Monday 19 September 2016


I did this interview in the autumn of 2000, in the bar of London's My Hotel, just before the US presidential elections. One version of it appeared in the Daily Telegraph. The editor there, Casper Lewellyn Smith, was most interested in Marcus' thoughts about punk rock, but Marcus' Dadist take was far too academic for the music he (Casper) loved for different rebellious reasons. Unfortunately I'd found Lipstick Traces enigmatic to the point of incomprehension; punk rock not only couldn't take the weight of Dada which Marcus wanted to load onto it, but the bridge he wanted to build between Punk and surrealism never seemed complete. I wrote the piece anyway for Casper, who cut it severly, and then I wrote this, the more complete version, for Headpress, where it ran in 2001. I also reviewed the re-issue of Mystery Train for the Spectator, which is another story, and met my future ex-wife at My Hotel soon afterwards, which is another another story....

Greil Marcus’ Mystery Train is a landmark of rock criticism, a look at America myth seen through the magic lens of rock and roll, from Robert Johnson through Elvis to The Band. Its publication turned Marcus, at age 30, into an instant eminence grise for an entire generation. There had been writers, like Ralph J Gleason, who had discussed rock music in terms of the wider world, but no one had attempted so wide a sweep, nor accomplished it so gracefully. With one book, Marcus changed rock writing forever, becoming, in effect, the music’s creative conscience.

Indeed, behind Bertold Brecht spectacles, Marcus resembles a cultural commissar. He’s never considered himself a rock critic. “I ignore the industry, don’t go to the parties,” he says. His essays now appear in such rocking outlets as Artforum, Suddeutsche Zeitung, and Salon. But you can still see the excitement behind his eyes each time an idea clicks into place. A sense of risk-taking danger gives Mystery Train its edge. It’s criticism as creative art.
Marcus was in London to promote the 25th anniversary edition of the book (“presented finally the way I always envisioned it”) alongside simultaneous publication of Double Trouble, a collection of essays dealing with a very different American myth. Double Trouble is subtitled “Bill Clinton and Elvis Presley in a Land of No Alternatives.” When we meet at his London hotel, Marcus is worried about the upcoming presidential alternatives to America's First Bubba. He’s living temporarily in New York while he teaches at Princeton University, and although he’s registered to vote there, his wife isn’t.
We registered on the subway. New York sends people to wander the cars, signing up voters; they pay them a commission,” he says. “But only my registration went through. So if an absentee ballot hasn’t arrived by the time we get back, Jenny’s going to fly home to San Francisco, just to vote.” Marcus was born in Palo Alto, outside San Francisco, and educated at Berkeley. His lifelong addiction to rock began with a different sort of poll. I was 11 years old, my favourite song was “All Shook Up.” Chuck Berry’s “School Days” was everyone else’s favourite, and threatening to knock “All Shook Up” out of number one in the local charts. So I went and bought the record, in an unsuccessful attempt to keep Chuck Berry from number one.
He became a “self-conscious” fan in the summer of ’64. “I was interning in Washington, and I’d brought the Beatles’ album with “Money” on it with me. One of my flatmates said ‘what’s the big deal?’ and I said, ‘just listen to the instrumental break, the way you hear the whole machinery of industrial society grinding the man down, and he refuses to go under.’ A light bulb went ‘click’ in my head. I knew it was all bullshit, but I also believed it.”

When Rolling Stone magazine appeared, Marcus submitted a review to editor Jann Wenner, a college buddy. “A week or so later it was printed and I got a check for $12. That was it. I’d spent all my time studying at Berkeley, undergrad and grad school, and my professors seemed to have stopped trying to inspire students, and instead were training them for jobs. It was time to leave.” 
Marcus eventually became Rolling Stone’s book critic, and in Mystery Train he brought the devices of literary criticism to bear on rock music. I ask about what I feel is the particular influence of Leslie Fiedler, author of Love And Death In The American Novel, obvious in the way Marcus uses his personal sensibility to interpret wider issues of myth.

That sums it up pretty well. I thought a book might work if I could combine the instinctive reaction of a fan with the bigger ideas that attracted me. I felt that the whole of America was somehow captured in songs like “Mystery Train”, Robert Johnson’s “Stones In My Passway”, The Band’s “Cripple Creek”, Sly Stone’s “Thank You For Talkin To Me Africa”, Randy Newman’s “Sail Away”. If you’re presuming that, the theoretical ideas wouldn’t work without the visceral reaction.
But that book was really motivated by Watergate, by the idea that the country was up for grabs, being fought over daily. It was tremendously thrilling, but also scary, the sense of a battle taken away before it was finished.” 
Mystery Train was published in 1975, by which time many of the artists profiled had already slipped from the creative peaks Marcus chronicled. Soon Bob Dylan would retreat into born-again Christianity, Sly Stone would begin his odyssey through jail and rehab, Elvis would be beyond comebacks. Almost immediately after Mystery Train appeared, The Band would play their “Last Waltz”. 
Coincidentally, on this trip to London, Marcus read an article in Mojo chronicling the bitterness among the Band’s surviving members over song-writing credits. In Invisible Republic, his study of The Band and Dylan’s Basement Tapes (note: now retitled The Old Weird America), Marcus wrote that he still found himself framing questions for Richard Manuel, who hanged himself in 1986, knowing Manuel could not answer them. Marcus won’t go into some of the aspects of the Mojo article, but remembers when Manuel once told him he hadn’t been able to finish a song in two years. “Why not?” asked Marcus. “I haven’t been able to finish a song in two years,” said Manuel. 
I was most interesting in seeing Rick (Danko) say he got a $200,000 cheque for his share of “Wheels on Fire”. This was 25 years ago. There are various stories out there about what went on with song writing credits. For example, there’s one that Garth wrote the early version of “Daniel and the Sacred Harp”, and sold it away, but I won’t say any more about that.”

