Image: Thierry Arditti, Paris
Earlier this year I visited Greil Marcus, widely considered the greatest living rock writer, at his home on the border between Berkeley and Oakland to profile him for the British newspaper The Guardian. Over the course of an afternoon, we covered the length and breadth of his 45-year career, from his formative experiences and influences to his days as an editor at the newly founded Rolling Stone, through all his major books (Mystery Train, Lipstick Traces, Invisible Republic, The Shape of Things To Come), via his editing of the much-loved desert-island-disc anthology Stranded, to his recent monographs on Van Morrison and The Doors, and much more besides. Marcus was fighting a nasty cold that day: sniffing thickly, propping himself up with a pointed index finger that dimpled into his cheek, he sagged sometimes but never flagged during the three hour conversation. Only a fraction of the interview made into the final article, so here is installment #4 (of four) of the complete transcript. Apart from some minimal tidying up (nearly always to my questions and comments; Marcus "talks like a book," as folk in England used to say about eloquent persons) and one small liberty taken with sequencing to preserve chronological flow, this is exactly how the conversation went down.
— Simon Reynolds
SIMON REYNOLDS: One of my favorite pieces by you is an essay you wrote for Esquire in 1992, "Notes on the Life and Death and Incandescent Banality of Rock 'n' Roll" [reprinted as "Images of the Present Day" in Double Trouble: Bill Clinton and Elvis Presley in a Land of No Alternatives, 2000]. It's a rumination that roams from Poison's video for "Every Rose Has Its Thorn" — which you find abhorrent: "my image of the death of rock — or of rock as something that ought to be killed" — to Nirvana's video for "Smells Like Teen Spirit", which you find thrilling and creepy, to a whole bunch of other stuff, before it ends with your fantasy of Geto Boys's "Mind Playing Tricks On Me" as a record that could unite all Americans by making "room for anyone's displacement, confusion, terror, despair." In that essay you're both monitoring the vital signs of rock'n'roll and rolling over in your mind this notion that rock'n'roll, or any art form, could be declared "dead" at a certain point. What would that mean, and how would we know?
Now, there's a very interesting book by Kevin J. Dettmar called Is Rock Dead? (Routledge, 2005), and it's a scholarly investigation of this very discourse of rock'n'roll's decline and fall. One of his contentions is that, when critics declare that rock is over, what they're really saying is that their passion for it has wi...read more