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Greil Marcus's critical aim remains sharp in 'More Real Life Rock'

Cover of Greil Marcus's 'More Real Life Rock'
Cover of Greil Marcus's 'More Real Life Rock'Yale University Press

by Michaelangelo Matos

August 05, 2022

Over the past few months, I’ve consistently picked up A. S. Hamrah’s book The Earth Dies Streaming: Film Writing, 2002-2018 just to keep my mind sharp.

Hamrah includes a few of his critical rules on “Remember Me on This Computer,” the book’s introductory essay. Bracingly, he eschews plot description — “In the 21st Century, film plots are known before the movies arrive in theaters” — and “having to identify actors, directors, and other artists by mentioning specific, obvious instances of their past work every time they came up, as if no one had ever heard of them before.”

Foundational rock critic Greil Marcus’s Real Life Rock column — a regularly published Top 10 list of whatever strikes his fancy, begun in the mid-’80s and recently on hiatus (see the top note of the “Ask Greil” section of Marcus’s website) — often runs on that precept: You only need plot description and character/performer IDs insofar as the critic wishes to use them. To him, the critic’s job is to imply or infer context enough to make the description land, maybe more. Hamrah’s rule recently had another echo in a tweet from the great Chicago Reader music writer Leor Galil: “Criticism is journalism. It exists to inform.”

Criticism is also an expression of sensibility, and Greil Marcus’s is still unique. He was probably the most widely read writer on the blues, what truly set him apart was his almost impossibly broad swathe of knowledge. His newest book, More Real Life Rock: The Wilderness Years, 2014–2021 — which collects his Top 10 columns published in that time span — keeps up with performers he has long doted upon (Dylan, Springsteen, Sleater-Kinney, Mekons), and regularly notes upon new cultural appearances of weird old doo-wop records and post-punk songs. (The Old Weird America was also the title of a book Marcus wrote on Bob Dylan and the Band’s Basement Tapes. Hmmm.)

More Real Life Rock is also a book to sharpen one’s mind against. Its predecessor, Real Life Rock: The Complete Top Ten Columns, covered three decades, including a long biweekly run at Salon from 1999 to 2003. There, Marcus could go as long as he wanted on any item, and often did. I read that entire first volume cover to cover, almost as a dare, to take my mind off my own troubles. (Buy me a drink sometime.) It was certainly a tonic to replace my own obsessive thinking with someone else’s for a while.

Cover of Greil Marcus's 'More Real Life Rock'
Cover of Greil Marcus's 'More Real Life Rock'
Yale University Press

So I can say this with some authority: It would be easy — too easy — to figure Marcus is simply repeating himself column to column because he concentrates on some of the same figures so much. But he doesn’t — the points are always different, sometimes seemingly infinitesimal, such as one tiny moment on Dylan’s 36-CD 1966 Live Recordings box set, when the singer says into the mike: “There’s a fellow up there looking for the savior. The savior’s backstage—we have a picture of him.” Sometimes he’s saying a whole lot with just a few words, like the 1999 column that opened with this entire review of Beck’s Midnite Vultures: “This is embarrassing.”

But how? But why? Marcus refuses to lay all his cards on the table. He does not write catalog copy. He wants to leave you with an impression, not a description — his impression, not the one he thinks will get him the most “likes.” (Often, and glibly, people take Marcus’s writing about a topic as proof he likes it. Hardly.) This sort of thing drives editors nuts. One item, on an exhibition in Florence, Italy, describes the fascist militant Ines Donati this way: “There is a lot of the Twentieth Century in that face.” I began to imagine Marcus having to field fact-checking emails asking for verifiable proof that the Twentieth Century does, indeed, live on the inside of this person’s face.

Thing is, it can be fun when Marcus pulls the rug like that. It’s his impression — which may be not yours, and in fact probably isn’t. Let’s face it — he’s a weird dude. He does not stick with the chronologically new: Things he heard at a record shop made their way into the column often, especially early on. It’s a direct refutation of the “First!” mentality that would soon crowd into cultural reporting of all sorts.

Besides, you don’t have to care at all about any critic’s taste to enjoy them. In some ways, it’s better that I don’t. I’m never going to hear 90% of what Marcus does in Lana Del Rey — a decade and a half on, I’m no closer to getting it or caring enough to try. Same with latter-day Springsteen. Someday I’ll deep-dive the Mekons again, but that day won’t be here for some time. But when our interests mesh, sparks fly, as when he writes about Rihanna’s Anti: “The songs have echoes in them. To be heard they need airplay and memory.” True all over — was her “Diamonds” ever heard as fully as it was in the aftermath of Céline Sciamma’s film Girlhood?

