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Greil Marcus Pt.1

Interview von: Matthias Rauch mit Greil Marcus, am: 17.07.2005 ]

Wer sich eingehender mit Popmusik beschäftigt, dürfte fast zwangsläufig auf einen Mann namens Greil Marcus gestoßen sein. Ist er doch zweifellos einer der weitsichtigsten und einflussreichsten amerikanischen Rockkritiker und auch wenn Mr. Marcus mit seinen 60 Jahren nicht mehr der Jüngste ist, so kann er doch gerade deshalb auf einen enorm breiten popmusikhistorischen Fundus zurückgreifen. Mit seinen mittlerweile zu absoluten Standardwerken avancierten Veröffentlichungen „Lipstick Traces“ und „Mistery Train“ zeichnete sich Marcus als feinsinniger Beobachter aus, der es immer wieder schafft, Popmusik mit einem größeren sozialen und gesellschaftlichen Rahmen in Beziehung zu setzen. Auch mit seinem neuen Buch „Like A Rolling Stone“ geht er wieder weit über herkömmliche musikjournalistische Grenzen hinaus. Wir sprachen mit Greil Marcus über Rolling Stone, Authentizität, Charlie Poole und die Verantwortung des Kritikers.


Musicscan: Have you noticed any differences as far as the audience response and the reception is concerned during your readings when you compare Germany and the States?

Greil Marcus Pt.1: One difference is that everything I have done in England or Germany has been something where you either had to pay or buy a ticket. Maybe you didnÂ’t have to buy a ticket, but you had to sign up for a ticket ahead of time, whereas in the United States almost everything is free. So that brings a different kind of audience. You get people for whom it is a more casual thing to show up and hear somebody talk about something and there are more children and there are more younger people. That is the main difference.

Musicscan: I heard your new book “Like A Rolling Stone” was not initially your idea, but your publisher’s and you weren’t really into it at first. What made you change your mind?

Greil Marcus Pt.1: Well, this guy called me up, somebody I had never heard of, working for a publishing company I had never heard of, which was my ignorance, but it was a pretty small and relatively new company. So he called me up it this idea and I was working on another book, which I am still working on and I said “well, thank you, but I can’t write two books at once.” I can’t think about two different things seriously at once. Anyway, I don’t think it is a very good idea. There are other songs on single songs. There is a book on “Strange Fruit,” the Billie Holiday record. There is a book on “Louie, Louie” by my friend Dave Marsh. There is a book on the “Stager Lee Ballad (Stagolee)” by Cecil Brown. In every case those were songs – in the case of Strange Fruit – which come out of a very specific, political milieu and it was a song meant to stop lynching in the South, to call attention to this terrible social problem. And it was part of the Communists party’s way of integrating itself into the broader culture. One of the people who wrote the song was one of the persons who later adopted the children of the Rosenbergs after they were executed for spying. So it was all part of that milieu. In the case of the “Stagger Lee Ballad,” it was based on a real event which took place in St. Louis in 1899, an incredibly complicated and tangled event. And then there comes a ballad that was sung by hundreds and hundreds or rather thousands of people, because many never recorded it, it was just part of a folk culture for over a century. With “Louie Louie” you got a song that is rich and anecdotal history and it has been performed by thousands upon thousands of bands. Maybe every band that has ever formed has at one time or another played “Louie Louie.” “Like A Rolling Stone” is not like that. It is simply a song that popped into somebody’s head one day and then he wrote it out and then he took it into a recording studio and recorded it, it was released and then went on the radio and people reacted to it. That is really the whole story. So I thought of how I could make a book out of that small story, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Even after I had said no, I started making notes about it and even while I was still saying no I actually wrote out an introduction. Not the whole introduction that is in the book now, but close to it. Then my wife said to me “if you don’t write this book, someone else will and that will make you very unhappy, won’t it.” And I said “I guess, it will.” So I changed my mind and called him back. I did that because since I was working on this other book, which is a difficult project and which I have already been working on for a couple of years, I thought the only way I could justify doing this was to set it apart. So that for a certain period of time it would be all I would do. I decided that I could write this book within a month, that I could do the research, the interviewing, the listening, the reading, and the writing in a month. And I did and then went back to work on that other project.

Musicscan: Do you enjoy doing readings? Do you see it primarily as a promotional tool or does it also function as an authentification of the written word?

Greil Marcus Pt.1: No, but it is a different dimension. When you are reading, or at least when I read, I try to give it some drama. I try to give it some emotional punch and that means that I have to find an element in the writing that maybe wasnÂ’t meant to be there when I was writing on a page or I have to pull out something that is there, but is kind of nascent. It is always surprising, it is always an experiment. I try to read different parts of the book in different places and not just have one reading that I do over and over. I try to see what connects, what bores people and what people are interested in. However, the fact is that whenever I do a reading that is work. I am really concentrating and I do everything I can to make it happen, but then when it is over and I start taking questions from people that is really fun. That I enjoy enormously. Then the whole notion of doing this to sell books kind of goes away and I am talking about music and other things with people in a way that anybody would, just having a good talk.

