“Our next story has to do with what may be the last great mystery of the music business…”
Brian Williams interviews Greil Marcus and Langdon Winner
Posted by s woods on April 6, 2013
“Our next story has to do with what may be the last great mystery of the music business…”
Brian Williams interviews Greil Marcus and Langdon Winner
Posted by s woods on January 31, 2013
Greg Cwik in PopMatters is less wowed by Marcus the conversationalist than by Marcus the writer:
“Marcus talks about his initial involvement with FSM [Free Speech Movement], 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.]“
Posted by s woods on January 30, 2013
Last October, the University Press of Mississippi released Conversations With Greil Marcus, edited by Joe Bonomo and featuring 14 interviews with Marcus, from 1981 to 2010 (including, I’m pleased to say, the Online Exchange conducted at rockcritics.com back in 2002). There’s more information about the book on Bonomo’s website, No such Thing As Was, and he was kind enough to answer a few quick e-mail questions, both about the book itself and the process of putting it together. (And, conflict of interest notwithstanding, CWGM is a terrific read, an excellent–dare I say breezy?–way to engage with Marcus’s critical aesthetic, a more casual, if no less caustic, primer to some of his farther-flung obsessions.)
When did you first discover Greil Marcus’s writing? What was it in his writing that pulled you in, that made you a fan of his work?
I first came across Marcus in the late 1980s, when I was in graduate school at Ohio University. I’d heard of him—I was reading Rolling Stone like everyone else, and I knew Dave Marsh’s and Peter Guralnick’s work, so there were tangential glimpses of him. But it wasn’t until I read Mystery Train that I started to get into him more fully. Then Lipstick Traces and Dead Elvis came out, and I got those and dove in. The book of Lester Bangs’s that he edited, Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, was also important. I’m a really big fan of Bangs, and to have Marcus provide historical and cultural context for me at that time was huge.
I’ve always admired his mind. From the start, I loved the way he trusted his instincts that, say, Object A and Person B and Event C, no matter how disparate they are, or appear to be in conventional terms, might share something intangible, might intersect in a way that’s surprising and meaningful. Plus, he obviously gets rock and roll. As the years passed and my tastes in music and art deepened, I recognized that fewer and fewer of Marcus’s and my records and CDs overlapped. I don’t agree with everything he likes, and as someone who tends to look for art in art, not in rock and roll, I’ve been skeptical of some of his explorations, but I’ve never lost my admiration for the way he thinks, the Keatsian “negative capability” nerve of it, that he walks into dark rooms without knowing where the furniture is and may crash into stuff until his eyes adjust. I learn a lot by reading him. And, simply at the levels of sentence, paragraph, and argument, he’s a real pleasure to read, no matter what he’s writing about.
What prompted the idea for this collection of interviews?
While I was at Ohio University a friend and a teacher, David Lazar, edited a collection of interviews with the essayist M.F.K. Fisher, and that’s how I learned about the series. A few years later, around 1995, it occurred to me that Marcus might be a good candidate. I pitched the book to University Press of Mississippi, and after a while they wrote back having determined that Marcus was too “mid-career” at that point for them to take on the book. It turns out that they were correct. I remember that Marcus laughed at that; he liked the idea that someone was considering him at the middle of his career, rather then nearer to the end. So, a few years ago I revived the idea with the press, which at that point had a new director and series editor, and they accepted it.
Talk a bit about your selection process — what was your criteria for inclusion in the book?
