greil-marcus

Through some elusive but tangible process, a piece of music cuts through all defenses and makes sense of every fear and desire you bring to it. As it does so, it exposes all you’ve held back, and then makes sense of that, too. Though someone else is doing the talking, the experience is like a confession. Your emotions shoot out to crazy extremes; you feel ennobled and unworthy, saved and damned. You hear that this is what life is all about, this is what it is for. Yet it is this recognition itself that makes you understand that life can never be this good, this whole. With a clarity life denies for its own good reasons, you see places to which you can never get.
— 

Greil Marcus, Ranters and Crowd Pleasers: Punk in Pop Music, 1977–1992

(This was specifically about Bruce Springsteen’s performances of Prove It All Night and Racing In The Streets from the Roxy, 7/7/1978)

Tracing the Rock and Roll Race Problem

The premise of Jack Hamilton’s deep new study Just Around Midnight: Rock and Roll and the Racial Imaginary seems like something that’s been on rock history’s tongue for a long time without ever quite leaving it.

Chuck Berry, a black man with a guitar, had been a rock and roll archetype in 1960, but by the end of the decade Jimi Hendrix would be seen as rock’s odd man out for being… a black man with a guitar. How did that occur?

The book, out September 26, began life as Hamilton’s graduate thesis (he’s a professor at the University of Virginia). But while it’s intellectually rigorous, Just Around Midnight is also clearly and entertainingly written—not a surprise to anyone who reads Hamilton on Slate, where he’s one of their music critics.

Hamilton locates the ways “rock and roll” (which tended to denote everything from soul to surf music) became just plain “rock” (which tended to mean only guitar music by white people)—namely, in San Francisco’s psychedelic scene, full of ex-folkies.

There, a pattern repeated from the folk revival that preceded Beatlemania, in which largely white musicians tended to idolize black forebears while ignoring contemporary R&B.

As Hamilton point out, this mindset often put black rock and rollers into the “predecessors” category even when the musicians in question were peers and contemporaries, like when a Beatles biographer claims Smokey Robinson as a precursor when, in fact, Robinson was born the same year as John Lennon.

Even that précis doesn’t do justice to the richness of Hamilton’s ideas, or his wide-ranging research, both archival and musicological—the latter particularly during a chapter on the musical interrelationship of Motown and the Beatles. Are there two more oversaturated musical topics on the planet?

Along with the rest of the ’60s rock and soul canon, Hamilton thinks, convincingly, that we’ve only begun to understand them, especially side-by-side. [Read More]

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Greil Marcus has shared his list of the ten songs that represent the history of rock ‘n’ roll. In this video, we hit the streets to find out what people thought of his list and what rock 'n’ roll means to them. What do you think describes the spirit of rock 'n’ roll?

Bob Dylan: Self Portrait
Released: June 8, 1970


“What is this shit?”
– Greil Marcus, “Self Portrait No. 25”, Rolling Stone

Greil Marcus’s review of Self Portrait is one of those legendary pieces of music writing that becomes just as essential as the music itself. Marcus examines the album song by song, cutting frequently to miniature commentaries and real and imagined scenes: a DJ plays it to his listeners and shares in their disappointment, a bemused teenager is introduced to Dylan through the album, Abbie Hoffman prepares to meet the singer and Marcus asks if the Dylan who made Self Portrait is a guy anyone would want to meet. The infamous opening line quoted above suggests a venomous takedown, but Marcus is far more nuanced. He searches for any explanation for the album’s failures: Self Portrait is a bitter response to the constant stream of illegal Dylan bootlegs, or the inevitable results of a music industry increasingly driven by the need for “product”, or a symptom or reaction against navel-gazing auteurism. What comes across most clearly is just how much Dylan matters. To expend so many words (7,000 of them) and so much energy on an album like Self Portrait was natural. This was a betrayal, and someone had to explain it.

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By the end of the 60s Bob Dylan was arguably the most important songwriter in the western world. He was the ‘voice of a generation’, influencing everyone from Sam Cooke to The Beatles to David Bowie, and generations to come. In the eyes of those who followed his career he owed them his best. The bloated double album he released in 1970 was the first major misstep in what had so far been an astonishing run, the end of the unquestioned goodwill given to him for so long by critics and fans. He would not truly earn back their love till 1975’s Blood on the Tracks, and never again would people believe in him quite the way they did before.

