Interview by Oliver Hall
Greil Marcus is a great American writer; Id like to say a classic American writer, but thankfully he isnt dead.
His works of criticism, from pop collections In the Fascist Bathroom (about punk and post-punk) and Double Trouble (on the trail of Elviss ghost through the Clinton years), to his negative narratives Mystery Train and Lipstick Traces describe a total vision of our rebel history.
It is a vision that encompasses historical and economic determinisms, the bloodsport of brute power politics, the wild utopian dreams of heretics, the tedium of everyday life and, most emphatically, the stark noir individualism of the gambler; it is a vision in which the worst is likely to happen, but also one in which an absolute transformation of life as we know it for ill or good could happen at any moment.
No other writer has chronicled with such intelligence and attention the possibilities that animate our culture, possibilities you may glimpse in a three-minute song, the news, the street, or a community of any number. In his work, Marcus has taken on the crude, cruel, undeniable reality of modern life the promise of democracy and the price of change with unmatched force, style, humor and charm.
His most recent book, The Rose and the Briar, is a collection of essays co-edited with Sean Wilentz, about the American ballad. The book begins with the ancient Barbara Allen, where it found its title. From there, alternately drunken and sober, it pursues the founding mysteries of America through the years until it winds up in 1982 (the '90s never happened!) with Bruce Springsteen singing as Charley Starkweather. You dont have to care about music or even America to read this book: there is a surprise on every page.
Perhaps I adore Marcuss writing more than is good for me. When I saw Paris, I went looking for Lipstick Traces in the music section in bookstore after bookstore, until I finally realized the French stock it in the Philosophy section.
I interviewed Greil Marcus by phone from his Berkeley home on Christmas Eve 2004.
PSF: The Rose and the Briar (W.W. Norton & Co., 2004) has come out during an election year, a year in which not only have there been no good protest songs, but hardly anything on the radio could make you think twice about the way you live. Do you see this book in any way as an appeal to the memory of the country, or to the soul of the country?
GM: No; I think if anything is under that umbrella, it's more an argument that the country has changed, or changes less than it might seem. Certain themes and obsessions have been part of the country always, and there's no reason to think that they won't be. And those obsessions have to do with murder as a solution to all problems, and with people continually putting their trust in people who mean them nothing but harm. There is a strain of real sadism in the country that we're deeply attracted to, both as entertainment and something more psychotic than that.
We thought about this book we thought it up two years ago and we weren't thinking in terms of when it would be finished, when it would come out, what kind of milieu it would enter when it was published. So, you know, maybe it's a na ve bet that regardless of the enormous transformations that the country may be in store for, it may be a kind of bet that they won't be as significant as they appear to be.
PSF: Then the question is, why is Bush so distressing to you and to so many other people? I haven't read Philip Roth's new book [The Plot Against America, which Marcus reviewed for the Los Angeles Times], but my impression is that one of the things the book's about is how much an election can really transform a nation, and how much can really be at stake in the identity of the president.
GM: Well, Roth's book is funny that way, in that it's questionable whether Lindbergh becoming president transforms the nation, or whether he simply is able to draw on aspects of the national identity that had never really been exploited before or exploited on such a mass scale essentially turning the entire country in the early 1940s into what the Klan was able to turn states like Indiana into in the 1920s. So it's not as if the country's being remade out of whole cloth hardly. And it's also quite odd that at the end of the book, Franklin Roosevelt rides in over the Hill with the cavalry and puts everything to right again, and the country goes on as if nothing had happened, as if this strange interregnum had been some kind of fantasy. So that's very tricky.
The thing about Bush is that he's an extraordinarily effective demagogue. So was his father. They know how to play on people's fears, and even more than that, on their bigotries. Both of them George W. Bush more so than his father, I think are in essence bullies. They take pleasure in lording it over other people, pushing other people around, in stomping people in the face metaphorically, and by going to war, not metaphorically at all. These are very small-minded people with large talent, and they're frightening because certainly Bush more than his father understands how to use power.
One thing that Ronald Reagan should have taught everybody is that this whole idea of political capital...if that phrase has any meaning, then it is capital. And when you spend capital, if you spend it wisely or if you spend it with verve, and take chances that other people are afraid to take then you don't expend your capital, you don't use it up; you make more.
The way you amass political capital is by spending it, by using it, and Bush understands that very, very well. If you're timid, then you have a limited amount of capital to work with, and [you] spend it slowly, and sooner or later it's all gone. And that's not the way he works. So, he's a frightening figure because he's very, very good at what he does, and he is very clear on what he wants on what kind of country he wants to live in. And it's a country very similar to the one he grew up in, which is to say a world of privilege, where you never meet anybody unlike yourself and you never have to think about anybody other than yourself, and where straight white males have all the power, and all the legitimacy, and all the rights.
PSF: Do you think the Democratic Party has any chance of becoming as ruthless and seductive as the Republicans have become?
GM: Well, certainly not as ruthless. It's not in the nature of what the Democrats are about, and the Democratic philosophy of government, and the Democratic Party's vision of what the country is and what it's for. You can't combine ruthlessness with fairness, sadism with therapy [Laughs]. It's self-contradictory. No, certainly not.
