Noted Dylan expert Greil Marcus has been writing his “Real Life Top 10” column since the ’70s, when it ran monthly in New West magazine.
The column has appeared in a variety of publications since then including Artforum, Salon, and most recently, The Believer.
Although I was able to reprint older columns at Addicted To Noise during the late ’90s and early 2000s, it wasn’t until Salon picked the column up in the mid-2000s that new columns appeared online each month.
And once Greil located it at The Believer, it was only available in print.
Well now that’s changed, and the column is currently available for all to read online each month at the Barnes & Noble Review.
Marcus is the author many books including The Old, Weird America: Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes,Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads and Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus: Writings 1968–2010. His most recent book is The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs.
[I just published my rock ‘n’ roll novel, True Love Scars.” Rolling Stone has a great review of my book in a recent issue. Read it here. There’s info about True Love Scars here.]
When Bob Dylan arrived in New York in January 1961, he found himself in a cultural paradise, a city that offered him access to art and music and film that he could only have read about back in Hibbing, Minnesota.
But he had always been curious about the world.
According to Dylan in his autobiography, “Chronicles Volume One,” back in Hibbing he’d already been absorbing a fantastic amount of culture, reading “Voltaire, Rousseau, John Locke, Montesquieu, Martin Luther – visionaries, revolutionaries … it was like I knew those guys, like they’d been living in my backyard.”
Thelonious Monk, “Misterioso”:
He’d seen 100s of films and already had an encyclopedia of music in his head. Sure there were all the folk and blues and country records he’d heard, and many live performances he’d attended (Slim Whitman, Hank Snow, Web Pierce and others), but he’d listened to rock ‘n’ roll and jazz too. And pop music and classical!
As Dylan recounts in Chronicles, once he got to New York he had the opportunity to stretch even further. He saw Fellini films and hung out with Thelonious Monk at the Blue Note and attended performances by many jazz legends, read the poetry of Rimbaud and Baudelaire and Ginsberg and so many others, and even saw Jean Genet’s play, The Balcony.
Trailer for Fellini’s
And he was still reading all the time: Robert Graves, Thucydides, Gogol, Balzac, Maupassant, Dickens, Dante and so many more.
It was not a narrow focus on folk music and on playing folk songs that allowed Bob Dylan to become one of the greatest artists.
No, it was his wide-ranging curiosity. Dylan has a curious mind that constantly seeks out and absorbs new information from wide-ranging and eclectic sources.
The point I’m making is that Dylan exposed himself (and continues to expose himself) to a all kinds of new information. All of that forms the backdrop for his own unique art.
And this leads me to Festival Albertine, a six-night event curated by arguably the leading Dylan expert, Greil Marcus.
“Engrenages” – Season 1 – Trailer:
Marcus’ worldview is certainly informed by his love of Dylan, who he was been listening to and writing about since the ‘60s. Marcus has written three books about Dylan, including his “Basement Tapes” masterpiece, “The Old, Weird America.”
Next month, Festival Albertine will take place from October 14 through October 19 in New York, and videos of the panel discussions will be available for all to see at the Albertine website after the festival ends.
This festival itself, like Marcus’ own approach to writing about culture and history, reminds me of Dylan’s curious mind.
Marcus has reached out to radical French filmmakers and experimental novelists, a Foucoult expert, and the genius mathematician John Nash, TV show auteurs and rock, film and book critics, fashion experts and screenwriters, graphic novel creators and political science professors, and organized a wide-ranging series of panels on topics ranging from “Extremist Fiction in Ordinary Language” to “Olivier Assayas in the Post-May Period.”
All of them and more will be at Festival Albertine.
The trailer for “Après- Mai”:
For more about the festival, please check out my previous post on it here.
If you care about Bob Dylan, you should care about Greil Marcus, and if you care about Greil Marcus, you should care about Festival Albertine.
[I just published my rock ‘n’ roll novel, True Love Scars.” Rolling Stone has a great review of my book in the new issue. Read it here. There’s info about True Love Scars here.]
The culture critic (and Bob Dylan expert) Greil Marcus has organized a stunning French-American “intellectual exchange” in the form of the six-day Festival Albertine which will take place from October 14 through October 19, 2014, at the new Albertine bookshop in New York.
