Why I Write

The legendary cultural critic on finding a life’s work

Greil Marcus

When Greil Marcus reviewed the Rolling Stones album Let It Bleed upon its release in 1969, he realized criticism's unique ability to talk more broadly about a cultural moment. Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

I write criticism. When I started in 1968, with a record review in Rolling Stone, I don’t think I even knew the word, at least insofar as it referred to a kind of writing, or thinking. It seemed pompous and pretentious. I didn’t want that. I was a fan, writing out of fandom, out of love and betrayal: You have to hear this! This is a fraud! You have to hear this even more! Then, one day in late 1969, I set out to write about the forthcoming Rolling Stones album, Let It Bleed. I heard it, I read it, as much more than another Rolling Stones record, though in those days, every Rolling Stones album was an event, a summing up, a document of where the world its listeners lived in was at that moment. But Let It Bleed was more. It had a longer look back and a longer gaze forward. It was about—or it was an attempt to enact—the close of a chapter in history, the end of the idea, already being sold as a brand, of “The Sixties.”

From its first song, “Gimme Shelter,” to its last, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” the music said that a thrilling time when anything seemed possible was about to turn to stone and open into a future of dread and terror, into a realm where to speak falsely, or even carelessly, could be fatal to body and soul. And I found that to get that down, to get at what was going on with Mick Jagger’s voice and Keith Richards’s guitar, I had to broaden the con­text of the music as far as I could. I had to write about photography and movies and fiction and every form of cultural speech that was feeding into the album and bleeding out of it. Writing that piece was when I got an idea of what criticism was and what it could be. It was an analysis of one’s own response to something out there in the world, in this case a $3.98 LP. Why am I reacting to this so intensely? Why does this make me smile and scare me at the same time? Does it matter if he’s saying “death” or “bed,” or does the real power in the word lie in the way it slides away as it’s sung? To ask these questions was a claim of cultural citizenship: not only do I have the right to say in public what I think this is and why that mat­ters, I have an obligation to do so. Listen to me; I’ll listen to you.

That was the beginning of what I have done with my life since. I realized I had a choice as a writer: make the world bigger and more interesting and live in that world, and find a life’s work, or shrink everything down to your own crabbed and paltry self, hang on for years conning editors and publishers and yourself, and find your life’s a lie.

there are other critical events that have shaped my own sense of what writing can be and where it can go, confrontations with something outside of yourself, experiences that cause the world to suddenly look different, and you have to come to grips with that, you have to think about that, and a germ is planted and sooner or later you will have to write about it. Maybe there are hundreds, thousands. But only a few really stand out.

Reading Moby-Dick for the third or fourth time, and finding myself overwhelmed at the way a single line early in the book can bring the next two hundred pages rushing back as if I’d lived them myself—which, since this is a book, and you’re supposed to read it, along with all the generations since 1851, I had. Listening over and over to the Firesign Theatre’s 1969 album How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You’re Not Anywhere at All from 1983 to 1988 while writing a book because every time I did, I heard something I had never heard before.

As the movie headed toward its climax they were even quieter, as if they had sucked the air out of the night, or the movie was sucking the air out of them.

Reading The Great Gatsby for the twentieth time and still not quite believing that any ordinary person, drunk or sober, could have written “…a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its van­ished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.” It’s a critical event that for me never ends: It was only a few years ago, reading that last page, that I saw how the limitless floating image of the green breast of the new world falls down, is reduced, just a few lines later, to the paltry and impoverished image of the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. Just as it is only now, writing this, that I noticed that the new world pandered in whispers, as if whispers had never been there before. There’s something about the spell the book casts, the way it again and again conjures its own transitory enchanted moments, that can make a reader miss such things, being too carried away by one rhythm to recognize another.

There was the day in 1989 when I was merging onto the freeway off the Bay Bridge toward Berkeley, with “Gimme Shelter” on the radio, wondering what it was that had kept it on the air for twenty years, wondering what made it seem absolutely new, in the stron­gest sense somehow unheard, and deciding that, when I got home, I would have to try to write about that, when a car cut in front of me, and I had to change lanes without looking to avoid hitting it, and thinking, as my heart went back down to my chest when I real­ized the lane was clear, that if I had to go, there were worse ways.

There was a night in 1970 when, at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco, on what I remember as a huge screen that was not a rectangle but a square, I saw F. W. Murnau’s 1927 silent film Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans and felt for the first time that I was being given a glimpse of what movies could be. The vamp stands up from the dirt where she’s seducing the farmer into murdering his wife for her. She begins to shimmy. Sell your farm and come with me to the City!—and then suddenly a shaking montage of noise and movement and jazz and dancing takes over the screen, everything happening at once, every image fading into and then rushing out of every other, smiles exploding over pounding drums and a rush of air, the air of machines and electricity, blows through like a wind blowing trees and farms and rivers off the map.

