A Surfer on the Zeitgeist: This isn't exactly life on the edge: Greil Marcus is married, nearly 50, and lives in a nice big house in northern California. But he is still making something new out of writing about rock
Sunday 23 May 1993
At home in Berkeley, Marcus likes to keep his distance from the real-life anarchy that washes up and down Telegraph Avenue every few months. (Riots and looting, by students and citizens alike, have followed anything from unpopular university decisions to the first Rodney King verdict, even Tiananmen Square.) He lives and writes in the hills to the north of the university campus, where windows only break during earthquakes, and people put their rubbish out a day early without worrying about it being set on fire.
Outside his big 1930s house, which is shaded below a twist in the road by great gnarled oaks, packages of recycling-bound newspaper warm in the morning glare. His front gate, crudely numbered with a Sex Pistols-style stencil, swings easily into an extravagant sloping garden. Marcus calls out unseen through the oaks, his voice polite but dry. He appears with a wiry handshake, slight in the heavy frame of the doorway. In loafers, dark skinny jeans, and a red collar pulled out over a black sweater, he looks like a European professor of semiotics or art history, but it's his glasses - round frames, fashionably chunky - that really clinch it.
He ushers me in, past hallway pictures of his two daughters, through grand double doors into the wide sweep of his living-room. 'I just have to go send a fax,' he says over the sound of someone (a maid?) hoovering upstairs, and disappears back up to the attic.
At the centre of the one living-room wall not taken by books sits an expensively plain stereo, surrounded by a thousand or so records, neatly compartmentalised from ancient blues to 1993 avant-noise. On the dust-free turntable sits an early LP by the Happy Flowers, aka Mr Anus and Mr Horribly Charred Infant. Its 1988 sleeve is as well cared for as the spines of the George Washington biographies across the dark, cool room. There isn't quite a view of the San Francisco Bay, but this is only the ground floor. Marcus returns, sits down carefully in an antique high-backed chair - leaning forward, with feet tucked under him - and waits for intelligent questions with just a little impatience.
APPROACHING 50, he's probably the most frequently cited rock critic in the world. In America he's a one-man critical Establishment: few 'serious' newspaper articles about Bob Dylan or Madonna fail to quote him in the first two or three paragraphs. The New York Times carried a thousand words by him on an Elvis stamp issue the week before the last presidential election (Marcus expanded it into a discussion of the contemporary connotations of Elvis, concluding that Clinton was 'perhaps just Elvis enough'). The hip teen girls' magazine Sassy thinks he's cool, too.
In Britain, Marcus appears on BBC2 (The Late Show), writes sleeve notes, and influences most of the music press. He's become so absorbed by the whole frenzied discourse about pop music that it's easy to forget that he is still writing criticism - in Rolling Stone, the Village Voice, Interview, the Wire, and dozens of more obscure publications. And In the Fascist Bathroom will be the third book he has published since 1989.
'When people ask him if he's still writing,' says his daughter Emily (who's 23 and an aspiring media critic in New York), 'he says, 'No. I've become a plumber,' because it's such a dumb question. He's a writer - that's what he does.'
Like John Peel (whose family also fuels his age-defying pop life), Marcus has an impregnable credibility born of staying in touch with pop music's evolution, from Robert Johnson to Jerry Lee Lewis, the Beatles to Sly Stone, the Clash to Public Enemy. Actual teenagers read his books - or at least Berkeley professors' kids do. 'There's a school of Greil Marcus studies,' says journalism professor Tom Leonard. 'Marcus is interesting to young intellectuals of leftist bent,' confirms his 17-year-old son Peter, who's read Marcus's Lipstick Traces three times and is deconstructing Guns N' Roses for his final project at the College Preparatory School in Berkeley. 'He says things other people wish they'd thought of.'
