The author of over a dozen books, including the highly acclaimed Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ’n’ Roll Music (1975), Marcus first began writing criticism in 1968 at Rolling Stone, where he remains a contributing editor. He has since written as a music, film, television, and literary columnist for Artforum, The Believer, City (San Francisco), Esquire, Interview, The New York Times, Salon, and The Village Voice, among many others, and his work has also appeared in Another Room, The London Review of Books, The Sunday Times of London, Die Zeit, and more. His column Real Life Rock Top 10 appears monthly in The Believer.
Since 2000, Marcus has taught at Princeton, the University of Minnesota, New York University, and most frequently at the New School and the University of California at Berkeley. SVA Close Up caught up with Marcus recently for a conversation about everything from Malcolm McLaren vs. Andy Warhol to Berkeley in the ’60s and Jann Wenner’s editing style at Rolling Stone.
SVA: You went to the University of California, Berkeley in the ’60s. What was that like?
GREIL MARCUS: It was the opening of a new world. The professors were tremendously challenging and often very charismatic and enticing, and there was just a tremendous eagerness to learn, and a sense of absolutely no limits as to what you could learn. And then the second year I was there, in 1964, there was a tremendous amount of civil rights activity on the campus, which mainly had to do with racist hiring practices throughout the Bay Area at the time. There were a lot of demonstrations that were organized partly on the campus—sit-ins, pickets, marches—against these kinds of practices. Businesses put pressure on the University, which responded by banning all political activity on campus, including public speech and handing out literature. Spontaneously, all sorts of people, and political groups from the Communist DuBois Club to Students for Goldwater, formed the Free Speech Movement, which turned into a three-month battle culminating in a sit-in where students took over the administration building of the University, and over 800 people were arrested, which at the time was the largest mass arrest in the history of the United States, even bigger than during auto strikes in the 1930s. So it was a tremendous conflict, and it was also probably the most exciting and the most instructive and the most intellectually galvanizing event that I have ever had any contact with at all.
And if Berkeley was a great environment for learning before this, it was doubled-down afterwards because everything people were learning in class—whether it was in physics, whether it was in English, whether it was in political science or history or biology—was coming to life in front of your eyes on campus. And so there was an urgency of discussion in classrooms, and a re-commitment on the part of so many teachers to their subject matter. It was a life-changing experience. And in a way—whether in music, art, movies, or politics—I’ve always looked for something that liberating and thrilling.
SVA: I read somewhere that when you started writing for Rolling Stone after college, there were no rules there and you got to do whatever you wanted.
GM: Well, I was the first records editor at Rolling Stone, and there were no rules. There was nothing to fall back on as to how do you write about this kind of music, so people were trying absolutely everything with a great sense of freedom and experimentation and success and failure, and a feeling of, “My God, people are actually paying attention to this. Let’s pretend they aren’t because we don’t want to be intimidated by what somebody might think of what we’re saying.”
SVA: It sounds like that shaped you in a tremendous way as a writer.
GM: Oh, sure. And, you know, Rolling Stone, they hired editors from their writers. If you looked like somebody who actually knew what you were doing, they’d say, “Well, why don’t you be an editor.” You’d say, “Okay.” And you had no idea what that meant. When I first became an editor I thought it was my job to make everything read what I considered well, so I simply rewrote everything that was sent to me. I learned that wasn’t really a great idea after a while. [Laughter] And Jann Wenner—who had started the paper and was the editor—his approach to editing was to cut the first paragraph, and cut the last paragraph. And you know, it almost always worked.
SVA: You’ve made no secret of the fact that you favor Brit punk of the late ’70s/early ’80s over music that was coming out of New York at the same time. Why is that?
GM: I think if you look at Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood and the Sex Pistols in a way modeling themselves after Andy Warhol, you have something much richer and much more playful and less predatory. With British punk, it
seemed that people had found a way to talk about anything, and they were absolutely desperate to do it, whether it was with humor, hysteria, a kind of mindless heedlessness, or a very intense intellectual precision, depending on who you were listening to at any given moment.
When I was a kid in the ’50s and you turned the radio on, say, starting around 1955 or ’56, you just couldn’t believe what was coming out of the radio. And every time you turned your head or turned the radio on again, something new and different and stranger and wilder and more ridiculous and more thrilling would be there. The same thing seemed to me to be happening with Punk in England in ’76 and ’77 and ’78, and really on for the next several years.
SVA: Do you think the current politics of our time are being accurately reflected through art and music?
GM: What I value in art and politics is what you might just call public life—shared life among citizens in a particular time and place—the way in which in art certain manifestations of public life or politics are enacted or reenacted, translated into a different language in art, whether that’s music, visual art, movies, poetry, novels. That to me is what’s so valuable: when you see the things that are unintelligible or incomprehensible, that are garbled in political speech, in newspaper stories, in headlines, that are just babble, but somehow get translated into something lucid and transfixing, and you say, “Oh my God! That’s what’s happening.”
You know, the truest example of that for me would be the Rolling Stones song “Gimmie Shelter,” which came out in the late fall of 1969, right about the time that all of the notions of ’60s liberation were beginning to implode and turn back on themselves and devour themselves. And suddenly a sheen of defeat, escapism, ugliness, and crime was beginning to cover over the utopian impulses of the years before. And that song turned that sense that I think people had that hadn’t put into words, that they didn’t want to put into words, didn’t want to talk about—that song turned that into a tragic drama, a terrifying drama that sounded so powerful you just couldn’t bear not to listen to it again and again and again. And it’s interesting that that song has never been off the radio since then, it still speaks for a sense of desperation and terror and loss that people have never ceased to feel.
SVA: Could you recommend a few essential albums for students graduating this year, ones that fit the tone of moving on to a new stage of their lives?
GM: I’ll give you three. The Gang of Four, Entertainment; Al Green, The Belle Album; and Cat Power, The Covers Album.
SVA: What advice do you have for graduates?
GM: I think the most important thing for an artist—whether that artist is a writer, or a painter or a designer or a musician or a movie maker—is to be aware of clichés. Be aware of shibboleths, phrases, catch phrases, shortcuts in language, whether it’s visual language or written language or spoken language, that people use that are utter camp, that mean nothing, and are essentially a way of shutting people up, of shutting conversation down. I distrust anybody who starts a statement with “Of course.” When somebody’s telling you that, “Of course,” what they essentially mean is, “Shut up. Don’t think.” People need to be aware of clichés, and they have to train themselves to avoid them like death. Always know when you’re using some sort of dumb phrase like, “At the end of the day.” Don’t ever speak that way in whatever language you’re using. Just be aware that that’s not your language, that those aren’t words that you chose—whether we’re talking about technique or actual words—be aware that someone else chose them for you. You may think you’re saying something, but in fact you’re a ventriloquist’s dummy. So that’s what I’d say. Be aware of cliché. Be self-conscious about it. Be rigorous. Run away from it.