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Greil Marcus 1986 interview, continued

By Phil Dellio

Marcus:   When Tim says the '70s critics should bow out, my response is, "I guess I don't have to worry--I'm a '60s critic." I don't know who he's talking about when he said that--I really don't. There's another thing, too, to get obnoxious about it for a moment. People will stop reading me and Bob and Dave and people of that ilk--if that is an ilk--when other people come along with better ideas, a more intriguing writing style, more stamina, and more commitment to the subject matter. There's nothing surprising about that.

Dellio:     A few months back you commended Steve Albini's highly personal diary in Forced Exposure. Do you think the people at Forced Exposure are writing out of genuine conviction, or just looking for a forum to make a name for themselves?

Marcus:   I don't know the people on Forced Exposure, so I don't know what their motives are. As someone who reads the magazine, I often get the feeling they're just writing for fun. And that could mean dozens of things. To try to piss people off--easier said than done. I don't know why Byron Coley keeps dropping the g's off his words. It's so affected. I talked to him on the phone recently--I've never met the guy--and told him he's just gotta stop that. It's like a quadruple irony, and I got lost somewhere on the double irony.

One of the reasons I like Steve Albini's writing is because he isn't working within someone else's form. He's working within his own. I was very moved by that diary. I really thought the guy was talking about real things. Making a fool of himself, shooting himself in the foot, and not giving a damn--he was gonna say it and leave himself completely naked. I don't think he was trying to be provocative, and I don't think he was copping a pose; I think he was really trying to figure out what the fuck he wanted to say, and to say it to its limit. And I think he did a real good job.

Dellio:     What do you think about Chuck Eddy's writing?

Marcus:   I liked Chuck's writing a whole lot when I was first seeing it in the Voice, but I guess I've gotten the impression over the past year or so that he's trying to convince himself that what he's saying on the page is true. Like, "I'm supposed to like this album, so I like it, and I'm gonna write about how great it is." You see the letters H-E-L-P tearing through the lines. So I'm not convinced by what he's been writing lately. Maybe I'm wrong, maybe he believes it with all his heart and soul. But if he doesn't, I don't have any idea what's going on with him.

Dellio:     Since interviewing Peter Townshend and Elvis Costello earlier this decade, you seem to have completely given up on interviews.

Marcus:   I've never done interviews. I did the Townshend because the person who was supposed to had cancelled at the last minute, and my editor called me up desperate. I did the Costello simply because I'd always wanted to meet the guy. I'm real glad I did because we've become friends, and we talk, and he's really quite a guy.

But I'm not an interviewer--I'm not good with it and I'm not comfortable. What's wrong with me is I want the other person to like me. And that's fatal for an interviewer. The best interviews come when you ask stupid questions. You say, "Is it true your mother's really a dolphin?" And the guy says, "No! Where did you hear that? She's not a dolphin, she's a burrow. And let me tell you how she got to become a burrow..." And he'll tell you everything.

Obviously, if you want the guy to like you, you're not going to ask if his mother's a dolphin. So I'm not cut out to be an interviewer.

Dellio:     Would you agree, as Chuck Eddy wrote earlier this year, that radio is in its worst shape ever?

Marcus:   Look--except for a few years, and they were mostly in the mid-50s and mid-60s for AM, and in the late '70s for college FM, the state of radio has always been the worst in history. There was a time in around 1959 when I stopped listening to the radio because it almost made me physically ill every time I turned it on. All I'd hear was Debbie Reynolds singing "Tammy." There was another time like that in the late '60s, the early '70s were beyond belief, and the early '80s were astonishing. Top 40 or hip FM--whatever the standardized form of pop music might be--has an infinite capacity for dullness and stupidity. We'll never know when we hit bottom. So sure, I completely agree with what Chuck wrote--except it's not the worst in history if you want to take a longer view than six months.

Dellio:     How about the mid-70s, the radio that Chuck Eddy and a lot of other newer writers grew up with?

Marcus:   Well, I thought "The Night Chicago Died" was really funny, and "Beach Baby" was a truly wonderful record. But it was one of those fallow periods. And since it wasn't my period, in the sense that it wasn't when I was first starting to write or argue with my friends about music, it was just a time I had to get through. One of the great things about major changes in pop music, like Elvis or the Beatles or the Sex Pistols, is that unless you're a lot smarter than I am, it's a shock. Moving along in the mid-70s it was, "Jesus, seems like it's gonna be like this forever." The ultimate nadir was reached with that song "How Long" by Ace. Remember when that record came out? There's a mid-70s record for you. Well, rock critics all over the country said, "Hey, this is good! This is kinda interesting! Maybe this is gonna be a good new band!" I mean, that bland piece of shit? It couldn't get any worse than that, Chuck Eddy to the contrary.

