As appeared in yesterday's issue of the New School Free Press.
If you've read Bob Dylan's Chronicles, you know who Greil Marcus is. If you've seen I'm Not There, you may have noticed his name among the credits. If you're a part of his class at The New School, you won't forget who he is.
Marcus, who teaches "The Old, Weird America: Music as Democratic Speech—from the Commonplace Song to Bob Dylan," was once described as the "bespectacled Zeitgeist surfer" because of his trademark round glasses and cross-cultural acumen. He is a treasure for The New School to have for he's one of the country's leading music historians and writers.
"I was invited by [Director of the Writing Program] Robert Polito," said Marcus about coming to The New School. "I go where I'm asked, and it's pretty much that. It was something to do that I hadn't done before," referring to teaching a lecture course.
Marcus was born January 1, 1945, in San Francisco, and attended the University of California-Berkeley during the epochal Freedom Speech Movement in the early nineteen-sixties. Berkeley, he said, "increased the depth and dimension of education" and "what you studied in class was played out every day."
After earning his B.A. in American Studies and while earning a Ph.D. in political theory, also from Berkeley, he started writing reviews for a fledging music magazine based in San Francisco: Rolling Stone. He started with the magazine, founded by Jann Wenner and Ralph J. Gleason, because "You could write about anything for Rolling Stone," Marcus said, and because "I was just so bored."
His first publication was a review of The Who on Tour, which he judged "a complete con."
"I was pissed off," Marcus says, "so I wrote a review, sent it in, bought the next issue and there it was."
Marcus became the magazine's first reviews editor, earning $35 a week for "about seven, eight months." But in 1970, Wenner fired him: "I went into Jann's office to talk about my role at the magazine, and after leaving the meeting, I felt great. When I told what had happened to my wife, she told me, 'Greil, you were just fired.'"
"To this day," he added, "Jann says that I quit, while I say that I was fired."
After his departure from Rolling Stone, Marcus started writing for another music magazine, Michigan-based Creem, where he reunited with the legendary music journalist Lester Bangs.
"I had read Lester's pieces in Rolling Stone in the spring of '69," Marcus said, "and when I became reviews editor, I noticed there was tons of stuff coming in from this guy. Lester was just fantastic and in my first issue, I choose two of his reviews: one for Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica and one by a band named It's a Beautiful Day."
In 1982, Bangs died of a cough medicine overdose, and in 1988 Marcus edited a collection of Bangs' writings, Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung: The Work of a Legendary Critic.
"On and off," Marcus said, "I found myself playing the big brother role to Lester."
In 1972, Marcus edited his first book, Rock & Rock Will Stand, which included several of his own pieces. Three years later, he published Mystery Train, which the New York Times said, "Should be read by anyone who cares about America or its music." Marcus places rock 'n' roll—specifically Elvis Presley, Robert Johnson, Harmonica Frank, Randy Newman, Sly Stone and the Band—in the context of American history and such quintessentially American characters as Captain Ahab and Stagger Lee.
Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century, taking on everything from Dada to the Sex Pistols, came in 1989. Published in 1996 was the book closest to what Marcus is teaching at The New School, Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes, later re-titled The Old, Weird America. It can be described as a look at the creepy side of America through the lens of the recordings Bob Dylan and the Band made in the summer of 1967.
"It's a class about old folk music languages," said Marcus. "A set of languages that nobody wrote, but sets of people spoke and lived, and it came to be."
During the class, Marcus has discussed everything from folk songs like "I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground" to the use of black face on The Sarah Silverman Program. The subject of Dylan frequently turns up. In fact, it was Dylan who gave Marcus the idea to re-visit the book.
"I met Dylan one time," Marcus said, "and he asked me, 'Why don't you write part two of Invisible Republic.' That meant he had read it, and found it worth talking about," adding, "It was very gratifying."
Marcus says on Dylan, "He's not a museum keeper, he's someone who plays with the tradition. Dylan sees it as the most interesting thing about the country."
Although Marcus will return to Berkeley to teach a course in Culture Criticism in the spring, in one semester at The New School, Marcus has given students some insights into what makes America America.