APRIL 27, 2012
Image: Thierry Arditti, Paris
Earlier this year I visited Greil Marcus, widely considered the greatest living rock writer, at his home on the border between Berkeley and Oakland to profile him for the British newspaper The Guardian. Over the course of an afternoon, we covered the length and breadth of his 45-year career, from his formative experiences and influences to his days as an editor at the newly founded Rolling Stone, through all his major books (Mystery Train, Lipstick Traces, Invisible Republic, The Shape of Things To Come), via his editing of the much-loved desert-island-disc anthology Stranded, to his recent monographs on Van Morrison and The Doors, and much more besides. Marcus was fighting a nasty cold that day: sniffing thickly, propping himself up with a pointed index finger that dimpled into his cheek, he sagged sometimes but never flagged during the three hour conversation. Only a fraction of the interview made into the final article, so here is installment #1 (of four) of the complete transcript. Apart from some minimal tidying up (nearly always to my questions and comments; Marcus “talks like a book,” as folk in England used to say about eloquent persons) and one small liberty taken with sequencing to preserve chronological flow, this is exactly how the conversation went down.
– Simon Reynolds
SIMON REYNOLDS: LET’S START WITH YOUR NAME — Greil. It’s an unusual name. One that you hardly ever come across.
GREIL MARCUS: Well, there are quite a few Greils in the South. I was named after my father, who was killed in the war before I was born. So obviously I was going to be named after him whether I was a boy or a girl. It is a non-gender-specific name.
Greil is a Southern name, and a German name. My grandmother was from Montgomery, Alabama, and it was a Southern tradition to name your second son after your maiden name, which was Greil. My great-grandfather was a big merchant in Montgomery. It was a joke that there were three Jewish families in Montgomery: the Weils, the Greils, and the Schlemiels. But there’s actually quite a big Jewish community there. It’s the only place I’ve ever been where everybody knew how to pronounce my name and how to spell it.
SR: So the father that’s referenced in The Doors: A Lifetime of Listening to Five Mean Years — the one that you keep driving to visit in the nursing home, and on the drive you always hear Doors songs on the radio, which inspires you to write the book — that’s your adoptive father, then?
GM: My father was killed in the war — in December 1944. I was born in June 1945. My mother remarried three years later, and I was adopted a year after that.
SR: So when did you find out about your real dad?
GM: It’s a complicated story. I was 3 years old when my mother remarried. I knew I’d had a father, but I didn’t have a father. Shortly after she remarried, my grandfather, who I had lived with all my life until she remarried, died. He was another father, so I figured any father, soon as he showed up, would die. I always knew I had a father but — I wrote a piece about it a number of years ago — I’m a private person; I don’t talk about myself very much. [The piece] was included in the Pushcart Prize best-essays volume. [The Pushcart Prize XXXIV: Best of the Small Presses, ed. Bill Henderson, Pushcart, 2010.] Mainly it has to do with silence. My father’s family was from Philadelphia, and when I was 3 months old she took me to meet my aunts and uncles and my grandfather. I spent a lot of my childhood in Philadelphia, with my relatives, and so I was always part of that family, my father’s family. Yet there’s a way in which things were never really talked about. I didn’t find out about what really happened to my father until not very many years ago.
He was in the navy on a ship called the Hull in the Pacific. He was the executive officer, which is second in command. And there were three ships that were ordered into a typhoon by Admiral Halsey, because he wanted to see what they were made of. An utterly sadistic and insane decision. The officer in charge of my dad’s ship was a martinet. The men didn’t trust him. And he didn’t know what he was doing, and was so scared that anybody would figure out he didn’t know what he was doing, that he wouldn’t listen to anyone. Anyone who looked at him funny, he disciplined.
What happened — and what didn’t happen — on my father’s ship was the basis of The Caine Mutiny. Herman Wouk was in the navy at the same time. It was a huge national scandal; there were congressional investigations. It wasn’t an obscure story. They were in the midst of the typhoon and the ship was on the verge of sinking, and the other officers asked my father to take over the ship — to arrest the commander and seize the ship because they thought that was their only chance. If they didn’t do that they were almost certain to die. But if they did do that they would all be hung — the captain would have them all on trial for mutiny and they’d be hung. And in all the history of the United States Navy there has never been a mutiny. So my father refused to do it. Three ships went down, 800 men died, 400 from my father’s ship. And he was one of them.
