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Even Better Than The Greil Thing

Stuart Bailie | 09:31 UK time, Monday, 10 May 2010

Greil Marcus is the daddy of pretentious rock journalism. He was at it for Rolling Stone in the early days and then committed it to book form with 'Rock Will Stand' and most famously 'Mystery Train' in 1975. It's still a blinder of a read - measuring American singers and writers against the cultural heavyweights. The book deals with Elvis, Sly Stone, Randy Newman and The Band, and filters them into a critical method that consciously echoes a literary tome, 'The Mind Of The South' by WJ Cash.

After that was his punk story, 'Lipstick Traces', which puts The Sex Pistols into a tour of seditionary characters across history. 'Dead Elvis' was a fun discourse on the survival of a legend. Also, there was 'Invisible Republic', a journey into the phantoms of folk music and "the old, weird America" which has sucked in Dylan, Mercury Rev and more. That effectively prepped our imagination for 'Like A Rolling Stone', a small but potent read about the Bob song.

Common rock lore tells us that the aforementioned lyric is Dylan's response to a messy relationship with the Factory acolyte Edie Sedgwick. But Greil won't have that at all. He relies on his own imaginative response, which is the compass for so much of his writing.

vangreil.jpgHence a Greil anthology called 'Listening To Van Morrison'. It gets a UK release in June but you can order the US import called 'When That Rough God Goes Riding'. It dispenses with the often-told biography and fires up the creativity instead. The last couple of Van books were forensic and hugely detailed, but not really able to articulate the pure frisson of prime-time Morrison, venting, rhapsodising and freewheeling.

And that's where Greil displays his best qualities, circling 'Astral Weeks', unfurling his own ciphers and significance. The prose is purple, the ideas go riffing like a jazz fiend and he has this signature device of ending a sweet passage on a register that's wilfully away from the key note. Fans of Irish traditional music will know exactly what that means, but I've never met it in mere music writing before Greil.

I reviewed the book on William Crawley's Book Show on Radio Ulster on Sunday. The book was twinned with a Chopin biography by Adam Zamoiski. This takes a very different steer, writing about the composer in a dry style - aiming to rescue the artist's life from overblown appraisals and melodrama. Adam has a point, but I still prefer the Greil thing.


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