‘Conversations with Greil Marcus’ Are Not Conversations About Greil Marcus

Conversations with Greil Marcus offers predictably sparse insight into Marcus’ personal life. The writer has made it exceedingly clear that he has no interest in discussing himself in his work or during interviews, instead opting to delve into cultural vivisection via musical criticism. He says “people write memoirs—this is my take anyway—out of a great sense of self-importance,” and he has a “very strong sense of privacy… I don’t think my life itself is very interesting.” But this avoidance of self inadvertently reveals the self, and the reader is left to do much analysis on his own, like Hemmingway’s iceberg theory. Marcus says that Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman “were phonies” because they wanted attention and put themselves at the forefront of the flashing bulbs and rolling cameras, and thus Marcus’ feelings on attention and personal interjection come to light. Marcus is an anti-rock star rock writer.

While discussing Marcus’ Lipstick Traces, Lorenzo Buj asked Marcus about a line that describes fathers seeking lost sons, “but nobody really looks like anybody else,” to which Marcus responded:

“That is one of those things that any writer stumbles on. That’s a line I wrote, and I wrote it because it made sense of what I was trying to explain and describe at that point in the book, with no personal motive for me at all… And it was only later, rereading that passage that I realized that was probably the most autobiographical or confessional line in the book.”

Conversations with Greil Marcus is best used as a search engine—a means and not an end. You can find the things that interest Marcus, but you’ll have to do your own research if you want to dig deeper. And with 13 books under his belt (and another five that he’s edited), there’s plenty of Greil Marcus out there.

Marcus got his start in the rock criticism business (which didn’t really exist at the time) as the counter culture dissipated into legend and the dying breath of the ’60s gave way to the “cold gloom” of the Nixon era. In an essay he wrote for Rolling Stone in 1969, Marcus uses the Rolling Stones’ album Let It Bleed as a microcosm for the twilight between generations. He says it depicts a time and place where “dreams of having everything, right now, are gone; the record ends with a song about compromise [“You Can’t Always Get What You Want”] with what you want, with celebration of learning to take what you need, maybe even what you deserve, because time has passed, and the rules have changed.” Marucs describes the opening track, “Gimme Shelter,” as the best song the Stones had crafted up to that point—a song “about terror” and fear, which opens a transitional, transient album that attempts to portray the plight of youthful ephemerae (and it has awful cover art, he also points out). He depicts the Stones as culture warriors— journalistic dandies strapped with musical weapons incarcerating modernity in their music like record keepers.

At a time when rock ‘n’ roll was considered noise, skinny white guys in skinny torn jeans and leather jackets shootin’ up and boozin’ up and cutting holes in their amplifiers to get sordid, dirty squeals to scream out, Marcus used rock as a lens. He viewed society through the power chords and drum fills and guitar solos; in the Stones he saw the “future contained in the present.”

Born in San Francisco in 1945, Marcus has spent nearly his entire life in the Frisco/Berkley/Oakland area, though he would write and edit for New York-centric publications Creem, Rolling Stone, and The Village Voice. In 1984 he spoke with Mark Kitchell about his time spent with the Free Speech Movement (FSM) at University of California, Berkeley, which carved a groove into his person that he has yet to fill. The conversation is oddly devoid of personal injection or feeling, yet it so subtly tells so much about Marcus.He speaks the way he writes—dryly, with wry humor and just enough a sense of distance to lend credibility and omnipresent, objective journalism to his voice:

“The great theory of radicalizing people—get them somewhere where they’ll get hit over the head with a club, and they’ll be radicalized—Well, there’s a hole in that theory, and that is, just because someone has been manipulated into a place where he or she can be hit over the head by a cop, should that person then, on rational terms, change his or her politics? Not necessarily. Maybe nothing real happened, therefore no real change should happen. There was a demonstration once in Berkely, where the people who were organizing it, who were manipulating it, made a mistake. That is, they had printed the leaflets denouncing the police brutality in breaking up the demonstration before the demonstration took place. And those leaflets were accidentally distributed at the beginning of the demonstration. So people were standing in the crown on Telegraph (where there had been many confrontations and great violence and all that) and people were reading… “Is this an old leaflet? What’s the date? Hey! That’s today! What police brutality? There hasn’t been any police!” That really happened. It was great. I left.”

Marcus talks about his initial involvement with FSM, his waning interest, and, as seen above, his eventual disillusion, but none of this is told fervidly. It’s maybe the most revealing of the interviews in the collection, though it sometimes drags. Seeing Marcus in the context of the FSM illuminates bits of his personal history that have been mostly veiled in shadow. Kitchell asks about Marcus’ personal thesis on the struggle of criticism, but Marcus never answers the question, and the interview ends with, “Yeah, it’s fun to talk…” [Ellipsis his.]

