(Reprinted with Nick Kent’s permission.)
When a male voice answered, I asked, “Is that Greil Marcus?” “It’s Greel,” the voice responded in a noticeably icy tone—in my ignorance I’d pronounced it “Grail”. “Could you call me back in five minutes?” the voice then asked just before the line went dead.
In those five minutes I pondered the potential for further communication snafus. When Mark Ellen had contacted me a week earlier and suggested I talk to Marcus for The Word, it had seemed like a good idea at the time. After all, both of us have managed over the past 40 years to build credible and successful reputations for ourselves as astute commentators and observers of rock music and its key practitioners.
But we’ve also been poles apart in terms of what compels us to do so and how we put that compulsion into practice. I’ve always seen rock journalism as fundamentally an action-medium driven by intense reportage and face-to-face encounters with those playing the music, while Marcus has generally preferred a more abstract, ideas-driven approach, one born of intense contemplation, a harvesting of cultural obsessions in a quest for literary epiphanies. So the question remained: would our different sensibilities mesh or clash when brought together?
Providentially, it turned out to be a fruitful encounter. Once phone contact had been re-established, Marcus quickly revealed himself to be a courteous and ferociously intelligent conversationalist. I expected him to be dauntingly articulate but was pleasantly surprised to find that he also possessed a very ready sense of humour, something that tends to stay hidden when he writes. Marcus has almost always taken his obsessions very, very seriously, and the texts he’s composed over the decades in homage to those obsessions have sometimes left me scratching my head in bewilderment.
But when he hits his mark—as is the case with his two most recent publications, 2010’s Listening To Van Morrison and 2011’s Bob Dylan By Greil Marcus—he’s in a class of his own as a decipherer and channeller of the creative imagination.
We spoke at some length about Dylan, though with no great overarching conclusion. The rest of our conversation is laid out below pretty much as it transpired.
NICK KENT: This time last year, I was busy promoting my way around the British Isles [see Kent’s memoir, Apathy For The Devil], and came face-to-face with a number of young would-be rock journalists/critics hungry for tips and general advice about cultivating a career in that field. I didn’t know quite what to tell them, apart from saying, “For God’s sake, don’t try and emulate my approach when I was starting out in the ’70s. It would be like leaping off an extremely high diving board into a pool containing no more than six inches of water.” I imagine you must get approached on this same subject a lot more than me. What do you say to this younger generation of fledging culture pop pundits?
GREIL MARCUS: You’re right, I get asked these sort of questions all the time—particularly from my students—and I feel at sea. When I started out, it was so much easier to find a place to get published. There were all these underground newspapers out there looking for writers. Nobody knew what they were doing. There were no rules. It was just a matter of coming up with your own voice and your own point of view.
I find two things today. Nobody asks me if you can make a living at this—I think people generally presume that you can’t. But they still want to write and want to be read. They want to take part in this imaginary—or not—conversation with the readers and even with the people they’re writing about. But actual publications have become like closed shops. I don’t know how you get a foot in the door at the weekly newspapers that come out in each city, let alone Rolling Stone or the British music magazines. Obviously, people can start their own blogs—but without a sense of context, a sense of who you’re talking to, these blogs tend to just dry up. So I don’t know the answer.
What I tell people is, “If you want to be a writer, then get writing. Being a writer isn’t some goal to imagine. Writers write—that’s what defines a writer. And people will always find a way to make themselves heard one way or another.” So many people I meet say, “I want to be a writer”—but they don’t actually write.
NK: Rightly or wrongly, I grew up with the belief that becoming a writer involved going out on an adventuresome journey into the adult world, interacting with other people and hopefully picking up some crumbs of wisdom along the way to report back to one’s readership. It wasn’t something that could necessarily be achieved by sitting at home night after night in front of a computer.
GM: I don’t know about that. One time somebody wrote about my book Lipstick Traces, “This book reads like it was written by somebody in a room surrounded by books and a lot of records.” And I thought, “Well, he’s got me there! (Laughs) That’s definitely me.” I did a fair amount of outside research but mainly—yeah, I was in a room with a lot of books and records for nine years. See, I don’t think I’m really that interested in myself. I’ve never thought of what I do as a personal journey. I get obsessed by things and these obsessions carry me through projects, and if I’m lucky they stay with me.
