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7 Semi-Random music questions with critic/author Greil Marcus

By malcolm Published: May 24, 2011

Greil Marcus is among shrinking breed of music writers.

The respected author and essayist is best known for his many books highlighting his ability to take pop music and it's icons and place it all in a broader social political context. At 7 p.m. on Wednesday night at the downtown branch of the Akron Public Library, Marcus whose catalog includes critically acclaimed books as Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock 'n' Roll Music and "Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century" and "Dead Elvis: A Chronicle of a Cultural Obsession" mix scholarly and interesting examinations of pop music, pop culture and even Western Culture are sure to spur conversation and healthy debate among music fans and anyone interested in how "entertainment" fits affects and is affected by our national psyche.

Marcus is also known as a leading scholar on Bob Dylan and has had a four decade fascination with Dylan's music and his status as icon and "voice of a generation."

Marcus' most recent book is "Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus: Writings 1968-2010" an all encompassing look at Greil's favorite obsession through the years. And while some Dylanophiles will praise almost anything the icon releases, Marcus can veer from romanticizing some of Dylan's work and words in one essay to calling B.S. for something Dylan has said or done in the next. The book may be less than the casual Dylan fan needs but fellow obsessives and those still wondering what the fuss has been about for 40 years is about should fine plenty of nuggets to further their Dylan studies.

Here is a quick and semi-random email Q&A with Marcus.

Q: I was told your talk would be focusing on the Dylan anti-war song "Masters of Wars." Without giving away all your salient talking points, what is it about the song that makes it so important in the Dylan/protest music canon and pop culture?

A: In some ways it's a very bad song--heavy handed, obvious, self-righteous. Yet it has gone on to live a life over nearly 50 years, at Dylan's hands and at that of performers as varied as the Roots and Viggo Mortenson, as rich as any song of our time. Why? How?
Q: When compiling the book, did you discover any essay/reviews about which you have changed/altered your opinion? How (if at all) does the 20/20 vision that comes with decades of hindsight affect some of the opinions you held when both you and Dylan were young men in a rapidly changing world.

A: There were several pieces where I was wrong--almost always when I overpraised, when I wanted something--the "New Morning" album of 1970, the tour with the Band in 1974--to be better than it was. And in the book I'm still wrong--I didn't go back and rewrite to make myself look better, or to create some kind of canon. The book is a chronicle, and it has some blank spots and dead ends.
Q: You've said the essence of Dylan's work is his empathy. Allowing that Dylan is a singular figure, have you heard any popular artists of the past decade or so, who you feel possess a similar ability.

A: Dylan has a novelist's empathy: he can inhabit the souls of other people, see through their eyes, sing in their voices. Where that came from, I don't know. Other people? Warren Zevon, sometimes. It's hard to find.
Q: What do you think of the rock n roll hall of fame conceptually?

A: I always thought it was a ridiculous idea. As Little Richard once said, you can't put a tuxedo on the funky blues--though I'll bet he wore a tuxedo to his induction. But I love the museum, the changing exhibits, the strange stuff they have--and I've learned how important admission to the Rock Hall is to musicians. So many truly take it--whether they're in or pining to get in--as an absolute validation, the ultimate recognition that they were here, they did something, it mattered, they'll be remembered.
Q: Many folks say the "Ipod shuffle" generation and the musical miscegenation in pop music has loosened some of the cultural/social boundaries of the 60-80s (i.e. I'm a metalhead, so I can't publicly enjoy Mr Mister). Do you think this is true? If so, is this progress? Is it good/bad? If you disagree, why?

A: I have no idea if it's true. I think people are sectarian by nature.
Q: You've watched popular music change and grown over the past four decades and (at least to my ears) it seems pop music has largely left broader social and especially political issues behind and now goes for escapism or looks inward (Beyonce and her "ladies are awesome" anthems, Gaga's free-to-be-you-and-me "Born This Way" and all the Kanye West songs about how tough and great it is to be Kanye West). Do you think contemporary pop music is still one of the mirrors by which society can objectively gaze at itself and if so, what the hell are we looking at?

A: I hear what you're looking for in PJ Harvey, all the time. I hear it in Eminem. But really--social realities, and the way they change, the threats that appear out of nowhere and don't go away, are always part of what goes into a song. It isn't the writer's or the singer's intentions that count. Keith Richard, in his "Life," talks about writing "Gimmie Shelter." He talks about looking out the window one day, it was storming, people's umbrellas were being blown out of their hands: "You get lucky, sometimes," he said. He stumbled on a song that turned out to be an-all encompassing, bottomless metaphor for, a dramatization of, the great social shift from the opening up of the 1960s to the shut down of the 1970s. He wasn't trying to do that; he wasn't interested. But in some part of himself, he felt, he absorbed, the looming sense that the good times were about to end. That's how it works, I think. It may be more a matter of how we hear than what people are singing.
Q: What do you enjoy most about forums/talks/book tours. Is it more fun/interesting to interact with a room full of well-versed "fans" of the subject matter (I'd guess you've had some rather intense discussions with Dylanophiles over the years) or more casual and curious readers?

A: I most enjoy hearing stories from people that tell me things I'd never know otherwise. Last year I did a reading on my book "When That Rough God Goes Riding: Listening to Van Morrison," in Portland. At most readings for that book people didn't ask questions, they told Van Morrison stories--about a show, about running into him at a bar. One woman this night said she called her father just before coming to the bookstore. He said, what are you doing tonight? She said, I'm going to hear this guy talk about Van Morrison. Oh, he said, Van Morrison! I used to work with his father on the docks in Belfast. After work we'd go back to this house and he had the most enormous collection of records, blues, jazz, country music, Irish music, all 78s, everything. And there would be this little boy hopping around saying, Play this, Daddy! Play this!

Q: You said not to long ago you're next book will be about the Doors. I'm guessing you're not as fascinated by Jim Morrison as you are by Dylan, or Van Morrison. What is it about the band and its music that has piqued you're interest all these years later?

A: I don't think I'm that fascinated by Dylan or Van Morrison as people, but by their music. And I'm fascinated by the dozen or so Doors songs that still sound unique, strange, that are still making demnads on the world--the ones that are still played on the radio. I wrote a short book about listening to Van Morrison, but I had 45 years to work with. For the Doors, I have five. It's a dare to myself, and the music--is there enough there? I think there is. In my fantasies I could write a book about ten different performances of "Light My Fire."

What: Greil Marcus
When: 7 p.m., Wednesday, May 25
Where: The Akron Public Library Main Branch, Main Auditorium, 60 S. High St.
Tickets: Free
Information: 330-643-9035 or go to

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