There are critics that review records, or books, and then there are critics, few and far between, perhaps getting fewer and farther today, that bring the world to their observations. Greil Marcus is one of those critics. In the new book, Conversations with Greil Marcus, Joe Bonomo plays editor to a compilation of interviews that allow Marcus to give insight to his process, his views on music and the world, and the impact of culture at large.
Joe Bonomo, who has written on books on the Fleshtones, AC/DC, and Jerry Lee Lewis, takes some time to talk to us about the book.
Joe Bonomo: His impact lays in his dogged willingness over so many years to remain open to surprises while being resistant to dogma. He came of age during popular music’s ascendancy as a cultural force, which meant that he was among the first to explore rock and roll, and listen to rock and roll on the radio, on albums, as a way of being in the world, as a way of living life that made certain promises about freedom, independence, and autonomy, and that smashed certain assumptions. At the same time, other early commentators were trying to pigeonhole rock and roll, to splinter it into genres and styles and movements, with sets of expectations for each, and to insist on binary thinking in terms of high art and low art. Marcus actively tried to ignore such distinctions, recognizing that an art-house film, a political speech, an event in history from a century ago, an obscure novel might speak to us, say the same things to us, at the same level, as a song on the Top 40, or as a song by some unknown garage band. Over decades he’s shown that music by Bob Dylan or the Sex Pistols or Eleventh Dream Day can be explored
thoughtfully, at a high level of discourse. Of course, he has many detractors and non-fans because of this so-called and misleadingly-named “academic style.” He always has and he always will. That ongoing adventurous spirit — always tuned to possibility — is Marcus’s cultural impact. He has not been alone in this approach, obviously, but he was among the first.
MT: How has Marcus’ work informed your own critical works?
JB: A difference between us is that my way into a subject is usually autobiographically. As he’s made clear many times, Marcus is skeptical of the autobiographical impulse. Two of the books I’ve written are in-depth explorations of bands that he probably cares little for — or maybe he blasts the Fleshtones and AC/DC at home and feels that he has nothing to say about them. We meet in certain places: I’ve certainly been influenced by him on the level of the sentence and paragraph. He’s a fantastic writer, intellectually engaged while colloquial, confident but not arrogant, complex and readable. And I hope that when I am into a subject I try and listen for, and see, hitherto unknown connections among people, events, sounds in ways that might startle or unsettle me. Marcus writes with a kind of invisible ink that slowly reveals secrets and unseen correspondences. I try always to remain open to those kinds of possibilities when I write. In fact, what reading Marcus for so many years has revealed to me is that that kind of secret-unearthing is located in the very impulse to write in the first place. I’ll ask, “What interests me about this band, this song, this album beyond the fact that I like it?” It has to, as Marcus says, “trouble” me in some way. Above all I admire his mind, regardless of how our record collections do and don’t overlap
MT: Who is writing today that we can look to to carry on the critical voice Marcus and other writers like Lester Bangs and Jon Landau?
JB: Oh, I’ll inadvertently leave out plenty here but let me try and name some. In terms of music criticism I think that writers like Simon Reynolds and Ann Powers do similar kinds of work as Marcus’s. Many of the pieces that Daphne Carr collects in her Best Music Writing series and many of the books in David Barker’s 33 1/3 Series indicate that Marcus’s style of inquiry is healthy and vital for and into this generation. Gina Arnold, though I don’t know how active she is these days. Jim DeRogatis, Alex Ross. I admire Sasha Frere-Jones’s writing in The New Yorker, but I wish the magazine would give him more space, I wish that he’d been a staff writer there in, say, 1977. Marcus’s interests go beyond music, although he admits that a song is where he usually begins. Luc Sante, and Peter Schejdahl, also at The New Yorker, excavate subject matter the way Marcus tries to. I think that Sante is a really underappreciated writer; his work on photography, ephemera, and American history as well as on music is brilliant, always smart and surprising. Schejdahl’s primary focus is the art world, but he writes in such a way that insists that rarefied art-making matters, or at least should matter, to an expansive audience; his writing style is fresh and “unlearned” in this regard, and he’s a blast to read. Another art critic, Dave Hickey, is broad and ambitious in the way he sees things, tethers between and among art work and popular culture. He was recently writing a terrific, nervy column for Art in America that I looked forward to every month but for some reason it’s stopped. That’s a shame, because he should be read. His “Air Guitar” is an important book. As for the future, who knows, but I think we have to look at the blogosphere as a kind of collective mind, much of which will carry on this kind of critical thinking. Music blogs, film blogs, art blogs, etc., are ubiquitous, often full of garbage, but often lively and smart and fresh. The comments sections, too. There is a new manner of discourse online, and this is obviously where the vast majority of opining will now occur. Francis Ford Coppola once rhapsodized about a young kid taking up a camera and going his own way, and we see that happening in terms of criticism online every day, all day. Also, the Internet has seen a significant and really welcome boom in archivists moving their collections online, for millions to see. This is a great trend, and a kind of parallel, or companion, to Marcus’s kind of critical thinking, I think. People like the necessary Jim Linderman at his sites Dull Tool Dim Bulb, Old Time Religion, and Vintage Sleaze, the tireless Miriam Linna and Billy Miller at Norton Records, and the nutty, hardworking folk at WFMU and its various blog offshoots are inspiring countless conversations about the connections among previously hidden or unknown artifacts. And lest we forget, Nick Tosches is still writing. His work on popular culture is vital. “The Nick Tosches Reader” should be in every hotel room in America, right next to — opposed to? — the Gideon Bible. As for Bangs, he’s left behind only imitators.
