Myths and Depths: Greil Marcus talks to Simon Reynolds (Part 3)

One thing I learned about punk: it's never revived, it's rediscovered.

By Simon ReynoldsMay 11, 2012

    Myths and Depths: Greil Marcus talks to Simon Reynolds (Part 3)

    Image: Thierry Arditti, Paris

    This is part one of a four-part interview. Click here to read part one, part two, and part four.

    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 TrainLipstick TracesInvisible RepublicThe 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 #3 (of four) of the complete transcript. (Parts one and two can be found here and 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: SO WERE YOU SURPRISED by punk? Or, rather, surprised by your own capacity to be taken aback by it, and taken over by it?  To be so utterly consumed by a new excitement? You would have been in your early thirties at that point... married, with children. For most people at that age and in that situation, music is beginning to slip into the background. You stop keeping up with the new stuff, you're happy to stick with the old familiar favorites.

    GREIL MARCUS: When I saw the Sex Pistols at Winterland, which was their last show, in San Francisco, January of '78, I was 32. That seems pretty young now; I'm more than twice that age. I had two kids, had been married for almost twelve years. But I was a writer, I was writing for Rolling Stone, and I wrote about that show for Rolling Stone. And I didn't feel there was any... no one was excluded at that show. There were all kinds of people at that show. People you hadn't seen for years, people you saw all the time, people you wondered where in the world they came from.  There was Michael McClure onstage, reading poetry during breaks between shows. He was born in the 1930s in Wichita, he came to San Francisco in the 1950s as part of the Beat Movement. And Richard Meltzer was up there on stage reading poetry too. You've got the Sex Pistols and the Avengers and the Nuns... And yeah, if you don't get it, then you can say you're too old. But if you do get it, then you're not too anything. You're really lucky to be there.

    SR: Probably the more interesting question would be whether you were surprised that rock — well over 20 years old itself in 1977, a long way from its beginnings — could be capable of this kind of renewal? Because there was a feeling about in the mid-seventies that rock was running out of steam, that it didn't have many surprises left up its sleeve. The sense was that it would carry on much the same as it was, changing only incrementally, and steeped in its own oppressively rich history.  When Lester Bangs writes about Springsteen and Patti Smith and Lynyrd Skynrd in Creem magazine's book Rock Revolution: From Elvis to Elton — The Story of Rock and Roll — which came out in '76, and must have been written in '75 — he talks about their "love and respect for rock 'n' roll history" and actually says "it's no lament to say that the future lies behind us."  James Wolcott took a similar line in his Village Voice piece on the conservatism of the CBGBs bands, in the summer of '75:  "No longer is the impulse revolutionary — i.e. the transformation of oneself and society — but conservative: to carry on the rock tradition... The landscape is no longer virginal ... and it exists not to be transformed but cultivated." Fast forward to 1977, to what punk became in the UK:  clearly the impulse is absolutely revolutionary, and dozens of new directions that would spin out in the postpunk years to come are already being seeded.

    GM: Around Creem magazine, people tried so hard to embrace what Patti Smith was doing, what Slade was doing, what whoever was doing as the sign of a brand new day. But really it wasn't until the Sex Pistols arrived...  As far as the American stuff that was going on earlier than that, looking back, it's only with Rocket from the Tombs and Pere Ubu in Cleveland that there is something truly special happening. And I didn't know what they were doing at the time it was happening. That was my own closed-mindedness and pigheadedness, because the record store I spent so much time in Berkeley in those days, Rather Ripped Records, had all the Pere Ubu singles when they came out in '75. I couldn't hear them then. And the Rocket from the Tombs stuff had not been released at that time, so I didn't know any of the great things that Peter Laughner had done. But as far as I'm concerned, that's where something truly special was happening in this country. 

    SR: So for you, it was really the Sex Pistols that turned your head around.  In Lipstick Traces, you write about your experience of the Winterland concert: their last ever performance, unless we count the cash-from-nostalgia-for-chaos reunion tours. It's this incredibly vivid description of how they inflame you in a way you weren't prepared for: you felt murderous, like you wanted to stomp people.

