Greil Marcus … his work builds a bridge between music journalism and academia. Photograph: Ulf Andersen/Getty Images
Greil Marcus lives in a newly built, cedar-shingled house on the border between Oakland and Berkeley. Inside, the living room has the bare, impersonal look of a university's temporary accommodation for visiting academics. But Marcus and his wife Jenny aren't passing through: they've lived in Berkeley since the early 1960s. And while his work builds a bridge between music journalism and academia, there's nothing professorial about Marcus. In photographs he often looks as though trying to smile causes him pain, but in person he laughs easily and swears with disconcerting vehemence, whether speaking ill of the dead or raving about records from "One Chord Wonders" by the Adverts to Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance".
Marcus was at the forefront of the first generation of rock critics, the babyboomers who invented the genre from scratch around 1965, but none of his peers can rival his imposing body of work, which comprises four major books (Mystery Train, Lipstick Traces, Invisible Republic, The Shape of Things to Come), several focused studies (such as his recent scintillating monograph on the Doors), and five themed collections of essays and reviews. He's made his mark as an editor too, from 1968'sRock and Roll Will Stand, a hard-to-find period piece worth hunting down, through the desert-island-disc anthology Stranded, to Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, a posthumous collection that cemented his friend Lester Bangs's reputation as the only figure who might have given Marcus a run for his money. Most recently he co-edited the monumental 1,000-page-plus A New Literary History of America.
We sit in his basement study, watched by a life-size cut-out of Buddy Holly. Marcus's voice is very Californian, with a warm-toned bigness that would work well on the radio. He's lived his whole life in the Bay Area. And it was at the University of California in Berkeley that three formative experiences occurred that have steered his course ever since.
Spring 1964: he reads in the newspaper that that a British rock'n'roll group is to appear on the Ed Sullivan Show. When he goes down to his college dorm's TV room, he's amazed to find 200 people waiting expectantly. Like most of his generation, Marcus thought of rock'n'roll as belonging to the past, a 50s flash that lit up teenage lives then petered out. Arriving at Berkeley in '63, like most middle-class kids he was a folkie, carrying LPs by Joan Baez and the pre-electric Dylan. But after the Beatles appeared on American television, he and his generation were reborn as rock'n'roll believers. It was back, it was here to stay, it was something that would grow with you all through your life.
The second revelation was encountering Pauline Kael's writing. Kael was a cult figure in Berkeley long before she became nationally known with 1965's I Lost It at the Movies. "Much of that book came out of radio broadcasts she made reviewing films on KPFA. Pauline started the Cinema Guild, a Berkeley arthouse movie theatre, and did the programme notes for hundreds of foreign and Hollywood movies." Kael's criticism – "such humour, such daring, this tightrope act of excitement and jeopardy" – struck him with a force comparable to rock'n'roll.
The third life-changer was the frenzy of protest and debate that convulsed Berkeley in the autumn of 1964. Sparked initially by agitation against racist hiring practices in Bay Area businesses, it escalated into the Free Speech Movement in response to the university authorities' attempt to crack down on the pamphleteering and recruitment taking place on campus. "People stepping out of the anonymity of their own lives", is how Marcus characterises this spontaneous upsurge of "public speech". During those "three solid months of arguing in dorm rooms and on picket lines, asking 'What's this place for?' 'What's this country about?'", Marcus "walked around the campus thinking how lucky I am to be here at this moment".
An academic career beckoned, but Marcus started writing about music for college papers, then pulled together Rock and Roll Will Stand, a project born of his "overwhelming urge to express the joy, the delirium, I was feeling from listening to the radio and going to shows by the Stones and Dylan". Then one day in 1968 he saw a copy of a magazine whose name was a triple-whammy tribute to the Stones, Dylan and Muddy Waters. From its professional look, Marcus "knew instantly" that Rolling Stone had to be the work of Jann Wenner, someone he'd known as a freshman at Berkeley. He started contributing, then joined the staff as its first reviews editor. "There were no rules, no right way to do anything," he recalls of this golden dawn of rock criticism. "Just complete freedom to do anything you could think of, in the most ambitious and iconoclastic and obnoxious way possible."
