Born June 19, 1945, in San Francisco, CA; son of Gerald Dodd (an attorney) and Eleanore (a homemaker; maiden name, Hyman) Marcus; married Jenelle Bernstein (a shopkeeper), June 26, 1966; children: Emily Rose, Cecily Helen. Education: University of California at Berkeley, B.A., 1966, M.A., 1967. Hobbies and other interests: Paleolithic culture.
Author and critic. Rolling Stone (magazine), San Francisco, CA, associate editor, 1969-70, book editor, 1975-80. Teacher of American studies at University of California at Berkeley, 1971-72. Pagnol & Cie (restaurant operators), Berkeley, CA, director, 1979—.
National Book Critics Circle (director, 1983-89).
Nominated for National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism, 1976, for Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock 'n' Roll Music.
(With Jan Hodenfield and Andrew Kopkind) Woodstock, photographs by Baron Wolman, Joseph Sia, and Mark Vargas, Straight Arrow Publishers (New York, NY), 1969.
(Editor) Rock and Roll Will Stand (essays), Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 1969.
(With Michael Goodwin) Double Feature: Movies and Politics, Outerbridge & Lazard (New York, NY), 1972.
Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock 'n' Roll Music, Dutton (New York, NY), 1975, revised 4th edition, Plume (New York, NY), 1997.
(Editor) Stranded: Rock and Roll for a Desert Island (essays), Knopf (New York, NY), 1979, revised edition, with foreword by Robert Christgau, Da Capo Press (New York, NY), 1996.
(Editor) Lester Bangs, Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, Knopf (New York, NY), 1987.
Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1989.
Dead Elvis: A Chronicle of a Cultural Obsession, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1991.
Ranters and Crowd Pleasers: Punk in Pop Music, 1977-92, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1993, published as In the Fascist Bathroom: Writings on Punk, 1977-92, Penguin (New York, NY), 1994.
The Dustbin of History, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1995.
There Is No Eye: John Cohen Photographs, PowerHouse (New York, NY), 2001.
The Manchurian Candidate, British Film Institute (London, England), 2002.
Author of biweekly column "Undercover" for Rolling Stone, 1975-80; author of monthly columns "Real Life Rock" for New West, 1978-82, and Music magazine (Tokyo, Japan), 1978-73, "Speaker to Speaker" for Artforum, 1983-87, and "Real-Life Rock Top Ten" for Village Voice, 1989-90, Artforum, 1990-97, and Salon.com, 1999—. Contributor to books, including The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll, edited by Jim Miller, Random House (New York, NY), 1976, revised edition, 1980; and "What'd I Say": The Atlantic Story; Fifty Years of Music, Welcome Rain (New York, NY), 2001. Contributor of essays and criticism to periodicals, including Creem, Rolling Stone, New York Times, New York Times Book Review, Los Angeles Times, Newsday, New Musical Express, Village Voice, New Yorker, Journal of Country Music, and TriQuarterly.
Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century was adapted as a stage play by the Foundry Theatre and produced in Los Angeles, CA, 2002.
"Greil Marcus has been America's foremost expert on the subject of pop music for over three decades," wrote Chris Nelson in Seattle Weekly Online. "Author of classics such as Mystery Train and Lipstick Traces, 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." Marcus has focused much of his work on the careers of artists such as Bob Dylan and Elvis Presley, but has also chronicled the work of groups like the Sex Pistols and the Punk music phenomenon to the rise of Atlantic Records. He has been one of the United States' most highly regarded writers on rock and roll music since beginning his career as an editor of the popular music magazine Rolling Stone, writing articles and reviews on music, books, politics, and other subjects for several leading publications. Marcus's work has appeared, for example, in the New York Times, New Yorker, Creem, and Newsday, and he has been a columnist for New West magazine, Artforum, and the Village Voice.
In addition to his magazine work, Marcus has also contributed essays to books, including The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll and "What'd I Say": The Atlantic Story; Fifty Years of Music, and has written and edited numerous books of his own. His Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock 'n' Roll Music, was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle award and drew international attention when several critics hailed it as one of the most important rock and roll books ever written. As Marcus's career has progressed, his work has evolved from straightforward music criticism to cultural commentary, exemplified in his book Double Trouble: Bill Clinton and Elvis Presley in the Land of No Alternatives. As quoted by Dave Weich in a Powells.com interview, fellow writer Nick Hornby called Marcus "simply peerless," and further noted that Marcus is "not only a rock writer but . . . a cultural historian." Laurence O'Toole, writing in the New Statesman, dubbed Marcus the "undisputed king of the rock 'n' roll scribblers."