During an interview he gave during the promotion for his book Dead Elvis, Marcus is asked where he was when Elvis died and how he reacted. His response is more personal and probing than any of the questions specifically about his personal life:

“Well, I reacted with denial. I was in Hawaii. I was on vacation with my family and my father called me. I was working for Rolling Stone at the time, he said, Well, they want you write an obituary. And I said, That’s ridiculous. We’re not a newspaper. We don’t keep obituaries on file, we don’t write them ahead of time like the New York Times does. And he said, no, no, no—he’s dead. He died. He had a heart attack, and I thought it was a joke. I really did. My father had an odd sense of humor…”

But again, he soon veers from himself and discusses Elvis instead. This is Marcus: he views the end of the ’60s and the start of the ’70s through the changing aesthetics of the Rolling Stones, and offers his most tender response in the whole interview when asked about Elvis. But when asked about himself, he just shuts down.

Marcus is arguably one of the two most influential rock critics of all time, along with his peer and friend Lester Bangs. But Marcus and Bangs are absolute foils in their approach to writing; Marcus called Bangs the “best living writer” and said people had a hard time accepting that a rock writer could be so good, but Bangs’ legacy stems from his über-personal dissections of self via music. Whereas Marcus looks at culture and keeps the “I”s and digressions to a bare minimum, Bangs indulges, saturates his every sentences with so much Bangs his reviews and essays practically burst. You can almost smell the booze on Bangs’ longer, more non-sensical deviations. Marcus edited the collection Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, which collates many of Bangs’ finest pieces (most of which were not for Rolling Stone, as Marcus points out—Bangs had a penchant for sloppy writing and reliance on lyric-quoting when he wrote about his favorite artists, the exception being Lou Reed, on whom Bangs wrote perhaps the defining essays and interviews, which are, thankfully, present here). In the introduction, Marcus says of Bangs:

“Lester became a figure within the world of rock ‘n’ roll: within its confines, he became a celebrity. Doping and drinking, wisecracking and insulting, cruel and performing, always good for a laugh, he became rock’s essential wild man, a one-man orgy of abandon, excess, wisdom and satire, parody—the bad conscience, acted out or written out, of every band he reviewed or interviewed. H went to an interview ready to provoke whatever band was in town; whatever band was in town tried to provoke him… he was a man to be lionized: a man you could be proud to say you’d bought a drink or give drugs.”

Bangs is aesthetically the antithesis of Marcus, but few rock critics brought obsession or as keen a critical eye to their writing as this dynamic duo. Bangs was the more fun, the more verbose, the more unfiltered and unspooled of the two; Marcus was (is) the more analytical, more academic, more restrained and precise. But each of them took his stylistic scalpel to society the same way: through rock. Marcus wrote an entire book on punk, In the Fascist Bathroom, discussing its political insinuations; Bangs, who coined the term “punk” (as an insult), said, “You see, dear readers, so much of what’s (doled) out as punk merely amounts to saying I suck, you suck, the world sucks, who gives a damn—which is, er, ah, somehow insufficient.” Both writers fell in love with an idea of the Clash, with Marcus viewing them as proponents of political uprising in the UK and Bangs partying with them in the back room after the show.

Here’s Marcus on the Clash:

“Middleclass in background, working-class in the themes of their songs and in [Joe] Strummer’s crunched accent, the Clash have been understood as ‘political’ for the right reasons: because, more directly than other bands, they saw in punk proof that apparently trivial questions of music and style profoundly threaten those who ran their society. That meant those who ruled were afraid, which implied that their hold on power was not so certain as it seemed. Politics thus intensified, eyes-open version of everyday life—but if the Sex Pistols were frankly nihilistic, asking for destruction and not caring what came of it, the Clash are out for community, the self-discovery of individuals as a means to solidarity, a new ‘I’ as the means to a discovery of the old ‘we.”

And here’s Bangs on the very same group of gentlemen:

”I am so glad to be able to tell everybody that the Clash are solid Muppet fans. (They even asked me if I had connections to get them on the show)… All right, at this point I’d like to say a few words about [Paul Simonon, bassist]. Namely that HE LOOKS LIKE A MUPPET. I’m not sure which one, some kinda composite, but don’t let that brooding visage in the photos fool you—this guy is a real clown. (Takes one to know one, after all.) He smokes a lot, and when he gets really out there on it makes with cartoon non sequiturs that nobody else can fathom (often having to do with manager Bernie), but stoned or not when he’s talking to you and you’re looking in that face you’re staring right into a red-spiked big-eyed beaming cartoon, of whom it would probably not be amiss to say he lives for pranks [sic].”

Marcus twice cites Pauline Kael as an influence and as a writer with whom he’d have liked to hang out, but his writing couldn’t resemble hers any less on a stylistic level. Both took a sociological approach to criticism, but Kael’s voice and style are more reminiscent of Bangs (or Bangs of hers); like thoughts pouring out of a head wound, Kael’s prose digresses and meanders and flows sanguinely, and Marcus’ is computed, exact and deliberate and carefully structured from beginning to end to foster an argument. He says in 1,000 words what Kael may say in 5,000 but, as with Bangs, detours are as important to Kael as her analyses.

