Pioneering music critic Greil Marcus will give a free lecture based on his book "Lipstick Traces" in CCAD's Canzani Center Auditorium at 6:30 p.m. Thursday. I interviewed Marcus to preview the show, which was a wonderful experience for someone ostensibly following in his footsteps. When the time came to write the feature, I had to leave so much on the cutting room floor, so here's our full conversation for your enjoyment and edification.
Did CCAD ask you to focus on your book "Lipstick Traces," or was that your decision?
That was their suggestion. It’s a book that came out in 1989 and there was a 20th anniversary edition a few years ago. So it’s a book that is still alive for me, and apparently it’s alive for some readers too. So they thought that would be an interesting thing to do. Of course it’s always difficult to talk about your own work without just saying how wonderful you are, which is not terribly interesting to anybody. So I’m not sure quite how it will work. I might do a performance of a sort of theatrical version of the book I wrote one day long before I ever wrote the book, which boils the whole thing down to about 30 minutes. But, you know, try and find a way to talk about the themes of the book and why they might still be alive, not because of what I wrote, but because of the way they resonate in the world, whether it’s a radical group of writers in France in the ’50s and ’60s or the Dadaists in Europe in the 19-teens and ’20s or the Sex Pistols in London in 1977.
When you’re reviewing these ideas and this material now, have those ideas evolved at all in the years since you published it?
It’s funny, the very last thing in the book talks about how great punk records are. When they’re great, they’re really great. And they don’t sound like anything else. They don’t seem to trail history behind them. There’s huge amounts of history coded into them. There’s no homage, there’s no reference to musical styles that somebody’s drawing on. The stuff just seems to pop out of nowhere and go off like a bomb. And I said, when this isn’t true anymore, when these records don’t sound so wonderful, as they did when I finished the book and as they still do to me now, that will mean that the story that I’m tracing, which is a story about the transmission of a shout through the whole 20th century and really many centuries beyond that, that story will have taken its next turn. It will have announced itself in a new way, and it will have made what we can see now seem irrelevant. And that hasn’t happened yet. At least it hasn’t happened for me, and it hasn’t happened in the world at large that I’ve seen. In many ways, what is going on in Russia with Pussy Riot and with another group called Le Femen, which is active both in the Ukraine and in Paris, is very much a straight direct continuation of the kind of things I wrote about. One of the central incidents in Lipstick Traces has to do with a protest that was staged in Notre Dame in Paris in 1950 during Easter mass — you know, the biggest day of the year. Someone dressed up as a Dominican monk took advantage of a pause in the service and went up to the altar platform and began to deliver a sermon about the death of God before 10,000 people in Notre Dame in the middle of Easter high mass, and it was this huge scandal. And only a couple of weeks ago, there was a protest in Notre Dame by this group of women, Le Femen, where they invaded Notre Dame, stripped off their tops and, half naked, began banging on bells and shouting and singing as a protest against the election of Pope Francis. You know, an anticlerical protest. This is in some ways, for me, someone who’s written about events like this, just a dumbfounding and confusing and thrilling reenactment of things that I so immersed myself in 20-some years ago. There was an article in a Paris paper saying, “Forget about Le Femen. Here’s the real Notre Dame scandal.” And it summarized my chapter on that, which I think is totally wrong. The real scandal is what’s happening now and the women who had the nerve to go in and defile it. Whatever you might think of that, that takes a lot of nerve.
It seems like you’re saying the forms people are using today to transmit this “shout” are the same forms people have been using for a while.
Well, it’s not so much that the forms are different or similar. To me, anyway, it’s that nothing has come along to make the last instance of this story, at least as it appears to me, seem like a dead language.
You mentioned you had originally scripted this out as a short play. I know there eventually was a theatrical version of "Lipstick Traces"; were you involved with that at all?
