To Know Him Is To Love Him

Is it fair for one web site to critique another? Would it be gauche? Have we nothing better to do?

No, we have nothing better to do. We listen, we read stuff, and we make judgments that we convey to you with wit, charm, and (sometimes) brevity. We are not infallible, although we try to be. Yet it’s hard to be infallible about a website that’s only been around a month, which is the approximate age of, a growing repository of the writings (about rock and otherwise) of - who else -  Greil Marcus across his many platforms and from throughout his many years.

I’ll take it for granted that anyone who has stumbled into Odyshape knows who Greil Marcus is. In point of fact, as one of the biggest critical champions of the Raincoats (and author of the liner notes for their live cassette The Kitchen Tapes), Marcus must accept some responsibility for this website’s name. He’ll then have to take some responsibility for his own website's name, which I guess is Writings By (and About) Greil Marcus.

Approved and assisted by Marcus, the site is curated by one Scott Woods, who you should know from his role at the scattershot but faithful (including an hilarious yet strangely definitive multipart podcast discography of Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music with the always magisterial Alfred Soto) plus much more before that, including stuff that frankly I’m just getting into. And this ongoing Marcus effort in all its nascent glory gets an assist and offers a shout-out to Tom Hull, the ever ready jazz and pop capsule reviewer and political scientist/computer programmer who, it just so happens, birthed the first and greatest rock critic web compendium, Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics.

Hull’s version of Christgau’s corpus befits the Dean’s modus: It’s organized, searchable, listable, driven by a database probably powered by hydrogen energy, and all hidden behind a plain-Jane Microsoft Paint exterior. You’ll have to make your individual peace with whether Christgau is indeed der Dean or just a Hemingway-aping rock-crit manqué. But we can all agree on what Xgau is not: He’s not a balls-out cuddly bear death doll a la Lester Bangs. And he’s not Greil Marcus.

I’m pretty sure I read Marcus before I read Mystery Train, probably in Rolling Stone or Creem, but you haven’t really read Marcus until you’ve read Mystery Train. Like many others, that book set me off on a journey to uncover remote historical fragments that might illuminate my 16-year old late-night bedroom: Lots of Delta blues, lots of trash, but also Archibald and Harmonica Frank. (Lots of mail order too.) And Stranded, that thing where you write about your desert island disc, hey, that was a good one. I know people today who are still pissed they didn’t get to write a chapter for Stranded (not naming names).

But Marcus became my acid when I bought Lipstick Traces around the time it debuted in 1990, over a decade after punk died off, dancing on its ashes. Lipstick Traces was an utter crap bullshit story about how the Sex Pistols were somehow decedents of anarchic mass murderers and worse. With the paranoid premonitions of Oliver Stone’s JFK, Marcus laid out a conspiracy tale so detailed and intricate it required a suspension of reason befitting Yes in the Tales of Topographic Oceans era.

And yet - if you could follow Marcus down the rabbit hole, Lipstick Traces opened up like a lavender peyote flower in the desert. If you tried accepting it at face value, you were doomed or fated to hatred. But accept Lipstick Traces with the heart of a fiction reader (especially a fiction reader fond of mistrustful protagonists), and the world of post-punk music might be your gift.

Of course, Marcus went on to write many other books. Some of them got published, most of them (that one about the Doobie Brothers, that other one about the Kingsmen Trio) did not. There’s an excellent argument to be made (it’s my argument, I’m making it right here, so goddammit of course it’s excellent) that after these 2-3 books, Marcus’s best work has been realized in short-form columns of various stripes: Real Life Rock Top 10 and its variants, columns about Pussy Galore and Sonic Youth in magazines you’d otherwise be shot dead for purchasing (like Artforum, where his best writing saw light), stuff like that.

So let’s just cut to the chase and deliver a shout out to Scott Woods for creating a venue to recycle the best part of Marcus’s criticism. I hope this turns into an anthology that doesn’t wait for posthumanity. And let’s reflect on the randomness of the entries that Woods is inserting into the Marcus canon. Although there’s a vague impression these pieces may one day be compiled into some order, it’s nearly impossible to imagine this happening. Not because Woods is incapable, but because Marcus didn’t write (or think, or possibly listen) that way. If ever there was that guy who drunkenly said, “Hey man, this is the best song ever!” it was Marcus, except he wasn’t drunk and he more likely said something along the lines of “This song captures the sound of a butterfly crushing the universe”. You’d never turn to Woods' website to try to figure out what Marcus thought the best song of 1985 was, either based on what Marcus thought in 1985 or what he thinks now. That just isn’t his game. A reputable source once told me that Marcus would send different Top 10 lists to different magazines at the end of the year, as if such finality was a joke. I’m not sure the story is true, but it gets to the heart of what Marcus seeks in his best writing.

So now Scott Woods is posting these short-form pieces by Marcus onto Which makes all kinds of sense. There’s also a great bibliography. We’re only one month into this and who knows where we will be in a year. I have my doubts that Marcus will embrace the immediacy of the internet in the way (just as example) Christgau did with his Microsoft/evil-empire-sponsored Expert Witness foray. But that of course speaks legions about both Marcus and Christgau.