Friday, June 1, 2012

mini-essay posing as a question to Greil Marcus (from instalment #4 of the epic interview transcript at Los Angeles Review of Books)

 "One of my favorite pieces by you is an essay you wrote for Esquire in 1992, "Notes on the Life and Death and Incandescent Banality of Rock 'n' Roll" ... It's a rumination that roams from Poison's video for "Every Rose Has Its Thorn" which you find abhorrent: "my image of the death of rock — or of rock as something that ought to be killed" — to Nirvana's video for "Smells Like Teen Spirit", which you find thrilling and creepy, to a whole bunch of other stuff, before it ends with your fantasy of Geto Boys's "Mind Playing Tricks On Me" as a record that could unite all Americans by making "room for anyone's displacement, confusion, terror, despair."  In that essay you're both monitoring the vital signs of rock'n'roll and rolling over in your mind this notion that rock'n'roll, or any art form, could be declared "dead" at a certain point.  What would that mean, and how would we know?

Now, there's a very interesting book by Kevin J. Dettmar called Is Rock Dead? (Routledge, 2005), and it's a scholarly investigation of this very discourse of rock'n'roll's decline and fall. One of his contentions is that, when critics declare that rock is over, what they're really saying is that their passion for it has withered away. Dettmar maps out examples of this, like Jim Miller's Flowers in the Dustbin, against the writers' ages as they're serving notice on rock's demise. It's always mid- to late forties.  Basically, he argues that writers are projecting their own physical decrepitude onto the music! 

So that got me working out how old you were when you were writing "Notes on the Life and Death and Incandescent Banality of Rock'n'Roll," and you must have been 47, by my count.  And that just so happens to be the age I was when I wrote my book Retromania, arguably a prime example of this perennial discourse of rock's decline.  Fancy that!

But one thing I noticed about Is Rock Dead? is that your essay "Notes on the Life and Death" is conspicuous by its absence, and I think that's because its argument is too potent for Dettmar to countenance. You say that when rock loses it connection to history political and social reality it is heading towards a kind of death: irrelevance.

This relates to one of my arguments in my book Retromania: rock becomes bound up with its own history, with reference-and-reverence, and in the process becomes uncoupled from real history. As I read it, your essay is saying the one thing Dettmar cannot accept, which is that if it is possible to talk of rock (or any art form) having once been supremely "alive" (relevant, Zeitgeist-attuned, breaking new ground constantly, a world-historical force), then, logically and inevitably, you can entertain the possibility that it could cease to be all those things. And then it would be in fact be "dead" even if, as a purely musical form, people in the millions still listened to it and performed it because the things that made it matter had all faded away.  And, in fact, there have been art forms or entertainment forms that were once supremely timely, the forums in which all the important ideas and feelings of an era were dramatized and worked through. And then they cease to be that forum. So it's not only possible to ask this question "Is it dead? If not, how vital is it?", it's actually urgent, even imperative at least if you ever cared about what made it so vibrant and important in the first place." 

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