And it was not too many years ago that my [adoptive] father [Gerald Marcus] called me up and said there’s a documentary on the Weather Channel about the Hull. A half-hour program with a lot of stock footage, but interviews with survivors from the Hull on it. When something like this happens it usually takes a generation before people are ready to talk about it. In this case it was more than that, but here were these men talking about what happened: who survived and who didn’t; how those who survived did; and those who died, how they died. And a lot of it was really horrific.
Then a year or two later I got a call from this guy Bruce Henderson who I’d known when we both wrote for New West magazine in the seventies. He said he was writing a book on the Hull and was trying to find out information on Greil Gerstley. Now Gerstley, that’s my father’s name; my original name. Bruce asked if I was somehow related and I said, “Yeah I’m related. I’m his son.” Bruce had interviewed all the survivors of the ship, and he knew everything. How my father died, and a lot more. But in my own family none of this was ever discussed. When I grew up, there was never a picture of my father in our house, let alone one that was displayed. When I would go east and stay with the Gerstley family in Philadelphia, there would be a picture of my father, the hero son who had died in the war, but I would always feel like I was being treasonous to look at it, let alone ask any questions. Somehow my East Coast relatives picked up that they weren’t supposed to talk to me about this. So I grew up really not knowing anything. Always knowing that I had a different father than my siblings, and some different relatives. It’s only in the last few years that the veil has lifted somewhat and I was able to write about it. And I wrote about it not because I had any great desire or need to do it, but I had agreed to take part in a conference in Seattle at the Richard Hugo Building, a conference on childhood. And when it came time to write the paper I realized, “I have no interest in childhood. I haven’t devoted any thought to it.” So I realized, “This is all I have to write about: my own mystified childhood.”
SR: That is such a fascinating story, and it’s kind of eerie the way it contains all these themes that run through your work almost from start to finish: America and patriotism, a sense of duty but also a sense of national shame or disgrace. And most of all, mystery and secrets.
GM: I’ve always known why I do what I do. An obsession with mystery, with untold stories and secrets, is both an neurotic sense of energy and it is that whole area of life that is at once threatening and frightening but also alluring to me. I didn’t need to be psychoanalyzed to find that out. I’ve always known why I write the way I do — why I, if not seek out occulted subjects, then frame things that way. This is the story I have to tell. There is no reason why anybody should be interested in me as such. But maybe I can tell other kinds of stories that are interesting.
SR: Were you brought up in a religious Jewish household, or was it more like your secular-liberal Jewishness?
GM: My wife always says I’m a California Jew, meaning I’m not Jewish at all. I didn’t know any Yiddish. I have non-Jewish friends in New York who knew far more Yiddish than I do. I was born in San Francisco, my mother was born in Portland. Before that her family was in Hawaii. So I come from a very Western family, and Jews in San Francisco have always been assimilated. Eastern family members would come over and say, “Where is the neighborhood?” They just didn’t get it. I grew up in a Jewish family that had Christmas trees, we celebrated Christmas, it was a big-deal family gathering. But I’m Jewish, there’s no question about that. I went to services, I went to high holidays, I had a bar mitzvah. It’s a big part of my identity, no question.
SR: And you basically lived your entire life in the San Francisco area?
GM: I would go to Philadelphia every year, in the summer, for two months or so. I did that until I was 18 and I went to college. Sometimes I’d go with my parents, my mother or my grandmother, but when I was older I would go by myself. But yes, I was born here and lived here my whole life. Except for living in New York in the fall, which we pretty much do now because of my teaching.
SR: Is it just comfort that makes you stay in the Bay Area, or are there aspects that you really love and prefer to other places?
GM: It’s habit and familiarity in some ways. Both my adoptive father and my mother grew up here. It’s real life, not some strange place. And I do have a real chip on my shoulder about the East. There’s something horribly entitled and self-important about the East that I bristle against and don’t want to be part of. And then there’s the weather, too.
SR: When did writing start to seem like your vocation? Were there any other ambitions before wanting to be a writer?