Dellio:     I take it that it still means something for you to hear a song over your car radio, as opposed to sitting at home.

Marcus:   Yeah, because it's a surprise, it's more tactile, you're closer to the speaker, your hand's on the dial. I find it a lot of fun to be moving along and have something come on that will take me out of the day, take me back 20 years, confuse me in terms of a context, or just hear some song that I'm thinking, "What the fuck is that?"--something I've never heard before that just sounds great or weird. I think that's a lot of what living a good life is all about, to be able to be surprised like that.

Dellio:     The collection of Lester Bangs's writing that you're editing was undertaken soon after his death five years ago. Has there been a delay in getting it out?

Marcus:   It took a good while to collect everything we could collect. That meant gathering all the material from his apartment, which was thousands and thousands of pages, some of it in order and some of it not, then shipping it out to me; it meant gathering hundreds and hundreds of published articles from obscure sources, as well as from the Voice, Creem, etc., and getting all the stuff in one place and me going through it, dividing it into piles of 'yes,' 'no,' and 'maybe,' and then starting to read it and think about it.

But I finished the book last June, and it will be coming out in September. I think it was worth the wait. I hope it will have a big effect on how not just rock'n'roll, but culture or politics or anything is written about. I think people are going to see new possibilities for talking straight and for talking twisted when they see this book.

Dellio:     Do you think people who write about rock'n'roll still tend to write in the shadow of Lester Bangs, or with Lester Bangs in the back of their mind?

Marcus:   Well, I don't know. He's certainly on my mind, and I know he's on Dave's mind in the sense that he's a literary conscience. Often you'll write something and you'll say, "God, that's pretentious--Lester would kill me." Of course, people felt that when he was alive, too. That's not just a function of his being dead.

Dellio:     Between your columns in Artforum and the Voice, you usually manage to say a few words about most performers. I wanted to get your thoughts on a few I've yet to see you comment on. The Jesus and Mary Chain?

Marcus:   I thought [Psychocandy] was a good record, but in a real cold way. I always tried to get my British friends to explain to me why they're so big and important and controversial over there. I've got some smart British friends, but they never could explain it to me.

Dellio:     Anita Baker?

Marcus:   I think Anita Baker is ridiculous. Any time you hear somebody bringing back this kind of genteel, effete black music--the same number the Pointer Sisters pulled in the early '70s when they gave concerts with "Black Tie Recommended" printed on the tickets--it's an incident in class politics that has nothing to do with music.

Dellio:     Robert Cray?

Marcus:   I don't like Robert Cray, and I particularly dislike his new album [Strong Persuader]. What really puts me off about him is that you just can't do blues in the self-conscious way you can do a lot of other things. You can't get up and say, "Ladies and Gentlemen, now I'm gonna do a blues song," without immediately sounding ridiculous. There's something very demagogic about that. The Bonzo Dog Band could do it, but they were supposed to be ridiculous.

Dellio:     R.E.M.?

Marcus:   The most boring of the boring--forget it.

Dellio:     Both "Real Life Top 10" in the Voice and "Speaker to Speaker" in Artforum are fairly free-form in what they draw upon for subject matter. How does each take shape?

Marcus:   For "Real Life," I keep a running file. Whenever anything crosses my path that might conceivably go into the column--something I hear on the radio, a book I see in a store, a strange news story I see in the paper, something I might see at an art exhibit--I write it down. You need a balance: I don't think it would be much fun to read a column about ten records, or ten books, or ten movies.

I suppose the subject of "Speaker to Speaker" is, "What does it mean to be a listener?" What are we doing when we listen? What happens? What doesn't happen? What could happen? I really am a critic in the sense that I don't give a shit what the artist intended, or what he meant. I couldn't care less. What I'm interested in is what happens when you listen. If the artist made a record intending to convince all right-thinking people to send money to the I.R.A., but the record is in Swedish and nobody can know that, it's sort of pointless to discuss the guy's intentions. What you really have to discuss is what is it like to hear a record in Swedish, and does it have a good beat?

Dellio:     The last couple of years you've written a disproportionate amount about Elvis Costello and the Mekons. What do you see in them?

Marcus:   They provoke me more, they give me more to think about, they give me more visceral pleasure, they upset me more, than any other people. But I don't like the new Mekons album [Honky Tonkin']; I didn't like Blood and Chocolate. I don't like everything those people do. But for the last few years, it's true, they've been the people who have gotten under my skin.

It just so happens with the Mekons that when I started to write about them, they weren't much being written about. So I had both a cause to trumpet and a subject to explore. And with Elvis Costello, to be perfectly frank, I don't think anybody else writes anything halfway intelligent about him. And I don't know why; don't ask me why no one else wrote a whole column on "Pills and Soap," because it sure as hell deserved it. You could write a whole column on his version of "Withered and Died," an old Richard Thompson song.