As America turned to mellow rock and disco in the late 70s, Marcus embraced punk, which led to Lipstick Traces, a study of punk and dada which attempts to deconstruct the entire 20th century. The book left many Marcus fans cold, perhaps because it was more intellectual?

It didn’t feel different to me, but it is more intellectual in the sense that I started with a question I wanted to answer, ‘why is “Anarchy in the UK” so powerful?’ which is a different approach than Mystery Train, where I started with an instinctive understanding. But I found the lack of understanding no less thrilling. Lipstick Traces was very much a Reagan book; in the same sense that Mystery Train sprang from Watergate. It was written at a time when I literally couldn’t bear to think about America. So intellectually, I left for Europe.
It was a burning desire to get to the heart of something I knew I wasn’t going to get to the heart of. I do think I got close to figuring out what made Dada a thorn in the side of the 20th Century. After I’d finished my research and before I wrote the book, I actually wrote a play combining all its characters in a night club. I spent a month writing footnotes to the play, but it never got into the book itself.
Recently a theatre company in Austin, Texas adapted Lipstick Traces as a play. My only involvement was to see the finished product, which they did as a comedy. I said, ‘you’ve staged the book I wanted to write!'

A quarter of a century after Mystery Train, Marcus says America is once again up for grabs. Again, he’s following instinct, because the parallels between Bill Clinton and Elvis go further than their white-trash upbringings in the hinterlands of Memphis. Clinton auditioned for his job by playing America’s First Elvis on the Arsenio Hall show, donning shades and blowing the sax. 
When President Bubba’s activities below the waist began exciting America’s right-wing would-be moralists, he literally forced Elvis off the front pages of the scandal sheets. What was Kenneth Starr, after all, but another Ed Sullivan telling Clinton to keep his hips out of camera shot? In Double Trouble, Marcus quotes Jonathan Alter saying “(Clinton) may be a hound dog, but he’s our hound dog”.

From the moment Clinton was elected, the right has tried to deprive him of his legitimacy,” he explains. “His temerity was believing in himself, just like Elvis. Elvis could’ve been accepted, if he’d dropped his Memphis buddies, took the right drugs, slept with the right celebrities. Instead he stayed in Memphis, where local society treated him with contempt. Clinton went to Washington and met similar contempt from a similar high society. He didn’t do what Reagan did, invite them all to the White House, where they’d say, ‘what class!”. Clinton didn’t schmooze them. He and Elvis are fundamentally outsiders, hicks who see no reason to become sophisticated. 
And if he had invited them, they’d feel this deep sexual terror, a nightmare of waking up in the White House hungover with Clinton snoring next to them. Elvis communicated a sense that life is easier than you’ve been told it is. The people who hated him, who hate Clinton, are the ones telling you it’s not."

During the London Film Festival I watched Elvis: The Way It Is, Rick Schmidlin’s magnificent re-edit of Dennis Sanders’ 1970 Las Vegas documentary. The new film captures Elvis’ ability to draw something from an audience. It struck me I hadn’t seen a performance like that since Bill Clinton’s speech at the Democratic Convention in August.

Exactly,” Marcus smiles. His eyes light up again and I feel like a student being given a A. “Think about it, from the time Elvis was 19 or 20, he was a citizen of a nation divided. Half the country wanted to BE him, and the other half wanted him removed! Clinton divided the country in the same sort of way. People thought: ‘if they can do that to the President, what can they do to me if I step out line? And they keep redrawing the line!’ They look at Clinton and they’d simply like to feel as good as he does in his element.”

We also agree on the film’s defining moment, when Elvis flirts with one of his backup singers. “Yes, here’s the woman who is black, she could feel ‘oh, he’s stolen our music’, but then he spins around to her and turns it on, and she’s jelly.” 

Marcus misses that sense of joy in music today. Does he believe, as he writes in Double Trouble, that rock music “no longer seems to speak in unknown tongues“? 

Well, so much is subject to commodification. John Langford, of the Mekons, plays in the Waco Brothers, and he began one show I saw by saying ‘we do not play no alt country.' Someone wrote that Britney Spears is 18, and she looks like a 35 year old 1950s housewife at the same time she’s an ingenue. Like she’s used up her capacity to have new experience.” 
In an essay “The Summer of Love Generation Reaches the White House, and So Do Their Kids”, Marcus quoted Margaret Drabble’s 1977 observation that people are “more ironic, more cynical, more amused by more things, and less touched by anything.” 
It’s more true than ever now,” he says. “But people are still moved by what they hear. Polly Harvey and Coren Tucker of Slater Kinney are infinitely more alive—it isn’t age—they will be touchstones in the next 20 years. They’re younger than other people and of course now they’re younger than I am. The last music to come out of nowhere and change my expectations was the last three Dylan albums, the two acoustic and “Time Out Of Mind”. They tell a single story, it’s a great detective story, as good as The Big Sleep
Most music today is a different story, but it’s a continuing one. The groups I revile, like Rage Against the Machine, Limp Biskit, Christina Aguilera, well they were created so I wouldn’t like them. Dock Boggs, the banjo-playing white bluesman said it best when he was older, “I don’t really like rock and roll, but then, I’m not supposed to like it.”

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