Friday, April 26, 2013

Book Reviews: Conversations with Greil Marcus, Ed. by Joe Bonomo

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2013
Images from the Internet

Conversations with Greil Marcus
Edited by Joe Bonomo
University Press of Mississippi (Jackson, MS)
Literary Conversations Series
217 pages; 2012
ISBN: 978-1-61703-623-1

Greil Marcus is… well, if you don’t know who he is, and you regularly read blogs like this, you should be ashamed of yourself. His wide-ranged knowledge of history and culture fueled through music as a foundation is unique and inspiring, whether or not you agree with his conclusions. I have read three or four of his books, which still remain on my shelf, and I even had the pleasure to see the off-off-Broadway mounting of the play, Lipstick Traces, based on his tome of the same title.

I picture Marcus as sort of the anti-Lester Bangs. The work of Bangs was intelligent, but his stream of consciousness reviews – a large share of which I am going to posit were foisted by an indulgence of mind-altering substances – were of the moment and full of instantaneous fervor. Marcus, on the other hand, is an author of careful measure and import, even when he starts in one place and meanders through time and space, as he does in most of his books, covering diverse topics and managing to tie them into a larger picture. Ironically, Marcus also edited the works of Lester Bangs, Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung: The Work of a Legendary Critic (1988). Another polar difference between the two writers is that Bangs would always include himself as part of nearly any story, whereas Marcus prides himself as keeping his work and personal life as two separate entities. But more about this later.

Joe Bonomo
As Marcus did with Bang’s work, this one is edited by music scholar Joe Bonomo, who has also written books on such diverse subjects as the Fleshtones, Jerry Lee Lewis and AC/DC. Here, we are introduced to a collection of interviews conducted over decades of Marcus rather than by him. The sources vary from printed works, on-line questions from various music fans, and Canadian radio (transcribed by Bonomo). Each interview chapter is listed chronologically over three decades, done in Q&A fashion.

One of the many reasons this book is important is that Marcus has pride, as he states in this book’s prologue written by Bonomo, in that he keeps himself and his non-music life as separate entities. Of course, there actually is no such thing as objectivity, as all observations are filtered through our own experiences (in the same way that all films and novels about the past and future are actually about the present). In fact, Marcus states, …I think there’s a tremendous amount of showing off that goes on, a lot of self-promotion. I think that if you want to use the word “I” in a piece, you have to earn the right. I don’t mean that you have to be around a long time. I mean that in terms of the writing of a given piece, you have to justify leaping out, and you have to see that somehow the authority is backed up. You can’t just assume that the reader ought to give a shit about you or anyone else. You have to earn the reader’s attention, you can’t take it for granted. (42; 1988) Of course, the “I” was one of Lester Bang’s fortes. But I digress…

Part of what makes this collection so important is that Marcus is the interviewee, rather than the topic originator, so he gets to go beyond the academic and can discuss his personal drives and motivations. He explains, I’ve lived a very conventional life. I was never a hippie, I was never into drugs. I was married when I was twenty-on and I’m still married. I have two kids, I live in a house, I’ve made my own career. I don’t work for a company, I’m an independent writer. I’ve been really lucky…. (26; 1984) I don’t waste my time writing about why I hate Journey, or why the Jefferson Starship is beneath contempt, or why I haven’t listened to a Grateful Dead album for God knows how many years. There’s just so much interesting stuff to write about … Kenny Rogers might be interesting in a sociological sense, he’s not interesting musically. I have to have both: If can’t write about music in a purely aesthetic manner. It doesn’t intrigue me. (5; 1981) …I know there’s all kinds of stuff there I never really caught. I never really heard. Well, I’d rather spend three or four weeks listening to Pere Ubu, and missing being knowledgeable about a whole load of stuff that wouldn’t matter to me. It would mean eventually I’d be able to write something interesting about Pere Ubu, rather than something that is ultimately meaningless about a whole lot of other stuff. (95; 1994)