Kael wrote associatively, bringing other filmmakers and other films into her reviews, never watching films in a vacuum. Marcus says he writes associatively—“I free associate”—but his writing doesn’t exemplify this assertion. His writing associates calculatedly, discussing F. Scott Fitzgerald and Herman Melville and William Faulkner and Nathaniel Hawthorne in the same breath as Paul Newman and Robert Johnson and the Clash and Elvis. Marcus shows no favoritism, whereas Kael and Bangs never attempted to veil their preference for certain artists—Robert Altman for Kael, Lou Reed for Bangs. (If it isn’t yet obvious, I have a slight bias for Bangs and Kael, but what better chance will I ever have for indulging it?)

Marcus seems more and more a bizarre critic when held beside Kael and Bangs in bright, harsh light. Even the picture on the cover of Conversations shows him grimacing like the villain in a Regan-era Oliver Stone movie; Kael, as bitchy as she was, smiles glowingly on the covers of her books, and Bangs looks like he’s ready to toss you a beer. Kael fought with Hollywood and her fellow writers at The New Yorker, usually out of a sense of elitism or barbed-wire ego scuffling; bangs traded insults and laughs with the rockers he got hammered with, never hesitating to berate an artist’s poor performance but even quicker to praise those he deemed of a higher caliber; and Marcus, slightly more ambitious, sought to subvert the Nixon administration, which, according to him, made it a priority to squash the sweltering advent of rock music. That’s Marcus: take down the conservative president with rock ‘n’ roll criticism.

Marcus is indeed fascinating, but he doesn’t always seem so fascinating in these interviews. He feels somewhat stiff, uptight—you can picture him, whether accurately or not, sitting rigid in a leather chair with his legs crossed just so, his hands folded on his lap. The guy writes about rock music but reads more like a political correspondent for Harper’s. His inner workings occasionally pierce the density of his formality, but he spends almost every part of every interview talking about rock music, about culture, about what other writers say about rock music and culture. This is all very nice, especially given Marcus’ articulateness and sharp dissertation on pretty much everything, but you want to hear about the interviewee when reading an interview. You can just go read one of his books if you want to hear him talk about Johnny Rotten’s anarchy or Elvis’ seemingly permanent permeation into popular and high culture. And for $40 bucks, you really, really don’t want reiteration and redundancy—you want revelation and epiphany, inflammation of the tear ducts. You want the guy who writes wry irreverent columns for The Believer, high-brow know-how with popularist propulsion. You want more Greil Marcus.

In a 2010 interview that closes the book, PopMatters’ 20 Questions managed to extract some of Marcus’ proclivities and tastes lurking just below the surface like so much oil. Marcus revealed that he relates to a character in Dan Spiotta’s novel, Eat the Document, thinks Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited is the greatest album ever (and would still be even if it simply contained “Like a Rolling Stone” and 40 minutes of silence), and doesn’t like Star Wars or Star Trek. Coming at the end of the collection, PopMatters 20 Questions (a series that asks the same 20 questions of every artist, the questions designed to get to the ‘gist’ of the interviewee) offers something of a reprieve from the dogged elusiveness of Marcus’ other interviews, and it draws out some humanity from a writer whose prose glimmers with professionalism.

It’s not that Marcus is cold or unlikeable elsewhere, but he writes and speaks with ardent detachment, capturing the fear, pathos, progress, perversion, magnanimity, and callow shallowness of culture but rarely disclosing what he actually feels about music or societal catalysts. Marcus writes thoughts and analyses, not feelings, exhuming personality with the negative space.

If Conversations with Greil Marcus doesn’t satiate your Marcus appetite, pick up a copy of his 2010 book, When the Rough God Goes Riding. A jaunt into 40 years of Van Morrison fandom, it drips with emotion and unflinching insolence. The free association Marcus discusses in Conversations seeps onto every page as he pulls Jonathan Lethem and Neil Jordon and Raymond Chandler into his aesthetic and memoiristic dissection of Morrison’s music. The hyperbole that makes Marcus a maverick is here (he dismisses 16 years and 16 recordings, from 1980-1996, as an “endless stream of dull and tired” junk) and his perfervid adoration for Astral Weeks, the Van Morrison album against which all other Van Morrison albums are (unfairly and futilely) measured, aggravates as much as it educates. The album is great, heart-shattering, hypnotic and strange, but Marcus still veers into hero worship more oft than not—and that’s fine.

It was refreshing to see such adoration after reading 200 pages of dry interviews. It’s great criticism because it spews subjectivity and lacerating absolutism. It’s his Kael-iest work, his Bangs-iest work, and the most revealing piece of writing of his career. It’s a sublime work that may make you angry with its intense argument, but isn’t that better than getting angry at a book for being distant and dodgy?

RATING 6 / 10