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 withered away. Dettmar maps out examples of this, like Jim Miller’s Flowers in the Dustbin, against the writers’ ages as they’re serving notice on rock’s demise. It’s always mid- to late forties. Basically, he argues that writers are projecting their own physical decrepitude onto the music!
So that got me working out how old you were when you were writing “Notes on the Life and Death and Incandescent Banality of Rock’n’Roll,” and you must have been 47, by my count. And that just so happens to be the age I was when I wrote my book Retromania, arguably a prime example of this perennial discourse of rock’s decline. But one thing I noticed about Is Rock Dead? is that your essay “Notes on the Life and Death” is conspicuous by its absence, and I think that’s because its argument is too potent for Dettmar to countenance. You say that when rock loses it connection to history — political and social reality — it is heading towards a kind of death: irrelevance.
This relates to one of my arguments in my book Retromania: rock becomes bound up with its own history, with reference-and-reverence, and in the process becomes uncoupled from real history. As I read it, your essay is saying the one thing Dettmar cannot accept, which is that if it is possible to talk of rock (or any art form) having once been supremely “alive” (relevant, Zeitgeist-attuned, breaking new ground constantly, a world-historical force), then, logically and inevitably, you can entertain the possibility that it could cease to be all those things. And then it would be in fact be “dead” — even if, as a purely musical form, people in the millions still listened to it and performed it — because the things that made it matter had all faded away. And, in fact, there have been art forms or entertainment forms that were once supremely timely, the forums in which all the important ideas and feelings of an era were dramatized and worked through. And then they cease to be that forum. So it’s not only possible to ask this question “Is it dead? If not, how vital is it?”, it’s actually urgent, even imperative — at least if you ever cared about what made it so vibrant and important in the first place.
GREIL MARCUS: I suppose I’m more interested in music now as a field of creativity, rather than as a version of history. But if it remains a field of creativity, then you have no idea what’s going to come of any given creation and how far it might travel. I stopped using the term “rock’n’roll” around the time I wrote that Esquire piece. I write about rock’n’roll in that piece as something that provokes feelings of hatred and loathing in me as much as anything else. That Poison video, which just drove me nuts: I couldn’t get it out of my head. There was a lot of anger and disgust there. So I just started calling it pop music, because that’s a completely meaningless term: there’s no metaphor there, it has no poetry to it, you might as well say “shoelaces” or something. “Rock’n’roll” is a metaphor, it is filled with other metaphors. But around that time people in Iraq, our soldiers, would be saying “let’s rock’n’roll,” meaning “let’s kill people.” God! Keep it, you can have it. I can live without that phrase.
SR: At the time you wrote “Notes on the Life and Death and Incandescent Banality of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” did you actually feel that it was done and dusted — that rock, or popular music, or youth culture, was spent? Or that it had even become the enemy: a travesty, a ghastly inversion of the liberation it had once represented?
GM: Well, I raised that question. This is something, with that Poison video, that ought to be killed. And if you have to kill the whole form to get rid of insults like that, maybe this is what you have to do. But then I talk in the piece about hearing “Out in the Cold” by Tom Petty on the radio and not giving a shit about any of those questions, because it sounds so great, so full of desire and happiness and energy. And then finding my way into “Mind Playing Tricks On Me,” which wasn’t a song that explained itself to me right away; it was as confusing to me as it was to the singer who’s describing his own delusions.
Of course, Bob Dylan once said that all of his songs end with “Good luck,” and I always thought Mystery Train was a deeply pessimistic book. Philosophically, a pessimistic book, saying: this is the only way to look at life, pessimistically. Almost every story in that book ended badly: ended with defeat, ended with destruction. I don’t think it’s because I was drawn to stories with unhappy endings: those are real stories, and that’s how most stories end. But people took Mystery Train as this big celebration. Is that what I was doing? And, similarly, Lipstick Traces is a very bitter and defeated book. But at the end when I’m quoting Richard Huelsenbeck saying “maybe liberty never really existed anywhere,” maybe the Cabaret Voltaire was a complete illusion — he’s saying that as a really old man. And I’m saying, “Who knows?” That’s my optimistic statement. So maybe all my stuff ends with “Who knows?”
