High Stakes Criticism: An Interview with Greil Marcus

[25 April 2010]

By Robert Loss

“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.

Van Morrison and Rough Gods

PopMatters: There’s something less overtly literary about Morrison’s work, compared to Dylan, for instance, so I’m wondering how your approach to this book might have been different as a result of your focus on his voice.

Greil Marcus: I think the words in his songs, as with Dylan when he’s at his best, are occasions or opportunities for performance, for singing.  Dylan, I think, is fairly self-conscious as a wordsmith; he values that; maybe he values it too much. He used to say in interviews, “People aren’t listening to the words!” You have to write a song so that people will listen to the words. If not, then why write a song? Write an editorial in the paper.

Van Morrison

Van Morrison

Van Morrison speaks very clearly. He says, “The only time I pay attention to words is when I’m writing a song, and after that, I let the words loose.” And he’ll say, “I’m not singing words, I’m singing syllables.” He’s trying to find the moment in a song when words and rhythm and melody and orchestration come together and you can set yourself free from the words.

And he says something that really dovetails with the way I’ve heard music for many, many years when he says, “The question is, is the song singing you?” When that happens—when the song is singing the performer—that’s when the most extraordinary discoveries and a sense of revelation can be passed on to the listener. That’s what I was looking for.

Making it up—that’s all criticism is—the bringing to bear of one perspective onto another that is going to resist it.

PM: There are moments in Van Morrison’s performances when his self recedes, or gives way to the song, which you describe as a struggle with the yarragh [a term coined by the Irish tenor John McCormack]: to take it over or be taken over by it.  Is that a fair description?

GM: Yeah, or the self dissolves.  Or ceases to matter.  People often try to discuss any artist or performer’s work in terms of that person’s actual life, and say, “See, here’s a song about a mother, and he had a mother!” (laughs)

With Van Morrison, the way that he sings and what he does with words and phrases makes that kind of thing moot, because the real action is taking place beyond words, beyond any explicit story. 

At one point I’m arguing against this and presenting all these different people who have particular interpretations of who or what Madame George is, or was, whether it’s a kind of a person or a very specific individual who actually lived and died, and then I say that this is not a useful way to listen, it only puts the song at a distance. It doesn’t allow you to dive into it.

I say, let your imagination drift. Who does the song suggest to you? And I say it makes me think of Michael Jackson. Now, obviously Van Morrison wasn’t thinking of Michael Jackson when he wrote the song… but so what? Music—any art—is there to give us more freedom, not to take it away.

PM: It works in an associative manner.

GM: It can. It works, to me, when music is suggestive, and sends you into your own reverie, or begins to make sense of your own life: that’s wonderful.

People who listen to Bob Dylan’s songs and want to know if this song is about Joan Baez and exactly what incident in his relationship with her is it about—this is just a way of keeping the song away from your own life.

PM: You make the point in the essay “Madame George”, that on the part of many listeners there’s a surprising fear of imagination, of being seduced or tricked by the song. Is that because we’re afraid to let it turn back on our own lives?

GM: I don’t know if this is a particularly recent phenomenon or if it’s much older, but over the last twenty years I’ve noticed more critics and commentators of all sorts saying, essentially, “You can’t fool me. I won’t be fooled. I know what this is about. I see the man behind the curtain.” A willingness to be fooled, to be taken into someone else’s imaginary world, to believe in something that didn’t happen when you’re reading a book or listening to a song—that’s how you connect with art, by being willing to be fooled.

It’s that old phrase about the suspension of disbelief; that’s what the arts are supposed to enact. And it just shocks me to see so many people saying, “I won’t suspend my disbelief. You can’t make me.” That’s not a good approach.

PM: I blame the deconstructionists.

GM: Yeah. Deconstruction, you know, it started out as fun. How does this thing work, what makes this tick?  And that’s fascinating and can be illuminating and instructive.

But let’s say you have a clock. And you love this clock, it’s handed down in your family many generations, it’s beautiful, it always works, the alarm always goes off when it’s supposed to… and then one day you take it apart.

You can have two reactions when all the pieces are lying on the floor. You can say, “Isn’t it incredible that all these little pieces—each of which is nothing by itself—can combine into this marvelous artifact?” Or you can say, “Look! It’s just a bunch of stuff!”

