Greil Marcus had just moved, but he didn't have any trouble finding what he was looking for amid the boxes of books and records strewn around the downstairs office of his new house in a leafy neighborhood not far from the campus of the University of California at Berkeley. He had been talking about Bob Dylan's singing style, and how it has been ever changing through 50 years of performances, and he wanted me to hear a rendition of Like a Rolling Stone from a concert in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1966.
"There's one performance that is not like any other," Marcus said, locating the recording on a computer file. "Every performance of that song on that tour was combative and violent and urgent, but every one was different."
Dylan's voice came pouring from the speakers. "How does it feeeel? How does it feeeel?" he yowled in a savage demolition of the iconic song, backed by the Band, with Richard Manuel's sweet-toned piano weaving in and out of the cacophony.
"This one was just unhinged," Marcus said. "It's hysterical. It's desperate. It's hard to believe it ever made it to the end. It makes the original sound like a Beethoven string quartet."
It was June, and I was in San Francisco to write about the Ring cycle at San Francisco Opera, but I took a break from Wagner on a Friday afternoon to head over to the East Bay to meet one of my literary heroes. I have been reading Marcus' work since the late 1960s, first in Rolling Stone during its early years, when he edited its record reviews section, and in Creem, a magazine that published many of the writers from rock criticism's golden age. He went on to write or edit 17 books.
Two of Marcus' books have been really important to me. One was his classic, Mystery Train, which placed rock and pop music firmly in the center of American cultural studies. I hadn't looked at it since it came out in 1975, and rereading the 2008 edition this past summer was pure delight, especially the extensive, updated notes and discography on two of my favorites covered in the book, Randy Newman and the Band.
The other Marcus book I most cherish is his opus inspired by the "basement tapes" made by Dylan and the Band during their now-mythic hiatus in Woodstock, N.Y., in 1967. Published in 1997 as Invisible Republic, the book was reissued in paperback under a title (originally just a chapter title in the book) that has become synonymous with Marcus, The Old, Weird America, suggesting an oddball American folk culture ranging from blackface minstrel shows to shaped-note singing.
"I know that on my tombstone or in my obituary it will say, 'Purported to have coined the phrase 'old, weird America,' " Marcus said. "It was (poet) Kenneth Rexroth who coined the phrase, 'the old, free America,' and I loved the cadence of it, though I hated the idea, that once America was free and now it's not anymore. 'Old, weird America' just popped into my head."
In recent years, Marcus has churned out a series of short books on Dylan (Like A Rolling Stone, a "biography" of the song in all its permutations), Van Morrison (When That Rough God Goes Riding) and the newest, The Doors, which comes out this week. They're all published by Public Affairs, which last year also released his collection Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus: Writings 1968-2010.
When I visited Marcus, he had just sent in the manuscript of his Doors book. "This is now the third book I've written in a month — literally, to the day," he said. "I do all the listening, all the interviews, all the reading and all the writing in a month. I don't know that it is a way to write any given book, but this one on the Doors was easy to write, enormous fun. I just barreled through it."
In a way, The Doors is something of a departure for Marcus, because the artistry of the band has become somewhat obscured by the kitsch legend of singer Jim Morrison, but the book is compulsively readable because it captures the existential dread of the late 1960s.
"There's a disbelief in happy endings in their best music," Marcus said. "If there was one thing that convinced me that I really needed to write about this it was that sense of dread in Roadhouse Blues, one of their later songs. I remember the first time I heard it: 'Woke up this mornin' and I got myself a beer/Woke up this mornin' and I got myself a beer/The future's uncertain/And the end is always near.' I just laughed. God, how corny, how ridiculous. But the more I listened, the more real and convincing it sounded."
In these latest books, Marcus has turned a lot of his attention to singing. Almost like an opera critic (though he professes to have no expertise in opera and classical music: "It's just a complete blank spot for me"), he delves into the vocalizing of Dylan, Van Morrison and Jim Morrison.
"I think it's the crux," Marcus told me. "Singing is really the most important and interesting element to write about. The Van Morrison book is all about singing, about what you do with words, how you take ordinary words, ordinary pieces of communicative material, and change them into something else, how you work as a poet as a singer. A poet takes ordinary language and makes it not ordinary, takes words that people use every day and puts them together in a way that they're unstable, that their meanings are uncertain, and they can link up with other words or sounds in a way that you can doubt your own sense of epistemology. That's what Van Morrison does. I love this quote I stumbled on from him where he says that it's only when he's writing a song that he pays any attention to words. Once he's singing, words are just sounds."
Marcus, 66, who grew up in Menlo Park, south of San Francisco, the son of a lawyer who loved to play piano and sing, found a role model in Pauline Kael, also a Californian, whose movie reviews for the New Yorker set the standard for a generation of critics. Kael, who became a friend of his after he wrote a less-than-flattering book review of a collection of her reviews from the 1970s, Reeling, was the second person to read the manuscript of Invisible Republic, after Marcus' wife, Jenny. (They've been together since meeting as Berkeley students in the '60s and have two grown daughters.)
"Pauline is the person who taught me that all criticism is an analysis of one's own emotions," Marcus said. "Why am I responding to this? How am I being affected by this?"
One of the things that makes Marcus' response to music and literature so refreshing is its unpredictability. For example, unlike just about everyone else, he is no fan of Keith Richards' as-told-to-James-Fox memoir, Life.
"I was really disappointed," he said. "It was a terrible slog for me. I found it a tremendously dishonest book in a lot of ways. I thought all the stuff about his disdain for Mick Jagger rang completely false. It read like something that was cooked up to give the book some controversy."
For pop music memoirs, he recommends Dylan's Chronicles, Volume One, and Chuck Berry: The Autobiography. "Nothing else remotely compares to those two," he said.
Another strength of Marcus' approach is how he avoids what he calls "the quicksand of nostalgia." To be sure, he fondly remembers listening for the first time to albums such as Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band or The Basement Tapes as a communal experience with friends. But he didn't wax poetic when I asked if he worried that something has been lost now that downloading singles into smart phones is the way much music is consumed.
"I don't know," he said. "Certainly it has become overwhelmingly privatized in the sense that people are listening to music through earbuds. Music has become much less social. But time moves on."
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716.