High Stakes Criticism

An Interview with Greil Marcus

by Robert Loss

25 April 2010

Greil Marcus on Van Morrison, the yarragh, the blues, the memoir, race, authenticity, imagination, his career and what constitutes 'high stakes' criticism.
Photo (partial) by
©Thierry Arditti, Paris 

“Music—any art—is there to give us more freedom, not take it away.”
—Greil Marcus

In his latest book, When That Rough God Goes Riding: Listening to Van Morrison, Greil Marcus reflects on one of his favorite artists in a style quite different from recent work like The Shape of Things to Come and classics like Mystery Train and Lipstick Traces. During our conversation, Marcus said that the book came about after he’d been interviewed for an NPR Weekend Edition segment on Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks tour.

“I was working on proposals for two other book projects,” he recalled, “but my wife heard the show and she particularly liked one thing that I said. ‘That’s what you should be writing a book about,’ she said, and she was right.”

Published by PublicAffairs this April, When That Rough God Goes Riding explores moments of contradiction, sublime beauty, audacity, failure and grace in the singer-songwriter’s career with a keen ear, weaving the rich thoughtfulness we’ve come to expect from one of America’s best cultural critics and historians into an elegantly structured series of staccato essays which reveal Marcus’ fascination with Van Morrison’s music.

“This is somebody I’ve been listening to since 1965,” Marcus said. “There’s never been a Van Morrison album that I haven’t immediately listened to, whether with delight or crushing disappointment. He’s been a constant in my life; it just so happens we’re both born in the same year. It’s very lucky when you have an artist—whether it’s a novelist or a filmmaker or a singer—whose career you can follow from the beginning and feel that you are in some way part of it, or part of the same world that it comes out of.”

It’s been a busy time for Marcus. Recent publications include a reprint of Lipstick Traces and a fascinating anthology co-edited with Werner Sollors, A New Literary History of America. This fall, PublicAffairs will release Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus, Writings 1968-2010, which Marcus describes as “a collection of nearly everything I’ve written on Dylan outside of Invisible Republic/The Old Weird America and Like a Rolling Stone. It’s long. I don’t know how long; I’m still working on it.”

Our conversation was split over two sessions, the first from his home in Berkeley, California and the second from Cleveland, Ohio where he was a keynote speaker at a conference on narrative. Nonetheless he was gracious enough to talk for nearly two hours about a wide range of topics: Van Morrison, the yarragh, the blues, the memoir, race, authenticity, imagination, his career and what constitutes “high stakes” criticism.

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