Greil Marcus on music writing through 5 presidencies, fighting the Gorgon of Thatcherism and getting to the heart of the "authorless song"

Salon talks to the music and culture critic about "Real Life Rock"

By Scott Timberg

Published October 27, 2015 10:59PM (EDT)

The culture critic Greil Marcus sees connections between all kinds of disparate subjects -- between the music of The Band and the project of American democracy, or between the Sex Pistols and the Dada movement. He’s pursued some of these themes at great depth in books like “Mystery Train” and “Lipstick Traces.”

Sometimes the connections are implicit or bitten off, as they are in the “Real Life Rock Top Ten” column he’s been writing in various forms for three decades. It’s fair to say that even more than Marcus’s omnivorous work, these pieces are all over the place.

Those columns, which have appeared in The Village Voice, The Believer, Salon, and other publications, have now been collected by Yale University Press in “Real Life Rock,” a thick volume that is a blast to drift through. Marcus’s writing here seems to prefigure last year’s “History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs” – these old pieces show that his interest in the way songs change over time, and fall in and out of context, goes back decades.

Harvard University Press has also just published “Three Songs, Three Singers, Three Nations,” which collects Massey Lectures Marcus gave in 2013.

We spoke to Marcus, who lives part of the year in Berkeley, from New York. The interview has been edited slightly for clarity. (For what it’s worth, Marcus and I share an editor at Yale.)

For those who haven’t followed this, give us a sense of the “Real Life” column started, and maybe how it changed over the years — if it changed at all.

Well, I started writing a column called “Real Life Rock” for New West Magazine in 1983, and it was an essay column. Maybe there’d be a long piece and a couple of short things. And at the end of the column, there was a little list called “Real Life Rock Top Ten,” and it just listed stuff. There was no comment. And it might be a record, it might be a guitar solo, it might be a dress that Bette Midler wore at an awards show, and it was just playful. And then the column ended I got a call in 1986 from Doug Simmons, who was the music editor at the Village Voice and he said, “Why don’t you turn that list into a real column?” And I said, “Well, that’s a great idea. I’d like to try that.” So I did it.

The first column, the first item was a track on a compilation album that Columbia Records had to put out to feature a new band and it was a band called The Reducers, and they had a song called “Let’s Go.” And I just loved it. It was just this great, you know, “let’s fly all over the world and see what we can find” song. I never really heard anything about The Reducers ever again. They had an album but it didn’t do anything for me, but you know, there it was. At the same time, I came across this wonderful, tiny Godzilla toy about two inches high, and when you sort of ram it along the floor, sparks would fly out of it’s mouth. It was a real fire-breathing Godzilla. I thought this was so wonderful, and it also at that point in 1986, it kind of summed up Japanese rock n’ roll, which to me had always derived from Godzilla movies.

So that was stuff in the first column, and I started doing it every month. And as it went on, it just got more and more open and free-swinging to the point where it was incorporating advertisement, television shows, the way songs were used in movies, the way music appeared in novels; particularly little critical theory analysis of commercials, whether on the radio or on TV; just really getting into the semiotics of how songs were being manipulated or distorted, and sometimes reaching an audience through a commercial that it never would have reached in any other way.

But there’s a funny way in the column that the non-musical entries are sometimes the most important. Do those have a special place in the column?

Yes, because I found out very quickly a number of things about the column. It wouldn’t work in a music magazine because people would be covering the stuff that I was writing about anyway. It would already be there; it would be redundant. It would only work in a general interest publication, you know, whatever that might be. So whatever I was doing in the context of the publication would be new and would sort of claim its own territory. But I also found out that if it was just music, it was not going to be alive. I mean, the idea was “Real Life Rock,” and what that meant to me dove into the way that people experienced music and culture in their everyday lives.


And so that meant that it couldn’t just be music. We don’t just think, breathe, eat, and sleep music. We eat, think, breathe, sleep lots of other things too, and so everything had to go into it. And the more disparate and the more sort of adventurous and ambitious the column got, the better it would be. But you asked about how it changed.

You know, there came a time, maybe it was 1992 or 1991, when the Voice had a new music editor who didn’t like the column, and so that was the end of the column. And I immediately moved it to ArtForum, where it was for quite a long time. And there’s a different audience. I’m not in the Village Voice anymore, that has this very intense music section and coverage of all the other arts as well as politics. Now I’m in ArtForum, and it’s a world of galleries and museums and young artists and classic artists. That’s the lingua franca. And so the column became, in a way, more formalist. It really began to address art issues. And I went to more gallery shows. I went to more museums. Say I went to a John Heartfield exhibition, which I did at the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco. Just looking at these wonderful post-Dada agit-prop posters that he was doing in the early ‘30s. It’s so anticipated, the artwork that would be scavenged, particularly in England, from the time of Joy Division on down. That’s something — I have to write about this. You know, I’ve always had great editors. I’ve always had editors to suggest things, essentially contribute items themselves.

And one of the ways the column changed — I guess this was particularly true when it moved to Salon after ArtForum — is that I would ask people to write for it. The column has always included lots of quotations. You know, maybe it’s some bizarre news story in the paper that I can just put in there in a paragraph, maybe it’s just something wonderful that somebody says or remarkably stupid that somebody says in a sentence or two — and I just stick that in, maybe with a comment, maybe not. But with Salon, where I had a lot more space — [I] started out with 700 words at the Voice, maybe it was 1200 words at ArtForum -- as an online publication, there weren’t really any word limits. And I was also doing it every two weeks instead of once a month, so it was full, it was busy. I was constantly looking around for stuff, and people had always sent things in. Like Ken Tucker has contributed to the column for years and years. He’ll just write something up and send it to me, and I’ll put it in there with his name on it, of course.