PM: If as listeners we’re afraid of the artist’s imagination, can we also be afraid of a critic’s imagination?

cover art

When That Rough God Goes Riding: Listening to Van Morrison

Greil Marcus

(PublicAffairs; US: Apr 2010)

GM: Sure. Because people say, “Well, you’re just making that up.” And the proper response is, “Of course I am. I’m trying to bring one dimension of listening to bear on another. That’s all criticism is. It’s the bringing to bear of one perspective onto another that is going to resist it.

Your sensibility is both embracing or resisting the thing that you’re considering and writing about. And you create that tension between the person who’s creating the thing and the person who’s responding.

Some people like to say, “Well, can’t you just like it without thinking about it?” Well, no, some people can’t do anything without thinking about it. Thinking about things is what makes life interesting.

PM: Reading this book reveals some pretty strong parallels between Dylan and Van Morrison. Both went through this long period of mediocrity but stayed restless, kept trying to find themselves.
GM: There’s this very instructive thing that Van Morrison said to Dave Marsh that’s included in the book, where he’s talking about the albums he made with Linda Gail Lewis and some other people, and he says, “Well, sometimes you make mistakes. Or sometimes you’re bored.” I think it was in the early or mid-‘70s that word went out that Van Morrison’s new album was going to be a whole album of songs by other people called I’m Dry. As in, “I’m all used up, I have nothing left to say.”

When you have nothing to sing about, but you have a career, you have bills to pay, you need to maintain your own self as someone who matters to other people, you’re going to keep doing it. If you’re lucky, you’re going to break through. You could easily say Dylan and Van Morrison were trying to lose themselves, and really succeeded.

PM: Dylan went to his folk background in Good As I Been To You, but for Van Morrison finding his way seemed a little less singular.  He went through so many genres, and you note how those albums seem like nothing but exercises in genre.

GM: When Dylan, at least as I hear it, climbed out of this pit of Under the Red Sky, Empire Burlesque, Knocked Out Loaded and all those other strange records—maybe strange is too affirmative a word for them—with Good As I Been to You, it’s a most modest album, it’s quiet, it’s just him, it’s not produced, it’s not his own songs, and yet it’s also a dynamo. But it presents itself as extremely modest work.

On the other hand, Van Morrison comes out with The Healing Game, and it’s this tremendously strong piece of work, all of it his own songs, with a different kind of orchestration, a confidence, a kind of high-stepping. And he’s not saying “I’m back,” because I don’t think he ever thought he was away. And I’m sure he doesn’t think as horribly of those many albums of his from 1980 to 1996 as I do, but to me, The Healing Game is a transformation.

PM: Do you think part of the way he found his way out—or lost himself—was by reconnecting with that preverbal yarragh and being less overtly literary, as he was on so many of those albums in the ‘80s?

GM: In some ways, it is very literary. One thing I don’t really talk about in the book, because I don’t know too much about it, or have that frame of reference, is that a lot of his style and the way he can seize on a word, or part of a word, and make it either upend or transform or take over a whole song, comes from Irish poetry and the way that poetry is performed in pubs, at poetry festivals—you know, out in public. Where the whole point is to get back beyond Gaelic. In other words, forget English, forget even Gaelic; go back to a point where we have to communicate only through sound.

Think about the end of the Cranberries’ “Dreams”, their first big hit. At the end, the singer is slipping away from words into pure sound, and then there’s this guy in the background who’s just, you know…he is yarraghing, that’s what he’s doing. Just going up and down. And that’s an extraordinary thing for a hit record in that time, to just go somewhere else.

But that’s commonplace in Ireland. That’s not strange. That kind of performance is something everybody would’ve experienced. You’re standing up in a crowded room, and you have to get their attention, have to make them stop drinking and shut up and listen, and you have to do that with intensity, by doing odd things with words so somebody says “What’d he say?” and leans forward to it.

PM: Freedom is a persistent theme in the book: the search for it, dealing with it, losing it, finding it again. To me it’s a very contemporary brand of individualism, isolating himself from the community, but wanting the community to still be there.

GM: Well, we’re all contradictory. With him, there are at least two kinds of freedom. One is freedom from: from the demands of managers, record companies, fans and banks and stalkers and God knows what. “Just leave me alone”:  that kind of freedom.

And there’s another kind of freedom, where either through art or physical exertion or meditation or drugs or losing yourself in a book, you become free from the prison of your own self, your own sense of your limits and your weaknesses and fears. You break free from that, and in a way that’s so dramatic it’s as if from the prison of your self, you can watch your free self and see what that self does. And you can hear that happen in his music. That’s the kind of freedom I’m talking about.

