Online Exchange with Greil Marcus

Readers of this site were invited to submit questions to music critic Greil Marcus, who sent his responses by e-mail. Thanks to everyone who took part in this exchange.

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> >From: Tonya
> >Subject: Question for Greil
> >Date: Tue, 12 Mar 2002 09:15:38

I have two questions;
A) Do you have any research (published or otherwise) or notable quotes regarding the Portland Or. hardcore/punk band Poison Idea or their singer Jerry A? This band never seems to get its always just gets 'mentioned' in the same breath as The Wipers...and nobody wants to dig any deeper than to state the obvious about them.

B) With all the books/articles you've written on the subject of punk, why have these leviathans of the genre gone relatively unsung?

No idea.

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> >From: Steven Rubio
> >Subject: Question for Greil
> >Date: Tue, 12 Mar 2002 09:18:43

Hey Greil. My question is pretty obvious, but maybe no one else asked it: what do you think of the canonization of rock critics that a site like represents? Why does rock criticism lend itself to this kind of, for lack of a better word, idolatry? Film critics never got or get this particular kind of attention...someone like James Agee was famous, but not really for his criticism as much as his other work, and others from that era, say Manny Farber or Robert Warshow, weren't quite the "stars" that writers such as yourself have become amongst a certain population. Even Pauline was more important as an inspiration to future critics and as a conscience to filmmakers than she was a key popular figure (although I guess Roger Ebert might be the one to give the lie to my argument). Cameron Crowe might have gotten it wrong in Almost Famous, but the fact that Lester Bangs is an important character in a popular, highly-regarded movie is telling, I think; I can't recall anything similar featuring a film critic, or a book critic, or a cultural critic of any type.

Dear Steve,

I wasn't aware rock critics were being canonized, but now that you mention it, be sure to address me properly the next time we run into each other--and by the way, what is the proper form of address to a saint? I don't think it's "St. So and So," because you have to be dead to be a saint. "He who is sure to rise above me" might do, but it's a mouthful. I think perhaps just backing off several feet before speaking might be ok. But in fact I don't see it, not remotely. Lester, when he was alive, was certainly a magnet for certain kinds of scenesters, and Lester played a role, he both loved and hated his scene-making as a Falstaff--as a clown, a fool, a crazy, a madman, and so on. Dead, he can be a hero, a mentor, a presence, a conscience--but it seems to me he appears in Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous not because of his larger-than-life role in pop culture and his status as a wise man, but because he was personally important to Cameron. He made a difference in Cameron's life. He appears in the movie, and for all I know played the same role in Cameron's career, as Cameron's ideal audience--someone who could tell the difference between truth and lie, on the artist's own terms. There was a lot I didn't like about that movie, but the portrayal of Lester (along with everyone singing "Tiny Dancer" on the plane, and Billy Crudup tossing out a line of "Peggy Sue" just as the plane seems about to crash) was just fine.

Who follows writers of any sort around? Or, rather, what writers get followed around? Writers who make an effort to cultivate a mystique, who combine imperiousness with noblesse oblige, who work to be stars, and whose publications promote them as stars--Rolling Stone with Hunter Thompson, Vanity Fair with Christopher Hitchens.

What you're referring to isn't part of my frame of reference. I imagine there are people out there who having nothing better to do, or nothing else they can imagine doing, than to wonder what this or that writer, music critic, film critic, novelist, TV news reader, is really like, how fabulous it would be to just hang out with the person, to bask in their presence, to be them. (Which brings up the question: what is "hanging out"? Is it different from "hanging around," one of the most boring activities of all time?) Edmund Wilson once wrote than anyone who has spent a year working for a magazine knows there is no piece so good that its publication will not bring forth letters from people cancelling their subscriptions, and no piece so bad that it won't bring forth letters from people claiming it has changed their life. I think it begins and ends there.

