Bookforum talks with Greil Marcus

Greil Marcus, by Thierry Arditti

In the introduction to his 1975 book Mystery Train, Greil Marcus set forth a challenge: to start taking rock and roll music seriously, to approach pop music “not as youth culture, or counterculture, but simply as American culture.” For the past forty years, he has done just that, looking at rock music not just as entertainment but as part of American mythology. Reading Marcus is to witness a stray musical note become the spine of an essay, or a growl connect Billboard hits to civil war customs. In his latest book, The Doors: A Lifetime of Listening to Five Mean Years, Marcus explains what he hears in The Doors’ work—everything from Thomas Pynchon to Val Kilmer—song by song. Bookforum spoke to Marcus about Elvis impersonators, songs so good they make you almost wreck your car, and whether Jim Morrison is just a little embarrassing.

Bookforum: You write in The Doors that many of their songs sound better to you now than when they first came out. Why is that?

Greil Marcus: I suppose it's a sense of desperation and nihilism. In their best songs, right at the beginning and the end of their career, it’s a sense of the musicians trying to keep up with each other and trying to keep up with themselves. There's a tremendous sense of action, a feeling of things happening as you're listening that transcends the fact that these are songs that were very rehearsed. The band ended before they became an embarrassment, at least for me. Whatever they were up against, whatever story they were trying to tell, it all stopped before any last chapter.

BF: It’s funny, because I get the feeling in some of the book that looking back on Jim Morrison is slightly embarrassing. Why is that?

GM: Oh, no question. Jim Morrison died when the band had just put out L.A. Woman. It's not a great album, it's not even necessarily a good album. But it has one great song, and that's more than some people ever get. There's a reason that it's still on the radio, and why it doesn't sound old. It sounds like a city that's still being born. It' makes you want to go to LA, makes you want to be there to walk on the streets and look up at the sky and see if you can see what The Doors had seen. So regardless of how embarrassing The Doors became, even to their strongest fans, their last work was anything but. It was thrilling.

BF: The form of The Doors is a little unusual—all of the chapters are devoted to a single song, some are pages and a one is only a couple sentences long.

GM: It’s a book about listening. At some point something will catch my ear, and I'll hear a turn of phrase, a moment of doubt on the part of the singer or musician, and go back and listen until I feel like I'm writing the song. I'm not trying to analyze it or to break it down. I'm looking for the way in which the smallest shift in emphasis or expressiveness or emotion can completely change the story that a piece of music seems to be telling.

One person described what I did as nonfiction short stories, and that's what I aspire to. It's an experiment in letting a song attract me and then trying to hear how it talks. It's not meant to be a history of the band, it's not a biography of anybody. It really is an attempt to start always from the song in question and somehow get back to it.

BF: One of the things you write about is the idea that the 1960s were the absolute apex of rock and roll, and everything has gone downhill ever since.

GM: On the one hand, there hasn't been a time since then when music seemed so much a part of life at its most intense and most spectacular. It seemed so inseparable from upheaval, danger, terror, the sense that anything could break at any time and that anything new could rush in through a gap and replace it. Music wasn't simply the orchestration of that; it was another version of it. That's something very strong, and that's what other people tell other people they missed.

But it's still an evil thing to do, it's still invidious and smug. People could be having a much stronger sense of having made their own history get told that they already missed out. It’s kind of awful to have David Crosby and Steven Stills show up at Zuccotti Park, to have one time bless the other. Sooner or later, the people of my generation are going to die and then presumably there will be fewer people around to insist that their time was the time and beat younger generations over the head with it.

BF: But there are some cultural figures that last much longer than their generations. At any Elvis impersonation contest, many of the competitors were never alive at the same time as Elvis.

GM: The fact is that Elvis is alive in our culture. He's alive and he's unique. All any 13 or 14 year old has to do is look at him as he was on television in 1955. You look at this person and he seems to be more free, more defiant, more existing as pure pleasure than anybody you can imagine, and you want to feel like that. And so you tell yourself that if you dress up like him and I move like him, maybe I'll get a glimmer of what it must have been like to be in that body, to have that sound come out of his throat.

If you go to Argentina, anywhere you go—Buenos Aires to the bottom of Patagonia—there's a picture of this guy who looks a great deal like Humphrey Bogart. It’s Carlos Gardel, the great tango singer who killed in an airplane crash in the 1920s. You walk around the bazaars, you walk around the plazas and you still see people dressed up like Gardel, singing. He represents the aspiration of the whole country, the face the country wants the world to see. Elvis is that, too.

BF: In your chapter on “Twentieth Century Fox,” you talk a little bit about the gap between high and low art—is there a similar divide in pop music?

GM: Well, one of the things that I was listening to when I was writing this book, inevitably, was Train's "Hey Soul Sister." I was surprised by how many people claimed they hated that song. A lot of people hate Train as the band. They're like the new Journey; they can be incredibly cheesy. But I heard this song on the radio I had no idea who it was by and I was in love with it instantly and desperately. I had to hear it again and find out who did it. You can say, well that's a completely trashy song. It's utterly meaningless; it's completely formulaic. You're not a serious person if you like this song, or maybe it's your guilty pleasure. “Guilty pleasure” is a terrible concept, it’s supposed to bridge the gap between respectable and disreputable, but it just reinforces it. It might be true, for all I know, that listening to frivolous music makes you a frivolous person. But I'm kind of betting it isn't.

BF: That essay seems to collapse the idea of high and low anything.

GM: It’s true, but you know, a number of years ago in I went to see Titian’s Assumption of the Virgin in Venice. It’s so big you can't even see it all at once, and I was as transfixed by that as I've ever been by anything. I kept trying to walk out of the building and I wasn't able to do it. And I thought; “Now I understand. There really is such a thing as high art. And all high art has to be religious. And not only that it has to be Christian." Three things I don't believe, and in that moment I was completely reduced to a puddle of acceptance.

Any kind of art can create that sense that you're in the right place at the right time, and you wouldn't want to be anywhere else. I think the greatest rock and roll song ever, if I really had to choose, is "Gimme Shelter" by the Rolling Stones. It's been on the radio since the day it came out. It's still the most played Rolling Stone song on the radio. I’ve heard that song countless times; I know every iota of it. But when I'm listening to it, I get swept up and I don't know what's coming next. I was once listening to that on the freeway when a car cut in front of me and I had to swerve into the next lane without even looking if there was someone in it. “Gimme Shelter” was playing as loud as I could make it, and I thought, if this is when I have to go out, this is the way to go.