PM: Is it fair to say that the transcendent freedom happens when he stretches words out, takes them apart?

GM: Yeah, but it’s not at will. He can’t make that happen just by saying his version of abracadabra, which might be repeating the same word fifteen times. You need the right melody to make that fly, you need a certain rhythm to give it strength and body, you need a moment when you want it so badly and you understand what you want and you know how to get it, or sometimes when you don’t even see it coming, like that moment in “Sweet Thing” when he says “Hoyyy!”

Was that rehearsed, or was it lifted from another song, or was it something that just blew up and hit him in the face?  I don’t know.

Authenticity of Spirit

PM: There’s a brilliant extended metaphor for Astral Weeks in the book, comparing it to the individual achievement of the long-jumper Bob Beamon. More than any other solo artist, Van Morrison just seems to stand alone, by himself.

GM: I think there’re people with whom he has a real affinity. He’s done a lot of work with Katie Kissoon and Georgie Fame. They’re really trivial artists, singers—they’re just not that interesting—but he’s comfortable with them, and they allow him to do certain things that maybe he couldn’t do without them as a backdrop, as part of the room.

Van Morrison

Van Morrison

“…over the years, I’ve not just become dubious about the notion of authenticity, I’ve become really angry about it.”

But he has always from the start said, “No, it’s what I want, it’s what I need to do, it’s what I think.” There’s a combativeness that just bleeds all over everything. Sometimes that finds its way into songs in a very explicit way and it’s really stunning, like that moment at the end of the first verse of “St. Dominic’s Preview” where he says, “This time they’ve bit off more than they can chew.”

It’s just this disgust at things that are going on in the world and people who just don’t know and don’t understand. He’s making a specific political comment there in lyrics, but he’s also really himself right there.

There’s an incident later in the song when he’s being interview by some rock critic or a journalist, and you can imagine him saying that to him. You know, someone saying, “Gee, Van, what’s the real meaning of your music?” and him saying, “You’ve bit off more than you can chew.”

PM: In the book’s essay on “Caravan”, you craft another metaphor, that of “Caravan” trying to convince Curtis Mayfield & the Impressions’ “Gypsy Woman” that it, too, can “summon up the campfires that in Mayfield’s song really did seem to flicker in the listener’s eye.” I love that idea. Given the performance that finally happens in The Last Waltz, with all those artists there, do you think that some of Van Morrison’s best work happens when he talks back to his influences or contemporaries?

GM: Well, I don’t know. Talking about Mayfield’s song and “Caravan” is just an idea I had. It’s not meant to say that this is what Van Morrison was really thinking. I just think it’s kind of inevitable when you’re writing a song about a gypsy caravan and campfires that you have to think of “Gypsy Woman”. That’s the pop song that’s gone over that territory really magically. And the notion that one could live up to the other, even surpass it, and then five years later you hear “Gypsy Woman” and you say “No, no, no, nothing comes close to this”: I don’t know about that.

What you’re suggesting might be more true of Bob Dylan in terms of setting himself up against a precursor or an ancestor. Like when he did “Don’t Start Me Talkin’”, the Sonny Boy Williamson song, on Letterman with a punk band, the Plugz,. It was staggering. God, it’s fierce. Usually when Morrison does that sort of thing, it comes out flat. He’s doing an homage, not trying to beat somebody at their own game, which is Dylan’s instinct.

PM: Walking off the stage in The Last Waltz, Van Morrison looks so triumphant.

GM: (laughs) Yeah, it’s like he’s left the song on the floor. There’s nothing left to get out of it.  He’s just bled it dry. He’s been singing that song for a long time and now he’s finally got it. And though you don’t know what anybody’s motives are, there’s a feeling in that moment that maybe he’s showing up everybody else, all the people who did pro forma or mediocre performances.

And really, the concert had gotten kind of boring at that point. Eric Clapton with Robbie Robertson doing “Further On Up the Road” was really awful, and so was Joni Mitchell and so was Neil Young. After Muddy Waters and Ronnie Hawkins, there’s this long period when it really began to slip away. Van Morrison really broke it open.

PM: Muddy Waters is so powerful in that performance.

GM: What happened during his performance of “Mannish Boy” was that all the lights but one failed. And so there’s this spot on Muddy Waters and everything else is dark, and he’s performing almost in darkness and he knows that. And that may be why the performance is so strong. He’s got to make up for the fact that people can’t really see what’s going on with vocal force.

cover art

Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century [20th Anniversary Ed.]

