Why Greil Marcus’s column has lasted 30 years

Photo: AP

The Real Life Rock Top Ten, written by noted music critic Greil Marcus, just marked its 30th birthday by moving to Pitchfork, the once hipster, now Conde Nast-owned online music magazine. Real Life, released more or less monthly, does mostly what its name implies: itemizes and pithily critiques 10 cultural artifacts of note—which to Marcus can mean anything from an album reissue to a rubber toy.

Three decades in, Real Life can probably claim the title of longest-lasting listicle. It’s had lives in eight different publications, has ping-ponged in and out of the internet, and has weathered the always-arriving death of print along with the roiling of the music industry. Yet somehow Marcus’s work feels immediate, relevant, and as one fan described it, “internet-y.” Which prompts the question: How?

The answer may lie in its name. Marcus’s approach to music criticism is a coupling of music and, well, the rest of life. In an average month, many of Real Life’s 10 entries will be music-related, dealing with newly released albums, songs, live performances, music anthologies, movies about musicians, and industry interviews. But beyond the straight audiophilia, the column will invariably include other flotsam of culture: an excerpt from a scholarly journal; a political ad; a quote from a White House press briefing; a New York City busker; and the Nokia cell-phone ring menu circa 1999, of which the least annoying options, writes Marcus, were “Fly” and “Mosquito.”

That’s the column’s appeal: its embrace of everything. Marcus’s inaugural column in the February 1986 issue of the Village Voice listed, among other things, a Billy Ocean song (described as both “airwave fodder” and “a beautifully layered conversation”); a rubber Godzilla toy (because “it was established long ago that all Japanese rock ’n’ roll derives from Godzilla movies”); and a book about Bascom Lamar Lunsford, a 1920s Appalachian minstrel (“Six decades later,” he wrote of Lunsford, “the marriage of fatalism and desire in his performance defines American mysticism”).

Billy Ocean, “When the going gets tough, the Tough Get Going” (Jive/Artista)

 This piece of airwave fodder isn’t “Billie Jean,” but it’s a beautifully layered conversation—after a hundred shots on the radio, the female chorus seems to be made up of real people. As for the line about “Your love is like a slow train coming”—is that what Bob Dylan meant?

 

The column’s success “really does depend on being able to incorporate anything that you notice or that strikes you,” says Marcus. “Anything that captures the currency or the absurdity of life as it’s being lived at any given moment.” In fact, the only time the column didn’t work, says Marcus, was during its brief life at the magazine Interview, where his editors asked him to write only about music.

The column’s résumé is considerable. After the Village Voice, Real Life moved to the art magazine Artforum for almost a decade; then to Salon, its first digital sojourn, in 1999. Marcus enjoyed the immediacy of Salon, he says, where, with no lead time and a biweekly schedule, he could be more current than ever before. His column moved offline during the aughts, before returning in 2013 at the Barnes and Noble Review, where it’s inherently referential content finally began making use of links.

For Marcus, over the 30-year life of his column, the only thing that’s really changed is the size and shape of the terrain from which he draws his inspiration. But the nature of the job, selecting 10 flags to raise within that terrain, guiding roving travelers to the unusual and significant, has remained essentially the same. It’s the work of whittling down his running list of possible entries. It’s the work of tapping into a staggering infinity and narrowing it to a finite guide.

 

Real Life feels like it was made for the internet. That’s what struck Mark Richardson, executive editor of Pitchfork, when he read an advance of Real Life Rock, a 28-year anthology of the column, published in 2015. “There was something very appealingly internet-y about it,” says Richardson. “It was a list, it was little fragments—there was a thread through it but with a certain amount of randomness.”

For all its range, the soul of the column is still music. That’s why when Marcus reached out to Richardson in late 2015, searching for a new home for Real Life, Richardson quickly agreed to host it on Pitchfork. He felt that the magazine and the column both share a worldview that is rooted in music, but not limited to it. “Pitchfork is a music publication, but we touch on other areas of culture, filtered through a music sensibility,” says Richardson. It’s the first time the music column will be at a music magazine.