GM: I didn’t think about it as a child. As a student, I very quickly figured I would be a professor. I had great professors at Berkeley. Inspiring teachers: Jack Schaar, who just died; Michael Rogin, also dead; Norman Jacobson, who died a few years ago. They were political theory teachers, charismatic people who spent an enormous amount of time with students. They were able to lecture in a way that made subjects thrilling and made you desperate to want to know more. One of the things that made me a music writer, and that’s always thrilled me, is when you listen to a piece of music and it just seems miraculous. It’s hard to believe that anybody could produce anything so wonderful, so perfect, just as a matter of knowledge and will. Then you think, “How must the person who is making this music have felt at that moment?” I was listening to Dave Mason’s one great solo album [Alone Together, 1970], and there’s a track, “Look at You Look at Me,” which has a very long guitar solo at the end: an unspeakably marvelous and elegant piece of music. Everyone at the time thought it was Eric Clapton playing it … supposedly it’s Mason, but if it’s really Mason it’s the greatest Clapton solo that Clapton never played. Listening to something like that and wondering what must it have felt like, in that moment, to be making that music … I always imagined that the person felt free and fulfilled and utterly taken out of himself. For some people, reacting that way, they would then decide, “I want to feel like that person so therefore I’m going to learn guitar and ultimately get to that point.” For me, the way of inhabiting that moment was to write. And it wasn’t until I read Pauline Kael’s I Lost It at the Movies that I had the same feeling about writing: “I want to feel as free as she must have felt when she wrote that.”
SR: I Lost It at the Movies came out in 1965, right? How long had Pauline Kael been renowned as a critic by that point?
GM: She wasn’t then. That book put her on the map. It sold an enormous amount of copies for a book of film criticism. But she was known in Berkeley. A lot of that book is made up of broadcasts she made when she was reviewing movies on KPFA. She was a huge presence in Berkeley. She started the Cinema Guild, which was an art-house movie theater on Telegraph Avenue, and she wrote the program notes for hundreds and hundreds of movies — foreign and Hollywood — that she would program there. When my wife and I came to Berkeley, which was 1962 in her case and 1963 in mine, the Cinema Guild was all that was happening on Telegraph Avenue. That was the only magnet that drew people there. So she was the programmer there at the same time as she was on KPFA, reading these extended essays about movies over the airwaves. But by the time I Lost It at the Movies came out, she’d either left for New York or was on the verge of moving there.
SR: Did you meet her when she was still in Berkeley?
GM: No. We got to know her later. She became a good friend.
SR: So was Kael the first time that criticism struck you as this almost performative thing — a sense of the writer as a real-time presence, a personality, with the writing happening on the page as an event?
GM: Yeah. And I just wanted to feel the way she must have felt. Such humor and such daring … this tightrope act of excitement and jeopardy and trepidation and courage all mixed up. But I had teachers — the ones I mentioned earlier and others, too — who were so inspiring and so eloquent, and who seemed to put so much passion and heart into what they do, that I thought, “I want to feel the way they must feel.” So it was natural to think, “Oh I must be a professor.” It seemed to me I had whatever it took to do that.
I was doing an American Studies major at Berkeley, but it was an independent major, which meant that you made it up. As a sophomore, I had taken an American Studies honors seminar. There was a little room in the library that was the American Studies room, lined with books. The students, some 15 of them, had access to it. We would go there and study, and we’d stay long after the library was closed. The main doors were locked. This American Studies room was on the third floor, and we’d climb down using a rope, lower ourselves down, and then early the next morning we’d come in and pull up the rope so nobody would discover it. It was a wonderful class. It really opened me up to a lot of the themes that I pursued in Mystery Train and Invisible Republic and The Shape of Things to Come. It really was the foundation stone. Not just of those books but of what has impelled me always.
So I thought, “Oh I’ll be a professor.” I had an independent major in American Studies, but my main milieu was the political science department and this political theory groupuscle inside of it — a group of professors and students. When I went to graduate school I had the same professors and the same students, and it was just like crossing an invisible, meaningless line. Except that it was enormously meaningful, because the professors who thought when they were teaching undergraduates that their role was to inspire people, now they thought, “We’re here to train people as academics.” It was the most deadly experience imaginable.