Greil Marcus

(Harvard University Press; US: Nov 2009)

PM: The blues is something that’s brought up a lot with Van Morrison, and one thing that in general comes up a little, but I wonder why it doesn’t come up more, is gospel music. You mention Mahalia Jackson, Sister Rosetta Tharpe in the book. Do you think, in your listening, not biographically, per se, that gospel is a strong influence on his singing?

GM: Yeah, I do think so. But ultimately what he does is so singular that even the blues is something floating around him when he performs. When he does straight blues, again, it’s like an homage, and he’s not there. At his best, his influences or his provocations are so deeply absorbed that you don’t hear them. Maybe you sense them. But it’s not evident.  Instead of putting on a mask, these things become his own features.

You can understand “Madame George” as a blues, the last three minutes of it as pure blues, but taking blues into a realm and a form that it never had before, that no one else ever would’ve thought of doing. You can say in a sort of pedestrian way that those last three minutes of ‘Madame George’ or the whole aesthetic of the song would’ve been impossible without the blues, but I think it’s more interesting to say this is a new form of blues, a kind of blues that never existed before, takes it into a realm that was inaccessible to it before.

PM: A blues more in essence and emotion than adherent to a strict style or form.

GM: Maybe when you learn something so deeply you can break those forms without losing the essence of it. Just like a writer, once you know in your bones what usage is, when you break those rules, you know exactly what you’re doing. You’re doing it to achieve certain effects, to get to certain places you couldn’t get otherwise, but it’s not clumsiness, it’s not stupidity.

PM: Morrison’s definition of “Caledonia Soul Music”, the idea that the blues came not from Africa but northern Ireland and Scotland… I have to admit, that knocked me around a bit, made me rethink everything I’ve thought about folk music.

GM: Well, there isn’t any question that the blues and the old ballad tradition in the southern Highlands and Appalachia are deeply intertwined, and that the more the blues took on definition around 1900-1910, the more it began to draw from other traditions, and of course, every other tradition began to draw from the blues, too.

A lot of musicians, particularly white mountain musicians, have recognized an affinity in the blues with their own inherited music. They’d listen to a blues and it didn’t sound far away from “Barbara Allen” or “The Cuckoo” whether the modal structures were the same, the impulse, the sense of the world as not quite real—there’s a profound affinity there.

I think Morrison’s working on that level. Not speaking for him, but you might say, the blues is the truth, and music is the truth, so where did the music of truth come from, because I hear the same truth in traditional Irish music that I hear in Appalachian music and that I hear in the blues. So they’ve got to be linked somehow. So he comes up with this theory that it really comes from the Scottish border region; that’s where the real soul and longing come from, and it’s that tradition that found its way into the blues and among other things made the blues what it was.

What I love about Sharyn McCrumb’s argument about the vein of serpentine is the argument that the Appalachians, the southern highlands in the United States, are in fact part of the same mountain range as the Scottish Highlands. That’s just too perfect.

PM: I suppose I have a problem with its assertion of origin, the possibility that it’s exclusionary, or just another kind of power play. But the other thing that strikes me as interesting is that Van Morrison wanted it to be true and to see it in his music.

GM: Every white person who plays what’s understood as black music, or even just likes it, or is moved by it, has got to feel a certain kind of distance, and a certain kind of guilt, and a certain kind of feeling of “Do I have a right to this music? Do I have a right to consider it my own? Because it moves me more than anything else does, how could it not be mine? Do I have right to play it, do I have a right to sing it?” Those are real questions. And even though people ignore them, or roll right over them, those questions still fester. 

And so here you are Van Morrison, and so much of what has made you a human being—someone who thinks and feels and cares and responds—and what’s made you someone who has something to offer other people, and who can move other people and deepen their lives the way musicians have deepened yours—and so much of what has done that to you is made by black people, by people who come from somewhere else and have grown up according to different traditions, and they’re drawing on different histories.

If you find a way to say, “But I’m just as much at the source of this music as they are, in a way that no one has recognized, but it’s so wonderful that I’ve recognized it”—that’s a terrific thing, and that is freeing. It removes the distance that so many white performers can’t help but affirm when they’re trying to close the gap between themselves and what’s considered somebody else’s culture.

PM: I want to go back to a review you wrote with Lester Bangs about Moondancefor Rolling Stone in 1970, and a phrase that stuck out to me: Van Morrison’s “authenticity of spirit”. I always get a little suspicious of that kind of talk, but this book seems to elaborate better on that idea.