Marcus further posits: My role as a critic is to intensify the experience other people might have with a given incident or object. That’s not how all critics see their roles. My role is not to tell people what’s good and what’s bad. I don’t want to make too big a claim for it. (27; 1984) I know that I have always worked on the assumption that I have no power. I don’t want any power. I just want to figure out what it is I have to say, and find a good way to say it. (30; 1988) I’ve basically always said that if I have any concrete role at all, or goal, it’s to expand the context or dimension in which people listen music, so that music can be understood as an integral part of any person’s life, rather than as a sideshow, or compartmentalized aspect, or just as symbols, or meanings of sounds. (33; 1988) … You make a fool of yourself when you say, “Mick Jagger wrote ‘Gimme Shelter’ he meant…” Who cares what he meant? The point is, what’s happening to that song when it is out there in the world being heard? (33; 1988)

There is no denying that Marcus has a sharp mind funneled through a life experience out of San Francisco in the 1960s, and writing about some of the most revolutionary music in modern history, from Dylan to the psychedelic, to his own pet topic, the rise of punk rock in England. His specialty is what Marshall McLuhan referred to as viewing life through an extreme rear view mirror. He finds the connections of diverse and seeming disengaged movements from the further past that meld into what we now know as modern culture. Some of it is reporting how Malcolm McLaren was influenced by the Situationalists, leading to the Sex Pistols, and others are wild and imaginative intellectual jumps, such as seeing a correlation between Elvis and Bill Clinton.

Likewise, this book casts a wide net over topics. One, in particular, has Marcus discussing what it was like to go to college as protests and riots occurred regularly around him, while he fulminates elsewhere on the phoniness of some of its leaders, such as Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. But just as he describes that all of his work, no matter how diverse, originates from the music, that is where much of the direction of conversations touch on, if not directly focused, throughout the many Q&As in this book. It’s clear that as much as he is a music critic, he is also a social analyst and historian, easily flowing through all the topics and tying them together in a unique way that is the core of Greil Marcus’s work.

Apparently, much of his writing is split into two time periods, seemingly separated in the mid-1970s. For the 1950s and ‘60s, his focus was on the origins of rock and roll, and a fondness for Bob Dylan. But in the mid-1970s, his focus (much like fellow critic Robert Christgau) turned to Europe and especially the British Isles. He states, I first heard about punk turning on the television one Sunday afternoon, it must have been in January of 1977, maybe it was late ’76, and there was a little news feature and the essence of it was, Teenagers do even weirder new things in London, and it showed pictures of kids with strange hair and safety pins through their cheeks, and stuff like that, and said [adopts a newscaster voice], “This is a new cult known as Punk, the leaders are called the Sex Pistols.” And so I said, “Oh that looks pretty strange.” And I forgot all about it, until “Anarchy in the U.K.” arrived in my local record shop a week or so later for five dollars a single, and I said, “Why is that so expensive?” and they said, “It’s been banned in England,” and I said, “Oh, it’s been banned. I better hear it.” (79; 1993)

This is the point where I disagree with him wholeheartedly, in both an academic and emotional way. He claims that I always found the British stuff, and some of the European stuff, a lot more gripping, more interesting than the American stuff. In fact, it took me a number of years to get over my anti-American prejudice, and appreciate groups like X for what they really were. …But in general, I found the New York stuff a tremendous bore. Whether it was the Ramones, or Television, or Richard Hell, or Talking Heads – their early records were of no interest to me whatsoever – the New York Scene had nothing to do with what went on with the Sex Pistols, the Clash, X-Ray Spex, the Adverts, the Slits, and all the other groups I love. I still don’t find it all that interesting. They had the same name, and I suppose they shared a certain minimalist back-to-basics attitude, but I think they came from a very different direction. I never heard anyone say, “I heard Tom Verlaine and Television, and suddenly I knew that I could play too.” (37; 1988) In plain fact, what he refers to as punk (British) would never have existed in the both literal and figurative fashion if it were not for what the English bands heard coming over from New York, and Malcolm McLauren’s “borrowing” the styles from Richard Hell (safety pins) and the Ramones (ripped clothes), not to mention Tish and Snooky Bellomo from the Manic Panic store and Natasha with her outlet on St. Mark’s Place (hair dye, clothes, etc.). My belief is that the Pistols would have been just another failed noise band if they hadn’t built on the foundation of what was going on in New York.

But I also believe it is okay to disagree with even the strongest of critics, including those with the solid and vast credentials of Marcus. This come across in that somehow, I get the feeling that he has a very keen sense of humor, which is very dry (perhaps that’s why he has such a strong affinity with the British?) and subtle. Two chapters are a collection of questions sent to him on the Internet, and I found many of his answer quite amusing, sometimes in their handling, and other times in the brevity (for example, after a paragraph question about why no one talks about the band The Fall, his entire response is They never did anything for me.. For a man who goes to amazing lengths to explain the Situationalists and Dadaists in relation to the Sex Pistols, this is quite a commentary in a mere six words.