I strove for balance — among subjects, years, types of interview, whether radio print, or online, and interview format, conventional or unique. I wanted to cover as many of his books as I could without encountering too much repetition, and also to find those interviews where, on his own or at the interviewer’s prompting, Marcus strayed away from the book under discussion and got into related stuff. I also wanted to find interviews where Marcus talks about subjects other than music, which is his admitted starting place for just about everything — but he thinks adroitly and valuably about film and literature and politics, too. The difficulty was weeding out the really good interviews that clustered around his more heavily-publicized books — Dead Elvis and Ranters and Crowd Pleasers, in particular. I had to make tough choices there. I looked for a high level of engagement on the part of the interviewer. Those interviews where the Q’s were smart and challenging, where the interviewer was well-prepared and leading with real commitment and had a stake in the conversation, were the strongest. Breadth was really important. But the manuscript word count was tough, too; several very good pieces missed the cut because of space limitations. I made a point of listing them at the front of the book.
What was the earliest interview you came across–is it the first one in the book?
No, it was interview he did for NPR on December 9, 1980, about John Lennon’s murder. It wasn’t substantial enough to include in the book, but it’s interesting.
What was Marcus’s own involvement in it? Was he originally keen on the idea?
He was, from the beginning. I’m grateful for that. In the first go-around he sent me envelopes full of copies of hard-to-find interviews, from one-off zines and college newspapers and places like that, and cassettes of radio interviews, too, which I transcribed over many, many hours. That was super helpful in helping me to get my hands on the many interviews that were never digitally rescued, where I had to do a lot of cutting and pasting and scanning. He sent me some foreign-language interviews and articles, too. And he fact-checked the manuscript, which was very helpful. Beyond that, he was hands-off. The approach and selections were all mine.
Did you use any other interview books as models for your own?
Lazar’s book that I mentioned above is a good one, and the book on the fiction writer Larry Brown was helpful for me to read in terms of approaches to transcribing. But I essentially went with my own instincts.
I thought you did an excellent job of avoiding too much repeated material. I like the Pauline Kael interview book that was put out many years ago, but I find there’s a LOT of regurgitation throughout of ideas, references, etc. I didn’t notice an overabundance of that here, though some is obviously inevitable. Did you have to cut out any good interviews because of subject overlap?
Thanks. Yeah, there were a ton of interviews with Marcus in the early 1990s, and a lot of them are very good. So I had to do some brutal selecting there. As it turns out, I use three interviews from Canadian (CBC) radio, and the same interviewer twice, about which initially I was hesitant, but the conversations are so good and thoughtful and meaty that I couldn’t resist! Again, it came down to well-prepared interviewers who care about their subject and aren’t simply on assignment: they’re careful to avoid bringing up too many of the always-asked questions or topics, and instead try and come in with a novel approach, to engage with Marcus in a way he hadn’t quite been before.
How would you describe the differences between Marcus the interviewee and Marcus the writer? Is the difference subtle or pronounced?
Oh, it’s subtle, if it’s there at all. As I write in my introduction, the man speaks in paragraphs. It often seems as if he’s answering a question for which he’s prepared, far in advance, his answer. I’m really impressed with the way he comports himself in conversations: he’s lucid, thoughtful, never rushed, never betrayed by um’s and er’s or half-baked ideas like the rest of us are. To my ear, he talks in back-and-forth informal conversations as gracefully and as substantially as he writes in his polished books and columns, which is no small feat, and was an unexpected pleasure in editing this book.
