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

The author considers significant moments in pop history to be every bit as topical as the news that's fit to print. "I think folk music is a legend," he says, "and there's a way in which pop culture is absolutely not. And I think -- I've never thought about it that way before, but -- that's probably a lot of what drives the pieces in this book: an attempt to find the event in the artifact."

In 1992, the then-editor of Esquire invited Marcus to write an article on the death of rock 'n' roll. He initially declined the offer as a "stupid idea," but when Esquire promised to pay him "lots" of money, he told them he'd think about it. And he did.

"I began to get interested in it, in the way that the notion of the death of rock is as old as rock itself," he says.

"My argument was, this is a trap that we're all in. We don't believe that this culture that we live our lives in is real. So we're always expecting it to die, to be taken away, to be exposed as a fraud, or to outgrow it."

He wrote the story that way, chronicling the myriad ways rock had already been "pressed down" before citing Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and the Geto Boys' "Mind Playing Tricks on Me" as examples of the continuing vitality of the music. To his chagrin, Esquire titled the piece "Notes on the Life & Death and Incandescent Banality of Rock 'n' Roll," couching it in decontextualized pull quotes that made Kurt Cobain and Bushwick Bill sound like tired retreads dragging an old windbag to his grave.

Marcus says, "I was amazed that so many people thought the article was about me saying, 'Ah, rock is dead. And I in all my wisdom will go on and think of better things.' " Unfortunately, that's often the perception when pop is taken up intellectually -- and Marcus knows no other way to approach it.

As with so many rock scribes, one of Marcus' ongoing infatuations is with the catalog of Bob Dylan. In fact, his next book, for which he is on hiatus from his Interview and Artforum columns, will be a dissection of the infamous Basement Tapes that Dylan recorded with the Band in 1967. As an example of the hypertext-like symbolism Marcus labors to find in modern art, he cites the wrenching Independence Day imagery of the Basement Tapes song "Tears of Rage."

"If 'Tears of Rage' doesn't have room for any aspect of the American experience or American language, then I've placed all my bets on the wrong horse," Marcus says with a touch of exasperation. "And if it does have room, it's because of the way it's sung. That's how symbolism works: It isn't a question of how much learning Dylan brought to this exercise, or what his intent was. And I find it bizarre that this is an argument you still have to make."

"I don't think there's any way you can exhaust the ability of a song to generate meaning, or suggestion, new points of view, new references," Marcus says. "When rock criticism first started, people would say over and over that this was going to kill music, that too much weight was being put on it.

"You know that Saturday Night Live skit where Chris Farley would be interviewing a movie star? He'd say to Dennis Hopper, 'You know that part in Blue Velvet where you put the mask on? That was really something.' That's the totality of the response, [as if] we all respond the same way. Well, in fact, we don't. And criticism is just the conversation people actually have, either with ourselves or other people, in a different format. That's all it is."

For the Basement Tapes book, Marcus says he doesn't anticipate requesting Dylan's cooperation. "I'm gonna make it all up," he smiles. "That's just the way I work. ... I'm sure were I to talk to Dylan, he would have fascinating things to say. But they would not be things that I have to say. The way I work is to try and respond to an artifact, and set up a dynamic between the reader and the thing. For better or worse, that's what I do."

Another forthcoming project is the reissue of the Marcus-edited Stranded, a 1979 collection of writers musing on their indispensable "desert island" discs. Though today his own 45-page annotated discography reads in spots like the contents of a yard-sale album crate, Marcus claims he won't touch the list for the new printing. Among other oddities, Gordon Lightfoot's "If You Could Read My Mind" made the cut. In defending that song, Marcus underscores the personal nature of criticism as a whole.

"I think Gordon Lightfoot is one of the great wastes of time of the late 20th century," he assures me. "And yet one day, I was listening to 'If You Could Read My Mind,' and it just got to me. It's gotten to me every single time since. I think that's what being a listener or a critic is all about: being able to allow something to completely blast all your prejudices."

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