GM:  Well, that was Lester’s line. I remember very clearly how that review came about and who wrote what. And over the years, I’ve not just become dubious about the notion of authenticity, I’ve become really angry about it. It’s caused tremendous destruction with people believing that once they were authentic and now they’re not, that there’s some grail you find that’s going to bring back your true spirit, that it’s something objective you can hold in your hand, or that some people are born authentic because of their racial or cultural or class background, and that some people are born to be inauthentic because they’re just walking commodities.

It’s not a useful idea, and so I always try to find different words when I’m drawn to the concept that lies behind the word. 

But when Lester used those words, this was a long time ago, and he, like all young writers, is groping for words to capture what he’s trying to say. To me what that phrase means is that the spirit in the moment we’re discussing rules, and nothing gets in the way of it. Nothing gets in the way of your desire and your wish to express it. And you can hear in Van Morrison’s music moments when calculation, worry, fear, self-doubt—all those things dissolve, and you’re hearing somebody saying exactly what he means. 

Whether that’s true or not, that’s the way it feels. I think that’s what Lester was talking about, and that’s a good thing to talk about.

High Stakes

PM: Your undergraduate work was in American Studies. As a young man, what drew you to that subject?

GM: I took a sophomore seminar in American Studies, which was the only American Studies class offered. I had wonderful teachers: Michael Rogin in political science, Larzer Ziff in English. The material was just completely fascinating to me, and it created a context where I felt at home intellectually and emotionally in a way I’d never been before. The country’s story opened up, I felt every part of it had something to do with me and vice versa, and everything about it was interesting. It was like never having really glimpsed any sense of wholeness to the country before, and I knew I wanted to pursue this as deeply as I could. And I became particularly fascinated by Lincoln and Melville at right about that time.

Mary Lucia interviews Greil Marcus. Photo (partial) by ©Daniel Corrigan found on City Pages.com

Mary Lucia interviews Greil Marcus. Photo (partial) by ©Daniel Corrigan found on City Pages.com

PM: And those are two people you’ve stayed with throughout your career. One of the better pieces in A New Literary History of America is your essay on Melville.

“… sometimes writing out of a sense of confusion, with humility, is a way of raising the stakes. Saying “I don’t know.”

GM: Well, I suppose that’s something I’ve wanted to write all my life. When I was a PhD student, my dissertation was going to be on Melville and Lincoln, although it never had any form or shape, and I never started writing it. And it could be that what I really had to say was a 2,500-word essay rather than a dissertation, that after all those years of constantly returning to certain phrases, certain ideas, I finally found that little field that might be appropriate.

PM: You’re known as a critic who looks at the broader cultural context of your subjects.  You do that in When That Rough God Goes Riding, too, but the book’s center of gravity is these close readings or listenings of a number of the performances.  Was that a conscious decision from the outset or was it brought about by the process of writing?

GM:  No, it was a very conscious decision. I wanted to write a different kind of book, one that was as strictly about the music as possible. I didn’t want to engage in broader cultural contextualization whether it was artistic or political or social.

You know, I never write about anybody’s personal life as part of the context of their work. I decided that I was going to try to get inside the songs or the moments in songs that seemed to me so remarkable, and then write out of them, as if I was burrowing out of them. I say at one point in the essay about Astral Weeks that in some ways I don’t really trust the kind of writing that maybe I’m known for and certainly that I’ve done a lot of…. 

I guess I’ve come more to the feeling that a given piece of music makes its own map, defines its own territory, and it peoples that territory with its own characters. And at least this time, that’s the way I wanted to listen and to write. So whenever the temptation came to, you know, “Oh look, we can take a step back and see this in a broader perspective,”—no, not going to do that this time.

PM: It seems to me that when you do take that broader perspective in some of your other work, it’s not as if you’re trying to nail something down so firmly that there’s no room for discussion.

GM: Oh, no, it’s just the opposite. If building a richer house for the thing you’re writing about has any purpose, it’s to open the discussion. It’s to simply tell people, just as one message, that there’s more here than maybe you thought. Not “I know what’s here.” I hate writers whose goal seems to be to end the discussion rather than to open one, and there’s plenty of people like that.

PM: That’s often the dominate mode, especially in rock criticism, but also in literary criticism and film criticism. Do you think that’s encouraged by the marketplace, by the forums those conversations happen in?

GM: No, I think it’s insecurity. Pretentiousness on the part of the individual writer. I don’t think it’s encouraged by editors, magazines, whatever. It just betrays a weakness on the part of the writer. It doesn’t matter if it’s Harold Bloom, or Susan Sontag, or the critic for your local newspaper.

