Interview: Greil Marcus

Rock's critic-in-chief talks rock and roll photography
By CHRISTOPHER GRAY  |  January 21, 2009


Greil Marcus, one of the most influential living music and cultural critics, has written a multitude of books — notably 1975's Mystery Train and 2006's The Shape of Things to Come — examining everyone from Elvis Presley to Bob Dylan to Bill Pullman through the concept of what it means to be quintessentially American. Reading his latest efforts, the monthly column "Real Life Rock Top Ten" in the literary magazine The Believer, feels like an exercise in voyeurism. This week he's giving a lecture to accompany the opening of "Backstage Pass," a survey of 50 years of rock and roll photography at the Portland Museum of Art. (The lecture will also be available as an mp3 download next week at I invited Marcus to school me on the history of rock photography. 

As a jumping-off point, I'm mainly curious about what you're planning to discuss at the upcoming museum lecture.
I'm not sure, as I haven't written my talk yet. I'll be going through all the work in the exhibition and taking about how artists (in this case pop musicians) work to fit into images, or roles defined visually, that are already there, and how they try to evade them. I'll be talking about different ways photographers attempt to capture their subjects — or define them — in terms of how Rolling Stone approached this in its first years, when it was the first publication, other than Life — and certainly the first music publication — to use photographs not merely as illustration but as art on its own terms, often using a single photograph, as often as not of someone not at all well-known, an obscure blues singer as well as Jim Morrison, to fill an entire page, and at that time Rolling Stone pages were very big. I'll also be talking about an aspect not much covered here (as per the title of the show, "Backstage Passes"): live performance, especially as documented in work done in the Mabuhay Gardens punk club in San Francisco in the late '70s by Bruce Conner. But of course a good part of my talk will be looking as hard as I can at pictures in the show. I mean, really, who is that person where the caption says it's Chuck Berry?

It's interesting, looking at these pictures now, how much information you can glean from most of them — when they were taken, at what stage these musicians were in their career — even for a young guy like me, whose classic pop/rock education is pretty weak. Was there a sense that these photos (this can even just mean rock photography in general, in the early Rolling Stone days) would have that kind of lasting time stamp when they were originally shot?
I think that for many photographers working from the mid-sixties on, there definitely was that sense of making a picture that would — or anyway should — last. At Rolling Stone in the late sixties, for example, the people there felt that what they were doing was important — that there was no story more important than the story of the music that was being made, that that story could not be separated by the story of resistance to or the fight against racism and war, and so it was vital to find the images that would do justice to the gravity of the subject matter. In other words, when Baron Wolman, Rolling Stone's first chief photographer, had the chance to shoot Johnny Cash or B.B. King or Phil Spector, the point was the get the shot, the one picture that would capture both the essence of the person and also fix his or her place in the firmament, by picturing his or her aura or by creating it. The pictures that resulted were pictures of self-possession, of command, of thoughtfulness, of reserve — not abandon, excess, wildness. They were pictures of people who, the pictures said, already knew that they had historical roles to play.

1  |  2  |  3  |  4  |  5  |   next >
Related: Is this the way new wave ends?, The Hives, Temple talk, More more >
  Topics: Museum And Gallery , Elvis Presley, Jim Morrison, Chris Gray,  More more >
| More

Most Popular
Share this entry with Delicious
  •   TEN YEARS, A WAVE  |  September 26, 2014
    As the festival has evolved, examples of Fowlie’s preferred breed of film—once a small niche of the documentary universe—have become a lot more common, a lot more variegated, and a lot more accomplished.
  •   GIRLS (AND BOYS) ON FILM  |  July 11, 2014
    The Maine International Film Festival, now in its 17th year in Waterville, remains one of the region’s more ambitious cultural institutions, less bound by a singular ambition than a desire to convey the breadth and depth of cinema’s past and present. (This, and a healthy dose of music and human-interest documentaries.) On that account, MIFF ’14 is an impressive achievement, offering area filmgoers its best program in years. With so much to survey, let’s make haste with the recommendations. (Particularly emphatic suggestions are marked in bold print.)  
  •   AMERICAN VALUES  |  June 11, 2014
    The Immigrant  seamlessly folds elements of New York history and the American promise into a story about the varieties of captivity and loyalty.
  •   CHARACTER IS POLITICAL  |  April 10, 2014
    Kelly Reichardt, one of the most admired and resourceful voices in American independent cinema, appears at the Portland Museum of Art Friday night to participate in a weekend-long retrospective of her three most recent films.
  •   LET'S TALK ABOUT SEX  |  April 09, 2014
    Throughout its two volumes and four hours of explicit sexuality, masochism, philosophical debate, and self-analysis, Nymphomaniac remains the steadfast vision of a director talking to himself, and assuming you’ll be interested enough in him to listen and pay close attention.

 See all articles by: CHRISTOPHER GRAY