Musicscan: Would you say you are still interested in current or modern music? It seems like you cant be bothered with most of it.
Greil Marcus Pt.2: I cant be bothered with a lot of it, because I am so fascinated with other things. Over the last ten years, most hip hop has passed me by. There is not question about that. I know that there are great treasures that escape me and there is plenty of stuff that I listen to that leaves me cold, but I know that there is stuff that if I heard it, or if I would learn to hear it better that I would be caught up in it. On the other hand, for the past ten to twelve years or so, I have spent a great deal of time listening to and loving and being thrilled and fascinated by female punk rock by bands from the Pacific Northwest, from Washington and Oregon. I think I really understand that music. I think I have an affinity for it. I think I have found ways to write about it and so while other people have listened to stuff that I dont, I listen to stuff other people havent. There is so much music being made today in so many genres that I dont know how anybody could keep up with all of it. But I dont understand why the most important release of this year
the most important release of this year for me so far that I know of is the new Sleater-Kinney album called The Woods. It is so radically different from what they have done and yet it is obviously the same band and Charlie Poole Reissue. Charlie Poole was a country musician in the 1920s. He was a banjo player and a band leader in North Carolina. He was a very unusual singer. He is before Jimmy Rogers, he is right about the same time as Uncle Dave Macon. He is really there at the beginning of commercial country music. There was something about him that was deeply nihilistic, really fucked up. He was truly alcoholic, alcoholism being a way of life as opposed to a problem. His greatest music has this sense of really not caring. He is able to make real art out of that. His greatest song is called If I Lose, Let Me Lose. I mean think about the title. An alternate title for the same song when it was recorded earlier was If I Lose, I Dont Care. That is a pretty simple sentiment. But if I lose, let me lose, dont try to help me. Dont try to make me better. Dont try to make me a better person. This is who I am and I will walk this road as far as I can. I am not saying that is a good way to live, but I am saying that he had such integrity behind that notion and such charm. Anyway, Columbia Records put out a Charlie Poole box set and what they have done is they have taken all his music that was recorded between 1926-29 I believe and then interspersed it with the music that he drew on for his transformations of commonplace songs that everybody knew or what people then tried to copy from him. You hear a song by him, recorded in 1928 and then you will hear the record that was made in 1907 that he is changing. And then you hear something a couple years later, someone trying to expropriate what Charlie Poole has done. You are living in a completely different world. It is also beautifully done. This guy is on the road all the time. He is smoking and drinking. That is pretty much all of his life except for making music and they have packaged three CDs in a cigar box. I just loved that. So I keep up with what attracts me.
Musicscan: What I really admire and appreciate about your writing is that you always connect music to a larger social and cultural framework. So in how far do you think does the current political climate in the US influence the music?
Greil Marcus Pt.2: That is a really hard question. Obviously, for some people it doesnt influence them at all in any conscious sense or any direct way, because the political situation in the US today is so much about domination. The Bush administration and the Congress, which it controls, and the Supreme Court, which it pretty much controls, is all about dominion, about establishing dominion over the whole country. It is about domination. It is not about debate, it is not argument, it isnt even about pressure politics, about bringing that group there. It is about silencing opposition. This is quite remarkable given that Bush wasnt even elected the first time and was barely re-elected the second time. If you look at incumbent presidents who won the election, Bush won by the smallest margin of any presidency in the second term, who got one. Obviously some presidents sought a second term but didnt get it. So he did better than Jimmy Carter or his father and yet given the country is divided, given that half the people dont want him to be president, nevertheless, his form of governance, his idea of what power is all about is domination and silence. Now that has to affect the way movies are made, it has to affect the way books are written, probably less so, but not what books are published, and it has to affect what music is made. Most movies, or most books and most music, or most popular culture for that matter is made to please. It is made to please what the producer, the director, the writer or the singer feels needs to be pleased. That doesnt mean that there are people out there making records that they think George Bush will like. I dont mean anything like that, but they are making records that are made not to offend. Hip hop is absolutely part of that. What is hip hop about today? It is about money and having the most power, being answerable to nobody. You have all these tiny little people acting like their George Bush. That is one of the things that is going wrong with hip hop. Only money counts. Only power counts. Sort of like I treat my whores the way George Bush treats his country. I am not saying that is a conscious connection, but I am saying it is a real connection. Lets go back to Sleater-Kinney. There you have people whose politics could not be more different. They are left-wing people who come out of a lesbian community, a marginalized community and who come out of a bohemian world, who even though they are successful to the degree that they can make a living, are never going to become rich from their music. Even if Carrie Brownstein appeared in a commercial with William Shatner. Did you ever see that? William Shatner was doing a commercial for Priceline.com, which he has been the spokesman of for a number of years. He makes records, he is a non-singer. He will stand up and recite songs while a band plays behind him. So in this commercial, he is reciting Mr. Tambourine Man or something and in the background is Carrie Brownstein playing guitar. So I thought I hope you got paid for that very well. But they are never going to make a great deal of money. So what did they say to themselves? Does your music have a social dimension? Does it play a social role? Do we have social responsibilities as artists? I think ultimately the way the answer it is that they pursue their music in the direction it seems to be taking us. But ultimately when faced with a world of domination, you can organize politically, you can enter into politics, or you can struggle to preserve your own autonomy and to encourage others to do the same thing; to not to be beaten down to a point where you stop thinking and simply accept what everybody else seems to say.