MT: In what ways do you see music journalism evolving (or devolving)?
JB: I’m not really a music journalist, so I’m not sure. Again, the blogosphere has opened so many up opportunities that we’ve never seen before, and like all critical endeavors, many, perhaps most, will lack traction, but many will be lively and fruitful and maybe even culturally valuable over time. Sites like Pitchfork and No Depression and The Big Takeover and Pop Matters offer music journalism and criticism at a loud volume. This will only continue. The old gatekeepers are gone. It’s every critic for herself and her laptop and wi-fi zone. It’s up to the reader to be diligent and discerning, and not to succumb to being overwhelmed by all of the commentary.
MT: What are you currently working on?
JB: I’m a contributing editor and music columnist at The Normal School, and I’ll be writing essays for them twice a year. I’m working on a piece on country music and stripping now. My book of personal essays, “This Must Be Where My Obsession With Infinity Began,” is coming out with Orphan Press in the Spring, and I’m working on a manuscript of autobiographical shorts called “Origin Stories.” I always try to have an essay going, and I regularly post at my site No Such Thing As Was about music, memory, art, autobiography, essays, photographs, videos, whatever’s “troubling” me.
MT: What are some of your favorite music tomes?
JB: Among Marcus’s books, I particularly like “Mystery Train,” “Dead Elvis,” and “The Old, Weird America.” I’m a big fan of Tosches — his nonfiction, especially. His biography of Jerry Lee Lewis, “Hellfire,” is a must-read for everyone, and his “Country” and “Where Dead Voices Gather” are great, too. But above all, Lester Bangs. Both of his collections, “Psychotic Reactions And Carburetor Dung,” which Marcus edited, and “Mainlines, Blood Feats, and Bad Taste,” are indispensable. He was one of the great writers, on music, yes, but also on the mess, joy, and complexity of being alive, of being a person who loves and who feels inspired and often burdened by the need to articulate that. Other favorite music books, in no order: Joe S. Harrington’s “Sonic Cool”; Gina Arnold’s “Route 666″; Ellen Willis’s “Out Of The Vinyl Deeps”; Nicholas Rombes’s “Cultural Dictionary Of Punk”; Legs McNeil’s and Gillian McCain’s “Please Kill Me”; Bill Malone’s “Country Music, U.S.A.”; Dave Marsh’s “Heart of Rock and Soul”; Peter Guralnick’s “Lost Highway”; Colin Escott’s “Tattooed On Their Tongues”; Stanley Booth’s “True Adventures of the Rolling Stones”; Jim DeRogatis’s “Let It Blurt”; Chuck Berry’s autobiography; Bob Dylan’s autobiography; Keith Richards’s autobiography; Ian MacDonald’s “Revolution in the Head”; Michael Azerrad’s “Our Band Could Be Your Life”; back issues of Kicks magazine; and from the 33 1/3 Series, Dan LeRoy’s “Paul’s Boutique”; Douglas Wolk’s “Live at the Apollo”; Franklin Bruno’s “Armed Forces”; and Tony Tost’s “American Recordings.”
Find out more about Joe Bonomo at www.nosuchthingaswas.com/