Marcus complains about his status: 'Nobody likes to be pigeonholed,' he says tartly. Berkeley students phone the 'bespectacled Zeitgeist surfer' (Boston Globe) for essay quotes; local reporters for 20 words on Elvis impersonators. 'I get very obnoxious and combative,' he says, smiling a little, 'and usually ask them, 'What do you think?' '
Marcus speaks very clearly in a flat, sarcastic tone that never really leaves him in public or on television. And he means his every careful word to be digested - 'You know what I'm talking about, don't you?' he asks intermittently and insistently, moving closer to me as the hoovering gets louder behind the living-room's firmly closed doors. He doesn't like to be interrupted: an intruding phone call is dismissed in a dozen words. 'Just phone solicitation', Marcus says, and resumes his anecdote.
'He's gotten very professorial now,' says Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner, who went to Berkeley with Marcus in the Sixties and has alternately been his friend, enemy, and admirer since. Marcus did try being a professor once, but gave up after a year, because 'I hated doing it, and I thought I did a terrible job.'
But he's a good lecturer: concise and wide-ranging. And surprisingly ready to admit to ignorance of galaxies within the pop culture universe, such as jazz and techno. 'I've only just begun to write about what I do know about,' he warns.
Unlike most rock critics, Marcus doesn't actually wish he was in a band. But he is anyway: this month he's meant to be touring the East Coast in the Rock Bottom Remainders along with Stephen King, Amy Tan, Simpsons creator Matt Groenig and other musically challenged writers. 'I'm one of the people who just stand off to the side and bray,' he says. 'I'm just gonna show up at the end of the tour . . . it will become very embarrassing very quickly.'
ALTHOUGH he started writing about pop music for San Francisco underground newspapers in 1966, and was in on Rolling Stone's druggy foundation there, Marcus didn't become wildly famous during the Sixties. He was married, and uninterested in LSD. He did go to Woodstock, and Altamont ('I was knocked around some,' he recalls. 'I couldn't listen to rock for a year afterwards.') But, says Michael Rogin, a past professor and old friend, 'he chose not to go to New York and become an intellectual celebrity.' It wasn't that Marcus had particular integrity; he was just wasn't very good at selling out. 'I don't think I could be a good writer for slick publications,' he says with certainty. He wrote a couple of pieces for the New Yorker, but gave up 'very angry' when they wouldn't publish his 'complicated' pieces.
Complexity can be a problem. At his bookshop readings some people start sighing and looking at the floor when he leaps from pop anecdote to lit-crit observation. The relief is palpable when he gets back to talking about his favourite records.
But it was complexity that made him famous when, in 1975, after being sacked from Rolling Stone over what Wenner calls 'a conflict of rock ideology' about a Bob Dylan album (Self Portrait), which Marcus hated, he published Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock'n' Roll Music, a book about post-war America, masquerading as a series of essays on Sly Stone, the Band, and above all Elvis.
It seemed absurdly ambitious, 'an attempt to broaden the context in which the music is heard; to deal with rock'n'roll not as youth culture, or counterculture, but simply as American culture,' Marcus wrote in the introduction. At a time when pop music criticism was regarded (as usual) as shallow hyperbole, and Elvis was deep into his hamburger period, Marcus declared him 'a supreme figure in American life' and called his essay Presliad. 'I thought it was just the most outrageous thing I could have done.'
The book was hugely successful. The New York Times declared, 'It should be read by anyone who cares about America,' while Bruce Springsteen raved that it got 'as close to the heart and soul of America and American music as the best rock'n'roll'.
Marcus was suspicious. ''I really am tired of reading what a great book Mystery Train was. I began to wonder, if this book is so easy to like, then there must be something missing.' And I closed off discussion by Mystery Train. There hasn't been a lot written about Elvis and Sly Stone since.' Marcus didn't write any more books for some time, mainly because - in the endless soft-rock summer of the mid-Seventies - nothing inspired him to. By 1977, 'I felt like the music to which I'd dedicated my life had reached a dead end.' In the spring of that year, Marcus found himself in London - and missed the inspiration he was looking for altogether. 'I asked my friend Simon (Frith) about Punk, and he said it was nothing.'