Born in San Francisco, California, in 1945, Marcus was a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley, studying political theory, when music changed the course of his life. He had already begun to feel uncomfortable in his graduate studies, and could not see himself becoming a professor. A long-time fan of rock music, he also began thinking critically about it in the late 1960s. Rolling Stone had begun publishing, and Marcus, angered at an album by the Who, decided to voice his disgust in a review. He penned it, sent it off, and was surprised when Rolling Stone printed it. He was even more amazed when this led to a full-time position as music critic for the publication in 1968.
Marcus stayed with Rolling Stone for several years, while also freelancing for other publications, including Creem, and teaching for a time at the University of California at Berkeley. He contributed to books including Woodstock and Rock and Roll Will Stand, and then in 1975 published his first solo effort, Mystery Train, a book which, according to William C. Brisick in Publishers Weekly, is "considered to be the most important book every written about rock 'n' roll." Brisick further described the book as an attempt "to put The Band, Randy Newman, Sly Stone, Elvis, and other rock inheritors of the blues tradition squarely in the mainstream of American culture."
Marcus begins Mystery Train with short essays on two "ancestors" of rock and roll—1950s singer Harmonica Frank and 1930s bluesman Robert Johnson—that serve as a "backdrop," as Marcus explains, for the text that follows. Mark Crispin Miller of the New York Review of Books noted that, for Marcus, Harmonica Frank personifies what was to become the exuberant side of rock and roll, while Johnson represents an alternative, horror-filled, Puritan element in the music. After painting this backdrop, Marcus divides his discussion of America and its music into four chapters, each of which focuses on, but is not limited to, a performer or group whose work or career exhibits, Marcus suggests, "'a range and a depth that seem to crystalize naturally in visions and versions of America: its possibilities, limits, openings, traps.'"
Marcus first presents chapters on such musicians as the Band, Sly Stone, and Randy Newman. He then turns to "the knockout section of the book," as Frank Rich, writing in the Village Voice, described the book's longest chapter—the "Presliad," which concerns Elvis Presley. Rich asserted that the writing in this section "reaches a pitch of ecstasy, horror, and understanding that diminishes the prose of the book's previous chapters as effectively as Elvis diminishes the subjects of those chapters."
Rich judged the writing to be "forceful, enthusiastic, almost driven" throughout Mystery Train. He and Miller both deemed the book "brilliant" in places; Miller called it "impressive . . . well-informed, and frequently hilarious" and found "more of rock's spirit" in Mystery Train than in rock music itself. John Rockwell of the New York Times called Marcus "a writer of rare perception and a genuinely innovative thinker" and concluded that the cultural critic's "blend of love and expertise should be read by anybody who cares about America or its music." Mystery Train brought Marcus's name into the mainstream of both musical and cultural criticism.
From Punk to Dylan, Elvis, and Clinton
Marcus's next book, Stranded: Rock and Roll for a Desert Island, is a collection of essays that respond to a question he poses: If you were stranded on a desert island, what is the one record album you would want to have with you? Respondents include rock writers Dave Marsh, Grace Lichtenstein, Ellen Willis, Robert Christgau, Simon Frith, Ed Ward, and others. Marcus himself admits that the premise is "absurd," but Laurence Gonzales of the New York Times Book Review found the essays to be "by turns thoughtful, compelling, sexy, hilarious, quirky—and surprisingly true to the basic impulse of rock-and-roll."
Marcus probes the political significance of various countercultural movements in Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century, a book whose title comes from the lyrics of a 1962 song. The work "is no sedate academic record of libertarian revolt but a bold blending of anecdote, personal confession and cultural analysis, cutting backward and forward from Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols to the Surrealists," advised New York Times Book Review contributor Terry Eagleton. "Treading a precarious line between eloquence and pretentiousness . . . [the] book is impressively adept at bringing alive some of the dramatic moments of the history it charts." As Marcus explained to Brisick, "'In conception, Lipstick was quite different from what it turned out to be. I'd planned a book about punk, especially the British bands of the mid-'70s. In tracing the sources of punk, especially the Sex Pistols, I'd done a lot of reading into Dada.'" The book was initially signed with Pantheon publishers, but ultimately was brought out by Harvard University Press and contained more about French intellectual trends in the 1950s than it did about the musicians of punk rock.
