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 #2 (of four) of the complete transcript. (Part one can be found here.) 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: YOUR ESSAY “WHO PUT THE BOMP” interested me because it’s totally sixties in its emphasis on now, but you were writing it just before this big change in pop music, what could be called “rock’s historical turn.” One minute songs are about dancing or drugs or street fighting, then all of a sudden you’ve got Fairport Convention electrifying songs from centuries ago like “Tam Lin” and the Band doing songs about the Civil War.
GREIL MARCUS: The Band was so surprising. So shocking. Music from Big Pink, before anybody had seen them play, or knew who they were… I had seen them as the Hawks, but they didn’t sound anything like the Hawks on the Band’s debut album. There was this tremendous sense that they were opening a door to your own country and your own history. And it was a door that you had labored so hard to erect and nail shut. To have that door open was more like entering into a dream than it was like waking up from one. That historical tinge, that sense of the past, was there. But I think the Band’s music sounded absolutely present. It sounded like a new way to understand who you were and where you were. The fact that you were a product of not only of your own willfulness and your own specialness, but a product of the past. The past was something that in some way imprisoned you, but in some way was a field of opportunity — you could use the past to be your anchor, and to be the wind at your back. While there’s a way in which “The Weight” seems to be taking place in some frontier town, to come right out of some Mark Twain story, I think that song and songs like “Chest Fever” and “We Can Talk About It Now” sound absolutely of their moment, too. So I don’t think people took to the Band’s first couple of albums out of nostalgia.
SR: Oh, I wasn’t arguing that — “the historical turn” was a new thing in rock, a major evolutionary development. But it just struck me how rock ‘n’ roll early on was teenage music, and even when it got arty and a little bit more grown-up, it was still caught in that sixties live-for-now mindset. Like Jim Morrison counseling “learn to forget.” Rock ‘n’ roll in the beginning was very much “don’t know much about history,” but then all of sudden you’ve got the Band doing “King Harvest” about the plight of farmers in the late 19th century, and a little bit later Randy Newman singing songs about slavery.
GM: The Beatles are crucial in this, for both fans and musicians — like the guys in the Band. All our lives, from the time we became sentient beings and lost our lives to Little Richard and Elvis Presley, people were telling us “you’re going to outgrow this.” And in some way everybody believed we would: believed it with resentment, believed it with sorrow, believed it with a weary shrug of the shoulders, but believed it. But when the Beatles showed up, suddenly we — everybody who was still holding on to rock ‘n’ roll fandom, or rock ‘n’ roll as music you played, like the Hawks were, in nowhere bars — suddenly we realized, “no, you don’t have to outgrow this.” You can’t outgrow this, you shouldn’t outgrow this, and you won’t outgrow this. And that was really something. I don’t think anybody looked back after that. It might be something you might get sick of, that would wear itself out for you. But you were not going to outgrow it and go on to more mature appreciations.
SR: How did Mystery Train come about?
GM: What happened was that I was asked in 1971 to teach that same American Studies seminar at Berkeley that had been so important to me. I was just thrilled. A chance to teach my own course, not as a teaching assistant, but teaching with two other professors. I’d get to choose the readings. And it’s my class, totally up to me. But it was awful, terrible. I was a disaster as a teacher. I hated doing it; I wasn’t good at it. I had no patience. A teacher without patience can’t be a teacher. I knew how badly things were going and I came to the realization right at that point that I couldn’t do something I didn’t like and I wasn’t good at. I’d had enough bad professors that I didn’t want to be one myself. At that point I’d written and edited for Rolling Stone, I’d got fired, I’d started writing for Creem. And I realized I had to give up the academic path.
Mystery Train grew out of my dropping out of graduate school in 1973 and realizing that I wasn’t going to write my dissertation and deciding, “Well, I’ll write a book about rock ‘n’ roll.” I wrote a book proposal and it wasn’t a whole lot more than “I will answer all your questions about rock ‘n’ roll.” It was totally incoherent! But at the end of the book proposal it said that — after I had gone all over the map, and got totally lost probably — there would be a chapter consisting of five- to ten-page essays on a few performers, as a demonstration of how you could write in depth about specific performers. And of course that became the whole book, once I got the rest of the garbage out of my system. Mystery Train is a group of essays on a few performers who seemed to me linked, to be struggling with the same kind of storytelling challenge. But instead of a five- or ten-page essay, they got bigger and bigger. The Elvis essay is 50-some pages. The Harmonica Frank chapter was written in an afternoon, but some of them took months.
