Marcus Grill “Real Life Rock” with second set of pillars

Grill Marcus is the author of More Realistic Rock: The Wilderness Years, 2014-2021. Photo: Ida Lodemel Tvedt

Marcus’ Grill’s long column is one of the marvels of contemporary journalism. Launched 3 decades ago in Village Voice, Real Life Rock Top 10 is a weekly digest of everything on his mind, nerves, spinner, TV screen, and bookshelf.

For readers who share Oakland rock critic’s diverse interests, eg, soul music by Betty Lafitte, Dennis Johnson’s fiction, François Ozon’s films, and an exhibition of vintage radios at the San Francisco International Museum at San Francisco International Airport – all of which Marcus covered in one general column 2018 – His letters are essential reading.

Reflecting on the free spirit of Real Life Rock before releasing a second set of his columns, Marcus noted that the first installment, published in February 1986, featured an entry about Godzilla that caught his eye.

“That was one of the things I threw in, just to show that anything could go into that column,” he said in a recent video interview with The Chronicle.

It wasn’t accidentally the subtitle of his new book – “More Real Rock Music: The Wilderness Years, 2014-2021” – evoking the image of the slender, white-haired writer wandering from one publishing site to the next, pausing only to clean the sleek, round eyeglass lenses he It was worn a long time ago.

In his first 28 years, Marcus wrote his column for a series of six publications (these pieces were collected in a 2015 book). Over the past eight years, Real Life Rock has had five different homes, most recently the Los Angeles Review of Boxes. This, he said, keeps the column vibrant: “Going constantly to different readers, I have to really think about how to reach whatever audience that might be.”

It is not like pimping. In the 13 months published by Pitchfork for Real Life Rock, Marcus wrote about his sweetheart Sleater-Kinney and other bands aggressively inside the indie music site’s drive-room. But his column will likely contain an entry on the dead blues singer or a museum presentation on the Beat Generation.

He’s outspoken about why the column left the site. “As a Condé Nast pub,” he wrote in his new book, “they required a number of clicks that I didn’t get.”

Four years ago, at a reunion of sorts, he took Real Life Rock to Rolling Stone. There, in the late 1960s, the UC Berkeley graduate recently distinguished himself as the fiercest rock critic of his generation. From the start, he’s proven very knowledgeable – and sometimes snappy. His Rolling Stone review of Bob Dylan’s 1970 album “Self Portrait” begins with a brief thought that countless music lovers can quote: “What is that?”

By 2019, Real Life Rock’s run in the magazine had ended. Rolling Stone wrote “I killed the column” but did not explain why.

“More Real Rock: The Wildlife Years 2014-2021” by Grill Marcus. Photo: Yale University Press

As with many previous books, Marcus’ alternate fascination resides throughout this book. Dylan’s penchant for releasing new collections of decades-old material has given Marcus plenty of previously unheard-of music for celebration and music.

One columnist found him unaffected by a range of conscious Christian music introduced by Dylan in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It includes a vocal performance that Marcus wrote, “is the worst performance I’ve ever heard of.” Another, about a set from the mid-sixties Ringtones Explores the finer details in Dylan’s vocals. Marcus wrote, “His singing is intentional, still emotional but it’s pushing forward as if the song would explain itself before you get stupid of him.”

Marcus traces his professional roots back to the first time he saw Dylan perform. It was 1963, and it was at an outdoor concert in New Jersey when Joan Baez asked the young singer to join her on stage. Although he doesn’t know anything about Dylan, Marcus was “peppy,” he said in our interview. Dylan sang “With God on Our Side,” a song he wrote about political propaganda.

“I was just shocked,” Marcus recalls. “I am listening to the entire history of the United States rewritten from a point of view quite different from any I had ever thought of.”

He added that Dylan “was very strong and introverted. I was like: What is this? What’s going on here? And I think I’ve been following these questions ever since.”

In the coming months, Marcus will publish a book on Dylan – his fourth on the singer – and move Real Life Rock to Substack, the San Francisco publishing platform.

On Substack, he’ll go on to cover his two favorite artists: rock acts like Mekons and Cat Power; Crime novelist Walter Mosley. But as he has done since the mid-1980s, Marcus expects to write about anything that leaves him cheered, upset, or surprised. From week to week, he never knows what it will be.

“What kept the column alive, at least to me, is a surprise,” Marcus said.

More Realistic Rock: The Wilderness Years, 2014-2021
Written by Grill Marcus
(Yale University Press; 344 pages; $28)

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