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> >From: Astral Weaks
> >Subject: Questions for Greil
> >Date: Tue, 12 Mar 2002 10:10:51

What is your opinion of the lashing that Richard Meltzer gave you in his essay "Vinyl Reckoning"? I ask because it didn't seem to irk Christgau that much and I wondered if you were as good a sport as he.

While the question is posed in classic "Have you stopped beating your wife?" terms--be a good sport or burn in hell--I've always thought there was no reason to respond to attacks, unless I've been accused of making a factual error I didn't make. I figure that I've had my turn in print; now it's someone else's turn. I've always been embarrassed, just as a reader, by all those New York Review of Books or Village Voice exchanges where someone writes in complaining about something that's been published (usually, "So and So must not have actually read my book, where I clearly state . . .") and the author replies in words drooling with condescension (especially when the complaining writer turns out to have been right). Plus, in every case I've come across so far, I've written far more awful things about various people than anyone has written about me. With that in mind, my only response to Meltzer's article has to do with his charge that I somehow seized, and refused to give up, the plum of writing an introduction to the Da Capo reissue of his Aesthetics of Rock, as against Meltzer's preference for Billy Altman. I was asked by an editor at Da Capo to write an introduction to the book. I said I'd be honored but would only do it if Richard approved, and if Richard felt comfortable with what I ended up writing. I never communicated with Richard (or Billy Altman) about this, but was told by the editor that, first, Richard was happy with the idea of my writing an introduction to his book, and, later, that he was happy with what I wrote. Beyond that it's simply a matter of two people seeing things differently. Richard evidently has a reason to discuss the matter in public; I don't.

How do you feel about John Morthland's upcoming new anthology of Lester Bangs work?

Along with Billy Altman, John Morthland is Lester's literary executor, and the two of them exercise any rights to Lester's work: licensing pieces for reprint, publishing unpublished material, and producing books. I never had any legal or financial position regarding Lester's work, including the book I edited, and I don't now: I took no fee, was paid no royalties, and had no approval over the publication of the book, beyond the original Knopf edition. I edited Psychotic Reactions because Lester and I had long talked of my editing a book of his work--editing it while he was still alive, that is.

In that sense, for John to be taking up the project himself is absolutely the right thing for him to be doing. John knew Lester far better than I did, and Lester relied on John far more than he relied on me. John's book, I'm sure, will be very different from the one I edited, and like many others I can't wait to see it.

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> >From: Clayton Grisso
> >Subject: Question for Greil
> >Date: Tue, 12 Mar 2002 12:00:23

I recently had the pleasure of seeing the Lipstick Traces theatrical production. I thought it was quite amazing. My question is this: How does it feel to have one of your works adapted for the stage? And also, what was your initial reaction after being asked by the Rude Mechanicals to let them adapt it? It seems some disbelief would be in order, since the very idea of a rock book on stage was kinda audacious.

I heard about the Rude Mechanicals' idea of turning Lipstick Traces into a theatrical production through my agent. Her assistant, it turned out, had gone to college with Kirk Lynn, who was the company's resident playwright; she vouched for him. Knowing nothing about theater, I had no idea what the group would be doing, but figured they did. I told them to go ahead and make of the book what they might; to use it for raw material; that I wanted no approval of anything, did not want to see drafts, hear about rehearsals, etc. I wanted to see what they came up with. I sent them a copy of the soundtrack album for the book that Rough Trade put out a couple of years after the book was first published, as I've always done whenever a new publisher took up the book; that was it. In Austin one weekend, I met Shawn Sides, the director; we got along. But we didn't discuss the production.

