"A writer writes to be read"
Interview with Greil Marcus

By Nate Seltenrich

Anyone who can write hundreds of pages on the unity of the Sex Pistols and the Situationist International has, to put it mildly, a different way of seeing things. Since 1989, aspiring music journalists, students of history and pop culture, and Sex Pistols fans duped into believing they beheld a new book on Sid Vicious have tiptoed and soaked their way through Greil Marcus's Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century to experience a shift in their own perception of modern society.

Marcus's other famous work--1975's Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock 'n' Roll Music--has been called the best book ever written on rock music. Greil himself might remind you that this came from Rolling Stone, so take it as you will. But Bob Dylan, who's meted out considerably less praise over the same span of years, has also recognized Marcus's ability to illuminate an immense spectrum of the human experience through prisms of culture and music--as have Elvis Costello, Bruce Springsteen, and innumerable critics.

This interview was conducted in February 2004 by phone from Marcus's home in Berkeley, CA. There he has lived almost his entire professional life, and continues to write to this day.

[Ed's Note: Given the time lapse between when this interview took place and the publication date, many of the things referred to are past tense. The wording has not been altered to reflect this.]

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Nate:   How much of you current work involves writing about music?

Greil:   Well, I write a column every three weeks for City Pages in Minneapolis, which is a column called "Real Life Rock Top Ten," which Iíve been doing at various places since 1986. And thatís pretty much the music writing that I do in terms of journalism. But, you know, stuff comes up all the time that isnít predictable, whether itís an essay or a book or a magazine of whatever. And right now Iím working on three books, one that I co-edited with Sean Wilentz from Princeton on American ballads, with 23 or 24 contributors, each one writing about a different ballad, whether it's traditional or modern, and thatís called The Rose and the Briar, coming out this fall. I edited it and wrote a piece for it. Iím working on a short book that was a publisherís idea that first I thought was a stupid but then decided it wasnít on "Like a Rolling Stone," the Dylan song. And Iím working on a longer project on American identity that will involve music to a certain degree. So music is where my thoughts start in general. Whether what I end up writing is substantively, formally about a musical subject--maybe it is, maybe it isnít--but thatís usually where my ideas come from.

Nate:   Do you consider yourself a cultural critic?

Greil:   I donít consider myself anything. I mean, I write.

Nate:   So youíre a writer first and foremost?

Greil:   Well thatís what I do. I donít have anything else to do.

Nate:   How would you characterize the state of todayís rock journalism and rock criticism?

Greil:   Well, pretty negative. There are good writers that come along all the time with a fresh point of view, with a tremendous amount of energy, with a lot of attitude, with a lot of disrespect and humor. The most recent critic whose work has really thrilled me is a woman named Melissa Maerz, the Music Editor at City Pages, Minneapolis, where I write now. I donít know how old she is--maybe 25. And sheís been writing maybe three, four years. And she has an extraordinary knowledge of contemporary music, past music--a great frame of reference, a wonderful sense of humor. She writes very fast--she moves from one thing to another very quickly. She never writes down to anybody, but she doesnít seem to write for some small little coterie of the initiate, which is say, what I find in the Village Voice music section for a long time. It seems to me that the people who write in that section are writing for each other. Theyíre trying to impress each other, to outdo each other, to be cooler or more hip than the other writers. Itís kind of a game to see how many references you can leave out, how little you can tell the reader, how completely a reader who just picked up the paper and opened it to the music section out of curiosity would be turned away, rejected because you donít know enough to enter this room where a private discussion is going on, and thatís quite awful. The kind of stuff that Rolling Stone does is just a guide to buying stuff without any wit, any imagination, and not enough space to develop any kind of argument, let alone to situate what youíre writing about in the larger context.

There were, over the past ten or fifteen years, any number of punk magazines, like Puncture, say, where they would run dozens and dozens of album reviews. You couldnít count how many. And they would be relatively short, but they would tell you something. And one review would link up to another and there would be an entire conversation. Thereís no reason why that kind of thing canít happen at any time. New writers who come along with a tremendous, built-up frustration and irritation that the people who are writing now donít know what the hell theyíre talking about, are complete fools, really oughta be shoved aside--thatís what any young critic starts with, that kind of resentment--why donít these people shut up? Well they arenít gonna shut up, so Iím gonna have to speak louder than they are. Thatís how it works, and that keeps on going. And I donít claim that I know what everybodyís doing. There may be a lot more of that going on than Iím aware of. But I donít see as much of it as I would like.

