On-Line Interview: Greil Marcus

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credit: Thierry Arditti

[Editors note: The text below is from an evening our theater critic extraordinaire Brandon K. Thorp spent with music critic extraordinaire Greil Marcus. Marcus was in town for a speaking engagement, and following that event, the two went out for dinner. What follows is a detailed breakdown of Marcus, his contributions to American pop culture, and a fabulous dinner that will make you jealous. It's lengthy but any fans of Greil Marcus should dive in and send comments our way.]

When asked if it was true that nobody had anything interesting to say anymore, if the prophetic voice he chases in his latest book has gone missing from the world, Greil Marcus got upset. Marcus, who was at Books and Books in Coral Gables on September 20th to read from that work, The Shape of Things To Come: Prophecy & The American Voice, said this:
“The prophetic voice has found a home in culture, and it’s absolutely alive in culture. I’m looking at Philip Roth’s novels — from the late 90’s up through 2000, American Pastoral, I Married a Communist and The Human Stain.”
He continued, speaking in perfect paragraphs: “These novels are an attempt to look at the postwar history of the United States and see what’s really happening. They’re written from the perspective of someone who essentially says, ‘I thought I understood all this. I thought I understood the Red Scare, I thought I understood the Civil Rights movement, I thought I understood Vietnam, I thought I understood black and white. And I understood nothing. Not only didn’t I understand it — I didn’t even see anything. This whole drama was taking place before my eyes, and I saw none of it.’
“(The prophetic voice) is there in David Lynch’s movies, particularly in Lost Highway and in the prequel to the Twin Peaks television series, Fire Walk With Me. It’s in the music of David Thomas, who’s led the band Pere Ubu, out of Cleveland, since 1974 or ’75. It’s in the music of a band called Heavens To Betsy, from Olympia, Washington, in the early ‘90s. I wrote this book because I was hearing that voice, I was seeing it everywhere. And this is the voice that seemed to link these people to each other, and to us.”

Greil Marcus was born in 1945 and attended Berkley in the early 1960s. He majored in “American Studies,” just as Berkley’s Free Speech Movement was ratcheting up into its very own American study. Then he did some post-grad work in poli-sci. Lots of people, moved by their exposure to the transforming energies of the FSM, may have done likewise. What lots of people didn’t do was become Rolling Stone’s first reviews editor in 1969, thereby embarking on a career in music criticism so intellectually, emotionally and, yea, spiritually ambitious that by even calling it “music criticism” I’ve already lied twice.
When you dig into a Greil Marcus book, it takes a minute to find your bearings. Teenaged girls screaming in a recording studio, words spoken by a Matewan sheriff almost a hundred years ago, an outtake from Bob Dylan’s Infidels that went unreleased for nine years — he gives all of these things equal space and accords them equal respect. As you read, parts of public life that previously seemed utterly circumscribed come into alignment. Before you know it, they’re chatting with each other, carrying on like crazy.

For example: In The Shape of Things To Come, Marcus devotes an early chapter to Philip Roth’s late-90’s Nathan Zuckerman trilogy. The first installment, American Pastoral, follows the idyllic life of Seymour “Swede” Levov, a third-generation Newark Jew who succeeded in America on America’s terms, just like his daddy and daddy’s daddy would have wanted. Swede’s life as a hard-working, open-minded, forward-thinking business- and property-owner is the “American Pastoral”; the good life, as dreamt into existence by steerage rats catching their first glimpse of Lady Liberty standing astride Upper New York Bay, and inhabited in good faith by so many of their descendents. When Swede’s daughter somehow turns into a domestic terrorist in the 1960s, however, Swede is brought face to face with the idyll’s evil twin: the “American Berserk,” the bad conscience of everything betrayed and glossed over by the country’s perfect promises.
Marcus writes about this beautifully. Then, in a rhetorical flight so thrilling that I can’t even explain it, Marcus goes on to claim that, viewed a certain way, Bill Pullman’s face is the American Berserk. That the whole thing — the whole American-betrayal complex that sent Swede’s daughter off the deep end, the guilty dreams that pay Noam Chomsky’s bills and give traction to the dystopias of both Brett Easton Ellis and 9/11 revisionist Dylan Avery — is right there, in Bill Pullman’s bland mug.
But outwardly, Bill Pullman has nothing to do with Philip Roth. Pullman’s the guy who played President Whitmore in the 1996 sci-fi film Independence Day. Marcus dedicates a chapter to him, summoning up Bill Pullman’s work in David Lynch’s Lost Highway in prose at least as aesthetically compelling as Lynch’s movies. Take this bit, describing a scene in which Pullman’s character drags his doomed wife home from a party: “With a sense of unutterable desperation and hopelessness, of movement without purpose, every gesture a surrender to the shadows folding around the couple, their return home is made in postures of escape and flight, hatred and loss, self-loathing and contempt.” In the book, Marcus talks about the space-time of Lynch’s films as though they were the topography of the shadow-country under this one, the very country that kept Philip Roth up nights when he was writing American Pastoral.
According to Marcus, this has something to do with Pere Ubu. Which in turn has something to do with the speech titled “A Modell of Christian Charity,” which John Winthrop delivered (or meant to deliver) onboard the Arbella in 1630 to the members of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. And this ties in with Abe Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Heavens To Betsy, and just about everything else.

