"Greil Marcus," Nick Hornby has written, "is simply peerless. Not only as a rock writer but as a cultural historian."
Wondering how Bob Dylan resurrected his career in the nineties or what Elvis Presley and Bill Clinton have in common? Curious which novel's unabridged audio cassettes Marcus calls 2000's Album of the Year - "nothing came close," he insists - or what made Lester Bangs one of rock music's most eloquent critics? Greil Marcus recently spent an afternoon at Powell's, browsing the shelves for hard-to-find titles and answering as many questions as I could squeeze into an hour.
Dave: In the introduction to Mystery Train, you explain that you meant to address rock 'n' roll not as youth culture or counterculture, but as American culture. People tend to think of you as a Rock Critic - that's where we shelve your books - but it seems like you write about America and contemporary culture as much as anything.
Greil Marcus: That's true, but most of the time music is where I start. I start with a song, or maybe just a riff or even a whole body of somebody's work. I start with some kind of musical interruption. Something musical makes a breach, opens up questions that I wind up pursuing.
At the least music is a jumping-off point, and at the most it's an organizing principle. It's a shadow cast over anything I might write.
Lipstick Traces starts off being about The Sex Pistols and it ends up being about The Sex Pistols, but in between there's four hundred pages of other stuff covering hundreds and hundreds of years. The Sex Pistols aren't an excuse. They're the bad conscience of the whole book and of all the other people who emerge in its convoluted story.
A lot of people were confused or upset by Invisible Republic, which is about Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes. They said, "Only half the book is about The Basement Tapes!" and "You only write about six or seven songs in any detail!" Well, yeah, that's the point. The Basement Tapes is such a mysterious piece of work, and they're so shrouded, the songs are so disguised, that they open up into all different directions. Were you to write about that music and only that music I think you'd be defrauding it. The whole point is where it can take you, not whether you can stick to the subject.
Dave: When Dylan's Live 1966 album was officially released a couple years ago, I'd seen Don't Look Back, but it was the first time I'd heard extended live performances from that tour, when he went electric for the first time. And it blew me away, it really did. The first disk, the acoustic portion, is gorgeous.
Marcus: It is.
Dave: It was so much more beautiful than I'd expected. Then you put on the second disk when he plugs in with The Band, and it's an incredible rock 'n' roll band playing.
On the disk, you can hear people shouting from the audience. The crowd felt as if it had been betrayed. You wrote in Invisible Republic, "Dylan's performance now seemed to mean that he had never truly been where he had appeared to be only a year before, reaching for that democratic oasis of the heart?.It was as if it had all been a trick - a trick he had played on them."
Simply the fact that this musician could stand in front of them playing an electric guitar, suddenly they felt alone and alienated and deceived.
Marcus: That was the hardest thing for me to write about in Invisible Republic, to get at why and how people were so upset and outraged and betrayed at Dylan's move into rock 'n' roll, playing with a band. In California, myself and everybody I knew, we thought Dylan was late! Why did it take so long? We didn't understand remotely what all this fuss was back east, what people were upset about. We had no clue. The Beatles were as natural as breathing to us and The Rolling Stones as natural as dirt. The question of corruption or betrayal involved with these songs and this sort of music, it didn't make any sense to me.
So I thought a lot, listened more indifferently than I ever had before. I had to go back almost thirty years to try and recapture what this felt like. I spent a lot of time trying to bring it to life for other people once I'd made sense of it myself because I think in fact it was something really deep, really profound.
People had committed themselves to living in another country, which is the name of the first chapter of Invisible Republic, "Another Country." Bob Dylan was in some ways the president of that country, and he committed treason by saying, "This country isn't real," or, "You don't really live in this country; you live in a bigger, more dangerous world in which the idea of purity has no meaning." That was not something people wanted to hear. They felt tricked. They felt fooled.
Not having been there, I had trouble imagining that people actually meant it when they booed, that they weren't just going through an act of what they thought they were supposed to do. But I've talked enough with Robbie Robertson and other people in The Band to know that it was ugly; it was hateful. Just to get the music across on a given night, particularly in England at the end of that tour, was a real struggle. It was dispiriting. They would say over and over again, "We've played the best we can play. We've made music that we know is great, and people are acting as if we've thrown warm shit in their faces. What are we doing wrong?" It wasn't a question of History will absolve us. They were thinking, What do we have to do to get across to people how good this is? And the answer is that there was nothing they could do.