Nate:   How much contemporary music writing do you read?

Greil:   Jason Gross, who wrote a website called Perfect Sound Forever, does a brilliant job at going through the internet finding interesting writing, interesting voices. He, in fact, put together a whole section on the site of links to--I donít know how many, 20, 40 different pieces--that only an excessive internet troller would ever find--I mean, find all of them. I read a lot of them, and theyíre fantastic. But I donít have the time--I donít have time to read the books I need to read for my own work, let alone be going through magazines. Today I picked up a copy of The Nation, which I donít usually read, because there was an article in it about the Cure by a writer named Douglas Wolk, who I met recently and really liked, and I want to read more of what he does. So I just started reading that, and itís wonderful. But I donít anymore read Rolling Stone or the Voice or any other publications to see whatís being said. Itís been a long time since I read magazines like that to actually learn things--get a perspective that was new to me or find out facts I didnít know or find out about records or bands Iíd never heard of. And for a long time I read them to see, well whatís the line today? Whatís the cowardly opinion? Whatís the position people are afraid not to take? I donít do much of that anymore. Thatís kind of a masochistic way of reading.

Nate:   What do you think is the biggest problem that modern rock journalism is facing, or something thatís holding it back? You mentioned writers writing to one another. Do you think thatís that widespread?

Greil:   I donít think itís that widespread, because most publications donít fetishize the writer. The Village Voice does. If you look at the way the paper is laid out, the lead slug in the table of contents is the name of the writer, not what the storyís about. You know, I donít think that happens that often. I suppose the biggest problem is what the biggest problem has almost always been, except in very unusual times, and that is enough space and enough money--enough space for someone to develop an argument, to go on too long, to wander into supposedly extraneous subject matter that in fact is central to what youíre writing about or gives what youíre writing about a dimension that no one else wouldíve thought to give it. Thatís one problem. And enough money for people to be able to do this without only stealing time from something else. Matt Groening said something very funny in his introduction to the last Da Capo book of best music writing--he was the Guest Editor. He talked about the time when he was a rock critic. He said the pay was so low it sometimes made him delirious. And I donít think he meant from lack of food. I think he would just contemplate what he was being paid to write something and it would drive him crazy. But the fact is, most writers that Iím aware of, certainly not all, but the ones Iím aware of, start off writing for nothing. And plenty of people continue to write for nothing. Because the pure process of being published, whether itís on the Internet, whether itís in a small weekly newspaper, in a fanzine, wherever, is so magical, so strange--the idea that youíve written something that is now out there in a way that youíve lost control of it. You donít know whoís gonna read it, if anybody is. You donít what theyíre gonna make of it. You donít know if theyíre gonna love it or hate it, or if it will make no impression at all. But itís out there, and somebody might in fact respond in an unpredictable way to what you said, and that is a thrilling thing for a lot of people. And so thatís certainly how I started writing. Well, thatís not totally true. The first place I ever wrote was Rolling Stone, and I did get paid there. But most of the writing I did for the next year was for the San Francisco Express Times, which was an underground newspaper, and I didnít get paid anything to write for them, neither did anybody else. But those are always problems, space probably more than money.

Nate:   So much has changed. If you look at the relationship between the artists and the writers and publicists...