PSF: The two essays I find really scary in The Rose and the Briar are the ones about "Delia's Gone," and the one about "Frankie and Albert," or "Frankie and Johnny." There's something about the idea that these stories were based on real crimes that's so much scarier than anything the songs could say. Does that make any sense to you?
GM: Well, it's not the way I would see it, but it makes sense that somebody could see it that way.
PSF: How do you see it?
GM: I think what goes on in "Delia" is much more appalling and disgusting, much more of a waste, than what goes on in "Frankie and Albert." Yes, these are songs based on real incidents that we can document. There were trials; there are records of what happened, and there's testimony. And then there's the song, which transforms the event as it happened into something that can travel, that's portable, that holds its shape.
And what happens with "Delia" is, you're really talking about a couple of kids, and one guy's going around bragging, saying "I fucked you from here to Wednesday," and the girl's saying, "No, you didn't," and keeps going on, and she's saying "You're nothing but a son-of-a-bitch," and he pulls out a gun and shoots her. The waste there, the squalor of it all, is horrible.
In "Frankie and Albert," you're dealing with a much more ambiguous situation. You've got a woman in her thirties who's a prostitute, and her pimp who she's clearly madly in love with is about 16 years old, and he's this very glamorous character: he's good-looking, he's a ragtime piano player who has to beat the girls off with a stick (except he doesn't beat them off), and he's cheating on her. Not only is he cheating on her, after she finds out that he's been running around with Nellie Bly, he comes back to their place and slugs her, because she hasn't brought in enough money that night. He's her pimp, she's the prostitute, and she's not doing her job. So he beats her up, and she claims that he pulled a knife on her, so she shot him. In any case, she got off. The judge let her go, self-defense. That is less of a waste. That is a crime that the law makes an allowance for.
What's fascinating to me is the way one crime gets turned into a ballad and lasts, and how other crimes that might seem almost identical don't; either they don't get turned into ballads at all, or they do and it's stillborn, and nobody wants to sing it it doesn't travel, it doesn't get made into sheet music or become a Broadway play, like Frankie & Johnny. It doesn't go anywhere. They just die. I don't understand that, I don't know how it happens. I think Cecil Brown, who wrote the "Frankie and Albert" essay, has a pretty good understanding of how it works.
PSF: Now, do you see that as a transformation? Do you think it was true at one point in America's history that these crimes or incidents would grab hold of someone's imagination and spread and that that no longer happens? Or is it something that can happen depending on the imagination of the songwriter, the singer, and the nature of the crime itself?
GM: No, I don't really understand how it works. It'd be easy enough to say, as Cecil Brown has said, that the Scott Peterson case is absolutely tailor-made for the ballad. David Thomas, in this book, in his piece on "Dead Man's Curve" and "Wreck of the Old '97," has this dictum: What the ballad wants, the ballad gets.
In other words, if the main character in the ballad has to be married even if he wasn't, even if the ballad's based on a real event well, he's going to be married. And if he has to be heroic instead of a drunk, well, he's going to be heroic. If he has to be a drunk instead of heroic, he'll be a drunk! Depending on what shape the ballad needs to take. It used to be that the ballads that were based on true crimes emerged almost right away, sometimes that very night, or the next night, but usually very, very quickly. Oftentimes the real-life characters in the ballads would live out their lives to the soundtrack of a song about themselves; that was true with Stagger Lee, and was true for all of Frankie Baker's quite long life: from 1899 into the 1950s she heard that song over and over and over again, countless versions in the movies, on Broadway, on the radio, people walking down the street, when they would see her, singing it at her.
What Cecil Brown has said about the Scott Peterson case it's not just that this guy murdered his wife because she was pregnant and he didn't want to be tied down, he had all these fantasies that he got from Jack Kerouac's On the Road, a book that has probably ruined more lives than it's saved Cecil says, "Okay, fine, this kind of thing happens all the time. But he killed her on Christmas Eve." That's what the ballad wants; it wants a detail like that. It wants the bodies washing up at Easter-time; that's what the ballad needs.
I don't know. You could say today that all this stuff gets devoured by the public so completely and so quickly that there's no room for the kind of contemplation, or the kind of immediacy, that a ballad demands, so that the Scott Peterson case you know, there's already been a TV movie, it's been on the cover of People countless times, and God knows what forms it's going to take.
But look at Charley Starkweather and Caril Fugate. Now, here's a shocking, terrifying series of crimes that take place in Nebraska and Wyoming in 1958, where these two teenagers start off by killing the girl's parents and her baby sister, or baby brother, and then move through Lincoln, Nebraska and are killing elderly people, killing other teenagers. And it's just absolutely horrifying. It gets turned into a number of movies before it ever becomes a song, and becomes a song only many years later, in 1982 I guess, when Bruce Springsteen picks it up and makes it into "Nebraska," and creates a much more poetic, much more metaphorical ballad. He doesn't name the victims, he doesn't tell you exactly who got killed when, doesn't even tell you how many people got killed, and yet he's basing the ballad on real things that Charley Starkweather actually said.