BACK IN Berkeley the same year, Marcus bought the Sex Pistols' Anarchy in the UK anyway: as a banned curiosity (shops in Berkeley said the album was banned, though it wasn't). He thought it was good, not great. But as Marcus began to collect the punk singles dribbling across to northern California, he realised slowly that something new was happening.
'We had a party here one night,' he says, gesturing round the room with a flicker of a smile across his lined pale brown face, 'I had 50 or 60 Punk singles, and we played every damn one of them.'
Then, in January 1978, in the middle of a rainy San Francisco winter, the Sex Pistols reached California at the end of their chaotic and only American tour. Marcus was 32. 'It was pretty clear by then that Carter was a disaster,' he recalls, 'and I had a lot of dread about the future. I was very open to threats and warnings.' Like every other hype-bombarded California hipster, he went along to the Winterland auditorium in San Francisco, a relic of the psychedelic era demolished soon afterwards, for what turned out to be the last Sex Pistols concert (the band split up four days later). By now they had reached a nihilistic dead end - or as Marcus's 'co-conspirator' Jon Savage put it last year in his study of Punk and the Sex Pistols, England's Dreaming, 'a black hole'.
Far from the foreign novelty he still half-expected, Marcus found the Sex Pistols' performance - Johnny Rotten hanging on to his microphone 'like a man caught in a wind tunnel', Steve Jones sounding 'like he was playing a guitar factory, not a guitar' - 'alarming and moving'. ('For all that intellect,' Jann Wenner said, 'he can still understand the visceral level.')
A decade later, in Lipstick Traces, the book that was to emerge from his encounter with Punk, Marcus wrote: 'Walking the aisles of the Winterland as the Sex Pistols played, I felt a confidence and a lust that were altogether new . . . I also felt a crazy malevolence, a wish to smash people to the ground . . . ' Then he remembered his children at home.
'Everyone else's parents were old and boring,' says Emily. 'I'd come home from school and hear the music from two blocks away.'
MARCUS was born in San Francisco in 1945 and grew up in Menlo Park, a suburb to the south. His father was a lawyer, his mother a housewife, and Greil (a German name, from his grandparents) had a standard middle-class childhood. His first rock'n'roll memory is perfectly Californian: driving on El Camino, the main highway into San Francisco, and hearing Tom Donahue, a famous Fifties DJ, on the radio, an escape from Menlo Park's supermarkets, trees and vacant lots - the 'quotidian prosaic suburban American world I grew up in.'
He moved to Berkeley to study political thought in 1963 and, a year later, got caught up in the Free Speech Movement, a mass campaign to secure the right to distribute political literature on campus, which was the first, model manifestation of Sixties student radicalism.
Describing it today, he is suddenly animated, leaving his sarcasm behind in his chair as he jumps up to fetch a pamphlet from his bookshelf and reading it aloud in a conspiratorial, dramatic voice that echoes his writing style: 'Speak to the world] And tell them things cannot go on as they are . . .'
Marcus was taking an American studies class at the time - 'the most important class I ever took.'
'A lot of kids in that class got arrested,' Michael Rogin, who was its professor, remembers. Marcus wasn't one of them ('I've never thrown a rock at a cop'), but the movement gave Marcus an ideal of America as a democracy and nirvana of free speech that never left him. (His daughter Cecily is a liberal political activist at university in Cornell.)
Twenty-five years later, Marcus wrote about its effects in Lipstick Traces: 'Your own history was lying in pieces on the ground, and you have the choice of picking the pieces up or passing them by.' He became part of the huge demonstrations that blanketed the campus, then ending up 'in the streets fighting Ronald Reagan,' who was elected Governor of California, promising to restore order to Berkeley. 'For better or worse - it wasn't my choice - this event formed a standard against which I've judged the present and the past ever since.'
What Marcus found exciting then - that 'so many people found their own voices and began to speak out' - he rediscovered 14 years later in Punk, in the Sex Pistols at the Winterland.
