July 28, 2015

Rock Critic Greil Marcus on the Power of Songs and Songwriters

The eminent rock critic’s book Mystery Train is as incisive and relevant as ever, 40 years after it was first published. Here he explains what makes songs so powerful.

By Steven Rosenfeld

Greil Marcus

Greil Marcus

In 1975 Greil Marcus, the rock critic for Rolling Stone and then Creem, published his first book, Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music. He showed how the music of six artists — Robert Johnson, Harmonica Frank, Randy Newman, the Band, Sly Stone and Elvis Presley — reflected the story of modern American culture. To celebrate the book’s 40th anniversary we talked to Marcus about Mystery Train, just released in its sixth edition, and what makes songs so moving and timeless.

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As a critic, you’ve written that you don’t quite care about what songwriters are thinking as much as you care about characters, the voices in their words, and the connection all that creates in listeners. But in Mystery Train, you pay great attention to the words and phrases in songs. How do songs and songwriters fit into the history you’re telling?

I’m not interested in what the songwriter thinks he or she is doing, what their desires are, what their intent is. What I’m interested in is what happens to this song when it’s out there in the world and somebody’s singing it, somebody’s playing it, other people are responding to it, whether that means fans, listeners, other performers.

A song to me is an event. It’s an act. Performance is more important than composition in the way that I write about it. But I’ll never forget writing about a song called “Boogie Woogie Country Girl” that was recorded by, God, was it Southwind? This would have been about 1970. In any case, I wrote about this record for Rolling Stone. A week or so later, the phone rings. “Hi, this is Doc Pomus.” I didn’t even know who Doc Pomus was, one of the great rhythm & blues and rock ‘n’ roll songwriters ever. And he says, “So, you wrote about ‘Boogie Woogie Country Girl,’ how come you never mentioned who wrote the song?” We ended up having this wonderful conversation for well over an hour. That made me realize that if I’m not going to write about the person who wrote the songs, which I often don’t in the chapter on Elvis Presley in Mystery Train, then I have to decide not to do that and why I’m not doing it. It has to be a conscious choice.

Two ASCAP members play very specific and different roles in the book: the Band and Randy Newman. What was their importance as songwriters? Do you think they were conscious of it?

It makes sense to talk about the Band and Randy Newman together. They both come into the public eye right about the same time, it was ‘68 with their first albums, Music From Big Pink and Randy Newman Creates Something New Under the Sun. Robbie Robertson, Richard Manuel wrote the songs on the first Band album. Randy Newman writes his own songs. They’re all very conscious of what’s going on in the world and what stance they want to take in terms of it.

For Robbie Robertson and Richard Manuel, Canadians, but people who had been making their living, going to school as working musicians in the United States for years upon years – they looked at what’s going on in terms of protest, in terms of denunciation of the government, in terms of the Vietnam War, in terms of race riots going on. And they saw the stance people were taking – “the government is evil, I’m not part of this country” – and they thought this was a mistake. The first and second Band albums were fashioned as a way back into the idea of being an American. And if you’re going to talk about that, then you have to say “What does being an American mean? What are the images, what are the phrases that capture America as something different from other places, other societies, other histories?” And so that became their project.

With Randy Newman, you’ve got a person from a more professional and more educated background than the people in the Band. His father’s a doctor, but he’s also a songwriter. He’s got two uncles [Alfred and Lionel Newman] who have been writing movie music all their lives and winning Oscars. He becomes a professional songwriter writing songs for Bobby Vee and Irma Thomas and The Fleetwoods. He’s working for Metric Music in Los Angeles. He writes the songs. They go out and sell them to people.

When he steps out to record his own songs, he’s so aware of what people are doing around him professionally and what people are doing around him socially. He’s so aware of what’s on the radio and what isn’t on the radio, that when he steps out as a performer, it becomes a question of “What do I want to say, how do I want to say it?”

One of the things I’ve noticed is that this tradition of storytelling songs, character songs, seems to have ebbed. We see many more songs now about people’s feelings or their psychological dilemmas. Do you see a change in what the landscape is today because there’s not as much narrative storytelling?

I think this has been with us since the early ‘70s. And it’s something I take up very directly in the Randy Newman chapter in Mystery Train because he’s writing fictions. He’s inventing characters. He’s not writing autobiographically.

When you read a short story by James Joyce or Raymond Carver or whoever, the writer creates an atmosphere, creates characters, and if you have half a brain, you let yourself be seduced by the writer and into the story that he or she is telling. You don’t say, “What does this tell me about Raymond Carver’s true character?” What is Raymond Carver trying to tell me about himself?” Who cares? Can he create a world that somebody else, a reader, can live in? That’s the question. And yet, it’s not just singer-songwriters wanting to dump their neuroses on the poor, innocent audience. It’s also the audience wanting people to dump their neuroses on them, because they don’t believe in the imagination.

Everything has to be real for it to have any meaning. You can see this in criticism over the last 20 years, where over and over again critics are writing about anybody’s songs as if they’re autobiographical, as if they’re not fictions, as if they’re not even professional attempts to get hits. To write songs that other people will want to hear and other people will want to sing; the craven, contrived, market-driven attempts at writing a song that will be popular. It’s all ‘What does this tell us about this real person?’ You know, here’s Rihanna, and she gets beat up by her boyfriend, and all of her songs are interpreted through that scrim. That isn’t really how anybody writes a good song. Somebody might start off writing a song because they broke up with somebody, but if the song is any good at all, becomes something else. It becomes a story. And the character in it becomes fictional.

But audiences want to believe what they’re hearing. They want to be convinced that it’s true. And so, for someone to get up and say “This is just what comes out of my imagination…” But you’re cheating me! I remember having conversations with John Irving, the novelist, and Graham Parker, the singer, both of whom are quite short. And I remember both of them saying to me, “It must have taken a lot of nerve for a short person like Randy Newman to write [‘Short People’].” And I said “I hate to tell you this, but Randy Newman is six feet tall.” And they were both, “What!? A tall person wrote that song about me?” Oh, they were upset. You know, Randy Newman always said this was a joke. It was supposed to be a satire on bigotry, how could anybody take this seriously?

Ultimately when a songwriter is telling you about himself or herself – “this happened to me, this is my story” – ultimately you, as a listener, are frozen out. But when a songwriter’s creating a fictional situation that lets you in because that allows you to become a fictional character in your own mind. That to me is how art works, and that’s what I was always looking for in Mystery Train. Whether Elvis wrote his own songs or not, he created the situations in which those songs became real.

That is what makes a great song. I guess you would just encourage writers to keep doing that.

When I write, I’m not trying to convince anybody to do anything. I’m just trying to wrestle with something and see what it says, and try and make that interesting to other people. That’s not up to me. But if I am trying to tell anybody anything, it’s essentially two things: one, there’s more here than there seems. Whether we’re talking about a book, a movie, a song or a performance. And the corollary to that is, trust your imagination, don’t limit yourself to facts. Let your imagination run. What is this song telling you? Go with that, trust that. And then your own response is not just “Oh I’m so moved.” You really begin to think about it. You begin to think about where that came from and what you want, who you are. That’s the interchange between art and audience, between performer and audience.

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Read more by Greil Marcus at greilmarcus.net.

Pick up the new edition Mystery Train from Amazon or your favorite local bookstore.