A first version of the play was presented at the Fringe Festival in New York; my friend John Rockwell, to whom Lipstick Traces was dedicated, called me from backstage following the first performance. "It's not good," he said, "it's great. It's to die for." That was more than encouraging, but I still couldn't imagine what it was. My wife and I went to Austin later in the year to see the play at the end of its run there, in its full, complete version. I was astonished. I hope the book is not devoid of humor, but I couldn't have imagined turning it into a comedy, even if I wrote the whole thing while listening over and over to Monty Python and Firesign Theater records, for nine years, until they were all grey and cracked. The simultaneity I'd aimed for in the book was present in a physical, factual way that had escaped me. The greatest revelation of all, though, was the Cabaret Voltaire sequence. I understood the Cabaret Voltaire in terms of its effects, just as physicists can deduce the presence of an otherwise undetectable particle by its gravitational pull on other particles, but I'd never understood directly what happened in the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich in 1916 until I saw the Rude Mechanicals' performances of what they imagined might have taken place there. I've since seen the play eight or nine times--every time that scene comes up, it's happening for the first time. I can't anticipate it; I can barely remember it, it's so much an event, not a representation.

The New York performances last spring were different--the cast was different. It gave me a sense of the play as something that might have room for all sorts of people in it.

When I first saw the play, in Austin, I told Shawn that she'd staged the book I'd wanted to write. There was a spirit of play, of nihilism, of anything-can-happen, that I'd tried to get into the book; I only understood how much I'd failed when I saw how others succeeded.

What a writer wants from a review, I think, is for the reviewer to tell the writer, with a sense of empathy but also distance, something about one's book one didn't know--to read the book for the writer. In that sense, the Rude Mechanicals' version of Lipstick Traces is the best review I've ever gotten.

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> >From: Graham Coleman
> >Subject: Question for Greil
> >Date: Tuesday, March 12, 2002 3:45 PM

You've written countless words about Gang of Four, Wire and the Mekons but I've yet to find a single reference in your mighty oeuvre to another seminal U.K. post-punk band--The Fall. Why the ominous silence on the greatest of them all?

They never did a thing for me.

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> >From: Sterling Clover
> >Subject: Questions For Greil
> >Date: Tue, 12 Mar 2002 16:28:59

Ja Rule or Mystikal, and why?

Anything is better than Ja Rule.

What makes for bad "classic" blues?

If by classic blues you mean recordings from the '20s and '30s, it's hard to think of anything that doesn't have at least the smell of the unlikely on it, which is to say I'm not sure I've ever heard a bad classic blues. I know "classic blues" generically refers to urban women singers of the '20s, but so much of that doesn't sound like blues to me, which is my parochialism, not theirs.

Does socialized art production result in good art (WPA) or bad art (Canadian Rock)?

The fruit of socialized art production depends on who's doing it and why. So much of the art produced under the aegis of the WPA--including theater as well as murals in public buildings, or the photographic projects of the FSA--was done by people animated by their sense of a world to be changed by exposing its existence to people unaware of it. It was a chance for artists to make a living, and make a difference. Merely subsidized art, as through the NEA, is a completely different story. It's about artists who believe the government has a responsibility to support their work, because it has intrinsic value, and the impulse of government to censor and protect itself from censure. It's naive to think this won't result in conflict. People who act outraged when it does--Karen Finley, who once wrote that the First Amendment had ceased to exist when "her" grant was rescinded--aren't to be trusted. People who trust government agencies to support free and autonomous art are fools.

Punk or Post-Punk, and why?

"Punk or post-punk, and--" What?

More important: social backdrop or individual genius?

"Nature or nurture?" Maybe the question can be answered by saying that genius is a word that probably should never be used in any discussion of pop culture. People who are not the same do their work, pursue their demons or angels, on a field of action that tends to make people appear more like each other than they actually are, and this is not necessarily a bad thing.

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> >From: InMyEyes
> >Subject: question for greil
> >Date: Tuesday, March 12, 2002 5:19 PM

One of the things I like about your criticism is how you approach each song as if it were a mystery you're trying to investigate. Unlike most rock critics, you avoid journalistic completism and stylistic range--particularly in your "Real Life Rock" column--in favor of picking and choosing specific songs or albums that baffle and excite you. This reminds me of the way certain literary critics will meditate upon a few stanzas of a poem to draw everything out of it that they can. My question is, do you have a background in poetic interpretation, and if so, how has that influenced the way you write about rock? And what, in your opinion, are the chief differences between poetry and rock lyricism?