Dave: Bob Dylan resurrected his career in the nineties. He hadn't been taken seriously as a contemporary performer, at least in the mainstream, for quite a few years. Now in the last seven or eight years he's on top of the world again. What happened?
Marcus: A couple things, I think. I have no idea about his personal life, but leaving that out, in terms of his professional life and in terms of the music he was making, he had made one poor album after another, and every time one of these records would come out, whether it was Under the Red Sky or Empire Burlesque or Knocked Out Loaded or Oh Mercy or Infidels, any of these, really, quite bad records that made no sense, didn't hang together, had no point, and did not need to exist, every single time Rolling Stone and many other publications said, "He's back! He's done it! He's really broken through! This is the best record he's made in ten... in twenty years! Since Blood on the Tracks! Since Blonde on Blonde!? whatever. It got to the point where somebody wrote a hilarious parody of all these "The real Dylan has re-emerged" records.
So imagine if you're a serious person, an artist who knows that art is out there in the world, but you've somehow reached a point where you can't touch it. You can't really get there. And every time you do something that you know is a compromise, a fraud, something you just dashed off, people rush to it and celebrate it as if it's the best thing you can do. How do you feel? It's the opposite of what I was talking about before, when your best work is rejected. That's one thing. When your poor work is celebrated, it says that people don't care. They can't tell the difference.
So for whatever reason, in 1992, he sat down with a guitar and a harmonica, and he made a record of old blues and folk songs, stuff that in his own repertoire pre-dated his first albums, songs he was singing at The Ten O'Clock Scholar in Minneapolis, in Dinkytown, in 1961. The stuff he was singing when he first discovered this music and was able to absorb it and find its voice more quickly and more deeply than other people.
There's a bootleg live album from this time, a compilation of old ballads and folk songs. It's a wonderful record. But every time Bob Dylan comes out by himself in the middle of some concert and sings one of these old songs, you can hear that people in the crowd are drunk, and people are screaming, "Bring back the band!" It's just the opposite of what had happened so many years before. Nobody's listening. Nobody's paying any attention.
So he makes this quiet record, Good As I Been To You, this funny, sexy, distant, odd record. He releases it, for whatever reason, on Election Day 1992. The previous year, he'd put together a new band with John Jackson and Tony Garnier and a couple of others, the band he used when he accepted his Lifetime Achievement Award on the Grammys in 1991 and played "Masters of War" in the middle of the Gulf War. The most electrifying, fast, indecipherable, furious, threatening version of that song imaginable. It took me a minute to realize what the song was and I only realized from the melody, not the words, but it was so exciting. It was the kind of music you don't hear on tv.
Right about that time, he's rediscovering the oldest music that he can touch, that he can transform, that's his. And he's also decided - something most people would not do at his age, at fifty-one - he decides to become a lead guitar player. He begins playing lead guitar in his own band.
In the shows he was giving in 1994 and '95, any given song would be two-thirds instrumental. The songs were an excuse for him to stretch out and play in a way that he'd never played before. With that impetus, discovering his old music, discovering abilities that he didn't know he had or had never dared present to the public, he finds his way into Time Out Of Mind, which is a set of new songs that all have the feeling they could have been written a hundred or two hundred years ago. They're written out of the old songs he'd been clearing his throat with on Good As I Been To You and World Gone Wrong in '92 and '93.
He established a new plateau, and that's where he lives, on this wide, flat expanse, overlooking his whole career. He's done something as good as anything he's ever done and different from anything he's ever done. For the time being, that's all he needs to do. He's at the top of his career.
Dave: Double Trouble, which discusses that 1992 election, among other things, collects your essays and articles about Elvis and Bill Clinton, yet many of the pieces aren't about either one. They're more about the cultural atmosphere during those times.
Now that Bill's out of the White House is he going to get fat, sit on his couch, and shoot the tv? What does Clinton do now that he's out of the spotlight?
Marcus: I wrote a piece last fall about Clinton's future. The Guardian in London had asked me to do a piece, another Elvis and Clinton piece. I thought, I did that. But it struck me that Clinton's life would be very, very different were Gore to win or were Bush to win. It would really make a difference. So I imagined a life for him under Bush and under Gore.
