Rock critic Greil Marcus.
Rock critic Greil Marcus.

Greil Marcus and Alex Ross Teach the Miami Book Fair a Thing or Two About Music

Greil Marcus and Alex Ross
at the Miami Book Fair
Saturday, November 20, 2010
Miami Dade College Wolfson Campus, Miami

Better than: Watching an Almost Famous meets Ray meets I'm Not There hybrid.

Unless you're an avid, anal-retentive reader, you're probably not familiar with Greil Marcus and Alex Ross. The music critics -- Marcus was the first reviews editor at Rolling Stone and Ross a staff writer at the New Yorker -- have quite the pedigree between them. And when people are so educated about music, well, we just want to see what they have to say.

Alex Ross, the younger of the two, was probably the real crowd wrangler of the group. His book The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century helped break the boundaries between classical music and everyday popular music listeners, and garnered him a heap of attention, including a National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism, finalist for a Pulitzer Prize, and one of New York Times' 10 Best Books of 2007. But he was there to discuss his newest offering, Listen to This, which touches on everything from Bach to Björk.

But his seemingly completely opposing comparisons in his reading are what really drew in the most attention. "I don't listen to music to be civilized, but sometimes to escape the outside world," Ross said. He attempted to sing song lyrics as he read aloud -- obviously not his forte, as trying to reach high notes sounded strikingly similar to Peter Brady hitting puberty -- but the crowd appreciated the effort, and chuckled in acknowledgment.

We heard him liken classical music to Zeppelin, Eminem, 50 Cent, and "gangstas," and as we looked around we spotted knowing nods from audience members -- most of which were above 50. The crowd was filled with white hair, and only slightly peppered with 20- and 30-somethings, leaving us to wonder: Doesn't our generation read about music anymore?

Greil Marcus and Alex Ross Teach the Miami Book Fair a Thing or Two About Music

Once Greil Marcus began speaking, a big group of the older set just got up and left. He started discussing music from 1968 to the present, and how Bob Dylan's "second act" from his 50's on is his most remarkable. His black rimmed round glasses added the structure he needed to his otherwise slightly wrinkled plaid blazer, and when he read lines like "phony looking toothpaste smiles," we could actually visualize what he was saying.

Alex Ross began speaking for a second time, this time discussing less classical, more modern music. He dove into a retelling of how he discovered popular music in college, starting with underground rock like Sonic Youth, and we kind of longed to be the wallpaper in that dorm room. He confessed to actually never really liking Dylan until coming upon his music quite suddenly while in Berlin writing a piece for the New York Times. He'd never given it much attention because he always saw Dylan as "that old decrepit dude in the back of "We are the World,"" but then it took hold of him.

It was then that Ross became a self-proclaimed Dylan obsessive, and he began diving into another reading that he confessed is "very Greil Marcus-esque."

Yes, Marcus is that influential. And whilst you've probably spotted his prose while reading Interview, Salon, Rolling Stone, or the Village Voice, it's his vivid imagery and story rehashes that made the talk at the Miami Book Fair the most impressionable so far. He talked about blues and jazz, rock, and practically everything in between.

For those that stayed for the question and answer portion of the reading, the few who were allowed to ask questions varied from a union musician from New York to a local jazz DJ. They asked everything they could think up, including whether or not Dylan can be considered a "writer of standards" (Marcus' answer: "Only in the worst way because he perfectly distilled the attitudes of so many people in the moment," whereas Ross disputed: "Songs feed off of standards and history of songwriting but often have an ironic relationship with that tradition, and when people cover songs they begin to lose that irony to a certain extent.").

Another interesting question compared art and architecture going mainstream to modern classical music (Answer: "What if people took up their causes like it was done for artists like Jackson Pollock?"), giving the overall feeling that the leading people in classical music have failed, and listeners can "learn to love it," but have to be guided in the direction.

One middle-aged woman even dove into Radiohead's digital release of In Rainbows, and what they think about digital releases and the internet. Ross casually name dropped the amazing experience he had joining Radiohead on tour (a reference which most audience members probably didn't even get), and talked about the complicated relationship between music and technology. Marcus mentioned, "To go from LPs to digital downloads is kind of traumatic. I want something to hold, not just to download" to crowd chuckles.      

But what really hit us was the final question: "Are we seeing the end of written music criticism?" Ross noted, "There's tons of blabber and plagiarism on the internet, but as long as people want to argue about something, they will." And Marcus refreshingly sounded off, "People with a literary sense of mind are interested in odd opinions and discoveries. No, it's not going away." Phew.

Critic's Notebook
Personal Bias: I really love reading and I really love music. So it's kind of a given that I'd love reading books about music, right?
The Crowd: Middle-aged music fans, middle-aged hippies, anyone 55+, really. Oh, and about 10 20- and 30-somethings.
Random Detail: Compared to other book readings I've been to, these audience members had some smart, well prepared questions, and they cracked the authors up with their witty remarks.
Random Notebook Dump: A nice man who ran one of the booths gave me a free book to get autographed, as long as I could get his autographed and dropped off. Sweet.

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