You're right about my approach, which is a matter of affinities--what I'm drawn to--and learning to follow affinities where they lead--in other words, to trust your affinities. I have no background in poetics. The difference between poetry and "rock lyricism"--if by that you mean song lyrics--is obvious and complete: except for people who think they are poets, like Paul Simon, lyrics are meant to be sung, come to life when they are performed, take their weight and muscle and ability to move from music, and true songwriters understand this. They understand that the most intricate allusive subtleties will be lost in performance, superseded by another quality altogether, and that the most impenetrable banalities can reveal infinite possibilities of thought and emotion when sung. In this sense I think the best songwriters are less afraid of words than poets can afford to be.

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> >From: Bromley, Charles
> >Subject: Questions for Greil
> >Date: Wed, 13 Mar 2002 10:15:29

You're a critic whose tastes range from country to rock to folk to blues. From Rabbit Brown to Daft Punk. From the twenties to whatever-the-hell the name of this decade is. Yet you've never written much about jazz. How come?

Jazz is a foreign language to me, and while I can read French and pick my way through a German-language newspaper--at least in Germany--I've never been any good at speaking either. I can make my way through some jazz--Miles Davis's Birth of the Cool sessions, say--but I don't think I'm hearing what's there.

On the face of it, the "images of America" in Mystery Train and Invisible Republic are very different from the European, dadaist, art-centric ideas in Lipstick Traces. But a pervasive idea in all your writing on punk is the ability it gives people with limited musical technique and even a limited access to the normal forms of discourse to "find a voice" and make a mark on society. I think the real theme of all your writing is democracy. Care to comment?

As far as a guiding--or, really, governing or impelling--theme being democracy, as a matter of finding a voice and making a mark, you've said it as well as I could.

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> >From: justyn dillingham
> >Subject: A question for Greil
> >Date: Wednesday, March 13, 2002 12:49 AM

I was really happy to see you mention the Manic Street Preachers recently in your Salon column. They're my favorite band, and I rarely see them mentioned in any U.S. publication. I was wondering, what do you think of their earlier records, esp. the Richey Edwards-era material?

This was the first Manic Street Preachers album to reach me. Obviously it's time for me to go back and start from the beginning, as if I'd never heard them. I've been going through something similar with David Thomas and Pere Ubu over the last seven years or so, after letting most of their music from Dub Housing on go right past me.

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> >From: Phil Dellio
> >Subject: Questions for Greil
> >Date: Wednesday, March 13, 2002 2:08 PM

Early in your "Real Life" column's run, in the mid-'80s, you wrote about Top 40 on a fairly regular basis--hits from Timex Social Club, Billy Ocean, Electric Light Orchestra, the Moody Blues, Eddie Money, Bryan Adams, and others, one or two per column for a while. Sometime in the early '90s, you seemed to stop writing about popular hits altogether. Was this prompted by a deterioration in the quality of hit radio (I don't think many people would point to '86-'88 as a noteworthy high point in the history of Top 40), by Nirvana's impact, or did you lose interest for other reasons? (Or have you lost interest?)

The last Top 40 hit (not that there has really been a Top 40 for years) that got me--still gets me--is the Corrs' "Breathless." I've always heard that music on the radio; where I live you don't hear much of that radio, mostly oldies and MOR album cuts. Pink's "Don't Let Me Get Me" is a big exception; coming up.

Do you have any thoughts on the way pop music is used in Boogie Nights, Rushmore, or The Virgin Suicides? I think they're as musically rich in their way as Mean Streets or GoodFellas.

The Virgin Suicides was such a strong movie the music seemed peripheral; music as such is part of the story, what's playing didn't seem that important. I never saw Rushmore. The use of music in Boogie Nights was expert, as is everything Paul Thomas Anderson does, and soulless, like everything he does. The music in GoodFellas seems there to plug the holes in the characters and the story, to distract you from the complete hollowness of the picture; the music in Mean Streets is part of the streets, the air, the clothes, the walk, the talk, but maybe not quite so completely as in Who's That Knockin' at My Door.

