Greil Marcus has been writing about rock music since before writing about rock music was a thing. As one of the earliest editors at Rolling Stone in the 1960s, he helped shape a new frontier of journalism. Lots of writers have come and gone since then, but Marcus remains engaged and enlightening; check out his Real Life Rock Top Ten column in The Believer for proof.
“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,” Marcus said by phone from his Bay Area home. “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.”
Thursday he’ll speak at CCAD about “Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century,” his 1989 treatise that examines the connective thread between the Sex Pistols, Dadaism, Situationists and more.
“That was [CCAD’s] suggestion,” Marcus said. “It’s a book that came out in 1989, and there was a twentieth 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.”
Marcus is intrigued by what he sees as a common “shout” transmitted through similar gestures, from raucous punk rock concerts to attention-grabbing cathedral protests. He hasn’t seen anything come along yet to render such gestures a dead language.
“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,” Marcus said.
Even if Marcus has a knack for sketching up broad cultural connections, lately he’s become much more fascinated with music’s nuts and bolts.
“My writing has certainly changed over the years,” Marcus said. “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?”
Learn to speak Marcus’ language Thursday; admission is free.