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A talk with Greil Marcus / by Jenn Pelly

I felt very lucky to meet with Greil Marcus last fall. Marcus writes legendary rock’n’roll stories and in the process he has also himself become a legend. If you haven’t read his sweeping books—Mystery Train, Lipstick Traces, The Old, Weird America, Stranded, In the Fascist Bathroom, to name a few—you should read them immediately because they will make your life better.

Marcus’s influence on cultural criticism is immeasurable, but I was introduced to it in maybe an unusual way. Before I got Mystery Train in college, I read his 2007 interview with Cat Power and it made a huge impression on me as a teenager. In that piece, Chan Marshall discussed the meaning of “Nude as the News," a song about an abortion she got at 20 and the pain she harbored over it: “It meant that I carry the soul of that child in me forever," she said.

It permanently changed the way I heard the song, which Marcus’s writing always does. Since that moment I’ve felt consistently grateful for his work—his most influential books, but also his pieces on the music I love most, like the Raincoats and Sleater-Kinney, for example.

The occasion of our discussion was partially the release of his recent book, which is called Real Life Rock: The Complete Top Ten Columns, 1986-2014. Each column surveys a month (or so) in culture through Marcus’s ears and eyes, and together they become an inspired encyclopedia of art and ideas. I cherish this book. An excerpt from our talk follows.

You were one of the first American writers to cover the dawn of feminist punk in Britain—the Raincoats, the Slits, Essential Logic. And you've followed that thread throughout your career, covering riot grrrl and Sleater-Kinney extensively. Do you consider yourself a feminist, or a feminist critic?

No, not at all. I don't think men can be feminists. My understanding of feminism is that one's identity as female trumps everything else and that's the first principle of criticism, of action, of whatever it might be. And obviously no male is going to be able to take that position, unless it's fraudulent. Whenever I hear male writers call themselves feminists, I just have to laugh. To me it's utterly fraudulent.

My interest is musical. I think that from the late 70s on, women have been making the most interesting and gripping and engaging and surprising and intense music. And that's not an ideological position, that's just listening and reacting. When I first heard Heavens to Betsy, which was Corin Tucker's first band, I thought—"Wow. This is different, this is shocking. Who are these people?" I was listening to a compilation album of Olympia bands, and it wasn't as if I was going through and trying to find the female bands and like them, or anything like that. So no. There's nothing ideological about it. It's just that for so long, what was new and fresh and daring in music was music made by women. And there are real social ideological political reasons for that. But I wasn't judging bands politically.

I was thinking about your interest in post-punk in relation to your new book, Real Life Rock. In 2012 you did an interview with Simon Reynolds where you said something about the Mekons and Gang of Four that's stuck with me: "The world is never dead to them. The world is always alive to them." And they're always in conversation with the world, they have this voracious curiosity. Looking at your Real Life Rock columns together, I feel like that sentiment applies. It's almost like looking at the Mekons discography—just decades of being inspired by the world and drawing meaning out. When I look at the book I think, "there are infinite things to be inspired by" and that's really moving. Do you feel like the spirit of post-punk is alive in the work you do?

I've found that—and it's a very lucky thing to discover—that when I devote myself to a project, it really stays with me. It's not like, "OK, I'm done with that, now I'll move on to something else. And that's a closed chapter in my life." It never really happens. And so my immersion in let's call it, post-punk music, both from that 1980 Rolling Stone trip to England to write about the Gang of Four and Lora Logic and the Raincoats, before that, and then all the stuff that I wrote that was collected for In the Fascist Bathroom, going from the late 70s to 1992, that's pretty much what this book is about too. I just found that the values that I heard in that music stayed with me, and that became what I wanted to hear, what I wanted to engage with. That was the most interesting stuff for me to write about.

And so, when Sleater-Kinney appeared, I was already attuned to what they were doing. It wasn't hard for me to hear it. It didn't sound strange. It sounded great. It sounded different. But it wasn't foreign in any way. I mean let's put it this way: It was easier for me to hear Heavens to Betsy than it was for me to hear Nirvana. I didn't get Nirvana instantly. I got Heavens to Betsy instantly. And that's stayed with me ever since. And when I saw the Pussy Riot video, the one they made in the cathedral, which was very much a performance piece that existed on video more than it ever existed as something that happened—the video is all put together, it's got stuff that was shot elsewhere—they sounded just like the Raincoats. They sounded just like Kleenex or Liliput. That same kind of shouting.

And what the group Femen does is absolutely of a piece with this. They're not musical. Femen is a group that started in the Ukraine before the overthrow of the corrupt president a few years ago. And it was a group of women who staged public protests by stripping naked from the waist up and going around in public places. And shocking people and essentially saying, the world isn't what you think. Things can happen in the world that you never expected to see. And yet, it was done in a spirit of absolute glee. It wasn't this grim—there was no self-righteousness in it. It was also people really having fun. They would rip off their shirts, and their bodies would be covered with slogans, whether in Ukrainian or in Russian or often in English. And it spread as an idea through Arab countries including Tunisia. But chapters formed in France and they staged this extraordinary event in Notre Dame cathedral where 20 or so women come in and disrupt mass, and it was just, incredible. And they're very much of a piece with Pussy Riot. But they're also very much of a piece with Sleater-Kinney and the Raincoats and the Slits and all of that. And they're aware of that. This is a legacy for them.

