played, and Marclay was drawn to the sounds made by the tire tracks on the grooves and the dirt and gravel embedded in them. “When a record skips or pops or we hear the surface noise, we try very hard to make [an] abstraction of it so it doesn’t disrupt the musical flow,” he said years later. “I try to make people aware of these imperfections and accept them as music; the recording is a sort of illusion while the scratch on the record is more real.”
On the art-world edges of the New York punk scene in the early 1980s, Marclay became a club disc jockey, a turntablist with as many as eight records spinning at once, scratching back and forth between them until a new music emerged and just as quickly erased itself. He invented the Phonoguitar, allowing him to scratch, distort, and remix a phonograph record while performing as if he were a guitarist, right down to bending the top of his body back in full guitar-hero mode. In 1983, at the Kitchen in New York, he first played “Ghost,” a scary, trance-like version of Jimi Hendrix’s utterly despairing “I Don’t Live Today,” from 1967. Nearly twenty years after his death, Hendrix remained larger than life, an unsolved mystery: “I think Jimi’s gonna be remembered for centuries, just like people like Leadbelly and Lightnin’ Hopkins,” John Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas said in 1992. “He’s really a folk hero, another John Henry.” “Will I live tomorrow?/Well, I just can’t say/Will I live tomorrow?/Well, I just can’t say/But I know for sure/I don’t live today.” Marclay didn’t sing those words—or he sang them in his own way. Moving the disc back and forth, he found tones in the grooves that had never been heard before. He turned words into echoes, and battered them in the air with complaints, criticisms, denials, all the sounds of distortion, until Hendrix could seem present, as a ghost presiding over the whole affair, and, as a ghost, as physically, cruelly dead as he had ever been. “Bands were being formed right and left,” Marclay said in 1992. “Grab a guitar for the first time and start a band. You would get a club date before even starting rehearsals. That’s how raw it was. A lot of it was bad but it didn’t matter. It was the energy that mattered.”
I grabbed a turntable and used it like a guitar. Ghost was an homage to Jimi Hendrix. I was using a turntable-console strapped around my neck like a guitar. . . . I’d play Hendrix records, scratch them bad, crush the tone arm through the grooves, and shove the thing in the amp to get feedback. I also used a wah-wah pedal. It was very loud. The portable turntable allowed me to move around and get into some Hendrix moves. What I always liked about Hendrix is the way he was pushing the limits of his instrument, looking for new sounds even if it meant burning his guitar. But Ghost was also dealing with the absence of the performer—the absence or death of the performer because of the recording technology. I was playing these records, going through the motions with my surrogate guitar. It was very ritualistic. I sort of became Jimi Hendrix. Instead of playing air-guitar, I was playing records.
What Marclay did onstage with “Ghost” is what he did on video with Guitar Drag. In 1998 he was on an airplane, reading Time; there was a story about the James Byrd murder. The only photo was of the back of the killers’ Ford, rust covering the insides and outside of the truck, with the license plate dead center, smashed, bent, the paint scratched to the point where TEXAS was barely legible. The picture stayed in Marclay’s mind as an image that wanted to be taken farther. A year later, in San Antonio as a resident artist, he determined to do it. He borrowed a truck—“from Linda Ronstadt’s cousin,” he said in 2013. “A Ford, a flatbed—or a Chevrolet, which has rock & roll resonance all over the place.” He recruited two people to shoot from the truck bed; he scouted locations. He mounted a Trace Elliot amplifier in the back of the truck.
As the video begins, a thin man, his face obscured by a baseball cap, is holding a new Fender Stratocaster. He plugs it in; with forceful gestures, he knots a rope around its neck and secures it to the back of the truck. He gets into the driver’s seat, starts the engine, and drives off. “I didn’t know if it was right, as a white artist, with a race crime,” Marclay said in 2013—even though, as the driver, he was throwing himself all the way into the story: he was the killer. Isaac Julien, a black British installation artist and filmmaker, was with Marclay in San Antonio: “Do it,” he said.