There is actually one song of Dylan’s that really does end with “Good luck”: “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream.” “He said his name was Columbus / I just said ‘Good luck.'” That’s like ‘Good luck — you’re going to need it, brother. It’s bad out there.” Or maybe just “Good luck, I hope you find what you’re looking for out there.” Those are very different “Good luck”s.
SR: Right at the start of Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes [later retitled The Old Weird America], you have a phrase that kind of relates to the “Notes on the Life and Death” essay. You write about how Dylan, in 1965, “held a stage no one has more than mounted since — a stage that may no longer exist.” Dylan “seemed less to occupy a turning point in cultural space and time than to be that turning point.” You’re arguing that Dylan was the central figure of something — rock’n’roll — that was itself the central public arena of the era. Music in the sixties was the prism through everything else was seen and understood: it connected to everything else in culture and politics, and it intensified everything it touched. It articulated everything and it made everything more electric.
GM: It wasn’t just music. When a figure comes along who’s so confusing, and so disturbing, and so alluring, and full of possibility, and moving at such terrifying momentum, that you can’t not have an opinion about that person… That’s what I meant by a stage that no longer exists. There may not be a stage anymore where any such person can have that kind of gravity that draws the energy of so many other people to him, or to her. Lady Gaga is certainly a world figure in that sense, but as soon as she tries to talk about significant things in a rational manner, everything disappears. “Born This Way” is maybe her worst record. Compare that to “Bad Romance,” which is delirious, disturbing, thrilling — it’s a “what the hell is going on here?” kind of record, as opposed to “be nice,” which is essentially what “Born This Way” is saying.
SR: I actually think the message of “Born This Way” is inadvertently reactionary. Obviously there’s a political necessity for the “this is how God/Nature made me” argument to be made; I can see that, as a strategy and as rhetoric, it makes really good sense. But it’s actually more radical to say, “actually, I wasn’t born this way, I’m choosing to be this way, as an act of will.” Which actually resonates more with pop history too, because pop is all about people reinventing themselves, choosing to be more glamorous or weirder or more deviant than they actually are.
GM: It’s a shibboleth. It’s what we’re supposed to believe, regardless of what we do believe, or what doubts we might have. It’s a good way to stop thinking. Any argument like that.
SR: Pop is about going against Nature, defying fate, making your own destiny.
GM: But also the whole thing about a piece of music that’s alive is that the putative message or meaning of the words isn’t congruent with the music: they’re going at cross-purposes, they’re not on the same tracks. It’s not that the music has to contradict in some way what the words are saying, but there will be a force behind those words — whether it comes from the music or from the voice — that pushes the words out of any given argumentative sense, makes the song autonomous so that it speaks for itself. So it doesn’t necessarily say what the singer thinks he wants it to say. The words escape. That’s what so thrilling, and that doesn’t happen in a programmatic piece of music like “Born This Way.” But it does in “Bad Romance,” where every word has dozens of meanings, and those meanings dissolve when you reach for them.
SR: That’s reminded me, one of the things I really liked in Rock and Roll Will Stand is “A Singer and a Rock and Roll Band,” your critique of the idea of the protest song: it’s 1968 and you’re arguing that straight-talking, plain-spoken, finger-pointing songs fail all that pop music can be, and that they are only really useful to keep people’s spirits up at demonstrations and rallies.
GM: And ultimately they take people’s spirits away. They take away their individuality. They say we all believe this thing in a good way. But in actual fact, we don’t. If we do believe them, then we do so for our own reasons, whatever they might be.
SR: “Bad Romance” makes a cameo appearance in your recent book on The Doors, as this thrilling, crazy song that pops up on the radio on these long drives you’re making to visit your ailing father, which is also when you keep hearing all the songs by The Doors that eventually inspire you to write the book. So is Lady Gaga one of the few things in recent years that’s really knocked you out?
GM: No, no. I think she’s incredibly smart. She’s got a wonderful sense of humor, she’s a performance artist, her costumes are fantastic. She’s a great figure and I hope she’s having a wonderful time. But really it was just hearing “Bad Romance” on the radio six or seven times a day and never getting tired of it and always being happy when I bumped into it. She made a great record, and anybody can, but most people don’t.