[pulls up image] Look up Femen, Notre Dame.

That's so interesting. It reminds me of Kathleen Hanna writing on her stomach.

It's very riot grrrl. But as mass political public action, rather than in a nightclub. It's taking Bikini Kill out of the nightclub.

You dedicated your new book to Sleater-Kinney and the Mekons. How else have those bands impacted you personally? What about them keeps resonating?

They're both bands that I never lost interest in. I always want to know what they're going to do. And so it was a thank you for giving me so much to write about. It's also true that I've become friendly with them over the years. It goes back a long time.

Do you have a favorite Sleater-Kinney album?

Call the Doctor.

When you were writing about this stuff earlier on, did you ever consider yourself to be a punk?

No. Just like I was never a hippie. I was just who I am. I mean there was a long time when my wife and I would go to punk shows in San Francisco that started at 2 a.m. We did that a lot even though it was rather wearing. But no, not at all.

There's this line in Lipstick Traces where you're talking about all of this punk music and how it's so irreducible, and how it's music that wants to change the world—people are making music as if their actions actually mattered. Actually that really summarizes Sleater-Kinney for me. Is that what you mean by "REAL LIFE rock"—those high stakes?

That title has many meanings. Many kinds of resonance. None of which were intended when I chose it. It was just, there was an album by Magazine, which was Howard Devoto's group after he left the original Buzzcocks. A band I'd completely loved, The Buzzcocks when he was the singer, and after he left, they became a pop group and I never really connected with them at all. And lost interest. But I always followed whatever Howard Devoto did. And so Magazine put out an album called Real Life. And I thought that was just the most audacious and ridiculous thing imaginable, to say: you can find real life on an LP. How silly. But I loved that. And so I just took that. And made up the phrase real life rock. It wasn't meant to say: this is going to be about the way people really live. That became its ambition. But at first it was just a good title, that's all.

It's really inspiring to me because at my job I edit track reviews, so I assign and edit 150-200 word pieces everyday. Sometimes I feel like people will refer to the writing as a "blurb" or a "write-up" in a way that is… not diminishing, but maybe a little. It's a capsule review, a cornerstone of journalism, it's always been there, in a way. Do you feel like you've always been enthusiastic about short-form writing, or did you come to it after coming out of the experience of writing books?

It's sort of complicated. When I was writing a book column for Rolling Stone, which I did from '75-'80, or when I was writing a music column for New West Magazine, which I did from '78-'83, or something like that… I found that almost always the column would be a main review, and then maybe two or three short things that might be just a few sentences, or maybe one sentence. And I found that I enjoyed writing the really short things the most. And that often, they said the most. That you really could capture a whole novel, or a whole album, if you came up with the right metaphorical description. Or metaphorical equivalent to what you were writing about. And that was the most satisfying stuff.

And then I was writing Lipstick Traces, which I was really writing from '83 to '88, and it's an enormous amount of stuff. By '83 I pretty much had done the research, I had everything I was going to write about in my hands, and it was all falling through my hands, and I couldn't make any sense of it, I didn't know how to handle it. I tried to write these long, discursive chapters and I realized, I just can't do that. Whatever talent I have, it's not for writing long essays. So I said, well what I'm going to do, I'm just going to break everything up into sections that will relieve me of having to provide any transitional… and "as we have seen" and "now we will." Just dump all that. And sometimes they'd be 500 words, sometimes they'd be 2500 words. And I would just slot in the first two or three words of each section as a title. And I thought, I'll go back later and make up really good titles for each section. I realized I had a thousand, so they got stuck there.

But I realized, whatever abilities I have, it's for writing shorter rather than longer. And with this column, it was a challenge because it started out at 700 words. To do 10 items but find space here and there in any given column for something 150 or 200 words, where you could really develop an argument. You could actually write a critical theory essay in 200 words, once you learned how to create a context, which often the other items create the springboard for item number eight or whatever. And I never thought of them as "blurbs," which is to say, just, something you say so that somebody can quote it somewhere. To me, they're items. I'm constructing a column. I have 10 items. And what are they going to be?

Especially thinking about the sections of Lipstick Traces, it's like two-minute punk songs, which can say so much more than, say, a six-minute song.

That's right. Yeah. It occurred to me while I was writing that they were like that.

Putting all these pieces together: it's almost like collage.

I was inspired by Minima Moralia, the Theodor Adorno book. Which is a book of all of these relatively short essays, some very short, some two pages, all with these great titles like "Unfair Intimidation" and "Atrophy" and god knows what. And so that was a real inspiration for what I was doing.

Do you feel like focusing on shorter pieces has, with your longform work, changed the way you write?