Self Portrait begins promisingly with the original composition “All the Tired Horses”, a slightly saccharine but delightfully scene-painting combination of expansive strings and female backing singers (Dylan’s vocal is conspicuously absent) reciting a kind of cowboy mantra that doubles slyly as an author’s lament: “All the tired horses in the sun / How’m I supposed to get any ridin’ done?” From that point, the record descends song by song into an interminable slog, a collection of odds and ends, mostly covers, traditional songs and live cuts. While Dylan had always drawn on the past to give color and depth to his own sentiments, his selection of covers seems generally meaningless here, his decisions baffling. Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early Mornin’ Rain” is languidly strummed and sighed as if it’s being recorded at gunpoint. A shambling, sloppy cover of “The Boxer” is so bad it seems like a jab at Paul Simon. Dylan plays a strange, haunted version of “Blue Moon”, made famous by Elvis Presley, sung in a deep voice, backed by a choir of ghostly female singers. The recording achieves a kind of weird beauty in its amateurishness, but one gets the sense that that wasn’t the intent. Self Portrait is a terribly recorded, lifelessly played album. Dylan’s voice carries none of the energy it once did, his band frequently out of sync.

The handful of new, original songs mostly shine, if a little dimly, though like “All the Tired Horses”, Dylan himself is mostly absent in voice or lyric. Of the two instrumentals, “Wigwam” is superior to the standard, dancey blues exercise “Woogie Boogie”. The album’s only single, “Wigwam” is a strikingly warm little song made up of a wordless, drunken la-la vocal melody and a ridiculous, mariachi band horn section. It has a goofy, friendly nostalgia to it that’s uncommon in a Dylan song. It’s one of the few moments when Self Portrait touches the gentle western theme suggested by “All the Tired Horses” without feeling insincere or unenthused. Despite the occasional moment of brilliance, the album begins to feel like a deliberate attempt to collect the most inessential material Dylan had, performed with utter disinterest. The second side closes with a muddy, poorly recorded rendition of “Like a Rolling Stone” (from his '69 set at the Isle of Wight Festival, the source of several other similarly muddy live tracks). The basic, subpar performance of Dylan’s greatest triumph comes across confusingly like a joke.

What are we to make of all this? Musically, the album is difficult even to review. More than anything, it’s just painfully boring. The critics of 1970 had the same issue, many of them ignoring the music itself and trying instead to suss out some kind of significance or intent, with little success. Why did Dylan even make this album?

The truth was that Self Portrait was a joke, just as the most cynical listeners had suspected, an antagonistic move from an artist who was tired of the throne the world had built for him. Bob Dylan had been quietly trying to erase himself since the peak of his fame in the mid-60’s. His motorcycle accident in 1966 had shaken him and made him realize just how unhappy he was with being Bob Dylan. In the coming years, as the American counterculture reached its zenith, he found young hippies knocking at his doors in Woodstock late at night to take drugs with him, and activists urging him to finally step into the leadership role they were sure he wanted. But Dylan was no revolutionary leader, no psychedelic prophet, no 'voice of a generation’. He’d never even wanted to be. He found himself in an unimaginable position, wanting to create art and write songs the way he always had but knowing that his own identity no longer belonged to him, that the world would pin to him their hopes and dreams, hold him to unreasonable expectations, pick apart everything he said for guidance.

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He responded by trying to remove himself from the picture, first with the heavily acoustic, traditional John Wesley Harding. Though a stark reaction against the colorful psychedelia saturating the rest of the music world at the time, the album was still acclaimed by critics and purchased in droves by fans. Dylan tried again two years later with Nashville Skyline, a full blown country album featuring a jarring new singing style and simple, apolitical songs. The soft new croon was so far from the dusty, cutting voice of his old records that he sounded like an entirely different person, but still the album sold, and the critics praised him. No matter how hard he tried, Dylan couldn’t escape himself. He could change even his unmistakeable voice, but his name was still on the spine, his face still beamed out from the cover and the songs were still good.