Reviewing the work in People, Elizabeth Wurtzel called Lipstick Traces a "meticulously researched, highly opinionated and perversely fascinating study of the world of counterculture and the virtues of protest for protest's sake." Marcus uses the Sex Pistols and lead singer Johnny Rotten to lead into riffs on culture from New York to Paris and from "Michael Jackson to serial murders," according to Wurtzel. Not all reviewers were charmed, however. A contributor to the Economist felt that, "in his enthusiasm for the avant garde, Mr. Marcus fails to look too closely at why they should be revolting or why they should find it so difficult to reconcile art with the 'commercialism' of modern society." Such an omission, the reviewer felt, leaves a "gaping hole in [Marcus's] proposed examination of the history of negativism." And Gene Santoro, writing in the Nation, found Lipstick Traces "overlong, overstuffed and pretentious."
Elvis Presley's place in American culture is examined in two of Marcus's books, Dead Elvis: A Chronicle of a Cultural Obsession and Double Trouble: Bill Clinton and Elvis Presley in the Land of No Alternatives. Dead Elvis is a collection of eighteen essays on Presley's life, death, and legend, that legend continuing to grow in the years after he passed away. Marcus ponders what America's obsession with the dead singer reveals about the national psyche. "It is a great story—gripping, touching, ultimately tragic," declared Terry Teachout in the New York Times Book Review. Writing in the Nation, Eric Lott pointed out that "for Marcus, Presley is nothing less than American culture's 'perfect, all-inclusive metaphor for itself,' a parable of roots, race and commerce." Lott further noted that "Much of the pleasure of Dead Elvis is in the bemusing mix of affection, revenge and wit with which people have adorned Elvis's afterlife."
In Double Trouble the author explores what he perceives to be a unique intersection of political and popular culture. In 1991 Bill Clinton won a spot on the presidential ballot and Elvis Presley won a place on a U.S. postage stamp. Shortly thereafter, Clinton appeared on a late-night talk show playing one of Elvis's signature songs, "Heartbreak Hotel," on his saxophone. In Marcus's opinion, that appearance marked the crucial turning point in Clinton's campaign, leading to victory. Double Trouble draws parallels between Presley and Clinton: their poor Southern roots, legendary charm, and the way they both rose to fame only to fall into rather tawdry declines. Not every essay included in Double Trouble focuses on Presley, Clinton, or their relationship; a Kirkus Reviews contributor noted that "frequently the President and the King exist only as ghostly presences amid Marcus's ruminations" on varied subjects. Reviewing the book for Library Journal, David Szatmary judged it "a written equivalent of MTV: slick, entertaining, pithy, and insubstantial." Yet a writer for Publishers Weekly rated Double Trouble a meaningful effort, stating, "With this book, Marcus . . . continues his legacy of scholarly pop journalism and his persistent effort to document pop culture's influence on history." Atlantic contributor Peter Davison likened the work to a "car slightly out of control . . . [that] bumps en route into a number of hard truths about the nature of political consent and consensus."
Marcus returned to punk rock with a collection of reviews and articles published in 1993 in the magazines Rolling Stone, Village Voice, and Artforum. First collected as Ranters and Crowd Pleasers: Punk in Pop Music, 1977-92, the book was republished the following year as In the Fascist Bedroom: Writings on Punk, 1977-92. Reviewing the work, O'Toole noted that "Marcus is right to consider punk as far more than just a new style.... Punk was culturally seismic; it changed the way we see things." A contributor for Publishers Weekly felt that "fans of [Marcus's] previous books will enjoy having these pieces in one volume." In The Dustbin of History, Marcus gathers more of his magazine reviews and articles, writing about topics from films, such as Dead Man's Curve and The Manchurian Candidate—the latter of which he has expanded into a book-length study—to pop music. "Although his connections and drive to find cultural symbols occasionally seem forced," wrote Booklist's Jay Freeman, "Marcus is consistently interesting and compels us to think and probe, often in virgin soil." Similarly, a reviewer for Publishers Weekly noted of The Dustbin of History that "this is an uneven collection with not much to hold it together except the avid, always questioning mind of Marcus." Phil Edwards, writing in New Statesman, commended Marcus for the manner in which he deals with "alternative histories that open up the structures underlying present reality." "History and myth, how it was and how it could yet be—Marcus constantly attempts to bring each to bear on the other," the critic maintained.
