"You don't need a guitar to be a rock'n'roll hero" (Paul Williams)
Bill Flanagan, Peter Guralnick, Dave Marsh, Paul Williams, Robert Palmer and him, the subject of this interview, Greil Marcus. If these names don't mean anything to you, you 've surely missed something: a real article on rock music, or a real book dedicated to rock. It's them who created from nowhere (because it didn't exist at all before them) the concept itself of "rock criticism", and still today their lesson is so debording that it goes without comparison. Especially in that tiny musical Italy of ours. Thanks to them rock has been given a new value (obviously in America)as one of the most relevant forms of art and culture of the 20th century, like literature, poetry, politics, sociology. Some examples? "Written In My Soul" by Bill Flanagan, still today teaches what it is to make an interview with some contents apart from the mere gossip; "Performing Artist" by Paul Williams tells us that to understand something about Bob Dylan it isn't enough having all his records lined on the shelves , you must first thoroughly study Pablo Picasso and William Shakespeare; Robert Palmer, to explain what is rock'n'roll , visited all the dirty juke joints, still existing in the Mississippi Delta (Deep Blues); Greil Marcus, to tell the story of punk, wrote the story of the dada movement and of the cultural ferments in Europe in the 20s and 30s ("Lipstick Traces") . Today rock critics, thanks to them and to few others, are respected, questioned, valued in America. They hold conferences at Universities, like the editorialists who write on politics or social problems .Is it chimerical for Italy? Let the reader judge by himself. Greil Maarcus has just published "Invisible Republic - Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes", now also published in Italian by Arcana. It's a great event in the history of music criticism, and we take the opportunity to go and meet him in Berkeley , where he lives, for an interview.
Born in San Francisco in 1945, Greil Marcus started his career collaborating with Rolling Stone and a little after he taught at Berkeley University. It's his own one of those reviews bound to remain in the chronicles of rock criticism, when, on the subject of Selfportrait, the Dylan's album of 1970, he started with a "What's this shit?" (in spite of "political correctness"). From 1983 to 1988 he was Director of the National Book Critics Circle, while co-operating to magazines such as Village Voice, New Yorker, Creem, New Musical Express and others. He wrote "Mystery Train: Images Of America In Rock'n'Roll Music", "Dead Elvis: A Chronicle Of A Cultural Obsession", "Lipstick Traces: A Secret History Of The 20th Century". At present he writes music reviews on Artforum and Interview.
JAM: How did your career as a reporter and music critic begin?
Greil Marcus: I started writing on rock'n'roll for my college's paper, about 1965, but my real beginning was some years later, when I grew more and more attracted by the incredible music scene in San Francisco by the end of the 60s. At that time, Jann Wenner founded the Rolling Stone magazine. I had known him for a while because he was, too, a student at Berkeley University, but I didn't like at all their way of reviewing rock'n'roll records, they used the same approach used for old folk music: they only talked about lyrics not music. One day I bought a record and I didn't like it at all, and was disappointed mostly because this record was well advertised, while it was awful. So I decided to write a review of it and sent it to Rolling Stone: when I bought the magazine the following week, I found my review in it. I thought: but then it's really easy to be a music reporter! I set to write others and one day Jann Wenner called me at home saying: "I heard you are complaining about Rolling Stone's reviews on records, why don't you become the responsible of our reviews?". Okay, I answered and that's how my professional career started at $30 a week.
JAM: One of these reviews of yours made history, as an example of courage and freedom from prejudice, in a field where reporters seldom dare to speak ill of one of the greatest rockers. In 1970, your review of Bob Dylan's "Selfportrait" started with the sentence "What's this shit?". Weren't you afraid of any reaction from the artist's or his recording company's part?
G.M.: No, definitely, I just reported what everybody was saying about that record. I think it got such an echo because it was the first time that a reporter was using that expression. I didn't want to impose my personal opinion by that sentence, it was more like the start of a conversation between friends listening to a record, I also quoted friends' and colleagues' and also the people on the street's opinions about "Selportrait" in the course of the review. You must remember that, back then, such a record by Bob Dylan was a real shock in American society: the worst songs, mostly covers of other singers….To be precise, then, the sentence "What's this shit?" was the opinion on the first song in the record, "All The Tired Horses". Had I started with a sentence like "Many people are upset by Bob Dylan's new record", I think nobody would have been impressed by that review, it was a very effective beginning….
JAM: Wasn't there any reaction from Bob Dylan's part?
G.M.: There was, however indirect, about a year later when , during an interview, a reporter asked Bob Dylan what he thought of Greil Marcus. He said: "Greil Marcus is full of shit" (Marcus and Dylan are very good friends today, ndr).
JAM: There's an incredible tradition of great rock music writers in America, differently from what happens in Europe, where writing about music means writing about gossip, temporary trends and who's at the top of the charts. How would you explain this difference? What's the origin of this unique approach to music criticism you've got in America?
