Monthly Archives: September 2022

The Whole World In a Song: An Interview with Critic Greil Marcus on Bob Dylan, His New Dylan Book, the Role of the Critic and Much More

Greil Marcus by Michael Goldberg

Greil Marcus in his office, September 16, 2022. Photograph by Michael Goldberg

By Michael Goldberg

Greil Marcus writing or talking about Bob Dylan is the holy grail. He is the leading authority on Dylan, and the best known and most respected rock critic in the U.S. (and probably the world). His first in-depth book about rock music, “Mystery Train” (the title coming from one of Elvis’ Sun Records recordings), published in 1975, established him as a leading authority on rock music, and his stature has only grown since then.

David Cantwell wrote in a December 2015 profile of Marcus published in the New Yorker, that nearly as soon as “Mystery Train” was published it was “short-listed as ‘the best’ or ‘the finest’ or ‘most compelling’ book ever written about popular music…”

After the book was first published, Frank Rich wrote in the Village Voice, “‘Mystery Train’ is determinedly and proudly in the tradition of such ground-breaking works of American cultural criticism as Leslie Fiedler’s ‘Love and Death in the American Novel,’ D.H. Lawrence’s ‘Studies in Classic American Literature’ and F.O. Matthiessen’s ‘American Renaissance’ (the first two of which Marcus draws from in his work); as his predecessors sought to understand Poe’s nightmares or the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock in terms of our most substantial national myths, so Marcus attempts to place such songs as Randy Newman’s “Sail Away,” The Band’s “Across the Great Divide,” and Elvis Presley’s early efforts for Sam Phillips at Sun Records into the same broad cultural context.”

Although “Mystery Train” might have seemed to some to be about a handful of musicians—Harmonica Frank, Robert Johnson, The Band, Sly Stone, Randy Newman and Elvis Presley—the book is about much more than that. As Marcus states in the intro, the book is “an attempt to broaden the context in which the music is heard; to deal with rock ’n’ roll not as youth culture, or counterculture, but simply as American culture. … [These musicians] share unique musical and public personalities, enough ambition to make even their failures interesting, and a lack of critical commentary extensive or committed enough to do their work justice. In their music and in their careers, they share a range and a depth that seem to crystalize naturally in visions and versions of America: its possibilities, limits, openings, traps. Their stories are hardly the whole story, but they can tell us how much the story matters.” This was the beginning of where Greil Marcus would go for the next 47 years, finding America, and so much more, within a handful of songs, sometimes a single song.

Born during the summer of 1945 in San Francisco, Marcus grew up in Menlo Park, a suburb south of the city; he attended U.C. Berkeley, where he earned an undergraduate degree in American studies. He saw Bob Dylan for the first time in 1963, when Joan Baez brought the determinedly scruffy singer/songwriter onstage at a show that took place in “a field in New Jersey.” One of the songs Dylan sang that day was “With God on Our Side” and, as Marcus told me during our interview, he was “absolutely stunned.” It was the beginning of an obsession with Dylan and his music.

 In 1968 Marcus wrote a review of an album by the Who, and, unsolicited, sent it to Rolling Stone, the rock magazine that had begun a year earlier; two weeks later it was published in the record reviews section. Soon he was on-staff and spent a year as Rolling Stone’s record reviews editor; he lost the job due to a dispute with publisher/editor-in-chief Jann Wenner over Bob Dylan’s Self Portrait; Marcus infamously began his review of the album this way: “What is this shit?”

Over the years Marcus wrote for Creem, the Village Voice, New West, Artforum, Interview, the Wire, Salon, The Believer and many other publications including the New York Times and the New Yorker. He has written 19 books and edited another six. Perhaps his most remarkable book (and a favorite of mine) is “Lipstick Traces,” which he spent nine years researching and writing; as Andy Beckett wrote in The Independent, “‘Lipstick Traces’ began as a book about the Sex Pistols; then expanded crazily back in time to Paris in 1968, Dada in 1917, the French Revolution, and ultimately to libertarian heresies in the Middle Ages. Marcus found himself writing ‘a secret history of the 20th century,’ a search for the origins and story of the nihilistic impulse that the Sex Pistols had stumbled upon.” 

Original cover of “Lipstick Traces.”

Marcus wrote a monthly column, “Real Life Rock,” for New West magazine from 1978 into 1983; that column combined an essay with a top ten at the end. Three years later, Marcus was asked to take the top ten and turn it into a 700-word column for the Village Voice, which he titled, “Real Life Rock Top Ten.” The column “had room for anything,” Marcus wrote in his introduction to “Real Life Rock,” a book that collects every column he wrote from 1986 through September 2014 (a second book, “More Real Life Rock,” was published earlier this year), “music, movies, fiction, critical theory, ads, television shows, remarks overheard waiting in line, news items, contributions from correspondents… treating the column as a forum or a good site for gossip, or the everyday conversation it has always wanted to be.”

Over time, the “Real Life Rock Top Ten” moved to Salon, The Believer, Interview, Rolling Stone and some other publications. Most recently, Marcus wrote it for The Los Angeles Review of Books, where it was published until February 2022; he was about to move it to Substack when he became ill; he has been recovering for many months and the future of the column was up in the air when I spoke to him in mid-September.