SR: You mentioned before this idea that each of your books is connected to who was President at the time, so Mystery Train was Nixon, Lipstick Traces was Reagan. Bill Clinton was president for most of the nineties, and you actually wrote a book about him: Double Trouble: Bill Clinton and Elvis Presley in a Land of No Alternatives, which came out in 2000, the final year of his second term. And the nineties started for you with Dead Elvis, a book about the uncanny prominence and persistence of Elvis as a cultural figure since his death. So the decade was bookended by these very American figures, both from the Deep South: Presley and Clinton. And in the middle comes Invisible Republic, about Dylan and the Band, Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, and singers like Dock Boggs. So would it be fair to say that if the eighties was a period in which you culturally exiled yourself in Europe, resulting in Lipstick Traces, the nineties is when you come home to America?
GM: Sure. I told you that Invisible Republic was my Bill Clinton book. And for all of his failings, the way he put all that he’d done that was good in jeopardy, and allowed his enemies to derail his presidency by fucking around with Monica Lewinsky… the way he just blew it, saying “Fuck it — I want this,” which is very human… For all of his awful compromises and the terrible decisions he made, I really like Bill Clinton. I supported him wholeheartedly from beginning to end. And he made me proud to be part of this country. He was that door opening.
For the paperback edition of Double Trouble I included an essay I wrote for the Guardian in 2000. Right before the election, at the end of Clinton’s second term, the Guardian asked me to write a piece imagining the next four years for Clinton, if Gore were to be elected, and if Bush were to be elected. So I wrote two parallel essays. I just let my imagination run wild; they are satirical essays in a lot of ways. But in both of them, you can see my liking for Clinton, my empathy for him. My country was a better place for his presidency. It was more what it was supposed to be. All kinds of people who had felt that they weren’t real Americans, that they didn’t count, that they should keep their mouths shut, that they had no real place here: that message that was so forcefully delivered under Reagan and under the first Bush, but it was never said, never demonstrated or acted out with Bill Clinton as president. He embodied and acted out a different America than Reagan and the first Bush, and then Bush Junior, did. So despite it all, this is somebody I liked.
SR: So does that mean that The Shape of Things To Come: Prophecy and the American Voice, written during the Bush and Cheney years — was that a return to the deep alienation of the eighties, for you?
GM: Nothing like it. Because Reagan really was an enormous and profound figure — a thousand times smarter and more willful than people want to give him credit for. The country he left us, the wreckage he left us, is the country and wreckage that he wanted to leave us. I’ve no doubt about that. George W. Bush, by comparison, was a piker. Walter Karp, who was a great political critic, once called Reagan “a vile tyrant” — you can’t go much further than that! And Bush would only love to have been. He was vile and there were tyrannical things about him. He wasn’t stupid, he just didn’t give a damn. He didn’t really care. Reagan did. He cared about horrible things. He devoted himself to horrible things. Bush did not exclude me and exclude other people the way that Reagan did.
The night that Reagan was elected in 1980, a prominent conservative thinker, now dead, was at an election night party in Chicago, and he was drunk and he said, “Now all those cunts and niggers are going to get what they deserve.” That’s what the election of Ronald Reagan meant to him. And that’s a lot of what the election of Ronald Reagan was about, that’s a lot of what its purpose was. So this prominent conservative thinker, now dead, read that election correctly, is what I am saying.
SR: A more decorous way of putting what he said: The goal of Reaganism was to reverse the sixties, all the gains of civil rights, feminism, and so forth.
GM: Everything that took away his primacy as a white male that got to rule the world, essentially. The Shape of Things to Come, if it’s a Bush book, it’s an argument with his idea of America. But it’s a book that came out of a long, long fascination with the notion of prophecy and the American voice. It’s a class that I developed here in Berkeley and taught at Princeton, starting in 2000. It goes back to a talk I gave when I was a Regents’ Lecturer here. In 1998, when these themes first emerged for me, I was trying to find people living who still were inheritors of the prophetic voice that had first come into the American air from John Winthrop and Abraham Lincoln, that was carried forward by Martin Luther King, and Allen Ginsberg. I wanted to look at people who were still using the same voice. And they all turned out to be artists, not political figures.