In one case, under Bush, he goes through a slough of despondency where his life is utterly ruined, then reemerges and makes an Elvis-like comeback. Under Gore, though, his life is a complete tragedy. He's not needed or wanted. He ends up, in essence, disappearing. What I didn't imagine was that Gore would win and Bush would be given the Presidency or that Clinton would disgrace himself upon leaving the White House.
The only thing factually that I got right was that the Republicans would retain control of the House and the Senate and Hillary would be elected - I needed Hillary to be elected because I needed Bill to be peripheral even in his own marriage. That worked.
I don't know what he's going to do. He's too smart and he's too stupid, he's too vain and he's too scared to live an ordinary, straight and narrow life. He's fifty-four years old and he could have done anything if he had not been, with some help from the media, utterly smeared upon leaving The White House. He now has to reinvent himself or become a complete sleaze. I don't know which it will be.
Dave: Why is Elvis such a bedrock of American popular culture? Is Elvis American popular culture, period? Is he at the heart of everything?
Marcus: He really is, for a whole lot of different reasons.
If you go back into his genealogy, you find out there's a very high probability that he's Jewish. You find out that even before he became famous there were many, many people who believed he was part black, or as the phrase went, "there was Negro blood in the Presleys." Their background was pretty typical rural, very, very poor Southern. There's polygamy. There's polyandry. There's a complete confusion of genealogy and antecedents going back to the period before and after the Civil War, so it's very hard to pinpoint exactly what the line is. There are many people who tell the story that in fact Vernon Presley is not Elvis's father, that Gladys had an affair with a black man. I don't believe any of this, but it's not impossible.
The point is that people tell these stories because it makes sense to them. There's something about Elvis that a single ethnic or racial identity cannot contain. So you have a figure who is, at least in the common imagination, Christian and not Christian; part Pagan, because of the nature of his music, but devout; black and white; and in terms of the way he looks and moves, male and female, masculine and feminine. You have a figure who breaks down if you fix him narrowly.
Then you add to that the way he looked, how gorgeous he was, and the way he sounded, with a seductiveness, a thrill that threatened to break out at any time that really no singer had ever had before, and you have a mystery that nobody can solve. But you also have a figure that everybody can recognize, everybody can relate to, maybe with hate and fear, maybe with love and envy and desire. No one can be indifferent. This is not the sort of person who comes along very often.
Albert Murray, the great jazz critic, was once writing about how the notion of genius is denied to black people, that black artists are always seen as exemplars of sociological principals. He said he didn't know how many times he's read that what made Bessie Smith Bessie Smith could be ascribed to the fact that her people had suffered and bled for hundreds of years on American soil, and it was the pain and suffering of African Americans as a whole that found a voice in hers. He said, "Isn't it interesting that four hundred years of black pain and suffering have only produced one Bessie Smith?"
That's the point. This is not sociology. This is someone who comes along and becomes a mirror for all of our desires and our fears, someone to whom we can all connect on very basic levels, whether negatively or positively. He is a fulcrum of American culture, regardless of how cheesy, tiresome, redundant, and repetitious the idea or the reality of Elvis Presley becomes. He will always reemerge as a way to talk about who we are and how we got here. He'll always be around.
Dave: You mention Peter Guralnick's biography as being "the only reliable biography of Elvis." Those books have been huge sellers around here for a long time.
Marcus: They're real books, different from the other books about Elvis, but I do have problems with what Peter did. When Peter started to work, to him Elvis Presley was no longer real in the world at large. That was what fascinated me, but it appalled Peter. He went in a different direction.
In the first volume, he leaves out completely whatever he can't absolutely document. That's extraordinarily responsible, but it also leaves entire areas of Elvis's story as others have told it blank. For instance, there are any number of people who talk about the shows Elvis played on Beale Street when he was nineteen years old, the only white guy who would perform on Beale Street. There are lots of people who speak in great detail about those shows. Peter believes they never really happened. It seems to me that if they never happened, you have to explore why these various individuals - and they're notable people - why they want us to believe that. What's going on there?
In the second volume, which is the story of someone losing his life as he continues to live it, Peter has a certain argument to make that not everyone would agree with, but it becomes airless, it seems to me. There's no room even for the humor that had to be there over the years. And in fact the explosion of vitality that comes in 1968 with Elvis doesn't make sense to me in the book.