At the same time, I agree with you in terms of what actually drives someone to write; usually it is a personal experience or some private personal event you have to resolve in public. Certainly one of the key events that drove me to write about music and culture in the first place was being in the Bay Area when the Fillmore and Avalon ballrooms were just starting. The most remarkable combinations of people would perform there every weekend and we would go there two or three times each weekend. Everything was a surprise. Everything was a shock. “Where do these people come from? What language are they speaking?” It was like your life was an adventure in translation, translating all these performances you never imagined before. Because in order to really tell people about something so alien, you had to find your own way to express it. The students and young people I encounter nowadays—a lot of them are writing adventurous stuff but they’re also trying too hard to conform to what they imagine the journalistic rules are, to other people’s expectations. That’s no way to be a writer. That’s like cutting off your hands before you start.
NK: You keep returning to Dylan as a source for your writing. Do you feel similarly drawn to the two musicians who, many would say, stand alongside him on the highest plateau of great late-20thcentury American songwriting—Neil Young (Canadian, I know) and Bruce Springsteen?
GM: Neil Young and Springsteen are just so different. I rarely do interviews but I happen to have met both of them. Bruce is a friend who I’ve known since the ’70s, and I once spent one afternoon with Neil Young—a really thrilling time, at least for me. They’re very thoughtful people. They muse a lot. They’re willing to give in to their own imaginations. Neil Young is a guitar player before he’s anything else. That’s the spur of what he does. When he takes off on an inspired solo, you can chase him in your mind but you’re never going to catch up. And that allows him access to realms of delirium that I think are where his greatest music comes from. Bruce is more of a politician—and I mean that in a respectful way.
NK: I love the story he told while promoting The Rising, about being on some New Jersey beach with his family a few days after 9/11 when a fan approached him and said, “Boss, you’ve got a job to do.” He claims he left the beach almost immediately afterwards, got in his car, returned home and set about writing songs to help heal America. In other words, no one can say Bruce Springsteen doesn’t take his responsibilities as a musician and American icon seriously.
GM: That sounds perfectly characteristic to me. Someone says, “You’ve got a job to do. We’re counting on you.” And he says, “Yeah, that’s right. There’s something I can do and maybe I can do it better than other people, so I’d better step up.” That’s being a politician in the most honourable and admirable way. At the same time, Bruce is also a crowd-pleaser in a way that Neil Young isn’t. Neil Young doesn’t really give a damn what anybody else thinks but Bruce is not like that. He wants to connect, he wants a response—and if he isn’t getting it, he’ll ask himself, “What am I doing wrong?” and do something different. Neil Young’s reaction would more likely be, “Hey, fuck them!”
NK: How did you react to reading Keith Richards’s recent autobiography Life? Where would you place it in the pantheon of rock music-related literature?
GM: I was really eager to read it. Paul Schrader, the director/writer, and at least half-a-dozen other people who’d read it before me were raving about it, saying they couldn’t put it down. But I actually found it very, very disappointing. First of all, Keith Richards is possibly the greatest interviewee in rock—funny, self-deprecating, smart, aware of the world he moves in. But his autobiography—how does it lay in the pantheon of rock literature? It lays flat. It’s not even on the same street as Dylan’s Chronicles or Chuck Berry’s autobiography. Whatever you think of those two books, you can still sense the writer making decisions on what word to use or which way to tell the story. These books were written, they weren’t “talked.” In Keith Richards’ book, it’s evident from the very beginning that this is a guy talking into a tape recorder to another guy who then has to piece it all together. I found the thing tedious and repetitious and poorly done. There is far too much self-celebration. There are about 30 pages in the book devoted to him talking about music and they are genuinely thrilling and moving. That stuff is fabulous, unlike anything else anyone has written. It’s a story only Keith Richards could tell and that’s what makes me glad that I slogged through the whole 500 pages of it (laughs). But (pauses) it’s not a book. A book is when someone fully commits to the task of relating something that happened, or some fictional concept or someone’s fantasies about art and music and finds a way to do that. Throughout Life, Keith Richards is trying to be very frank but he’s being very evasive at the same time. There’s far too much, “Well, let’s see what Bobby Keys has to say about this incident?” (Laughs)
NK: I’d like to segue here into a subject not that far removed from Keith Richards in terms of global notoriety—Hunter S Thompson. You wrote for Rolling Stone at the same time he did and I’d be interested to hear your take on the man’s literary abilities and general legacy. From my perspective, his life now seems more like a cautionary tale than anything riddled with great accomplishments.