No. That was completely different. I had done all this research for about three, four years, and I sort of knew who the characters in this book were going to be, but I had no idea what to do with what I had or how to tell a story. So just to play with it, I sat down one afternoon and I wrote a play in which all the characters from the book from whatever decade or century appear in the same nightclub at the same time, and they fight over the stage, you know, invading the stage and kicking people off and shouting and playing music and giving speeches. But the real Lipstick Traces play was done by a theatrical group in Austin, Texas called the Rude Mechanicals. And they simply inquired as to whether they could have rights to adapt the book, and I said sure, and I don’t want to have any involvement at all. I don’t want to approve anything. If you have a factual question, I could try to answer it, but otherwise I just want to see what you come up with. And what they came up with in a lot of ways was the book I wanted to write and never quite could. It’s an extraordinary work. It’s just a little over an hour, maybe it’s just under an hour. It’s so intense and funny and brazen. I saw it many times. It played in New York for six weeks. Played at UCLA for months. It played in lots of places around the country. It was the best review I ever got. It was the most gratifying thing to have other people in one way or another be affected by your work and then tell you things about it that you didn’t know. That’s what that was.
Will you open it up for questions at this appearance next week?
Oh, sure. You bet. There’ll be a lot of that. As much time as people want.
I was going through some of your more recent columns, like in The Believer. It seems like there’s a natural tendency as people get older to disengage with current culture and get stuck in the past, but I don’t sense that with your writing. It seems like you’ve stayed very engaged in a wide range of culture. As the years go by, does that still come naturally because of an appetite for that stuff, or is it a challenge to not fall back into the past?
You know, one thing I certainly don’t keep up with is the top of the charts. A whole lot of that just passes me by in one way or another, mainly because I don’t find it that interesting. I mean, every once in a while there’s a huge hit that I just completely love — say, “Bad Romance” by Lady Gaga, which is a No. 1 hit and all I want to do is hear it all day long. But most of the time, I’m just looking. I’m listening to the radio; I’m reading; I’m going into record stores looking at what might be interesting, just to see what’s there. I’m a writer, so when something strikes me, I want to write about it. Beyond that, I read a lot of novels. My wife and I go to movies as much as we can, which might be three times a week or once a week, but, you know, all kinds of movies. I don’t know, there’s a way in which when you get older, you might think, “Well really all I want to do is re-read books I love and watch old movies I love and listen to music I love, and I don’t want to be bothered by the world out there.” And it’s a perfectly legitimate way to live your life, but it’s not the way that I want to live mine.
To be in the Bay Area during the 60s, you were certainly in the middle of a major musical and social movement. And you clearly see the 70s punk stuff as a major movement. Do you see any parallel movements happening right now that seem to have that same game-changing potential? Is it even possible to tell without hindsight?
Well, it’s not possible for me. It might be possible for other people to see the future with any kind of clarity, but I’ve never been able to, and I’ve never tried. I like to be surprised. But I think we’re in a situation today where the biggest names in music, and they’re mostly hip hop people — Kanye West or Jay-Z, Beyonce — these people are official culture today. They’re official culture because of their ubiquity, because of their presence or domination of mainstream media, because of their connection to the White House in the case of Jay-Z and Beyonce, and because these are people with hundreds of millions of dollars. And so you’re not going to see a gesture, let alone a movement, that questions our values, which is what we’re really talking about in terms of social or aesthetic upheavals. You’re not going to see that from people like that. It just doesn’t work that way. One of the things that I thought was absolutely hilarious and bizarre most recently was the woman who has written this book, "Lean In," do you know what I’m talking about?
Yeah, Sheryl Sandberg. She’s this tremendously successful, hard-working woman, and she’s written the No. 1 best seller in the country about how women have to seize the moment and seize the opportunities and the power that are out there. And she said she’s always thought that she would run a social movement, that she would be the head of a social movement. Social movements aren’t run! They don’t have a head in that way. And the notion that you could create a social upheaval that questioned values by which most of us live our lives and don’t question, that you could do this in a top down basis is just so crazy and so sick in a way that it kind of leaves you breathless, or it leaves me breathless anyway. But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe she’ll end up running this huge transformative social movement that will leave us all in the dust.
As someone who lives in the Bay Area, do you pay much attention to the music that’s coming out of there these days? Specifically I mean the garage rock stuff like Ty Segall, Mikal Cronin, Thee Oh Sees and all that.
The stuff just hasn’t come across for me. I’ve listened to all of that. The people I’ve been most enthusiastic about over the past few years have been the Fiery Furnaces and Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger. I think their stuff is so alive and so unpredictable and different from what everybody else is doing. I’ll always go to their shows.