But what Peter accomplished that no one else did - I don't think anyone else even tried - was to tell Elvis's story as if it was ordinary, as if it was down to earth, as if it was everyday life. You could walk down the street and here was this guy walking down the street beside you and he just dressed a little differently than you did, because he had more nerve or he wanted something - who knows? - but you could walk down the street with him and have a real conversation. He wouldn't know what was going to happen to him in the future. You wouldn't know, either. That kind of naturalism is what makes certainly the first volume of the book so alive and so real.
Marcus: That's the first one I've ever listened to all the way through. I'd read the book twice and written about it. My wife and I were going to Hawaii for ten days, and she said, "Why don't we get the audio book of The Human Stain?" So I got it, and it was fourteen and a half hours! It's uncut, unabridged. We rented a car in Hawaii and we started playing these cassettes. Very, very quickly, we were spending a lot more time driving than we'd ever imagined we would.
Arliss Howard is the actor who did the reading, except for a small part by Debra Winger, his wife. And he was phenomenal. He not only has different voices for each character, he has different voices for the same characters at different points in their lives. And yet he makes sense. You can follow the physical growth or the aging of a character. It was completely real. One day we drove an extra hundred and fifty miles; we kept driving and driving because we didn't want to stop listening.
Ultimately, we made it last for the whole trip. And when we reached the end, we were both shattered, both because it was a shattering book and also because it was over! A whole dimension of life, of being in a play?
Imagine being seated on the stage and all the actors are moving around you, they don't notice you but you're right next to them and you feel their physical presence. Everything that's happening is as threatening to you or as full of promise to you as it is to them, that's what listening to this audio book was like. I was shocked that anyone could produce something on this level.
Nothing came close in terms of Album of the Year. Nothing.
Dave: What else have you read or listened to lately that's really excited you?
Marcus: The new Daft Punk album, Discovery, is amazing. They're two French guys who never show their faces - they don't paint their faces like Kiss; they wear this bizarre, futuristic headgear. They're a techno group, but what they're really doing is making eighties dance music with a glamorousness and an emotional depth that's quite overwhelming. It's funny and it's cheap and tinny, and it's beautiful, and it's uplifting. It's amazing stuff.
With books, I haven't had much time to read lately beyond what I'm reading for stuff that I'm writing about, so I've read a lot of lousy books that I'm reviewing.
Dave: Do you generally choose the books you're reviewing?
Marcus: Someone might call up and say, "Would you like to review this book?" and I'll say yes or no. I've never worked in a situation where I've had to write anything that I didn't want to.
Dave: Is it less interesting to write about a book that you didn't enjoy as much?
Marcus: It's a lot easier to write about something that you hate, to pick it apart and show why the author is a cretin or why his or her whole approach is misguided and twisted and all of that. It's more difficult to make a case for a book that you desperately want other people to read. To do that, you have to avoid proselytizing and get to what makes the book or record or movie different, what makes it strange, what makes it not like everything else out there, and that's hard to do. But I don't like one better than the other.
Dave: Whether it's music or books or movies, is there a quality that differentiates good from bad for you? What do you look for? What excites you? Reading through a few decades of your reviews and criticism, it seems that you like everything, at least in bits and pieces. There's no genre or style, for example, of which you say, "Oh, that's not worth my time," or, "That doesn't do anything for me." On the other hand, you're more than willing to say when you think something is bad.
Marcus: I try not to walk through the world with preconceptions and rules, that something is good if it fits certain categories in certain ways. I just don't understand that stance. It's just so sterile, the idea that, let's say, poetry has to have a certain level of ambiguity before it can affect you emotionally. Well, if you've got to let it through several locked doors before it can affect you emotionally, then it's never going to affect you.
I watch movies, I listen to political speeches, I read the newspaper, I listen to records, I go to shows, I read books, and I'm always hoping that something will trouble me - it might be in a way that's truly pleasurable, it might be in a way that's scary, but it will move me an inch or a mile away from where I began. Once that happens, then I might begin to think, Why did this happen? What qualities in the work had this effect on me? Or, What did I bring to the work that brought it to life and allowed it to affect me? What's going on?