There was the day in 2013 when I walked into the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice and stopped in front of Jackson Pollock’s 1947 Alchemy, one of his first poured paintings, one of his first experiments, or proofs, that by practicing an arcane art you really could turn not merely a few cans of lead paint into mil­lions of dollars, but turn something anyone might have in a garage into something no one could have predicted and that had anything been different on the day it was made would never have existed at all. I had walked past it many times before, but this day I stopped. I stood up close, and started looking at it, and then realized I couldn’t. There was too much there, too much going on, too much movement, like the montage in Sunrise, which you can’t see all at once either. I began to see, or think I did, that just as I can only remember Sunrise on a square screen, now I could begin to discern the intention hidden in the chance.

I decided I would divide the painting, eighty-seven inches wide and forty-five inches high, into square inches, and look at them one at a time. I stood there trying to see into the first square inch in the top right corner. I did that for twenty minutes before realizing it would take the rest of my life, or another life on top of that, to traverse the whole thing.

In 2006, at the Cinema Ritrovato festival in Bologna, I was invited to present a showing of The Manchurian Candidate at the Piazza Maggiore—a huge square with a huge screen hung from a huge building under a blue-black sky. It had been my favorite movie since the first time I’d seen it, and I had seen it dozens of times since. I even wrote a book about it. I knew every line of dia­logue, the way every scene was set and unfolded, and yet every time I saw it I had the uncanny sense that what was happening didn’t have to happen, that there were a thousand choices between every word or gesture that didn’t have to be made in the way that they were. I always had a sense that what was happening could be taken back—that at the end, with Frank Sinatra looking down from himself, as if he has to hide himself from himself, and curs­ing in shame and despair, “Hell. Hell,” it did not have to end the way it did.

The thousands of people watching were silent. As the movie headed toward its climax they were even quieter, as if they had sucked the air out of the night, or the movie was sucking the air out of them. I knew what was coming, but I had never felt before what then happened. Was it the crowd, and the aura it gave off, that made it seem as if the whole city, the whole world, history itself, was witnessing this event, and that this event was the end of the world? When Laurence Harvey’s first bullet hits the forehead of would-be president James Gregory, and then when his second kills Angela Lansbury, the mother, his mother, I felt as if the bullets were entering me. I couldn’t move. I was pinned to my chair. After a seeming suspension in time, a long ovation rolled through the piazza. People were cupping their hands around their mouths to join the sound, getting up to leave, but I couldn’t move. I sat there until everyone was gone, wanting with everything I had, more intensely than ever before, for it all to come out differently. Finally, I got up and walked through the empty backstreets of the city until I couldn’t walk anymore.

All of those events and more have stayed with me. I’ve gone back to them, wondering what was going on, wondering at works of art, or the events they make as one looks and listens, again and again, trying to understand what they were saying and what, if I could, I could say to them. But none really measures up to the day I first saw Titian’s Assumption of the Virgin.

I’ve always believed that the divisions between high art and low art, between high culture, which really ought to be called sanctified culture, and what’s sometimes called popular culture, but ought to be called everyday culture—the culture of anyone’s everyday life, the music that we listen to, the movies that we see, the museum objects we pass by or are fixed by, the advertisements that infuriate us and that sometimes we find so moving—are false. Nearly every­thing I’ve written is based on that conviction, and on the learned belief that there are depths and satisfactions, shocks and revela­tions, in blues, rock ’n’ roll, detective stories, movies, and television as rich and profound as those that can be found anywhere else.

In 2015, at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City, I took part in a public conversation with the late conservative philosopher and musicologist Roger Scruton. In his book The Soul of the World, about the disappearance of the sacred in the modern world and how it might be retrieved and restored, he had defined music, in a passage I quoted back to him, as “a perceived resolution of the conflict between freedom and necessity made available in a space of its own…a reality that cannot be grasped from the ordinary cognitive standpoint.” I said I thought that the dimension of the sacred, of what could not be grasped by the everyday unthinking mind, could be present in any music—pop music, blues, rock n’ roll, jazz—where the listener, whether alone or face-to-face or a hundred rows back, can at any time be overcome with a sense of unlikeliness, of the listener’s own inability to account for what is happening—any music where the listener is struck with a sense of awe, a sense of impossibility, a sense that something is taking place beyond intention, that the composer’s or artist’s or performer’s intention cannot account for the sense one receives of the presence of some force outside the ordinary thinking mind, the intervention of some external intelligence or even gnosis.

Scruton spoke about standing at a train station that morning and how he was overwhelmed, to the point of feeling his human­ity taken away, by the inundation of canned music, by electronic dance music on boom boxes, by the mechanized beat of rhythm machines. I told him about an experience I’d had later that same day, at the 34th Street Herald Square subway station. Coming up the stairs, I heard someone playing an electric guitar. The sound was made with extraordinary confidence, it was atonal, notes were shattering in every direction, the volume was like a storm—it was tremendously abrasive and full of life. I walked down to see who was making the noise, and found a middle-aged man wearing a crown emblazoned with his name: Remy François.