I started writing then because I was bored to death. I had to do something to keep my mind alive. I fell into writing as a hobby. But I had known Jann Wenner since we were freshmen, and we had fallen out of touch since then, but we knew each other well enough. When Rolling Stone started, I started writing for them. And then I got a call from Jann saying, “I hear you’re complaining about the record review section.” And I said, “Yes, everybody’s just writing about lyrics and reviewing it as if it was just folk music, and it’s totally wrong.” And he said, “If you think it’s so terrible, why don’t you edit it?” So I’m at graduate school but I’m also an editor at Rolling Stone. And that’s taking up more and more time. It becomes more compelling and interesting. I realized, “There’s a field of action there.”
SR: Indeed — at Rolling Stone, you were in an enviable position of being involved in the very birth of something. Rock criticism didn’t exist, and then suddenly it did, and you were among the absolute first people doing it.
GM: Not really. I started writing in the spring of 1968, simply because I’d been reading it from Rolling Stone‘s first issue [November 9, 1967]. As soon as I saw the first issue, I knew it had to be Jann’s. I wasn’t surprised when I looked at the masthead — both because of the design and the overall professionalism of it. But Ben Fong Torres was there before I was, Charles Perry was there before I was.
SR: And Paul Nelson had been first of all, with The Little Sandy Review.
GM: In Minnesota. That existed well before Rolling Stone. And [Paul Williams’] Crawdaddy was before Rolling Stone, too. It started out as this mimeographed publication in Cambridge, MA, and I first saw it in 1965 as this linotype magazine. God, it was so exciting to read people grappling with this stuff that you cared about in a kind of language that you never imagined would be applied to something like that.
SR: Well okay then, you weren’t the first, but you were there pretty much right at the start of something. Nobody really knew what this field of writing was for or how it should be done. So you were all inventing it from scratch.
GM: Sure, there were no rules. There was no right way to do anything. We were inventing it. That was a fantastic thing to be able to be part of. There was just complete freedom to do anything you could think of and do it in the most ambitious and daring and iconoclastic and obnoxious way possible — if that was where it led you.
SR: But you left Rolling Stone after only a few years as the reviews editor, right? How come?
GM: It was a complicated situation. Originally Jann formed an editorial board to decide everything: hiring and firing, themes, the future. It was Ralph Gleason and John Burks, who was the managing editor, and Jann and me. We met every couple of weeks, maybe weekly. Usually at my house. And after the third or fourth meeting my wife said to me, “How long do you think Jann is really going to want to keep you people around just to tell him how he’s doing everything wrong?” Which is what we were doing, pretty much! I thought, “Oh, he values our opinion.” In the spring of 1970, when the Kent State shootings took place, and the shootings in Jackson State, which have been completely forgotten but were a big deal then, campuses across the country erupted and higher education in the U.S. was brought to pretty much a standstill. And Nixon goes on to the Lincoln Memorial in the middle of the night to talk to protesters and he’s drunk. So people are, like, “What’s going on here?” Jann was out of town, so John Burks and I put together a really fabulous issue, called “The Pitiful Helpless Giant” — those were Nixon’s words about the USA; he was saying the U.S. was not going to become a pitiful helpless giant. When Jann got back, I think he found that the paper — we didn’t call it a magazine then — was being taken away from him. It wasn’t that he did or didn’t like what we had done, but what we had done was something major: a firm and strong political stand just through what we’d published. The paper was slipping away from him. He was losing his moral authority by having ceded so much of it to other people.