    GM: I remember Lester reacting to reading that.  Not in Lipstick Traces, obviously, which came out after he died. I think I wrote about it in a letter at that the time.  I told him about all this and he told someone else and then the story came back to me. He was really shocked and upset to hear me say these things, because he always thought of me as this very mild and kind person. And I thought "God, Lester, how naïve can you be?" Not about me, but about anybody. Anybody has feelings in them that are suppressed, and when they come out, they can come out in a terrible, damaging way, or in a liberating way.

    And in Lipstick Traces, I spent five hundred fucking pages trying to make this case, that the Sex Pistols had an entire tradition — an unspoken, unheard, invisible tradition — behind them. They were the avant-garde taking its revenge on the 20th century, and saying, "Now, you're going to have to listen to us whether you like it or not." All of these artists and polemicists and critics, whether it was Richard Huelsenbeck or Guy Debord, all of them were saying, "You can't ignore us any longer, we've found our voice." And Johnny Rotten doesn't know or doesn't care, he's speaking for himself, but all those voices are in there. And I'm hearing something I've never heard before. And I don't know what this is. I'm so moved by it, so transported by it. I just wanted to hear more, and I'm afraid of what "more" might be. That's a great feeling, you know, to be afraid to turn on the radio, afraid to walk into a record store. Because it's going to do something to you, and you don't know what that's going to be.

    SR: Lipstick Traces is subtitled A Secret History of the Twentieth Century. The term "secret history" has become something of a publishing world cliché: I've lost count of the number of times it's appeared in a book's subtitle. But your use of it is the first I can recall. Did you come up with the expression?

    GM: Actually, it's an old term. It usually refers to spycraft. There are many, many books written before Lipstick Traces with titles like The Secret History of World War II. But it always means something very specific: espionage. And usually the espionage history of World War II: how we broke the Nazi codes. So, in that sense, it's a very traditional term. I don't use it in that way; I don't know if I was even consciously alluding to that kind of secret history. But it just seemed like the right way to put it.

    SR: You were covering punk and postpunk and New Wave in real time: writing reviews and interviews and essays as it all unfolded, for publications like New West and Village Voice and many others. All that journalism went into the collection In the Fascist Bathroom, which was titled Ranters and Crowd Pleasers in America. But that came out in 1993, several years after Lipstick Traces. In the introduction, you describe Fascist Bathroom as "everything that got left out of Lipstick Traces, i.e. the music"! But even though it was published earlier, most of Lipstick Traces was written later than many of the pieces collected in In the Fascist Bathroom, during the eighties, quite some time after the fact, at a time when punk's cultural fallout had pretty much subsided.  And it took you quite some time to write. How did it come into being as a project, and how long did it take?

    GM: Nine years. It came about after I finished writing Mystery Train. Which was a miserable experience.

    SR: It was?

    GM: Yes. Horrible. I was so depressed the whole time I was writing Mystery Train. I didn't know if I was going to be able to do it. I'd never written a book before. I just kept thinking, if I drive my car off a cliff, I won't have to finish the book. I can get out of it.  There must have been times when I was writing when the writing itself was fun and gratifying, but there were so many days of self-loathing and misery. When I finished the book I said, "I'm never going to do this again.  I'm going back to journalism." But after about three or four years I became really unsatisfied and impatient with just writing stuff. I went out to dinner with a friend, John Rockwell, and he said, "It's time for you to write another book — you have to do it." And I realized he was right. But I didn't have anything to write a book about.  Then I realized that, over the previous few years, all the best stuff I'd written about and that I cared about, it was all about punk. And it was the most unfinished, the most not-behind-me stuff.

    So I said, "Okay, I'll write a book about punk." And again, as with Mystery Train, I got a contract on the basis that I would write a book which was not remotely what the book turned into.  But very quickly, as I began to write it... For example, there was always something in punk, and in the Sex Pistols, that reminded me of May 1968 in Paris. And I didn't know why. I started reading books on May '68. One was called May '68 and Film Culture [Sylvia Harvey, BFI, 1978] and it had references to a book called The Society of the Spectacle by Guy Debord and a book called The Revolution of Everyday Life by Raoul Vaneigem. So I got those books: tracked them down, English translations, because they were fugitively published. I began to spend days inside the library of the University of California in Berkeley, inside the stacks, and I would just stumble from one thing to another. I would go searching in a certain place in the stacks for one thing that I'd looked up, and then I'd look at the book next to it, and it would have something that would take me in a different direction. So it was working in the dark, just stumbling into this great adventure. And in order to pursue this adventure, ultimately, I had to go to Europe to track down publications that had never been collected or translated. And I had to learn how to read and translate French. It took a long time. The Situationist stuff and the Lettrist stuff: most of it had never been collected at that time, never been translated.