Back then Rolling Stone was closer to a collective, but Wenner tired quickly of the constant arguments. "To this day Jann will say I quit, I'll say I was fired," Marcus notes wryly. After an abortive second stab at academia, Marcus returned to full-time music writing and in 1973 embarked on his first and still most revered book, Mystery Train. Its subtitle, "Images of America in Rock'n'Roll Music", reflects what could be called "the historical turn" that rock took at the close of the 60s. Initiated by Dylan and the Band, followed through by everyone from Creedence Clearwater Revival to Randy Newman, the music moved beyond rock'n'roll's teenage immersion in the present to an adult sophistication steeped in deep knowledge of rock's roots in blues and country and lyrics that likewise looked to the past for inspiration. Songs on 1968'sMusic From Big Pink and 1970's The Band brought to life the civil war and the plight of farmers in the late 19th century.
For Marcus, listening rapt at the cusp of the 60s and 70s, rock was growing up in the richest and most unexpected way. What's more, his two great passions, music and American history, had converged. "Their music sounded like a new way to understand who you were, the fact that you weren't just a product of your own willfulness but also a product of the past," he says of the Band, the subject of Mystery Train's most compelling section (although the chapters on Sly Stone and Elvis Presley aren't far behind). "There was this sense that they were opening a door to your own country and your own history."
Love of country is a running theme throughout Marcus's work, but it is also a running sore, an endless source of anguish. "Patriotism in America, as I understand it, is a matter of suffering, when the country fails to live up to its promises, or actively betrays them." Because "American" is not a race and the land itself is too vast and varied to base identity around either, American patriotism is organised around an idea. The United States is an invented nation, one of the only ones there's ever been, and Americans, Marcus has written, always "imagine a destiny". But that also becomes, he says, a "burden", a struggle "in your own mind or in public to fulfill those promises".
Mystery Train is riveting for anyone who cares about rock music, but for some British readers, its all-American focus can feel like a slight: especially given that in 1975, the year the book was published, the UK could fairly be considered to share dominion over rock (the Beatles, the Stones, the Who, Led Zeppelin, Bowie). As it happens, the next music to enthrall Marcus came almost entirely from Britain. Unimpressed by New York punk, his imagination was captured by the Sex Pistols and the Clash, and even more so by the postpunk groups that followed, such asGang of Four.
"Hearing things like 'Wake Up' by Lora Logic, or the Raincoats' 'In Love' – that was something I wasn't prepared for. I couldn't hear anything that came before it in the music, and I didn't want to. I was absolutely in love with its out-of-nowhereness. Records that were the sound of somebody – more often than not, a she – speaking with a voice that had never been heard before. Somebody who'd never had the nerve to speak up before. I felt: 'I wanna meet these people.' Which is unusual for me: I don't usually want to meet the people who are making music that I like. But they sounded interesting." Some of these British postpunkers, such as Gang of Four and the Mekons, remain his good friends of Marcus. The affinity stems in part because they have the mentality of critics as much as musicians: products of art school, well-versed in theory, always up for a vigorous argument.
M arcus's pieces about these bands and other figures of the postpunk era such as Elvis Costello eventually formed 1993's collection In the Fascist Bathroom (aka Ranters & Crowd Pleasers in the US). But before that came Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century. At once epic and fragmentary, the book argues for the Sex Pistols as the culmination of "an unheard, invisible tradition" of apocalyptic protest-poetry stretching back via Situationism and Dada all the way to medieval millenarian sects like the Brethren of the Free Spirit. "Johnny Rotten is speaking for himself but all those other voices are in there speaking with him too. All kind of demands on society, on life, on ontology, on epistemology are present in the noise of punk and in that vocal sound, boiled down on to a little 7-inch piece of plastic."