PM: This is a broad question, but how do you think music criticism has changed over the last few decades?

GM: Well, you know, it’s a lot less desperate. People write as if the stakes are lower. And maybe they are. I don’t know. And as people get older, or more successful, they become more careerist, in the sense that they have turf to protect, a reputation to maintain. Again there’s that “You can’t fool me” attitude.

But I’m not really sure how to answer the question. I don’t read nearly as much music criticism as I used to. I don’t read as much film criticism as I used to, partly because the people I like to read aren’t writing anymore or they’ve died, and the people who are easiest to stumble upon like the New Yorker film critics are just hideous parodies of what criticism ought to be and can be. So I don’t know if I’m the right person to try and answer that.

I have not seen the kind of ambition to tell the whole story, to get at the heart of it, that I think is the motor of really great criticism.

One person who does this, and who’s never stopped doing it, is David Thompson, the film critic and historian. You never have a sense that he’s going through the motions, or that this isn’t the best story out there, and you’re going to get to hear it and he’s going to tell you. There’s always a sense of high stakes, and it raises the level of his writing; he’s got to write up to his subject and his sense of occasion, and he does. He just amazes me over and over and over again.

PM: He’s got some excellent pieces in A New Literary History of America

GM: Yeah, he sure does.

PM: Could you define what makes something “high stakes” in criticism?

cover art

A New Literary History of America

eds. Greil Marcus, Werner Sollors

(Harvard University Press; US: Sep 2009)

GM: It could be the individual’s desire to get it right, to say exactly what he or she means, to capture the feeling that impelled you to write about this particular thing in the first place and not betray it. To live up to the song, the movie, the political speech, the horrendous disaster on the other side of the world or next door.

When September 11th took place, one of the things that shocked and disgusted me was how many people wrote about it as if there was no surprise, as if there was nothing strange about it, as if we should’ve expected this, it was all our fault anyway, and how could we expect anything different. As opposed to people who tried to say that something titanic has happened here, what is it? What does this mean? What kind of future does this open us up to that we never imagined could be real?

And so sometimes writing out of a sense of confusion, with humility, is a way of raising the stakes. Saying “I don’t know.” That’s something very few writers in any field are willing to admit. But it’s important.

And sometimes you might hear a record, and you think, ‘This is the greatest thing I’ve ever heard, and yet there’s something different about it, something new and strange that I don’t get, and I know that if more people hear this record, their lives will be richer, and I’ve got to get that across, because I’ve got to enrich all those lives out there, and I’ve got to live up to the standard the person who made this record has set for expression, for communication.’ There are a thousand ways of answering that question.

PM: Have you ever thought about writing something closer to memoir?

GM: No. I wrote a talk a number of years ago for this conference in Seattle about childhood. I’d agreed to do it for a number of reasons, but then I realized I don’t have anything to say about childhood. I don’t think about it.

Out of necessity I wrote something about my own childhood, and that was ultimately published in Threepenny Review. But that’s the only personal writing I’ve done. I don’t like to write about myself. I don’t think I’ve had a terribly interesting life.

PM: I ask because, in a couple different spots in your books, you do mention certain moments in your life, like in Lipstick Traces and the Free Speech Movement.

GM: Well, with Lipstick Traces, that was an odd thing because I knew why I’d written that book. I knew where it came from. I thought two things. One was that after twenty years of writing in public that I had established enough of a public presence that I had a right to break out and say something at the very end of the book. You don’t always know why you do something, but since I knew why I wrote the book, it was incumbent on me to say why. So at the very end of the book I sort of cop to that. 

But it also came out of another experience, and that is that my friend Jim Miller had been working for a long time on a book about Foucault. [The Passion of Michel Foucault from Harvard University Press.]

His fascination with Foucault started when he heard a rumor that before Foucault died, he spent a lot of time at S&M clubs, and there was a rumor that when Foucault learned he had AIDS that he went back to San Francisco to purposely try to infect as many people as he could. And my friend asked me had I ever heard this rumor, and I said yes. And he said, Did I think it was true? I said no, but I didn’t have any way of knowing whether it was or not. And he said how do you think I might find out?  I said I had a friend in the gay S&M scene, he’s the person you should talk to. So he went to San Francisco and they spent a lot of time talking and covering that theme, and he concluded very quickly that this rumor wasn’t true. 