So, he made a bad record. As Dylan told Rolling Stone in 1984: “I said, 'Well, fuck it. I wish these people would just forget about me. I wanna do something they can’t possibly like, they can’t relate to. They’ll see it, and they’ll listen, and they’ll say, 'Well, let’s get on to the next person. He ain’t sayin’ it no more. He ain’t given’ us what we want,’ you know? They’ll go on to somebody else.” With this admission, Self Portrait suddenly reveals itself as a dark joke, from the strange song selection to the off-putting cover (Dylan claims it was painted in “about five minutes”) to the bizarre title. But this album wasn’t simply a joke, it was a lashing out at the people who’d idolized Dylan. Finally, after years of investigation and analysis, the mystifying, elusive Bob Dylan shows us all who he really is: a bitter, ugly, talentless man, taking other people’s ideas and singing other people’s songs. Who could love him?

It didn’t work, just like the two albums before it. While Self Portrait was greeted with jeers, it was also greeted with great thought and analysis, as Greil Marcus’s review demonstrates. Dylan was trying to demythologize himself, but the myth of Bob Dylan had become something he couldn’t control. A stylistic departure may be surprising but it is quickly absorbed, evaluated and neatly placed within the legendary context of Dylan’s career. Even a bad album, an album as lazy and insulting as Self Portrait deserves deep analysis, it must become part of the narrative of Dylan’s life and career, a narrative that at that point no longer belonged to him.

Greil Marcus reaches a kind of conclusion in his review that music culture had become overly immersed in the concept of the auteur, that great art is a reflection of the artist and must be evaluated in that context. Dylan was supposed to be greater than that, bigger than that, an artist concerned with the world and not the self. Marcus was urging listeners to see Self Portrait for what it was and not deem it significant or fascinating just because of what it may or may not say about Dylan himself. The irony of course is that he’d just spent thousands of words doing just that. And now, so have I (in significantly less words). I don’t think we can help it. It’s true, if this album had been made by a total unknown it would have been ignored, or never released in the first place, but this isn’t some unknown musician, this is Bob Dylan.

Those who write about art are a lot like historians, they craft stories out of a web of lives, events and works, and the more important the subject, the more important the story. Dylan was important, his cultural and artistic footprint was bigger and deeper than perhaps any artist in the 60s. His life was immediately, relentlessly narrativized, and he became whatever people wanted him to be, needed him to be. The burden was too much to bear, and Self Portrait was a kind of nasty, bridge-burning resignation letter to the world. Instead of accepting it, the world simply wrote it into the script.

Just four months after Self Portrait, another Dylan album appeared. This one was called New Morning, as if the album that preceded it had just been a long, bad dream. It was a return to the country style of Nashville Skyline, this time even warmer and more inviting, complete with another handsome cover shot. Dylan, an actor in his own life’s story, returned to his role.

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Last year, after pretending for a very long time like Self Portrait never even happened, Bob Dylan released the tenth edition of his “bootleg” series, a multi-disc set titled Another Self Portrait. Along with outtakes from Nashville Skyline and New Morning, the collection features some revealingly pleasant, bare recordings from Self Portrait, without the original overdubs. Greil Marcus wrote the liner notes. Talking to Uncut last year, he gushed about his reaction to the stripped version of “Little Sadie” that appears on Another Self Portrait: “It becomes terribly gripping and scary. I don’t know why removing a few instruments from the mix does that, but it does.” So, reevaluated forty years later, Self Portrait suddenly looks almost like a lost classic, full of hidden value and meaning. Time passes, and the story of Bob Dylan gets rewritten again.

If The Godfather had succeeded merely as a genre classic, it would have been a very different movie—the response it provides changes how we see and understand it. Like “Back Stabbers,” it matters, has its particular meanings, partly because it was a hit. Without massive public response, we would not even get close to two crucial democratic questions, questions worth asking about any interesting work of popular culture: How far can this work take its audience? How far can its audience go with it? Only works that can’t be ignored—liking them is hardly the point—raise such questions and bring them to life. In one way or another, we are all affected by hits, and are forced to define ourselves in terms of our response to them, just as we are all, for good or ill, affected by the romantic heroism of the Westerns, and not neccesarily by, say, the chaotic heroism of Orson Welles’ movies. Certainly we are caught up in those things that impelled Welles, but his version of them, the shape of his vision, has not inevitably become part of us; we don’t have to live in the world as he tried to define it, as we helplessly live out and respond to the nostalgia of John Ford or Howard Hawks. The life of a whole generation is authentically quickened and brightened by the Beatles, but it is not disturbed and sharpened by Randy Newman. The point is not that it would be “good for people” if the radio were playing “Sail Away” all day long, but that such exposure might be the only way to find out how strong the song really is.
—  Greil Marcus in Mystery Train offering the best defense of poptimism ever written.
A mammoth debt encourages fear, which is never revolutionary; a high level of unemployment ensures a ready pool of strike breakers, translates the curse of a bad job into a blessing.
— 