Greil:   How has that changed? I think itís changed in the sense that in the 1960s and early '70s, particularly the late '60s, there was so much more money around in the record business and in the economy in general. There was just incredible, profligate spending. And in the early '70s too, writers were being flown on junkets all over the country, sometimes to foreign countries, there were these huge, lavish press parties. In order to impress you that an album was important, the record company might send you three or four copies of it once a week, instead of just one, or maybe none. There was just a ludicrous amount of money being spent. And if you lived in the centers of the record business--in Los Angeles or New York--you were being adopted by publicists, by record people, who wanted to be your best friend, did favors for you, called you up, told you inside stuff. And I think in some ways, the ways in which writers were--whether you want to use the word corrupted, seduced, fooled, whatever--was much greater than it is now. But I donít know anything about that. Iíve never lived in those cities as a working critic. Iíve lived in New York a little bit, but only when I was teaching, not when I was writing. Iíve never had anything to do with publicists. They donít bother me. And in terms of the writersí involvement with the performers--you know, some people get into this because they want to meet their heroes, or they want to hang out with musicians. Some people get into it because they want to get a lot of free records and then sell them and live on them. You know, thereís that too. When I first started doing this, I had a long talk with Ralph Gleason, who for many years had been the Chronicleís pop music critic, starting in the Ď40s. And I had been reading him since I was kid. And I met him. And he was obviously still writing--this wouldíve been 1969--he was still writing for The Chronicle three or five times a week and I was just starting. And he told me among many, many interesting things, he said, you know, musicians are gonna try to make friends with you. Or their managers are gonna try to introduce you to musicians. And the reason theyíre gonna do this is once you meet these people, you find out that theyíre real--you know that they have colds, maybe they have children, maybe they hurt their hand playing guitar, they tried to write a song and it didnít work out. You find out that these people have foibles just like anybody else. Youíre going to feel sympathetic toward them, and itís gonna be harder for you to write something negative when they do something worthless. Thatís what itís all about. It has nothing to do with friendship. It has nothing to do with respect for what you write. And thatís true. And itís not a good thing, generally, for critics to have anything to do with the people they write about, unless they have enough confidence to ignore the humanity of the people theyíre writing about. You know, sometimes you have to do an interview with somebody, but there are lots of different ways to do that. But I havenít done very many interviews. Itís not something Iím good at.

Nate:   You mentioned New York and L.A. as centers of music. How has it been for you to be centered in the Bay Area this whole time?

Greil:   Well, you get left alone. When I worked at Rolling Stone, when I worked in the office, when I was a staff member, when it was in San Francisco, publicists didnít come into the office, record people didnít come into the office. Because we were in San Francisco. We might as well have been in Idaho. We were somewhere else. Sometimes people would call us on the phone, and we would say we were busy, which we were. And sometimes weíd call people on the phone and ask them questions and theyíd give us answers and weíd say thank you and go back to doing our work. But we werenít going out to press parties. We werenít going out to listening parties. We werenít going out to meet musicians. Because that wasnít going on. Iím not saying we were above all that. It just wasnít happening, so we werenít tempted. For me living here in the Bay Area, in Berkeley, means that I donít exist, as far as I know.

Nate:   Is that situation still the same today?

Greil:   No, like I said, I think itís quite different, because there are fewer parties, they are not as lavish, record companies are not calling up all the time to offer to fly you to this place or that place, not putting together actual junkets, where they get 20 or 30 people together, put them on a plane, and fly them to London or Brazil or around the country. That used to happen. It doesnít happen anymore.

Nate:   What can you say about the modern music scene in Berkeley?

Greil:   Youíre asking the wrong person. Just flat out ignorance. There was a time in the early Ď80s when my wife and I were out all the time seeing bands that I was just totally in love with like Delta 5, Gang of Four. We would be out sometimes Ďtil 3, 4 in the morning at punk clubs. And we had a great time. But, you know, as you get older, it gets harder to do that. The one club that I really like the most is the Bottom of the Hill. Itís a wonderful place. But Iím certainly not out as much as I was.

Nate:   You also did some teaching at Princeton a couple years ago, right?

Greil:   I taught a class at Cal, and then I taught the same class at Princeton in 2000, and then I taught a class at Princeton in 2002. Thatís really the only teaching Iíve ever done.

Nate:   What were the classes?

Greil:   The first class was called Prophecy and the American Voice. And it covered the whole length of American history, starting with the Puritans, but involved all kinds of 20th century artists, whether filmmakers, musicians, novelists. It had to do with the whole notion of America as a society that judges itself, that has to pass judgment on itself, and tracing that scene in both politics and in art, over the whole stretch of American history. And the other class, in 2002, was on cultural criticism. They were both undergraduate seminars. The cultural criticism class included Edmond Wilson, a weekly newspaper restaurant critic, Manny Farber, Pauline Kael, Lester Bangs, art critic D.H. Lawrence, just all sorts of kinds. And it was a wonderful class.