Just about anyone who writes about pop music lapses into unchecked ridicule, or glibness, or sarcasm, or meanness on occasion. I think you're good on calling people who cross a line in that direction, be it Albert Goldman, or Public Enemy, or the Stockhausen quote after the bombings. No one's going to put the Spin Doctors on a plane with the issues you were objecting to in those instances, but can you see where someone might feel you crossed a line yourself in your published comments a couple of years ago about that group's singer's medical problems? I know you hated the Spin Doctors, but what you wrote really threw me.

No. Anyone who could sing "Little Miss Can't Be Wrong" the way Chris Barron did--"Things been a whole lot easier since the bitch is gone," he said, like someone throwing dirt out the window--deserves what he gets. Especially not being able to sing it anymore, if in fact he can't.

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> >Colin Freebury
> >Subject: Questions for Greil
> >Date: Thursday, March 14, 2002 11:19 P

What does Mr. Marcus think about this: "Obsolete rock critics like Bill Flanagan, James Miller and Greil Marcus are proof that geezer rock stars aren't the only ones who've stayed too long at the party."

I can't speak for Bill Flanagan or my friend Jim Miller, whose 1999 book Flowers in the Dustbin, as I read it, was pretty much his farewell to writing about pop music and to rock & roll as such, but I write about those subjects because they interest me, and because to some degree what I write seems to interest at least some other people. No one has an obligation to bother with what I have to say. Name calling usually sounds like the frustration of people who seem to think more people should be listening to them.

Is Mr. Marcus really the publicist for the Kill Rock Stars and Mr. Lady labels whose artists are always featured in his column in

Of course I'm the publicist for Kill Rock Stars and Mr Lady. That Mr Lady in particular has for the last two years been releasing the most surprising and moving music in the country is mere coincidence.

Did Mr. Marcus really mean to say this: "Corin Tucker shuts her eyes--scrunches them shut--Carrie Brownstein starts moving her arms and legs, and instantly the noise they're making seems abstracted from their mouths, fingers, bodies, instruments. It seems much too big, too much in motion: On stage three people are drawing a diagram of the big bang, every particle of the universe flying away from every other, but in the audience a diagram is the last thing it feels like." How is a diagram of the big bang drawn?

I assume you're asking if the sentence was a big typo, since otherwise, why would it have been published if I hadn't written it, and why would I have written it if I hadn't intended to do so? As for the diagram question, normally one would draw a diagram of the big bang with a hand, pencil, and paper. It's not very complicated; looks like the sort of drawings of bombs going off that eight year olds make when they're bored in class.

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> >From: Scott Woods
> >Subject: Question for Greil
> >Date: Thursday, March 14, 2002 4:22

I know you're a big fan of Daft Punk's Discovery album from last year, and I was wondering if some of the more obvious reference points in the song "Digital Love"--the Supertramp piano break, the Frampton talk-box solo, the gauzy ambience of the whole thing, which strikes me as close in sound and feel to Gary Wright's "Dream Weaver"--hit you with: the thrill of recognition in an improved context? a new or vital sound all its own (in which "reference points" are meaningless)? something different altogether? I ask this because, for someone like myself who grew up in the mid '70s listening to pop radio, I no doubt have more of a soft spot for the likes of Supertramp and Frampton than you do (my guess is that you hate that music); I can't not hear these things in there. Does any of this register when you listen to "Digital Love"?

Regarding Daft Punk's Discovery, I've loved them since I heard my first Daft Punk note. I like the name. But this album seemed like the most inside-out worship of '80s dance music imaginable--or rather not imaginable, imaginable only by these guys, but recognizable for anyone. A bath of sound. Because of the distancing, the sense of representation, what they've done sounds bigger, fuller, more conscious than its source--which it likely won't in a few years. What I really mean is that their version of this music was glamorous in a way that the original ("Rock Your Baby," etc.) was stylish. That's why a band can play "Rock Your Baby" for over an hour, as I witnessed a year ago, and Daft Punk probably couldn't sustain what they do longer than they do it. But who cares? It glows.