In a way, the column is just a footnote in Marcus’s career. He is better known for his seminal books, beginning with Mystery Train in 1975, which regularly tops the lists of must-read books about music; followed by Lipstick Traces in 1989; and Ranters and Crowd Pleasers: Punk in Pop Music, 1977-92 in 1993, among others. Marcus writes about rock, punk, and pop music with a voice that’s equal parts highbrow scholar and enraptured fanboy, an unlikely pairing that, coming from him, doesn’t feel wrong.

Bernard Lewis, The Assassins—A Radical Sect in Islam (Oxford reissue, 1967)

The emergence of punk was so epistemologically disruptive it brought forth ancestors few of its adherents could have suspected existed. Among them was Hasan-i Sabbah, who in the 11th century Iran founded a murderous, gnostic Shi’a cult … . Hasan was supposedly the author of the nihilist maxim punk grasped almost as soon as it learned to read: “Nothing is true; everything is permitted.”

Marcus began his career in music criticism by chance. He was a graduate student at UC Berkeley in 1968, studying political science, and “withering,” as he puts it. He’d known Jann Wenner, the founder of Rolling Stone, as an undergrad, and so when the magazine launched, he started reading it.

“It was so full of life,” says Marcus. “Intellectually ambitious, fun, beautifully illustrated.” One day, he wrote an angry record review for an album he’d purchased and sent it to the magazine. They published it, so he kept writing. A short time later, Marcus became Rolling Stone’s first reviews editor and dropped out of graduate school.

For Marcus, Real Life serves as a forum. People are often told that the things they care about—the music they love, the movies they watch—are fundamentally trivial, says Marcus. “It’s not politics, it’s not economics, it’s not religion, it’s not high art. It’s not anything that’s going to last.” But writing about things that matter to people, in a forum that’s presumed not to be serious, “gives you the freedom to write about politics, economics, religion, high art.”

After 9/11, Marcus addressed the national loss and political climate several times in his column, often through music. The first entry of the September 17, 2001, column is the album Twilight from The Handsome Family. There’s no mention of September 11, but the commentary reads like a salve to a hurting nation. The song “I Know You are There,” writes Marcus, is sung, “the way you might imagine a president in the late 19th century would deliver a patriotic address. It all feels right, clear, heroic, simple, everyday.” Throughout the following months, Marcus addressed the tragedy directly. In October, he published a short essay by Mary Weiss, the original lead singer of the Shangri-las, about her experience that day. “Probably unconsciously, she managed to write the essay in the cadence and rhythm of an old Shangri-las song,” says Marcus. Two weeks later, the column’s first entry was a list of media taglines related to 9/11.

 

 

But Real Life pulls off a certain timelessness, even when columns are tied to specific events. In an entry from July 1987, for example, Marcus reviews a novel that centers on a Thatcher-like election.

Peter Davles, The Last Election (Vintage)

At first, a rather obvious black-humor novel about England as Margaret Thatcher heads into her fifth (fourth?) (third?) term; then it gets ugly. Then it gets uglier. Then the worst happens: you start taking it seriously.

That line could have been written about the current, nonfictional presidential campaign of Donald Trump.

Marcus’s monthly selection of entries is unpredictable, but over time themes begin to emerge. Albums and artists reappear, Marcus’s chosen landscape of music and musicians takes shape, as well as his search for anything new, unexpected, uninherited.

The column, then, is the throughline to his career; where his views are both practiced and refined. “If you’re a critic,” says Marcus, “you can and you must find ways to write about absolutely anything that interests you, that scares you, that seduces you, that makes you care.”

Perhaps it’s not surprising that the column has lasted this long. Ultimately, it’s the voice of Greil Marcus, continually on the search for what’s new, what nobody saw coming but was really there all along.

Chava Gourarie is a freelance writer based in New York and a former CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow her on Twitter at @ChavaRisa