When Mystery Train was finally finished I sent it to my editor, Bill Whitehead at Doubleday. He read it and said it was very interesting but it wasn’t a book, it was a series of essays. So I went through and dropped in a bunch of cross-references in various essays. And I sent it back to him and he said, “Okay, now it’s a book.” All I did was the most shallow cross-referencing you could do, but no one has ever said, “Mystery Train isn’t a book, it’s just a bunch of essays.”
The subtitle is Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music. That was my American Studies book. A combination of everything I’d learned in school, all my passions for Abraham Lincoln, Herman Melville, and various other odd characters in American history, combined with my passion for rock ‘n’ roll. And a recognition that they were all connected. That’s all that book was.
SR: So do you feel that, for you, “America” is the essence of rock ‘n’ roll? Because there’s lots of things that people could say was the essence, if they wanted to bring it down to just one thing: sex, or dance, or youth, or rebellion, or rhythm, or electric guitars. But for you, is “America” that central aspect?
GM: No, it’s not an argument that this is the way you ought to see things. This is the story I had to tell. This is the story I was capable of telling and that impelled me. That didn’t make it better or worse than anybody else’s version. In your first book [Blissed Out: The Raptures of Rock] you focus on a completely different aspect of rock ‘n’ roll. Fine: I don’t think one invalidates or ought to be seen as having priority over another. One of the great things about fandom is, we all love stuff and often love the same stuff, but we do it for our own different reasons. We get different sorts of satisfactions. But the satisfactions are close enough that we can talk about it, or want to know what someone else thinks.
SR: One thing that runs through much of your work is patriotism: frustrated patriotism a lot of the time. And also the idea that patriotism in America takes a unique form. It doesn’t have to do with a sense of the people as a race, because of the melting pot. And although American patriotism has a certain relationship with the land, the country is ultimately too varied and big for that to really hold. America is an invented nation and there are hardly any other countries in the world that can claim to be that. Hardly any other countries whose patriotism is based around an idea rather than around nationality.
GM: Patriotism in America, as I understand it, is a matter of suffering. Maybe directly, maybe indirectly. When the country fails to live up to its promises, or even actively betrays them. And having the burden of struggling, in your own mind or in public, to fulfill those promises. Either as a matter of your daily life or on a greater stage. That is what the country is about. It is about the connection between individuals and those ideas. In some ways The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy and the American Voice is Mystery Train many years later. From different perspectives, but with all the same building blocks. All the same original obsessions intact, but maybe seen more intensely, more directly.
SR: A few years after Mystery Train, you edited Stranded: Rock And Roll for a Desert Island [Knopf, 1979], which, as the title suggests, is a volume of essays by rock journalists on the one record they would want to have with them if they were a castaway. The essays were specifically written for the book, as opposed to collected from here and there. And you drew on the talents of virtually everybody who was anybody in American rock journalism during the seventies. Plus token Brit Simon Frith. Stranded is a great read, and one thing that comes across is a sense of collegiality among rock critics at that time, when it was possible to know most of the people in the profession. Wasn’t there even a rock-writer convention in America at one point in the mid-seventies? In New York, I think.
