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BWW Review: REAL LIFE ROCK is Critic's Magnum Opus


When a culture critic is as prolific and well known as Greil Marcus, and has written books as revered as Mystery Train and Lipstick Traces, it's a mouthful to say any one book defines him. But this recent collection of his Real Life Rock columns, which covers the column's complete history from 1986 to 2014 in a variety of magazines, really is the essence of his life's work.

It's been interesting, often infuriating work.

At his worst, Marcus is capable of fudging facts and language, or indulging cheap hostility (usually of the sort practiced by left-leaning intellectuals who feel themselves immune to charges of anything so gauche as sexism).

As an example of not quite sticking the facts, this might be called wowing 'em with nuance:

For more than twenty years Corin Tucker (vocalist for much-lauded indie bands, Heavens to Betsy and Sleater-Kinney) has been been ripping up the pop landscape with the hurricane of her voice.

That's almost a perfect description of a singer who is definitely worth hearing and too often isn't. However, he fails to mention that Tucker, however great she is, has never sold many records, or to explain how anyone can rip up a "pop" (as opposed to maybe a "punk") landscape without doing so.

Which is too bad, because "a hurricane of subtlety" encapsulates Tucker's style and effect as perfectly and succinctly as anyone ever will.

One could chalk this sort of thing up to laziness or over-enthusiasm, forgivable sins for anyone who writes as well and frequently on deadline as Marcus does.

When it comes to the cheap hostility bit, there's a somewhat deeper problem, one that has pervaded Marcus's work elsewhere and reaches a nadir (for this volume anyway) in this entry on Lucinda Williams, from May 29, 2001:

More proof that Williams has taken the fawning reviews of her Car Wheels on a Gravel Road to heart, and is now ready to bestow her genius on anyone dead enough to keep quiet about it. Too bad Joe Meek isn't around to deal with this.

For those who don't know, Joe Meek was a sixties-era English record producer who isn't around to "deal with" anybody because, in 1967, he murdered his landlady and then killed himself, which event Marcus has treated earlier in the same column with the same aplomb he has elsewhere applied to the convicted murderer Phil Spector, who made even greater records than Joe Meek, and is therefore, in Marcus's view, even more superior to his victim.

For the record, I don't care much for Lucinda Williams's music myself. But I'm content to leave it that. I don't wish her dead for the crime of offending my delicate sensibilities. This sort of fake nihilism, which can only become real if Marcus kills someone, or inspires someone else to do so (so far as I know, he has done neither), has always punctuated, and weakened, his writing. I was afraid five hundred close-print pages of short takes might tempt him to do more of it than usual. Happily, he keeps it reasonably in check here. What we get instead is an awful lot of the best of Marcus, which is as good as cultural criticism gets.

His own real tragedy, one which he occasionally laments, but far more frequently denies, is that there is no culture left for him to critique.

And that's where this book, in particular, departs from, and finally transcends, even the best of Marcus's long-form writing. Because the focus here is both contemporary and fragmented, as opposed to his more famous narratives, which tend to long arcs that sometimes stretch over generations, or even centuries, Real Life Rock becomes, seemingly against its ever-questing author's will, a five-hundred-page set of liner notes to a never quite fully grasped, but nonetheless deeply felt, story of a culture in ruins, which are now being picked over, one barely glimpsed shard at a time.

As the columns flow by, driven by Marcus's lucid (if occasionally pretentious) prose, this recurring image of a world gone missing strikes the reader from every conceivable angle.

In say, 1999, Marcus can listen to something like the Appalachian ballad "Silver Dagger," previously recorded by Joan Baez in 1960, now on a new Dolly Parton album, and, rather than assume it has been rendered benign by such associations or simply the passage of time, conclude:

Parton follows Baez like a girl following her mother through a field, wandering off the path, circling back, then disappearing into the woods. But now it's nightfall, everyone in town is searching and some people are already talking about haunts and ghosts. How it ends: The fiddler, Stuart Duncan, finds her.

I don't actually know if I'm going to have the same impression--or anything like it--when I get around to looking that up on YouTube. But I know I'm GOING to look it up. And I know I'm going to listen long and close, until I'm satisfied I've heard what Marcus hears, that there's an honest difference of opinion, or that he's put on over on me. There won't be any choice but to pursue it to the bottom. Any critic who can produce that effect on a skeptic, over and over, across nearly three decades, is valuable do a degree his weaknesses can't quite undermine. Even if those weaknesses include an occasional death wish.

Any reader even moderately engaged with what's left of the culture Marcus keeps searching for will certainly find their own favorites in Real Life Rock. I think my own, among many, come late, on page 489, when he describes a 2013 encounter with "Preaching," George Bellows's classic painting of the early twentieth century evangelist, Billy Sunday:

Sunday stands on top of a jerry-built platform, his legs spread, his right arm shooting out, his index finger pointing like a knife, his left arm cocked with his hand in a tight fist, his body so tensed it's as if he's daring the whole world to doubt a word he's saying. The picture is thrilling, frightening: an unparalleled portrait of American movement. And seated at Sunday's feet on the platform are four clerks, carefully writing down his words, or counting figures.

In the long sweep of the history that Marcus has so often dealt with elsewhere, I'm probably on Billy Sunday's side more than Greil Marcus's. But that's a physical description worthy of a first rank novelist, and an insight worthy of a long, contemplative pause.

The critic's job raised to an art form, in other words, and a combination Marcus achieves over and over in this, his best, and most inspired, contribution to the subjects to which he's devoted his life.

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From This Author John Walker Ross

John Walker Ross is a graduate of Florida State and lives somewhere in the Florida Panhandle where he has variously toiled in advertising and legal (read more...)