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Powell’s Q&A: Greil Marcus

Describe your latest book/project/work.
When That Rough God Goes Riding: Listening to Van Morrison is what it says it is. It's somebody listening to Van Morrison and listening for those moments all across his career where he seems to break through the boundaries of ordinary communication and go into a realm of both ecstasy and revelation. He can't do this whenever he wants to; it doesn't happen according to plan. Sometimes you can hear him try and fail, but what he's aiming for can be just as vivid in his inability to reach it as it can be when he does reach it. It is a book that goes back to 1965, to the time of his very first record, right up to the present, leaping all around his music trying to find affinities between songs and performances rather than tracing any false notion of growth, development, or evolution. He has always been on a musical quest and that quest hasn't changed.

What's the strangest or most interesting job you've ever had?
In 1976 Francis Coppola bought City magazine in San Francisco and he told me he wanted me to review every movie on TV every week. This was pre-cable so there weren't hundreds of channels, but there were still between 100 and 200 movies a week. Some of them were on incredibly dodgy low-fi channels. They would buy packages of B-movies from the '30s and '40s that were either totally unheard of or completely forgotten and they'd program them all day long. I sat down with many reference books and movie guides and I reviewed every movie every day on every TV channel for a year. I never had so much fun in my life as a writer, both because a lot of it I had to make up, but sometimes in a week there'd be parallels, like five movies about someone who killed his uncle. There'd be this running theme between France, the United States, the '30s, the '50s — you could see some sort of universal mind at work.

Introduce one other author you think people should read and suggest a good book with which to start.
My recommendation is The Time of Our Singing by Richard Powers. It's unfair and unfriendly because it's an 800-page book, but I think it's the most important, moving, ambitious, successful, beautifully written novel in the last 20 years, at least by an American. When you give someone an 800-page book you're either making a claim on their time you have no right to make or you're making them feel terrible by giving them a book that they're never going to read. Yet I really do believe that if people start it they will be completely sucked into it. It's the story of a émigré German Jewish physicist and an African-American woman from Philadelphia, a singer, who meet in the crowd at Marian Anderson's concert at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939. And it's about the family they create but also, as they understand it, the little America that they are creating in the heart of the malevolent America. They're going to re-found the country and start its story all over again in their family. The book is the story of the tragedy that comes out of that.

Writers are better liars than other people: true or false? Why, or why not?
False. Even when writers are lying, even when they're perpetrating a hoax in a certain way, they're trying to tell the truth. The demand of writing, of any form you choose to write in, is to get it right, to make the sentences work together, to make it sound believable, even to you. Even when you know writers are lying underneath all the masks of fraud, hoax, and vanity, they are nevertheless telling the truth in a way that someone who's trying to sell you something, whether it's a house or a hot watch, isn't.

Offer a favorite sentence or passage from another writer.
"There is always a social explanation for what we see in art. Only it doesn't explain anything important." (Albert Camus, Combat newspaper, 1947)

How did the last good book you read end up in your hands and why did you read it?
I read a review in MOJO magazine about a book called Bad Penny Blues by Cathi Unsworth. It's a novel about London from 1959 to 1965; in other words, it takes place during the emergence of the Beatles, swinging London, London bohemia, and the art world. It starts out with a spiritualist promise, where the heroine dreams crimes that then take place. This is the last sort of thing I'm interested in or find remotely convincing. And yet I'd read a previous book by her and she's a tremendous writer. When you're reading you have no sense of whether the writer is male or female, young or old — she completely inhabits her territory. So I kept reading. It's a murder mystery, it's a novel about friendship, it's a portrait of the city at a particular time, and it's absolutely alive. When I finished I wanted to read her next one, whatever it's about.

Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?
I'm a great believer in what I've always called ambient research. You go to a place where something you're interested in or writing about happened and you look around, because there will be something there, some detail in the architecture, the people, the neighborhood, the color of the building, or the room, that no one would've thought to tell you about. No one else would've felt was interesting. The most interesting literary pilgrimage I ever made was to the Cabaret Voltaire, the great Dada night club from 1916 Zurich. When I first got to Zurich I walked across the river, found my way to the site, and found a plaque. No one would've ever thought to tell me that in 1983 the cabaret was occupied by a teen and 20s disco. I just thought that was so perfect.

Share an interesting experience you've had with one of your readers.
It's a long story. In 1980 I was writing a music column for California magazine and I got a letter from a reader discussing what I'd written and going way beyond it. I was writing about the band New Order and the letter was very, very long and everything about it was funny, interesting, wonderfully written. The writer had a fabulous punning sense of humor; he was drawing intellectual connections and making philosophical arguments just in the way he would compound words. It was really hard to keep up with him, he was that quick. So I wrote him back and said, Why are you wasting your time writing to me when you ought to be publishing? I put him in touch with different editors, and he started publishing pieces in the Boston Phoenix, the Village Voice and Artforum. It took him about five years to settle in because as soon as he started writing for these publications, he froze up. His work was still better than the ordinary criticism you read in the same pages; it was funnier, it was smarter, it was more courageous. But it didn't have the verve of his letters. We continued to write to each other two or three times a week all through this period, and his letters were outrageous and brilliant and unpredictable, full of this great word play that was not in his published stuff. It took him years to get his real voice into what he was publishing. His name is Howard Hampton and he writes today mostly for Film Comment. He's a great critic.

Recommend five or more books on a single subject of personal interest or expertise.
Five great books on Bob Dylan

Chronicles: Volume One by Bob Dylan

A Freewheelin' Time by Suze Rotolo

Song & Dance Man by Michael Gray (the 1972 edition)

Saved! The gospel speeches of Bob Dylan

Music From Big Pink by John Niven

÷ ÷ ÷

Greil Marcus is the author of Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus: Writings 1968-2010, The Shape of Things to Come, Like a Rolling Stone, and The Old Weird America; a 20th anniversary edition of his book Lipstick Traces was published in 2009. Since 2000 he has taught at Princeton, Berkeley, Minnesota, and the New School in New York; his column Real Life Rock Top 10 appears regularly in the Believer. He lives in Berkeley.

Books mentioned in this post

Greil Marcus is the author of Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus: Writings 1968-2010

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