GM: Or maybe in Memphis. I didn’t go. Stranded came about because — and I wrote about this in the introduction to the second edition [Da Capo, 1996] — I got a call from an editor at Oxford University Press. They were going to do a series of desert island books, and I said “What’s that?” and he said, “Well, it’s ‘What ___ would you take to a desert island?’ What painting, what jazz recording, what symphony, what poem. And we’re doing a series of these for all the arts.” I said, “What about architecture?” And he said, “Yeah, architecture.” I’m thinking, what would I take to a desert island? I’d take an outhouse. I didn’t know about “desert island discs.” I didn’t know this was a British theme. It struck me as a really kind of silly idea, but for that time, the publisher was paying well and it was a chance for me to work as an editor, which I’ve always loved, and to give all kinds of different people, who were my friends, a chance to write about something they cared about and get some money. And nobody said no. There were a couple of pieces I had to reject, mainly because all they did was quote lyrics and that would have been ruinously expensive or would have had to have been rewritten until they barely existed. But nobody said no. And the theme of the book, the notion of being stranded, came out of the fact that I’m telling people about this notion of the desert island, and one person after another tells me, “Great, I feel like I’ve been living on a desert island for years.” It’s the late seventies and this whole notion of a community of music, a community of fans, has broken down utterly. And people are feeling, whether they’ve continued to write about music or not, that they’re addressing the ether. They’re not getting any response; they’re speaking into the wind. And so this book was a chance to work in a collegial manner: to speak, if to no one else, then at least to the other writers in the book.
Of course the joke is that OUP not only didn’t do any of the other desert island books, they didn’t do this one either. There was a very elaborate brouhaha that I detail in the second edition’s introduction, over Nick Tosches’s piece.
SR: That’s the one about the soundtrack to his youth being the Rolling Stones, every stage of it indexed to a different album?
GM: No — that was Simon Frith’s. Nick’s was about Sticky Fingers. They refused to publish the book with his piece in it, and I said, “No way in the world I’m publishing it without Nick’s piece.” So they say we’re going ahead and publishing it without the essay. And I just panicked and called up Bob Gottlieb, the editor-in-chief at Knopf at that time, who I’d become friendly with, and said, “I’m in trouble — will you read this manuscript?” He read it overnight and he bought the book away from Oxford and published it.
SR: A lot of rock-criticism fiends, such as me, would say that one of our favorite things out of all the things you’ve written is that discography at the end of Stranded where you offer your personal and quite idiosyncratic version of the Rock Canon. A long, long list of records — albums, but also singles and greatest hits — with capsule commentaries, some as short as a sentence, or even a phrase. And even the longest commentaries are only four or five sentences, tops. You are trying to distill the essence of what a band or artist is, to convey the most salient or remarkable or amusing or miraculous aspect of a specific recording in that artist’s discography, in the most condensed way. Generally, over the years, you’ve been given, or given yourself, a lot of space to work with. So was it challenging to develop that telegraphic style?
GM: I probably had more fun doing that than anything I’ve ever written. With the exception of some TV-movie reviews for City magazine in San Francisco I did at one point.
SR: Was the fact that you’d created these constraints for yourself actually liberating? You didn’t have to say all the things that need to be dealt with to give the full picture of the artist — you could just let rip with these one-liners?
GM: It was great. It was totally irresponsible. I’m writing in a context where I can presume knowledge on the part of a reader. Or whether I can or not, I’m going to. The entries in that list that are the least successful are the most verbose. The ones where I have more trouble capturing what’s good about a record or what’s interesting about an artist are the ones where I go on too long. The one-line or two-line entries, those are the ones that work.
SR: Much of your Stranded list overlaps with the Official Canon of rock and soul, but there are some quirky inclusions. Records by barely remembered bands, and neither were they that well known or well regarded at the time, to be honest: Hackamore Brick, or Savage Rose. Do any of your inclusions mystify you today?
GM: There’s probably some that don’t speak to me the way they did then. For years I kept notes for some future edition: everything that kept coming. That list was written in 1978, so the first punk records had already come out. One of my favorite entries in the book is Crossing the Red Sea with The Adverts. Which is one of the great record titles of all time. There are plenty of great reggae records that had been made earlier than the book’s publication and could have been included, but I didn’t hear them until later. But, you know, I loved having the chance to say why Bryan Ferry meant so much more to me than David Bowie ever did.