Marcus turns to singer/songwriter Bob Dylan for a further musical/cultural study titled Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes. In this book, he contends that the music secretly recorded by Dylan and his backup ground, the Band, in 1967 owed more to the roots of folk than it did to the roots of rock. Dylan had gone electric the year before, causing a sensation and scandal among die-hard folk-music fans. With his basement tapes, he appears to have gone back to his folk roots. According to Nation reviewer Bruce Shapiro, Marcus declares that the "Anthology of American Folk Music, a multidisc compilation of pre-Depression 'hillbilly' and 'race' records assembled by . . . Harry Smith for Folkways fifteen years earlier, [was] a touchstone of the early-sixties folk scene." It was that music which Dylan was inspired by in his basement tapes, according to Marcus. For Artforum International's Mary Gaitskill, Invisible Republic "is a history, an analysis, and an adoration of Bob Dylan's basement tapes," released finally in 1975. Newsweek's David Gates felt the "best chapters are about the folk revival and Smith's Anthology." A contributor for Publishers Weekly found Invisible Republic "a worthy sequel to the classic Mystery Train," while Ben Thomson, writing in New Statesman, concluded, "This book confirms that Greil Marcus is a rare specimen among the innumerable Dr. Whos of cultural studies."
Marcus once commented: "The critics who inspired me to start writing or who have kept me going, suggesting less how to practice criticism than what it might be worth, include Pauline Kael, D. H. Lawrence, Leslie Fiedler, Harold Rosenberg, Manny Farber, and Walter Benjamin. What they have in common, I think, is the ability to go in any direction at any time; I try to do that, perhaps too self-consciously.
If you enjoy the works of Greil Marcus
If you enjoy the works of Greil Marcus, you might want to check out the following books:
Lester Bangs, Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, 1987.
Nick Tosches, Country: The Twisted Roots of Rock and Roll, 1996.
Ben Fong-Torres, Not Fade Away: A Backstage Pass to Twenty Years of Rock and Roll, 1999.
Peter Guralnick, Lost Highway: Journeys and Arrivals of American Musicians, 1999.
"When I first began writing, I was interested in continuity: in constructing a rock 'n' roll tradition, and connecting it to the mainstream of American culture. In recent years I have found myself more interested in discontinuities—in the broadest sense, in cultural relationships between phenomena that, given the way we usually see the world, should not be related at all. Over the years, though, I suppose my ambition has been to reconstruct a conversation that took place between people who never met, be they blues singer Robert Johnson and Jonathan Edwards, or Johnny Rotten and the dadaist Richard Huelsenbeck. Culture to me is a field of surprise; I work in it in order to be surprised, and to communicate that sense of surprise to others, because a life infused with surprise is better than a life that is not."
Speaking with Weich, Marcus further explained his method of searching for topics, a technique that is central to his life: "I try not to walk through the world with preconceptions and rules, that something is good if it fits certain categories in certain ways. I just don't understand that stance. It's just too sterile, the idea that, let's say, poetry has to have a certain level of ambiguity before it can affect you emotionally. Well, if you've got to let it through several locked doors before it can affect you emotionally, then it's never going to affect you."
Biographical and Critical Sources
American Book Review, April, 1996, review of The Dustbin of History, p. 10; May, 1998, review of Invisible Republic, p. 21.
American Prospect, January 29, 2001, Simon Rodberg, review of Double Trouble, p. 46.
Artforum International, summer, 1997, Mary Gaitskill, review of Invisible Republic, pp. S7-S8.
Atlantic, October, 2000, Peter Davison, review of Double Trouble, p. 138.
Booklist, May 15, 1993, review of Ranters and Crowd Pleasers, pp. 1667, 1681; October 1, 1995, Jay Freeman, review of The Dustbin of History, p. 247; May 1, 1997, Gordon Flagg, review of Invisible Republic, p. 1473.
Books and Culture, May, 1998, review of Invisible Republic, p. 16.
Choice, March, 1996, review of The Dustbin of History, p. 1206; December, 1997, review of Invisible Republic, p. 646.
Come-All-Ye, fall, 1993, review of Mystery Train, p. 10.
Commentary, June, 1970; July, 1980.
Contemporary Review, August, 1997, review of The Dustbin of History, p. 107.
Dissent, spring, 1998, review of Invisible Republic, p. 100.
Economist, May 27, 1989, review of Lipstick Traces, pp. 92-93.
Entertainment Weekly, January 8, 1993, review of Dead Elvis, p. 50; May 9, 1997, Ken Tucker, review of Invisible Republic, p. 75; May 22, 1998, review of Invisible Republic, p. 63.
History Today, October, 1995, review of The Dustbin of History, p. 53.
Journal of American Studies, December, 1993, review of Dead Elvis, p. 417.
Journal of Popular Culture, winter, 1996, review of The Dustbin of History, p. 257.
