Sunday, April 29, 2012

Greil Marcus

In the Spring of 2001, I was the TA for an undergraduate course called "The Roots of Rock'n'Roll" which was one of the best experiences of my life. (Long story). But either way, one of the things the professor (who profoundly influenced me in many ways that he probably doesn't know) assigned for the class was Greil Marcus' Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes (which was republished later as The Old, Weird America). Now, I had never heard Dylan's Basement Tapes, and to tell you the truth, I still haven't really heard it that well--I couldn't tell you much about it. But I do know that Marcus' writings about these recordings by Dylan and the Band in 1967 tapped into something that I was struggling to pinpoint for a long time, particularly what it is about "America" that has so drawn me over the years. As an immigrant to these shores, it's a question that often pops up. I think most Caucasian Americans reflexively assume that people come to America for "freedom" or "economic opportunity" or similar notions. But my journey was determined by neither. Sure, I came here for an education but at some deeper level, what is important is why I chose to stay here. And that has to do with the standard of living, yes, but at least 50% of it is something more ineffable and intangible, something to do with American culture. It's not as simple as "popular culture"--most of American popular culture is patently horrible, self-centered, and execrable, but some of it has been deeply meaningful to me. And the culture that has been meaningful spans high and low and middlebrow, it is everything from Television (the band) to television (the object), everything from Joseph Heller to Flipper, from Marvin Gaye's "What's Goin' On' " to the Books' Lemon of Pink, from John Kennedy Toole to the B-52's "My Own Private Idaho."

Anyway, Marcus was one of two American music writers that have meant a lot to this journey of mine (the other being, of course, the GREATEST rock'n'roll writer of all time, Lester Bangs), partly because of Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century, a history book with a provocative structure and claim. I had read Lipstick Traces for the first time in college in the late 1980s, and like Invisible Republic, it also forced me to think in entirely new ways about things, in this case, about the writing and recording of history. In the book, Marcus connected seemingly disparate moments in twentieth century culture (Dada, Letterist International, the Situationists at Paris '68, the Modern Lovers and the Sex Pistols, etc.) to construct an entirely different history of the twentieth century. His claim was that the orthodox notion of history--big events, cataclysms, wars, politicians, social upheavals, generational changes, Elvis, Beatles, feminism, etc.--only tell one layer of history. Look beneath all of this stuff and you'll find another entirely different story. And to reconstruct this other history (or in this case "secret history") you have to make connections that are not at all obvious. Marcus begins with punk, particularly the Sex Pistols, but then the proto-garage-punk of the Modern Lovers but then begins to construct an entirely surprising history of cultural "refusals" that veers into all sorts of unexpected places. The blurb at Harvard University Press notes:
This is no mere search for cultural antecedents. Instead, what Marcus so brilliantly shows is that various kinds of angry, absolute demands—demands on society, art, and all the governing structures of everyday life—seem to be coded in phrases, images, and actions passed on invisibly, but inevitably, by people quite unaware of each other. Marcus lets us hear strange yet familiar voices: of such heretics as the Brethren of the Free Spirit in medieval Europe and the Ranters in seventeenth-century England; the dadaists in Zurich in 1916 and Berlin in 1918, wearing death masks, chanting glossolalia; one Michel Mourre, who in 1950 took over Easter Mass at Notre-Dame to proclaim the death of God; the Lettrist International and the Situationist International, small groups of Paris—based artists and writers surrounding Guy Debord, who produced blank-screen films, prophetic graffiti, and perhaps the most provocative social criticism of the 1950s and ’60s; the rioting students and workers of May ’68, scrawling cryptic slogans on city walls and bringing France to a halt; the Sex Pistols in London, recording the savage "Anarchy in the U.K." and "God Save the Queen."
It's undoubtedly one of the most ambitious books on music ever written but it is also an unabashedly innovative work of cultural history. It's not an easy read but well worth if if you are interested in how culture can have as much power as politics or wars or technologies.

I mention Marcus today because Simon Reynolds (another great music writer, a British transplant who lives in LA now) recently interviewed Greil Marcus for the Los Angeles Review of Books. The first of four lengthy excerpts is now on-line. Well worth the read if you are interested in the history of popular music.

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