All of the panels will be videotaped and made available online via the bookstore’s website, http://www.albertine.com, after the festival so that those who cannot attend can see them.
Marcus has always moved smoothly through highbrow and popular culture, and the festival reflects that. Novelists and graphic novelists, movie directors and TV show auteurs, economics professors and fashion designers, French and American historians and rock, book and film critics will take part in the festival.
The lineup for the six evenings includes: Novelists Mary Gaitskill (“Two Girls, Fat and Thin”) and Percival Everett (“Erasure”), director Olivier Assayas (“Après- Mai”), Joseph Stiglitz (“Freefall: America, Free Markets and the Sinking of the World Economy”), Marjane Satrapi (“Persepolis”), the mathematician John Nash, TV show creators Alexandra Clert (“Engrenages”) and Matthew Weiner (“Mad Men”), historians Françoise Mélonio and Arthur Goldhammer and others.
Although there is no panel devoted directly to rock music, a number of the panelists are or have been immersed in the music. In addition to Marcus, there is former New York Times chief rock critic John Rockwell, former Newsweek pop critic James Miller, “Streets of Fire” screenwriter Larry Gross, and Mary Davis (author of “Classic Chic: Music, Fashion and Modernism”).
Albertine opened its doors yesterday (September 27, 2014). The book store and the festival, named after Proust’s muse, Albertine, are the brainchild of French diplomat Antonin Baudry, cultural counselor of the French Embassy in the United States, and, using the pen name Abel Lanzac, co-author of the graphic novel “Quai d’Orsay.”
In an essay that explains why the need for Albertine, Baudry wrote:
“Her naissance is important because so many books were missing in New York, the very heart of the world, before she arrived. Her presence will matter because there are essential ideas to uncover and crucial debates to be had between the old Continent and the new. In the 21st Century, without considering perspectives from near and far, should we be so confident in our definitions of good, evil, beauty; fairness on the battlefield, justice; a good society, a good life, or even literature?
“One can answer each of these questions on his or her own, but to collectively attack them and examine each of their nuances—and from points of view illuminated by the insight of foreign lights—will lead us further. The world is in rapid flux. As new powers emerge or re-emerge on the political, economic and intellectual realms, their presence inspires us to reinforce deep existing friendships. For friendship is always more valuable, precious and rare in complex and dangerous times than during periods of calm and certainty.”
The book store currently contains 14,000 books including, according to the Albertine website, “contemporary and classic titles from 30 French-speaking countries in genres including novels, non-fiction, art, comic, or children’s books.” Visitors are welcome to find a comfortable chair and read any of them.
To get the French-American debate — what he calls the “French-American intellectual exchange” — underway, Baudry decided to kick things off with a festival and enlisted Marcus to curate the week-long event.
“Antonin read [Marcus’ landmark books] ‘The Shape of Things to Come’– as ‘L’Amerique et ses prophètes,’ the French title — and ‘Lipstick Traces,'” Marcus said when asked how he came to curate the festival. “I’d never been asked to do something like it, unless you count co-editing ‘A New Literary History of America.'”
In his essay explaining the need for the bookstore and festival, Baudry detailed why he chose Greil Marcus to curate it:
Our first question was, Who should curate and shape this debate? We made two decisions concerning this choice—decisions that mirror the entire vision of the Albertine experience. Firstly, the curator must be an American, and secondly, it must be Greil Marcus. Why an American—and not a French person—to curate a French festival at the French Embassy? Because that is the essence of a true dialogue. For Festival Albertine’s to be fruitful in America, speakers must be selected by American ears, eyes and intelligence. And these ears, eyes and this intelligence had to be Greil’s.
Greil Marcus’ masterful work defines him as one of the most relevant and stimulating living thinkers of America. Greil touches the foundational issues of society. Along with many of his books, The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy and the American Voice addresses questions and issues so fundamental
to America that it perfectly sets the stage for deep analysis of our cultures in comparison. Greil’s texts deliver the intellectual keys to unlock channels of transatlantic dialogue, discussion, and compelling debate.
