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Thirty seconds into his keynote address at the International Association for the Study of Popular Music-Canada's annual conference, Greil Marcus cinched his reputation as a cranky enthusiast. Marcus set the mood for the May 10 talk, "The Sound of One City: In Los Angeles, Early '50s, Easy Rawlins Meets the Medallions, Agrees to Disagree," by playing -- and exuberantly praising -- a doo-wop tribute CD by Big Sandy. "He's best known for fronting a rockabilly band called Big Sandy & The Fly-Rite Boys," the influential American rock critic noted as he turned off the beloved disc. "They're an awful band, just terrible."
A former Rolling Stone editor, Marcus peddles his curmudgeon-aesthete persona in books such as Lipstick Traces (a loopy tome relating 1970s British punks to 1960s French Situationists) and in his "Real Life Rock Top 10" column on salon.com. (Dripping with attitude, the latter is a grab-bag of bouquets and brickbats, covering everything from the new Sheryl Crow album to a 50-year-old R&B song overheard at a Chicago pizzeria.) From its unwieldy title onward, the keynote address was characteristic Marcus: an investigation into the racial politics hidden in an obscure L.A. doo-wop record ("The Letter" by The Medallions, 1954), as viewed through a lens of Walter Mosley detective novels, Curtis Hanson's L.A. Confidential film, and Miles Davis's so-called "cool jazz" recordings -- with an extended middle riff on the origins of the puzzling Steve Miller Band lyric, "I speak of the pompatus of love."
"What's great about Greil Marcus is the way he weaves together film and literature and popular music," says Geoff Stahl, who co-organized the conference with fellow McGill PhD student Lillian Radovac. "He's a great storyteller and he brings together a variety of texts to write captivating histories -- and they're histories that aren't told very often."
Stahl says the IASPM-Canada conference strove for a similar breadth, encouraging presentations "from disciplines not usually associated with popular music studies" (such as a paper about noise and urban planning in Chilean cities) as a way to transcend the "standard divide" of musicological analysis (text) and sociological readings (context). Even this year's "traditional" music papers weren't the stuff of IASPM conferences of even five years ago, with club music strongly represented by papers on topics such as techno nostalgia and shifting debates over sampling.
Will Straw, Graduate Program Director of Art History and Communication Studies, finds this latter development particularly interesting. Active in the IASPM almost since its inception in 1981, but now happy to turn the reins over to "the younger people," Straw recalls how "if you mentioned dance music at a conference in 1985, you would've had hundreds of musicians coming after you saying, 'Dance music is made by machines, it's putting artists out of work, it isn't authentic.' Then, in the '90s, dance music became the most credible sort of underground music, and that's where some of the most interesting work is now being done.
"But I remember trying to convince people that the Pet Shop Boys were worth listening to, and being laughed out of the room!"
This year's IASPM-Canada may be history, but the event continues to resonate. In his first "Real Life Rock Top 10" since the conference, Greil Marcus referenced his visit with a nod to the McCord Museum ("...the delights of the Montreal city museum are many -- especially an extensive, multimedia presentation of all the different ways the place gets really cold"). On a more direct note, the memory of the Canadian conference serves as a taste of things to come in 2003, when the IASPM returns to McGill for its biennial international conference.
"This was a great warm-up for 2003," says Stahl. The international conference, titled "Practicing Popular Music," is scheduled for July 3-7, with plans underway to coordinate tie-in events with the Montreal Jazz Festival. "It's going to be five times as big as this year's conference."