Book Review: Real Life Rock

Greil Marcus is a legend in rock music criticism, a longtime voice on the scene that often cuts through the surface of music to go deeper by observing the cultural moments and the lens of musical history. He can be witty, supportive and insightful, and he can just as quickly be harsh, snarky and critical. Whether you agree with him or not, he’s clear on what he thinks about a particular artist, song or cultural moment.

In his book Real Life Rock, Marcus gathered together decades of columns in various publications (starting with The Village Voice and ending in The Believer) of a column by the same name of the book, where Marcus uses the Top Ten list concept by examining music, culture, art, books, television, politics and whatever else caught his attention at the moment. (Note: he also has a new book out, with more recent columns)

For each of the ten topics in any given column, he mostly opines in only a few sentences, although there are other times when he takes liberty with the space offered, writing a short editorial beneath any given topic. You can tell he has found something passionate, and has sunk his hooks into an issue. His breadth of knowledge is pretty impressive.

Common artists emerge across time for his opinion (often skeptical but sometimes celebratory): Bob Dylan, cover albums, the Mekons, Lucinda Williams, Bonny Prince Billy, Sleater-Kinney, Allison Krause, and more.

I flipped to a page in the book, and here are the topics at a glance, which give a sense of the wide scope of Marcus interests:

  • Dido’s Thank You song (and what Eminem did with it)
  • Live concert of Rock Your Baby (Portland) by Dick Slessig Combo
  • Billy Bragg and Wilco (Woody Guthrie covers in Mermaid Avenue Vol.2)
  • Shalini (singer from North Carolina)
  • Thread Waxing Space (art display in NYC) – life casts of musicians

Reading his pieces across time (1986 through 2014) is pretty fascinating, and even if I skipped through many of his pieces as I sort of did a power reading tour of musical criticism, Marcus’ voice is always loud and clear, confident and critical. I didn’t always agree with him but I always kept on reading him. The rewards in terms of tiny nuggets of insights were always worth the time.

Peace (in books about music),
Kevin

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