SR: How did 9/11 affect you? You wrote a piece that took great issue with a column that Susan Sontag had done for the New Yorker, a short opinion piece written within days of the towers falling, that in her typical cool style blamed the attacks on American foreign policy. Your response to it, which was crushing, seemed to be part of a current of writing that, if not actually pro-war, was very critical of the left’s reflexive anti-Americanism. What some people then referred to as the left’s “masochism.”
GM: I wrote a piece called “Nothing New Under the Sun”; it was originally a talk, and then it was published in First of the Month, this left-wing critical journal in New York. I felt what had happened was a gigantic event, if only because the United States was attacked. That hadn’t happened since Pearl Harbor. I had this argument with someone who said they just attacked some buildings, and I said, “The hell they just attacked some buildings!” This was a symbolic act, it succeeded on the level of symbolism. Symbolism is not meaningless, it’s not airy: we live our lives through symbols. And as a symbolic act, this said, “Nothing is safe, nothing is certain, everything you thought your country was about or your history told you: it’s all false, all wrong.” That’s what that attack said.
People said, “What are we going to call this?” And it was as if someone said, “How about ‘the events,’ that’s good.” Oh, that has a lot of character to it. How about the terrorist mass murders? It’s more syllables but it’s accurate. And very, very quickly, I heard people say that “this wasn’t really terrorism.” Okay, that’s interesting — then what is? We know what terrorism is: it’s meant to terrorize people. It’s meant to get them so scared, they don’t do what they know they ought to. I had an argument with somebody, a good friend, who said he was trying to come to terms with who was actually culpable here. And I said, “How about the people who carried out the attacks?” I really do believe there is a basic level of responsibility: if you kill somebody — I don’t care what the circumstances are around it — you killed somebody and somebody else didn’t. And I just blew up over and over all this.
Then when I read that comment of Susan Sontag’s, where she said that the attacks were the result of specific American actions and policies — not bothering to say what they might be, because of course any sophisticated person would know it had to do with Israel and Palestine. Which it didn’t have fuck to do with. And you know, it was a statement of bad faith, it was a statement of superiority: “By all means, let us grieve, you who are so soft-hearted, you need to do that.” It was cold, it was cruel — and Sontag was never a writer I liked anyway. I’d written about her before, said plenty of nasty things about her before. And this cost her nothing, this was bullshit. I was really angry.
SR: So you were never actually in the Christopher Hitchens camp, as it were?
GM: Look, as far as Christopher Hitchens goes… He was a dishonest person. A dishonest writer. Interested in self-promotion, in self-congratulation. That is what his work is about. His mode is self-promotion and his theme is self-congratulation and I think that is all there is to his writing. Of course he was very smart — it’s no compliment to call a writer smart, you have to be smart to be a writer. It’s like saying a carpenter is good with her hands, it’s a sine qua non. Or like saying a sprinter is fast: they’re all fast, what else makes the difference?
Hitchens, when he first started writing about 9/11, referred in the British press to Americans as “stupid.” He’s like Arafat, saying one thing to a English-speaking audience and one thing to an Arab-speaking audience. But Hitchens was writing to a British audience about Americans as “they,” with utter contempt for their naiveté, for their innocence, their lack of understanding of the world: essentially saying that it was their fault for not understanding what the world is like, not being able to conceive that people might not like them. And then, very quickly, he seized on this conflict and becomes this great flag waver and flag pin wearer. And he becomes not only one of the great promoters of the Iraq war, but covers himself in glory for his support of it, using language as if he’s out there in the battlefield fighting and risking his life for this glorious cause.
There was an article in the Village Voice by Richard Goldstein attacking me for the piece I’d written in First of the Month, and linking me to Christopher Hitchens as two people you would have thought would know better than to take this pro-American line… But that was before Hitchens embraced the war the way that he did. You know, he so made the war his own cause and was so defensive, probably knowing what bullshit it was, that when the Dixie Chicks scandal happened — when Natalie Maines said in London, “Just so you know, we’re ashamed that George Bush comes from Texas” — when that happened, Hitchens, who had to defend Bush because he’d pledged his troth to him, called the Dixie Chicks “fat slags.” That’s his level of discourse.