    SR: I seem to remember you once characterizing your shift of interest to the European avant-garde in terms of your profound alienation from America during the eighties. As if you had almost gone into exile during the Reagan years.

    GM: That was overwhelmingly part of it. Mystery Train is my Nixon book, Lipstick Traces is my Reagan book, Invisible Republic is my Bill Clinton book, and The Shape of Things to Come is my Bush book. They reflect how I was feeling, and the way in which my life was dominated by... not just the politics of any given era, but the sense that "yes, this is my country and I have a place in it"; or — to the powers that be, to those who presume to rule — "no, I don't have a place in it."  People like me don't have a place in it. Look, I was lucky to write Lipstick Traces, I was lucky to have that overwhelming feeling of alienation. I hated Ronald Reagan. I hated him as governor of California, when he was a much meaner, crueler person in his public persona than he was as president. But he was a cold, evil bastard and I hated him. I hated what he did to this country and I hated what he stood for. And I couldn't bear to look at the country — to seriously, intellectually, grapple with it, critically — in those years.

    I started Lipstick Traces in 1980. After Reagan was elected at the end of that year, I went into a depression that took almost a year out of the book, when I couldn't fucking do anything. And I pulled myself out of it and began to pursue all these strands: Dada and the Situationists, and Malcolm McLaren and Johnny Rotten, and the medieval heretics and the Brethren of the Free Spirit. I wasn't original in making these connections, but maybe I pursued them farther than other people had. Lots of people have made these connections but, I thought, in a glib manner. To me it was this great mystery.

    In some ways, I think of Lipstick Traces as an act of cowardice, or betrayal. In other words, at a time when I should have been devoting my energies to the crisis in my own country, I left.  I didn't really leave, as in "if Ronald Reagan's elected president, I'm leaving the country." That's a load of bullshit, and I've heard people say that in every election. But I did in a way "leave the country."

    SR: So do you reproach yourself for exiling yourself intellectually?

    GM: Yeah. I'm lucky that I got to write the book because of these conflicted feelings. But maybe somebody tougher would have "stayed here," in terms of doing intellectual work. And I didn't: I left the country, for ten years.

    SR: Lipstick Traces is a sort of history, but a very unorthodox one: almost like a dreamed history, or a magical history. You make connections through associations and echoes that a more conventional, responsible, tight-assed historian might well frown upon. Like the link between the Dutch heretic leader John of Leyden and John Lydon. That is more dream logic than what a historian would accept as a causal link, or even a legitimate parallel across the ages.  Obviously these associations are enormously amusing for the more easy-going reader, and they have a personal meaning to you. But do you think is there actually something going on with these trans-historical echoes?

    GM: I'm not a great believer in serendipity, but I am a believer in secret history. What I mean by that is that certain demands that people make on themselves, that they make on society, that society makes on individuals: these things aren't always spoken of, not even whispered about, but they are passed down through jokes, through curses and oaths, through performative gestures; passed down from one person to another, from one era to another. Sometimes they disappear and then they reappear. Christopher Hill has this marvelous passage in The World Turned Upside Down about the Ranters and Diggers and the Levellers in the middle of the 17th century. He writes about how intimations of heresy begin to emerge at the end of the Elizabethan period. He'll mention how a farmer was heard to deny the divinity of Jesus. It's all presented rather wonderfully as rumors. Or there's this news story where someone cursed a priest. He's unearthing all these little signs that in 1648 will just explode.

