In 1989, Greil Marcus changed the way people viewed the 20th century. His book Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century looks at events marking the 1900s though the lens of punk rock, particularly the Sex Pistols, and shows that a thread of rebellion and artistic freedom connects seemingly disparate and little-known movements together.
|Marcus performed Lipstick Traces: Live at Columbia on Nov. 19.
Image credit: Eileen Barroso / Columbia University
Marcus launched his performance by stating the one question that prompted his journey into writing the book. “Why was ‘Anarchy in the U.K.’ by the Sex Pistols so powerful?” and why was it “more powerful than any other pop music I had ever heard?”
As he looked into answering these questions, Marcus picked up clues, finding links between punk rock and the post-World War I artistic movement Dadaism. He further researched the relationship between Malcolm McLaren, the manager of the Sex Pistols, and a group of French Marxist radicals called the Situationists. “I spent years searching for obscure documents, newsletters, manifestos, posters and knocking on doors in Paris, Zurich and Salisbury, near Stonehenge, asking people to let me read forgotten publications,” said Marcus.
Lipstick Traces: Live is a play that Marcus wrote before he began to write the book; prior to his visit to Columbia, he had never read it for an audience. In the play, Marcus imagined scenarios in which the real-life characters in Lipstick Traces, such as German painter George Grosz, Dadaists Hugo Ball and Richard Huelsenbeck, and Malcolm McLaren are plucked from different points in 20th century history and interact with each other in an action-filled night club. He recalled that, as he wrote the play, the characters “argued with each other and they fought over the stage, and I didn’t know who would be on that stage at any given moment at any given time,” said Marcus.
Marcus read his work at a speedy clip, electrifying the action between these eccentric personalities and their rebellious acts, and supported the performance with visual slides and audio recordings. As expected, the play concluded with an audio recording of “Anarchy in the U.K.” As the song played, a black-and-white photograph of a sinister looking John Lydon, the lead vocalist for the Sex Pistols, was depicted on stage.