Marcus lets other voices into his columns more regularly than in the previous volume. He gives the floor to Michael Zilkha, founder of legendary post-punk/post-disco label Zé Records, to smartly expound on Ork Records. But it does jar at times, because Marcus’s tone is so flinty and singular, so sharply dissatisfied. The contributors turn expected corners, as Marcus seldom does. But it points something up in his method. Anything, anywhere it can be, is culture is his argument: Everyone’s a critic, including performers and colleagues and family members and, indeed, other critics. You just need the space, however difficult that can come by for someone outside the biz’s centers.

The lists Marcus makes can divide up into all kinds of ongoing stories. Sometimes these are accidental — let’s call one category Random Cultural Irritants. He calls Kesha’s performance of “Praying” at the Grammy Awards “self-deification”: “Presumably running this kind of number as Ke$ha might have compromised its purity.” Or calling a canvas shopping bag with the slogan “I Was Called from Another World to Work with People” the “all-time winner in the Pompous Words of Self-Congratulation sweepstakes,” finally besting “Practice Random Acts of Kindness and Senseless Acts of Beauty.”

Sometimes, though, he goes to town on the kind of stuff everybody notices but almost nobody mentions. Take Brad Paisley’s TV ad for Nationwide Insurance. Marcus basically hates Nashville country, and the subplot he finds here is that the Paisley jingles are modern Nashville’s ne plus ultra. That’s page 140. Six pages later, there’s a follow-up on another spot, in which Paisley pretends to “go over the matter” of his second-guessing having done the spot in the first place “in great detail.” Better this than the actual thing, Marcus seems to suggest. Then, on page 169: No. 5, “Overheard in Minneapolis” — part three of the “Nationwide” saga! And he’s right: you can’t get that damn ad out of your head. Paisley and others sing “the tune as if it held more truth, more revelation, more of themselves than anything they ever recorded before.” But Greil heard a couple of kids end the tune in a different way: “Nationwide . . . is suicide.”

The Twin Cities come up again and again. Marcus visits family here frequently, and sometimes teaches at the University of Minnesota. He overhears a lot of good, and sometimes inadvertent, one-liners from a bevy of locals. At a Bob Dylan/Mavis Staples show at Xcel Energy Center in October of 2017, this exchange: “Have you guys seen Bob Dylan before?” “No, but we never miss Mavis.” And this complaint: “Fans at Dylan shows are the rudest anywhere. They never shut up.” (I was at that show, too. Not wrong.) He also notes the “echoey, muddy sound” of Northrop Auditorium in the finest Minnesota tradition.

However, let me propose that one item, about Michelle Leon’s memoir, I See Inside, slightly misfires for reasons that are, I’m afraid, purely local. Specifically, Marcus writes, Leon “never gave up Minnesota Nice.” He intends a compliment, and she is nice, in a guileless way that does tend to come from here. But only an out-of-towner would use that term to mean someone is simply a nice person from Minnesota. No, I’m from here, which means that I can’t help but read that description as “so deeply passive-aggressive that she doesn’t even realize it.” It’s not Greil’s fault, honest. Furthermore, the incident that sparked that assessment — an intraband feud that hinges on someone saying no who actually meant yes — demonstrates Leon to be the opposite of Minnesota Nice. She stated her opinion plainly instead of dancing around it, hoping the other person would drop the topic entirely. (Marcus also notes of Leon’s memoir: “Humor is deadpan.” Like many Marcus sentences, this is humorous and deadpan.)

The closer to the present day that More Real Life Rock gets, the more depressingly familiar are the signs of post-Trump life going to seed. A Star Tribune item from October of 2018, Faiza Mahamud and Jessie Van Berkel’s “I didn’t know we were hated like that,” brings about a comparison to Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America: “The witness [in the novel] was an eight-year-old boy named Philip Roth. Today it’s a twenty-two-year-old Minnesota-born Abubakar Abdi, watching the October 10 Minneapolis rally where Donald Trump denounced the Twin Cities Somali-American community and the crowd joined him with catcalls and jeers. ‘What if my former classmates were among the ones booing?’ he said. ‘What if it was my former teachers booing?’ The show will be coming to your city soon.”

His “Special Almost All Quotation Edition,” after the George Floyd murder, ends resonantly with the words of State Rep. Ruth Richardson, DFL-Mendota Heights, on why her son, a high school sprinter, couldn’t go running alone in his neighborhood: “People talk about our systems being broken. Our systems are working just the way they were designed to work.”

But Marcus’s best ending came straight from here, as well. The December 2020 edition finished with this: “Uptown Theatre marquee, Hennepin and Lagoon, Minneapolis. It went up months ago, the election has come and gone, it hasn’t changed: YOU’RE STILL HERE? IT’S OVER? GO HOME GO.”

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This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.