GREIL MARCUS HAS been America's foremost expert on the subject of pop music for over three decades. Author of classics such as Mystery Train (1975) and Lipstick Traces (1989), he's made a career of uncovering and breathing life into the furtive histories of songs, histories that without his work would remain secret not only to listeners, but the creators themselves. A scholar of the careers of Bob Dylan and Elvis Presley, Marcus is also an ardent champion of lesser-knowns figures like Liliput and Dock Boggs.
In his EMP Pop Music Conference keynote address, Marcus will examine how certain songs—like the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter" or Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five's "The Message"—provide a powerful picture of society at a given moment.
Seattle Weekly: Let's talk about some of the ideas you'll be exploring at the conference—for instance, that the American republic is fated to scatter. I was thinking about that and radio and how scattered things are across the dial. That wasn't true 30 and 40 years ago.
Greil Marcus: Thirty and 40 years ago or more, there wasn't such a concentration of ownership of radio stations. Local playlists, local charts were very different from one other. Records would break in one part of the country and spread in very erratic ways. It was much more unpredictable. And not only was there less top-down control, but there were many, many fewer people making music. And many fewer people getting heard. Top 40 really was both oppressive and liberating. It was oppressive in the sense that only a limited number of people got heard at a given time, even though the top 40 in the Bay Area was not the same as the top 40 in Cincinnati or New Orleans or New York or Chicago or Omaha or anywhere else. But there were similarities. So just as at a time when there were only three TV networks you could be pretty sure that kids your age had a passing acquaintance with the television shows that kids your age would watch, you could be pretty sure that everybody knew who Chuck Berry was, who Brenda Lee was, later on who the Young Rascals were, who the Rolling Stones were, who Smokey Robinson was. That's not true anymore. But there are far more people making music today than there used to be. There are far more avenues of entry than there used to be, whether we're talking about local concerts, whether we're talking about the Internet, alternative distribution networks. People get heard not so widely, but they get heard, and there are more people out there trying to get heard.
I really used to believe, and I haven't any reason to think differently, that in the '50s and '60s, with clear exceptions that you find out about later, for the most part the best records did break through, did get heard. There were exceptions to that, but the cream did rise to the top—I think that's true. Nobody can make that argument today. You simply cannot make an argument that the top 10, the top 20, the top 40 on the Billboard charts of any given week represent the most adventurous, the most challenging, the most creative, the most surprising music being made today. It would be a ludicrous joke to try to make that argument today. It's been a long time since the most striking work was showing up in those kinds of charts.
Is that a manifestation in popular music of the idea that the country is fated to scatter, that you're not gonna be able to see the whole of it?
I don't know. I suppose I make these predictions in the hope that I'll be proven wrong. Whether it will be a speech, whether it will be a song, whether it will be a film, whether it will be an event that will, in fact, show people that they have more in common than they think, allow people to recognize themselves in other people as well as in the people around them and the people they think are like them. I don't really know.
Part of this conference is about telling histories. When it turns out that there are far more avenues than there used to be, more distribution networks, and so many more people trying to get heard, how does that affect how history is told?
It may be that there will simply be no such thing as pop history or rock 'n' roll history, whatever you want to call it. I think it's going to be very difficult to try and tell the pop music story of the last two decades and the two decades that follow as if it were a story. I think you're going to find far more histories that are more like something [guitarist, writer, and musicologist] Lenny Kaye once did, called "The Best of A Cappella" . . . about a revolt that took place in New Jersey and New York, mostly among Italian Americans, against the British Invasion. People went back to early doo-wop and began to fetishize rehearsal tapes and the like that early doo-wop groups had made. It revealed a whole style of singing and of music making that people had ignored or had never known about at all. Somebody like me on the West Coast had never heard of any of this stuff when I read Lenny's piece. He described the a cappella event as "a stream within a stream within a stream." And I think that we're going to be reading a lot of books, seeing a lot of movies that will follow streams within a stream within a stream. That book, Our Band Could Be Your Life [by Michael Azerrad], is already that.
I think one of the inherent themes of this conference, "Rewriting the Story of Popular Music," is that there are stories that get left out. Because so many players are involved in music now, does that mean that a lot more stories will end up being left out?
I think it guarantees that a lot more stories will be told, actually. When you have no dominant figures—no figures who you can presume claim the story—writing the story, then just about anybody has an equal claim to the truth of making culture at a given moment. You can point to anybody and say, "Here is where it was really happening," and make your argument.
Whereas, if you had pointed to, let's see [pause], let's say that in the late '60s or early '70s, whenever the hell it was, that James Carr was making a record like "Dark End of the Street." And you pointed to James Carr and said, "Look, everybody's talking about Otis Redding, everybody's talking about Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, everybody's talking about the Four Tops, James Brown—no. No. If you wanna find the white-hot center of where culture is really being made today, where someone has by intention, by accident, by impulse, by collaboration, stumbled on the voice that really captures where all of our musical culture of the last 20 years has been headed, and at the same time distills the peculiar anxiety and desperate hope of this moment, here's where it's happening: James Carr."
Now that presumes that anybody would want to make such an argument, that there would be such a center— but I'm the sort of person who's always drawn in that direction. Other people, it wouldn't occur to them. I think that argument would fail. I think there were dominant figures who were dominant because they had the ambition to, in aesthetic, cultural terms, rule the world, and they were fighting it out. And James Carr was not fighting it out. You can hear that in his music.
There was a wonderful press release put out in 1970 or '71. It just had a strange throwaway line in it about the annual meeting where the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan got together to plan pop trends for the coming year. Not only was it believable in a perverse kind of way—you really wanted it to be true. The idea that the most creative figures were, in fact, the most manipulative. It was just great, I just loved that. You couldn't make that joke today. Who could possibly be doing that? You could say, well, the head of Clear Channel, the head of the Republican Party, and maybe some other person get together to plan the pop trends. But since they don't know anything, it's not really going to affect what people listen to and what they do.
Greil Marcus delivers the Pop Conference keynote address at EMP, Sky Church. 7:30 p.m. Thurs., April 10. $8/$6 members.