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When he appeared before the crowd of mostly middle-aged smart types at Books and Books two weeks ago, Marcus began with a recapitulation of his book’s central argument. Just as the Israelites made a Covenant with God which, if upheld, would bring them God’s blessings, and which, if betrayed, would bring God’s curses, so had America entered into a Covenant with itself. Marcus traced the beginnings of the Covenant to Winthrop, who, in “A Modell of Christian Charity,” first brought the phrase “city on a hill” to the New World lexicon.
“What he meant by that” said Marcus on the 20th, “was not, as in Ronald Reagan’s words, that this would be a shining city on a hill, a beacon, that everyone will want to be like us, that everyone will follow our example. He meant that, when you build a city on a hill, you’re exposed. Everything you do is seen by everyone. And he put that image into the American language as a warning. If we fail, if we betray our Covenant with God, everyone will know, and our names will be anathema all around the world, and we will bring God himself into disrepute.”

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In The Shape of Things To Come, great dramas of American art are posed as echoes of this warning, or as moments of reckoning brought about when the warning has gone unheeded. The contention is that the voice of prophecy, as used by Winthrop and brought to life again and again as a form of political speech throughout much of the 18th and 19th centuries, passed in the 20th into the voice of popular culture. Enter Roth, Lynch, and Pere Ubu.
Having brought all assembled up to speed on the book’s beginnings, Marcus then dove into its conclusion, where in the very last chapter he recounts a performance given in 1994 by another Newark Jew, Allen Ginsberg, backed by Philip Glass and assorted New York musicians. The chapter, called “Kansas,” begins as a discussion of John Grisham and the U.S. – Uncle Sam comics created by Steve Darnall and Alex Ross, and Allen Ginsberg appears within the chapter as a digression. At the reading, Ginsberg was the whole story.
The poem Ginsberg read in 1994 was “Wichita Vortex Sutra,” which begins with Ginsberg’s declaration that, yes, he’s old, and yes, he’s lonely, “but not afraid/to speak my lonesomeness in a car.”
Marcus doesn’t quote that bit — there’s a lot he doesn’t quote in his reading of the performance — but the reading is many times longer than Ginsberg’s piece all the same, not only taking in the scope of the performance but also its subjective apperception, all the stuff that happens when Ginsberg’s words burrow into your gut and open up a time warp in your soul. Marcus talks about the vortex Ginsberg found in Kansas in 1966 — the vortex of national energies, diffuse and swirling fears, resentments and values blowing across the Midwest — which Ginsberg harnessed in the back of his car to create his own vortex, the poem, and which appeared in vortex form yet again at Books and Books. Likening Ginsberg to an Old Testament prophet, Marcus sounded like one himself, or at least like Allen Ginsberg:

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Allen Ginsberg

“So stanza after stanza, Ginsberg raises his arms to that god. The mosquito that appeared ten minutes back is now an eagle. ‘Language,’ Ginsberg says again and again, every time, in 1994, pronouncing the word delicately, sensually, running his hands over the syllables, letting them run down his body like water and soap, like the hands of a whole city of imagined lovers: ‘The war is language.’ Soon the word is dancing, a saraband — inside the church in Washington: Communion of bum magicians, congress of failures from Kansas and Missouri, working with the wrong equations; Sorcerer’s Apprentices who lost control of the simplest broomstick in the world: Language — and then a tango, the images the word calls up or collects out of the radio or off of the TV set wild and stomping, tumbling one on top of the other. ‘N-B-C-B-S-U-P-A-P-I-N-S-L-I-F-E,’ Ginsberg pronounces very slowly, as if deciphering each word from some media version of Babylonian graffiti.”