When I became record reviews editor, I made it clear to him after a few months — nobody had done the job before me — that the record review section was an independent republic within the country of Rolling Stone. That meant that nobody else could tell me what to review or what a writer could say. They could argue with me, but ultimately it was my decision. And that worked well. There was one incident where Paul McCartney makes his first solo record and people thought it was wonderful: this rough, homemade one-man-band album. It was accompanied by a press release, a self-interview, about why he no longer needed the Beatles and how little he thought of them … this real obnoxious statement, you know? I assigned it to a friend of mine, Langdon Winner, and Jann saw the piece and said: “We can’t run it this way — he’s just reviewing it as if it’s this nice little record. It’s not just a nice little record, it’s a statement and it’s taking place in a context that we know: it’s one person breaking up the band. This is what needs to be talked about.” I said I didn’t agree and “in any case it’s up to Langdon to say what he wants to say.” Jann said, “We have to talk about this.” So we went to dinner that night and spent three fucking hours arguing about this record review. Finally he convinced me. So I went over to Langdon’s and sat down with him and spent three more hours arguing with him until I convinced him! Now to me this was the essence of great editing, of how you put out a publication that is utterly honest. All that time spent over one 750 word review! And it was worth it.
But Jann had to take the paper back, he really did. He called me in … June 1970, I guess, and said, “I really want to talk about what you’re going to be doing here.” It was all “do this” and “do that” and “you’re not doing that.” I came away from this long conversation really feeling great: it was a new role at the magazine, with more freedom. I came home and told my wife about it in great detail. And Jenny said, “Greil, you’ve just been fired.” I said, “I have?!?” And she explained to me what this conversation had really been about. Now to this day, Jann will probably say that I quit, and I will say I was fired. But it was that subtle. It was pretty slick.
SR: Sounds like your wife is a good consigliere, an invaluable interpreter of all this subtle social stuff.
GM: She has an absolute bullshit detector.
SR: What you said about all the arguments involved in great editing, how open and honest debate is vital to producing a magazine with integrity … that reminded me that I wanted to ask you about an experience that seems to have been utterly formative and enduringly inspirational: the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley in 1964. That is a real touchstone moment for you, right?
GM: That was a cauldron. It was a tremendously complex experience, struggle, event. A series of events. In a lot of ways, it’s been misconstrued: there are many versions of it. Each person had their own version of it. The affair began when there’d been a lot of protests in the Bay Area in the spring of 1964 against racist hiring practices. At the Bank of America, at car dealerships, at the Oakland Tribune —black people were not hired at all for any visible job. So there were no black sales people, no black tellers or clerks. A lot of the organizing for these protests, which involved mass arrests and huge picket lines and publicity, was done on the Berkeley campus. Different political groups would set up a table and distribute leaflets and collect donations and announce picket lines and sit-ins. The business community put a lot of pressure on the University of California to stop this, and the university instituted a policy that no political advocacy could take place on the campus. No distribution of literature, no information about events where the law might be broken. So people set up their tables anyway. And the university had them arrested. And out of that came the Free Speech Movement, saying, “We demand the right to speak freely on campus like anywhere else. We’ve read the Constitution.”
The movement formed out of all these disparate groups, everyone from the Communist Party group to Students for Goldwater. Every conceivable political group on campus was originally part of this. And the Free Speech Movement presented itself as deeply conservative; it was “We believe in the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence. We are acting out the Bills of Rights.” On the other hand, it was also a protest against the university itself — what Clark Kerr, the president of the university, called “a knowledge factory.” This alienating machine, a place that treated students as garbage. There was a famous essay called “The Student as Nigger” published at that time. The idea was that to be a student at this mass institution was to suffer anomie and schizophrenia, the worst kind of modern alienation. I never felt any of that: I loved being a student!
This Free Speech Movement was an extraordinary series of events where people stepped out of the anonymity of their own lives and either spoke in public or argued with everybody they knew all the time. It was three or four solid months of arguing in public: in dorm rooms, on walks, on picket lines. “What’s this place for? Why are we here? What’s this country about? Is this country a lie, or can we keep its promises even if it won’t?’ All these questions had come to life, and it was just the most dynamic and marvelous experience. And there were moments of tremendous drama and fear and courage. I used to walk around the campus thinking how lucky I was to be here at that moment. You really had a sense not that history was being made in some real sense for the world, but that you were making your own history — you along with other people. You were taking part in events, you were shaping events. You weren’t just witnessing events that would change your life. That, as I understood it, would leave you unsatisfied, because you couldn’t reenact what Thomas Jefferson called the “public happiness” of acting in public with other people. He was referring to his own moments as a revolutionary, drafting the Declaration of Independence. In that meeting, people pledged their lives and their sacred honor. And they knew that if they lost, they’d all be shot. Because they were acting together in public, they were taken out of themselves. They were acting on a stage that they themselves had built. I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. In that moment I didn’t have to wonder how it would feel to be that free. I was that free. And so were countless other people.