You know that incredible line Charley Starkweather's imagining himself on the electric chair, and he says, "When they pull that switch and they snap my poor head back/ Make sure my pretty baby is sitting right there on my lap"? Bruce didn't even make that up! Charley Starkweather really said that, not quite so fluidly, but that's what he said. So this is a ballad that's following the poetic contours that existed inside the gore of the event very, very closely, and many, many years later, whereas according to Cecil Brown's research, the ballad of Frankie Baker, of Frankie and Albert, was written the night after the shooting. The same day it made the papers.
PSF: One of the things I like about your essay "Envoi" that finishes up the book is that you admit that folk music can be really embarrassing. I remember being dragged to see Burl Ives when I was seven years old and I thought I was going to die of boredom. If it's true that folk music has all this stuff in it, all this dark stuff about murder and sex and sadism, why is it boring to some people? What is it about folk music that makes people either obsessed fans who have to know every version of a song that was ever performed or just bored to tears?
GM: I think it depends on who you're exposed to. There are singers who can make the most thrilling material deadly dull. It just depends on who it is, and it depends on what mood you bring to a given performance it depends on how it strikes you. When I first heard the Kingston Trio's "Tom Dooley" on the radio in 1958, it was absolutely shocking. This was a period of time when rock and roll had gone really soft, and there wasn't much to listen to on Top 40 radio that wasn't embarrassing in its own way. I think in 1958 the number one song of the year was "Tammy" by Debbie Reynolds you know, talk about embarrassing. Everything it seemed had become very clichιd and it was very, very hard to find the surprises that, a year or two before, just seemed to be everywhere. You couldn't wait to get up in the morning and turn on the radio and see what bizarre freak would be shouting in your ear, and who would follow him or her.
And so, you turn on the radio and here's this guy talking Dave Guard of the Kingston Trio and he's giving you a little spoken-word introduction to this song, "This is a song about the immortal triangle," rrrrrrr, and you think "God, how did this get on the radio?" And then this song comes on, and it's so different from everything else on the radio it so much doesn't belong that people respond to it. They responded to it in the same way that people did when "Smells Like Teen Spirit" came on the radio. It was just so shockingly different [that] it stopped you, made you ask what it was.
It's perfectly possible for someone to sing "Barbara Allen" and leave you turned to dust. And yet, it just depends. We had a show in New York a couple of weeks ago, a "Rose and the Briar Floorshow," it was called. It was produced by Hal Willner and Jeanine Nichols, who do extraordinary musical events they have the ability to bring together all different sorts of people, to play for free, for some reason that may escape anyone's ability to explain it. In this case, they drew on all kinds of people, some quite famous, some not famous at all, to devote their time and their energy and their talent to an event organized around a book that a lot of them had probably never heard of, and certainly a book edited by two people none of them knew. So God knows how they were able to do it.
At the very end of this evening the way it worked was that various of the writers from the book read from their pieces, and then the songs that they read about would be performed, and for the writers who weren't able to be there Sean Wilentz and I would read a little bit of their piece and then the song would be performed at the very end Terre Roche of the Roches came out to do "Barbara Allen." She was playing acoustic guitar, and she was accompanied by a punk cellist from the Northwest named Madigan, who recently moved to New York this very innocent-looking little blond woman who appeared to be about 19, and is quite a bit older than that, and just looks like she has no experience, like she just walked out of a convent or something.
So Terre Roche proceeds to sing "Barbara Allen," and I swear it was as if I had never heard the song before. It was as if the world had stopped turning. I felt like I had never understood the song before. I had never understood what was so terrible about what Barbara Allen did, and this night, I understood it, and I thought, "Oh my God. She did that? Oh, I don't believe it."
So it depends on what you bring to a performance and what the performance brings to you. What I found so oppressive about folk music when I was a kid was the ideology behind it. This goes way back into the twenties and thirties, when the Communist Party in the United States seized on folk music as the music of the people, showing that the people were full of vitality and had their own true culture and were able to resist the depredations of mass culture.
And that was a large part of the Communist Party slogan in the thirties: "Communism is just 20th Century Americanism." And the ideology was that when people sit down to sing or stand up to sing, they are communicating universal values of love and community and fraternity, in a universal language. And so, even if you're singing a murder ballad, you're not singing about a real murder, you're not singing about blood on the forest floor, you're singing about the fact that we're all together, we're all alike, we're all one. So the ideology of the performance overrides any specific song, and it determines the nature of the performance, which is warm and open and smiling and friendly. And that's not really [Laughs] what folk music is about, I don't think. That's what I found so awful at the Quaker school that I went to in Menlo Park in the 1950s.
PSF: I don't know if you want to talk about this, but there are little bits and pieces of your life that I can pick up from your books, yet there's no account of your childhood or your family or anything do you want to talk about that?