GM: To me, Hunter S. Thompson wrote two great books—Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas and Fear And Loathing On The Campaign Trail. They were like nothing else I’d ever encountered before in writing. He was able to combine a sense of momentum, fabulism, and fantasy with a sense of moral jeopardy, of great things being at stake, of the country being in danger and the culture he’d attached himself to turning into horror. There were high stakes in those books as well as being just so much fun to pore over. Those books were such feasts you could gain five pounds just by reading them. (Laughs)
But then—with the co-operation and encouragement of Rolling Stone and his own willingness—he became a star. He started cultivating his own legend and then just lived off of it. And from that point on, he ceased to be a writer. After that he never wrote anything worth reading. He became a complete waste and a complete joke.
I was in Aspen at the time of his memorial, when they shot him out of a cannon or whatever the hell they did. Johnny Depp was supposed to say a prayer and all his friends gathered together for a big party afterwards. I couldn’t think of anything more ludicrous and stupid. Writers can still learn a lot from those two Fear And Loathing books, but the rest of it is just embarrassing.
NK: The other night I watched Robert Altman’s Buffalo Bill And The Indians again and was struck by the way the film’s scenario mirrored what’s been happening with many of our older rock icons. The script is set in a time when the Wild West has finally been tamed and its former legends—like Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley—were making a living cynically re-enacting their former exploits in a travelling circus. For me, the wild frontier that rock music once inhabited as a cultural force has now been tamed and many of its founding figures are out there like Buffalo Bill, staying in the big ring of success by presenting a cartoon version of what they once represented.
GM: Sure, I’ll go along with that. I think you nailed it when you said that thing about certain
people needing to stay in the big ring of success. Some people need the money, and there are certainly less honourable ways of making money than going out and making a cartoon of yourself. But I think in many cases people need the audience more than they need the money. They need that adulation. That’s really why they’re still out there.
NK: By the same token, I’ve noticed that many of the old acts still able to sell out stadiums have improved in terms of professionalism and sheer musical consistency. If you attended a Rolling Stones concert over the past 20 years, you were pretty much guaranteed to hear a band working on all cylinders. Back in the ’70s, though—as a live band—they could be incredibly erratic.
GM: I haven’t seen the Stones live in a long, long while but the best I ever saw them play was at Altamont in ’69. Because they were so fucking scared—and they had every right to be scared. It was as if their instincts told them that the only way out of this mess was to play so well that nobody would notice them (laughs). It wasn’t a rational decision, it was one made purely from instinct. They say that when you’re confronted with a mountain lion, you’re supposed to wave your arms, try and look bigger and yell. At Altamont they were confronted by a mountain lion and that’s what they did. And it worked—at least as music, even though it didn’t save Meredith Hunter’s life.
NK: We’ve spoken a lot about musicians who are now way past 60 years of age; maybe we should end on a more contemporary note. The one act from the past 20 years who continue to engage and excite me are Radiohead. Is there anyone from the same time frame like that for you?
GM: It’s shocking for me to realize this but the only person from the last 20 years who’s consistently impressed and inspired me is PJ Harvey. What distinguishes an artist for me is that the artist knows something that most people don’t. And it’s the artist’s task to figure out how to use that knowledge, how to put it out into the world. And Polly Harvey has done that for me over and over again—as much today as 19 years ago. She’s the one for me.
Word, May 2011