SR: And while all this was going on, you also had the tremendous excitement of the Beatles, the Stones, and then, a little later, Bob Dylan. Must have been a pretty exciting time to be young.
GM: The Free Speech thing was the fall of 1964. And the Beatles dominated the spring of ’64. One thing I will never forget about being a student here was reading in the San Francisco Chronicle that this British rock ‘n’ roll group was going to be on The Ed Sullivan Show. And I thought that sounded funny: I didn’t know they had rock ‘n’ roll in England. So I went down to the commons room of my dorm to watch it and I figured there’d be an argument over what to watch. But instead there were 200 people there, and everybody had turned up to see The Ed Sullivan Show. “Where did all these people come from?” I didn’t know people cared about rock ‘n’ roll. I thought it was quite odd. I didn’t have any rock ‘n’ roll albums. You didn’t buy rock ‘n’ roll albums, you bought singles, and I didn’t bring my singles with me to college. I had some folk albums — a couple of Joan Baez albums and The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. Which I played constantly and converted my entire dorm floor to.
SR: The idea that I find fascinating, which I got from the Langdon Winner essay in the book you edited (Rock and Roll Will Stand, 1969), is that as far as most people were concerned in the early sixties, just prior to Beatlemania, rock ‘n’ roll had been and gone. In 1961-62, the rock era seemed like it was over.
GM: That’s right — it seemed to have really disappeared. And then there’s this group on The Ed Sullivan Show. I go back to my dorm room and all you’re hearing is the Beatles, either on record or coming out of the radio. I sit down with this guy who’s older than me — he’s a senior, I’m a sophomore — and he was this very pompous kind of guy, but I’ll never forget his words. It was late at night and he said, “Could be that just as our generation was brought together by Elvis Presley, it may be that we will be brought together again by the Beatles.” What a bizarre thing to say! But of course he was right. Later that week I went down to Palo Alto — I had grown up there and in Menlo Park, on the Peninsula — and there was this one outpost of bohemianism, a coffee house called Saint Michael’s Alley, where they only played folk music. But that night they were only playing Meet the Beatles. And it just sounded like the spookiest stuff I’d ever heard. Particularly “Don’t Bother Me,” the George Harrison song. So the spring of ’64 was all Beatles. But the fall was something else.
SR: Was there a connection made between what was happening in pop music and what was happening on the Berkeley campus? A soundtrack to the protest?
GM: Joan Baez was very much around. She attended some of the rallies — she sang, and I think she did at least one planned formal concert during that time. There was actually a record of Free Speech Christmas carols put out in the fall! But there wasn’t any particular musical connection. Some people were listening to Bob Dylan and some weren’t. Some were listening to Odetta. Some were listening to jazz.”
SR: So is that something that’s stayed with you, a sort of ideal of where you’d always deep down like to be — right in the thick of a ferment of ideas and views, a mass experience that is both collective and fractious?
GM: Yes and no. Because in the years that followed at Berkeley — I was here as a graduate student until 1972 or ’73, when I finally dropped out — there would be demonstration after demonstration, student strike after student strike. But that same spirit that was present in the Free Speech Movement was never recaptured. Things became a lot more bureaucratic and Stalinist and dishonest and manipulative. Even when I was involved, marching and sitting-in against the war or whatever … you’re taking part in a much more militant, which is to say less individual, thing. It’s much less “I want to do this” and more “It’s my obligation to do this.” Or “This goal must be accomplished.” It was different. I suppose in 1968, I got some sense that what was going on in Paris was analogous to what was going on here in ’64. And certainly I saw it with punk, first as something that I only saw from a distance, and then I was going to clubs and seeing these extraordinary shows where it seemed like anything could happen and you had no idea what would happen, and there was a freedom and self-discovery in the moment. I saw that over and over again and I wrote about it in Lipstick Traces. I knew why I’d written that book: it had to do with having seen a rediscovery of a spirit that had been so valuable to me. But also in the course of writing that book, seeing the way that other people long before had discovered something that seemed so similar. What went on between the Dadaists in the Cabaret Voltaire was to me a version of the Free Speech Movement, and vice versa. And so was the imaginary conversation, the imaginary clash that takes place in the pages of the Situationist International journal. All these were echoes of each other in the little concert I set up in Lipstick Traces.