GM: Not really. Unless there's a point to be made, unless somebody wants to make a point, I don't particularly find the details of other people's lives all that interesting; I mean people out there in the world, I don't mean the lives of my friends or something like that. To take someone who I'm fascinated with as a performer, I don't care about Bill Pullman's childhood, or Sheryl Lee's. I'm not interested. I don't think that the details of one's life really tell you very much about whom they are, or why they became what they became. I think the choices people make have a lot more to do with that than the circumstances of their lives. Also, I guess I just have a very strong sense of privacy. There are things about my family background that I find actually interesting, and sometimes I talk about them, but I don't think my life itself is very interesting.
PSF: I guess I was asking more about where in the country you grew up, and how those places shaped you, if they did.
GM: Well, I was born in San Francisco, I grew up on the Peninsula, I've lived in the Bay Area my entire life. I've been other places [Laughs], but, you know, I'm a Californian, and I was very, very lucky to grow up in California when I did. I couldn't imagine having a better childhood. I don't mean in terms of my parents or my siblings, I mean growing up in a suburb with great weather where you could just get on your bike and go wherever you wanted to go, or a little bit later you could get in the car and cruise up and down the El Camino every night during high school, looking for fun or trouble, as the case may be.
I thought that was all wonderful, and I was aware of it at the time, that this was great. And I became aware of what a great time it was to grow up later, when I realized what a great education I got in public schools, how good the schools were then, not only in terms of what books you read, but inspiring teachers and a sense of your own competency, your own ability to do things. I went to public schools at a time when they were all being built.
When I went to Elizabeth Van Auken school in Palo Alto when I was in first, second grade that was in the early fifties, and the school had been built a couple years before. It was named for a teacher who was still alive and still showed up every year on School Day. When I went to Menlo Atherton High School in 1959, I think it was built in 1951. So these schools were new, and they had a sense of their own newness and a sense of being part of a new world. And it was also the fifties, when there was more money flowing through the economy than anybody knew what to do with, and it was a time when companies like General Motors and General Electric had come upon this incredible revelation that if they were actually going to sell the stuff they were making, then the people they wanted to buy it would have to have [Laughs] the money to pay for it! Therefore, it made sense to pay workers more so they could spend what they earned! Wow, what an incredible idea, and it really worked.
You kind of wonder why the captains of industry don't see the wisdom in that; not the social nobility of it, but the practicalities of it. Not the way the economy works anymore. So it could be that the time I grew up had a lot more to do with my luck than the place, I don't know.
When you went to Cal in 1963, which was when I started, I can't imagine that anybody could have gotten a better education anywhere else in the world than I got, at a public university, where my tuition, which wasn't called that, was $62 a semester.
PSF: Did you have to do ROTC then?
GM: No. There was still ROTC at Cal, but it had ceased to be compulsory a few years before I got there.
PSF: As to the question of whether the details of public figures' lives are interesting: I see folk music, or what's called folk music now, having turned away from historical events and away from the world, and towards a kind of solipsism, confessional songwriting.
GM: Well, as Sean Wilentz said after he went to the 2002 Newport Folk Festival, "The whole thing was Shawn Colvin" you know, "self-indulgent adolescent angst," I think was the phrase he used.
It's a lot easier to write that kind of stuff than it is to take a real event, or to make up an event that could be real, and bring it to life with detail and cadence and the different voices you sometimes have to use for the different characters in a song. And I also think over the last thirty or forty years, people have really been brainwashed by certain aspects of progressive education, where the whole idea of what education is shifts from instruction, or opening people very specifically to their cultural legacies, to something that's much more therapeutic giving people self-esteem, letting people know that they're important, that they have something to contribute, that they're special and so, if you say something that's about your real feelings, then nobody can criticize you. Nobody can say, "Well, that's a load of shit."
"Well, how can you say that? This is how I feel!"
"Yeah, but how you feel is FUCKED!"
That's a healthy way of discussing things, I think. Maybe a little rough, but that's the way to go, as far as I'm concerned. So it's much easier to write a song about your feelings, and cloak it with that kind of invulnerability, than it is to live in the world, it seems to me. There are certain performers that have really gathered followings over the last ten, fifteen years, who completely baffle me, people like Jeff Buckley, Rufus Wainwright. I think Rufus Wainwright's father is [Laughs] a thousand times more interesting than his son will ever be, writing these dumb, jokey songs about whatever strikes him. You can tell he dashes 'em off in five minutes, whether it's a song about he and his mother getting drunk together, in a really pathetic Alcoholics Anonymous way, or rather just alcoholics' way, or something about George Bush, or for that matter a dead skunk. He can just throw this stuff up against the wall and it almost always sticks. But pop music is a field where it gives you people to fall in love with, just as folk music is a field that gives you a thousand different variants of a song to track down, if that's what you want to do, and I can understand the appeal of that. I just do my best to resist it.
PSF: What really bothers me about a person like Rufus Wainwright, who for some reason I equate in my mind with Thom Yorke, is the voice he uses. I feel like I'm in Invasion of the Body Snatchers or something: "Why don't you people hear that this is totally false?"