    So where do these things come from, these little suggestions? Well, there's a way in which you can trace them back to the doctrine of Free Spirit. Marguerite Porete's manuscript Mirror of Simple Souls reached England in the 14th century and was passed from hand to hand. But, in fact, it's more like curses, whispered fragments of stories. It's more like somebody saying "fucking God" and somebody else saying "What does that mean? What it would mean to fuck God?!" Someone maybe with one screw loose who begins to entertain those thoughts, and it might turn into a manifesto or a rant. I began to see that the story I was trying to tell was altogether made of gaps, when the story disappears. The narrative breaks off but then is picked up by other people at another time. And sometimes in another language.

    So I began to think, philosophically, that discontinuities were more interesting and more valuable and more potent than continuities. But the other thing about Lipstick Traces, which I discovered as I was writing the book — trying to tell the story of Michel Moore and the invasion of Notre Dame in 1950 and the anticlericalism of the Dadaists — is that I realized that I didn't have a talent for extended narrative. I'm just not good at it. I get all balled up in transitions and it starts to die on the page. So I realized that I couldn't write the book that way. I had to write it in short fragments, maybe a page, maybe six pages. The book would proceed in these almost arbitrary sections, and that relieved me from having to write a transitional sentence. And in fact there pretty much isn't one in the entire book; there are no phrases like "as we have seen" or "and now." Every time I would start a new section I would title it after the first one two three words of the first paragraph. And I thought I would go back later and come up with snappy titles for those sections, but then I realized that there were hundreds of them! So I just left it that way. And sometimes those titles are really evocative and intriguing, and sometimes it's just "There was." 

    I don't have the ability, or the desire either, to write an extended coherent step-by-step argument about something. I like to write through indirection. I like to come in the front door, and while you're opening the front door, come in the back door too.

    SR: Well, it works wonderfully well as far as this reader is concerned. But then there were other readers, who were waiting patiently for a Serious Tome on punk — and amazingly, outside of academia, Lipstick Traces was the first substantial critical history of punk to be published — and those readers were disconcerted, shall we say, by the way that your book strays far and wide from what they consider to be its proper subject. They were expecting a more straightforward book about punk, as if that was something you'd ever do!

    GM: Yeah, or as if it needed to be done. Or if it needed me to do it.

    SR: Jon Savage was a few years off from publishing England's Dreaming: Sex Pistols and Punk Rock, which is closer to the book that the punk readership was waiting for. Not stinting on the cultural archaeology at all, but certainly more about the music, and roughly chronological. But Lipstick Traces and England's Dreaming are wonderfully complementary: they make a good "pretty much all you need on the subject" pair.

    GM: While I was writing Lipstick Traces, there were very few people who were part of what I was doing, that were continually talking and sharing discoveries and working out these themes. Jon Savage was one of those. There was also Simon Frith, John Rockwell, and Jim Miller. And Jon, in particular, we just discovered a great liking and affinity for each other. It was very sustaining, because nine years is a long time. Too long to write a book. I was terrified that my fascination for all these figures would dry up before I was finished, and I would have to somehow fake my way to the finish.  Luckily that didn't ever happen.

    SR: The book is mostly about the Sex Pistols as the essence of punk, as you saw it: the really essential band. And a few other punk bands, mostly British ones, pop up here and there. 

    GM: Other people make appearances. Joe Strummer makes a kind of narrative appearance, and the first Clash single, more for its sleeve than for anything else. Lora Logic is in there. But maybe The Adverts are the only other people, apart from the Sex Pistols, where I focus on a single song for two or three pages as an example of "this is punk in one, this is the whole equation." The whole broken equation: "Two plus two equals five." It's right here in "One Chord Wonders."

    SR: Didn't you once declare that you never found New York's version of punk the least bit interesting?  For you, punk was what happened in the UK, and then a few of the bands in San Francisco, like the Avengers. But what about the Los Angeles scene? Did you rate the Germs and The Weirdos and the rest?

    GM: I liked X. There were all kinds of people who made records I liked, such as the Descendents. But in some ways I was too much of a snob to appreciate how great the Avengers were right at that moment, in '77 and '78. What appealed to me, what was shocking, what was overwhelming, was the way in which punk, as it was enacted in the UK, was a social revolution in the form of this tiny little medium that boiled down to a seven-inch piece of plastic. All the demands on society, on life, on ontology, on epistemology — all the critique of being — all that was boiled down into that little piece of plastic. All those demands are present in that noise, and in that vocal sound.  I knew this was not just a new kind of music; this was not just a new sense of humor, or a new sense of irony. What I disliked about New York punk was irony.

