The rage, energy, and disenchantment that shocked the world with Punk Music had a long and nearly forgotten history

Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century – Greil Marcus (1989)

            I had read mentions of this book in various other ones I have read over the past few years.  I did not know if it was about rock and roll, or what, but I was very interested to read it.  I checked it out of the Library and devoured the damn thing over the course of a couple of weeks, reading while I ate my lunch at work.  I can honestly say that if I had tried reading this book when I was younger I would not have understood most of Mr. Marcus’ references.  I am glad I read it when I did!
            This book uses the jumping off point of the Sex Pistol’s short flash in the pan to delve into the history of aggressively nihilistic and bizarre art and social movements of the past, with a big focus on the work of the Dadaists, the Lettrists, the Situationists, and other nearly-forgotten fringe avant-garde art and literature groups of the 20th century, all of which Mr. Marcus feels informed the zeitgeist that brought about the Sex Pistols and that first wave of “punk music”, whether directly or indirectly or even by art osmosis!  Ha!  With countless notes and asides describing the goals and purposes of the freak movements in art, and with a great sense of humor and always with an eye to the truth inherent in the absurd, Mr. Marcus does a great job of shedding light on nearly forgotten intellectual anarchists.
            It is easy to think that the past is a stodgy trudge through boring facts and figures.  It is easy to think that seemingly modern outrages like Pussy Riot playing a guerrilla set of music in a Russian cathedral are new, but they are not.  Marcus describes how in the aftermath of the First World War French poets stormed Notre Dame on a holiday with the cathedral full of devout parishioners and began to announce that god was dead, only to barely escape out of there with their lives.  The connections that Marcus makes are not direct, but they are artistically direct.  The human society works with many strands of thought constantly weaving about one another, and to think that each generation had one sole thought or mentality is wrong on so many levels.  Every generation has its sensitive artists who are enraged at the travesty they see in society.  There is always something to rail against and sometimes the past is the best way to learn how to attack the future.  These “lipstick traces” amount to a much larger history than is normally accepted.  The Sex Pistols cry of “No Future” was just the latest in a long line of heartfelt cries of rage. 


            This book would not have affected me as much if I did not already know of much of the art history being discussed.  It helps that I am a music lover and a punk rocker and have a passing familiarity with the underground thought that informs so much of the avant-garde.  This book is a great achievement and I am glad I finally read it!

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