But at Salon, I began to ask people to cover things: stuff that I couldn’t cover, stuff that I thought they’d be better at, and I’ve always paid people who contributed on sort of a word count pro-rated way their share of my fee - often which would amount to about twelve dollars. The column has never exactly made any money. And so I would ask people to contribute, and I did that even more at the Believer and I’m probably doing it even more than that at the Barnes and Noble Review, where it’s running now. You know, and it might be one of my daughters, both of whom are good writers. It might be John Rockwell, who told me about a show he’d seen that I couldn’t go to. I said, “Well, will you write it up for me?”

When Bob Dylan came out with his Frank Sinatra album, I had this idea of asking Bruce Jenkins, the San Francisco sports writer who I knew slightly — a wonderful writer, he’s the son of Gordon Jenkins, who was Sinatra’s producer and arranger on his great recordings in the early ‘50s for Capital. And so I asked Bruce Jenkins if he would write about the Dylan album. I thought he’d probably have a lot more to say about it than I would.

And so if the column is anything, it’s playful. It’s always trying to adapt to a new publication, a new context, a new frame of reference, new readers, and a new President. This column has now been through -- let’s see -- Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama, and I hope it will still be going when we find out who’s next. And that changes everything. That changes the political and aesthetic weather. A new presidency always does. And it changes what people talk about, it changes the way they talk about things. And that all finds it’s way into the column if the column is working the way it ought to.

Two bands that have also spanned a long period and managed to adapt in various ways are the bands you dedicate the book to: Sleater-Kinney, who broke up for years, and The Mekons. Why were those two groups the ones that you pulled out to give a special place to?

Because I really owe them a lot. Because through a long period of time, the Mekons obviously were going well before the column started, but had a second life with “Fear and Whiskey” and “The Edge of the World” right about the time the column started -- those two fantastic albums. That’s really when The Mekons regrouped with more and more country music seeping into what they were doing, but also they’re under the heel of Thatcher. That’s certainly how they felt, and so Thatcherism becomes the great shadow over their music, and the Gorgon that they’re fighting in their hearts and in their music. Not that the music is protest music, but believe me, when you record a version of Hank Williams’ version of “Alone and Forsaken,” you’re feeling alone and forsaken.

And The Mekons is a group of left-wing punks -- so, “alone and forsaken” in the wilderness of Thatcherism. It’s a lot of what “Fear and Whiskey” and “The Edge of the World” are about.

So from that time, I began writing about Heavens to Betsy when their very first recording came out on an Olympia Washington compilation album. I’ve been writing about them since 1991, Corin Tucker’s first band. So these two groups have always given me wonderful things to write about, their continuing story in the column. And when I was trying to figure out who to dedicate it to, I realized I owed them both so much. And not because we’d become friendly over the years, but really just because a writer needs a subject, and they’re great subjects.

You’ve written a lot about how songs originate, how they change through time — that seems to be a crucial theme of your other new book. Tell us a little about “Three Songs, Three Singers, Three Nations,” which come from lectures you gave at Harvard.

What I decided to do was to talk about three songs that didn’t seem to have authors. I’ve been fascinated for years, and for years have taught a class in what I call the commonplace song, which other people call the folklyric song or folk songs. But songs that don’t seem to have authors. Sometimes they do. Sometimes they’re half written by a single person we can identity. Sometimes there’s no way to attribute anything in the song to a particular person. Nobody knows who wrote the song “John Henry”; it’s completely lost… That song had to be written at some point.

I got fascinated by the notion of taking three songs… [For one of them] nobody knows when all the pieces came together and they snapped into place like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, and, This is now a song – not just random floating voices. That’s “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground,” which was recorded in 1928 by a lawyer from North Carolina named Bascom Lamar Lunsford and included on Harry Smith’s “Anthology of American Folk Music.”

It’s a song I’ve been fascinated by, obsessed with, since I first heard it around 1970 – that’s a long time ago. [The other two songs are Bob Dylan’s “Ballad of Hollis Brown” and Geeshie Wiley’s “Last Kind Word Blues.”]

So I just wanted to play around with the idea of authorless songs – or songs that seemed authorless – as a form of free speech. That when these songs are out there, and they don’t feel as if they were written by any particular person, which means they aren’t owned by any particular person, and by owned I mean by copyright and in any capitalist ownership, but owned in an aesthetic sense. “This is his song, nobody can touch what he or she did with it.” They aren’t like that either.

So they’re songs anyone can take up, they can shift, they can change the inflection, they can change the point of view, they can change words, they can add a different melody… And sing as if it’s their song. Because it feels as if it doesn’t belong to anybody. Someone can sing these songs, and if they’re good enough, if they bring something to it, it can feel as if they’re telling their own story. So I was fascinated by this as a form of aesthetic democracy. Where everyone is almost challenged to created their own version of these songs out there as part of the landscape.

Scott Timberg

Scott Timberg is a former staff writer for Salon, focusing on culture. A longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, he runs the blog Culture Crash. He's the author of the book, "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class."

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