Nate:   Do you anticipate any return to teaching?

Greil:   Well, I would love to go back to Princeton when I finish the book Iím working on. See if they want me back.

Nate:   What took you to Princeton?

Greil:   Well, there was a teaching fellowship that I was offered. I was called and offered it. I had never done it before. My wife and I had always wanted to live in New York and this was a chance to do that. But I had no idea if I would be good at it, if I would like it, if it would be something other than wasting their time. And it worked out okay the first time. It worked out much better the second time. The second time, I felt that whatever Princeton had to offer in 2000, I hadnít gotten it. And I figured I really needed to go back and do it right. So I asked to come back. And they came up with some way to bring me back. And that worked out much better.

Nate:   Is there anything that you miss about the times when rock writing was so fresh and exciting and rock music was such a novel culture? Are there any remnants of that today or is that just a lost time?

Greil:   No, itís not a lost time. What was different then is that nobody had any idea what they were doing. And so any form you made up, any approach, was as valid as any other, if you could get it to work, if you could get people interested. And there were no models to follow. And that was both daunting and very intriguing. That was a lot of fun. There were no people with any sort of established reputation that you could imitate. That didnít last very long, and there became people that you could imitate very quickly, for people who like to imitate. But all through the 1970s, I think for me, the most active part of being a rock critic, was writing letters to people--writing long, despairing, ranting, thrilled, excited letters, whether it was to Lester Bangs or Dave Marsh or Bob Christgau or Simon Frith. At that time, we were all very good correspondents, in the old-fashioned sense--sitting down and writing long, pour-your-heart-out letters where you talked about absolutely everything. And that was the most active part of my critical life at that time. And I have a couple of correspondents with whom thatís still true. Now itís e-mail, rather than letters, and I think somethingís lost there, because you donít compose in the same manner. For me anyway, I could never write a letter of two sentences. It seemed insulting. Well, with an e-mail, you can obviously send an e-mail saying yes, no, something like that. Sometimes you say more, sometimes you say a lot. But itís not insulting to be brief. But that still happens, that still goes on. I really am a resolute believer that itís morally wrong to go around saying that ďthings were better when...,Ē particularly when you were doing that thing. When I was younger, I just hated it when I heard people talk that way. It wasnít before I got very much older when people began asking me ďwasnít it better then?Ē And thatís a cowardly way to look at the world. And itís also cruel and disempowering for younger people to constantly tell them that theyíll never know the glory you saw. That sounds like a lot of crap. If people think that the time theyíre living in is dull compared to some mythical time theyíve heard about, then itís up to them to make it more interesting, or to find what actually is interesting in their own time.

When those of us who are older started doing this, we were writing record reviews and it was absolutely a thing of wonder to find out that you could actually make an interesting argument about the state of the nation or the meaning of life in a record review. You could also make an uninteresting argument about it, but you could make an argument. You could go as far as you could. And, as time went on, a lot of people began writing books, rather than just writing magazine pieces or essays or record reviews. And thatís a different way of carrying on the conversation and it communicates in a different way and it has a different kind of weight. For some people itís much more appealing and seductive and for some people itís utterly daunting. But what rock criticism is is found in a lot of places other than the pages of newspapers and magazines.

Nate:   What kind of advice would you offer to the younger generation of writers?

Greil:   I donít know. Find someone who will publish you and write as much as you can. Get embarrassed when you see your name over something that you thought was great when you wrote it but looks ridiculous in print. Get embarrassed when you see your name misspelled over something you wrote. Thatíll happen too. But you know, writers write. If youíre a writer, you canít not write. You can be defeated ultimately, but certainly for a long time, you just write. And a writer writes to be read. Someone who writes only for himself or herself I donít think is really a writer. I donít care how elegant or how discursive it is, itís still keeping a diary. But writers have a need to pretend that someone might actually be interested in what they have to say. Thatís what itís all about. Sometimes it even turns out to be true. So I would say take any chance you have, any way you could manage, to get what you want to write in print and that will make you a better writer.

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