GM: I agree. And when you hear passion, despair, and frustration, that creeps through, that it's only the artifice of the song that gives it its physicality, that makes it seem real; the artifice of the song is like a mask the singer can put on that allows him or her to actually communicate what otherwise he or she would never be able to say willing to say, have the nerve to say and when that comes through, it's really shocking. You put something like the Mendoza Line up against the plaints of Rufus Wainwright, or the cleverness of Rufus Wainwright, and the sorrow of Jeff Buckley, and, God, who would you rather meet?
Well, I know who I'd rather meet, but quite plainly, lots of other people would rather meet this sad, sensitive guy that they could save. The people in the Mendoza Line, they don't want to be saved. They just want the country to be saved, and that's very different. And they know that they can't save it. Their music, to me, is like the Mekons' of the eighties, it's a music of loneliness, alienation and a fantasy of comradeship. That's the dangerous stuff today; that's in their music, over the last several of their albums, and the last one, Fortune. You know, they have a song on Fortune, "It's a Long Line, But it Moves Quickly"? It's a very, very funny, incredibly sarcastic song really nasty. More and more I've been thinking of it as my anthem for the next four years. I hope it moves quickly.
PSF: As a brief aside: you were speaking earlier about how certain performers could sing "Barbara Allen" and not even come close to what the song's about, not surprise you in any way. I don't know if you've seen the new New Yorker, but there's an article by Dave Eggers, who's probably my least favorite writer, about Monty Python, and it's boring! And I thought only he could make Monty Python boring.
GM: Well, I don't know. I love Monty Python I love the records, I never liked the TV show. And a lot of the records are just the TV show, they're just the soundtrack, the dialogue with sound effects, and I like that much better. I think there's something about the TV show that's very obvious, where everything is telegraphed, and when you leave out the visual dimension it becomes much less likely. But I think it's very difficult to write about comedy. I think somebody could probably write well about Monty Python, but I bet it's very difficult.
With "Barbara Allen," it's not a question of people making it boring. The version of "Barbara Allen" that's used on the CD that accompanies The Rose & the Briar same name, same cover, [but] they're not part of a package, you have to get them separately is by Jean Ritchie, from 1961, and it's the classic performance of "Barbara Allen." It's done a cappella; it's extremely beautiful, it's clear the singer has lived this song all her life. And Bob Dylan's version, from a bootleg called The Second Gaslight Tape, it's very long, it's eight minutes long, and so passionate, and it really seems as if everything in life comes to bear and is at stake when he tells the story.
And I can appreciate that, but I guess I can appreciate it in a kind of aesthetic way, because it wasn't until I heard Terre Roche do that song that it hurt that I had to surrender to it, that I had to admit my own ignorance and say, "There's something in this song that I don't understand. There's wisdom about life in this song that has escaped me all my life, and I'm just now beginning to get a glimpse of what that might be." See, that's my weakness; that's not the failure of other people in their performance of it.
Years and years ago, I wrote a very nasty piece about the Roches, on the occasion of their first album, which I found just unbearably cloying and precious and preening and self-congratulatory, and I also was getting sick of the fabulous reviews it was getting from every New York critic. They were a local band. They were a downtown Greenwich Village trio that everybody loved, and everybody in this case had access to national media, and managed to make a local band, which really deserved and needed no more than local success, into a national phenomenon. They were unable to live up to that status, because they really weren't that good. And then here's Terre Roche, all these years later, and we're on stage together, and I'm kind of hoping she doesn't remember the piece I wrote about her and her sisters all those years ago, and I'm also not expecting anything. Boy, was I wrong.
PSF: On the subject of criticism, do you think there are places in a song that criticism can't reach, that it just can't talk about? If so, what are they?
GM: No, I don't think so. It depends on the critic. It depends on what talents a person has to bring to bear on the object of criticism, and how much time, how much effort you're willing to spend to get it right, to stick with it.
PSF: Well, let me put it a different way. Are there things that you can't talk about? Are there particular songs or movies that you just fall mute before?
GM: Yeah! But then I, you know, tighten my belt and snap my suspenders and give it another try. Sure. There is stuff all through The Manchurian Candidate that just leaves me awestruck, and has since I first saw it in 1962, and I really wasn't able to write about that for many, many years. And certainly anybody who wants to read the little book I wrote about that movie may very well come away saying, "Yeah, and he still wasn't able to. He still wasn't able to get at what is so remarkable here, what is so uncanny, what's so frightening."
But you keep trying. That's what criticism is all about. It is the attempt to get inside the moment that is already speaking lucidly and translate it not because the world needs you to do that, but because there's something appealing about it, if you have a certain sensibility. Let's say you can't sing. You can't carry a tune. You have no musical ability at all, and you hear a song, and you want nothing more in the world than to sing that song, or to feel the way the person who's singing it must feel, you imagine, to sing that fully, that completely, that well, whatever. But you don't have any musical ability. So in order to sing the song, if you're somebody like me, you write about it. You translate it. And in so doing, you end up with something different, and something that may tell a different story, that may be interesting to other people on some terms. It's part of a conversation.