That conflict between freedom and necessity came into view: François was playing “House of the Rising Sun,” and he was cut­ting it to pieces, breaking its back, but there was something about the melody of the song and the history it carried that held its shape, that could not be taken apart. Here was a song that goes back to the nineteenth century, was first recorded in the 1930s by the old-timey singer and banjo player Clarence Ashley, was taken up by Bob Dylan in 1962 in a version that two years later was heard by The Animals, who made it into a worldwide hit and brought it into the consciousness of people globally, where it still remained as we were speaking. Remy François, I said, was affirming the tradition the song had made by showing, in a way, that it could not be bro­ken, and that there were infinite ways of seeing and feeling and taking meaning from that little concert.

Scruton demurred. “Let me be strictly honest,” he said. “I think that the classical tradition, as I understand it, is the greatest achieve­ment of Western civilization and it contains within it a reflection on the human condition which has no match elsewhere. That is a heretical view from lots of standpoints, but that is what I think.”

His demeanor and his certainty, the consideration that had gone into his statement of belief, demanded respect, but I didn’t understand it—I didn’t understand how one could live in that world. Who, I thought, leaving the conversation to take ques­tions from the audience, could argue that the sense of transpor­tation, even in the religious sense—being taken out of one’s self, connecting the self to something greater, something, you know in your heart, that every person ever born must experience or be left incomplete—is not as present in the third verse of “Gimme Shelter,” as Merry Clayton pushes out of herself with a last It’s just a shot away, with a pause between It’s and just that speaks for a hesitation in the face of history, an immediate apprehension of its weight, a pause something between taking a breath and the appearance of a new idea—or in the scene in The Godfather when the camera is moving in on Michael Corleone, so slowly, so inexorably, and Al Pacino says, “Then I’ll kill them both”—as in any art, the most exalted in motive, the most revered in time?

I thought I knew some­thing about art, and instantly I realized I knew nothing.

Well, I believed all that when one day in 1996, on a first visit to Venice, I walked into the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari and saw Titian’s Assumption of the Virgin—a sixteenth-century altarpiece painting of the Virgin Mary being borne up to heaven by scores of angels while people on the earth look up to her, God looks down, and she, in the middle, is caught somewhere between deliverance and terror.

The painting is more than eleven feet wide and more than twenty-two feet high. As Pollock’s Alchemy is too dense with the stuff of movement and history to grasp in a lifetime, this is so big you can barely take it in, no matter how close or far back you stand: big in size, but big in every other way, too—as will and idea, as drama and spectacle, space and time. I was stunned. I thought I knew something about art. I had seen paintings all over the United States and Europe. I had been moved to tears by some and scared by others. I had seen hundreds of movies, listened to thousands of albums, some of them hundreds of times. I thought I knew some­thing about art, and instantly I realized I knew nothing.

I was transfixed. Again and again, I walked back and forth in front of the painting. I stopped and looked up at it. I walked to the back of the church to see it from a distance. I walked up to the base again. I did this many times.

I kept trying to leave the building, but every time I reached the door, I found myself pulled back in. I couldn’t get out. I was trapped by revelation.

Yes, I said to myself, I finally understand. The only great art is high art. And the only high art is religious art. And the only truly religious art is Christian art. Three things to the bottom of my life I don’t believe—yet I was reduced to a puddle of acceptance.

I got over it. I’ve gone back to see the painting many times; it was still singular, still overpowering, but now as a work a team of people once made in a particular time and place. That first day has stayed with me, though—as a proof that what art does, maybe what it does most completely, is to tell us, make us feel, that what we think we know we don’t. That’s what it’s for—to show you that what you think can be erased, cancelled, turned on its head, by something you weren’t prepared for. Anything. The turn of a body as an actor delivers a line in a play. The way a guitar passage in a song seems to physically turn over as if it were a person. A scene in a movie when the picture suddenly darkens. A break in a collage that dissolves its apparent language into speaking in tongues. The appearance in an advertisement of something that doesn’t belong, that doesn’t seem to be selling anything, as if it’s the creator’s letter in a bottle, a gremlin sneaking in after the piece has been put to bed, or a cry for help in a fortune cookie.

Those occurrences, those tiny critical events, can generate a transformative power that reaches you far more strongly than it reaches the person next to you, or even anyone else on earth, if it reaches any of them at all. Art produces revelations that you might be unable to explain or pass on to anyone else, but revelations that, if you are a writer, you might try desperately to share, in your own words, in your own work.

What is the impulse behind art? “I have to be moved in some way,” the guitarist Michael Bloomfield said in 1968, explaining why he didn’t like the San Francisco bands of the time. “They just don’t move me enough. The Who moves me, their madness moves me. I like to be moved, be it by spectacle, be it by kineticism, be it by some throbbing on ‘Papa ooh mau mau’ as a chorus, a million times over.” And that, he said, was why he played.

Bloomfield was saying, in his way, what I am trying to say: whatever language is the language of your work, if I can move any­one else as that work moved me—as “Gimme Shelter,” Al Pacino’s voice in The Godfather, that painting by Titian, moved me from one place to another, from this place on earth to one three steps away, where the world looks not the same—if I can move anyone even a fraction as much as that, if I can spark the same sense of mystery, and awe, and surprise, as that, then I’m not wasting my time.

Originally published:
December 11, 2023


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