Posted by s woods on November 2, 2011
Re: The Doors: A Lifetime of Listening to Five Mean Years:
“This is now the third book I’ve written in a month — literally, to the day… I do all the listening, all the interviews, all the reading and all the writing in a month. I don’t know that it is a way to write any given book, but this one on the Doors was easy to write, enormous fun. I just barreled through it.” (John Fleming, TampaBay.com)
“Well, I guess the difference is that I made a more emotional connection with Rod Stewart’s songs, or they made a connection with me. It’s just different from the connections I’ve made with the Doors’ music. I love their music in different ways. With ‘Maggie May’ and particularly ‘Every Picture Tells a Story,’ ‘Reason to Believe,’ so many other songs, my chest is open, my heart is beating. Everything is exposed. That’s the way I want to live. It just seems like this incredible vision of a good life, a life of complete fulfillment. That’s what I hear in Rod Stewart, in the stuff that I love the best. There’s no question that what’s going on in the Doors is chillier. It’s more thought-out, more formally experimental — it’s different. I love them both, but in a real different way.” (Michaelangelo Matos, eMusic)
“Here I am writing about a band that only existed for a very few years in the late ’60s, and I wanted to make this book about the music — not about the late ’60s… I wanted to take that music out of its context and put it in a new context, which is the present moment.” (Sam Whiting, SF Gate)
Greil Marcus listens to the Doors: On Point with Tom Ashbrook (MP3 podcast)
Posted by s woods on October 26, 2011
Greil Marcus Revisits Some Strange Days: Jason Bailey interviews GM in the Voice, on the eve of his upcoming Doors book:
‘Look at the iPhone,’ he says, picking it up from next to him on the couch in his crisply decorated, sun-soaked West Village apartment. ‘You know, it’s good looking…’ He pushes the button at the bottom, and his home screen pops up. ‘I mean, isn’t that cool?’ He points at the app logos. ‘What does that mean? Look at all those talismanic symbols — I wonder what they are?’ He contemplates the object. ‘It was derided by all sorts of people, and I was probably one of them, as some sort of expensive status symbol, or just the latest electronic fetish object — But then people discover not only is it beautiful, not only is it cool — in the best sense of the word — but it’s also useful. And it really does make life easier. And not only does it make life easier, but it makes life more interesting and fun.’
Posted by s woods on July 28, 2011
Tim Marchman revisits Marcus’s Ranters and Crowd Pleasers.
Posted by s woods on July 17, 2011
Excellent Christgau interview/profile by David Cohen at The New Zealand Listener.
“Greil, Dave [Marsh] and I were at one time very good friends, but Dave and I are no longer friends at all,” recalls Christgau. “We shared political assumptions and were all a part of the counter-culture, even though we all were extremely sceptical about drugs and the religious strain of hippiedom, which in fact was the dominant strain.
“But even back then we had serious political differences. And, as you know, it’s the curse of the minority-left to be sectarian. Our musical tastes were completely different, too. These days I would call Dave a cultural conservative, and Greil has become a person with, ah, extremely intense and narrow interests: he loves what he loves and ignores almost everything else.”
(Update: I thought this was a new interview… it’s not, I’ve just never seen it before.)
Posted by s woods on July 15, 2011
Nicky Wire “explains why [Lipstick Traces] was a pivotal text for him and his Manic Street Preachers bandmates.” (Foreword to a new reprint of the Marcus classic.)
Posted by s woods on June 20, 2011
Greil Marcus takes on the Doors.
A fan from the moment the Doors’ first album took over KMPX, the revolutionary FM rock & roll station in San Francisco, Greil Marcus saw the band many times at the legendary Fillmore Auditorium and the Avalon Ballroom in 1967. Five years later it was all over. Forty years after the singer Jim Morrison was found dead in Paris and the group disbanded, one could drive from here to there, changing from one FM pop station to another, and be all but guaranteed to hear two, three, four Doors songs in an hour—every hour. Whatever the demands in the music, they remained unsatisfied, in the largest sense unfinished, and absolutely alive. There have been many books on the Doors. This is the first to bypass their myth, their mystique, and the death cult of both Jim Morrison and the era he was made to personify, and focus solely on the music. It is a story untold; all these years later, it is a new story.
Posted by s woods on December 1, 2009
“Roxy Music’s ‘More Than This’ is a drift, a float. The sounds coming out of Ferry’s mouth, except for the chorus, when the whirlpool is stopped, when it’s centered, when he steps out as if to make a speech, are a golden smear.