This had to do with the war in Vietnam, in 1966 an unknowable something to be randomly catalogued and fought in snatches of Kansan poetry, in 1994 a whole, finished wedge of history to smash on the floor, and in Marcus’s reading in ’07, snapshots of things everybody had forgotten were ever pictured together, a moment and a judgment in one, casting shadows on a present we’re too busy inhabiting to see.
And for all the time-travel, there was something ultimately current about the reading. When the time came for Q&A, a Vietnam declaimed into existence in 1994 was still in the room, and the talk was mostly about war. The smarties in attendance were at a loss. Why, they wanted to know, is public outrage at such a low ebb? Why aren’t the kids doing anything about the terrible mess the country’s found itself in?
“In 1963, ’65, ’66, and far into the 70’s,” said Marcus, “the United States was coming out of something that could only be called ‘social revolution.’ That was the Civil Rights movement. It had mobilized the imagination of the country. It had split the country, challenged the country to look at itself in a giant mirror, day after day after day. And the idea that ordinary people could go out into the streets, to speak in public, to do anything possible to change their society — that was alive. That was taken for granted. That was part of the language that was spoken then. And that was a long time ago. There is no comparable movement, despite protests against globalization in Seattle or anything of that sort. There’s no comparable movement in the country today, and there hasn’t been for many years.”
But maybe it’s a question of art? Not enough Ginsbergs around? No Dylans?
“We have lost the language of outrage,” he said. “And one of the reasons is, right at this moment, we don’t have anybody who’s written a poem, sung a song, made a film of this power. But remember, this poem that I’ve read about — this is something that Ginsberg composed riding around in the back of a VW bus. He read bits and pieces of it at the time and over the years, but that night in 1994, almost thirty years after he wrote the poem, was probably the first time he ever performed it as a thing in itself. In other words, written at the time — and the words not changed, not edited, not made stronger or anything like that — but not really coming to life until so long after.”
Which is to say, who knows what bombs people are planting right now? Who knows how many bombs are waiting to detonate twenty or thirty years hence, when the world’s finally ready to watch them explode? There’s bound to be a few.
“But,” Marcus said, “because so few people, demographically, are touched directly by this war, people are insulated from it. Me, no less than anybody else . . . the basis of this war is that it leaves the nation, as a whole, untouched. That’s what it’s about. You’ve probably read or heard over the last few days about the Blackwater Security Company. Blackwater is the company that, among other things, guards all of our diplomats, all of our military staff. And it’s not that well known that there are more private contractors employed by the US government in Iraq than there are American soldiers. Ideally, this war and the wars of the future, under the respective people governing today — ideally, all wars will be fought by the private armies. And there will be no way that anyone is touched at all.”
Kind of puts a gag on the old vox populi, don’t you think? “For What It’s Worth” would have been a much less interesting song if it had been about, say, Walmart. But that’s not to forecast doom. When an audience member suggested otherwise, that moral imperatives and right and wrong were things for the Greatest Generation and the Baby Boomers, gone now with the rise of the X’s and Millenials, Marcus said:
“I don’t really think in those terms. But I can tell you this: I remember hanging out with any number of professors at Berkley in the 60’s, who were saying, ‘Oh, we went through all of this in the 30’s, and we know how it turns out,’ or ‘If you just read this book, you’ll see that you’re just walking in somebody’s footsteps.’ Essentially, they were saying that there’s nothing new under the sun. And I vowed at that time that I would do everything I could, not only never to say that, but also never to think it. And I don’t think it. There are many new things under the sun.”
After the Q&A, I went with Marcus to La Dorada, an upscale Spanish-oriented seafood restaurant about a block away from the bookstore. He ordered scrambled eggs with baby squid. As we ate, it was that last quote that stuck in my mind, and seemed most worth hammering away at. In all of his books, no matter what their superficial subject matter, there is an ever-present exuberance at the existence of unforeseen connections between things; a deep and abiding love of novelty, of all the infinite thoughts yet to be thunk. The point of these books, if there’s a point, is that stuff is happening, that the world is full of a gazillion moving, hidden forces that leap up and surprise you the moment you think you’ve lost the capacity to be surprised. Probably, Marcus was first broadsided by those forces when he was a college student, watching the Berkeley Free Speech Movement unfold around him. I asked if he’d ever experienced anything like it again.
“Punk,” he said. “I wrote Lispstick Traces (Marcus’s 1989 book, linking punk rock to everything from medieval heretics to D.H. Lawrence to Dada), and I realized, when I was very close to finishing, that this was the first time I had felt those same energies of transformation. And it was a kind of echo. Now, that doesn’t mean anybody else would feel it that way, but that wasn’t the point. For many people, punk would have been their first experience in a transformative situation. Maybe their last. Maybe not, if they’re lucky. But it wasn’t my first. I responded to the Sex Pistols, the Clash, and dozens of other bands — and I began to ask myself, why am I taking to this so automatically? Why is my reaction, ‘Oh, finally!’ Finally what? It’s not like I was anticipating this, or saying ‘It’s about time somebody did what all my fantasies were asking for.’ It wasn’t that at all. But I’d been waiting, without knowing it, for a long time, for someone to seize the same baton in a relay race that had been going on for years.”
Well, what’s the baton?
“Unfettered free speech. It’s not just that you can say anything, but it’s that moment that comes when you discover what it is you really want to say. That’s definitely what happened to Johnny Rotten, in the Sex Pistols. Very, very smart guy, full of resentment, having no outlet whatsoever. And suddenly being put in a situation where people are saying, ‘What do you want to say? We need songs, but they have to be songs that are about something that’s real to you, that you can make real to other people. If you only have one chance, what do you want to say?’ And most people, you know, their response is ‘uh’ or ‘fuck you’ or something. He actually had something he wanted to say.”