from greil marcus's lipstick traces: a secret history of the twentieth century. here’s its full context: 

“It was if Thatcher and Reagan had adopted a keynote of situationist theory: abundance is dangerous to power, and privation, if carefully managed, is safe. A mammoth debt encourages fear, which is never revolutionary; a high level of unemployment ensures a ready pool of strike breakers, translates the curse of a bad job into a blessing. ‘The transformation of the family man from a responsible member of society, interested in all public affairs, Hannah Arendt wrote in 1945 in 'Organized Guilt and the Universal Responsibility,’ 'to a "bourgeois” concerned only with his private existence and knowing no civic virtue, is an international modern phenomenon…Each time society, through unemployment, frustrates the small man in his normal functioning and normal self-respect, it trains him for that last stage in which he will willingly undertake any function, even that of hangman.' 

Arendt told a story: an SS member is recognized as a high-school classmate by a Jew upon the latter’s release from Buchenwald. The Jew stares at his former friend, and the SS man says: 'You must understand, I have five years of unemployment behind me. They can do anything they want with me.’“ [emphasis added by moi, cause that’s my favorite part]

One soft infested summer/Me and Terry became friends/Trying in vain to breathe/The fire we was born in…/Remember all the movies, Terry/We’d go see/Trying to learn to walk like the heroes/We thought we had to be/Well after all this time/To find we’re just like all the rest/Stranded in the park/And forced to confess/To/Hiding on the backstreets/Hiding on the backstreets/Where we swore forever friends….

Those are a few lines from “Backstreets,” a song that begins with music so stately, so heartbreaking, that it might be the prelude to a rock & roll version of The Iliad. Once the piano and organ have established the theme the entire band comes and plays the theme again. There is an overwhelming sense of recognition: No, you’ve never heard anything like this before, but you understand it instantly, because this music — or Springsteen crying, singing wordlessly, moaning over the last guitar lines of “Born to Run,” or the astonishing chords that follow each verse of “Jungleland,” or the opening of “Thunder Road” — is what rock & roll is supposed to sound like.
— 

Greil Marcus, from the original Rolling Stone review of Born to Run (Issue 197: October 9th, 1975)

Greil Marcus wrote the RS review of Born to Run when it was released and reading it makes my heart so happy, it finally puts into words some of the things that I feel about this incredible album and about Bruce in general. If you want to read the whole review, it is here. If you love that album it is definitely worth a read. 

Gut begonnen #9

Ronald Reagan und Margaret Thatcher sind namentlich genannte Hauptfiguren dieses Buches; nicht so Helmut Kohl. Aber ich finde, daß ihm im Untertitel ein Platz neben seinen ehemaligen Arbeitskollegen zusteht, weil er Reagan, Thatcher, Papst Paul II. und vielen anderen mit großem Eifer zur Hand gegangen ist, als es galt, den Westen in jenes Leichentuch zu hüllen, das wegzuschreien die meisten der in diesem Buch behandelten Künstler angetreten sind.

Greil Marcus: Im faschistischen Badezimmer. Punk unter Reagan, Thatcher und Kohl - 1977 bis 1994. Rogner & Bernhard, Hamburg (1994).

“…if any individual of our time can be said to have changed the world, Elvis Presley is the one. In his wake more than music is different. Nothing and no one looks or sounds the same. His music was the most liberating event of our era because it taught us new possibilities of feeling and perception, new modes of action and appearance, and because it reminded us not only of his greatness, but of our own potential.”
-Greil Marcus
From his book, Mystery Train, 1975