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> >From: barbara flaska
> >Subject: Question for Greil Marcus
> >Date: Fri, 15 Mar 2002 08:54:09

To help explain the world as it was to future generations, what on earth inspired you to write your original review of The Masked Marauders?

It was late, I was tired, and I'd been sitting around talking with my friend Bruce Miroff about how stupid all the then-so-called supersession albums were. Right at that moment Al Kooper, Mike Bloomfield, and Stephen Stills had all deadended, but somehow people convinced themselves that if you put three threes together you'd get 47.

Today it's called "Featuring"--in 1969 it was rounding up famous people to sell junk by name. There was a story about several then-iconic performers, refugees from this band or that, walking off stage after, you know, "jamming" together for hours on end, infinite versions of this or that song by somebody else, and someone saying to one of the guys, "Not such a great night, huh?" and the person responding, "No, but we got a couple of albums out of it." So it was simple: if there were a real supersession, with John Lennon, and Bob Dylan, and Mick Jagger, and whoever else they'd deign to let into the club, what would they play? And it came out just like that. All oldies ("Duke of Earl," "Season of the Witch") or current beyond-criticism classics ("Will the Circle Be Unbroken," "A Little Help from My Friends," "Oh Happy Day"). A couple of originals which, when the joke was turning into a record, I had to write ("I Can't Get No Nookie," "Cow Pie"). I signed it T. M. Christian, after the prankster in Terry Southern's novel "The Magic Christian"--"of course," I thought, but nobody got it. I remember showing the piece to Jann Wenner in the Rolling Stone offices the next morning. "Great," he said after reading it. "We should run lots of fake reviews." If we'd only known.

The Rhino reissue has it right.

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> >From: Phil Dellio
> >Subject: Questions for Greil
> >Date: Saturday, March 16, 2002 2:17 PM

This may not be something you're able to or necessarily want to answer, but I think you'll understand the impulse behind it. Ever since Pauline Kael gave up her column in the early '90s, I'm sure the same question followed a lot of people out of movie theatres for the next decade: "I wonder what Kael would have thought about that?" I was able to piece together her reactions to Pulp Fiction, American Beauty, and a number of other prominent films released between her retirement and recent death through various interviews, but I still wonder about others. Did she ever share any thoughts with you on any of the following: Reservoir Dogs, Coppola's Dracula, Boogie Nights, Casino, The Virgin Suicides, Smoke, Fargo, Crumb, Boyz 'N the Hood, Menace II Society, Big Night, Trees Lounge, Jackie Brown, The Straight Story?

I don't recall discussing any of those movies with Pauline. We did talk about American Beauty, but I think I went on so long about how much I hated it she didn't get a word in. I mean, I know what I think of the movies you mention, but--I've never known anything that people otherwise seemingly in sympathy disagree about more predictably than movies. That's what movies are for--for people who think they understand each other to disagree about.

With the exception of a somewhat cryptic three-word "Real Life" entry on Midnite Vultures--"This is embarrassing" (I assume you meant that literally, but it was listed first, which is almost always reserved for something you like; maybe you meant embarrassingly good...)--I've never read anything by you concerning Beck. Does he at all interest you?

I had one conversation with Beck about folk music, backstage at a benefit show where the Pretenders had just played. Chrissie Hynde was walking to her trailer like a queen; Beck was sitting in the dirt. After that, I worked hard to listen to everything, sure I was missing something. I found a hint of that something in One Foot in the Grave, but not elsewhere--except on his "Mexico," a fantastic rewrite of the folk song "Hills of Mexico," where he's working at McDonalds, it gets robbed, he gets blamed, he gets fired, he decides to finance a trip to Mexico by robbing his old McDonald's, and ends up working for a McDonald's in Mexico. It's on the compilation Rare on Air: Live Performances, Vol. 1, Mammoth 1994.

More answers from Greil Marcus