SR: Flashing back to your own 1968, how did Rock and Roll Will Stand come about? It’s one of the very first collections of rock criticism.
GM: I started putting it together in ’68. I just had this overwhelming urge to somehow express the excitement and joy and delirium that I was feeling from listening to the radio and listening to records and going to see the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. And going to see Bob Dylan. Starting in early ’64, we would see him every three months or six months — whenever he came to Berkeley, which was very often. So by the time I saw him with the Hawks in the December of ’65, I’d probably seen him at least half a dozen times. I started writing about rock ‘n’ roll in college papers, then got the idea of doing a book, involving all my friends — because this is all we talked about, in a lot of ways. Some, like Sandy Darlington, were already writing and publishing.
SR: One of your own essays in the book is very interesting: “Who Put the Bomp in the Bomp De-Bomp De-Bomp.” It made me wonder, first, if that’s where Greg Shaw got the idea for the title of his magazine Who Put the Bomp.
GM: No, I think we both loved that song [by Barry Mann].
SR: In that early essay, you’re celebrating rock ‘n’ roll not for its meaning or significance, but in terms of its energy and noise and sensational now-ness. Which is very close to the way Nik Cohn, your contemporary in Britain, celebrated what he called “Superpop” in his 1969 book Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom. Which, no coincidence, is also titled after some classic rock ‘n’ roll nonsense glossolalia, in this case from Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti.” In the essay you refer to “myth and depths,” derived from Marshall McLuhan’s assertion that “youth today lives mythically and in depth.” And certainly in your later criticism and books, the emphasis is on mythography and the pursuit of profundity, which often involves chasing resonances far back into history. But in “Who Put the Bomp,” it’s very much an exaltation of present-minded immersion in pop’s sensations. It’s totally adolescent.
GM: Of course in that essay I’m ascribing all kinds of profound, historical and generational and political significance to this, that and the other. But mainly I’m having fun. “Isn’t this great? Don’t you want to talk about this? Is there anything better to talk about? This is the best conversation we can have right now.” That was the feeling.
SR: What also comes across is a sense of feeling blessed. There is quite a strong generational stance; you say that while the generation who came of age before rock ‘n’ roll might be able to pick up on certain aspects of the Beatles or whoever that they like and appreciate, they’ll never really truly dig it. This music won’t be theirs. It’s ours. There’s a dividing line in time.
GM: In some ways that turned out to be totally wrong and shortsighted. I remember when my own kids were getting to be 7 or 8 years old and there was a full-scale Beatles revival going on among 7- and 8-year-olds — that just left me baffled. People rediscover music and they feel like it is their own personal discovery and that nobody has ever understood or appreciated that music the way they have. That happens over and over again. Think of people in the sixties or in my case the seventies discovering Delta blues records that had been recorded in the twenties and thirties and feeling, “Oh my God, I see the light.” As if no one had ever heard this music before. Obviously people had. Obviously people had been transported, captivated. In the essay I wrote about Robert Johnson in Mystery Train, I realized that so many people had stumbled upon Johnson’s music in different times and different places and had the same experience of revelation. “Nothing else compares to this. Here’s where I have to pledge my troth. This is where I have to do my work as a musician or a writer or a philosopher.” I talk about Dion’s discovery of Robert Johnson, or Muddy Waters’s discovery of Robert Johnson. And if I’d known at the time I could have written about Walter Mosley’s discovery of Robert Johnson. He wrote about how his study of Milton and John Donne and Keats allowed him to hear Robert Johnson. He says that Donne and Milton introduced me to Robert Johnson, and Robert Johnson introduced me to myself. What a wonderful thing to say.
So that sense of discovery that maybe in that essay I was claiming was “ours” — meaning my generational cohort — it’s a great thing that it was wrong. I’m much happier that it turned out not to be the case.
[Read Part 2 of this conversation here.]