SR: You mentioned punk, and you have a few, mostly U.K. punk records in your list, while in the main body of Stranded, there’s Tom Carson’s essay on the Ramones’ Rocket to Russia. But for the most part the book, although it came out in 1979, barely registers the impact of the New Wave. The essays are about Van Morrison, Neil Young, Jackson Browne, Bruce Springsteen, even the Eagles and Linda Ronstadt, or they’re about the kind of rhythm-and-blues music artists and sixties Brit rockers that those seventies artists were inspired by. I always think of Stranded in connection with The Last Waltz, the movie Martin Scorsese made around the Band’s farewell concert in the winter of 1976. The movie came out in 1978, the same year that Stranded was being written and edited. And the guest performers at the farewell concert are people like Van Morrison, Neil Young, Dylan, Joni Mitchell. The Last Waltz and Stranded seem like bookends to an entire era of rock and rock criticism. The ideal that most American critics held to all through those years was of a mature rock that was rooted in American music, in rock ‘n’ roll and rhythm-and-blues and country; that avoided the paths of either heavy metal or progressive rock; and that brought an element of literary or poetic sophistication to the lyrics. So the touchstone artists were Van Morrison, Randy Newman, Little Feat, Rod Stewart, Ry Cooder, Steely Dan before they got too slick and jazzy. But the Band, who helped initiate that whole era and that critical value system, they seem to know that it’s all coming to an end. The jig is up. Hence The Last Waltz. But what I’m leading towards is this: out of all the people involved in Stranded, that generation of critics, you are one of the few that actually made the transition to an after-punk world. Who embraced it with real enthusiasm and understanding. Some of your contemporaries could go as far as Elvis Costello or the Clash, the most American, steeped-in-traditional-rock-‘n’-roll-values artists in the New Wave. But you were totally besotted by the most anti-traditional of the post-punk groups, like the Raincoats and Gang of Four.
GM: I don’t know about anybody else, but hearing the first Gang of Four album, hearing “Wake Up” by Essential Logic, or “In Love” by the Raincoats, or “You” by Kleenex: I heard something completely different, something that I’ve never heard before, something that I’m not prepared for… I can’t hear anything that came before it in the music, and I don’t want to. I’m absolutely in love with its out-of-nowhere-ness. The sound of somebody speaking with a voice that’s never been heard before. And with those groups, it’s mostly something speaking with her own voice. It’s the sound of someone who’s never had the nerve to speak up before — and who now can’t stop. And I felt, “Gosh, I want to meet these people.’ Which is very unusual for me; I don’t usually want to meet the people who are making music or writing books that I like. It’s not my ambition at all, or desire. But I wanted to meet them because they sounded, in their music, like interesting people. And they were. Really interesting people.
SR: And some of them have become good friends. Long-lasting friends. Like the Mekons, and Gang of Four.
GM: It’s funny. Jon King and I are old and good friends. And Andy Gill, too. We’ll always be friends. And the Mekons: I’ve known the people in that band for many many years. I’ve known the drummer Steve Goulding even longer, since he was touring with Graham Parker in 1977. The other Mekons, since 1984 or ’85. Sally [Timms] and Jon [Langford] and Tom [Greenhalgh] and Rico [Bell] — these are marvelous people. These are thinking people, with a sense of humor, with great style, with ever growing knowledge and a sense of their place in history. And how they may ultimately fail themselves and fail history. No group is living out the legacy of the Band more than the Mekons, over all these years.
SR: Did you get on so well with these British post-punk artists because they were in some ways as much critics as they were musicians? Most of them went to art school, they were well versed in theory, and their music from the start had this self-reflexive, meta-rock aspect: their music was a critique of pop music and the youth-culture industry, an examination of what rock signified and the ways it was complicit in “hegemony” even as it kicked against it.
GM: It’s no coincidence. We’re talking about people who went to college and who learned a lot in college. Andy and Jon studied under T.J. Clark, the great art historian, who later became a good friend of mine when he came to Berkeley and taught here for many years. But he was at Leeds when he taught some of the people in Gang of Four and the Mekons, and he had been a member of the Situationist group in the mid-sixties. That was something that impelled him in an intellectual sense, and he passed that on. So there was a great circle at work here. Some of the best conversations I ever had were in graduate school, where you just argue about everything. And that’s what conversations with Jon King and Andy Gill and Jon Langford are like: ideas flying back and forth, with tremendous humor, and a real desire to know what the other person is thinking. Not taking anything too seriously, but conversation as a real staff of life. They are literate people, they’ve read a lot, and they pay attention to the world. The world is never dead to them. The world is always speaking to them.
[Part 3 of this conversation will follow next week. Read Part 1 here.]