    SR: You don't think much of The Ramones, right?

    GM: No, fuck postmodernism! Give me modernism. Modernism says the world has to be changed and we're going to draw a picture of what it ought to look like. And then you've got Malevich, you've got Cubism, you've got Magritte... this is the way the world really looks, and what are you going to do now? That was what you could hear in the Sex Pistols and in so many other groups, whether it was X-Ray Spex, or Lora Logic, or Gang of Four, or the Raincoats. Or the Clash in moments. In "Complete Control," God knows. I heard that right away: this was something completely different. This was a critique of life, and the demands in this music were absolute.  It was never going to be satisfied with anything. Music just happened to be the medium. And it was a better medium. The avant-garde of the 20th century had finally found its true voice. I think I wrote that punk produced better art than all the avant-garde movements before it. And I meant that. That wasn't a provocative statement. These were singular works of art and they were coming in a torrent. For a time, anybody could stumble upon a true statement and make it. It didn't matter where they came from or who they were.

    SR: So it was like the Free Speech movement, with a beat?

    GM: Some people would say it didn't really have a beat! But it was lot like the Free Speech movement.  Look, the founding event of the Free Speech movement came when the university police arrived to arrest someone who was at a table and was violating university rules by passing out political literature. They drove a police car into the university plaza and they put this guy, Jack Weinberg, into the backseat. They're going to drive away and immediately a crowd formed around the police car and surrounded it and sat down. And, within minutes, that crowd had grown to hundreds of people. And in an hour or two, it was thousands. I remember walking out of class and saying, let's walk down to the plaza and see if anything's happening, because the Free Speech movement barely had a name, but there was tremendous contentiousness. So you come out of your university building and turn a few steps and there's this enormous crowd in front of a police car. And you join the crowd, if only out of curiosity. For the rest of the day, people started to get up on top of the police car to make speeches about what's going on. And Jack Weinberg and three cops are in the car and they can't move. They can't get out.  By the end of the day the roof of the police car is completely collapsed. Dozens of people are climbing on top of the police car to say what they think. Some of them are student government officers, some of them are people who later became identified with the movement, and some are just ordinary students who want to talk and want to be heard. A lot of people who never thought they'd have the nerve, or the reason, to speak in front of other people, they're climbing up too.

    So that is this great moment of free speech, and punk rediscovered that.  Not as any kind of historical reference, "let's do it like they did it." Not at all. But that is a human moment, that is a cultural moment: part of the history of Western civilization, the whole notion of the individual, the whole notion of rights, and putting them into practice.

    One thing I learned about punk: it's never revived, it's rediscovered. And when it's rediscovered, it's like it never happened before. The best story of this kind was told to me by my friend Robin Cembalest, who I knew from Artforum; she later wrote this up in a wonderful essay called "Tradition — A Curse: Punk in a Small Spanish Town" in the Village Voice Rock & Roll Quarterly, Summer 1988. She spent a year in a small town in Andalusia. These kids come up to her and say, "We're punkys, we have these Sex Pistols records, but we don't know what they mean... Could you translate them for us?" So she writes all the lyrics to the songs out in Spanish, so they can hear what they say. This is 1983. Now they start singing the songs in Spanish on the street, but they also start hearing the songs in a way they never could before, with all of the rage and the dynamics and exploding walls in the songs intact, but with the slogans and the signposts too. They begin to delve into the history of their own town and discover forgotten anarchist traditions. They discover how the anarchist movement was repressed during the Spanish Civil War. They begin to realize that they are part of a historical continuum. There has been a conspiracy of silence to deprive them of knowledge of their own real legacy. And then they go off and live their lives, with a sense of resentment and deprivation and anger that they didn't have before. That's the punk story. And that was not a revival; that was a rediscovery.

    The fourth and final part of this interview will follow next Friday.

    Click here to read Robin Cembalest's essay "Tradition — A Curse: Punk in a Small Spanish Town."

    LARB Contributor

    Simon Reynolds is a British music critic and historian. He is best known for his writing on electronica and dance music and postpunk. His most recent book is Retromania: Pop Culture's Addiction To Its Own Past.


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