July 24, 1989 12:00 PM

by Greil Marcus

The next time you’re at a cocktail party, balancing a wine goblet on your palm and trying to impress some attractive flirtmate, mention your new interest in lettrist intellectual currents in France in the early 1950s. You might say, “Existentialism was dismissed as a pallid, vulgarized mélange of Nietzsche, Husserl, Heidegger and Jaspers,” adding authoritatively, “a not entirely inaccurate assessment.”

Few people will know you’re quoting this meticulously researched, highly opinionated and perversely fascinating study of the world counterculture and the virtues of protest for protest’s sake. Its purpose, amid much higher ambition, is to indulge Marcus’s obsession with the Sex Pistols, the mid-’70s English punk rock group led by two men who called themselves Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious and sang such songs as “No Future.”

The book’s first section is titled “The Last Sex Pistols Concert,” in which Marcus argues convincingly that “every good punk record can sound like the greatest thing you’ve ever heard.” The Pistols, writes Marcus, “were a commercial proposition and a cultural conspiracy, launched to change the music business and make money off the change—but Johnny Rotten sang to change the world.”

It’s hard to argue with Marcus’s notions about the catalytic value of punk, especially since he backs it with a history of 20th-century primal screamers-from the Cabaret Voltaire to the Pistols. His thesis is that all countercultural movements and rebel yells in the last 100 years express the same revolutionary urge. There is no evolution, because no one making the noise knows of the anarchic tradition: ‘This is the drift of secret history, a history that remains secret even to those who make it, especially to those who make it.”

Marcus’s erudition helps his case. After all, anyone can write about Johnny Rotten (né John Lydon), but how many could connect his tactics with those of a 16th-century Dutch heretic named—no kidding—John of Leyden?

Marcus, a book and record critic, is also versed in the works of T.J. Clark, Guy Debord, Isidore Isou, Walter Benjamin and Charlie Chaplin (if you’ve only heard of the last, don’t feel bad—the rest are various writers, artists and critics). He writes of them not in the tone of a professor doing his tenure-bid book but as a layman who enjoys the stuff. He can also relate various philosophical strains to such phenomena as Michael Jackson or serial murders: “The great American substitute for social revolution is murder.” (Marcus cites the 1958 Plains murder spree of Caril Fugate and Charley Stark weather as an event of negative mythmaking.)

Perhaps the best thing about Lipstick Traces is how the author’s mind wanders from one topic to another when all the time it’s clear he will eventually get back to the Pistols. One can dispute the wisdom of devoting 496 pages to describing the delights of a short-lived band. It’s not as though the Pistols accomplished much in the usual sense. But now that their album Never Mind the Bollocks is out on CD, it may help Marcus elevate the band from the gut-and-gutter level they functioned on—insisted on—to the canon of high art. (Harvard, $29.95)

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