There are certainly places in works of art that I can't reach, but it would be arrogant beyond my abilities to say that nobody else could reach them. Every good critic, every critic I've ever admired, whether it's Howard Hampton or Pauline Kael or Dara Moskowitz who is the restaurant critic for City Pages in Minneapolis or countless other people, I've admired them because they can do things I can't do! Because I read them, and I say, "Wow! How'd she do that? How does that happen? What's that about?"
One of the greatest moments of criticism in my entire life one of the great experiences of criticism took place in 1962 in June in Menlo Park at a theater which has just recently closed, but it was the big movie theater in Menlo Park (there was one theater for Hollywood movies, one theater for foreign movies or art movies). This was right after school was out in June, and everybody had gone to see some awful movie, and everybody was either drunk or wanting to be drunk, and the atmosphere was totally raucous. This movie was called The Pirates of Blood River; I've never forgotten about it. It takes place, I think, in Brazil, maybe the 18th Century; it has to do with a religious war, Catholics versus Huguenots, just really ridiculous, and a lot of people getting shoved into Blood River where they're eaten by piranhas; that's why it's called Blood River, because you step in to this river and you'll get bitten. And at one point during the movie everybody's just absolutely stupefied by the badness of this thing this guy stood up, and he turned his back to the screen, raised his arms in the air, and said, "I NOMINATE THIS MOVIE SHIT FUCK OF THE YEAR 1962!" God! God, this is so brilliant. I wish I'd said that. So that's where criticism began for me.
PSF: I was having this late night drunken argument with my girlfriend the other night we were talking about a particularly egregious piece of unpublished writing, and about the responsibilities of writers and writing. And she said, "Well, what if this thing gets published and goes out into the world?" And I said, "That's the role of criticism, there should be critics out there making a big stink about it, there should be a public response to it." And she said, "Yeah, well there is no public criticism in this country." I don't know how much that's true
GM: What does that mean, "public criticism?"
PSF: I can't remember now if she said "public" or "popular." But I think what she meant by that was: that book might reach somebody who wouldn't hear any voices in the newspaper or on the radio or on TV saying that it was an immoral, bad piece of writing.
GM: I don't see criticism as playing any kind of gate-keeping role, or any kind of moral guardian role, or guarding the public health. Criticism is written by people who have to write. Writers write: that's what they do. It's not a choice. It's a way of being in the world; that's what defines a writer: he or she has to write. Critics have to criticize, and if they can't do it if they can't wrestle with something that has inflamed them in one way or another, then they're less alive, or they're not alive at all, and they don't really have a choice with that.
Different people find different ways of handling that, and some critics become artists: some critics become performers, they become film directors, they become novelists. There are sorts of people who make that transition, and then there are people like me who don't. But I don't think there's any good critic who sees himself or herself as protecting the public or guiding the public, protecting the public from what's bad and guiding the public toward what's good. I mean, I think Pauline Kael was very messianic about certain works something like Bonnie and Clyde, which was being reviled by every other critic in New York as mindless violence that was going to corrupt the soul of the nation and ruin the country's youth and God knows what else; she said, "No, this is alive, this is funny, this is new, this is powerful, this is about our life right now, and, my God, you ought to at least open yourself to it, give yourself a chance to see it, make up your own mind." So maybe there's some public good in that, there's some public role. But also, she wanted to wrestle with that movie.
You know, there's a wonderful collage by Richard Hamilton, the British pop artist, I think it was done in 1956. It's really one of the founding works of Pop Art. It's called "Just What is it That Makes Today's Home So Different, So Appealing?" It's this really savage satire of modern postwar living, set in a modern living room. There's a coffee table and there's a vacuum cleaner and there's all kinds of stuff like that. And that's really the critical question: just what is it that makes this something so different, so appealing, so appalling, so horrifying, so seductive? That's the question you're trying to ask, not, "Is this good, is this bad?" I mean, there are plenty of critics who do that; they're worthless. David Denby is the classic example. "Is this good for you?"
PSF: I don't think the argument we were having was about whether there should be somebody protecting people from things that might corrupt them. I think it was about, what if you're a person, especially an isolated person I guess this also has to do with the question, what is culture and who has access to it but what if you came across this thing and you didn't hear anybody shouting "This sucks!" Not to say that if you're not a critic, you can't make up your own mind about something, but just in terms of what criticism is or what it ought to be, I feel like especially music criticism now, at least in the major magazines there's not a lot of strong opinion one way or another.
GM: Well, I think that's true. I'm not quite sure why that is. I think that is true, but what a critic wants is a reader who is himself or herself critically inclined, someone who asks questions, someone who questions what he or she responds to, however it's responded to. You don't want an empty vessel to pour your opinions into. What could be more dull? What could be less compelling than to convince somebody you're right? I remember once reading this doesn't exactly address the question but somebody saying that it's very important for critics to be right occasionally. Which struck me as really funny, and also wrong. I didn't understand why it was important to be right, or even exactly what that meant. There was an article written, oh...some time in the late seventies I think, and it mentioned a whole bunch of people the writer of the article thought were good rock critics, and it named maybe half a dozen, a dozen people. And one of the things it said was, "None of them were fooled by Jobriath."
