“Something Is Happening Here”: Why Christians Should Read Rock Critic, Greil Marcus
In his 1993 book on Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes, rock critic Greil Marcus takes the two and a half minute track “Lo and Behold!” and spends an entire chapter assigning it a strange yet unusually substantial significance: a deep cultural significance, a Freudian psychosocial significance, a theological significance, a revivalist significance. Marcus doesn’t buy the meaninglessness of naturalism; he sees magic and myth hiding in plain sight. He sees something—maybe God—that makes us human, hidden in Rock & Roll music.Quoting Jonathan Edwards biographer Perry Miller, Marcus refers to a cultural image he calls the “mask,” and claims that it has been in the American cultural fabric since the beginning—maybe even the beginning of time. It’s a mask that exposes more than it hides, a mysterious tribal mask that transforms any who dare to put it on, a mask that just keeps getting handed down: from Edwards all the way to Dylan’s 1967 Basement Tapes:
Edwards’ mask too was handed down. It traveled from 1740 in New England to Memphis in 1968, where it was assumed one last time by Martin Luther King Jr., as he preached in a church on the last night of his life…
Throughout the rest of the chapter, Marcus pieces together the words of Jonathan Edwards scholars Constance Rourke and Rick Danko, as well as those of Dr. King, in such a convincing performance that he makes you believe the connections cannot be coincidence—so that revealing them is akin to solving a great mystery, or at least revealing that mystery. In this small sliver of the American (heck, human) chronicle you now are aware, maybe to your detriment, that something is happening here, and you don’t know what it is.
Let’s back up a bit. Maybe you clicked on this link out of curiosity and now you’re thinking, “What? Masks? This is dumb, I’m out…”—but don’t give up yet. Let’s talk about what just happened. It’s hard to really grasp what Marcus is trying to say in this chapter of Invisible Republic without reading the entire chapter. But he has something important to say, and more importantly, Greil Marcus has something to show us—something that perhaps we’ve never seen before. Greil Marcus is a pioneer Rock & Roll critic known for his passionate, aesthetically rich, and historically informed commentary on Rock & Roll music. Active since the late 1960s, Greil Marcus has written thirteen full-length books and hosts of essays, columns, and articles. He has a respect for pop culture that is enviable, powerful, and remarkably compelling. Throughout Greil Marcus’s writing, it is clear that he doesn’t come to the subject matter—the seemingly straightforward world of Rock & Roll music—claiming to be an expert, but a captivated student. I started (or at least attempted to start) reading Greil Marcus when I was in high school. I was neck-deep in early punk rock, the 1960s folk revival, and early Rock & Roll. I was reading everything I could on music—from autobiographies to magazines—when my dad lent me his copy of Lipstick Traces. It was way over my head, but I kept reaching for it. The book—which I’ve probably read the totality three times but never cover-to-cover—connected the spirit of the late ’70s punk explosion to Dadaism and the Situationist International movement. It was a little esoteric and a little obtuse, but remarkably important for my understanding of culture. Marcus helped me see seemingly unrelated things as connected and mysterious, as telling different acts of the same story.
All of Marcus’s writing is personal and reflective. Sometimes it’s difficult to understand what he means, and you start to wonder, “Is he full of it?” And I think sometimes he is—chasing shadows and drawing borderline-nihilistic conclusions. But at other times Marcus gets the tensions of human depravity and common grace, Original Sin and the Imago Dei. When he talks about the mysterious music of Robert Johnson, he seems to see the biblical tension of human nature—both profoundly wicked and tangibly good:
The moments of perfect pleasure in Johnson’s songs, and the beauty of those songs, remind one that it is not the simple presence of evil that is unbearable; what is unbearable is the impossibility of reconciling the facts of evil with the beauty of the world.
