Greil Marcus, interviewed here, is the undisputed king of taking pop (too) seriously. In his classic Mystery Train (reissued this month), Marcus focused on pop-cultural giants such as Robert Johnson, Elvis Presley, and Sly Stone. But Marcus’s interest in recent years has drifted more to the margins of the great book of rock. In Lipstick Traces and the essay collection The Dustbin of History Marcus espoused a provocative, if somewhat elusive, notion of “secret history”: The idea is that in any given epoch, the pop-cultural ephemera and the work of heretics and outcasts “contain” the most revealing traces and clues, not the monumental artworks and pivotal figures privileged in official chronicles.
Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes (Holt, 2136 pp., 522.50), Marcus’s new book, returns to the core theme of Mystery Train—the promise and burden of the American Dream—but views it afresh through the gnostic vision of Lipstick Traces. The material is arcane: the legendary basement tapes recorded by Bob Dylan and The Band (the bulk of which were never officially released and are available only as bootlegs), plus the obscure country and blues musicians that inspired Dylan. Arguing that Dylan’s imagination was haunted by spectral traces of “the old, weird America” he’d encountered through Harry Smith’s 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music, Marcus uses these songs and singers as a prism for glimpsing the “political unconscious” of American democracy. He listens for history speaking through the music of forgotten figures like Frank Hutchinson and Dock Boggs—not just via words, but inflections, intonation, the pressure on a guitar string.
If there are moments when Marcus seems to read too much into Dylan and The Band’s free-associational jams (he compares the first verse of Dylan’s “Lo and Behold!” to Hawthorne’s “The Shaker Bridal” and Melville’s The Confidence-Man), Marcus has already prepared the case for his defense. In The Dustbin of History he argued that “criticism, or a critical engagement with history, has a good deal to do with a willingness to be fooled: to take an idea too far, to bet too much on too small an object on occasion, to be caught up and even swept away.”
— Joy Press
ANN DOUGLAS: You have carved out this special place for yourself which is somewhere between myth, history, academia, and criticism. You’ve said many times you’re not doing standard history, you’re not doing standard interpretation—you have this whole idea of the unwritten history—but I wondered how a book on Dylan’s Basement Tapes became your next project.
GREIL MARCUS: One of the ways I describe in the beginning of this book. I was invited to give a lecture at the University of Montana. My wife and I had talked for years about driving to Montana and so we decided to drive. We had a portable CD player and I had just gotten these CDs of little-known recordings [by Dylan and the Band], and we just played these things over and over. About halfway back to California I said to my wife, “I know I could write a book about this.” I knew there was either a great story in this music or a great story I could make up about it.
But there’s another reason, and that is that after Ronald Reagan was elected president, I was pitched into such a violent sense of anger and despair over the course of this country which only got worse as the years went on… I simply couldn’t engage with American subjects as a writer. That’s why I wrote Lipstick Traces, which is about Europe and about the avant-garde and un-American traditions. The whole notion of the avant-garde and its elitism is so contrary to the ethos that this country is about or pretends to be about that it was hard for me to understand, and I got caught up in it. In a way, Lipstick Traces is an exile’s book. Even though I didn’t leave. I stayed right here. When Bill Clinton was elected, I liked him for a whole lot of reasons. I liked his Southemness, I liked the fact that he was in his late forties, that the music I knew was the music he knew. I really felt reattached to American reality, in particular American mythic or historical realities, in a way that I hadn’t in a long time. And I felt I was ready to wrestle with this subject again. The subject of, what is this place, what’s it about, what’s it for, do any of us have a place in it?
DOUGLAS: This book takes up a central theme—which strikes me as one of your big themes—of a kind of utopia, without which we have no American history. Certain touchstones come up for you again and again, like Lincoln’s second inaugural… Of course, if one thinks that we’re getting absolutely further from that every year, then one is engaged in an act of nostalgia—which is partly how I read your book. Not that you were engaged in nostalgia by your lights, but it felt like nostalgia to me.
There’s some sense that this is all really long-ago stuff. It doesn’t have much connection with the way things are going, and in places you sound very much like my right-wing colleagues who are saying, “Oh, God. Ethnic Identity Politics. It’s going to be the end of us.” You have a very interesting passage when you talk about Dock Boggs. After mentioning ethnic activists and multicultural academics and racist military groups, you write, “If there is no national experience there can be no such thing as a national voice”—then there could be no nation in Dock Boggs’s voice. Rather, one could only hear a white male working-class Virginia miner. And maybe I’m misreading you, but are you saying there’s a decline, if we can’t hear [this bond] in one of those representative American voices, “symbolic Americans” as you’ve called them earlier? Why? To me, Boggs might be five times more interesting as simply a white male Virginia miner who was also this extraordinary musician who also had this extraordinary life. It seems to me you have something invested in this collectivity. I feel that there is a kind of deep regret that we seem to have passed this moment.
MARCUS: I’m ambivalent about the whole notion of nostalgia. Look, when I first encountered the Puritans, when I first encountered Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, it seemed to me that there was already encoded in the entire American experience a sense of betrayal. Even as the goals are being set forth there is a sense that they can’t be met and there is that sense of loss that’s coded in American utopian speech. I think the American utopian is always looking backward to his own or her own betrayals rather than forward to the glorious successes. I make a very explicit argument, that if there is no such thing as national experience, then there is no possible connection between other people and we are free, in fact we are beholden to define all people ideologically according to the way in which they are self-presented sociologically. And you’ll find that there are people who see that as an absolute diminution of the self.