I remember when I first saw Reservoir Dogs. It's one of those works that gets meaner and meaner and meaner, and keeps pushing its own boundaries until it's gone too far so many times that at last I was utterly helpless before it. I was defenseless. It was like a nightmare I couldn't wake up from. And when I think back on that movie, which I do often, it's scenes that take place in the middle of it that I can't get over. They're still shocking and hideously ugly. But I couldn't even afford to quite register them as they were shooting by. To make sense of what made that movie special, what made it harder than anyone had any right to expect, that's interesting to me. But to say, "Well, it really can't be very good because in fact it's kind of a rip off of this Hong Kong movie," that's not the point at all.
For me, it always begins with the event, with the artifact. It doesn't begin with ideas that are brought to bear on the artifact to see whether the artifact will measure up to them.
If you look at art criticism from the forties on and the whole notion of flatness as a value in painting, certain critics decided that painting should be this way, so they went looking for artists who either exemplified what they were looking for or who were reading what these critics were saying and were doing what they were told to do because they knew they'd get good reviews and their paintings would sell. It's corrupt intellectually and it's corrupt commercially. None of this makes sense to me. I really have never understood it.
While I can make an argument for the value of Anarchy in the U.K. by The Sex Pistols - that it's valuable because it crystallizes hundreds of years of cultural aspirations in a form they'd never taken before, that it acts out something culture had been trying to do for a long time - that's not why it's valuable. It's valuable because it's like a volcano exploded, it seems to me.
Dave: By coincidence, the day I called your publicist to set up this interview, a friend of mine here had the Lester Bangs book you edited on his desk. He was really excited. He said, "It's the first time in years I've felt this excited about music." And he listens to music all the time.
Marcus: Reading Lester's book?
Marcus: He could do that. Lester was very, very good at not censoring himself. That's one of the hardest things for a writer: to figure out what you really want to say, then to say it—not to say what will sound good and will reflect well on you. Often that happens unconsciously, but Lester was able to remove his censor a lot of the time. Not all the time, but a lot of the time, and to do it more completely than most writers ever do.
In that sense, he's a great inspiration to other writers. I can read Lester, and I can become aware of my own compromises or cowardice or hesitations, and I can say, "No, it doesn't have to be that way. You can make a fool of yourself."
That's what a writer has to do. I learned this from John Irving, though when he said it to me I didn't really understand what he meant. Years later I did. He was talking about Neil Young and Bob Dylan and why they were heroes of his. He said, "Because they're not afraid to make fools of themselves, and you have to be able to do that." I didn't quite get it then, in '78 or whenever it was, but for a critic or any person who does his or her work in public, to take the stance of You can't fool me and to always be careful not to be fooled, to always be one step ahead, to always be a figure of good judgment and probity, is absolute death. It's the worst thing you can do.
Dave: How did you start writing the "Real Life Top 10" columns for Salon.com? Are those a major focus for you or something to keep you busy between larger projects?
Marcus: I started a column in New West magazine in 1978 called "Real Life Rock." At the end of each essay, I'd include a little list called "Real Life Top 10." The point was not to just be a list of records, but anything that remotely had to do with music, a dress Bette Midler wore at an awards show or a great guitar solo in the middle of a song that otherwise wasn't very interesting. At some point, Doug Simmons, the music editor at The Village Voice, said, "What if you made that into a real column, annotated each item?" I'd never thought of that. So I made it a monthly column for The Village Voice in around '86.
When The Voice got a new music editor who didn't like the column, I moved it to Artforum, and I did it there for quite some time.
It's the kind of column that really needs a general interest magazine to work. It wouldn't work in a music magazine - everybody else would be covering at least half the things I'd be covering, and it wouldn't make sense to go as far afield as I like to go, into books or movies or advertisements. I'd been reading Salon with more and more enthusiasm during the impeachment year, when they were at their absolute best, both in terms of reporting and critical writing, so I asked if they were interested, and they were.
They said that because people have a shorter attention span on the web the column should appear every two weeks, and in fact it's much easier to do it that way. I'm always thinking about it; I'm always looking for items. I can't afford to let it pile up till the end of the month. Also, with Artforum, I had a two-month lead time. With Salon, I can have a two-day lead time if I want. It's much more current in that way.
It's not a central focus, but it's a kind of organizing principle. I do it for fun. It keeps me looking, keeps me listening, keeps me alert. I'll do it as long as someone will publish it for me.
Greil Marcus visited Powell's on April 4, 2001.
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Books mentioned in this post
Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State