But nevertheless it had started him off on a path to investigate Foucault, both his life and his ideas. And at the end of his book, when he showed me the manuscript, I said, “Well, Jim, you know why you started writing this book, and I think it’s a fascinating story, and I think you ought to tell it at the end. You ought to say that Foucault’s interest in sado-masochism and the way he lived his life was very dangerous, and in a way that gave credibility, if only momentarily, to this rumor that you heard.” And he did put it in the book, and of course he ended up getting horribly attacked by all sorts of people for this, so maybe it wasn’t such a great idea.

And I just think that sometimes when you have some knowledge of why you’re inflicting a long book on people, you ought to say what it is.

PM: So it’s a matter of providing the context for the reader as to why you’ve gone on this journey?

GM: I think it’s more just a matter of honesty. I don’t know that what I say about the Free Speech Movement at the end of Lipstick Traces is terribly edifying, or helps create a context for everything else in the book or not. It’s just something I felt both that I wanted to do and that I had a right to do.

What’s really interesting…

PM: You mentioned that you hadn’t lived a “terribly interesting life”, but from a lot of people’s perspective, I’m guessing that writing about music since the late ‘60s and being involved with Rolling Stone very early on would be an interesting subject.

GM: My work might be interesting, but I don’t think I am. I’ve lived a very conventional life. It’s not full of adventure or scandal or tremendous risk-taking or disasters. I can’t imagine it would be very interesting to people. And it’s not that interesting to me. (laughs)

Photo (partial) Kara Walker's show at the Whitney Museum My Compliment, My Enemy, My Opressor, My Love (2007)

Photo (partial) Kara Walker’s show at the Whitney Museum My Compliment, My Enemy, My Opressor, My Love (2007)

PM: I was wondering what you thought of this influx of the memoir in its different forms over the past decade or two, or the blurring of lines between fiction and non-fiction. Have you read David Shield’s Reality Hunger: A Manifesto?

“…out of the silence you begin to hear the beginnings of another conversation.”

GM: Yeah, I thought it was total bullshit. First of all, there’s a long history of people writing books about the death of the novel or the death of fiction and getting attention for doing that. There are a lot of people who would rather be at the funeral than at the birth, and this is one of those cases.

Usually when someone announces the death of the novel, it’s because they’re incapable of writing one and they feel inferior because of that. I tried to read his book, if only because it had so many blurbs on it from people I know or find interesting, and I couldn’t read more than half of it. It wasn’t really writing.

I mean, I’m a great believer in collage writing; I’ve written a couple of pieces that are entirely made up of quotations from other people, and I love the notion that you can absent yourself or that you can speak through other people in that way. You don’t have to add a single word of your own, you can tell a story, you can make an argument, you can dramatize a question.  There’s a piece in Dead Elvis about this metaphor, “corpses in your mouth”, that’s all quotations. 

But I also believe in attribution. (laughs) I think it’s much more fun and more interesting to say who’s speaking and even stress the absence of the author more that way, and it also lets the reader say “Oh, this is interesting, I want to investigate this more.” But in this book, I think it’s more than anything an attempt to get attention, and I don’t think it’s a serious argument at all.

And as far as blurring the lines between fiction and non-fiction in memoirs, it’s a matter of people lying to make themselves seem more interesting or make more money by attributing remarkable adventures to themselves—which will help sell books—that didn’t happen.

There’s an assumption that everybody’s life is interesting, and that you can make it interesting by writing. Every professional writer has had the experience of somebody calling him up, maybe out of the blue, or else it’s somebody you know—usually somebody you don’t know that well—who says to you, “I’ve had an incredible life, I’ve done amazing things, and it would make a great book. A best-seller. So let’s collaborate.  I’ll tell you my story, you just write it down.” And that’s what people think: you just have to write it down… whatever that means. And it’ll be of overwhelming interest to millions of people. Of course that isn’t true.

Usually people write memoirs—this is my sense anyway—out of a great sense of self-importance, or because it’s a way of justifying themselves in public for things that really can’t be justified. Most memoirs are exercises in self-congratulation. “Look at all these terrible things. I made all these awful mistakes. I even committed crimes. Nobody knows the terrible things I’ve done. But look what a great person I am now. I’ve faced up to all of this, and now I’m happily married and I have seventeen great kids and everybody loves me.”

PM: That’s the Confessions of Saint Augustine model, right? The redemption story you tell about yourself.

GM: Yeah. The difference is, that’s a great book.

PM: Dylan’s memoir—if I can call it that—Chronicles. What did you think of it?

