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Published: Sunday, 8/26/2007

A conversation with critic Greil Marcus

A few months after his visit to Ohio State University in Columbus, we caught up with Greil Marcus. Here are a few excerpts:

Q: Where did the idea for your book Stranded come from?

A: It came from an editor at Oxford University Press who called to say he was doing this whole series of desert island books on the arts. I didn't know what he meant. He explained they were doing jazz, literature, architecture - what building you would take to a desert island, I guess. I thought it was a really dumb idea. But I thought about it, and the money was good, and it gave some friends a chance to write about something they cared about. I thought it was dumb, everyone loved it. The idea struck me as false, but I insisted they let me make the rules and that's how it started.

Q: Why dumb?

A: Why ask a scholar of American history to, I don't know, choose one person who stood alone against injustice? It's wrong to force these questions. It's a completely false choice. I have probably 20 different records I can argue are the greatest. At any given time I feel that the sum total of what human beings can create is contained in the Chiffons' "One Fine Day" or the Clash's "Complete Control."

Q: And that title, Stranded?

A: There was difficulty coming up with it, until I was listening to this Roxy Music album and that word was in the last line. It seemed perfect because stranded is how people felt in 1978. They felt they were no longer speaking of the things they cared about. Jimmy Carter had proclaimed a 'general malaise,' and there was. The common conversation that had sustained people for a decade had dissolved, and what was left was this isolation.

Q: Between Stranded and Marooned with its new writers answering the same question, do you get a sense that people listen to music differently now?

A: I don't know, but what struck me, aside from reading it and feeling that doors were opening in buildings I didn't know existed, was that these people are more confessional. The new essays are rooted more in the personal, in traumas. I don't know if that's a cultural snapshot of a moment, but in 1978 it was 'I'm going to write this because my reply matters,' and now it's the way the art on the cover transformed a life, not necessarily a song or a lyric. The social is missing, though it's not a bad thing. Newer writers will use a new experience to convey their sense of personal jeopardy.

Q: Do you ever feel like a sounding board for random people? Like you're this guy people throw their theories at?

A: No. I don't. People sometimes write me with really interesting ideas or send me a story they wrote and want me to make it better or they write because they think no one else feels the way they do. Some years ago I started getting letters from this woman in upstate New York. She was in love with The Band. It became clear she was very lonely and self-hating and desperate, yet incredibly eloquent and passionate and she would write to say she saw Rick Danko [guitarist for The Band] at this horrible club outside Syracuse or something, and it struck me that she had found a way to write about the experience of being a fan of a group that didn't exist, that had fallen apart. She struggled with the question of whether the music was still alive when the band wasn't. So no, I feel privileged.

Q: When you started at Rolling Stone, was this true? Was there the feeling a new form of writing was being created?

A: None of us had any idea what we were doing. What you ask - No. I had published a few reviews but it didn't feel terribly important. But you tried anyway. Every review, whether it was from Lester Bangs or Jim Miller, every piece was an experiment though. I remember this guy named J.R. Young started sending stuff. I was the first record review editor. He was sending short stories where an album or song might come up in the copy but would capture the record regardless - what was new about it, what was unexpected. Basically we had freedom, and more so, we wanted to live up to that.

Q: There's a freedom in nobody paying attention to you.

A: Oh, great freedom. One of the reasons Rolling Stone was so ambitious then was it tried stuff. Nobody knew who we were. We didn't know, either. There were no record release parties or record company schmoozers skulking around. We didn't even know them or how to find them. You couldn't buy the magazine in an airport. But if you think of yourself as a creative person there's freedom in the idea no one is listening, but somebody might be - nobody notices, but somebody will. That's what I like about Stranded and Marooned: The stories come from a place when you desperately wanted to tell someone about something. But nobody listened, or cared.

- CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI



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