The Professor of Punk

From the book Lipstick Traces to his new The Dustbin of History, Eat Bay critic Greil Marcus has revealed the secret history of pop culture

When Greil Marcus says he never wanted to be a rock star, it's easy to believe him. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Marcus, one of America's best-known pop culture critics (and almost certainly its most erudite), clings to no air-guitar pipe dreams held over from adolescence. He's an elbow-patch kind of guy and always has been. A rather short, deliberate fellow in James Joyce glasses, Marcus would seemingly make a perfect candidate for a tenured position at his alma mater, UC Berkeley.

In fact, after doing double duty in the early '70s as a Berkeley grad student (political theory) and records editor of the budding Rolling Stone magazine, Marcus did move on to a teaching job. For one year, he taught an honors seminar in American studies at Berkeley.

"If I was capable of doing anything, that was it," Marcus says. "But I was a lousy teacher."

"I'll never forget the day we were going to discuss Huckleberry Finn," he recalls. When one student suggested that maybe the book wasn't so special, Marcus didn't steer the discussion toward the book's relative merits. Instead, he blew up.

"A teacher of that sort is just not needed in this world," he says, shaking his head. Even today, sitting under a lamp in the recently refurbished attic workspace of his stately East Bay home of 22 years, the incident flusters the otherwise coolly composed writer.

Outside the classroom, though, Marcus' stubbornness surrounding art has served him handsomely. His 1975 book Mystery Train, a series of vignettes that cemented the legends of Robert Johnson, the Band, Sly Stone, and, of course, Elvis, was universally hailed as a benchmark of rock writing. In subsequent years, Marcus has established himself as America's pre-eminent rock chronicler with books like Dead Elvis, a rumination on the cult of personality, and Ranters and Crowd Pleasers, a collection of punk-themed essays. In addition, Marcus' forays across the dividing lines of the art world have inspired -- and vexed -- two generations of writers contributing to every major (and minor) publication on the newsstand.

In 1989 Marcus published his opus, Lipstick Traces, nine years in the making, an "obsessive" book that, in his words, "starts and ends with the Sex Pistols, and in between is 450 pages of strange ideas from Germany in the teens and France in the '50s." With its arrival, a majority of reviewers thought Marcus, always prone to daring leaps of the imagination, had jumped clear off the deep end. Then as now, some reviewers have criticized Marcus for his routine reliance on a signature device -- using personal epiphanies as his point of entry -- and some consider Lipstick Traces to be the gimmick's most overblown example. Still, the book, as the author describes it, has worked "like a Venus' flytrap," building a slow but steady groundswell of enthusiasts. Lipstick, along with Mystery Train, remains his calling card.

The subtitle of Lipstick Traces -- "A Secret History of the Twentieth Century" -- goes a long way toward describing Marcus' ongoing obsession with those aspects of our collective past that lie in the margins of textbook history -- or cannot be found in the textbooks at all. Throughout his career, Marcus has fussed incessantly over the ways in which pop culture alters our perception of history by giving voice to the dispossessed, and by continually revisiting events otherwise consigned to the dustbin.

"It's an argument about some of what goes into history," Marcus says of Mystery Train, though he might be discussing his entire portfolio. History is "not just events, and leaders, and economic trends. It's things we actually care about -- songs, and pieces of music," he argues, as well as TV movies, weird serial comic strips, and pulp spy novels, among other ephemera.

Given Marcus' longtime diligence in pursuing this common thread -- this "secret history" concealed in art -- it comes as something of a surprise when he claims he needed an editor at Harvard University Press to point it out to him.

"He said, 'Do you know you're writing a book about history?' " Marcus recalls. " 'Everything you've been writing and all the talks you're giving are focused obsessively on this question: What is history? How does it work? How do we find a place in it -- or how don't we?' "

"I went through everything I'd ever published," Marcus says, "going back to '68. And I found that this obsession was always there." Readers can now follow the author's thread in his latest collection of previously published work, The Dustbin of History.

The author William Styron once said, "The good writing of any age has always been the product of someone's neurosis." Though hesitant to praise his own work (he describes it as "wooden"), Marcus agrees: "When you have a neurotic hang-up," he says, "you might as well make the best of it. Use it as a source of energy."

Surely Marcus' friend and colleague, the late stream-of-(semi)-consciousness rock critic Lester Bangs, qualified as a neurotic. In 1987 Marcus edited Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, a posthumous collection of Bangs' essays; in the introduction, he remembers Bangs suggesting that the best writer in America -- himself -- wrote nothing but record reviews. "Lester as a writer was a genius," Marcus says. Sifting through material for Psychotic Reactions, Marcus was faced with "a steamer trunk full of manuscripts -- the most smeared typescripts imaginable."

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