Books

'Conversations with Greil Marcus' Are Not Conversations About Greil Marcus

This is Greil 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 when asked about, in this case, Elvis. But when asked about himself, he just shuts down.


Conversations with Greil Marcus

Publisher: University Press of Mississippi
Length: 240 pages
Author: Joe Bonomo, editor
Price: $40.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2012-10
Amazon

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?

6

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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