“It was totally irresponsible…” (05/11/12)

SIMON REYNOLDS: A few years after Mystery Train, you edited Stranded: Rock And Roll for a Desert Island [Knopf, 1979], which, as the title suggests, is a volume of essays by rock journalists on the one record they would want to have with them if they were a castaway. The essays were specifically written for the book, as opposed to collected from here and there. And you drew on the talents of virtually everybody who was anybody in American rock journalism during the seventies. Plus token Brit Simon Frith. Stranded is a great read, and one thing that comes across is a sense of collegiality among rock critics at that time, when it was possible to know most of the people in the profession. Wasn’t there even a rock-writer convention in America at one point in the mid-seventies? In New York, I think.
GREIL MARCUS: Or maybe in Memphis. I didn’t go. Stranded came about because—and I wrote about this in the introduction to the second edition [Da Capo, 1996]—I got a call from an editor at Oxford University Press. They were going to do a series of desert island books, and I said  “What’s that?” and he said,  “Well, it’s ‘What ___ would you take to a desert island?’ What painting, what jazz recording, what symphony, what poem. And we’re doing a series of these for all the arts.” I said, “What about architecture?” And he said, “Yeah, architecture.” I’m thinking, what would I take to a desert island? I’d take an outhouse. I didn’t know about “desert island discs.” I didn’t know this was a British theme. It struck me as a really kind of silly idea, but for that time, the publisher was paying well and it was a chance for me to work as an editor, which I’ve always loved, and to give all kinds of different people, who were my friends, a chance to write about something they cared about and get some money. And nobody said no. There were a couple of pieces I had to reject, mainly because all they did was quote lyrics and that would have been ruinously expensive or would have had to have been rewritten until they barely existed. But nobody said no. And the theme of the book, the notion of being stranded, came out of the fact that I’m telling people about this notion of the desert island, and one person after another tells me, “Great, I feel like I’ve been living on a desert island for years.” It’s the late seventies and this whole notion of a community of music, a community of fans, has broken down utterly. And people are feeling, whether they’ve continued to write about music or not, that they’re addressing the ether. They’re not getting any response; they’re speaking into the wind. And so this book was a chance to work in a collegial manner: to speak, if to no one else, then at least to the other writers in the book.

Of course the joke is that OUP not only didn’t do any of the other desert island books, they didn’t do this one either. There was a very elaborate brouhaha that I detail in the second edition’s introduction, over Nick Tosches’s piece.

SR: That’s the one about the soundtrack to his youth being the Rolling Stones, every stage of it indexed to a different album?
GM: No—that was Simon Frith’s. Nick’s was about Sticky Fingers. They refused to publish the book with his piece in it, and I said, “No way in the world I’m publishing it without Nick’s piece.” So they say we’re going ahead and publishing it without the essay. And I just panicked and called up Bob Gottlieb, the editor-in-chief at Knopf at that time, who I’d become friendly with, and said, “I’m in trouble—will you read this manuscript?” He read it overnight and he bought the book away from Oxford and published it.

SR: A lot of rock-criticism fiends, such as me, would say that one of our favorite things out of all the things you’ve written is that discography at the end of Stranded where you offer your personal and quite idiosyncratic version of the Rock Canon. A long, long list of records—albums, but also singles and greatest hits—with capsule commentaries, some as short as a sentence, or even a phrase. And even the longest commentaries are only four or five sentences, tops. You are trying to distill the essence of what a band or artist is, to convey the most salient or remarkable or amusing or miraculous aspect of a specific recording in that artist’s discography, in the most condensed way. Generally, over the years, you’ve been given, or given yourself, a lot of space to work with. So was it challenging to develop that telegraphic style?
GM: I probably had more fun doing that than anything I’ve ever written. With the exception of some TV-movie reviews for City magazine in San Francisco I did at one point.

SR: Was the fact that you’d created these constraints for yourself actually liberating? You didn’t have to say all the things that need to be dealt with to give the full picture of the artist—you could just let rip with these one-liners?
GM: It was great. It was totally irresponsible. I’m writing in a context where I can presume knowledge on the part of a reader. Or whether I can or not, I’m going to. The entries in that list that are the least successful are the most verbose. The ones where I have more trouble capturing what’s good about a record or what’s interesting about an artist are the ones where I go on too long. The one-line or two-line entries, those are the ones that work.

SR: Much of your Stranded list overlaps with the Official Canon of rock and soul, but there are some quirky inclusions. Records by barely remembered bands, and neither were they that well known or well regarded at the time, to be honest: Hackamore Brick, or Savage Rose. Do any of your inclusions mystify you today?
GM: There’s probably some that don’t speak to me the way they did then. For years I kept notes for some future edition: everything that kept coming. That list was written in 1978, so the first punk records had already come out. One of my favorite entries in the book is Crossing the Red Sea with The Adverts. Which is one of the great record titles of all time. There are plenty of great reggae records that had been made earlier than the book’s publication and could have been included, but I didn’t hear them until later. But, you know, I loved having the chance to say why Bryan Ferry meant so much more to me than David Bowie ever did.

Myths and Depths: Greil Marcus talks to Simon Reynolds, Los Angeles Review of Books, May 11, 2012

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