A revered authority in the realm of cultural analysis, writer and historian Greil Marcus is renowned for his insights into the intersection of music, politics, and pop culture. Born in San Francisco in 1945, he attended Berkeley before embarking on a music journalism career in the late ’60s.
Over five decades in the industry, Marcus has delved into the nuances of American identity, myth, and rebellion as reflected in music, film, and literature. His seminal work, 1975’s Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music, explores the complex interplay between rock, history, and society in the United States, while 1989’s Lipstick Traces unearths hidden connections between punk, Dadaism, and political rebellion. 1997’s The Old, Weird America examines Bob Dylan’s folk roots, and 2014’s The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs offers a unique take on the genre’s evolution.
Sharing his all-time favorite rock’n’roll reads with Five Books, Marcus included Dylan’s inimitable autobiography alongside John Desnmore’s captivating account of his life in The Doors and a groupie’s gripping chronicle of ’70s fandom. Explore his recommendations below, and complement with the bookshelves of Bob Dylan, David Bowie, Jim Morrison, Lou Reed, Patti Smith and Tina Turner.
Greil Marcus’ Reading List
“Dylan has had a career of extraordinary richness and variety. Yet here he is writing a memoir that completely ignores everything which made him a world figure. It ignores all of his most famous songs, it ignores all the periods in which he was a great star. It’s all about times when he was trying to learn, when he was confused and lost but absolutely alive with the thrill of discovering new ideas, new singers, new information. It’s a marvellous, eyes-wide-open partial-autobiography. It’s also wonderfully written; the words are alive on the page. It clearly wasn’t co-written or talked into a tape recorder. It’s a great piece of writing.” -GM
Riders on the Storm by John Densmore
“John Densmore was writing about his few years in the band from ’65 until ’71 when Jim Morrison died. What I love about this book is that it’s so confused. It is somebody struggling to make sense of what he was doing, of what was going on around him, of the people he was working with. It’s that sense of struggle that I find captivating.” -GM
Bye Bye Baby by Caroline Sullivan
“Caroline Sullivan is an American woman who became a completely obsessive fan of the Bay City Rollers, a Scottish group that dressed in all tartan costumes in the early to mid-seventies and were momentarily huge. Like a lot of teenage girls, Caroline Sullivan fell in love with them, but unlike most of their fans she proceeded to devote her life to them. She ended up moving to the UK to follow them around, to become part of their world. Bye Bye Baby, which was the title of one of their songs, is a hilarious and entertaining book about crazy fandom. It’s completely gripping and what it comes down to is: Will she ever sleep with one of them? And the answer is left ambiguous.” -GM
You Don’t Love Me Yet by Jonathan Lethem
“I’ve never read anything, whether it was fiction or nonfiction, that so completely captured the way people come together to create a piece of music that transcends anyone’s ambitions, and what each of them brought to that piece of music in terms of talent or creativity. It captures how people working together can create something that stands apart from them, and takes on its own existence and its own reason for being. What they create is alive – in a way even more than they are. It’s the Frankenstein theory of art.” -GM
Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan
“A lot of it is about the South, some of it is autobiographical, there is a long and quite wonderful piece about going to a Christian music camp. But what I love most about this book is an essay about old country blues, and about the way in which music made by people in the twenties and thirties – African Americans from Mississippi or other parts of the South – can create an aura of enigma. You desperately want to find out how these magical sounds were created, and what kind of lives lay behind them. So often this kind of knowledge is absolutely inaccessible – you’ll never find the answers to these questions but the questions never go away. Nobody has dramatised that as well as he has in this book, so I’m really recommending it for one marvellous essay about old country blues.” -GM
(via Five Books)
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