Moreover, Greil is the founder of a true analytic method. He offers both a broader and more precise conception of history in Lipstick Traces when he writes, “and what is history, anyway? Is history simply a matter of events that leave behind those things that can be weighed and measured – new institutions, new maps, new rulers, new winners and losers–or is it also the result of moments that seem to leave nothing behind, nothing but the mystery of spectral connections between people long separated by place and time, but somehow speaking the same language?”
Albertine is housed in the official landmark Payne Whitney mansion in Manhattan. In 1902, former Standard Oil Company treasurer Oliver Hazard Payne commissioned the Italian Renaissance mansion as a wedding gift to his nephew Payne Whitney. Between 1902 and 1906, Stanford White, the famed architect of the Washington Square Arch, designed and oversaw construction of the mansion. Since 1952, the mansion has housed the Cultural Services of the French Embassy. The bookshop within the mansion was born in 2014, and its interiors were created by celebrated French designer Jacques Garcia (Chateau du Champ de Bataille in Normandy, France and The NoMad Hotel in New York City)… in the model of a grand private French library. The two-floor space includes a reading room and inviting nooks furnished with lush sofas and armchairs.
I asked Marcus what ten books he would suggest someone planning to attend the festival or watch the videos should read.
Olivier Assayas, “A Post-May Adolescence”
Joseph Stiglitz, “Freefall: America, Free Markets and the Sinking of the World Economy”
James Miller, “The Passion of Michel Foucault”
May Davis, “Classic Chic: Music, Fashion and Modernism”
Marjane Satrapi, “Persepolis”
Antonin Baudry aka Abel Lanzac, “Weapons of Mass Diplomacy”
Emmanuel Carrère, “The Moustache” and “Limonov”
Mary Gaitskill, “Two Girls, Fat and Thin”
Percival Everett, “Erasure”
[Note: I just published my rock ‘n’ roll novel, True Love Scars.” Rolling Stone has a great review of my book in the new issue. Read it here. There’s info about True Love Scars here.]
I’ve learned quite a few things from the critic and cultural historian Greil Marcus over the years, but maybe the first – and the one I keep coming back to — is that when listening to music, the artist’s intention isn’t so important. What really matters is what you and I, as listeners, hear.
You know, what we get from the music.
“I was never interested in figuring out what the songs meant,” Marcus wrote in the prologue to his book, “Bob Dylan, Writings 1968 – 2010.” “I was interested in figuring out my response to them, and other people’s responses. I wanted to get closer to the music than I could by listening to it – I wanted to get inside of it, behind it, and writing about it, through it, inside of it, behind it was my way of doing that.”
Marcus has been sharing his response to the music since the late ‘60s. In “Mystery Train” and “Lipstick Traces,” “The Old, Weird America: The World Of Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes” and other books he uses art as a doorway, and steps through it to find vast secret histories, histories of America and Europe that mostly hadn’t made it into the history books – at least not in the way Marcus writes.
After reading “Lipstick Traces,” which starts with Johnny Rotten and then proceeds to spin into a history of anarchistic rebellion going back long before Johnny Rotten was born – I haven’t been able to listen to a Sex Pistols or Public Image Ltd. song without thinking of Dada and the Situationists and the May ’68 protests in France and so many other things that Marcus wrote about in that book.
This new one, “The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs” (Yale University Press, 320 pages), is all about what Marcus hears when he listens to ten songs, and what he hears is unexpected and sometimes revelatory. It’s not any kind of history of rock that you or I have ever read before, because Marcus sees no point in revisiting the same old story that we’ve read numerous versions of since the ‘60s.
“Shake Some Action” is one of ten songs Marcus writes about in the book.
One of the big ideas in the book is that the chronological history of rock ‘n’ roll – that blues and country begat Chuck Berry and Elvis begat Dylan and the Beatles and so on and so on, is, if not irrelevant, beside the point. Or if not beside the point, well, we’ve been there. We all know, or think we know, the contours of that story. Marcus has a different story to tell.