Jobriath was a singer who was promoted I think in the late seventies, in the mid-seventies maybe, as a "true queer." You know, David Bowie was the phony queer, but this guy was the real queer, and somehow this was going to make him a star. And a huge amount of money was put behind this guy. I think he was on Elektra; it was a period when Elektra was going for every absurd shtick imaginable, and that's all they were buying and all they were selling, was shtick.
So, here comes Jobriath, and he puts out this one terrible record, and he's never heard from again, and I never gave him another thought, until I met a guy, about my age, from a Midwestern state, who knew from the time he was very young that he was gay, and in that Midwestern state, in his town, he had no way of expressing this, no one to talk to about it, no way of understanding who he was or what was going on with his whole being. And not only was it the fact that a homosexual would be promoted as a desirable object, like Jobriath, but this became of huge importance this guy was a huge music fan, worshipped the Rolling Stones, still does. The Jobriath album was a record that he listened to obsessively, and I found out later that this was true for thousands of people.
On the level of shtick, the album was a matter of self-affirmation for a lot of people, but they delved into the music on that album as if it had to hold the keys to the kingdom, as if it had to mean more, say more, express more than maybe it appeared to do. So they were able to find meaning and life in that album, that somebody like me I wouldn't necessarily say I could never have found that, but I would never have bothered to do the work to find what other people found. So, to say that a bunch of good rock critics weren't fooled by Jobriath was maybe to say that they were simply fooled by their own prejudices against what might lie behind marketing. When a marketing campaign is self-evidently phony, that doesn't mean that what's being marketed is phony, or a lie. Tricky.
PSF: You mentioned David Denby; you've written a couple I think it's fair to say attacks on his writing, and I agree with them, but is it fair to see this as a fight over Pauline Kael's legacy?
GM: No. Pauline can speak for herself, dead or alive. She doesn't need me or any of her other friends to do it for her. I have to admit that I found David Denby's piece "My Life as a Paulette" absolutely disgusting and reprehensible and immoral. I could probably think of worse things to say if you give me a minute. But the real killer in that piece is, he talks about how he wrote some stuff, and maybe he gets a phone call or a note from Pauline encouraging him, and they become friends, and they go to movies together, and this is an experience that many, many people had with Pauline her reaching out to younger writers.
PSF: Because she was generous.
GM: And because that was a way that she stayed young, she stayed aware of things she might otherwise not be aware of. She was interested in what other people had to say, and she was interested in what they knew that she didn't know. She was interested in the world that way; she wasn't just Doing Good.
In any case, the day comes, according to David Denby in this piece of his, when she says to him, "You know, you're really not a writer. You should do something else, maybe you should become a director, but you're really not a writer." And I don't know if she really said that, I have no reason to think that Denby is making it up. I have difficulty imagining her saying that, being that cruel, because that's a cruel thing to say: even if it's cruel-to-be-kind, it's still cruel. I have difficulty seeing her say that. But let's assume she did, I don't have any reason to think she didn't.
Well, she was right! He's not a writer. He has no sense of words. It is quite clear that this is a person who writes for prestige, for self-affirmation, out of some neurotic self-importance that has nothing to do with love of words or the compulsion to translate an experience from one language into another. That's clearly not there. His writing has never been alive it's not even alive to itself. The reason I find it so difficult to imagine Pauline saying that is, you know, she's become friendly with somebody, and she realizes the guy's really not very good well, so what! There are a lot of writers out there who aren't so good, they're not doing all that great damage to the public good you really don't have to call them off. So I don't know.
I think it is quite odd that the New Yorker has run a number of pieces over the past couple of years that have seemed to be there to take down or erase the reputation of their most celebrated, or notorious, critic of the last forty, fifty years. Very odd that a magazine needs to pile dirt on somebody's grave, to make sure that she's really dead. I wonder what they're worried about.
PSF: Can you tell me anything about the book you're working on?
GM: Well, I'm working on two books. One is, for lack of a real title, called Prophecy and the American Voice. It's a very tricky project that, in one way or another, I've been working on for a long time. It tries to get at the way in which the prophetic voice, and "prophet" or "prophetic" as understood in the Old Testament sense of someone who calls upon a society to judge itself, or says "God is about to judge you! Look at yourself, see where you have failed, see where you have betrayed the promises you've made." [It's about] how that's an integral part of what the United States, or America, has always been. And that there's this shift that takes place in the United States from a community that the prophet says will be judged by God for its betrayals for the promises it's made to God to a community that must judge itself for the betrayal of the promises it's made to itself. That's the theoretical frame of the book. [And the book argues] that in the present [the role of the prophet] is taken up almost solely by artists. And that this question remains alive, the question of our community betraying itself, betraying the promises that we've made to ourselves, is at the center of our most interesting art, which doesn't appear to have any sort of political dimensions. So that's that book, and a tricky project.
