Even if he'd called it quits after his first book, Greil Marcus would still rank high in the music critic pantheon.
Arguably the most celebrated work of its kind, his Mystery Train was a meditative journey from Robert Johnson to Randy Newman, with stops at Herman Melville, Harmonica Frank and Elvis Presley along the way.
Over the course of 40 years and four substantial revisions, the book has never once gone out of print or fallen from critical favor.
As the equally well-regarded writer Frank Rich put it in a Village Voice book review: "His frame of reference is so vast that he never runs out of connections worth making between the music he loves and just about anything else that matters in American art and life."
Marcus has continued to stay on track with more than a dozen subsequent books. They include Dead Elvis: A Chronicle of a Cultural Obsession, The History of Rock 'n' Roll in Ten Songs, and In the Fascist Bathroom: Writings on Punk, 1977-1992.
From Beyonce Knowles to Michel Foucault, Marcus continues to demonstrate an encyclopedic knowledge of music, art and literary theory, tracing cross-cultural connections that are as insightful as they are unexpected.
If you're not yet familiar with his work, the recent Real Life Rock may be the best place to start. Published by Yale University Press, it's a three-decade compendium of his "Real Life Rock Top Ten" columns. While often esoteric, they are never less than entertaining.
I went through the Real Life Rock index to see which musicians you wrote about at least 10 times over the course of the past three decades. Most of them — like Dylan, Robert Johnson and the two Elvises [Presley and Costello] — were not unexpected. But then others, like Alison Krauss and The Mekons and Sleater-Kinney came as more of a surprise. Is there some common through-line that makes these artists' work especially meaningful to you?
One is that all involve female singers. Sleater-Kinney is an all-woman band. The Mekons' best singer is Sally Timms...
I'm sure Jon Langford will be glad to hear that.
Yeah, well, I mean, Sally has a voice that just seems to float above ordinary life, without ever losing contact to it. I've sat next to her while she's sung, and I just felt like I was in another world, that her voice is so clear, and yet there's nothing bland about it. There is always depth and complexities in the way a single word is formed, she never resorts to tricks like melisma or hesitations. And Alison Krauss is a singer like that, too.
These are people who I pretty much fell in love with when I first heard them, and never lost interest in them. So they're all threads in the book, I will always write about whatever they do.
In his book Outlaw Blues, Jonathan Taplin talks about there being a tipping point where critics were no longer playing their traditional role in the entertainment industry.
If I could just read a quick quote, he writes, "The importance of the critic as an arbiter of what was good or bad has faded since 1991, when the film critic Pauline Kael resigned from The New Yorker and the music critic Greil Marcus moved on to writing about the larger culture." Did you at the time have a sense of where things were heading? Did you kind of see the writing on the wall for music criticism?
No, I never thought of it that way. I never thought of myself as an arbiter of any kind. Some people have taken on that role, you know, separating the wheat from the chaff and the true from the false. But it's never been interesting to me. I've never tried to tell people what to like, or what's good for them. I hope not.
Whereas two of your contemporaries that come to mind — Lester Bangs and Robert Christgau — both totally wanted to tell people what was good and bad. And all of you, it seems to me, created the phenomenon of music critics as personalities in their own right. Were you comfortable with that?
Well, Lester became his own character, to a degree. It's like he created a fictional persona and then proceeded to follow its adventures, both in real life and on the page.
Sometimes that was extraordinarily effective, but it also made him into a caricature and a buffoon, in a lot of ways.
He was really mean to Lou Reed about Lou's transvestite girlfriend. Do you remember that?
Sure, sure. But I don't think Lou ever lost his respect for Lester. He may have been infuriated — may have hated his guts — but at the same time, nobody took Lou Reed on and challenged him and made him think the way that Lester did. And all of that was motivated by love and awe and worship on Lester's part.
But you know, I hate to think anybody thinks of me as some sort of personality. I don't write about myself.
That's true. There's very little first-person in your work.
You know, I'm not interested in that, I don't think it's relevant to anything. You shouldn't bring preconceived notions of what a person is going to say when you start reading something that they've written, you know?
Even through the 1960s, in the Times Literary Supplement — which was the book review publication in England — nothing was ever signed. And that was true in The New Yorker for a long time, too. All reviews were anonymous.
But a lot of critics today tend to make themselves more important than their subject. Is that egotistical element something that just comes with the job?
I really don't know. I think it has more to do with the memoir supplanting both non-fiction and fiction in so many fields. And with the memoir not really being fiction or non-fiction — mainly being well-constructed lies that make the writer look good. And that has gotten in the way of real thinking and real argument.
I remember John Irving saying to me how appalled so many people were about one of the crucial incidents in his novel, The World According to Garp, when the hero's son is killed in an auto accident. People were so touched and so overwhelmed by this tragedy. And then they found out that John Irving hadn't lost a child in an auto accident, that he was lying, that he made it up.
Even though it's clearly a novel.
Yes. And they felt exploited, they felt used. And so as a novelist, he had to confront the way that people want you to lie about your lies. In other words, fiction is a lie. It's made up. It didn't happen. But people want you to lie about that, and say, "Oh, of course this really happened to me."
When James Taylor's "Fire and Rain" was released as a single, a little talking point memo was sent out to deejays all over the country. And before they played the song, they were supposed to read this memo [over the airwaves], which said that James Taylor had been in a mental institution, and there'd been another patient there who he felt very, very close to, who killed herself. And so you do this buildup and then you start playing "Fire and Rain," and the whole country just kind of swoons, "Oh, I'm so moved."
And, you know, it's a good song. But it was all set up: "This is true. Don't let this song take you away. Don't let your imagination enter into it. Just think of this real person who died to make this song happen.
And I remember, at the time, both being moved by this little trick that was being played on me and everyone else in the country, but also feeling that the whole notion of art, of making something up and putting it out in public to see what people make of it in turn, was being utterly devalued.
One final question: In the wake of the recent pop music deaths, [critic] Chuck Eddy put up a post asking how long it'd be before someone brings up your rock death meter.
Do you sometimes feel like your sense of humor is so dry that it goes unnoticed among all the cross-cultural reference that you're better known for?
I don't know. I think that me making a chart of all the pop music people who died in the 1970s and ranking their deaths, you know, is one of the most obnoxious things anybody could ever do. And that's not exactly dry.
You also referred to heroin as the common cold of rock deaths.
Yeah, so, you know, I think I may have a mean sense of humor, but I don't think it's dry.