Marcus traces a sometimes obvious, sometimes almost invisible thread that connects history, music, pop culture, religion, and spirituality. In Lipstick Traces it’s punk rock and Dadaism; in Invisible Republic it’s Bob Dylan, the Puritans, Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, and Jonathan Edwards; in Mystery Train it’s Sly and the Family Stone and the myth of Stagger Lee. The “mask” mentioned earlier is a device, a word, that Marcus has picked up through various authors and scholars grasping to describe their own spiritual and sociological phenomena. Marcus dares to draw a connection that somehow might have already been there. After that, he has the audacity to apply this newly discovered, historically significant nomenclature to a Rock & Roll album! To Marcus, a simple Bob Dylan record isn’t a nuisance to true discovery and culture, but a lightning rod for emotion and spirituality. The Basement Tapes isn’t just an album; it’s a city, a city made up of the past:
Like the records [Harry] Smith collected, the known and the unknown basement tapes together make a town—a town that is also a country, an imagined America with a past and a future, neither of which seems quite as imaginary as any act taking place in the present of the song. (Invisible Republic, 128)
He then goes on to say,
Where the past is in the basement tapes—what the past is—has more to do with this sort of question than with the question of any direct transmission of style or manner from one performer to another. In the basement tapes, an uncompleted world was haphazardly constructed out of the past, out of Smith’s Anthology and its like…The vanished world they incarnated—as history, a work of art, complete and finished—was going to die, and you were going to be the last witness. (Invisible Republic, 196)
Pop culture is not a secondary field of intellectual discovery but a lens into the soul—and what Marcus finds through that lens is less than surprising for Christians. He sees a mysterious, spiritual, broken, resilient collective. It’s this awareness of the spiritual significance of pop culture that makes his writing so powerful—even when we may not be exactly sure what is going on. Greil Marcus is doing what Christians have been doing since the book of Acts and, pray, should do more—re-mythologizing culture. Marcus doesn’t buy the meaninglessness of naturalism; he sees magic and myth hiding in plain sight. He sees something—maybe God—that makes us human, hidden in Rock & Roll music. Christians have the grace of the revealed knowledge that this cultural mystery is the Logos—God himself working through culture, history, and music. Paul quoted Aratus and Epimenides of Crete in Acts 17 to show the Greeks that God was at work in their culture. Marcus doesn’t solve the riddle as Paul does, but all of his writing loudly shouts, “Something is happening here!” While Paul taught me the substance of the thread, it was Marcus who taught me to see this thread everywhere, to boldly draw parallels between the seemingly secular, obtuse, or ignored and the Creator of the universe. His long, expansive, sublime narratives about single verses in songs require a tuned ear and a willingness to learn—nay, a willingness to join Marcus on the weird safari he’s leading. Maybe it’s going nowhere, but just maybe there is something at the end worth the journey. He is our Stalker, taking us into the Zone with little more than the faith to follow.
Where to Start
To enjoy Greil Marcus it helps to understand the content that he is writing about at least a little bit. I’ve found it to be thoroughly delightful to make a Spotify playlist based on the songs he’s writing about. For Invisible Republic, take some time to dig into Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes, Highway 61 Revisited, Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. Likewise, if you’re going to read Lipstick Traces, acquaint yourself with Never Mind the Bollocks. Or check out his shorter articles and interviews, which offer a more accessible introduction into the mind of Marcus. While Marcus might be a difficult, sometimes perplexing read, he has been radically devotional and intellectually helpful for me. If you are a Christian who has never jumped into the world of Rock & Roll writing, consider picking up Invisible Republic. Marcus isn’t going to give you theological answers, but he will remind you that there is something powerful going on in a culture that is easy to overlook. But with a discerning eye, you can wade through Marcus’s weird world and salvage some profoundly orthodox fragments of thought that speak just as loud as “in him we live and move and have our being.” Greil Marcus mystifies and connects seemingly unrelated aspects of culture in a way that could help us think through Christianity’s role in culture, and more importantly, God’s role in culture. His writing will challenge any apathy towards the mysteries of culture, humanity, and divinity you may have. And sure, not every conclusion that he comes to is theologically orthodox—or even coherent—but his work can help Christians better see the world as the mysterious, broken, beautiful place that it is.
“Greil Marcus is doing what Christians have been doing since the book of Acts—re-mythologizing culture.”
And judging from the picture, he’s very happy about it, too ;-)
I’m sold. Adding it to my wish list. Thanks, Nick.
Nick, enjoyed reading this article. I would love to have our students attending our SXSW class read this as a bit of a primer for the course. Nate
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