I’ll probably be giving this a full review in a week or two. But meanwhile…
The best thing about Greil Marcus is that he has spent a lot of his life chasing down stories that generally reside in the shadows and bringing them to people like me, who would almost certainly not hear them otherwise. Here’s the priceless highlight of the tale of Peggy Sue Rackham (nee Gerran) and Donna Fox, from a chapter on Buddy Holly in Marcus’ latest book The History of Rock ‘N’ Roll in Ten Songs that constitutes his finest sustained writing in years:
“I never knew there was a Peggy Sue,” Fox says in the film [a 1993 documentary called Peggy Sue]; Peggy Sue didn’t know there was a Donna. “And it was even more amazing,” Rackham says, “to find out we were living in the same town–and had for years. I called Donna at her office, and luckily got her on the phone. ‘Is this Ritchie Valens’ ‘Donna’?’ ‘Yesssss…’” Rackham remembers Fox saying, her guard up–she’d had calls like this before. “‘Well–this is Buddy Holly’s ‘Peggy Sue.’
“Want to do lunch?”
As stories go, it doesn’t get much better than that.
Now…The most exasperating thing about Greil Marcus?
At the end of the book (I’m about half-way through but I skipped ahead to read this part), he has a good piece on Amy Winehouse and the Shangri-Las.
Except for a few brief, subsequent pieces on Shangs’ lead singer Mary Weiss in his regular columns, Marcus’ last lengthy mention of the Shangri-Las prior to this was here, from the June 30, 2004 edition of City Pages–the last entry of the last “Real Life Rock and Roll Top Ten” Marcus wrote for that publication:
10) Shangri-Las, City Hall Park, New York City, June 19 In the May 17, 2001 edition of this column, then running in Salon, I included an item, written more than a week earlier, on an A&E documentary that featured an interview with Mary L. Stokes–formerly Mary Weiss of the Shangri-Las, the lead singer with long, straight blond hair. She was talking about why the 1964-65 tragedies of “Remember,” “I Can Never Go Home Anymore” or “Leader of the Pack” were not difficult for her: because, she said, she had enough pain in her own life to stand up to the songs. A few days after the destruction of the World Trade Center, I heard that Stokes, now a manager for a furniture company, was present when the towers were hit and when they came down; I contacted her and asked her to write about that day for this column, and she did. When I read that the Shangri-Las would be performing in New York City, I asked my friend Robert Christgau to cover the show; as this will be my last column in City Pages for at least a year, the idea of tracing that circle, if not closing it, seemed right.
Christgau reports: “This may be the oldest crowd I’ve been in anywhere short of the Metropolitan Opera (and a beatnik poetry reading I attended a few years back). Intros by Randy Davis of WCBS-FM, ‘New York’s oldies station,’ promising to ‘walk you right down memory lane’ in the ‘real heart of New York City.’ ‘They were known as the bad girls of rock and roll…’ Backing band all in black, three ladies in black slacks with V-cut red satin tops. Stage left a brunette in her twenties, stage right a well-preserved forty/fifty something, also brunette. But there’s no Mary Weiss in sight–unless she now has brownish hair in a curly frizz, which would be bad for business. Four or five dozen onlookers come up in front of the stage in the sun, those on benches stay there, most of the crowd of perhaps 200 hangs back in the shade, including senior latecomers who really need to sit. The band vamps, sounding way too perky, and they are: The opening number is ‘You Can’t Hurry Love,’ followed by ‘Give Him a Great Big Kiss,’ the nicest hit in the Shangri-Las’ repertoire, which is also too perky. It’s a generic oldies set (‘Johnny B. Goode,’ ‘The Loco-Motion,’ ‘Be My Baby,’ etc.) with three Shangri-Las tunes.”
It turns out the Shangri-Las are the Shangri-La: Marge Ganser, “the twin who didn’t die of a barbiturate overdose,” accompanied by her daughter Mary and a friend. Christgau: “Five blocks from Ground Zero, we’re told (well, not ‘we,’ but the younger fans Marge was looking down at; we ‘survivors’–yes, the term was adduced, by young Mary–know enough to stay out of the midday sun) we’re going to have ‘a hell of a history lesson.’ And the lesson is that although the Shangri-Las live (except for the dead Ganser) their individual-collaborative achievement does not; the lesson is that the past is already smooshed together into one perky playlist.”
And, at the end of Marcus’ notes for Ten Songs…sans apology, with the proverbial straight face:
“Shangri-La Mary Ann Ganser died in 1970 at twenty-two; her twin sister Marge Ganser died in 1996 at forty-eight.”
Oh..so he does know.
He might have also mentioned that Marge Ganser did not have any children–named Mary or otherwise–but perhaps that information has not yet filtered through.
So, okay, maybe exasperating isn’t quite strong enough a word. Let’s just say it’s the cool contempt for the great unwashed–the assurance that everybody is a sucker (or a con) but them–that slays me.
And kind of makes me wonder if that great story up top there is even true.
I’ve posted it before, but for a reminder of how the living, breathing Shangri-Las felt about having their name and image (a perfect name and revolutionary image which they, unlike most groups of their era, made up entirely on their own) and money stolen from them you can watch this:
Of course, since Robert Christgau saw fake Shangri-Las in New York City in 2004 (assuming he didn’t just make the whole thing up), we know how their court fight came out. So here’s a happier memory:
And, in case you were wondering….these guys had their money stolen, too….Which is why they were on the road in February, 1959, hopping a plane so they could get off that freezing tour bus on the day something in the music really did die:
…More on the book, good and bad, shortly!