"Secret history" has subsequently become a publishing-world cliché, but it was a fresh idea in 1989. Marcus says that he didn't actually coin the term. "It usually refers to books about the espionage history of the second world war, how we broke the Nazi codes. I wasn't consciously referencing spy-craft, it just felt like the right way to describe what I'm doing in Lipstick Traces." It's a useful explanation for his work as a whole: a particular song or performance arrests him, and as his writing presses hard against the object of fascination, the work opens up to reveal hidden depths.
Lipstick Traces took nine years to write. Marcus started out at the University of California library, stumbling on strange texts in the stacks. Eventually the quest took him to Europe: "I had to learn how to read French because so much of the Situationist material has never been collected or translated." This shift of his attention to Europe and the 20th century avant garde reflected his extreme alienation from Reagan-era America.
After the 1980 election, Marcus "fell into a depression for a whole year. I had hated Reagan when he was governor of California and I hated what he did to the country when he was president. I couldn't bear to look at America – to grapple with it intellectually, critically – during those years. It's always bullshit when people say 'if so-and-so's elected, I'm leaving' – I've heard that with every election. But in a way I did leave the country."
In the 90s, Marcus came home in a big way. Invisible Republic starts with the figure oddly absent from Mystery Train, Bob Dylan. It uses The Basement Tapes, the just-for-fun recordings made by Dylan and the Band in the summer of 1967, as a portal into "the old weird America" (as the book was later retitled). In particular, it focuses on the odd, often fantastical traditional songs collected by Harry Smith for 1952'sAnthology of American Folk Music, as performed by singers such as Dock Boggs. "If Mystery Train is my Nixon book and Lipstick Traces my Reagan book, Invisible Republic is my Bill Clinton book," says Marcus. "I really liked Clinton. He made me proud to be part of this country again. For all of his failings, the way he put all that he'd done in jeopardy, I supported him from beginning to end."
Because of his books, his editing and his teaching (at Princeton), Marcus managed to get off the treadmill of weekly reviewing a long time ago, and he writes about current music only when the spirit moves him. In the last decade especially he's stayed close to his obsessions, artists whose heyday was the 60s and 70s. Hence the whole book he wrote about his favorite single of all time, "Like a Rolling Stone". Hence When That Rough God Goes Riding (Listening to Van Morrison). And hence his latest, The Doors: A Lifetime of Listening to Five Mean Years.
"There are a zillion books about the Doors but none of them are about their music," Marcus says, reiterating his lack of interest in the cult of Jim Morrison. "I just wanted to listen to the songs." When it comes to anybody he writes about, Presley or Rotten or Van Morrison, he's "not interested in them as people, their inner demons or the particulars of their upbringing". Even when focused on a single artist, his books don't engage in biography but rather mythography. And yet Marcus's own compulsive attraction to mystery, he reveals, is rooted in his biography.
His father, a Navy officer, died during the second world war, shortly before he was born in June 1945. When he was three, his mother remarried and, although Marcus always knew about his real father, he grew up thinking of his adoptive father as Dad. Even his relatives on his real father's side soon sensed that they weren't supposed to talk about their war-hero son when little Greil was around. So it is only recently that the veil of silence parted and Marcus discovered that his father had been one of many victims of a disgraceful episode in the Pacific War, the inspiration for Herman Wouk's The Caine Mutiny.
"My father was executive officer, which is second-in-command, on a ship called the Hull, one of three ordered into a typhoon by Admiral Halsey – an insane and sadistic decision. When the boat was on the verge of sinking, the other officers asked my father to arrest the captain and seize control of the ship. It was a choice between almost certain death and being hung for mutiny. My father refused because never in the history of the US Navy had there been a mutiny. So he died, along with 400 men on his own ship and another 400 on the other boats. This was a huge national scandal, there were congressional investigations. It wasn't an obscure story."
How eerie that at the very centre of Marcus's being are the tangled threads that run through his life's work: America and history, patriotism and a sense of national shame, secrecy and silence. "I've always known why I do what I do," he insists. "I didn't need to be psychoanalysed to find that out. An obsession with untold stories is a source of energy. It's why even if I don't seek out occulted subjects, I frame things that way as a writer."