20 Questions: Greil Marcus

“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.

Book: Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus: Writings 1968-2010

Author: Greil Marcus

Publisher: PublicAffairs

Publication date: 2010-10

Format: Hardcover

Length: 512 pages

Price: $29.95

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/features_art/m/marcus-dylan-cvr.jpg

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.

Book: When That Rough God Goes Riding: Listening to Van Morrison

Author: Greil Marcus

Publisher: PublicAffairs

Publication Date: 2010-04

Format: Hardcover

Length: 208 pages

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/film_art/l/loss-roughgod-cvr.jpgI 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.

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

Author: Greil Marcus

Publisher: Harvard University Press

Publication Date: 2009-11

Format: Paperback

Length: 496 pages

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/film_art/l/loss-lipstick-cvr.jpg7. 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.

11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?

When teaching a seminar, and there’s a point that rises out of the discussion that you think absolutely has to be made, wait. In five minutes someone in the class will say what, if you, the teacher, had said it, would have killed the discussion—but coming from a student, it will push the discussion forward, into richer territory than your own sterile interruption could ever have found. That was my own advice to myself, and every time I teach a seminar, I have to remind myself of it about every 15-minutes.

12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?

A gold bracelet for my wife from I. Vittori on the Ponte Vecchio in Florence. There was something odd in the air, a glowing light in the overcast sky. The owner of the store wouldn’t take a check. He said, I can trust you. Take it home, and if you like it, you can pay me then.

Book: A New Literary History of America

Author: eds. Greil Marcus, Werner Sollors

Publisher: Harvard University Press

Publication Date: 2009-09

Format: Hardcover

Length: 1,128 pages

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/film_art/l/loss-newhistlit-cvr.jpg13. You feel best in Armani or Levis or…?

I wear Levis almost every day, but I love my Miyakes. As for Armani—one day in 2000, in New York, my wife and I went to a party at a private club in Manhattan held to welcome a new book editor from London, Frances Coady. I had heard about her and wanted to meet her. I was wearing a greenish suit and a gray t-shirt, but the club wouldn’t let me in: ties were required, I was informed. And, the person at the desk said, ties were to be worn with a collared shirt—not tied around the neck over a t-shirt.

I was so incensed I stomped away raving and cursing. But my wife said, “You really want to meet this editor, don’t you?” Yes, I did. “Well, there’s an Armani store around the corner.” We went in—and while I’d never been able to find a shirt or a tie that went with the suit I had on, this time we did. I put them on, went back to the club, met Frances Coady, and there was an immediate affinity. I knew I had to do a book with her.

That book turned out to be The Shape of Things to Come, and she turned out to be the best editor I ever worked with, someone who could see the whole arc of a book, what was part of that arc, what wasn’t, and also say, “You know, you used a very similar phrase back on page 127…”

14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?

Is there still a Ritz? Where is it? To me the Ritz is the 1920s in New York. So I’d go back and sit down with F. Scott Fitzgerald. The food would be lousy, he’d get drunk, but every time I’d read him after that, each page would have a weight it would never have had if we hadn’t been there.

Today I’d go to Chez Panisse in Berkeley with Pauline Kael. She’d be cranky and funny and outrageously cutting. The food would be simple, gorgeous, so full of flavor it would stop the conversation. We’d argue about movies, books, she’d tell stories of Berkeley in the ‘40s and ‘50s, we’d argue about our own writing—“I was reading your book, every word seemed to lead to every other, and then there was this thud—what happened? What is that terrible sentence about ‘the catacombs of visible culture’ doing there? “But that was the sentence I was aiming toward all along—” “Your aim was off. Take it out. Believe me, you can live without it.”

We leave knowing the night could never be repeated, and then we’d go back.

Book: Old, Weird America: The World of Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes

Author: Greil Marcus

Publisher: Picador

Publication Date: 2001-09

Format: Paperback

Length: 304 pages

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/features_art/m/marcus-oldweird-cvr.jpg15. Time travel: where, when and why?

I’d like to be in Montgomery, Alabama, just after the Civil War, when my great-grandfather Jakob Greil was building his liquor and grocery distribution business. I’d like to be in Hawaii in the 1870s, when my great-grandmother Belle Louisson was growing up. I’d like to be back in Menlo Park in the ‘50s, to see if it really was as wonderful a place as I remember it to be.

16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation or Prozac?

Hawaii, one of these days.

17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or ..?


18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?

I’ve lived my whole life in the San Francisco Bay Area: born in San Francisco, grew up in Palo Alto and Menlo Park, Berkeley since I went to college in 1963. My parents were born there—San Francisco and San Jose—and never left. I’ve never been anywhere where I wanted to live more than where I’m from.

19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?

Don’t let the bastards grind you down—and remember that they are bastards.

20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on, now?

Earlier this year I published a short book on listening to Van Morrison—finding moments from throughout his career that seemed to catch the quest that runs all through it.

I’m going to write another short book, about listening to the Doors—but instead of having 45 years to work with, I’ll have four. Any day I drive over the bridge from Berkeley to San Francisco and back, I am all but guaranteed to hear the Doors at least three times: “LA Woman”, “Roadhouse Blues”, “Light My Fire” most often, a shuffle of half a dozen more.

I began wondering why they were still on the radio. I got lost in them every time.