GM: Well, I loved the book. I wrote about it at one point and decided to check on some of things he said. He talked about his mother seeing Woodrow Wilson during a whistle-stop campaign in 1912, and it became pretty clear with a little research that it couldn’t have happened, that Wilson just wasn’t there at the time. But that doesn’t mean that wasn’t a story told in her family.

cover art

Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus, Writings 1968-2010

Greil Marcus

(PublicAffairs [Actual cover image TBD]; US: Oct 2010)

My father told me family legends that I found out later weren’t true, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t believe them. Stories get passed down.  So maybe somebody said, “Your mother saw Woodrow Wilson.” Well, maybe, “She was only one year old, and we held her up in the crowd. She doesn’t remember it.” And his mother may have said, “Well, they told me about this. I don’t remember it, of course.” So it becomes a family legend. That’s something other than a lie.

Some people jumped on the part of the book where he’s living with these people who have this incredible library, and he’s discovering all these books, and people say, “Well, that has to be a composite.” I don’t care.

There’s that scene where he’s at a party in Greenwich Village and every notable is there, and he’s just a fly on the wall watching.  It’s a marvelous, marvelous long scene where he’s going from person to person. He’s asking, “Who are these people” and “How did they learn to do what they do?” and “Why did they get such a sense of style?” and “Why do they seem so much larger than life?”  And he’s learning. And clearly his memory is cultivated and extraordinary. These are stories he’s told himself and gone back to and reflected on again and again throughout his life.

And it’s also a wonderfully written book with incredible turns of phrase. He talks about early rockabilly singers as “captains on burning ships”, things like that. You can see him making choices between one word and the other. How do I say this? What’s the way to get this across? The way the book is written, it repels any notion of a ghost writer. No ghost writer could come up with this.

PM: In the penultimate essay in A New Literary History of America you and Werner Sollors write about the scene after Hurricane Katrina and John Winthrop’s promise that if America didn’t “make others Condicions our owne” that it “would justly disappear if it did not.”

And immediately after that there’s Kara Walker’s brilliant collage pieces on the occasion of Barack Obama’s election. Are we any closer to fulfilling America’s promise, or does it remain just as unfulfilled as it did after Katrina?

GM: Well, I don’t think it seems as unfulfilled as it did that day. It will never be fulfilled, and that struggle to live up to almost impossible promises is really the motor of our history.

But I’ll tell you a story about that essay and Kara Walker’s collages. The Katrina piece was going to be the last piece in the book. It was Werner’s idea, and his idea that we should write it together, and it was a hunch that this is where the book should end. And we definitely wanted to end it a few years before the publication date. We didn’t want to try to be up-to-the-minute and choose some event that happened last week and say, “Oh, this is so important,” whether it was a new novel or, you know, Avatar.

And so the book was finished. And then Obama is elected, and people are saying we have to have something about it in the book, that this is an event that rewrites our whole history, and I was very against it, for just those reasons I mentioned. But nobody agreed with me, and finally I said okay, but I argued that we couldn’t have a what-does-it-all-mean piece, some sententious essay of somebody pretending to know what this meant.

So we began talking about, well, what do you suppose so-and-so thinks of this? If you could ask anybody about what they think of this, who would it be? And two or three of us said Kara Walker. And so we approached her about doing the last piece; she’d have the last word. She said yes.

I for some reason thought she was going to write an essay, because she does write as well as do visual art, so I was surprised and thrilled when she produced this whole series of collages. I couldn’t believe how lucky we were.

We spent a lot of time discussing what the right order of them was, and we left two or three of them out. I had said to her, “I want nine pages.” I meant nine typed pages, which is what the entries in the book pretty much come out to be. She misheard it, or I misstated it, and so she thought she was supposed to fill nine pages of the book. So she made nine collages.

What I love about her piece is that here is the end of this 1,100-page book about people speaking, trying to find the proper forms of language, to address what the nature of the country is and what it was made of, arguing about America with themselves in every form of address imaginable. In some ways, it’s a big book of noise.

And her piece starts with people talking to each other, this hubbub, people saying ‘WTF’ which she helpfully explains means “What the fuck?” And then as the piece goes on, it becomes silent, and then cemetery-silent. And then at the very end there’s just the intimation of speech beginning again.

In that way, she captures the moment, takes you into the distant past, makes that past present, and then out of the silence you begin to hear the beginnings of another conversation.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/124369-high-stakes-criticism-an-interview-with-greil-marcus/