Musicscan: Are you still interested in music criticism as such, particularly the review format? Unfortunately most of the time, it seems like an utterly redundant form.

Greil Marcus Pt.1: No, redundant is exactly the word I would use. No, I am not interested the slightest. When I started writing, which was a long time ago, there werenÂ’t that many reviews of albums or singles. For that matter, there wasnÂ’t that much film criticism. No one had any idea of what a review could be, what it was supposed to be, what you should do, what you should not do, what you had to tell people, what you shouldnÂ’t talk about. You could really do anything. It was a thrilling form to dive into. As magazines become more and more successful, the way it works economically is that every page that they use for editorial is a page they canÂ’t sell for ads. When a magazine doesnÂ’t have any ads, it just has to fill space, so there are no word limits or not much, at least. When you have a successful magazine they are always pressing the writers to write less and you canÂ’t get into anything in 50 or 100 words. I write a column every month and that I have been writing for over twenty years and it is ten items that somehow or another relate to music. They are not all about records, they are not all about concerts. They may be about TV commercials, they may be about something that happened in a political speech, or something in a movie, or something I overheard standing in line at the grocery store. In the context I create in this column, which is about 1000 words, I can probably say something about a record in one or two sentences, but that is because I have created a context and have readers who read from month to month. But when you just go cold on a page you have no context. A record review is really a humiliating form to work in now, because you are always aware of what you are not saying, instead of saying that you really got it this time.

Musicscan: Do you think it is possible for a young writer, for someone just starting his or her writing career to be creative within the increasingly harsh restraints of the culture industry?

Greil Marcus Pt.1: Yes, because you have to work on the edges or even outside of the culture industry. I believe young writers still start by writing for the most marginal publications where they either get paid very little or not at all. I mean I worked for years without getting paid at different publications, because it was so thrilling to write for them. The readership was just so alive. I am not really convinced of the writing on the internet, because I tend to think that writing on the internet – at least what I see on blogs and the likes – is not really writing. It is talking through a computer. There is no attempt to form a sentence, there is no attempt to actually seduce a reader into the story you are trying to tell. This is just what I think. But I know plenty of younger people who are starting and who have started, whether they are writing about music or other things. You just have to have a public dimension in their thoughts and feelings and writing is a way to accomplish that.

Musicscan: Well, I believe you started out with sending a review to Rolling Stone Magazine, because you had bought a record that you didnÂ’t like. Do you really think that would still be possible today?

Greil Marcus Pt.1: Well, I don’t think it would be possible in Rolling Stone. I am not sure where it would be possible. It would be possible in the weekly newspapers that now exist in the United States in almost every city. They are all free, they are advertising vehicles, but some of them have absolutely superb editorial content, great investigative reporting, and fabulous critical sections. I taught a course in criticism a couple of years ago and it was called “Practical Criticism” and the idea was that it was about criticism and things people really care about and engages them in a way that reading “you should do this, or you shouldn’t do that” simply doesn’t. One of the critics whose work I collected for the class reader was the restaurant critic of “City Pages,” which is the weekly newspaper of Minneapolis. This woman has found a way to write about restaurants in a town where none of my students had ever been, restaurants they had never heard of and would never go to. She was able to make this a criticism about the whole city: about its architecture, its politics, its manners, the way people related to each other as well as what was going on with the food, why this restaurant was started, what kind of money went into starting this restaurant and the students were completely fascinated. She was the hit. I mean we were also reading Lester Bangs or D.H. Lawrence, and people were enthusiastic about everybody, but she was the one who really showed people what criticism could be.

Musicscan: Do you think a critic has responsibility? Be it towards the readership, towards the magazine, towards the artist, or towards him- or herself?

Greil Marcus Pt.1: The only responsibility the critic has towards the band is get the facts right and not lie. That is pretty basic. There is no responsibility to be concerned of the effect of review or a piece on a band’s career. Responsibilities towards readers is…I don’t know if that is a responsibility, but it is a bad thing and maybe wrong to exclude readers, to write in a way that you have to bring a tremendous amount of special knowledge to what you are doing in order to read it. The Village Voice for many years now, their music criticism has been absolutely impenetrable. It has been so in-groupy, it is written in a language that presupposes that you already know everything about the person in question that you know everything about the scene and the milieu in which they work and it is written in code. It is written in this “well, we all know…” or “we all think…” that sort of thing. I mean I know about this stuff, I follow it and I can’t read the reviews. I think that it is a good thing that when you are writing to find a way to give people the information they need to follow what you are saying without lecturing them. Before saying “before starting the actual discussion, I am going to have to tell you this…” There is a more artful way of doing it. But really the critics responsibility is not to lie. And what I mean by that is not to lie to oneself. The critic’s responsibility is to understand what he or she thinks and then find a way to say that, without censoring it, without offending people, whether that is the editor of the publication or somebody reading it, without worrying about that. And that is a hard thing to do. It is not always easy to know what you think and then say it.

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