Folk Music

His most recent book, “Folk Music: A Bob Dylan Biography in Seven Songs” (Yale University Press), was published on October 1, 2022. It’s the fourth book Marcus has written about Dylan, the others being “The Old Weird America: The World of Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes,” “Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads,” and “Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus: Writings, 1968-2010.” Additionally, a third of his book “Three Songs, Three Singers, Three Nations” is devoted to Dylan’s “Ballad of Hollis Brown.” “Folk Music” is unlike any other book about Bob Dylan, and other than Dylan’s own memoir, “Chronicles,” it gets as close as may be possible to who Dylan the singer, songwriter, recording artist and performer is, and what can be found within his recorded… Continued at Rhythms Magazine.

Rock Critics/ Historians at Litquake: Greil Marcus, Ben Fong-Torres, Michael Goldberg, Sylvie Simmons, Joel Selvin, Nadine Condon and Rickey Vincent

Rock critics at Litquake

On Friday October 21, 2022, a group of rock critics and music historians will read from their recent books at a Litquake event at the Make-Out Room in San Francisco. The evening will begin at 7:30 pm and end around 10:30 and there is a $15 charge. Appearing are Greil Marcus, Michael Goldberg (that’s me), Sylvia Simmons, Ben Fong-Torres, Joel Selvin, Rickey Vincent and Nadine Condon. The authors’ books will be available. Greil Marcus will be reading from his excellent new book about Bob Dylan, “Folk Music: A Bob Dylan Biography in Seven Songs.”

The bios as they appear on the Litquake website:

Greil Marcus is an author, music journalist, and cultural critic. He is notable for producing scholarly and literary essays that place rock music in a broader framework of culture. Marcus was born in San Francisco, and earned an undergraduate degree in American Studies from UC Berkeley, where he also did graduate work in political science. He has been a rock critic and columnist for Rolling Stone (where he was the reviews editor, at $30 a week), and other publications, including CreemThe Village Voice, and Artforum. Marcus is the author of Mystery Train, Lipstick Traces, and Invisible Republic, among many others.

Ben Fong-Torres is an American rock journalist, author, and broadcaster best known for his association with Rolling Stone magazine and The San Francisco Chronicle. He has published 11 books, on subjects ranging from a history of Top 40 radio, to Gram Parsons, The Doors, Grateful Dead, The Eagles, and Little Feat, among others. He has also worked in radio since the 1970s, and is currently a DJ and program director for the online station The award-winning documentary about his life and career, Like a Rolling Stone: The Life and Times of Ben Fong-Torres (2021) is now streaming on Netflix.

Sylvie Simmons is an award-winning author and one of the foremost music journalists working today. Born in London, she moved to Los Angeles in the late ’70s to write about rock music for magazines such as SoundsCreemKerrang!, and MOJO. She is the author of acclaimed fiction and nonfiction books, including bestselling biographies of Leonard Cohen (I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen); Serge Gainsbourg (A Fistful of Gitanes); and, most recently, Debbie Harry’s Face It. She is also a singer-songwriter and recording artist; her most recent album is Blue On Blue (Compass Records, 2020). She has lived at various times in England, the United States, and France, and currently lives in San Francisco.

Writer and photographer Michael Goldberg has been interviewing and photographing musicians since he was 17. He was a senior writer at Rolling Stone magazine for a decade. His writing has appeared in EsquireNew Musical ExpressCreemDownBeatNew York RockerTrouser PressMusicianNew WestVibeNew TimesThe San Francisco Chronicle, and other publications. He has had three novels published: True Love ScarsThe Flowers Lied, and Untitled. In May 2022, Wicked Game: The True Story of Guitarist James Calvin Wilsey was published. Coming Nov. 1: Addicted To Noise: The Music Writings of Michael Goldberg.

San Francisco Chronicle pop music critic Joel Selvin started covering rock shows for the paper shortly after the end of the Civil War. His writing has appeared in a surprising number of other publications that you would think should have known better. He has written more than 20 books covering various aspects of pop music, and his newest is Sly & the Family Stone: An Oral History.

Nadine Condon worked in the local music scene from 1979-89 with the Jefferson Starship/Starship, during the era of “We Built This City.” She then promoted artists like Melissa Etheridge, Steve Miller, and John Mayall, and eventually launched the “Nadine’s Wild Weekend” annual music festival, a legendary San Francisco showcase of “135 bands, 30 shows, 20 clubs, and four nights.” She is the author of Hot Hits Cheap Demos: The Real-World Guide to Music Business Success, and her new memoir is Confessions: Stories to Rock Your Soul. The Bay Area’s “Godmother of Rock” lives in the Sonoma Valley with her husband and two rescue cats, Bret and Bart.

Dr. Rickey Vincent is an author, music scholar, radio host and educator. He is author of the award-winning Funk: The Music, the People, and the Rhythm of The One, and Party Music: The Inside Story of the Black Panthers’ Band and How Black Power Transformed Soul Music. He writes and speaks on issues of race, culture, music and politics nationwide. Since 1997 he has hosted The History of Funk on KPFA radio, two hours of the strongest, stankiest, uncut funk anywhere on the airwaves.

It should be a great evening. More info at Litquake.