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

"He and I were not the same, or even the least bit similar," Marcus says. "He could just get going, and somewhere around Page 20, of the 50 pages he was writing in a single night, everything would come together. I felt tremendously privileged to be able to home in and start on Page 20 and pull out 10 or 15 pages that worked.

"But that's what you can do when somebody's dead," he says. "Great violence."

Bangs and Marcus epitomize the two poles of pop's critical sphere. While Bangs was the quintessential frustrated musician, a hard-partying diarist of the "first thought, best thought" school who moonlighted in mediocre bands, Marcus stresses that "living the life" was never his bag.

"Some people, when they saw Elvis Presley onstage, Bruce Springsteen onstage -- Ronald Reagan onstage," he laughs, "said, 'I want to be that.' For me, that happened when I read [film critic] Pauline Kael. I said, 'I'd like to feel as alive as she must've felt when she wrote this.' "

For Marcus, exhilaration comes from words and ideas ("the serendipity of phrases"), and engaging a discipline of criticism that's as undisciplined as they come: "I think I've reached a point -- I hope I reached it a long time ago -- where divisions between pop culture, high culture, literature, musical culture, whatever you want to call them, ceased to have any real meaning. And the notion of writing about [the Archies'] 'Sugar Sugar' and Jane Austen in the same sentence was not cute, was not a trick, but might be the only way to get to the point you wanted to make.

"What's so exciting about pop culture as a writer, or at least was, years ago, was that it was open territory. Nobody had written about it, almost nobody, in an interesting way. Pauline Kael was one of the few -- she never seemed to be aware of the divisions that other people either clung to so desperately or were thrilled to see transgressed. I don't think Pauline Kael ever thought she was transgressing these distinctions, she was just living. She was responding. She was my great example -- and Lester's, as a matter of fact.

"Still, today," Marcus continues, "there is this hesitance to dive in all the way, with all your passion, all your knowledge, whatever you have to bring to a song, a movie, a concert, a political demonstration, anything you might call pop culture. ... People are made to be embarrassed by how much they care about shared events. They're defensive. And I think all that does is make us live less intensely -- which is altogether not a good thing."

Despite Marcus' professorial persona, he's quite obviously passionate about his subjects. And yes, this loafered pedagogue, born so tellingly in the consummate boomer year, 1945, enjoyed a conventional young adulthood: As proof, he speaks of cruising the El Camino strip as a teen-ager, making up new lyrics to "Runaround Sue" with a buddy.

"Last week I went out to dinner with Dion and some other people," Marcus says. "I wanted to tell him about it, but I felt shy, I guess. That record is not so great -- well, it is great -- but [more important,] it was something I talked about with my best friend for months at a time." Those cherished moments are just the sort of thing "people have been shamed out of," he says. "A lot of stuff in this new book [Dustbin] is about things that people have been convinced aren't important enough to talk about with all their heart and soul, whether it's a TV movie about Jan and Dean, or The Manchurian Candidate."

Many 20th-century musicologists (Alan Lomax, Peter Guralnick) have focused on folk music and the blues as styles worthy of academic discourse -- certainly more so than the fleeting, fickle musical form known as pop. The commonly held view of Marcus in rock-rag circles is that he has joined them in the hallowed stacks of academia, far from the mosh pit of pop trends. While his articles have graduated to such lofty periodicals as the Threepenny Review, the London Review of Books, and Artforum, Marcus remains an unequivocal champion of pop culture in all its seeming inanity.

Of the rock avatars in Mystery Train, he says, "I wanted to show people that this was American culture. It needs no apologies; it doesn't have to be separated from material we think is really worthy." And Marcus has continued that crusade, hauling the grubby, the maligned, and the uncultured to the doorstep of the cultural elite.

Marcus considers folklore and pop art to be separate entities: "I think folklore is about preservation," he says, "and things changing very, very slowly. Whereas I think pop is about change. And it often changes much too fast and heedlessly. It loses its moorings. That's why so many people in pop music die young, and people in folk music live a long time. ... Folk music is about a song that travels through generations that all kinds of people sing. Rock 'n' roll is about the record, a specific event that happened."

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