“Four minutes and fifteen seconds long, the song begins to fade after two minutes and thirty-two seconds. You hear ‘More than this — nothing’ — and then Phil Manzanera, who has simply been counting off the rhythm behind Ferry, play his solo. It’s maybe eleven bent blues notes — there and gone in under three seconds. It is the most elegant and ephemeral distillation of the guitar solo, any guitar solo, imaginable, and it brings up a question. What is a guitar solo? What happens when the singer steps back and gives the song — its themes, its argument, its imagery, its story — to a musician?”
- Greil Marcus, EMP Karaoke (2004)
Posted by s woods on October 20, 2008
The second installment of the Eddy podcast focuses on the discographies in Stranded (Greil Marcus) and Marooned (Phil Freeman). Most (though not all) of the music bits are samples of songs culled from Marcus’s text. I may have more to say about this later (a whole bunch of things I wish I’d responded to at the time — i.e., Hackamore Brick), but for now… Check it out below (it’s a little over 15-min. long). More Chuck on the way later in the week.
Posted by s woods on March 29, 2008
Trudging along with this feature, ever so slowly…
36. Songs They Never Play on the Radio: Nico, the Last Bohemian (James Young) – Another one in the haven’t-read-it-but-would-like-to pile. From what I gather it’s a tour diary (written by the guy who played keyboards with Nico throughout the ’80s) with many episodes of wanton drug use. Truthfully, not really my idea of a good time. And yet… every review I’ve read suggests that it’s much more intelligent than my no doubt reductive encapsulation suggests.
Posted by s woods on February 12, 2008
25. Sound Effects: Youth, Leisure, and the Politics of Rock ‘n’ Roll (Simon Frith) – Aka The Sociology of Rock. One of the first books of rock criticism I tried to read, ”tried” being the operative word in this case. Frith’s prose just never grabbed me here, never led me into thinking (or caring) about his ideas . That said, I’m uncomfortable with the assumption in Christgau’s headline for his review of this book: ”It’s Barely Rock and Roll, But I Like It.” Uncomfortable, that is, with the idea that a book about rock and roll has to read like rock and roll, uncomfortable with the underlying assumptions about what such a formulation even means (it must be loud? forceful? in-your-face?). Weird thought coming from Christgau, given that he probably has a wider definition of “rock and roll” than just about anyone. (He nails my disinterest with the book much better when he says it “isn’t romantic enough.” Maybe that’s what his headline means??) As I mentioned in a previous entry, I do like Performing Rites quite a bit, and I’m guessing that stylistically the books aren’t really that different. Maybe the slyness –the Drifters, if not the Stooges — in Frith’s voice just comes through a little better in the later book?
Posted by s woods on January 24, 2008
11. The Dark Stuff (Nick Kent) – Read a few chapters of this (Brian Wilson, Stones, G N’ R, I think), perused the others, have never felt a pressing need to pull it off the shelf again. I know how highly regarded Kent is (especially in the UK), and based on the little I’ve read I can neither confirm or dispute the many claims made for him, but the terrain he covers in this book is, at least for me, one of the least interesting stories in pop music — that of the wasted, self-destructing rock star (I say this as someone who has pretty much revered Keith Richards forever, even while simultaneously considering him one of rock’s ultimate self-parodies). There’s no doubt more to the writing here than that, but it’s just not a subject that greatly compels me, in the same way that I almost never actually enjoy watching junkie movies (even skillfully directed junkie movies). Another barrier: the whole journalist-as-rock-star thing. Witness Morrisey’s blurb: “I could tell you stories about Nick Kent that would uncurl the hair in your Afro.” Thing is, I don’t have an Afro.
Posted by s woods on September 8, 2007
A 45 minute clip of Greil Marcus discussing his latest book, The Shape of Things to Come. (Haven’t watched this yet…)
Posted by s woods on August 30, 2007
Three new Greil Marcus-related pieces regarding Marooned: The Next Generation of Desert Island Discs (edited by Phil Freeman).
All links directly from the Marooned blog, which has more info about the book, plus more links and stuff.
Listening: Kinks, “See My Friends”