It seems like they had a big media moment a few years ago, but I don’t see as much hype storm around them anymore. Do you think that’s because of a broken media system or what?
I think it’s because they’re not part of that system. I think Matthew put out something like eight or nine albums last year, actual albums, not just website stuff. And Eleanor has a second solo album coming out this summer. She’s been touring the last year or so with a little band of her own with the most extraordinary guitar player who looks about 16. He has the fastest hands I’ve ever seen. She has a song, “When I Knew I Was Wrong,” that is the kind of record that if it’s not a hit, then hits don’t really exist anymore. It reminds me a lot of Buddy Holly. It’s not a Buddy Holly song, it’s her song. So you’re right. But I don’t think they’ve ever been a major media presence, not that I’ve noticed.
I guess I noticed a lot of attention around the time they released Blueberry Boat, but maybe that’s just because I grew up reading Pitchfork.
Well, maybe. I just think they’re wonderful, and lovely people too.
Anybody you’re particularly fond of doing rock journalism or cultural criticism today?
Well, I like Robert Loss, who writes for PopMatters and who’s in Columbus. I like his stuff. The fact is, I don’t read a lot of what other people are writing, whether on websites or in publications. Right now I’m working on a book and I’m just sort of insular and trying not to waste time on reading anything that isn’t either totally relaxing or totally immersing in what I’m writing about. So I don’t know the answer to that. I would guess that there’s probably remarkable work being done that I don’t know about. Every year Da Capo puts out — although now I think it’s Duke that’s going to be doing it — a best music writing of the previous year. And they collect all kinds of stuff. And usually when I open those books and I start reading, I find stuff that is just so interesting and thrilling and sometimes with a radically different approach that is taken by anybody else. And I feel very happily ignorant that this great stuff is going on and very happy that it’s collected somewhere that I can read it. Jason Gross puts out an internet magazine called Perfect Sound Forever, and every year he puts together a huge list of the best or most interesting or most unusual music writing, much more complete than the book’s, and I read a lot of that too. So all kinds of people. There’s a writer in LA who goes by the name of Commie Girl, and she’s just one of the funniest music writers ever. And completely satirical, completely snide and vicious, and never writes about anything without the sense of how we live and what we do and what we think about and what we don’t think about. That’s all present in her work. And I’m sure there’s lots of people doing stuff that I just don’t know about.
Do you think it’s possible to write well about music without putting it in that broader cultural context of how we live and all that?
Well, I hope so. My writing has certainly changed over the years. It’s become much more about music and much more about songs and trying to get at how a song works or doesn’t, how it says what it says, less than analyzing or making sense of what it says. I’m really more interested in how does a performer or just a song develop a language that’s different, and how do we learn that language? How do we respond to it? And that’s really what I’ve been writing about in my last few books. Last year I had a book about The Doors, and the year before that a book about Van Morrison, and these were just books about listening to these people. They weren’t comprehensive career surveys. They certainly weren’t biographies or anything like that. And to the degree that they contextualized the music, I tried to do it with a very light hand, to say sort of two things at once. On the one hand, no art of whatever kind comes out of nowhere, even though it might feel like it does. And sometimes it’s really important to get at why and how it feels like it comes out of nowhere, and sometimes it’s interesting to look at the world in which it comes from, not because it’s some sort of reflection of that world, but because it’s a version of it, a translation of it. Art translates what is going on in the world at a given moment, but it translates it into a language of its own, a new language that we either have to learn, or often times we say, “Oh my god, I totally get that.” When rock and roll appeared in 1954, ’55, you had all these teenagers all over the country. They had never listened to blues, never listened to country, never listened to bluegrass. They had never been exposed to anything like that, and then suddenly, boom! You have all this strange, noisy, radical music playing, and instead of saying, “What is this weird music?” people said, “Yeah, that sounds great.” Sometimes that happens, and I’ve become much more interested in that and looking at things that way rather than saying in this song, this album, this career we can see an allegory of our whole national drama. I’ve written that way, but it’s not how I’m writing now.
One more thing: Can you talk about the book you’re working on, or is it still a secret?
It’s not a secret, but I don’t feel ready to talk about it. It’s still up in the air to some degree, even though I’m almost finished.