MARCUS is the first to acknowledge he doesn't always have the instinct to pick up on something straight away. In 1978 he had no idea what to do with the new energy he had been given by four English delinquents little older than his daughters. 'I didn't understand it. It wasn't in my bones.' He didn't just go home after the concert and start his next book. 'I had to research for three or four years before I had any idea what to write about.' Then his publisher rejected the first 200 pages as incomprehensible. Marcus's agent rallied bids from five other publishers. Marcus went with Harvard University Press's low-money but do-what-you-want offer, thanks to the enthusiasm of the historian Simon Schama.
Lipstick Traces began as a book about the Sex Pistols; then expanded crazily back in time to Paris in 1968, Dada in 1917, the French Revolution, and ultimately to libertarian heresies in the Middle Ages. Marcus found himself writing 'a secret history of the 20th century', a search for the origins and story of the nihilistic impulse that the Sex Pistols had stumbled upon. Holed up in his attic reading and listening to records - he went to Paris once - what Marcus found were only 'moments, that seem to leave nothing behind, nothing but the mystery of spectral connections between people . . . separated by space and time, but somehow speaking the same language . . . '
He was out of his depth.
But he didn't let that stop him, looping up all the past 'moments' he could find where everything seemed possible, into a gigantic, contentious web of inconsistent, exhilarating narrative.' One of my favourite parts of the book (in which the Dadaist Richard Huelsenbeck speaks from beyond the grave) was written when I was really drunk.'
A lot of people hated it. The Washington Post called it 'almost nothing but echoes', and Marcus a sad old Sixties Marxist. The influential conservative journal the New Republic dismissed its 'history without footnotes' as trendy post-modern nonsense. Living inside his sources and Berkeley's little socialist bubble, Marcus had stumbled into the intellectual minefield set by nine years of Reagan and Bush.
In Britain it was a somewhat different story. Terry Eagleton (now Wharton Professor of English at Oxford) in the New York Times and Gordon Burn in the Face both thought the book was brilliant. But Marcus had definitely stepped outside the role assigned to him by critical opinion after Mystery Train - the loving explorer of American music and Americana. 'Lipstick Traces was a failure of nerve,' he admits. 'I couldn't bear to confront what was going on here' - he means Reagan. It criss-crossed centuries of art and politics at will, from Adorno to the Adverts to African famine relief. Very few readers reached the last of its 447 pages, and even to them he seemed only to be scratching the surface of his vast subject. 'You got it]' he says, delightedly raising his voice for the first time. 'Criticism is not just having opinions, it's trying to crack the box open and seeing what comes out.' USING whatever tumbles out of the pop culture box has been Marcus's method ever since. His next book, Dead Elvis, published in 1991, simply gathered up all he had ever written about Presley (a lot), sorted it into a rough chronology, stirred in every interesting piece of Elvis trivia he could lay his hands on, and made it, Frankenstein-fashion, into a 400-page book. He wanted to plot the 'great common conversation' about Elvis since his death in 1977; what he saw as a posthumous liberation of the Presley myth from his minders. And Dead Elvis was just an interim report, he promises. 'My Elvis file keeps growing and growing. My Clinton-Elvis file is this thick,' he says, spanning five or six inches with a thumb and index finger.
Predictably, the sort of people who had hated Lipstick Traces hated Dead Elvis as well. The Sunday Times called it 'unmistakably fraudulent' and 'frankly nonsense', but gave its high-culture game away by referring to Elvis as a 'laughing-stock'. Marcus says he doesn't care. 'Divisions I just don't recognise are so important to so many other people,' he declares grandly. 'A better word for them is terror (although he is visibly pleased the Economist liked Dead Elvis). When I'm writing a book, I'm in a time capsule. I inhabit the world the book is making.'
This goes some way to explaining why, in 1993, he decided to publish a whole book about English post-Punk bands that nearly everyone had forgotten about.