Kirkus Reviews, March 1, 1997, review of Invisible Republic, p. 358; July 1, 2000, review of Double Trouble: Bill Clinton and Elvis Presley in the Land of No Alternatives, p. 940.
Library Journal, April 15, 1993, review of Ranters and Crowd Pleasers, p. 92; November 15, 1995, review of The Dustbin of History, p. 90; May 1, 1997, Lloyd Jansen, review of Invisible Republic, p. 105; August, 2000, David Szatmary, review of Double Trouble, p. 107; June 15, 2001, Lloyd Jansen, review of "What'd I Say," p. 74.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 25, 1997, review of Invisible Republic, p. 3.
Mother Jones, September, 2000, Ana Marie Cox, review of Double Trouble.
Nation, May 29, 1989, Gene Santoro, review of Lipstick Traces, pp. 744-747; June 1, 1992, Eric Lott, review of Dead Elvis, pp. 760-761; August 25, 1997, Bruce Shapiro, review of Invisible Republic, p. 44.
New Statesman, June 11, 1993, Laurence O'Toole, review of In the Fascist Bathroom, p. 40; January 12, 1996, Phil Edwards, review of The Dustbin of History, p. 39; May 30, 1997, Ben Thomson, review of Invisible Republic, p. 54.
Newsweek, June 2, 1997, David Gates, review of Invisible Republic, pp. 72-74.
New York, May 5, 1997, p. 81.
New York Review of Books, February 3, 1977, Mark Crispin Miller, review of Mystery Train; April 9, 1998, review of Invisible Republic, p. 45.
New York Times, June 14, 1975, John Rockwell, review of Mystery Train.
New York Times Book Review, February 10, 1980, Laurence Gonzalez, review of Stranded; April 9, 1989, Terry Eagleton, review of Lipstick Traces, p. 12; December 20, 1992, Terry Teachout, review of Dead Elvis, p. 24; January 28, 1996, review of The Dustbin of History, p. 20; May 4, 1997, review of Invisible Republic, p. 12.
Observer (London, England), October 25, 1992, review of Dead Elvis, p. 63; June 13, 1993, review of Lipstick Traces, p. 62; August 1, 1993, review of In the Fascist Bathroom, p. 52; June 25, 1994, review of In the Fascist Bathroom, p. 21; May 25, 1997, review of Invisible Republic, p. 16; July 27, 1997, review of Invisible Republic, p. 15.
People, July 24, 1989, Elizabeth Wurtzel, review of Lipstick Traces, p. 21.
Popular Music and Society, spring, 1997, review of Mystery Train, p. 121.
Publishers Weekly, October 4, 1991, review of Dead Elvis, p. 76; November 15, 1991, William C. Brisick, "Greil Marcus," pp. 53-54; March 15, 1993, review of Ranters and Crowd Pleasers, p. 77; March 7, 1994, review of Ranters and Crowd Pleasers, p. 67; September 18, 1995, review of The Dustbin of History, pp. 119-120; March 17, 1997, review of Invisible Republic, p. 62; August 28, 2000, review of Double Trouble, p. 69; May 28, 2001, review of "What'd I Say," p. 64.
Saturday Night, March, 1970.
Times Literary Supplement, June 14, 1996, review of The Dustbin of History, p. 12; July 18, 1997, review of Invisible Republic, p. 12.
Utne Reader, March, 1993, review of Mystery Train and Ranters and Crowd Pleasers, p. 111; May, 1997, review of Invisible Republic, p. 84.
Variety, October 23, 2000, Ivan Kreikamp, review of Double Trouble, p. 61.
Village Voice, May 26, 1975, Frank Rich, review of Mystery Train; January 21, 1980; October 5, 1993, review of Ranters and Crowd Pleasers, p. 68.
Voice Quarterly Review, spring, 1996, review of The Dustbin of History, p. 57.
Washington Post Book World, November 29, 1992, review of Dead Elvis, p. 12; August 22, 1993, p. 13.
Wilson Quarterly, summer, 1993, review of Mystery Train, p. 30.
Austin Chronicle Online,http://www.austinchronicle.com/ (September, 10, 1999), Margaret Moser, "Greil Marcus and the Mad Parade."
Official Greil Marcus Web site,http://eyecandypromo.com/GM/ (December 28, 2003).
Powells.com,http://www.Powells.com/ (April 4, 2001), Dave Weich, interview with Marcus.
Seattle Weekly Online,http://www.seattleweekly.com/ (April 9-15, 2003), Chris Nelson, "Music: Holy Greil."*