SR: Your most recent music books have been monographs on the artists that have stayed with you all through your life as a fan and writer. The old and abiding favorites. So another Dylan book, this one dedicated entirely to a single single, “Like A Rolling Stone.” Van Morrison, with When That Rough God Goes Riding. And now, The Doors: A Lifetime’s Listening to Five Mean Years. I say “abiding favorites,” but I hadn’t actually realized you were that big a fan of the Doors: there’s that little entry on the band in the Stranded list, where you just have the self-titled debut, and you say the music hasn’t aged well but at the time it hit with the impact of Clyde McPhatter in the early fifties, and you also say that the Doors exhausted everything they had to say with that first album. Apart from that, I don’t remember you writing anything else about Jim Morrison and crew. But the other Morrison — Van — he’s someone that has cropped up repeatedly in your writing.
GM: I’ve been writing about Van Morrison all along, as long as I’ve been writing. The first long piece I did for Rolling Stone was about Astral Weeks, right when it came out. I’ve never not written about Van Morrison: he’s been this constant, someone whose music I cared about. I listened to every album even for 16 years when I didn’t hear a damn thing by him I ever wanted to hear again, but I kept listening to every damn one until finally The Healing Game comes along [in 1997]. Which everybody ignored, but this is somebody digging in the real soil again, turning it over in a way he never had before. This is someone who has come into his own age. His own weight — I don’t mean his own being-fat, but his own gravity again. And I was like, “I want to write a book… and this is a book I could write. There is a book here for me to write.” And I just wanted to write about the songs and the music. I didn’t want to write about his biography, his life story, his joys and sorrows. I don’t give a damn about that stuff. People asked me, when I went out on the book tour for That Rough God, “How can you write about such an asshole? Such an awful disagreeable person.” And I said, “I don’t know if he’s such an awful disagreeable person… and I don’t care.” What does that have to do with what this music is? I don’t care where it comes from.
With the Doors, it was simply a matter of going to see my father in a nursing home once or twice a week for three years — a nursing home in San Francisco — and going back and forth over the Bay Bridge and hearing the Doors every single time. Not just one song or two songs, but a dozen different songs. And thinking, “This stuff is on the radio, still,” and it’s on the radio because when Doors songs are played people call in and say “more of this.” The radio stations are not playing this stuff out of pure Doors love. And also thinking, “Most of this stuff sounds great, and it sounds great in a way that I don’t think has ever been written about.”
SR: In the book you say that some songs sound even better, more majestic and alive and wild and free, than they did at the time of their original release. One thing that interested me, though, was that you stay really faithful to how the music impacted you at the time, which is more or less what you wrote about The Doors in the back of Stranded. The first album was immense, you played it hundreds of times that year, 1967. But Strange Days has much less impact, and by the time of Waiting For The Sun, you’ve more or less lost interest. The Soft Parade, you think, is utterly abysmal, as did many fans and critics at the time. And your Doors book reflects that arc of your interest: like the Van Morrison book, it’s broken up into little chapters on individual songs or specific performances, but most of the Doors songs you discuss are from the first album, or they’re live performances of those songs done later and captured on fan bootlegs. There’s a handful of songs from Strange Days and the later albums, with your interest pricking up a bit with “Roadhouse Blues,” off Morrison Hotel, and with the song and album L.A. Woman.
GM: I never saw the Doors after 1967. The last show I saw was December ’67 and I never saw them again, because obviously I didn’t want to. Or care that much if I did or not. But the book, it seemed to me to be a story that hadn’t been told. There are a zillion books about the Doors but none of them are about their music. I just wanted to listen to the songs. I think it’s a good idea for a book: a book about listening to somebody’s songs.
