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How bad songs become beloved: Greil Marcus to visit ND

Ross Finney | Monday, February 7, 2011

Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War” is a bad song — or so thinks veteran rock critic and author Greil Marcus, who will give a lecture Monday on the subject of beloved bad songs from 5:30 – 6:30 p.m. in the Annenberg Auditorium at the Snite Museum of Art.

Marcus, whose newest book gathers all his writings on Dylan from 1968 to 2010, described the Masters of War, the lecture’s titular bad song, as “heavy handed, self-righteous and lumbering musically.” Its staying power is testament to a phenomenon that Marcus found particularly interesting and will take up on Monday evening.

He is one of the premier academic authorities on Dylan, and his writings cover a huge portion of Dylan’s career, the ups and the downs included. Starting at Rolling Stone, Marcus has consistently and pointedly shed light on the sometimes mysterious and always fascinating musician.

Marcus told The Observer his personal highlight in covering the music legend was, “in 1991, in the middle of the first Gulf War.”

“He was invited to play Masters of War at the Grammys, and he sings it as fast, furious, extraordinarily intense rock ‘n’ roll. It was radical, challenging, and exciting,”Marcus said.

Dylan’s transformation of the song, and the meaning it had at that time, are a crucial part of the idea, which Marcus will address in his lecture. A song which was in many ways obvious and contrived, “like he was sitting down trying to write the best protest song ever,” became a poignant and emotionally intense statement.

An American Studies major from Berkeley, Greil Marcus’ writing usually has a bit of an academic flavor. This unique approach to Bob Dylan and other artists and musical trends sets him apart from many writers. With books like “Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes” and “Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music,” Marcus explores music in a distinctly American context.

This is part of the attraction to Dylan’s work.

“His deepest subject is America; it speaks to him and he speaks back to it. He’s a scholar of American songs. He knows where they come from and where they go. He has factual knowledge that’s harder to come by. His true subject is America as it’s been described,” Marcus said.

Marcus brings a huge amount of background knowledge to the table in a lecture like Monday’s. His previous book explored Van Morrison, another artist with a long and storied career. Of similarities between Dylan and Morrison, Marcus said, “they’re both still around, still knocking on doors, but [Morrison] pursues his art differently.”

“Van Morrison has true gifts as a singer. Writing about each of them is a different kind of experience,” he said.

It would be a mistake to think that he is really only an expert on 60s and 70s artists and songwriters. In fact, the veteran critic has written on a broad range of topics including books and movies, and he writes a column in the magazine “The Believer.” As a music writer he is always challenging; his two favorite singles from 2010 were Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” and Train’s “Hey Soul Sister.”

The lecture to a college age audience will be nothing new for Marcus. The author has taught college courses before and said he “loves seeing the ways in which young people come to new material.”

“They have new notions and ideas, things that didn’t occur to me at all before. People are responding in new ways — it’s a complete delight,” he said.

With an experienced and knowledgeable lecturer like Marcus, Monday’s examination of beloved bad songs is sure to be a fun and informative experience for anyone who has ever really loved a terrible tune.