And the other book is a book about "Like a Rolling Stone," which was a publisher's idea. He called up and he said he wanted me to write a short book on "Like a Rolling Stone," and I originally said no, because I thought it was not a very good idea and I was writing this Prophecy book anyway, couldn't do two books at once. And when I mentioned it to people, everybody said, "Wow, what a great idea!" And I'd say "It is? Tell me why it is." And I found that I couldn't stop thinking about it, so after a couple of days I said I would do it because I had come up with this brilliant idea that I could write this book that was supposed to be 45,000 words I could write it, I could do the research, I could interview people, I could do whatever was necessary in a month.
And I did, I wrote it last May, and it's coming out in April. Right now I'm just doing the second pages, making corrections and changes and stuff, and it didn't turn out to be 45,000 words, it's more like 65,000 words. And it was really fun, it was great fun. And I also thought, "Well, this is the way to write books do 'em in a month! What a great idea!" I don't know that I have another subject I could write a book about in a month; people may say when they read this one that this wasn't something I could write a book about in a month either, but we'll see.
PSF: What did you think of the Fiery Furnaces' second album? I know you really liked the first one.
GM: I just could not connect with it at all, and I don't understand why. Formally I don't see what's so different about it, I don't see that the singing is so different, or the orchestration, but it just left me absolutely cold. And I love their first record, and I still think it's absolutely wonderful and not like anything else around. Very embarrassing, you know, I wrote this rave review of this album and got the name wrong I called it [Gallowsbird's] Park instead of Bark. But I just think it's fantastic and mysterious and unsolvable, and the second one I played many times, left it alone for a couple of months, played it in different moods, and I just can't connect with it. Don't know why.
PSF: How much time a day do you spend listening to records?
GM: It depends on what I'm doing. I can play records all day or I can go a whole day without playing one.
PSF: Do you listen to music when you write?
GM: Yeah. But...I listen to music when I'm working proofreading and revising, stuff like that. But when I'm writing I mostly listen to comedy records. Just need that clatter and noise in the background.
PSF: I was watching a rerun of Saturday Night Live the other night that couldn't have been more than a year old, and in the Weekend Update part of it they had two Clinton jokes, and I think one of them was a Lewinsky joke. I thought it was amazing that he's still alive in some way; he could have completely disappeared. In some ways he has, you see him every once in a while on C-SPAN...
GM: I think he's kept a very low profile, aside from publishing his book and doing some appearances for that; before that I don't think he was in public very much at all. I think what's so disgusting, and this doesn't really have anything to do with Clinton, is the way people are pigeonholed. People become one-liners. You know, Clinton is a sex joke, and that's all the people on Saturday Night Live can do with him. And Tina Fey is very, very sharp and imaginative and a terrific writer, but she can't come up with anything else about Clinton. Sex sex sex, fuck fuck fuck that's just all there is to it. It's ridiculous.
PSF: Even to make the same old jokes about him, there's a kind of nostalgia for him.
GM: No, I don't think so. Just a dog you can keep kicking.
PSF: Speaking of people being reduced, have you heard the Nirvana box set?
GM: No, I haven't heard it yet.
PSF: I think it's pretty awful; it's one of those box sets where you hear eight alternate versions of the same song over and over.
GM: Well, it can't be worse than that garbage they stuck on London Calling.
PSF: Isn't that awful?
GM: Embarrassing. There comes a point when the bootlegger, whether it's official or not, has to exercise some judgment [Laughs] as to what's worth putting out there. These are people just messing around I mean, anyone who's ever spent time in a studio knows how boring it can be, and this is real proof of that. You can't even say, "Oh, look how this turned into that, isn't that fascinating," or even, "God, this doesn't sound like it ever could become anything, but it did" no, you just can't listen to that crap. And it sounds so bad, it's so muffled. It's a real insult. Really, really terrible.
So, I don't know. I didn't get the Nirvana box set and I haven't gone out and spent the money for it yet.
PSF: I heard that Gang of Four is reuniting.
GM: Well, they were offered a lot of money to play some shows in Europe, and presumably they're going to do that.
PSF: What do you make, if anything, of the sort of resurrection of that sound, or at least that people think it's hip to own Gang of Four records.
GM: I don't know...Nothing. Nothing in particular. I think it's good that the music is available; I think it's wonderful that there's a Lora Logic collection [Fanfare in the Garden on Kill Rock Stars]. Someone once asked Ed Ward if he knew what I was working on, and I was working on Lipstick Traces at that time, and he said, "Yeah, Greil's writing a book that's going to try and prove that Lora Logic can sing," and that's a one-line review of that book I really treasure. It's good that stuff's available, and people can connect to it or not, if they're able to or choose to.
As far as the Gang of Four go, they didn't make much money when they were a band, they were remarkable, they deserve whatever they can make now as far as I'm concerned, and you have no idea what will happen when a band whose music is based in the whole notion of instability, of things falling apart and then recombining in unpredictable ways you have no idea what will happen when they get on stage. It could surprise them more than anyone in the audience, who knows. If I were around, I'd be there.
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