Benaroya Hall, 621-2230, Mon April 2.
In the mid-'60s, when Greil Marcus started writing about music at University of California, Berkeley, rock and roll was considered little more than the presiding priest in the church of male hormonal demons. Perhaps it illustrated something around the fringes of history, or acted as some minor thread in the patchwork of culture, but that was it. It wasn't art. It wasn't timeless. It was no big deal.
Marcus didn't see it that way. "I was never trying to make a case to elevate it beyond what it was," he says, speaking via phone from San Francisco. "I wasn't trying to pump it up. I was simply trying to write about it the way I heard it." The way he heard it turned out to be a new understanding of popular music's critical capacity and the unique ways it shed a bright, burning light on the complexity of the human condition. As an editor at Rolling Stone and Creem, and in books such as Mystery Train, Lipstick Traces, and Invisible Republic, he's faithfully furthered the idea that rock contains multitudes of meaning, that it's as worthy of commentary as jazz or dance or painting, that it is a fine art.
Marcus, who will be speaking at Benaroya Hall, courtesy of Seattle Arts & Lectures, is part of the hallowed first generation of rock critics that includes Lester Bangs, Peter Guralnick, and Nick Tosches. Of the work created by this seminal group, Marcus' Mystery Train--released in 1975, in the polluted wake of Watergate--is considered indispensable in the canon of rock writing. The book has the feel of an epic; Marcus plays the Homeric singer posing as music critic, and he sings of America. As enraptured as Whitman or Emerson by the mysteries that rise out of the cross-pollination of American diversity, he explores the commonalities of our lives through the music of such different artists as the Band, Sly Stone, Randy Newman, and Robert Johnson.
Mystery Train, despite its unusual approach, was an immediate success, becoming a benchmark against which aspiring music writers judged their work. But for his second book, Marcus wanted to shake things up. "I got so tired of reading how terrific the book was, I decided that I was going to write a book that not everybody would like. And," he laughs, "I succeeded greatly in that."
Lipstick Traces, published in 1989, was the success of which Marcus speaks. Wider in scope than Mystery, structurally intricate and linguistically daring, Lipstick is a guided tour through the genealogy of punk, a meditation on the lineage of its anger, the genetics of its sincerity, and the pedigree of its poses. Connecting subjects as disparate as the Dadaists of 1920s Berlin, post-World War Two French surrealists, and a second-by-second dissection of a performance by Jonathan Richman, Marcus constructed a haunted ancestral house, one from which Johnny Rotten could emerge from the front door and so convincingly scream, "I want to destroy the passer-by!" Mystery's resonant, rhythmic cadence had been exchanged for an amphetamine cry, the urgency of someone in the middle of a vision, someone who's got to get it all out before he comes down.
Apart from punk, Marcus is known for his abiding fascination with Elvis Presley. Mystery Train's most well-regarded section, "Presliad," is an open love letter not just to Elvis, but to Marcus' own obsession with Presley's music. In 30 pages, he makes the overwhelming case for Elvis as "the supreme figure in everyday life," someone who could straddle gentility while carrying the spirit of the hillbilly, full of rapturous rebellion despite his choirboy streak. "Presley's career," he writes, "has the scope to take America in." This inquiry continued in his 1991 book, Dead Elvis, as well as his recent collection of essays, Double Trouble: Bill Clinton and Elvis Presley in a Land of No Alternatives. Why does the King continue to hold such a fascination for him? "There is something ineffable about the way he sang, and I think it's a great miracle that anybody found a voice like that and was able to do with it what he did. Every time I hear his music, I think, where did this come from?" Then again, he says, the answer to Elvis' timelessness may be simpler than that. "My daughter says, 'Well, it's so obvious. He's just the most beautiful man that was ever born!'"
For his lecture at Benaroya Hall, Marcus will be discussing David Thomas' work as leader of the seminal American band Pere Ubu. This may seem a narrow subject matter, but with Marcus' hallmark ability to plumb the depths of a topic, you never know what will come out of it. And neither does he: "The job of the critic," he writes in Lipstick, "would be to maintain the ability to be surprised... and to communicate that sense of surprise to other people."