I’m currently halfway through a book called The History of Rock’n’Roll in Ten Songs – it’s the latest (brand new) book from Greil Marcus. Impossible to chart rock’n’roll’s history through ten songs you say. Well, not if you’re Greil Marcus. Fortunately for him (and us) no one else is Greil Marcus. There is only one – he might have informed and influenced the way a few music writers (try to) look wider, his scholarly approach to composing essays that extends far beyond the typical review snapshot is, in the end, inimitable. When you read Marcus’ work you’re swept up in it and though it might at times seem like a whirlwind of cultural references there’s calm when you enter fully into the storm. Greil Marcus puts you in the eye of the hurricane – his writing is vital and exciting and if anyone wants to chant anything about Ivory Towers or him being detached, not up there in the front row and collecting the sweat and tears of those who slog it out, well they’re just not reading properly.
Marcus’ best writing – which is almost any of his writing, actually – sends you back to the music. And that’s surely the goal of almost any music writing. It should be. Particularly this kind – where Marcus isn’t concerned with the latest, he’s more interested in the greatest. And he finds it in old blues tunes, in rock’n’roll standards, and in interesting places that others just don’t look – or don’t look into deeply enough.
Reading his current book is reminding me of that wonderful work from 1975 – Mystery Train. That’s where Marcus wrote the very best understanding of Elvis Presley – of what Elvis meant and means – that exists. He did it alongside portraits of Randy Newman and The Band, Robert Johnson and Sly Stone. But each piece probes so deeply, conjuring up stories around each artist as well as pinpointing the appeal, the influences, the motivations. His latest book is the closest he’s come to rebottling the lightning on display as you turn each page of Mystery Train.
Not content with creating the definitive essay on Elvis Marcus would return to that subject for an entire book – Dead Elvis: A Chronicle of Cultural Obsession is a set of essays examining Presley and what he means after his death. It’s another great book. Marcus’ books burst with ideas, the one about Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes (Invisible Republic) is a must-read. I sincerely believe that you don’t have to even care much for Dylan to get a lot from that. You can’t say that about many music books – usually an interest in the subject is required. But Marcus has made a career out of looking wider, and as dizzying and relentless and wonderful as it often is his prose makes sense. These aren’t leaps in logic – it’s all perfectly tied together, the deeper understanding of pop-culture; it’s something to admire when reading Greil Marcus’ words.
He might even be getting better too – a book of essays dedicated to understanding Van Morrison (2010), an anthology of his Dylan writing (2011) and a book about The Doors (2011) show him (still) at the top of his game. In just two pages or over several hundred Marcus can tell you all you need to know about a song – and then so much more.
A lot of people couldn’t handle his book-length essay about Bob Dylan’s song Like A Rolling Stone (from 2005) but there are passages of magic – the description of the opening snare drum crack, that jolt, that was enough to sell me on the book.
Music writing is one of the great passions in my life – having my own crack at it and absorbing all that I can from those that have dedicated their lives to following and understanding scenes, to writing with skill and lust about the soundtracks to our lives and theirs.
You won’t find anyone better than Greil Marcus. His latest book is a revelation. And I haven’t even finished it yet. His other books – read 2006’s The Shape of Things To Come or 1989’s Lipstick Traces but only after you’ve twice read Mystery Train and checked out at least one of his Dylan pieces – are wonders also. He’s the master. They say no one ever built a statue in honour of a critic. One day someone will build one of Greil Marcus.
Authors I Admire started life as a series of posts on the Phantom Billstickers Facebook page