Immediately, the guitar is jerking, turning over, every movement, every movement inside every movement, shouting out of the amplifier, and at first you are attuned to the guitar as an instrument, interested to see what kind of noise it will make, and how long it will last. There is no reference to James Byrd. But within seconds you are drawn into the destruction as a thing in itself, an act with its own imperatives, rules, values, and aesthetics, and that destruction soon casts off any perspectives not completely sucked into an irreducible violence.
Marclay takes the truck down a paved road. Even if no thought of James Byrd enters your mind, even if you are sorting through art-world or rock & roll references—“the tradition of guitar-smashing,” Marclay has said of his own sense of the piece, “of the destruction of instruments in Fluxus”—the guitar is becoming a living thing, an animal or a person, something that can feel pain, and you are hearing it scream. The truck turns onto what looks like a dead swamp, a field of scrub and weeds, as if to drown the guitar in dirt. The sound it is making is full, undiminished, shooting out in too many directions. The truck races into woods, down back roads. There are constant cuts—sometimes Marclay stopped the truck and changed places with one of the videographers and vice versa—but there is no feeling of that. This is a race, a race to see how long it will take to destroy the guitar and whatever symbols and allegories, along with leaves, vines, and rocks, are wrapping themselves around the neck and tuning pegs—allegories like Dock Boggs’s stalker’s version of the murder ballad “Pretty Polly”: “He led her over hills and valleys so deep/He led her over hills and valleys so deep/At length Pretty Polly, she begin to weep.”
You are watching torture. You begin to flinch. You might turn away, but even if you don’t look there’s no stopping the sound. There is no abstraction. The truck pulls back onto a paved road, swerving hard to the left, to the right, the guitar swinging on the rope from one side of the road straight to the other, and while there may be a thinning in the sound, a hollowness, there’s no way to anticipate when the volume will shoot up, when a sound the guitar hasn’t made before will rise up and die. The truck slows down, speeds up, pulls the guitar over railroad tracks, through rocks and ever rougher surfacing, the guitar still speaking. The truck turns onto a wider road, a highway, the guitar slamming the pavement, by this time perhaps all the strings gone, the tuning pegs broken, and sound still streaming out of the body. What was clandestine before—the swamp, the field, the back roads—is now public, a crime in progress, anyone can see it, and you think, surely the police will stop it? There is no one else on the road. Is the man still in the cab of the truck? Is this some drama now so caught up in its own momentum it can play itself?
“We could not kill it,” Marclay said in 2013. “We tried to: that moment when the guitar goes over the train tracks, embedded in the ground, but it still jumps into the air—the tracks marking the racial divide.” As the piece ends—and you can feel it ending, slowing down—the truck crests a hill in a haze of sun and dust, like the end of a Western, John Wayne framed in the light in the cabin door in The Searchers, any movie cowboy trailing off into the sunset with his horse. There is no resolution, no real ending at all. “Once you go down that road,” Marclay said in 2013, echoing Detour or Raw Deal or so many other noir films of the 1940s, “there’s no way out.”
Guitar Drag is a scratch in the record—the historical record. If you put the soundtrack record back on with all of this in the front of your mind, other music begins to rise out of it. There is most of all Jimi Hendrix’s Woodstock transformation of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the greatest and most unstable protest song there is: every time you hear it, it says something else. In the twisting abstractions of that performance, in the music of Guitar Drag—you can’t call it chance music; you could call it forced music—you can begin to hear the droning abstractions in the blues. The gonging in Blind Lemon Jefferson’s 1928 “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean.” The intimations of the uncanny and the unknowable in the way Robert Johnson’s guitar strings seem to stand apart from his fingers in his 1936 “Come on in My Kitchen.” The push toward wordlessness, into a music of pure signs, the refusal to even approach a narrative, in John Lee Hooker’s “John Henry,” with a pace that, if the true context of Hooker’s song is not a private recording for a record collector in 1949 but a video by a sound artist more than half a century later, can seem to match the pacing of Guitar Drag so completely that Hooker’s own guitar could have been cut right into the noise made by the amplifier on the truck and the guitar on the road. “John Henry laid his hammer down/And headed back to his hometown/But someone turned the signpost round/Someone took the road signs down,” Jon Langford sang in 2006 in his strongest Welsh accent in “Lost in America,” a song about the American Dream as snake oil that the singer buys in spite of himself—and soon John Henry is everywhere, taking the place of the engineer in “Wreck of the Old 97” in Virginia in 1903, “scalded to death by the dream,” then, one September morning just two years short of a century after that, reappearing in the last verse to reveal Superman as merely one more version of the superman who was there first, John Henry stepping forth, once more, to “turn the planes around today/Make them fly the other way.”