IN THE early Eighties the Gang of Four, the Mekons and various other Punk offshoots made their way from Leeds to San Francisco to play on a fairly regular basis - their anti-Thatcher screeds found a welcoming audience of northern California liberals like Marcus, equally horrified at Reagan. And, hard to believe, these pale, ascetic creatures seemed exotic; for some Californians, sun-defying black clothes and Doc Martens were as attractive then as they are now.
What Marcus - who wears black a lot - wrote about these bands, and about the Reagan Revolution sweeping the country, he collected in his new book, In the Fascist Bathroom. While it has its fair share of interviews and concert reviews - some of them pretty ordinary - the book is energised by Marcus's horror at what he saw happening to America, from Reagan himself ('Mickey Mouse and Pinochet') to MTV ('the pornography of semiotics'). Discussing 'We Are the World', the US contribution to Live Aid, he notes the similarity between its chorus ('There's a choice that we're making / We're saving our own lives') with Pepsi's then-new 'Choice of a New Generation' slogan, even that they were sung by the same person, Lionel Richie. And he concludes: 'Those Ethiopians who survive may end up . . . drinking Pepsi instead of Coke.'
In the sections written during the mid-Eighties Marcus verges on a nihilism worthy of the Sex Pistols, even turning on rock itself ('aggressively empty . . . referring to nothing but its own success'). By the end of the book, he declares (in a 1990 LA Times article), 'The country is dead, and only a revival of public violence . . . can bring it back to life.'
These days he's quite optimistic about the future. 'Clinton's election was a huge event,' he says, with a relief shared by most of Berkeley on 3 November last year. 'It will have all sorts of consequences beyond politics.' And his musical tastes are shifting accordingly: away from the bleak realism of rappers like the Geto Boys - 'nihilism can't sustain interest for ever' - to the 'bedrock American music' he finds (he says) in the new Pere Ubu album.
Marcus's bedrock America has always been northern California. 'I've been to a lot of places, and I've liked nowhere better,' he says, as the sun starts to edge into the room through the pines. 'I'm very parochial,' he once said. 'I've lived my entire life within 30 miles of where I was born.'
His private life is pretty boring - and he's proud of it: 'I've been married (to Jenny) since 1966.' Every morning he walks a few hundred yards down from the house he's lived in for 20 years to Peet's Coffee, where he's a slight, incongruous figure among the hiking-booted young professionals. 'I don't have any contact with the music business or the publishing business,' Marcus says. 'Nobody bothers me.' (Except, that is, for the avalanche of CDs arriving by post each day).
His one big hobby is part-owning Chez Panisse, the home of California cuisine in north Berkeley, where Alice Waters's goat cheese and grilled vegetables have sated the California haute bourgeoisie since the early Seventies. 'It's a world-famous restaurant living on the edge, ' he says, with its collective ownership, high salaries and small profits. But 'we like Alice, and we love to eat'.
'He's gotten a lot more conservative in his activities,' says his daughter Emily. 'He doesn't go to nearly as many shows as he used to. Of course he totally denies this.'
Neither Emily nor Cecily, he volunteers later, 'was able to get through Mystery Train. But they both read Lipstick Traces. I was pleased by that.' He always wants to talk about Lipstick Traces, proud of how far he managed to cast his net from his oak-shaded attic. With his curious smile, which turns the corners of his thin mouth down, he says: 'I want to see how far I can range . . . and still get back to home base.'
Later, opposite where the riots usually start on Telegraph Avenue, I find a neat stack of Lipstick Traces in Cody's Books, between biographies of Edith Piaf and Marky Mark. On the new editions, the back blurb is always changing - a cultural 'conversation' Marcus would appreciate. On this one there's a fragment from a radio interview with John Lydon (once Johnny Rotten) about the book.
'It's so mad, it's so daft . . . it's thoroughly enjoyable,' burbles Lydon.
'But don't you think he's completely wrong?' asks the DJ.
'No, he's not wrong,' says the anarchist.
'In the Fascist Bathroom' is published by Viking on 10 June
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