If you were to say to Dock Boggs, “Mr. Boggs, you sum up the peculiar character of your place in time, of your kind of people, better than any other member of your community,” he would say, “No. No. I mean it’s true I’m from the mountains and it’s true I don’t have much education but I’m as much an American as you are.” What I’m saying is, I think that part of what motivates this music, what gives it its enormous strength and its depth is that wish to connect to the whole of the country and a belief that one already is connecting. In other words, that’s what allows him to play the roles in that music, that’s what allows him to take on the skin of other people, which is what artists do.
DOUGLAS: You’re clearly saying that the best artists at the best moments are doing something that can’t be entirely explained by however we slice up their ethnic, gender, class, or economic background.
I have my own lost community, and it’s very much the 1920s, when there was a chance for a kind of collaboration among different groups in the interests of something larger, of an American identity that we all hunger for. But couldn’t this [contemporary] period of fragmentation we’re living through be a halfway house to a national identity that is more practically and theoretically inclusive than the kind of from-the-outside position of, say, the 1920s black artists in my book [Terrible Honesty]?
MARCUS: The notion that this country is simply an aggregation of discrete units, whether they’re defined ethnically, geographically, economically, or whether they have come together out of convenience because it’s an effective way to run an economy, or because it’s an authoritarian system that people can’t leave—the difference between that notion and that of white supremacists who have redefined what it means to be an American and are creating their own little Americas in various places is significant, but philosophically it’s not significant. I really think that they are speaking a similar language. That doesn’t mean they want the same thing.
DOUGLAS: I understand. Marcus Garvey in the 1920s was actually willing to make common cause with the Ku Klux Klan. He said, “We’re both interested in racial purity.” I didn’t think at all from reading the book that you were equating them. But it does seem to me you are, in Invisible Republic, to some extent romanticizing…
MARCUS: One of the things I’m trying to do in this book is to create a context in which to hear this music. I’m making an implicit argument that this music is not so much best heard but perhaps most heard if you hear it in a context where the question of American identity and American experience is the question the music is raising and attempting to make real… The only answer I have to a charge of nostalgia is that I don’t believe that things happen and are then over. I don’t believe in revivals, either, but I do believe in reoccurrence. I think that unless one has a sense of what’s happened, or what people have tried to make happen, there’s no way to talk about or to recognize situations where American identity becomes the crucial question and individual identity becomes meaningless and small.
DOUGLAS: Doesn’t the American Dream, to some degree, depend on where you’re coming from? For example, Dylan is a white middle-class Jewish kid from the Midwest. Can you imagine doing a whole book with a white woman as the central figure, or a black musician? Their American Dream would be different, their sense of a possible community. I feel it matters a great deal that Dylan is a white, middle-class Jewish boy from the Midwest. You talk about how people are making up identities, and of course that’s right, but aren’t they making them up very much from the places they come from? One can’t leave that out, and yet you don’t do very much with it in this book.
MARCUS: I don’t do very much with it for a number of reasons. First of all, I’m not terribly interested in people’s biographies when I’m writing about artists. I don’t think it tells you very much about the places they arrive at and what they’re ultimately able to talk about in whatever form of artistic speech they end up practicing.
DOUGLAS: And I’m just saying, don’t you think they construct it differently depending from where they’re coming ethnically, racially, religiously, genderwise, et cetera?
MARCUS: I’m sure that’s true but I think there are unities too… And I think one of the unities is disappointment or a sense of betrayal and it could be that, were I to write a book where the central figure was female or black… Well, it could be that the edge of disappointment and betrayal—one’s disappointment in the country, one’s sense of how the country disappointed yourself—would be much sharper and much deeper.
DOUGLAS: I was hoping we’d turn back to Bob Dylan. Its deeply fascinating to me that you’ve come to him in this book.
MARCUS: Here is the central question of this book, and it’s a question that all different kinds of people have asked themselves at different times when they have encountered music that is far away from their place in time, made by people who are absolutely different from them. And yet a deep and unbreakable connection is instantly made.
So the fascinating question is, how is that connection made? What’s that connection about? And I think two things about Bob Dylan and The Basement Tapes. One is, I think he’s a magician in terms of making those connections. The other thing is that I think, in times to come, if not right now, the music on The Basement Tapes will play the same role as the very old music I write about in this book, that I argue The Basement Tapes emerges from and transfigures. People will stumble on this music in one way or another and they will say, “This is so odd, this is so distant. And yet it’s like I’m speaking in another language that I never knew I could speak in.” That’s why I say I don’t think anything is gained and much is lost by looking at Bob Dylan as a white middle-class Jewish midwesterner. Anybody in Minnesota would say, “He’s not just a midwesterner, he’s from up in the Iron Range,” and that’s really different from somebody in the city. They don’t have anything in common at all. We can draw infinite divisions. When I say that nothing is gained and much is lost by looking at him that way, I’m saying that I don’t see anybody when I look at Bob Dylan that way. I see a cipher.
DOUGLAS: Because if you’re seeing him without the talent, the genius, some sort of weird gift that nobody’s ever understood, you don’t have Bob Dylan.
MARCUS: It’s not just a gift, its a persistence, it’s a questioning. It’s a lack of satisfaction. It’s a sense that you keep asking the same question and you never get a satisfactory answer. And there are different ways of responding to a situation like that. One is to be resigned that there is no answer and you’re never going to find out. And the other is to continue asking in the sense that you may become your own question rather than your own answer.
Village Voice, Summer 1997 (with permission of Ann Douglas and Joy Press)