SR: That relates to something I wanted to ask: I remember reading somewhere that you stopped doing interviews early on in your career. You give interviews, but very rarely interview other people. Part of the problem with interviewing artists, especially those whose music means a lot to you, is that the humdrum truth — or even the interesting truth that just isn’t relevant to your concerns and all that you’re finding in the music and projecting onto it — that truth, that reality, of what motivates the artist or what they’re trying to do or say: that gets in the way of all the things the song can be. Either in your imagination, or indeed in the popular life of a song as it goes out into the world. But I also recall that you said you found out early on that you weren’t cut out to be an interviewer because you wanted to be liked. So you held back from asking the difficult questions, the probing questions.
GM: I don’t know if that would still be true today. By the time I interviewed Elvis Costello [in 1982], we had a certain kind of rapport and trusted each other, so I could press him on things. And the same with Pete Townsend. But early on, I just knew: I was trying to please. And that’s just death for an interview. That’s not what it’s about. So I would always admire the way that certain other people would seem to ask really stupid, obnoxious, nasty, provocative questions. And that way they would elicit the greatest answers. Because the artist would say, “No, that’s not what it’s about! Let me tell you what it’s really about. I’ve never told anybody this, but I cannot let this misconception stand.” It wasn’t accidental, it was very canny on the part of the interviewer. You have to go in prepared to let the person you’re interviewing think you’re a moron. But also, deep down, I didn’t really care what the people I was supposed to be interviewing thought. That’s an obnoxious thing to say, because once I do start talking to people, of course I do start to care. But you know that J.D. Salinger thing where you want to call up the author after reading his book and tell him what you think. I’ve never had that impulse. Except with the Gang of Four.
It’s funny, I think I told you how much I appreciated what you wrote about the Doors book [in Bookforum]. David Fricke said something similar in the Mojo review of the Doors book, about my last couple of books being out of focus or flailing in some way. While I don’t apologize for those books, I know what you’re talking about. I know when I’m just doggedly pushing through, but I’m forgetting to touch third base on the way to home plate. But I also know that with this last book, I knew it was good. I had so much fun writing it. I never had any doubts about it. It was just opening itself up to me day after day.
SR: I can’t believe it only took you a month to write The Doors. It’s relatively short, but still, that’s incredible.
GM: I mapped out a month, that’s all I was going to do. I’d go for a walk — my wife and I take the same walk every morning behind the football stadium, hike up a hill. I do a lot of thinking on those walks: ideas just come to me. I’d be thinking about what I was going to write about that day, like “Soul Kitchen” maybe. But on the walk I’d think of a song that I’d never intended to write about at all and I’d get an idea and I’d rush home and write that chapter in the morning, and then write about “Soul Kitchen” in the afternoon. It was just the way the material was provoking me. It’s not the way I’m necessarily going to write books in the future. There was nothing else I wanted to write about at that moment.
SR: It must have been marvelous to be so utterly consumed by the music.
GM: And it really was the music. It had nothing to do with… oh God, the Cult of Jim Morrison.
SR: In a way, that connects back to your first book, Mystery Train. You’re interested in singers and musicians as people, as individuals, up to a point. But you don’t do the “this is what Elvis had for breakfast on June 7th 1957″ thing. You don’t do biography, you do mythography.
GM: I’m not interested in them as people. I’m interested in Elvis’s story as he enacted it. And it was a mythic story: he stepped into a myth, or many myths, that were there before he was. And I was interested in the way he transformed those stories, those roles, those personae, and how he made them new, something they never were before. But I wasn’t interested in his inner demons or the particulars of his upbringing. I was interested in him as the person that existed in the music that he made. And I think that’s true for anybody I write about. Just as I’m not really interested in myself. I don’t care what anybody I write about wanted to accomplish. I hear certain ambitions and desires and demands in the work itself.
The two crucial books for me as a critic are Pauline Kael’s I Lost It At the Movies and D.H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature. In that book, Lawrence says, “Never trust the artist, trust the tale.” Don’t ever believe what the artist says he or she is trying to accomplish, what he or she says about what’s closest to their heart. It’s all lies, and they do the best they can in their work to keep the lie going. To let the lie dominate. But the greatest artists lose and the truth comes out anyway — their truth, not the absolute truth. What they’re trying to hide. Hawthorne will tell you that The Scarlet Letter is a cautionary tale: if you do bad things, bad things will happen to you, you will suffer. As opposed to saying, “This is the only way to live. Break rules, and you’ll find out that everyone else is a hypocrite — they’re the hypocrites and you’re the honest person.” But that, says Lawrence, is what’s really happening in this book. And it’s the last thing that Hawthorne will ever want you to think. He wants you to think he’s upright, this morally good person, but he isn’t.