Musicscan: But does it also work the other way around that music has a social impact and that not only music is the product of its social context?
Greil Marcus Pt.2: I think music has a social impact in the same way. Well, in a somewhat different way. Music by virtue of being an active conversation is taking place in public. Or at least the people who make it hope it reaches the public. Then, music tells people about life. It tells them what the dangers are; what the possibilities are. Not specifically, it rather dramatizes danger and it can make the danger that you and I face in our ordinary lives more vivid and more real. Or it dramatizes possibilities; it exposes our own cowardice, the weak choices that we make. We are afraid of doing what we really ought to do. Music adds a dramatic dimension to life and that ultimately has consequences on social life, because it makes people act you hope more fully and to be more true to themselves. The kind of politics that the Republicans practice in the United States is ultimately politics that wants to make people more untrue to themselves. I am not talking about narrow economic interests as people saying that working class people who are voting for George Bush are voting against their own interests. I am talking about convincing people that the real danger our country is facing today is homosexuals getting married as opposed to having their livelihoods taken away or having their communities destroyed, having to work three jobs. George Bush is such a bully. I think ultimately his character is that of a bully: Someone who enjoys inflicting suffering on other people when he knows he can never be called to account. He was holding these town meetings around the country to push his changes in the social security and they were all staged. In other words, everybody who was invited had to be cleared by the Republican Party. In some cities you had to sign pledges that you did not only support George Bush, but also his policies; that you all agreed with the changes he wanted to make in social security. Nevertheless, there were still some bad apples that got through. So he is having that meeting and it is being covered by the media and a woman says I have to work three jobs to support my daughter and myself. She then went on to describe that she had a job as a bus driver, she had a job working in a restaurant and she had a job as a file person and he said: Get much sleep? Can you imagine? If you can convince somebody like that the real problem facing the country is not why I have to live this way, but that some gay people might want to get married. If you convince them that this is the real problem facing the country, then you convince them not to be yourself.
Musicscan: I have read that you dont believe in the concept of individuality and originality that much and that you think it is overrated. I thought this was a rather surprising or at least unusual thing to hear from an American.
Greil Marcus Pt.2: Well, originality is a cliché in America. Everyone is supposed to be special, but not everyone is special. You are special when you do something special. You are not special just by existing. I think that is part of what I meant. I have for a long time been appalled by the notion - that is so common in schools and it spills over to the culture at large that if I say something about my own feelings you cant criticize me because they are my feelings. You hear that in writing classes all the time and the real job of the writing teacher is to say bullshit. The point is not how true your feelings are, but the point is whether or not you can convince anybody that that is how you really feel through your writing. That is what I am criticizing. In terms of originality, I do believe that originality is overrated. There are times when everyone seems to be doing something different. There are times when everyone seems so inspired, but these times are really rare. In popular music, you can look at 1945-50 or you can look at 1965 or you can look at 1977 and maybe 1981 or so. As a friend of mine put it, you were afraid to go into a record store, because there was so much incredible stuff that it would cost you a fortune to get out. However, those times are extremely rare. The Charlie Poole set is a very good example with regard to the notion of originality. Charlie Poole never wrote a song. Every song he recorded was taken from some other song, a song someone else had already recorded, or that he had heard around town or that he learned from someone else. In that sense, he is not an original artist at all. There was nothing radical about his style or the way he and his band played. They played really well. They played with a great deal of emotion. They simply brought all of themselves into the songs. The all brought themselves to structures that were already there. You can say that originality was the last thing that made him unique. Now there is a paradox: he was unique but he was not original.
Musicscan: Another rather abstract question, which also ties in with what you have just mentioned. Do you believe in the notion of authenticity? It has certainly been one of the most important aspects of music criticism or a general discussion about music for at least the last 50 years?
Greil Marcus Pt.2: No, no I dont believe in it partly because it is such a shibboleth. It is a club used to beat people over the head and tell them that they cant do something. I recently read one of the stupidest things imaginable on Bob Dylan. It was in a review of my book but the person was quoting David Byrne of the Talking Heads saying about Bob Dylan after reading his chronicles: What I dont get is
here is this guy, this Jewish kid from Minnesota, and he is imitating this backwards hick Woodie Guthrie. I mean what is that about. Ultimately he is saying that everything Bob Dylan is saying must therefore be utterly inauthentic. Now that portrays not just only ignorance about musical history, but it portrays ignorance about life. Woodie Guthrie was not a backwards hick. He was from a middle-class family and his father was a professional and he was well educated. The backwards hick persona was something he made up and adopted. He went to Hollywood to try and get work in the movies as a cowboy. Hey, I am from Oklahoma. I know about horses. I am a cowboy. In other words you have one person who made himself up and you had another person who made himself up. Is that inauthentic? Is it inauthentic to become who you want to be or who you need to be to become what you need to say?