G.M.: I don't know exactly how this happens. I got really impressed by the reactions people had in Italy at the latest Bruce Springsteen's album, "The Ghost Of Tom Joad", and also at his acoustic tour. The reaction of the Italian audience was stronger, more concerned with the meanings and more emotional even than the American audience's one. This means that in Italy there is an audience, there is an audience who cares about music. That's why I can't explain to myself why you don't have a generation of critics who care about the exigencies of the people, mainly if you think that jazz criticism was born in France in the 20s, while it didn't exist in America at all and it was English blues collectors and fans in the 50s to understand, long before than in America, that blues was a special music, living music. So I can't understand why there isn't , in France or England, a kind of music criticism linked to social needs, to what the people would really like to know. Except for Simon Fricke and Jon Savage, in England there's no true concept of music criticism. As far as we are concerned, people like me, Paul Williams or Robert Palmer, we all started to write in the 60s, and I believe that the influence of that particular period of history has generated our approach to music criticism. However, today in America, there is a new generation of writers and critics, especially women, who started in the 80s and 90s, who have found a personal style of their own to carry out this tradition. As for Italy, I think that a writer such as Umberto Eco would be a perfect music critic.
JAM: One of the distinctive features of your writing is the way you can connect rock'n'roll to the political and social history of your country, and this is particularly evident in your "Invisible Republic". How can you get this kind of approach to writing?
G.M.: It has never been an intentional approach, I've never been able to write in a different way than this. When I was at the college and also when I started to write on music, it was a particular period in American history, when political instances were topical subjects; anything you studied at the University courses was related to the student protest or the civil rights movement. You'd discuss of politics in the morning, listen to music in the afternoon, there was no separation between these two worlds. To me, it was normal and I was really surprised when, beginning to write, I realised that nobody took it into consideration, and music was kept apart from politics or social life. Yet it happens to each of us: when you are listening to a song , it seems to you that for a moment nothing is greater than rock'n'roll, all the world with all its needs is contained in that song in that moment. So, you can't help but wonder: how is it possible, a world contained in a song? That's how my way of writing was born and even if today I have to explain this, back then, in the 60s, it was taken for granted, it was natural. There is a chapter in "Invisible Republic" entirely devoted to one song of the Basement Tapes, "Lo And Behold!". But that song is just a starting point to discover an entire world: Frank Hutchison's blues in the 20s, then the situation of the miners in West Virginia at that period to come back again to the blues and to Dylan's song. Listening to a song we can speak of politics, society, culture: the whole world is inside a song.
JAM: The starting point to write "The Invisible Republic" was listening to a series of bootlegs which gather all the recordings Bob Dylan did at Woodstock. Did you ever worry about a possible reaction by Bob Dylan's or his recording company's part for material which, according to Law, should be considered prohibited?
G.M.: Yes, the book depends on these five CDs dedicated to the Basement Tapes and also on many other bootlegs with the shows Dylan and the Hawks performed from 1965 to 1966. Without that material I'd never have been able to work. Before starting to write I contacted Bob Dylan's publisher explaining what I had in mind and asking for the permission to quote verses from the Basement Tapes songs. The answer was surprising: they said yes, you can use Dylan's lyrics, but please, don't just quote the few songs officially released, use the songs contained in the bootlegs!
JAM: Why, in your opinion, Dylan doesn't allow the official release of all this material of such a huge musical and historical value?
G.M.: As for Dylan and the Hawks' live shows in 1966, a couple of years ago Columbia had worked a long time on those tapes for a sure official release, so that they had asked Tony Glover, a musician and old friend of Dylan's, to write the liner notes. The project was rejected, and my opinion is that the recording Company, still not knowing about the release of a new album of Dylan's songs, which had been missing for over five years, was afraid that the release of material more than thirty years old could definitely ditch Bob Dylan's image, relegating him for ever to his past, like: look at how good he used to be once, look at what he was able to do while today he doesn't release anything relevant anymore. Time Out Of Mind , with the incredible interest it stirred up among the critics and audiences in the world, luckily brought Dylan back into his contemporaries' consideration. Now it could be the right moment for the release of those concerts of 30 years ago, or the original Basement Tapes.
JAM: By strange coincidence, at the same time as the "Invisible Republic" was published, "The Anthology Of American Folk Music" was released for the first time on CDs, the nucleus, together with the Basement Tapes, from which your book started. Did you know of this project while you were writing your book?
G.M.: No, I didn't. I got great help from the Administrator of Harry Smith's archives (the man who published the Anthology), who gave me a lot of information but didn't tell me anything about this project.
JAM: How do you think the new generation of musician will acknowledge this re-edition? Could it produce in part the huge impact it had, in the 60s, on artists like Bob Dylan and all his generation?
G.M.: I can't tell if the impact on musicians will be adequate, but I can surely tell that it will show the young people that their country, and the world in general, is much richer, more complex and more interesting than they could ever imagine. Because this Anthology is not just a collection of music, but it contains America, it's a picture of America, but also a picture of life itself.
JAM: What's your opinion concerning Bob Dylan's nomination to the Nobel Prize?
G.M.: Well, if Dario Fo won a Nobel Prize, I think also Bob Dylan could….Seriously, as well as I don't think Dario Fo's is true literature, I don't think Dylan's songs are true literature, either.
JAM: In conclusion, what are, apart from yours, obviously, the books dedicated to rock'n'roll that you consider indispensable?
G.M.: I hope not to forget any of them…Surely the book which inspired me when I started my career, absolutely one of the best still today, it's "Rock From The Beginning". Then "Psychotic Reactions And Carburetor Dung", by Lester Bangs; "The Heart Of Rock And Soul (Thousands and One Greatest Rock'n'Roll Singles)" by Dave Marsh; "Louie Louie", again by Dave Marsh; "England's Dreaming" by Jon Savage; "Hell Fire", Jerry Lee Lewis's biography, which I believe is the best biography, and also the shortest, of a rock musician ever written.