“Wake up!” The slide projector cuts out and there’s an awkward silence as a grouchy-looking Greil Marcus stares down the 150 odd rock nerds and grad-students scattered throughout the Columbia auditorium. Chuckles roll out from the ones clutching dog-eared copies of the famed critic’s deconstruction of punk, Lipstick Traces, breaking the tension.
Marcus’ flash of anger is a theatrical flourish to underscore his complex narrative! Then the graying critic steps downstage and pierces their hearts with a quieter sound; “You in the third row. Wake up.” Arms akimbo, he suddenly looks older and injured. His eyes plead with the audience: I give you a multi-media secret history linking the Dadaists to the Sex Pistols, and you give me an oversized philistine sleeping in the third row? The lecture finished, a young Johnny Rotten brightens the screen and the opening chords of “Anarchy in the U.K.,” thunder out from standing speakers. An audience member dressed in black challenges him, “You’re not saying the U.K. punks were as thoughtful as the Dadaists, are you.” Marcus shoots the injured look again and says, “That’s exactly what I’m saying!”
As Marcus makes clear in both his lecture and a conversation with me afterward, The Sex Pistols are as alive to him as they were when they shattered the worldwide rock ‘n’ roll status quo in 1977. When he heard “Anarchy,” Marcus was so struck by its awesome power that he embarked on a decade long intellectual quest through 20th Century anti-establishment philosophies like Dada and Situationism. The result, which traces the Pistols back to Dadaists like Hugo Ball, is Lipstick Traces, which turns 20 this month. But what about John Lydon shilling butter for Country Life?—and a thousand other examples of how the punk aesthetic has been turned into a lifeless servant of corporate interests. “John Lydon has given us so much,” he says reverentially. “That whatever he has to do to make a buck is okay by me.”