For nearly 30 years, music critic Greil Marcus has written “Real Life Rock Top Ten,” a laboratory where he fearlessly explored and wittily dissected an enormous variety of cultural artifacts, from songs to books to movies to ads.
Published between 1986 and 2014 — in the Village Voice, Artforum, Salon, City Pages, Interview, and The Believer — this 600-page hardcover is packed with Marcus’ musings, reflections, and sallies. These amount to a subtle and implicit theory of how cultural objects fall through time and circumstance and often deliver unintended consequences, both in the present and in the future.
Critics agree that “Real Life Rock” reveals the critic in full: direct, erudite, funny, fierce, vivid, uninhibited, and possessing an unerring instinct for art and fraud.
Adam Ellsworth, of The Arts Fuse, insists: “Even Marcus fans who have never read a single one of these columns will recognize some of the writer’s favorite topics from Dada to Dylan to punk to Randy Newman to the legend of Stagger Lee, all of which make multiple appearances through the book’s 500-plus pages. If that page count seems daunting, fear not. There isn’t an entry you’ll want to skip.”
Jason Baily, of Flavorwire, says: “Stunning; even in the capsule format, the energy and breathlessness of Marcus’ prose is electrifying. . . a history of three-plus decades of American popular culture, told not in the familiar touchstones, but in bootlegs, B-sides, sidebars, and secrets.”
The result is an indispensable volume packed with startling arguments and casual brilliance.
“Click here to log on to Marcus’ website: greilmarcus.net, and scroll down to learn more about this iconic writer.
About Greil Marcus
Born June 19, 1945 in San Francisco, Marcus is an American author, music journalist and cultural critic. He is notable for producing scholarly and literary essays that place rock music in a broader framework of culture and politics than is customary in pop music journalism.
Remarkably, Marcus’ life began with a tragedy. His father died in December 1944 in the Philippine typhoon that sank the USS Hull, on which he was second-in-command. Admiral William Halsey had ordered the U.S. Third Fleet to sail into Typhoon Cobra “to see what they were made of”, and despite the urging of the crew Gerstley refused to disobey the order, because there had never been a mutiny in the history of the U.S. Navy, an incident that inspired the novel The Caine Mutiny.
Eleanor Gerstley was three months pregnant when her husband died. She married Gerald Marcus in 1948, and her son was adopted and took the surname of his stepfather.
He went on to earn an undergraduate degree in American studies from the University of California, Berkeley, where he also undertook graduate studies in political science. His foray into journalism began when he was hired to be a rock critic and columnist for Rolling Stone (where he was the first reviews editor, paid $30 a week) and other publications, including Creem, Village Voice, and Artforum. From 1983 to 1989, he was on the board of directors of the National Book Critics Circle.
Since 1966 he has been married to Jenny Marcus, with whom he has children.
His book “Mystery Train,” was published in 1975 and in its sixth revised and updated edition in 2015, and is notable for placing rock and roll in the context of American cultural archetypes, from “Moby-Dick,” to “The Great Gatsby,” to “Stagger Lee.”
Marcus’s “recognition of the unities in the American imagination that already exist” inspired countless rock journalists. On August 30, 2011, Time magazine published a list of its selection of the 100 best nonfiction books since 1923, when the magazine was first published; Mystery Train was on the list, one of only five books dealing with culture and the only one on the subject of American music. Writing for the New York Times, Dwight Garner said, “‘Mystery Train’ is among the few works of criticism that can move me to something close to tears. It reverberated in my young mind like the E major chord that ends the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life.”
His next book, “Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century,” (1989) stretched his trademark riffing across a century of Western civilization. Positing punk rock as a transhistorical cultural phenomenon, Marcus examined philosophical connections between subjects as diverse as medieval heretics, Dada, the Situationists, and the Sex Pistols.
Marcus published Dead Elvis, a collection of writings about Elvis Presley, in 1991, and Ranters and Crowd Pleasers (reissued as In the Fascist Bathroom: Punk in Pop Music), an examination of post-punk political pop, in 1993.
Using bootleg recordings of Bob Dylan as a starting point, he dissected the American subconscious in Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes, published in 1997.
Currently, Marcus writes the column “Elephant Dancing” for Interview and “Real Life Rock Top Ten” for The Believer, and occasionally teaches graduate courses in American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, and a lecture class, “The Old Weird America: Music as Democratic Speech – From the Commonplace Song to Bob Dylan,” at the New School.