Greil Marcus is revered as a deity.
Among pop culture and music writers, Greil Marcus is revered as a deity. For more than five decades, he has provided the world with intelligent, impassioned and witty criticism, while finding the lines that connect, say, the avant-garde art movements of post-WWII Europe with the arrival of punk rock (his 1989 book Lipstick Traces) or the parallels between the lives of Elvis Presley and former President Bill Clinton (2001’s Double Trouble). Even when the pieces don’t seem to really fit, you can still marvel at the strength of Marcus’s prose.
His erudition and crystalline writing has left the door wide open for him to write almost anywhere he wants and in whatever format. And, since 1986, one of his regular outlets has been Real Life Rock Top Ten, a column in which Marcus writes about whatever strikes his fancy (in both good and bad ways). While the publications that have housed it has changed over the years—it started at The Village Voice and has moved to Artforum, Salon, and, currently, The Believer, his approach has never shifted. If anything, the relatively short word count and smaller space he is given to fill have forced him to boil his commentary down to his most essential argument.
That’s what makes Real Life Rock, a new collection that brings together every one of Marcus’s Real Life Rock Top Ten columns published between 1986 and 2014, so wonderful and yet so overwhelming to read. There is so, so much here to dig into, leaving your head dizzy with the names of albums, authors, directors and cultural figures, and his commanding use of the English language.
The book also allows for a mainline glimpse into the curiosities and loves of a mainstream critic like no memoir or biography could. Marcus returns again and again to his chief musical loves—Presley, Dylan, Neil Young and The Mekons make many, many appearances throughout these columns—and seems to view every piece of pop culture he encounters through a rock ‘n’ roll lens. Nearly every novel, TV show or movie is filtered as such. That fits in well with the column’s title, but also makes him appear downright obsessive at times. It’s also a delight to read Marcus coming to the defense of acts or songs that would be otherwise ignored by his many peers. He apparently unabashedly adores Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is” and fell in love with unfashionable UK indie groups like Heavenly and Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine.
Even if you aren’t running to your computer to stream some of these tracks and albums he wrote about over the years, you’ll still be stopping in your tracks to admire the economy of Marcus’s writing for this column. In as short as about 100 – 150 words, he can take you deep within the heart of a particular album or live performance, or dismiss something cheekily out of hand with a small wave. His 2001 appraisal of Mick Jagger’s solo album Goddess in the Doorway reads simply: “Reviews are saying this isn’t really terrible. It’s really terrible.” It’s a perfectly cutting remark, and one that the album surely deserved since Marcus has been writing about the Stones and their rail-thin leader almost from the jump.
With so many smart people working to try and improve the discourse surrounding music happening in our culture right now, a book like How To Write About Music is a fine start. But each copy should be paired with a paperback of Real Live Rock as a way to really drive the point home.