“Whole intellectual industries are devoted to proving that there is nothing new under the sun, that everything comes from something else – and to such a degree that one can never tell when one thing turns into something else,” Marcus writes in the introduction to his book. “But it is the moment when something appears as if out of nowhere, when a work of art carries within itself the thrill of invention, or discovery, that is worth listening for. It’s that moment when a song or a performance is its own manifesto, issuing its own demands on life in its own, new language – which though the charge of novelty is its essence, is immediately grasped by any number of people who will swear they never heard anything like it before – that speaks. In rock ‘n’ roll, this is a moment that, in historical time, is repeated again and again, until, as culture, it defines the art itself.”
“’It’s like saying, “Get all the pop music, put it into a cartridge, put the cap on it and fire the gun,’ Pete Townshend of the Who said in 1968. ‘Whether those ten or 15 numbers sound roughly the same. You don’t care what period they were written in, what they’re all about. It’s the bloody explosion that they create when you let the gun off. It’s the event. That’s what rock and roll is.’ Any pop record made at any time can contain Pete Townshend’s argument. … which is to say that this book could have comprised solely records issued by the Sun label in Memphis in the 1950s, only records made by female punk bands in the 1990s, or nothing but soul records made in Detroit, Memphis, New York City, San Antonio, New Orleans, Los Angeles and Chicago in 1963.”
“From that perspective, there is no reason to be responsible to chronology, to account for all the innovation, to follow the supposed progression of the form. The Maytals’ ‘Funky Kingston’ is not a step forward from the Drifters’ ‘Money Honey,’ or Outkast’s ‘Hey Ya’ a step forward from ‘Funky Kingston.’ They are rediscoveries of a certain spirit, a leap into style, a step out of time. One can dive into a vault as filled with songs as Uncle Scrooge’s was filled with money and come out with a few prizes that at once raise the question of what rock ‘n’ roll is and answer it.”
I’ve been reading reviews and books by Marcus since the late ‘60s, and he’s dead serious about what he puts on the page. And about what he discovers when he listens to and then writes about rock ‘n’ roll. This is serious stuff, life or death, and if you think music is nothing more than entertainment, well this book is probably not for you.
Reading Marcus is hard work because you have to think when you read his sentences. He takes for granted that you know a hell of a lot about music and art and film and literature. He’s not into coddling the reader. So when he calls his book “The History Of Rock ‘N’ Roll In Ten Songs,” it’s not that you’re going to get the literal history of the music, what you’re going to get is a theory about rock ‘n’ roll, and then ten examples that, in different ways, back up that theory.
So Marcus takes his ten songs and writes an essay about each. He works hard to tell us why these songs matter so much to him, why each in its own way contains the history of rock ‘n’ roll, and why they should matter to us too. And after you read this book, they likely will.
Read the rest of this column at Addicted To Noise, and dig many other great music features, news and reviews.
The headline in today’s New York Times: “Bob Dylan: Musician or poet?”
I’m always happy to see Dylan written about in the New York Times. They’re no johnny-come-lately as supporters of Bob Dylan.
It was their music critic Robert Shelton who gave Dylan his first serious, high-profile review, following a performance at Gerdes Folk City in the Village, September 26, 1961.
Still, here at the end of 2013, do we really have to ask? Is Bob Dylan a poet? Would the New York Times run an essay today titled “Was Einstein a genius? Well maybe, possibly.
I guess the question bothers me because it seemed so obvious from the start. I always thought Dylan was a poet. And a rock star. And a singer. And a musician. And he was damn funny too.
I first heard Bob Dylan on the radio singing “Like a Rolling Stone” in 1965 and it knocked me sideways, it was listening to one of Picasso’s cubist masterpieces, sent me right into some other world. I was 12 years old. When I bought Highway 61 Revisited, once I got past looking at the amazing cover photo, there was a lengthy piece of writing by Dylan that was clearly (to me) a poem.
Soon enough, by the time I was 13, I was reading Ferlinghetti’s “A Coney Island of the Mind” and e. e. cummings’ “a selection of poems” and Ginsberg’s “Howl.” If “Howl” was a poem, why not “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” or “Bob Dylan’s Dream” or “Desolation Row”?
We really don’t need the Times asking if Dylan is a poet 50 years too late.
Still, both essays in today’s Times — by Francine Prose and Dana Stevens — are worth reading (and are well written), but not because you need anyone to tell you whether or not Bob Dylan is a poet. You don’t need a weatherman, To know which way the wind blows.