Yeah, because it allows me to move quickly and to go from one thing to another. It shows me that you can do that, and readers will be able to follow what you're doing. Once you introduce them to the fact that they're going to be quick cuts.

Does the format seem freeing to you, or is it just as hard as writing long?

It's very freeing. It's fun. Having structure, having limits can be the most liberating thing of all. And I wonder—I don't know, someone else will have to tell me if the columns where I didn't have a word limit are better or worse than the columns where I did. For the Voice, for Artforum, City Pages, Interview, I had specific word limits. And for Salon and The Believer and Barnes and Noble Review, I didn't. I could write as long as I wanted. And I'm not sure if that was good or not.

When you look at the Real Life book, is there any particular era that you like the best?

No, I find going through it that, except for the Interview columns which were really hobbled—by the fact that every item had to be music-related, which was the opposite of the what the idea of the column was—that the energy doesn't seem to flag. The fun that I had writing the column was always there.

It's funny, I mean, this book goes through a lot of presidencies, and you get a different kind of energy whether it's despair, frustration, delight, confirmation, fear, those emotions that come out of political situations affect how you're going look at everything, think about everything, how you're going to hear things. And yet… with my own books, I can very easily think of it: this is a Clinton book, this is a George Bush book, this is a Reagan book. Those presidencies really are an essential part of what I was doing. And I understand how, I talk about how, it all makes sense to me. But with this, that isn't clear to me at all. This is a current running alongside of, sometimes intersecting with, the political world, but it's never congruent.

Do you actively follow contemporary punk? I've noticed that, aside from Pussy Riot, you've written about White Lung and Vexx.

I'm always looking for extreme music within a rock and roll dimension, I guess. And I'm always drawn more to female voices more than male voices. They're just more interesting to me. It could be… it doesn't have to be a punk band, it can be the Corrs. But I'd rather hear the Corrs sing their song “Breathless", than, I don't know, Pearl Jam.

Have you ever seen Sleater-Kinney and Pearl Jam doing "Rockin in the Free World"?

I've watched it on YouTube.

There are quite a few videos of them doing it. They're all great. I have my favorites, but. That's just so thrilling. That's utopia to me.

You wrote about that in one of the columns. It was kind of recent.

Yeah. Because I didn't see it before then. I didn't know about it.

I though that video was great. I have fallen into many Sleater-Kinney YouTube holes. I only saw them for the first time this year. It was mind-blowing.

I saw them with my younger daughter at First Avenue in Minneapolis in February. It was a fabulous show. They were having such a great time, and playing with such fierceness. There's no diminution. There's no maturity. There was no sense that "we are now in our 40s and this is unnatural." It was nothing like that at all.

Do you feel like, given the type of music we've been discussing—and also this combination of super-long writing and super-short writing—do you feel like you've always just been drawn to extremes in general? Like in the music you listen to and the way you do things.

I've never thought of it that way. What might seem extreme to other people is often what reaches me, and if it reaches me, it's not like, 'Oh this is so extreme,' it's like, 'This is so right, this is so good, this is so rich.' That's the reaction. But maybe.

Is Sleater-Kinney your favorite record of the year?

No, I'd say the Lana Del Rey album is my favorite record of the year, at this point.

I really liked the writing that you've done on Lana Del Rey. In the Real Life Rock columns. Especially about the song "Young and Beautiful" because I love that song so much, but I feel like it's been overlooked a bit. In one of the columns you wrote about her "SNL" performance and said you felt like it was the most radical new music on the show in a while. What do you think is the most radical thing about Lana Del Rey?

For that performance, I remember watching it and not having any idea who this person was. And thinking, she came out in this utterly pretentious self-presentation. And yet the singing was odd. It didn't go anywhere predictable. And it seemed to just be filled with uncertainty, a kind of thoughtful uncertainty rather than incompetence. And I just thought, this is really interesting. That was my reaction. I want to hear more of this person. And then comes this avalanche of cat-calling and trolling and all this. I thought, what are these people saying? This was… most “Saturday Night Live” performances are boring, and they're stiff. And they're preening and they're predictable. You hear the first few notes and you know where it's going. And this wasn't like that. And she isn't like that. And her music isn't like that. It's always open-ended. And you don't know where it's going. And if you're like me, you want to know. So you follow it. You follow the song. It kind of pulls you along in an odd way.

I have so many friends who are into punk who really like Lana Del Rey. But then I have a lot of friends who are into pop music, but don't like Lana Del Rey. I've always thought that was so interesting.

Well that shows you that really, she's a punk. And her music is, in a counterintuitive way, punk. Because look at what it does: it offends people, it upsets people. People want to stamp it out. It's really remarkable.

So has Lana Del Rey gotten the most extreme reaction out of you musically this year? Because something I was thinking about is: Sleater-Kinney, when I saw them play this year, I was like, 'I've been waiting for this my whole life!' I was screaming and crying. Usually at shows I am not screaming so much. Does music draw extreme reactions out of you like that ever?

Yeah, sure. But what I remember mainly from the show I saw in February was just smiling.

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