Q&A With Greil Marcus

Berkeley's Greil Marcus is America's most formidably intellectual rock writer. His books of cultural criticism (including Lipstick Traces and The Old Weird America) skip like stones across the landscape of Western civilization, with unpredictable trajectories that touch down in some very odd places (notably, Bill Pullman's face and the performances of '70s Cleveland punk band Pere Ubu). His most recent work, The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy and the American Voice, is to be released shortly in paperback. I caught up with him on his vacation in Aspen.

The Shape of Things to Come includes a chapter called "American Berserk," which reads quite a lot into actor Bill Pullman's face. This wasn't the first time you've written about him, though.

I wrote about him when I was writing about the Bob Dylan album Time Out of Mind, which came out in 1997. There was something about that album; the nihilism of it, and the bitterness of it, that reminded me of the [Pullman] roles from Malice and The Last Seduction. Just his face — I was fascinated by the way he played this person who seemed to embody a kind of resentment, and disgust and anger, but also had the face of someone who has given up — and it was the face of the country having given up on itself. That's how it came across to me. And that's a huge subject — this is the chapter in the book that's attracted the most interest and the most scorn. [People say,] "Are you kidding? Bill Pullman is supposed to represent America to us?" And I found the idea of seeing if I could play that out for a long time irresistible.

Greil Marcus.
Greil Marcus.

Details

Greil Marcus will read and sign books Tuesday, Aug. 21, at 7 p.m. Admission is free. For more info call 836-8688 or visit www.booksmith.com.
Booksmith, 1644 Haight St. (at Belvedere), S.F.

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Have you ever met him?

No.

I wonder what he'd think of you dissecting his face like that.

He plays Philip K. Dick in a forthcoming movie, and the director is a former critic who I had been in correspondence with and never met, and he wrote me to say, "Your book is being passed around on the set, and Bill is very upset whenever I say to him, "You know, Bill, I think the scene needs a little bit more of that good old American Berserk.'" So yes, he's aware of it.

I miss your old column from Salon.com, Real Life Rock and Roll Top 10. What are your top three these days?

I've been listening to the soundtrack of the Todd Haynes [Dylan biopic] I'm Not There ... there were two things in Dylan's career that I've never been able to understand. One was the reaction of people at the Newport Folk Festival [when Dylan went electric] ... The idea that people would be upset by this, be offended or betrayed, it was incomprehensible to me. But this movie absolutely made it real to me, that people could react that way. The other thing is his conversion to fundamentalist Christianity. The sequence in this movie that depicts that is so beautiful, and so strange ... John Doe's version of the Dylan gospel song "Pressing On" is playing [in the scene; it reminded me of visiting the Chartres cathedral [in France]. I thought, "God, I wish I believed in God, because then I could really appreciate this in a way that I probably can't." I feel the same way when I listen to John Doe sing "Pressing On." I realize that there are things that I'll always miss.

And No. 2 would be the new New Pornographers record [Challengers]. I love that band, but it's always been Neko Case that's made those records, and made their concerts for me. I'm always listening to the songs, waiting for her to appear, to fly through the air like Superman. This is the first New Pornographers album I've heard where she's not even the best thing on it, where there's momentum and excitement. I feel like I'm on a Ferris wheel when I listen to them — they catch that moment where you're at the very top of the Ferris wheel and you suck your breath in because you know the car's about to drop.

And another thing I would put on there is Grindhouse, because I would love to write about it and haven't been able to yet.

 
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