SR: While you’re interested in myth, you are also simultaneously, and in slight contradiction, very scrupulous about facts. You have that proper historian’s regard for getting the facts right, not making stuff up. Whereas Nik Cohn, who shares your interest in the mythic dimensions of “Superpop,” as he calls it, has no compunction about playing fast and loose with the facts. Most infamously with the allegedly reported, actually made-up feature for New York about Brooklyn disco kids that ended up as Saturday Night Fever.
GM: Facts are interesting. The accidents, the stumbles, and the chance encounters that lead people to do certain things, or meet certain people, or encounter cultural artifacts: those are fascinating. How records come to be made. Like, the discovery that Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller were part of this interracial communist commune in L.A. in the early fifties! They’re out there on the streets distributing pamphlets and working at Lockheed in order to convert the workers. And this is where The Coasters and “Hound Dog” come from! You couldn’t make this make this stuff up. Maybe Nik could, but I couldn’t.
SR: But that back story, while astounding, it’s not the secret “truth” of The Coasters or “Hound Dog,” is it?
GM: The songs have their own truth. But the really great story is that Willie Mae Thornton’s version of “Hound Dog” gets to Number One on the R&B charts, in 1951 I think, and Leiber and Stoller go back to the commune to tell everybody about how great this is. There’s a party going on and they tell everyone that their record got to Number One. Immediately the party turns into this self-criticism session where everyone is sitting around lambasting Leiber and Stoller for engaging in commodity fetishism and selling the masses bread and circuses when they ought to be focusing on conditions of exploitation. They have betrayed the group and there is going to have to be a judgment on whether or not they’re fit to remain. And Leiber and Stoller realize, maybe this isn’t the place for us, because they don’t understand how great it is to have written this wonderful song and gotten Willie Mae Thornton to record it and then it gets to be Number One.
But what did Nik Cohn make up, other than Saturday Night Fever?
SR: I think he’s talked about writing Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom [published as Rock from the Beginning in the US] incredibly fast, with no research materials to hand, going by just his memory, and, you know, making it all as larger-than-life and mythic as possible. Which is totally in accordance with the principles of Superpop as he understands it, which is all about myth and heroic archetypes and pop as pulp fiction. You can see it running through of his work: not an intention to deceive, but certainly he consistently seems to want to create fabulous fictions out of real people and real events.
GM: Well, fine: it’s a great book, Awopbopaloobop. An inspiring book. It a great piece of writing. And it’s a sustained intellectual argument. And he was writing about all kinds of people I didn’t know about, or had forgotten about. I mean, I remembered Eddie Cochran’s hits. But he was just a name to me.
SR: He was a much bigger presence in the UK, for some reason.
GM: Well, he died there, that helped. But Eddie Cochran was not a presence to me. I didn’t care if he was dead or alive. And for Nik Cohn to say that “The Book of Love” by the Monotones meant more to him than all of Blonde on Blonde — that’s a serious intellectual argument, that’s a challenge. That forced me to think. Because I was like, “No no no, Blonde on Blonde means more to me than anything. But I love ‘The Book of Love’ too, so what is he saying?” And that really made me think about what matters, and about how much can happen in three minutes, as opposed to what can happen in an hour and a half. And maybe a lot more can happen in three minutes. It took me aback, in a way that I just loved.
Even though ultimately I’d say that the instrumental break in “Absolutely Sweet Marie” means more to me than all of Blonde on Blonde. I could say that.
Thus concludes our four-part interview with Greil Marcus. Click here to read parts one, two, and three. If you’re still not sated after approximately 20,000 words of Marcus in dialogue, check out Conversations with Greil Marcus, a collection of interviews conducted between 1980 and 2011, edited by Joe Bonomo and set for publication this fall by the University Press of Mississippi.