“Few if any American cultural historians take the great deep American Breath like Greil Marcus,” writes Robert Loss in his PopMatters article, “Risk and Equilibrium: The Impact of Greil Marcus”, “It’s the breath of Whitman, of Ginsberg, of Little Richard and Dylan and Aretha Franklin—in scope and risk, at least, if not their artistry or forms.”
Indeed, a skilled bridge-builder who spans the chasm between academia and pop culture, the critic who cut his teeth on Rolling Stone, Creem and The Village Voice has another book out this month, Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus: Writings 1968-2010. We’re pleased to have him back with us, this time in the playful framework of PopMatters 20 Questions.
1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?
Over Labor Day weekend at the Telluride Film Festival, I was introducing David Hoffman’s 1965 film Music Makers of the Blue Ridge, about old-time country music in the North Carolina mountains. The great folklorist and singer Bascom Lamar Lunsford, then 83, was the guide for a tour of the county—the best guitar player, the best clog-dancer, the best animal-sounds imitator, the best dulcimer player. I’ve seen the movie many times over the years, and after talking about it for a few minutes, instead of rushing off to another screening, I figured I’d just wait in the back and watch a few minutes. Of course I was pulled in and stayed.
There are two scenes, at the very end, that are completely devastating. Lunsford has been traveling through his home ground, bringing it to life, giving a deep sense of love for the place and the people and its history, and that drapes over everything. Still, after an hour, you figure you’ve got the picture. But then his tone changes slightly; he’s going to take us to see a fiddle player he says, someone named Jesse Ray—“Lost John”. You get the feeling this is not going to be like anything you’ve seen before—as if he doesn’t take just anyone to see this person.
Lost John turns out to be a moon-faced man who looks as if the top layer of skin has been peeled off of his face: a big grin, almost no teeth. It’s hard to tell his age—somewhere between 30 and 50. He picks up his fiddle and begins to sing “Little Maggie”—and suddenly you’re no longer in a specific place, you’re no longer looking at local culture, at folk music—you are in the presence of the kind of great artist no culture can account for, that no tradition can guarantee. You’re swept up, swept away, dumbfounded, shocked, you can’t believe how lucky you are to be in the presence of this man, you can’t believe that this performance has to end, you’re already afraid you won’t be able to remember it in every detail, afraid that, somehow, this isn’t real.
That brought me to tears—but then came the end of the movie. Lunsford stands on a hill, shot from a great distance, and begins to recite an old poem about a suitor at a garden gate, returning every day to win the affections of his beloved, and how she betrayed him, reciting the poem slowly, as if it’s a memory he has never gotten over—even if being spurned ultimately led him to his true and faithful love. By the end of that, the tears were on my face.
Book: Richard Powers’s The Time of Our Singing (2003), the second time through: at the March on Washington; when the father dies.
2. The fictional character most like you?
Jason, the teenage son of the underground fugitive who goes by the name of Louise Barrot in Dana Spiotta’s 2006 novel, Eat the Document. He’s as smart as a 15-year-old can be, which is very smart. His intelligence is all obsession and play, and all devoted to ‘60s and ‘70s music—the music of his mother’s never-explained, always shadowy past. His submergence in the Beach Boys and Funkadelic is his way of trying to figure out, if only emotionally, who she is, who he is—but it’s thrilling to brought into his quest, the love the music sparks in him on its own terms. The worry is there that this is a psychological diversion, that the music will vanish to him, cease to speak to him, if ever he does find out who his mother is.
When That Rough God Goes Riding: Listening to Van Morrison
(PublicAffairs; US: Apr 2010)
I was never as smart as Jason—but I know the energy, the search, the sense of mystery that is in one’s life and in music, and the delight of forgetting that there is any difference between the two.
3. The greatest album, ever?
Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited (1965) No matter how many times you might have heard it, a different song will appear as primary, the star around which everything else revolves—it could be “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry”, one day, “Ballad of a Thin Man” the next, the title song for the next year, “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” a year later, each different song casting all the others into a different relief. Then “Desolation Row” might make you forget that there’s anything else on the album at all. But if the album were simply “Like a Rolling Stone” and 30 or 40 minutes of silence, I still might pick it.
4. Star Trek or Star Wars?
Never cared about either.
5. Your ideal brain food?
Walking up Panoramic Way, behind the football stadium in Berkeley, up the steep street, not looking out at the Bay, not looking at much of anything except wild turkey if they’re out that day, because I’ve done it truly thousands of times over 25 years or so—and without thinking, without intent, ideas arrive, bits of stories, phrases that carry stories inside of them that if you can forget yourself will tell themselves.
One day, near the crest of the hill, the first two pages of my book Invisible Republic aka The Old, Weird America popped into my head, written word for word, in an instant—that’s how it seemed. There was no chance of forgetting them. I went home and transcribed it all. It was perfect. That I didn’t write another word of the book for three months was no matter. That beginning could never have come about any other way.
6. You’re proud of this accomplishment, but why?
Lipstick Traces. Because I finished it. Because I knew when I finished it that I would never write that well again, which was better than I ever imagined I could. It’s the result of being caught up in a vision that refuses to come into focus, so turning to its smallest details, and finding whole worlds of conflict and desire in a gesture, a poem, a curse, and staying within those small worlds until they create their own gravitational force, until they are all spinning in harmony.
Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century [20th Anniversary Ed.]
(Harvard University Press; US: Nov 2009)
7. You want to be remembered for ...?
Remembered by whom? I hope my children don’t forget me as I am already forgetting my parents, and my father is still alive.
8. Of those who’ve come before, the most inspirational are?
Helen Hyman, my mother’s mother. Ralph J. Gleason. Abraham Lincoln. Pauline Kael.
9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?
David Thomson’s Suspects (1985). It’s a novel based on characters from film noir, defined far beyond its normal boundaries: the central film is It’s a Wonderful Life. Thomson takes, say, Rick in Casablanca, and imagines his life before and after the film. He does that for a whole constellation of characters.
It’s a great game, you figure, for the writer, and for the reader too, until at some point—it could be quite early for some readers, very late for someone like me, who tends to forget plot even while reading a mystery—you begin to realize that this isn’t a game, that the characters are being taken to a verge, that they have all been trapped in the same story, which is going to end—or be ended. Then the suspense takes over, and you can become afraid to keep reading. Imagine if a whole genre dreamed a dream of itself—this is that dream. But I don’t wish it bore my signature, whatever that means—I wish I had the imagination to write something like this.
10. Your hidden talents ...?
I’m a good typist.