Saturday, July 31, 2010

New Greil Marcus

I look forward to reading the new Greil Marcus book on Van Morrison and I expect to experience the familiar aggravations and exhilarations from the critic's writing yet again. The pay off in reading Marcus is that he does, at times, write remarkably well , with the ability to be a key witness at various cultural situations otherwise invisible to the interested reader and create a sense of the gut-feeling, winging-it verve that makes for art. Think of the longish description of the Sex Pistols recording "Johnny B.Goode" in which Marcus nearly convinces you that this wasn't just a random batch of thugs butchering a Chuck Berry classic, but rather a moment of transformation, of the song, themselves, the moment in history. Each item Marcus chooses to talk about in his far ranging discussions,from punk rock, Elvis, Dada, Cabaret Voltaire, the rise of Situationism, are all made to seem epochal. As in the subtitle of his tome "Lipstick Traces", the critic is obsessed with secret histories of human conduct, and is determined to use pop musicians as the epicenter for the loud mashing together of materialist forces.

The downside of Marcus is that he too frequently a lazy inquisitor of his materials, a maker of broad statements based on anecdotes, newspaper clippings, things he bookmarked or highlighted with yellow pen.The aggravation Marcus causes is easily seen in his book "Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads": he throws every wacky idea and reference he can at the slim information regarding the writing , recording and release of the Dylan... masterpiece, and seems curiously enfeebled in his attempt to make us think that the song is more than what it is. This habit, a trait a good editor would have blue penned out of existence, is what makes me loathe to think about how he'll come to treat the work of Van Morrison: a writer who is not satisfied to make their points, but rather to write a philosophy. Musicians are not politicians or philosophers, though, and Marcus is not  Toynbee. The songs remain songs, bombast or no. As brilliant as any of the best art , literature and music in history, Marcus cannot get it straight that the masterpieces are the results, among many, froma cultural tumults, not the cause of  them. You really can't blame academia for Marcus's increasingly dense meanderings, since even glory days I always found him striving for the Grand Sweeping Statement. His problem is that he has never put forth a comprehensible thesis on which to hang his abstractions; he assumes , I think, that what he's getting at is implicit, and this causes him to skip over the niceties of making himself understood. Marcus is the victim of subject bloat, a malaise he's had since Rolling Stone. He does, as I said, still manage extended bits of insight in glorious prose--his talents are as a journalist, not a theorist.

As for Morrison, I agree wholeheartedly that Astral Weeks is a brilliant album. On the subject, though, he will be writing in the shadow of Lester Bangs, who's chapter in the "Stranded" anthology on the album, and particularly the song "Madame George", is one of the greatest pieces of emphatic,inspired, gorgeously rendered rock criticism of all time. It is a masterpiece of subjective criticism, something I would assign students to read along with examples of other brilliant critics like Manny Farber, Joyce Carole Oates,Randall Jarrell, Frank Rich (when he wrote theater reviews) and Gary Giddens. What I dread is that Marcus may consider himself in competition, Harold Bloom style, with the late Bangs and may attempt to top him with even grander , hastier effusions. Reading the new book will , as usual , a mixed bag of fresh fruit and stale donuts.See MoreThat being said, it is this determined wrong headedness that keeps me reading him and , in turn, keeps me thinking of new ways of complaining about his method.

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