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Johnny Rotten

And if you’d like to believe Greil Marcus’s books (and you should, because believing them is so much more vivifying than the alternative), “having something to say” is worth quite a lot. History is both actions and stories, made by both actors and storytellers, and the difference between the two is mostly illusory. Stories as elemental as the proto-lingual squeals of the Swiss punk band Liliput or as ornately evil as Albert Goldman’s poison-pen Elvis Presley biography (both of which have appeared as subjects in Marcus’s books) are not only irreducible records of particular humans in particular places at particular times, but also dispatches from the edge of a cosmic drama that we’re all still playing out, like it or not.
In The Shape of Things To Come, in a chapter called “Philip Roth and The Lost Republic,” Marcus recalls reading John Dos Passos’ U.S.A. Trilogy as a teenager, first learning about the 1919 castration and murder of Wobblies leader Wesley Everest at the hands of the American Legion in Centralia, Washington. Marcus was moved by it; he took the story as an “art statement.” Later, when Marcus went to Sacramento as part of Boy’s State in 1962, “an American Legion commander took the podium . . . to make us understand that as we were gathered together now, we were part of this great event from long before — when, in Centralia, Washington, the American Legion . . . fired the first shots on American soil in the war in which we were still engaged: the war against Communism.”
It was the same story, minus the castration and the humanity. It retained its moral certainty, but Dos Passos’ morals had been upended. “The perfection of the story as Dos Passos told it rendered the story finished, complete, protected,” Marcus wrote, “a history that was immune from history. I walked out of the class and took a train to Boys’ State and found the story wasn’t finished at all. As the man said, it was still going on.”
As a citizen of the Republic, however tired the Republic might be at the moment, there seems to me to be something holy about this idea. It seems like it contains almost everything worth knowing.
“History is happening in the present, absolutely,” said Marcus, when asked. “But that was my own naiveté and my own stupidity. But — I think it was also that in U.S.A., Dos Passos is writing about Wesley Everest, he’s writing about a lynching that took place in Centralia in 1919, and he’s writing about it so well, and so poetically, with such heroic rhetoric, that you experience it as art. Like a painting. And you say, ‘What a great painting, I’m so moved.’
“And let’s say it’s a painting of some horrible situation, of somebody having his throat cut. But you don’t think about that. You just think ‘this captures the truth of life,’ and you sort of revel in your own ecstasy of art. And then you find out — you already knew, on some level — that this isn’t art, this is real life, and that some people are still living out this story. They’re suffering it, gloating over it, whatever. And you are part of this story, because you’ve responded to the artistic representation, and now you’re confronted with the real life version, and you’re in it. You’ve made an investment and you can’t get out of it. Anyway. I was seventeen years old.”
--Brandon K. Thorp


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