One of the things I respect about Marcus, even when I don’t agree, is that he is confident in what he believes, and holds nothing back. For example, when discussing the projections of the mentality of rock and roll singers through the years, he theorizes that: …the original figureheads weren’t supposed to act very smart. They were supposed to be extraordinary polite, as both Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis were, or they were supposed to be extremely circumspect, as Chuck Berry was. If Berry, as a black man, said half of what he was thinking at any given moment, he might have been lynched…The Beatles were the first group of people to come along who didn’t pretend to be stupid. They acted and talked as intelligently as they actually were. They allowed the Rolling Stones to come along and then be as cool, as obnoxious, as bohemian, as “fuck you,” as in-your-face as they wanted to be. (110; 1997) Johnny Rotten was someone who really schooled himself on James Joyce and Graham Greene and his sense of being an outsider because he was Irish and being just astonishingly smart and vehement and impatient. (112; 1997) I don’t think there’s any question that for over twenty years the Ramones have inspired countless people to do all kinds of things. They inspired the Sex Pistols and the Clash. I didn’t like them. I always thought they were a bunch of twits…Television as an arty version of the Grateful Dead. To me, it was just a new form of rock and roll. It was all just a downtown New York bohemian scene. It was a local story. I still believe that. This was local must as far as I was concerned. I don’t believe that the reason that punk came to life again and again all over the world is due to anything that happened in New York. (114; 1998)

Perhaps I’m wrong, but it seems he contradicts himself in that last piece. First he says that New York was not important to the music scene in England, and then he states elsewhere that the Ramones had an influence on the Pistols and Clash. But here is the thing, if you bear with me. Social critic Neil Postman once told me that the problem with being published is that people will reference a theory that “Postman says that…” Neil stated that over time, ideas changed, but the book doesn’t, so even if the idea has evolved, the writer is still locked into that printed page. And this from a man who firmly believed in the published word.

Likewise, this collection covers nearly 30 years, and in that time, new thoughts may see their way through. For example, at some point Marcus discusses how it wasn’t until his teenage daughter pointed out what was great about the band X that he started to appreciate it, many years later.

That’s not to say that I am always opposed to what Marcus is stating, and in fact I agree with him quite often, such as with his explaining that, When punk began playing with the swastika, first here [England], and then picked up as an imitation in the United States, the first explanation of it that I read was that these kids were too young to know what the swastika really meant, and they just knew it was a sort of bad symbol, and so they used it to show they were bad, and that they didn’t respect the pieties of society and art. I didn’t believe that for a minute. Everybody knows what the swastika is. It means Hitler, it means extermination, it means mass murder. There’s no secret about what the swastika means, and no one is too young to know that. (99; 1994).

My belief is that part of the reason the New York scene is a black hole to Marcus is because he is from San Francisco, and did not get the opportunity to have the scene grow and evolve around him. It took a mediated television program after the nascent beginnings to bring the Pistols to his attention, and who knows if he would have been attracted to it at all if it had not crossed his path that way (fate? coincidence?). As he states above, I know there’s all kinds of stuff there I never really caught. I never really heard. How would his world be different if it had not come to him on the telly, or if the shop he mentioned didn’t bring in the “Anarchy” single? A modern kōan, if ever there was one.

Bonomo does an excellent job collecting (and occasionally transcribing) both the familiar and unfamiliar topics to the readers that have been covered in the books by Marcus. It’s fascinating to hear him take off his supposed (and I say that with a twinkle in my eye) objectivity, and place himself in the role of the subject.
While it’s true, as Bonomo states in the introduction, that Little of Marcus’s personal life is revealed in these wide-ranging discussions,(ix), there is a lot revealed about how he thinks, the processes he takes, and the effect of what he is doing (and to what he is listening) has an effect on his life. I’m going to posit that the reader is probably not really going to care what he was doing the day Kennedy was killed (pick one), but rather why he chooses what he does, and in that way he opens himself up. Sure, he can be a clinical writer, but Marcus is a fascinating scholar (though he might balk at the word), and whether or not you agree, he is a worthy read.

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