Risk and Equilibrium: The Impact of Greil Marcus

The entirety of Marcus' famous 1970 "What is this shit?" review prefigures the sense of profound, disturbed wonder in the best of Marcus’ criticism.

Disturbed Wonder and Lost Voices

Few if any American cultural historians take the great deep American Breath like 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. Best known for his opinions on American popular music, Marcus’ own brand of artistry has always revealed a remarkable breadth of knowledge and a more important desire to find connections between disparate, even wholly disconnected voices. As storyteller, his frequent digressions deepen the plot; as critic, he combines academics with street-level description and a gift for conjuring scenes; as historian, he’s a brilliant synthesist.

With the re-release of his seminal work Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century, originally published in 1989, and the massive anthology he’s co-edited with Harvard professor Werner Sollors, A New Literary History of America, the impact of Marcus’ work is undeniable. In a PhD program somewhere, a drinking game has been formulated around his propensity for those digressive allusions, or maybe a MadLibs:

“Listening to ___(blues singer)_____’s mournful tune ‘______(rustic title)_____’, one hears the ___(hyperbolic gerund)__ of the ___(high fallutin’ academic jargon)___ in motion, and the voice of ____(tangential philosopher/pop culture figure)____”.

But the fact that one can parody Marcus’ style means that his voice is unique and compelling, and that he’s been at this business long enough to have influenced everything from Continuum Press’ 33 1/3 rock ‘n’ roll book series to websites like Pitchfork and the magazine you’re presently reading. He’s one of a handful of critics who have quite simply changed the way we think about popular culture.

Book: Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century

Author: Greil Marcus

Publisher: Belknap/Harvard (reprint)

Publication Date: 2009-11

Length: 482 pages

Format: Paperback

Price: $24.95

Image: are soon to be 40 years down the road from the famous opening line of his Rolling Stone review of Bob Dylan’s Self-Portrait: “What is this shit?” The brilliance of that salvo, off-set by ample white space, is the ambiguity of its stress. Which word should we land on? I hear the stress on “is”, emphasizing the imminence of the album, because for Marcus, the present moment speaks to the past, and the past speaks forward. As much as he delights in currying or curating historical moments—whether they be the hazy figures of Old Weird America, “The Last Sex Pistols Concert” in Lipstick Traces, post-punk blasts in Ranters and Crowd Pleasers, or his invaluable work editing the late Lester Bangs’ Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung—those moments are always talking to the present listener, to the person trying to figure out what it might have meant then and what it means now. What is this shit? Though that sentence’s anger and connection to Dylan’s attempt at career suicide gets the most attention these days, the entirety of that 1970 review prefigures the sense of profound, disturbed wonder in the best of Marcus’ criticism, beginning with Mystery Train, published in 1975, continuing through his recent book on American prophecy, The Shape of Things to Come and, one hopes, the promisingly-titled study of Van Morrison forthcoming this spring, When That Rough God Goes Riding.

Marcus’ interrogative spirit always meets its subjects on their own murky terms first, rather than shoe-horning them into categories of approval or disapproval. In an interview with Dave Weich, Marcus said in 2001 that he “doesn't begin with ideas that are brought to bear on the artifact to see whether the artifact will measure up to them.” ("All These Inches Away from Where Greil Marcus Began",, 4 April 2001) That’s a crucial distinction in the world of criticism. One of the stories of postmodernism, particularly as it relates to the academic field, is the rise of criticism’s preeminence; with Barthes’ “death of the author” came the birth of the reader, especially well-educated readers, i.e., critics, who then promoted their standards. Ideologies, sometimes passing as trends, too often dictate the reception and success of a novel, film, or album. As Marcus illustrates in that same interview:

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.

Criticism of any kind can think too rigidly, too systematically; it inclines toward these attributes as naturally as the people who write it. Demanding its philosophies, its politics, its curfews—at the head of the table, criticism has the power to silence the geeky daughter, creation, smothering freedom and chance. Throughout his long career, Marcus has been a more deferential father; art and criticism may speak to each other, but in his work, art leads off, because art is the moment, the event, the voice closer to the edge of its own being.

If Marcus testifies with strong opinions, he rarely condemns. And that is the contradiction which has built his standing, a reputation which straddles almost without peer the isolationist academic and the informed popular, and which has come from long hours and many years of staring at and listening to literature, art, popular music and, most of all, his beloved America.

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