Greil Marcus Talks Failing, Rock and Roll, and Being Human

By Ali Bush ‘19

Failing isn’t a topic that Americans want to think about, admit, or forsee in our futures. We strive and strive and succeed, forever moving forward, never admitting defeat, and beating ourselves up when something goes wrong. It’s a situation that Rolling Stone editor and author Greil Marcus shed light on last Thursday at the inaugural Pomona Humanities Studio lecture called “Fail Better.”

Marcus was one of the first contributors to Rolling Stone magazine, and wrote about rock music’s metamorphoses throughout his life, witnessing his fair share of failure along the way, be it his personal experience or the so called failure of rock and roll in general. His book Mystery Train is a classic of music criticism, as he was one of the first to analyze the birth of rock much and its role American culture.

Throughout the lecture, Marcus regaled a small crowd with tales of “failure” in music, art, and literature. In particular, Marcus focused on the story of The Band, a Canadian folk rock group that was hugely popular in the 70s and known for their harmonies and sense of comradery in their songs like “The Weight.” As time went on and they reached massive success, many band members fell victim to drug addiction and the group’s harmony deteriorated. They lost their original vitality, and eventually The Band disbanded. Marcus noted that, at this point, the members that didn’t accept the “failure” of The Band insisted upon touring the country, playing small, unknown clubs, without the same kind of heart and harmony they worked so hard to cultivate. The outcome was perhaps more embarrassing than retiring quietly: drunk locals demanding “Freebird” from one of the best rock bands of the seventies.

For Marcus, this clinging to something artificial and nostalgic, was perhaps the biggest failure of The Band. It became clear to me throughout the lecture of his message: being an artist takes a kind of pure and honest effort that requires bravery and humanity. Failing makes us human and allows us to grow into honest, productive humans. That is what artists like The Band are remembered for. The insincerity in their later years was their real downfall. More importantly, it is not the ending or failure of a career that is remembered, but the music that moves us and shapes history.

Perhaps, the most memorable part of the lecture was a long forgotten piano ballad that Marcus played by Charlie Rich. As Rich sang “I tried and I failed… /and I feel like going home,” the silence in the room felt heavy. I noticed that no one for the entire three-and-a-half minute song looked at their phones, and I myself was moved, and even comforted by Rich’s surrender to failure. How could a song so resigned to failure move a crowd to a reverent silence? That’s the success of a good song.

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