John Henry, the man who denied the machine, the machine that, in the Disney version of the story, comes out of the other side of the mountain as a single metal scrap, the former slave who traces his country’s history in “Lost in America,” is in Guitar Drag. “The record is supposed to be a stable reproduction of time,” Marclay said in 1991, speaking of any recording, by anyone, “but it’s not. Time and sound become elusive again because of mechanical failure. Technology captures sound and stamps it on these disks. They then begin lives of their own. Within these lives, technological cracks—defects—occur. That’s when it gets interesting for me, when technology fails. That’s when I feel the possibility of expression.” Isn’t that what John Henry says, when he challenges the steam drill to a duel?
You can hear the heedlessness of “Shake Some Action” in Guitar Drag; you can hear Little Richard’s “Keep a Knockin’.” I imagine Little Richard alone in the setting Marclay designed for viewings of Guitar Drag—“a projection, it has to be loud, it has to be experienced in a black box where you can lose track of time and space, lose your balance. The image is jerky and you may get dizzy. It has to be a physical experience you need to feel it through your body”—and I imagine Little Richard tapping his foot. I think of the end of American Hot Wax.
In this 1978 movie, it’s 1959; Tim McIntire’s Alan Freed arrives outside the Brooklyn Paramount for his big rock & roll extravaganza, with Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis topping the bill—appearing in the movie as themselves, Berry time-traveling effortlessly, Lewis making it by sheer force of will. There’s a huge crowd outside. As Freed heads for the entrance, standing straight, moving to his own beat, snapping his limbs like fingers, he’s accosted by a Dion figure. He’s got this group, Mr. Freed, he wants to audition right on the street; Freed calls for quiet and they go right into an a cappella “I Wonder Why.” Freed’s grin is tight, hinting at fear, fatalism, even suicide. His career is crashing all around him. He’s about to be kicked off the air, blacklisted for payola; the D.A. is going to shut down his show and throw him in jail. McIntire, like Freed an alcoholic, a drug addict, carried all that with him, dying at forty-one, eight years after playing Freed, who died at forty-three: “Dead frequency, Slick, over and out,” Charles Wright wrote of McIntire in 2005. “It’s mostly a matter of what kind of noise you make.”
Through the window of the D.A.’s car, hovering on the edges of the crowd, you see a ragged figure, in a state of utter obliviousness, pounding on an overturned garbage can, his pompadour flopping into his face, shouting out “Good Golly Miss Molly” so tunelessly you can barely recognize it. This is less Little Richard not invited to the Brooklyn Paramount but showing up anyway than it’s the Little Richard specter—the specter of the excluded, silenced, worthless music hovering behind every finished piece of rock & roll, the unheard music that reveals the music that is heard as a fake. In his car, plotting strategy, the D.A. doesn’t notice the bum in the alley, he isn’t listening to him, but subconsciously he hears him, and what he hears is what he sees. “Look at that filth,” the D.A. says of the boys and girls, black and white, crowding into the theater.
With Jerry Lee Lewis as the last act, standing on top of his burning piano and the stage covered with cops, teenagers grabbed by police as others are trampled as they rush down the stairs, the audience flees into the night. Freed clutches a small boy. In the last shot, the bum stands on the now-deserted street, playing for the sky, pounding his can: “I say a wop bop a loo bop a lop bam boom. Got a girl. Named Sue. She knows just what to do. Got a girl”—and the movie is over. That scene too is in the music of Guitar Drag.
From The History of Rock 'n' Roll in Ten Songs, by Greil Marcus,
published by Yale University Press in September 2014.
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